Workshop Report (30 November–12 December 2017, Rachel Carson Center, Munich, Germany)
by Laura Deal (Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster)
How do we understand toxic environments? What roles do time, space, narration, and embodiment play in our conceptualizations of what it is for something to be considered “toxic”? And how do these factors enable complicity in—or resistance to—toxic exposure?
On November 30, 2017, a group of approximately 25 researchers and senior scholars from across the environmental humanities gathered at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, Germany, to interrogate these questions. Academics representing universities from nine countries traveled to the three-day workshop, titled “Hazardous Time-Scapes: How to Make Sense of Toxic Landscapes from Multiple, Timed, Spaced, and Embodied Perspectives?” The event was part of a series of collaborative workshops hosted by the Deadly Dreams Network, The Center for the History of Global Development Shanghai, the Hazardous Travels DFG Emmy-Noether Research Group, and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society.
Attendees presented works in an invigorating assortment of formats, ranging from theory and research-based academic papers to poetry, autobiographical “guerilla narratives,” graphic novels, and even a dash of family history—pushing disciplinary boundaries to shed light on overlooked areas of human-environment relationships. With draft papers circulated to participants beforehand, the workshop was filled with enriching discussions, allowing researchers to add their unique perspectives to the cornucopia of projects represented at the workshop.
Simone Müller (conference organizer and the principal investigator of the DFG Emmy Noether Research Group “Hazardous Travels: Ghost Acres and the Global Waste Economy”, Rachel Carson Center) opened the workshop on 30 November with warm words of welcome, and an invitation for Christopher Cokinos (University of Arizona) to read his own poetry. Reminiscent of Robinson Jeffers, Cokinos’s poetry traversed landscapes earthly and celestial, environments “natural” and built, and a variety of human-environment imaginaries. His poems set a tone for the following two days of the workshop that was deeply reflective, intersectional, and lighthearted.
The themes of narrativity, accountability, and equity were central to several of the presenters’ work. Marco Armiero (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) opened this theme with a discussion of power and narration of toxic lives in the “Wasteocene”—the age of waste. Their Toxic Bios project, a collection of guerilla narratives, aims to make sense of personal and collective experiences of embodied toxicity while challenging hegemonic narratives of capitalist development models. “We believe this can and must be done through storytelling,” said Armiero.
Not all of the stories told, however, were straightforward tales of victims resisting powerful polluters. Maximilian Feichtner (Rachel Carson Center/HazTrav) took us to the oil fields of the Ecuadorian Amazon, where he analyzed the overlapping industrial and indigenous spatiotemporal imaginaries of an indigenous Kichwa community. The oil workers, who are culturally and geographically separated from the contaminated areas of the Oriente within their compound, presented a salient example of the role of spatial and social hierarchies in the rationalization of participating in toxic industries.
Merging historical inquiry, narration, and creative passion, David Biggs (University of California) told the story of a barrel of Agent Orange, a Vietnamese journalist, and an American pilot on their intersecting paths through the Vietnam War. His presentation centered on the second episode of his collaborative Itineraries Project, which will culminate in a graphic-novel-type work. By following these three threads, Biggs illustrated the intersecting global flows of toxic materials and the lives of those they touch across time.
Questions of “toxic time” remained central to several projects represented at the workshop—especially across generations. May-Brith Ohman Nielsen (Agder University) explored endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) as historical agents in the Anthropocene through her ongoing intergenerational project Living with Poison. The project, starting with Norway in 1837, examines 13 time-scapes of 15-year intervals, providing a systematically compiled historical framework for understanding the development of the “cultural cocktail” of toxins, which has infused EDCs into our daily lives as well as the future lives of the unborn.
Tora Rundhovde (Agder University) fused academic interrogation with a personal narrative in her work. Focusing on the legacy of toxic pollution left behind by now-shuttered tanneries in Osterøy, Norway, she conducted a series of interviews with former tanners—including some members of her own family. She revealed how they conceptualized the ecological impacts of waste dumping around the island and the toxicity of changing tanning methods.
Thom Davies (University of Warwick) demonstrated the ongoing influence of America’s colonial era with a presentation on necropolitics and slow violence in a toxic landscape in the American South, nicknamed “Cancer Alley.” Under “petrochemical colonialism,” he argued, “time plays an important role in how people experience and potentially also resist the gradual and peculiar terror of pollution.” He posited that “slow observation”—or, local inhabitants’ perceptions of environmental changes—may be used to conceptualize and subsequently resist pollution.
In contrast to the slow violence represented in Davies’s presentation, Mrinalini Shinde (University of Cologne) analyzed the famous case of the 1984 Bhopal Disaster against the ongoing court case, Juliana v. United States. Her work utilized perspectives from legal theory to raise questions of intergenerational equity in toxic environments and bodies. She also interrogated the practical efficacy and the social implications of existing legal precedents for compensating victims of exposure to toxic chemicals, and the colonial legacy of India’s existing legal system.
Continuing the examination of legal precedents, Sebastiàn Ureta, representing his colleagues Patricio Flores and Linda Soneryd (Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Chile/ University of Gothenburg), examined the testimonios of claimants in the ongoing Arica Victims KB v. Boliden Minerals court case, and the politics of who could and could not participate as a claimant. Illustrating a common North-to-South trajectory for toxic waste, their team traced the flow of 20,000 tons of smelter waste from its production location in Sweden to its toxic resting place in Arica, Chile. This toxic trajectory was brought full circle in the form of legal action against the Swedish exporter.
Bringing perspectives from political ecology, Malcom Ferdinand (Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies) also showed us how colonial legacies affect toxic landscapes and bodies in the present. His presentation focused on the (neo)colonial legacy of chlordecone contamination—a pesticide used in banana production and a known carcinogen—in the French outre-mer islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. He also explored the difficulty of making an invisible pollutant fathomable, and the emerging spatiotemporal imaginaries of those whose bodies and lands had been affected.
Jim Webb (Colby College), drawing on the manuscript of his forthcoming book, challenged the often-presumed external origins of toxic exposure. Through his work on the history of human waste disposal and the origin of sewage, he illustrated how the management of our own feces constitutes “the oldest, the most dangerous, the most expensive, and the most obdurate environmental health issues that we’ve grappled with as a species.” His work also encouraged participants to remember that the presence of sewage infrastructure situates us on one or other side of the “great divide,” between those who have access to indoor plumbing and those who do not.
Merging the ongoing themes of colonial legacies and scientific authority, Anna-Katharine Laboissière (Curtin University) brought perspectives from environmental philosophy to her analysis of ex-situ biodiversity banking. Her work examined the underlying epistemologies of botanical gardens, seed banks, and other forms of biodiversity banking, working to “preserve” species in the context of broad ecological destruction. From modern seed vaults and botanical gardens, Bettina Wahrig (TU Braunschweig) then transported us back in time to nineteenth- and twentieth-century laboratories. Drawing on animal experiments, Wahrig examined the role of time, dosage, and space in the formation of scientific epistemologies of poison.
Jesse Peterson (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) analyzed the slippery toxic temporalities and spatialities of harmful algae blooms (HAB) in Sweden’s waterways in the Baltic Sea area. Sweden’s “real-time” and predictive algae bloom monitoring systems, he argued, construct naturalized and depoliticized narratives of toxicity in the affected communities. The tension between bodies of scientific “authority,” political motivations, and public opinion was also central to subsequent discussions of nuclear waste, one of the most notorious sources of toxic contamination and a subject well represented at the workshop.
Iris Borowy (Shanghai University) brought us to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with her work on the legacy of nuclear waste dumping into the sea in the mid-1960s. She illustrated how conceptualizations of ocean “spaces” facilitated the rationalization or rejection of dumping by various European powers. Building on this, Astrid Kirchhoff (Humboldt University) explored the 1979 protest against the planned Gorleben nuclear waste management center on the then border between East and West Germany, outlining tensions between public and institutional perceptions of risk. She also demonstrated how, in toxic landscapes, bodies are not just repositories of toxins, but through acts of protest can become empathetic modes of resistance to necropolitical paradigms.
Jason R. Parry (Binghamton University), through his research on the Salton Sea in California and Project Iceworm in Greenland, examined the impact of water’s behavior on our understanding of “exactly how much time we have left” to mitigate or reverse toxic environmental damage under a climate change paradigm, wherein the behavior of water is increasingly nonlinear. As Parry’s work represented our buried or submerged toxic pasts coming “back,” Michael Peterson (DePaul University) transported us into the distant future, when future societies may (re)encounter our nuclear waste. By interrogating the US Department of Energy and Bechtel Corporation’s Human Interference Taskforce’s future-oriented nuclear waste management plans, replete with glowing cacti and enormous metal spikes, he exposed the underlying epistemological assumptions made by the task force. Through the eyes of Antonio Gramsci and Jacques Derrida, Peterson outlined the implications of these assumptions for how we conceptualize the future, as well as our responsibility towards future generations.
During the closing discussion on 2 December, several participants commented on how, despite the heterogeneous nature of the projects presented, all of them intersected questions of power, narration, space, embodiment, and time. “Hazardous time-scapes don’t exist on their own,” Ferdinand commented. “These conflicts are animated by interests, sometimes corporate or financial interests, but they are also motivated by a search for justice, for equity.”
Many participants reflected on how the lessons from the workshop will be carried forth into their future work. On defining and conceptualizing time-scapes, Ohman Nielsen remarked, “I don’t think that we should worry so much about the fact that the concept ‘time-scape’ is not so clear, because it is more important to ask, how can I keep this as a dynamic concept that doesn’t lose it’s edge or it’s analytical sharpness?” On our collective responsibility as academics, Ureta explained that “how we make toxicity public matters—not only in terms of becoming an activist or remaining an academic, but also in how producing various materials for multiple audiences can make an important difference in these kinds of issues.”
While the subject matter at hand was often serious, the collaborative and convivial nature of the workshop left several participants with a feeling of hope. “Being here, and seeing so many people from all over the world and from such different contexts, so committed to working, so committed to gathering, preserving, and curating stories, actually gives me hope. Because there is strength in numbers and strength in community—we can collectively chip away at this toxic narrative,” said Jesse Peterson.
“Working on hazardous time-scapes is such a timely topic that it is our responsibility, in whatever way we feel comfortable, to reach out beyond the ivory tower,” said Müller, rounding out the theme of the workshop in her closing remarks. “This workshop has really come to life because of your participation and your energy.”
With the workshop drawn to a close, the participants carried the lessons and perspectives they learned at the Rachel Carson Center into the new year. For those who were not able to participate—from inside or outside of the ivory tower—stay tuned for a forthcoming publication of these works.