Category: anthropocene

Lesley Green

Lesley Green

Episode 7

Welcome to the podcast of Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. Thank you for joining us. In Episode #7, we are delighted to feature LESLEY GREEN in a recording made in November 2020 from Cape Town in South Africa.

[music]

[Green reading from her new book “Rock | Water | Life”]

Baboons. Porcupines. Otters. Lynx. African genet cats. Crayfish. Sharks.
Dusky dolphins. Killer whales.
Southern right whales.
Seals.
Owls. Fish eagles.
Black eagles.
Sugarbirds. Sunbirds. Oystercatchers.
African penguins. Black-shouldered
kites. Rock kestrels.
Harlequin snakes. Puff adders. Rinkhals. Cape cobras. Mole snakes.
Olive house
snakes.
Bloukopkoggelmanders.
Tortoises. Baboon spiders. Scorpions.
Stick insects. Cicadas. Praying mantis.
Duikers. Steenbokkies.
Copper blue butterflies.

These are some of the 351 air-breathing creatures that traverse the edges of Cape Town, South Africa, amid the suburban islands of the south peninsula around which the Indian Ocean swirls into the Atlantic.

02:31  INTRODUCTION 

I’m Lesley Green, I’m a professor of anthropology at the University of Cape Town, and I’m also director of Environmental Humanities South, which is a collective of social scientists and humanists and troublemakers (laughs), who like to do research that matters and that matters politically. And a lot of what we do is tackle neoliberal assumptions about climate change and urban metabolism, urban ecologies. We are people who really try to work at the interstices, the mud between solid and liquid and the mist between liquid and gas. You know, those are the spaces that we really inhabit. And those are often the kinds of spaces that are not inhabited neatly or easily by environmental management sciences. Not that they’re not part of environmental sciences, but not part of environmental management sciences. And that’s a key distinction to make in the work that we do here. 

So, I was delighted recently when I was meeting with a city official and he said to me I was, “I was a little cautious of meeting with you.” I said, why is that? He said, “Well, your reputation in the city is feisty!” (laughs)

That left me roaring with laughter! But, uh, you know, I did read them seven paragraphs from the constitution the last time I met with them. All of which had to do with freedom of information. (laughs).

04:34  TEACHING THE ANTHROPOCENE

There’s two courses I teach that I absolutely love. 

The first is “Researching the Anthropocene”, which I’ve taught since 2015. And that’s been a project of thinking with, and introducing students from the global South, mainly Africa to what it means to think in and of, and with this era that some call the “Anthropocene” and that’s been absolutely fascinating. And it’s been a really interesting project to be teaching the theory, which largely comes from the global North. You know, most Anthropocene writing has come from the global North. And “What does that mean in Africa?” is the question that we’ve been thinking through and, you know, having taught this class now for six years in a row it’s been just fascinating because at this point, we have students in that class from fifteen different African countries.

And that’s been just wonderful and at the same time, really sobering, which is a light word to use. I could use a much stronger word to think about the effects of this Anthropocene in Africa, and what to do about it, and the short fallings of the kinds of climate sciences as environmental management sciences formulated within a neoliberal economy, and the kinds of difficulties that they make. So, all of our students are writing as if they would like to make some kind of policy intervention. That’s evolved, that wasn’t what we started out trying to do. 

The more we’ve done that, the more we began to realize that to do policy intervention work as a researcher is about paradigm shift—and what that paradigm shift is and what it might be is the core of what we do. It’s not easy-going because a lot of colleagues in the environmental management sciences are not willing to engage. I was told recently by one that my H-index was too low for him to speak to me about racism in the sciences (laughs). So, he sent back to me and said, “Your H-index is such and such, I’m not prepared to have this discussion with you.” So, the H index has become a big match in the family. We discuss everything, prior to any discussion, we interrogate our respective H-indexes! (laughs) So, yeah, you know, you’ve got to learn to laugh a lot, and paradigm shift work is not easy. But it is a whole lot of fun because we can laugh, and we don’t have to take seriously the language of neoliberal thinking in the environmental management sciences. And I think that’s what makes it a whole lot of fun. 

But at the same time, it’s really sobering to hear what our graduate students are experiencing and addressing in the areas where they, for the most part have grown up, and working in the languages, that for the most part, is their first languages and realizing the extents to which climate change is affecting Africa, not just as a climate event, but as an event of capitalism. That’s the key.  

08:12  TEACHING SCIENCE, NATURE, DEMOCRACY

The second is a graduate course called “Science, Nature, Democracy”, in which we work with students around case studies of policy change or situations where science is really important in governance. Now, you in the US are busy dealing with COVID and the science of COVID, in Kansas, you’re dealing with creation science. Well, you know, a couple of years ago, we dealt with a president who was not prepared to accept virus science, you know, virology, who argued that HIV was a syndrome, not a virus. And of course, we had all those struggles around HIV and AIDS treatments. So fortunately, that, through a huge political struggle, was defeated. But at the same time, there was a huge backlash because that introduction to science being questioned within parliament was really about a very poorly formulated intervention in the name of Indigenous science and Indigenous knowledge studies, which really saw and situated science as a matter of identity and while matters of identity might have a great deal to do with how you do your science and what questions you choose. Your identity doesn’t change, whether you’re dealing with a virus or a syndrome, you know, if there’s a virus you’re dealing with a virus, and it needs to be treated as such. But because indigenous knowledge got such a bad rep through that, it fomented this most extraordinary reaction from a very hardline hardcore science, what I would call a scientistic approach as opposed to a scientific approach, you know, where scientistic approaches, ironically, do precisely what they criticize the indigenous knowledge folks of doing, which is creating an identity-based politics. 

So, you know, scientism, by contrast to science, is what I would situate as a very authoritarian approach to doing science. The assumption that there is only one question that can only be answered in one way—and that is it, without understanding that the context of your questions determines the answers that you’re going to get. The objects that you look for determine the numbers that you get. And the question is always, are you looking for the right things, in what you’re looking at, and, you know, what might matter to one person and be the definitive concern, would not be that of much of a concern to another person. And so, you can get very different scientific pictures of the same situation. And when that’s not in discussion, you have a real problem in democracy because you end up having people accusing one another of doing facts versus values. Before you know it, you’re in the old land of objectivity versus subjectivity, which is an unwinnable argument on those terms. 

So, the course “Science, Nature, Democracy” is about teaching graduates to look at contests and conflicts over sciences in democratic spaces. And to begin to understand that the concerns shape the questions, and once you understand what the concerns are, you can understand why particular kinds of questions are being asked. And then you’ve got a hope of actually being able to mediate and understand that what matters to a fisher is not necessarily what matters to a scientist, and it can be that the most extraordinary range of things. What matters to a scientist, for example, might be a thirty- to fifty-year timeframe. What matters to the official might be spending their budget within a twelve-month cycle. The political masters might be thinking in a five-year electoral cycle. And, you know, they have these concerns, which are not tabled. And so, you often end up talking about very different things, using the same language. You might be talking about water or fish, but your concerns and your questions and your agenda is very, very different.  

The work of Isabelle Stengers and the work of Bruno Latour have been particularly important in that. But also, the work of Aimé Cesaire, postcolonial thinker, who was the high school teacher of Frantz Fanon, and the kind of work that had to be done to challenge a particular version of the real, that the early postcolonial thinkers had to do, and which in many senses we’re up against right now, because we have what I would call “colonialism mark two,” which is a global neoliberal discourse and the financialization of the natural world.

“Science, Nature, Democracy” is a course where students really have to address very particular challenges of science and decision-making in relation to science and to understand how conflicts come about in the name of science and how to try to resolve them without getting into the familiar terrain of I’m speaking the truth, and you’re not, or the alternative that, which is that your identity makes your version untrue, which is where things get stuck in the Indigenous knowledge versus science dichotomy.

14:07  HISTORY OF DAMS, BODIES, LAWS

In this particular historical moment, I think we have come full circle. In the 1650s, when the Dutch settled here in Cape Town to create a refreshment station. It was in the aftermath of many decades, if not a century of battles between seafarers and local people. You know, we have a history of battles going on and their first intervention…in fact, their first plan, which was drafted in the 1630s was to create a dam—a walled dam. That would be the place at which the barrels would be filled for the passing ships. But the issue with the dam is that when water is not being cleaned by the reeds and the natural ecosystem, when the water’s not filtering, when you take water out of its filtering system, what you have to replace that with is law and policing and soldiers. And in order to get the water out of a dam, unless you’ve got a very careful infrastructure, which they did not plan for, you have to be able to roll barrels up and down, in this case some stairs and who was going to roll those barrels. But the drawing that was created by the Dutch was that of a black body rolling a barrel up and down. So, in order to get water out of this structure that they were going to build from the very beginning, they were going to rely on law and labor and policing and cement, you know, creating this hard boundary between liquid and solid to govern the water that they wanted to extract, which of course was a shocking thing to the local people, the Kwe. 

South Africa is a very, very dry country. And the Western Cape, this place where I live, have got a number of rivers and a number of lakes. So, it’s a tiny corner of the country that’s very green and very wet. And so, to waste water is a shocking thing. In order to extract you needed a global company. So, the Dutch East India Company, so you had a global multinational acquiring water by building infrastructure to extract in a manner that was going to drive out local people. And indeed, what they had built was not in the end, that particular dam, what they built was a fort—and the fort was around a well. 

What we have here at the moment is a struggle with global multinational companies who are supposedly assisting the municipalities to design and manage utilities like water utilities. And you have a neoliberal government, which is very, you know, sometimes I feel like the Western Cape is run by the Republicans. It’s the equivalent kind of politics. There’s a willingness to cover over realities using anything from fake advertising, social media to spin doctoring companies because you’ve got an oligarchy that is driving up costs of water hugely. 

And so, since the drought, climate change—since our drought in 2018, where Cape Town was almost, the line went, the first major city in the world to run out of water. You know, there’ve been huge infrastructure bills taken up by international, multinational corporates, which means the costs of water have become prohibitive. And so, there’s this burgeoning struggle over the increasing costs of water. I know of — through the research that I’m doing — fourteen places in the city, and eleven of those, where communities have either led criminal charges against the city, or have got a court case, you know, civil suit for environmental damage. So, there’s the most extraordinary pollution of water bodies that comes from these wastewater treatment plants, where they discharge water into the rivers. So, they’re poisoning the rivers, which, at every level, is problematic, from the health to ecosystems, to ocean health, and algal blooms.                         

One of the places around which the struggle has really come to the fore is around the desalination plants, because desalination plants were brought in to produce water very, very quickly against the advice of the World Bank, which said, do not build small projects. So, the desalination plants were built against economic advice and against scientific advice because they were built on one side of the city, very close to a marine sewer outfall, which puts between forty and fifty megaliters of untreated sewage into the ocean every day. And on the other side of the ocean, you’ve got multiple wastewater treatment plants feeding into rivers, which then go into the ocean, causing gradual, but significant increase in algal blooms. So, you know, those projects pushed water prices up significantly. They were hugely expensive. And they didn’t actually succeed because there were so many periods where the desalination plants were not able to work, and they were closed at one point for two whole months in the summer because that was when the algal bloom was most intense. And so, if you look at the figures of the outputs, the actual figures of the output are quite low compared to what they were expected to output. So those were, um, the one that is subject to litigation, and the other two closed a month early, and a whole lot of spin doctoring went around that.  

20:19  CAPITALISM AND CLIMATE CHANGE

This whole process is teaching me a huge amount about the relationship between capital, infrastructure, and climate change and the new forms of extractivism, which are very much in the ascent. And I think that, you know, much as the Dutch sent the Dutch East India company, an international company, to colonize the Cape to get its water, so we’re up against a whole lot of international companies of various descriptions that are involved in the water trade. And that water trade is now listed on the global stock exchange. And whereas for the previous couple of years, you’ve been able to invest in water funds, now as of September this year [2020] water is now listed as a commodity on the stock exchange. So, we’re entering a very, very different era. And a great deal of that has to do with disaster capitalism in relation to the Anthropocene. 

One of the major interventions that we are really trying to make in the research that we do is to put the case that climate change is not the only thing we need to be attending to. If we’re dealing with the Anthropocene, we need to be dealing with capitalism and extractivism, that is putting matter out of place of all kinds, not just carbon, but our nitrogen cycle is out of whack. You know, sewage is full of nitrogens, which are like fertilizers and they do extraordinary things to different species. I mean, the algal blooms are a case in point. Many of these algal blooms, not all of them, but many of them are fantastic little creatures that have the characteristics of both a plant and an animal, in the sense that they can both ingest microbes and make a meal of the bacteria and viruses that are around, and they can photosynthesize. So, they can do both in terms of securing nutrition. So, if you put them in a situation where there’s sewage, they go crazy because they’ve got all the microbes they could possibly want to eat, and you’re giving them the nitrogen, which comes from urine, which acts like a fertilizer. And they bloom. So, an algal bloom that should be quite small then can get completely out of hand. So, you know, in the last four or five decades, Cape Town has really been struggling with increased algal blooms. 

The scientific study of the oceans that is done in the area tends not to want to look at the circulation of nitrogens. You know, they want to look at social ecological systems, which is such a problematic concept, you know, empirically, where is the system? You know, there isn’t a social ecological system that you can work with. So, what the desalination situation has taught us is that climate change closes the loop in absolutely unexpected ways, because the idea that you can have a pipe going to sea, that’s going to carry the sewage, you know, the intestinal wastes and pharmaceutical wastes and factory wastes and shop floor wastes of billions of people. And that pipe goes to a place where it just disperses is ludicrous because we live on this planet and matter circulates, I mean, Lucretius spoke about this in ancient Rome, right?

We have a science that is attending to objects, not to relations. I mean, that’s a very broad statement, but the focus has been on what you can count. And so, the paradigm shift that we need to be making, and that I think really can and should come from much closer working relationship between the social sciences, the humanities and the natural sciences has to do with saying, hold on a minute, we’ve been so focused on counting objects, um, in the kind of work that we do, in the kinds of sciences that are, that have been done, we’ve been so focused on counting objects.  

What about the relationships?  

25:17  WE ARE NOT EXTRATERRESTRIALS!         

The idea that you can put a pipe in an ocean and disperse of sewage, and it’s not going to come back to you, or anyone is what I would call an extraterrestrial proposition. It is managing a city as if you’re an extraterrestrial. We’re not extraterrestrials. So, you know, along with Bruno Latour and others, you know, we need a paradigm shift that is about coming home onto this earth and living in this earth and part of its systems. And yet our cities for the most part have been designed as if we are extraterrestrials, that we can live and our wastes, whether they’re plastic wastes or intestinal wastes, are just going to go somewhere that won’t bother us. But, you know, the Anthropocene is about recognizing that that is not the case and recognizing that, “Oh my goodness, the plastic waste that I throw out, you know, the plastic straw that I use for three minutes to get liquid, twenty centimeters from a cup, to my mouth has got a geological lifespan of, you know, 10,000 years or more. I don’t know what it is, but you know, it’s going to be around for 10,000 years.” You know, we need to be thinking about these kinds of temporalities, these kinds of relationships. 

26:44   RELATIONSHIPS, TEMPORALITIES, PROCESSES

Thinking relationally means we start to introduce time and processes, geological processes in particular, to our thinking about policy and our thinking about society. Now, you know, I’ve spoken a lot about scientists, but I think social scientists for the most part are as guilty of this, you know, writing about society as if we have no need to think about water, as if we have no need to think about nitrogen or carbon. And you know, the exciting thing about working in the Environmental Humanities is there are so many wonderful scholars who are thinking about precisely those things. Let’s look at the flows. Let’s look at the circulations, let’s look at the material relations that arise from social interactions. And that changes the game completely.

And I had a wonderful conversation with a very dear colleague who’s a chemist. And we were talking about teaching science to first years. And he said, “Well, you know, when I teach science to first years, I show them, there’s a website where you have a sliding scale from the smallest known particle of the universe, right through to the scale of the known universe, right? And there’s a sliding thing and it starts with the figure of a human and that human of course is a man. So, it starts with the figure of a man. And then you can slide down one side into the tiniest particle, and you can slide up to the biggest scale of the known universe. And he presents that to his science students and says, “That’s what we study. We study anything from that scale to that scale, but nowhere in that is relations.”

And so, you know, right from the get go, science is not thinking about relationships and relationalities. And I think that’s where it becomes very, very exciting to start to work with Environmental Humanities and bring them into dialogue with some of the postcolonial thinkers like Aimé Cesaire, whose dictum was, “colonization is thingification.” You know, colonization is the absence of the relation. Everything becomes treated as an object and as an extractable. 

29:54  THINGS HAVE HISTORIES, ONTOLOGIES, AND POLITICS

I think that governance and the beautiful literature on ontologies are really important to bring together. I think that’s one of the fields of really useful intervention that I can see environmental humanities graduates taking a lead, and as they graduate, and go into worlds of consultancy or professional research, to be able to show a scholar who is set in a particular way, that your way of thinking about pipes isn’t neutral and doesn’t come from nowhere. But it has a particular history to it. The pipe has a particular history, and it has a particular way of thinking about a world, you know, and to be able to show a governing official who believes that they are operating in the name of neutrality because they use the language of neoliberalism. To be able to show that official, that there’s, the ideas that they’re thinking with are not neutral, that they have a history and that they come from somewhere. That is critical and very, very generative because at the moment, at which you can equip somebody to recognize that this idea of neutrality, this idea of universal truth, is part of the problem. And that just empirically, what you see blocks your sight. You’re not able to see past what blinds, that’s the basis of the idea of occults and astronomy. When the moon occults Venus, you can’t see. So, to occult means that what you’re seeing prevents you quite literally from seeing what’s behind it. 

One of my greatest hopes is that the work of the environmental humanities, globally, will be able to shift the knowledge frames that governing officials bring, because those are political and cosmological in themselves, as Isabelle Stengers has written so beautifully about cosmopolitics. So, to be able to say to an engineer: Hold on a minute, you want to use cement, which has a 50-year lifespan to hold fracking liquids in one place and prevent them from mixing with an aquifer in perpetuity? Well, you know, that cement only is viable for 50 years before it needs to be replaced. And I know that, so what’s wrong with this picture? You know, can you see that you have an unreasonable faith in cement? And so, does an environmental regulator who’s making laws for regulating on the basis of, of thickness of cement or thickness of pipe or whatever, without thinking of, of the timeframe of permanence. 

And so to be able to point out to attorneys or, you know, through a drafting law, there’s a belief system at work here. There’s a cosmological fiction in your faith in cement. There’s a cosmological fiction in your assumption that the pipe goes nowhere. You know, these are moments I think of tremendous power because that’s when people can really stop in their tracks and think, and, you know, learning to think is key. The route to that is through the imagination and laughter.

I think that the risk with some of the ontological debates is that they risk becoming culture mark two. So, Derrida’s idea of hauntologies becomes interesting for that reason. You know, what, what histories haunt ideas, what histories haunt ways of thinking. It also introduces a temporal dimension and because the moment at which ontologies become culturalism mark two, we are in deep trouble. You know, then we’re back in all the old traps.  

33:54  CULTURALISM AT THE CORE OF APARTHEID

Culturalism is something that in South Africa we had to really grapple with in the 1980s when I was a graduate student and 1990s, in my defense, I was actually still a graduate student in the 1990s, not only in the 80s! But anyway, in apartheid South Africa, the worldview that was given was that apartheid is benign. That it’s for the good of people. And that it’s godly, you know, this is the sort of stuff I grew up with as a white South African kid, it’s godly, it’s what God wants. You know, Noah’s sons, you know, Shem and Ham or however that story goes with, you know, that God wants whites to be separated from Blacks, you know, so that was kind of my early years. And then, encountering Newsweek at the dentist, you begin to realize that actually there’s another way to see the world! Why are these people so opposed to us? What have we done wrong? Can’t they see that we’re right? You know, and then, you know, slowly, through reading King Lear, beginning to realize that there’s political ways of seeing the world, there’s realities, there’s madness, there’s insanity, there’s sorcery.

I spent my first year at the University of Port Elizabeth, which was one of the bastions of apartheid. It was one of apartheid’s great universities. Remember the 20-story building in the middle of a nature reserve? You know, you were not allowed to talk politics if you spoke anything about even parliamentary politics, parliamentary opposition politics. Now, remember this was in the time when the ANC was banned. African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s party. 

Anthropology per the Afrikaaner apartheid system was Volkskunde, which built on the German romantic culturalist, fascist idea of separate cultures, right? And, and so German-inspired Volkskunde anthropology was all about the study of cultures. And anthropology was central to the apartheid state. And so, it was justified scientifically, scientific racism. And the central idea of apartheid was that there were these different cultures: Casa, Zulu, Venda, Swazi, et cetera, et cetera. And that God’s mandate (laughs) to the Afrikaaner people was, and of course the English, went along for the ride was to keep the races and the cultures separate. 

Culturalism was at the core of apartheid. And a huge amount of the work of critical scholarship in South Africa in the 1980s was working with postmodernism to unmake the idea of bounded culture. So, in South Africa, we’re particularly sensitive to the idea of culturalism, coming back as, you know, separated ethnic groups as if they are meaningful concepts, which of course they’re not. You know, they have some use, but only a very limited kind of a use. I think one of the risks of some of the ontological debate is to recreate, reinvent culturalism by other means, because it’s such a deeply rooted idea.

The way that ontologies get appropriated is at times risky. And so, I think one has to guard against that. And so, it’s easier for me to think ontology in relation to neoliberalism and cosmopolitics. So, Bruno Latour’s idea, for example, he talks about the three goddess sisters of reason. Why must they be goddesses? I don’t know, but I called them the three gods of reason, which was technical efficiency, scientific objectivity, and economic profitability. You know, those are the three gods of reason in what he called the knowledge economy, which of course is the neoliberal moment. I think a huge part of the work that we can do very usefully, is to draw attention to that as a sorcery of its own. And so, in that sense, the language of ontology is very useful. So, you know, and I think that far too much of the environmental management science literature is encumbered and enamored of processes of governance, bureaucratic technoscientific governance, which of course, reduces everything to data objects enmeshed in algorithms. And one has lost the relational in politics. And I think that’s part of the backlash against the left. It’s not so much the politics of the left, but the brutalization of public life under technoscientific governance. And you know, I think this swing to the right is an attempt to recreate political relationships, which have been erased by technoscientific governance. 

For me as a South African, one of the fascinating things about post-apartheid South Africa is the ways in which neoliberal governance has made us all equally worthless. Post-apartheid governance does that. And the scale of corruption in South Africa is testimony to the lack of political discourse and debate and discussion and thought about what it means to have redistribution outside of modes of territory and property and the modes of capitalism that have destroyed, and which were central to racism. So, the need really, again, is for paradigm shifts everywhere. So, we’ve got a long multi-decade struggle ahead of us, all of us to build a better presence on this planet. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s really exciting to see so many graduates being able to work with these ideas productively.

40:00  DREAM TEAM OF BIOGEOSOCIOCHEMISTRY

There’s this fabulous field called Biogeochemistry. And I want to put the social into that. Could we do a biogeosociochemistry? Or how do we begin to link life and non-life and society, you know? I mean, Beth Povinelli beautifully brings together the, problematizes the life/non-life distinction in her book Geontologies. And Michel Serres brought together “Biogea” in one of his last books. You know, if I had no constraints at all, if I had a huge budget to create a research team, I would create it outside of any of the particular faculties not only for the disciplinary space, but also because universities are so stuck in financial systems that operate within the faculties. You know, these become impossible situations to try to operate outside of them. So, you know, to me, it has to operate outside of a faculty. Outside of humanities or outside of science, law, commerce, you know, it needs to stand as its own. I mean, Leeds University, for example, has got a wonderful Dean of interdisciplinary studies. You know, what a wonderful thing to do, to create a Dean of interdisciplinary studies whose brief is to imagine and think with scholars about how to address the challenges.  

I think looking at matter in its, across the spectrum of life and non-life is key. To have a team that can think politically, that can think with rigorous empirical science, asking questions with activists who are struggling around particular challenges, and to be able to be critical of the extractivist moment, and not just critical of, “Oh, they shouldn’t do this, mine here, or there,” but to actually, think globally in terms of global financial flows in the manner that, David Graeber did, in the manner that, Thomas Piketty does to criticize the global flows of capital where resources ended up in shell companies, in Panama Islands and stuff, and British Virgin islands, which then has a hurricane and gets no support from the people whose back it’s providing a tax haven for, to really be able to rethink economics.

So who would a dream team be? I would put in Kate Raworth with her Doughnut Economics. Beth Povinelli, who would compel people to think outside of life and non-life binaries. I would want to bring in environmental chemists who can think with us on toxic flows to bring in ecologists who are thoughtful about the ways in which ecologies are being changed by temperatures, changed by chemicals, by traumas, as you mentioned. So that we’re thinking not just in terms of matter, but we’re thinking in terms of relations and what does it take to support and enable local habitability?

43:20  INTERDISCIPLINARITY

I’ve been doing some work recently with the wonderful Steve Banwart at Leeds university, who is a critical zone theorist, soil scientist by training, but a critical zone theorist who’s also worked with Bruno and Bruno’s exhibition on critical zones. And, our question together is how do we link critical zone theory, which is a beautiful interdisciplinary space, but in the sciences? So, it brings together biology and geology, to put it crudely. It’s looking at what makes habitability in a particular area from bedrock to treetop. So, it’s looking at climate change in a local way, rather than at a global way. I think that’s wonderful because you’ve got a scale that is not colonial, but you’re not part of the globalizing climate movement that, it’s not beholden to those. I mean, obviously it’s in dialogue with those, but it’s agendas and research are not beholden to them. It’s looking at local issues, but it’s also looking in very, very thoughtful ways at the state of contemporary capitalism and things like tree cover. So, you know, what’s the relationship between economics and tree cover? What’s the relationship between tree cover and flows of water? Are the streams, have the streams stopped flowing because all the trees have been cut down? And so, you’re really looking in very thoughtful ways at the relationship between climate and capital and habitability. All of those things are engaging with the biological, the geological and the societal together and making very thoughtful policy interventions at multiple levels. And we could work for example, at an African Union level. You know, that also means that it’s decades before that is at the local level. So, to try to work at the local level is also key. But at the same time, if my city politics is anything to go by, that’s also very, very difficult terrain to work in, but we have to work in it. So, I’ve kind of gotten used to the idea that I’m going to be the witch, the bad girl, the fiesty one. (laughs)   

I think that a big part of this kind of a team would also include a very, very strong Paolo Freirian adult education person who can really ensure that in working with communities, whether it’s a geologist or a chemist or a social scientist that we’re learning together with the communities that are addressing the problems that they face. And there’s a very real temporal aspect to that. And that is that climate change has us all in situations that our models don’t prepare us for. The climate models don’t always work. Those yearly forecasts don’t always work because climate change is so real. So, it’s those that are really at the forefront of dealing with changes in an environment that are the people that have the most to say. 

So the locus of expertise of knowledge has shifted. And I think it’s really, really important to work with that. So, I think more and more, we academics are methodological specialists who can facilitate the creation of arguments that can persuade people in policy arenas by doing really solid, rigorous sciences, but our questions need to come from elsewhere. 

We need to be sure that we’re defining the questions that we’re posing, and are questions that local people understand. And, and it makes sense to them, because if it doesn’t make sense to local people, you know, it’s not necessary. It’s not going to be helpful. It’s going to be just another consultancy that ends up, lording it over people in this new feudalist situation we find ourselves in that calls itself neoliberalism. 

47:05  CLOSING CREDITS

Thank you for joining us at the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. For more about the lab, please find us on the web at multispeciesworldbuilding.com 

You can also find us on social media at #multispeciespod.

This episode was collaboratively produced by Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Joe Hazan, Hannah Tardie, Angelica Calabrese, Basil Soper, Rashida Kamal, and Elaine Gan. MWL is supported by NYU Green Grants, NYU Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Welcome to the podcast of Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. Thank you for joining us. In Episode #8, we are delighted to feature LESLEY GREEN in a recording made in November 2020 from Cape Town in South Africa. This is the second of two parts.

[music] 

00:20  GROWING UP IN THE EASTERN CAPE

I came from a part of South Africa called the Eastern Cape, which is obviously on the other side of South Africa and come from settler stock, in the sense that on both sides, both my maternal and paternal lines, go back to the 1820s when the British settled the Eastern Cape and colonized the Eastern Cape. And somehow in the history of South Africa, there’s something about the Eastern Cape that it’s really always struggled. And I think part of the situation there is that it’s always trying to be a big city. So, it’s always trying to build itself to look like Los Angeles or, you know, it’s got a campus that at one point was the biggest campus area in the Southern hemisphere. In the middle of a nature reserve, you’ve got a 20-story block with four elevators going up and down at high speed because that’s what you do in a big city. My experience of growing up there was that we were never central to the country, we were always the parochial cousins. Coming to Cape town to study, it took me years to actually feel like I could actually understand from an inside way, what was being spoken about. 

Part of that was coming from Port Elizabeth. But part of that was also because a lot of the social theory that we were speaking of and engaging in again, came from the North. My experience of it, and I have many colleagues who may disagree with me: it becomes quite dogmatic because you read, you know, the big names of scholars in the North, and you must think like they do. And my experience of the way that social science was being spoken of was often that it became quite dogmatic. It wasn’t grounded. So people would be talking of things in ways that are about using words fashionably and sounding very erudite, but I couldn’t make the connection between them. 

Particularly come 2015, the year we launched Environmental Humanities, was also the year in which that was the beginning of the students’ decolonial struggles here in Cape Town. I had to rethink everything about who I am as a white South African, what it is to teach as a white academic, what it is to listen, and learning to listen to how people piece things together was really transformative. I learned slowly, I was taught in fact by my students quite slowly, how important it was to be able to tell stories. And that social theory is a way of putting the world together much as a story does.

03:23  TEACHING AND STORYTELLING FROM THE SOUTH

My teaching became more and more confident in using a classroom space or seminar space as a space in which people could ground themselves and tell their stories. And one of the practices I would have was to say, okay, remember, when you walked in here, you walked in with your feet. Can you feel your feet? You’re sitting here in this class, feel your feet. You did not walk in here as a head and leave your body at the door. You know, you’re here as a whole person, you’ve come with experiences, you’ve come with knowledge. Let’s work with that. 

And one of the most astounding classroom discussions we had was with my very wonderful PhD student who is from Lesotho. We were reading Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet (2007). She was reading all about the dogs. At one point she just roared with laughter and she said, you know in Lesotho, a dog is a dog. She said, I can’t cope with this. This is not where I come from. That was the funny part of things.

But then there was also the more serious thing, which is, you know, some of the students saying, you know, as a black person living in South Africa. I have another former PhD student who’s now teaching anthropology in Namibia—he said, you know, I’ve spent my whole life as a black man trying to prove that I am human. And now you want me to speak in the language of the posthuman. I can’t do that. 

So, we together had to learn to speak from our experiences and over time, teaching has become more and more a case of, of storytelling, much as we’re speaking now, telling stories about people. And it really has become a fundamental practice for me in teaching to say to students: I do not ever ask you to learn a theory for the sake of a theory. How does this connect with your world? How does it connect with what you’re studying in your dissertation? We enter into texts from the point of view of a person’s experience. What stories come up for you when you read this text, what does it connect to? Is there something, and, you know, somebody might have a vague piece of something that’s vaguely connecting, and then you work with that. And suddenly the work of theory has opened up something that they hadn’t seen before. The social theory, particularly in the environmental humanities is about learning to see differently. I mean, the arts of paying attention, as you and Anna and others have spoken about so wonderfully. Learning to tell stories, learning to speak about what you see, learning to name what you see. When you can do that, people begin to say, “Oh my goodness, I can actually speak about the world in my own way.”

Helping people find their own voice as a writer, writing a dissertation, has become fundamental to what we do. Some of my best moments have been working with students who come into the program having gone through some kind of social ecological systems training, and they’re full of economic theory, economic words, the language of neoliberalism, sustainability, development, you know, all the discourse and jargon that goes with that systems, et cetera. And I said to them, but where do you see that system empirically? Show me where you see that. So what are we talking about? So you get them to rethink the paradigm with which they’ve come in, and get them to start piecing together what they see—tack from the macro to the micro, you know, or the other way around, start with the micro and situate that. Situate, situate, you’re situating everything. And so it becomes this process of connecting. That’s incredibly empowering to see people begin to be able to do that in their own worlds and with our life experiences.

07:40  CAN’T YOU SEE THE WIDER PICTURE HERE?

These are really powerful moments where African students, graduates, can engage with theory and both speak back to it and say this fits, no that doesn’t fit, but also fundamentally experience that the way that the environmental humanities work is often written in the storytelling mode. I’m thinking of Thom van Dooren’s work, for example, or Donna Haraway’s stories, you know tell stories that take you into the big picture that enable you to speak of the macro in relation to the micro. That’s fundamental. And then also that’s politically crucial because one of the ways in which neoliberal consultancies disempower people is to send out social science research consultants who ask them to speak of their perceptions of reality. Now, I can’t say that without wiggling my head in dismay! It’s so insulting! What is your perception of reality? The assumption there is that I have the truth, you know, I have the facts and you have the perceptions. And then what that consultant is able to do for a very large fee is enable the city council or whoever has commissioned them to tick a box to say, we’ve consulted the people whose experience of the world and its brutalities in this extractivist moment and this wasteful moment — I mean, the opposite of extraction is deposition and dumping. 

Many of the folks that we work with live either in one extractivist space or the other, and often the two connect. We need to say to social scientists who are involved in that kind of research: “This is deeply insulting what you’re doing and it’s disempowering,” and to teach a cohort of graduates to say, “help people to speak of their experiences.” Imagine you’re sitting at the table with the conservationist over there, the local people that you’ve worked with over there, you’re the only one who speaks a common language. Imagine that you are conveying what the one is experiencing to the other. The most extraordinary work is coming out of that. I mean, someone working in Mozambique has been working with a community that’s been the guardians of a mountain for decades and decades and decades since the Mozambican war. The mountain gets discovered by conservationists on Google Earth. And the next thing, there’s this whole huge suite of NGOs that gets created to protect this mountain from who? From local people, you know, not from the local plantations or from the GM seeds which come with the herbicides and pesticides, but from local people. And so the conversation there for an Environmental Humanities scholar, to me is to say: “Hey, conservationists, we really appreciate what you’re doing. We share your concern for this world, but can you see that the pesticides that come with these GM seeds are killing the butterflies, they’re killing the bees, they’re killing the ants. The frogs are disappearing. The fertilizers making algal blooms and the ponds and streams, you know. Can you see that there’s a wider picture here? 

11:18  ROCK | WATER | LIFE 

Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa (Duke/Wits 2020) is a book that I started writing in 2012. And at the time, I was cycling a lot around the peninsula and I would cycle quite long distances around the peninsula whenever the weekend weather permitted. And the thing about a bicycle is, its wheels are going round and round. You know, every inch, the wheels are touching and there’s something very grounding about this. And I would cycle past the baboon monitors or cycle past the ocean breaking into the beach.

It was striking for me how integrated the experience was of cycling, being in place. As I cycled, I was so aware also that I was cycling through histories. You know, there would be the huts where there were forced removals, or there would be sites that I knew were archeological sites or historical sites. And that if we didn’t have a way of bringing into one conversation, those different temporalities, and we didn’t have a way of bringing into conversation, all those different experiences of place, which are typically spoken about as different disciplines. So, you know, even to think about a fence crossing a peninsula from one ocean to the other. You know, when you start to actually look, what is connected here? My question to myself was, could I write about the connections, the relations, that were not making it into contemporary political discourse or scholarly discourse or environmental management discourses? 

This is an extract that I’m about to read from my book, Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa (Duke/Wits 2020). And the introduction is “Different questions, Different answers,” and it begins this way:

Baboons. Porcupines. Otters. Lynx. African genet cats. Crayfish. Sharks.
Dusky dolphins. Killer whales.
Southern right whales.
Seals.
Owls. Fish eagles.
Black eagles.
Sugarbirds. Sunbirds. Oystercatchers.
African penguins. Black-shouldered
kites. Rock kestrels.
Harlequin snakes. Puff adders. Rinkhals. Cape cobras. Mole snakes.
Olive house
snakes.
Bloukopkoggelmanders.
Tortoises. Baboon spiders. Scorpions.
Stick insects. Cicadas. Praying mantis.
Duikers. Steenbokkies.
Copper blue butterflies.

These are some of the 351 air-breathing creatures that traverse the edges of Cape Town, South Africa, amid the suburban islands of the south peninsula around which the Indian Ocean swirls into the Atlantic. A fence crosses from one ocean to the other, marking the edge of Cape Point Nature Reserve. The fence stops the eland, the bontebok, the rooibokke, the ostriches, and the law-abiding. To pass through the gate into the reserve, I need an annual Wild Card that costs me more than a ten-year U.S. visa, plus an extra card for my bicycle, and extra if I were snorkelling or fishing or staying overnight. When I applied for my Wild Card, I was also invited to marry a staffer of South African National Parks, since the online system had no variable for a solo parent with children. The staff member on the line from Pretoria suggested that I put in the identity number of the desk attendant under “spouse.” I declined the offer of nuptials, however generous, so according to South African National Parks records, I’m married to my sister.

[laughter]

She [Lesley’s sister] was horrified when she learned that that was in the book! That was really my tongue-in-cheek poke at those who really believe data to be true!

17:28 ABOUT THE BOOK’S CHAPTERS AND TEMPORALITIES

So the book has six chapters, each of which is a different case study. I divided those case studies into three different timeframes. And those timeframes are really about not just past, present and future because that would be ludicrous because I want you to think about the present past and the present futures. So I called Part One “Pasts Present” to try to think ecology, the everything-ness that I was cycling through in relation to histories. The second part I called “Present Futures” where I wanted to focus on emerging approaches to thinking, to scholarship, to political discourse that seem to me to have really something very important to contribute to how we form a better future, you know, ways of getting through this Anthropocene with its terrible histories of extractivism, as they have manifested here in the Cape of Storms, which is also the Western Cape. And the third part is “Futures Imperfect” where I’m really commenting on the environmental management sciences as I see them being played out in city policy. 

The first chapter was about baboon management. And the second chapter was about shifting from a management of the ocean as if it’s separate from humans and as if sewage goes nowhere into the ocean, to thinking about what does it mean to actually manage the ocean as an integrated space? What is an urban ocean when it’s receiving human waste, it’s alongside the city and you’ve got changes in ocean ecologies, algal blooms which are impacting lobsters and fish. How do we bring all of those together?

Each of the chapters is a chapter that tries to explore the work that you would find in every aspect of a university library. So for example, if I’m writing about water in Cape Town, I want not just the ecological literature or the historical literature, but I want to have known that I’ve consulted some of the engineering and infrastructure literature. There’s health there. There’s histories. There’s law. There’s contemporary commerce and business. So, you know, what would each faculty be bringing to each chapter in a way was my challenge to myself. How could I actually think about what I would call “extradisciplinary” in the sense of the knowledges that coloniality has completely passed by. So throughout, I sought to make a space in which there was a serious engagement with what might be described as Indigenous thought or African thought. So, I really tried to approach each question from multiple disciplines, multiple perspectives, but also what would not be in the university library as well. 

So Cape Town’s water has a strong engagement with the Kwe. The second chapter “Fracking the Karoo,” I really wanted to go back to again, the Kwe and San, accounts of what it is to live in that semi-desert and what it might mean to frack that Karoo.  Because I was unhappy with the presentation of the Karoo by environmentalists as a pristine landscape, when it was clearly a dramatically disturbed landscape, disturbed by settler colonialism and disturbed by sheep farming which has overgrazed it. And so I felt that they were setting themselves up for rebuttal in their argument. It was an argument that might sound romantic, but at the end of the day, it was not going to be an argument that had succeeded. So, you know, in each case I’m trying to withdraw from the prevailing environmentalist dogmas, try to think outside of the prevailing views and offer a different perspective.

22:30 PRESENT FUTURES

In Part Two, “Present Futures,” I thought about the struggle to think with Indigenous knowledges as a way of working towards what Bernard Stiegler would call the neg-Anthropocene, what negates the Anthropocene. Of course the problem was at the University of Cape Town, there was this huge conflagration around Indigenous knowledge as part of the decolonial student movement. And again, it was a failed argument. And so again, I wanted to try to understand what is so problematic about that argument, what is useful in it, but what was flawed in it? Where was it falling into a trap? And so how can students who are engaging with decoloniality and want to think with and about Indigenous knowledges, how can they do so without falling into the familiar traps of truth versus falsehood, Western versus Africa. That’s about shifting, changing the concern through which one addresses a particular situation.

Chapter Four is a chapter on struggles for land and farming. What puzzled me is that the ways in which land and farming is being addressed in South African political discourse, is through land as property and territory and ownership, and yet so much of that farmland that is now contested and needs restitutive responses nationally from government and individuals and corporates to resolve the fact that 90% of black South Africa was dispossessed of their land by 1913. You can’t go forward without some kind of restitution on that, and yet the restitution is being thought of territorially and those farms have got such severely damaged soil. So again, there’s a trap there. What is called in South Africa an “emerging farmer,” i.e., a Black farmer who has been able to get access to farmland on the basis of restitution, where that farmer is then going to be faced with degraded soils, emptied aquifers, and unable to farm. And then you’re left with a situation where the answer is: ah, black farmers can’t farm, which is, you know, frequently said. And so again, it was the question of, how do we turn this question? How do we turn this discussion around with, and a focus on soil working with some farm activists from the Cape Town farms and others who’ve fought court battles over soil and aquifers here in Cape Town. So, you know, learning with and from them about what it means to think as a person in and of the earth, rather than just as another potential owner of land.

26:00 FUTURES IMPERFECT

Part Three, “Futures Imperfect,” was an attempt to really take issue with the current baboon management protocols in the city of Cape Town. Baboons are troublesome animals. They always have been, they always will be, but they’re also animals that do not have to live in enmity with humans. And there’s a strong history of them living in societies from the, you know, recorded as far ago as the Egyptian pyramids, where there’s some hieroglyphic images of baboons that are serving as police to stop a thief, stealing fruit from a market or something. And San rock paintings of baboons as part of society, and many San stories, which say be careful of a baboon, a baboon is a tricky fellow. But which offer guidance in terms of ways of thinking about living with and alongside baboons in lively, neighborly relationships with a troublesome being, much as one would do with a troublesome neighbor, right? And the city’s current policy has paid hardly any attention to human behavior, and they have this most absurd ludicrous system of creating a monthly inventory of baboon crimes. So, I called this zoo-criminology! Where they have this monthly sheet, and each baboon is assessed by the monitors on a daily basis, and gets a tick or a cross or a code on their daily performance sheet. Did they enter a car? Did they enter an occupied car? Did they break and enter into a home? Did they enter into an occupied home? So you’ve got these different baboon crimes, which have never been explained to the baboons, right? And, when it comes up against this conundrum of how do you persuade a baboon not to cross the road? I mean, as you know, if you’ve ever tried to explain to a chicken, why not to cross the road? Why does the baboon cross the road? The baboon can’t be told not to cross a road! A baboon doesn’t understand that a road is something that can’t be crossed, but, you know, so you’ve got this masculinist, militarist bunch of primatologists advising baboon management without having ever read Donna Haraway, or any of the other feminist primatologists. Despite decades of feminist primatology, you know, I don’t think they’ve ever exposed any of their students to any of that because it doesn’t come up in their primatology dissertations. That they’re advising the city on how to manage these baboons with paintballs along roads, because it’s easy for them to get along those roads with their vehicles rather than working in a more difficult terrain, which is keeping the baboons up in the mountain where they would have access to mountain food.

There’s no baboon crimes for humans. If you leave your trashcan full of lovely food and not locked, you know, a baboon is going to open it and then the baboon would get ticked off as a bad animal. You know, if a baboon gets three strikes, three crimes listed in a month, it’s then sent to a committee to assess whether or not it can be culled. So that is an assessment of baboon killability. And, you know, besides the masculinist patriarchal primatology behind us, it’s just ludicrous! It’s a joke. A couple of years ago I was in Kruger Park, which is a huge nature reserve up north in South Africa, and looking at the baboon troupes, I was astonished because they were so calm and it made me realize the extent to which these baboons are permanently traumatized with paintball guns and so on. Paint balls hurt as you know, anybody’s ever played paintball knows. So, you know, that was about questioning the reigning assumptions about baboon management, fire paintball guns, and where that came from.

30:10 DOING SCIENCES DIFFERENTLY

What I tried to do in all of those chapters was think through what does this say about how we could do Environmental Management Sciences differently, how we could think of a human and humane ecological suite of relationships and practices. And so the conclusion is where I really sought to, I suppose, sketch a new book which was really sketching what I’d learned from across all of the different chapters. So the questions that I had about this paradigm of social ecological systems in which social de facto remains separate conceptually from ecological and through financialized ecologies, you get this economic logic mediating them. You know, I’ve offered a critique of that rethinking scientific authority. One of the things that struck me is the extent to which White power, White authority, White political authority in South Africa has regrouped itself around nature. So White authority, White political power is almost unassailable in the name of green for all the reasons that Bruno Latour talks about where he says, science stands outside of parliament and comes and tells parliament what is going on. And there are no questions asked. And so the absolute necessity in South Africa of democratizing how we do science, particularly environmental management, not because it’s a moral or ethical thing to do, but because science needs it, it’s good science to think through your situatedness. And it’s good science to be publicly accountable and to think with publics rather than over them. 

32:25  ECOPOLITICS: REFUSING NEUTRAL ENVIRONMENTALISM

So much of environmentalism subsists in the little prefix “en-” which means what is around you. I want to say, ‘je suis terrain,’ you know, “I am earth.” From that perspective, it does not make sense to only consider environment to be that which exists behind a nature reserve fence. And “green” in South Africa overwhelmingly means nature reserves behind fences. 

I guess I got to a point where I just began to feel that I could never atone for the sins of the word “environment.” It wasn’t a redeemable word in any way. I needed to find something different. And “eco” sounds interesting because we’re thinking about ecological relations, I’ll come back to that. It’s always political. There is no environmentalism that is not political. It’s always a matter of political struggle to address these things. To say ecopolitics is to refuse to be the neutral environmentalist. As someone once said to me, a PhD that someone gave up on, she found herself measuring the bites of a certain bug on leaves, when she said, “why am I measuring the bites of this bug on leaves? I can’t do this anymore!” And she walked away. This is so ridiculous! I refuse to be the neutral environmentalist and to be the good girl that plays that game. So it’s always political. And particularly in South Africa, where land has always been a space of intense contestation. Let me just dispense with this word environmentalist, it’s too loaded.

There’s so much environmental struggle, ecopolitical struggle in South Africa that’s not even recognized by mainstream environmentalists as environmental. And that is the struggle of largely Black rural people, mostly women who are at the forefront of that, given the gender politics of the rural areas. And who are struggling against mining companies who want to come and destroy some of the only Black-owned farmland that’s left in South Africa to mine coal or to mine titanium. 

And when I say political struggles there, you know, there’ve been two assassinations, one of which was two weeks ago. A woman who’s just a grandma but who found herself fighting a coal mining company that wants to expand into her fields, leaving a gaping open cast pit where she has known fields and plants and cattle roaming and streams, you know, this dust pit. So she was assassinated in her home with five shots direct to the chest on a Thursday evening. Fikile Ntshangase.

I think that the inability of the South African Green Movement to recognize those as environmental struggles says everything I need to say as to why we need to dispense with the word “environmental,” you know. One more reason. And that is “eco” comes from this word oikos you know, the Greek word oikos, which many, including myself, have written about in quasi-romantic tones about how oikos means household, but I’m thinking more and more about this. I’ve finally come to realize — post-publication, darn, didn’t make it into the book! — but finally came to realize that the oikos for the Greeks was the opposite of the polis. The polis was the place of men in their togas laying on the stairs discoursing with Socrates. That was the polis. The oikos was the space of who? Of women, slaves, and animals. The excluded. And we still struggle with that, the legacy and inheritance of the distinction between oikos and polis. So we have to find a way to bring them together. And again, the word ecopolitics does that.

38:05  PARTIAL CONNECTIONS & EQUIVOCATIONS

Possibly one of the most important scholars whose work assists me and many of our students here to think that through is Marisol de la Cadeña. Because I don’t think we’re going to be able to create a new world without binaries by imposing binaries. It’s this or it’s that. What Marisol does so beautifully in her engagement with Marilyn Strathern and Donna Haraway and Isabelle Stengers and others is to offer this idea of partial connections. And that also builds on Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s idea of equivocation that we can be talking about the same thing, apparently, water, but actually be talking about very different things. The one is talking about hydrology and megalitres, and the other is talking about what it’s like to be able to sit down and have a Sunday picnic in a nice place, right? They’re very different things. And yet, you know, sometimes you’re not aware that you’re talking about different things.

39:30  FIRE, MUD, MIST

Modernity has persuaded us that we live among solid, liquid, or gas, right? Perhaps the next book would be kind of, you know, fire, mud, and mist or something like that! Because those are all the apocalyptic imageries. Why? Because they’re so alien to modernity, you know, where we think we’ve got these states of matter controlled, but we don’t. 

[closing credits]

Thank you for joining us at the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. For more about the lab, please find us on the web at multispeciesworldbuilding.com or please subscribe.

You can also find us on social media at #multispeciespod.

This episode was collaboratively produced by Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Joe Hazan, Hannah Tardie, and Elaine Gan. MWL is supported by NYU Green Grants, NYU Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Thank you for listening!

Elizabeth Hénaff

Elizabeth Hénaff

 

 

Elaine:

Elizabeth Henaff is a computational biologist. She is an artist designer and programmer who looks at multispecies interactions, particularly between plants, microbes, and people, as well as toxic infrastructures and ecologies such as New York city subways and Superfund sites. Her projects take the form of scientific articles and specialized journals, data visualizations, experimental software, sensors, art exhibitions, and interdisciplinary collaborations. Elizabeth teaches at the department of Integrated Digital Media (IDM) at NYU Tandon School of Engineering.

Elizabeth:

Plant biology and plant biology research was kind of my first exposure to the experimental sciences. At that time, I was interested in plant transposons, which even for most biologists is kind of a cryptic field, but I think it’s an interesting idiosyncrasy of genomes. All genomes that have been studied, including humans contain what are called jumping genes. And so these jumping genes encode the proteins that are able to recognize their own DNA sequence. So it’s an interesting kind of self-referencing system. It’s a DNA sequence that encodes a protein that has the physical confirmation necessary to recognize the physical shape of that same DNA sequence that was its originator and do something with it.

These transposons are mutagenic elements because when they insert a new copy of themselves in a new location in the genome that can potentially disrupt the coding sequence of a gene. As such, they can have deleterious effects or bad effects if they insert themselves into an important gene. Why would organisms encode these kinds of mutagenic elements? It turns out that on a short time scale, these mutations or these transposition events can often be deleterious, but on a long evolutionary timescale, these types of mutations can lead to big genomic innovations. If you think of evolution as being a system of trying out combinations of many different possibilities, being able to generate really drastic mutations allows you to kind of jump around the solution space in ways that point-mutations, so changing one letter at a time, wouldn’t allow you.

So interestingly, there’s really big genomic innovations that have been attributed to transposition. So I did my PhD work on that and developed a novel algorithm at the time to be able to recognize those transposition events in genomic data. And I used it to characterize evolutionary properties and responses in plants. I went from studying plants as organisms that you can look at under a microscope, to studying plants as organisms that you can study through DNA sequencing. Using this lens of DNA sequencing to study organisms, I got interested in studying organisms that you can’t see such as microorganisms.

The discipline of studying microorganisms through the lens of DNA sequencing is the discipline of metagenomics. So if genomics is the study of a genome of a single organism, then metagenomics is the study of a set of genomes together. And so metagenomics has been pretty transformative in the study of microorganisms. Obviously we’ve known about microorganisms for a very long time, not actually a very long time, but most of the insights that we have gained in relation to microorganisms and their life cycles and their characteristics has been through culturing them in the lab, in petrie dishes. So if you want to study the microbiome of this table right here or soil or a wound, you would take a sample, streak it out in a Petri dish, put it in an incubator and see what would grow. You would have colonies that form and by the shape of the colonies and maybe their color and their growth rate, you would be able to infer something about their characteristics. So that is very useful, in many ways, but there’s many types of microorganisms that do not like to grow in petrie dishes. And so we call these recalcitrant organisms and a lot of environmental microbes are recalcitrant to culture in the lab.

Using the process of DNA sequencing, we’re able to study microbes without going through a step of culture. You can take an environmental sample, you know, take a swab of this table, take a teaspoon of soil, extract the DNA, sequence it. And then using that data, ask the question of what types of microorganisms are there, what types of functions do they encode, without going through that step of culture. And so you have a less biased perspective on the populations of microorganisms that you have in your environment than if you were to culture them.

Elaine:

How do you identify a set of organisms that somehow make sense together?

Elizabeth:

So usually they’re co-localized in a particular environment. The metagenome would correspond to a set of organisms that you took in one single sample, but then the way you take that sample dictates the set of organisms that you’re studying. So if you swab a square inch versus a square foot, you’re going to get a different metagenome. I think the apparatus very much defines the organism as you’re studying it. And that can play out in many different ways. Just as in any other experiment, it’s very important to define your controls, to be able to reach any kind of meaningful conclusions. But just to give an example, the material of the swabs that you use will introduce a bias as to the microorganisms that you collect. So if you look for clinical sterile swabs, you can usually find nylon swabs or cotton swabs and cotton and nylon have different adhesive properties for different microorganisms.

Depending on the material of the swab that you’re using, you will tend to pick up certain microorganisms over another type. Depending on the DNA extraction method that you use and the types of, um, solvents that you use to break down the cellular membranes, you will break down more easily, some membranes over others, and that will also introduce bias into the data that you get. So it’s definitely not free of instrumentation bias. But coming back to the topic of metagenomics, what’s interesting about studying microorganisms through, through this lens is that we’re starting to understand that a lot of the phenotypes or characteristics of multicellular organisms are related to their interaction with microorganisms. So for example, flowering time in plants has been shown to be dependent on the types of microorganisms that are in the soil in which they’re growing. And so that’s kind of a big deal in the plant biology world because time was thought to be like the canonical genetically determined, well understood pathway. So that kind of created big waves in the plant biology world when it was shown, that that pathway can be modulated by the types of microorganisms with which the plant is interacting. That’s also the case for mammals, including humans. We’re starting to become aware of the importance of the gut microbiome and human health. Grave states of disease, such as irritable bowel syndrome, or Crohn’s disease have been associated with disruptions in the gut microbiome, but it’s also been shown that more subtle characteristics of human health and well-being can be related to our interactions with microorganisms. For example, a large part of the serotonin that we use in our brain, which is, serotonin being a neurotransmitter that we use for normal brain function and deficiencies of which have been associated to psychological conditions like schizophrenia or depression. It turns out that a large part of the serotonin that we use in our brain is actually produced by microorganisms in our gut. And it’s not us that synthesize it.

Our interaction with microorganisms is modulating our identity as humans. So if we look at all these different cases, you know, the plant world and the mammalian world of how phenotypes or physical characteristics of these multicellular organisms are due, not only to the genetics of that multicellular organism, but also due to the genetic makeup of the microorganisms with which they’re cohabitating and interacting. That kind of begs a redefinition of genetic identity to include also the genetic identity of the microorganisms with which we live in symbiosis. And so that particular broadening of the notion of identity and of the individual has been discussed at length by Lynn Margulis, who coined the term of “holobiont.” So the term holobiont encompasses both the notion of host and symbiont and combines those two concepts to redefine the notion of the individual.

Elaine:

If you were to reverse that and think of the microorganism as the host and the multicellular organism as the symbiont, does it change how you think about identity?

Elizabeth:

Yeah. And so that’s an excellent question actually, because we evolved in a microbial world, right? Unicellular organisms existed a long time before multicellular organisms evolved. And so it is I think a very human-centric perspective to define the multicellular organism as the host or the director of operations and the unicellular organisms as the symbionts or the passengers. And so, it’s entirely possible that we basically evolved to be carriers and provide environments for microorganisms. Absolutely.

Elaine:

So let’s jump, I guess, to a larger scale, which is the canal as a very different kind of carrier. What is the history of the canal?

Elizabeth:

So the Gowanus canal used to be a creek, the Gowaine Creek, and it was dredged in the mid 1850s to serve as a means of transportation to and from the factories that were in operation around that area. Not only did it serve as a means of transportation, but it also served as a de facto dumping site for the industrial waste that was being generated by those factories. And so over the last 170 years, the Gowanus canal has accumulated about 10 to 15 feet of contaminated sediment at the bottom of the canal. And that sediment is composed of mostly complex hydrocarbons that are the byproduct of the coal tar extraction industry that was there, but also industrial solvents, heavy metals and other toxic compounds that were the byproduct of the various factories that were in operation. So then the canal was pretty much left as is until very recently. It was declared to be a Superfund site by the environmental protection agency in 2010. So, the Superfund program is a program that is led by the EPA to designate certain sites as priority for remediation, mostly due to their threat to human health. And so in this particular case, the Gowanus Canal is a toxic environment and it’s also embedded in a very residential neighborhood. As such, it poses a threat to human health. The EPA has led a series of studies to kind of identify the characteristics of this particular site. The way that they’re going to proceed with remediation is through dredging and capping, which is kind of a standard mode of operation for this particular type of configuration. The plan is to dredge the sediment that can be dredged and treat it elsewhere, cap the canal with concrete, and then let the water flow again.

Elaine:

Just to be clear, dredging and capping means what exactly? Dredge is dredging the sediment then capping is laying concrete over it. And the EPA wants to do both of those things.

 

Elizabeth:

Yep. So dredge the sediment that can be removed from the site and then cap the rest with concrete. So this has been shown to be effective in some other situations, similar situations, but it is a very destructive intervention into this particular environment. Granted it’s maybe the most, un-environmental environment you can think of, but if somebody proposed to dredge and cap a river and a forest, then you would feel that that would be a very kind of disruptive intervention. This observation spawned a project in collaboration with two landscape architects Ian Quate and Matthew Seibert, who were both working for Nelson Byrd Woltz [Landscape Architects in New York] at the time. The question that they posed was: If this destructive intervention is going to happen in this environment, what is the environment that is being intervened in at the moment? And so there’s not much macroscopic or multicellular life going on in the canal. And so they specifically wanted to look at potential microorganisms that would be living in the canal. So they collaborated with Genspace, which is a community molecular biology lab here in Brooklyn. Ian was a member of Genspace at the time. And so they organized a first sampling trip to collect sediment from the canal and they were able to extract DNA, but didn’t have the facilities to sequence that DNA. And so that’s when they reached out to Chris Mason at Weill Cornell, where I was working as a postdoc at the time and asked if the lab would be willing to sequence that DNA and analyze it. And so that was the first contact that I had with Ian and Matthew. And that project quickly caught my attention and my interest. Ian, Matthew and I founded the BK bioreactor, which is a project that aims to study, characterize and catalog the microbiome of the Gowanus canal.

We’ve been taking samples seasonally. So four times a year for the last five years. The big news is that there were microorganisms, or there are microorganisms living in the canal. So that sludge is amenable to life. We identified microorganisms that were related to marine environments, which makes sense, because it is a tidal system. We identified microorganisms related to the human gut, which makes sense also because there’s combined sewage overflow. But the question that arose from that particular analysis was: what are these microorganisms doing and how is it that they’re able to survive in such a contaminated environment?

So the source of toxicity in the Gowanus canal is from the sediment that has accumulated at the bottom. So the sediment that is accumulated at the bottom is black, viscous, smells like gasoline, and we refer to it as sludge. And so the sludge, which was the material that we wanted to sample, is under about anywhere from five to 20 feet of water. It’s not easily accessible to sample. And so we devised this DIY sampling technique, which involved getting 15-foot long PVC tubes and fitting them with this slightly flexible tubing at the end. And then we would go out in canoes that we borrowed from the Gowanus Canal Dredgers, which are a community organization that go out on the Gowanus Canal for fun! And they lent us their canoes. And so we would, you know, get into our hazmat suits, wielding our 15 foot long PVC tubes, canoe out into the middle of the Gowanus canal, and then dig these tubes into the sediment and cap the top of the tube. So using the same principle that your bartender will sample your cocktail with a straw before giving it to you. So we would dig these tubes into the sediment, cap it, pull it out and be able to retrieve kind of cores of sediment with that method.

So, you know, you’re doing real science when you’re wearing a hazmat suit. And oddly also there’s a Whole Foods that’s right on the canal. And so we would go there on weekends. And so sometimes we’d be like paddling under a bridge in our like full blown hazmat suits with our test tubes and everything. And then there’d be, you know, a cute Brooklyn family. They would be walking down and walking across the bridge and be like, “look, mom, they’re scientists!”

Elaine:

So the water is polluted enough that you need to wear a hazmat suit.

Elizabeth:

Yes. Because there’s a certain amount of splashing involved in retrieving these samples. And so we wanted to protect ourselves. More so from the sewage overflow that’s in the canal, than the sediment itself. You don’t want longterm exposure to that sediment, but you know, being splashed by it is fine. There’s a high concentration of fecal material in the canal and that’s what’s gonna make you sick. I would advise to not be in contact with the water as much as possible. The sludge is pretty inaccessible because it’s underwater. And you can see, depending on the tides, you can see sometimes oil slicks that form on the surface of the water. And, um, that’s not going to make you ill in the short term. It will make you ill in the long term.

Elaine:

So, actually, there are long term impacts on old timers, people who have been residents of that area for a long time, as well as newcomers or condominiums that are going up. Are there ways of protecting these people as well as you know, other species who actually will be there over the long term?

Elizabeth:

So the Gowanus Canal, once it was declared as a Superfund site in 2010, since then property values have gone up a 100%  and White population has gone up 63%. It’s in the process of massive gentrification. The efforts of remediation are to provide a less toxic environment for the human inhabitants of the neighborhood. But that also means that the people and families who have been exposed to these contaminants over the long term are likely not the people who are going to benefit from the cleaned up or remediated environment.

Elaine:

What is the promise of a site being declared a Superfund site?

Elizabeth:

Well, the promise is of the remediation of that site being funded, most importantly.

The Superfund program also puts into place legal mechanisms for holding the responsible parties financially accountable for the contamination. Even though that contamination has happened over the course of the last hundred plus years. When companies acquire other companies, they acquire both their assets and their liability. And so you can trace the liability of that contamination through the chain of mergers and acquisitions, and identify present day companies that are now liable for that. And so in this particular case, Con Edison is the company that is liable for the major part of the remediation. I mean, it’s all energy, right? So the like coal tar extraction was energy. And then, that just went down the chain of acquisitions and different forms of energy production. In a certain sense, the present day 2019 microbiome of the Gowanus Canal maintains a molecular record of the history of human intervention at that site. And arguably, maybe that record is actually more accurate than the human-kept records because human-kept records are biased are written by the victors, have omissions. But the bacterially kept records are a direct function of their environment.

Elaine:

You write that the DNA data is a molecular echo of the effect of human intervention. Tell us a little bit about that echo and its implications. One of the implications is that it allows us to tell a very different kind of history. Does working with microbes, teach us something different about language, history, creativity, all of which are attributes of the human?

Elizabeth:

A particular environment can be perceived in very different ways depending on the perspective from which you’re observing. So from the human scale, this site is toxic and in need of remediation at any cost and even in a destructive manner. And from a microbial perspective, this environment is amenable to life and productive. Some of these microbes have evolved to use these complex hydrocarbons as their primary carbon source. And so they need this kind of environment. I see this environment as a very rich environment with a precious ecosystem that should be acknowledged as such and valued.  So this microbiome encodes bioremediation functions, left to its own devices would clean up the canal, albeit very, very slowly, especially for our impatient human timescale. But left to its own devices, it is remediating this environment.

Bioremediation is the process of degradation of toxic compounds by living organisms. The microbiome as such is something that would be impossible to engineer in the lab. We can genetically engineer a microorganism to perform a particular function. We can engineer a microorganism to perform a couple of functions and maybe co-habitate with another microorganism. But it’s impossible to engineer a population of diverse microorganisms that are able to cohabitate with each other and as a whole perform a complex set of bioremediation functions and not be affected by this cocktail of toxicity that they’re challenged with. This is a unique environment that is very well adapted to the toxicity conditions of the canal. And it’s an important biotechnological resource for remediation of recently contaminated sites.

You could use a sample from the Gowanus canal to seed a recently contaminated environment that has been contaminated with a similar set of compounds. And it would accelerate remediation because that particular microbiome has had 150 years of evolution to optimize their response to this particular challenge. And so I don’t see the Gowanus Canal as an all-bad environment, but I see it as a resource and as a unique environment that should be preserved and catalogued in some way. And it is also an important biotechnological resource when thinking about bioremediation in general.

I would like to see a goal for design being one of collaboration with these organisms that have already been living and adapting to this environment rather than supplanting them with a technological solution.

Elaine:

And you seem to have the data to support this initiative. I’m wondering, have you been in communication with the EPA? Where is the project now as far as dredging?

Elizabeth:

So the EPA has conducted a pilot study in one of the turning basins in the Gowanus Canal to test the system of, of dredging. One of our collaborators is in contact with the EPA. At the moment, I do not foresee any possibilities for changes in that plan. That plan was drafted a long time ago in 2013, before I even started studying this. But my hope is to be able to create a living library of these organisms to kind of maintain this information and hopefully be able to catalog them in this way and potentially use this particular microbiome as a starting point for bioremediation solutions there or elsewhere.

Elaine:

Some people might say, how do we then guard against some of the unintended effects of, you know, taking sludge from, Gowanus canal, bring it into other environments, because in a way it’s introducing a novel material into another ecosystem, for example. I’m sure you’ve considered this. What might you say to that?

Elizabeth:

So the fear would be that a Gowanus Canal microbe would take over a particular environment that these, you know, super resilient Gowanus Canal mutant microorganisms would invade the environment in which they’re in which they’re placed. So to answer that, I would say that the Gowanus Canal microbes are, are very good at living where they are and have evolved to respond to that particular set of toxic compounds, but they spend a lot of energy doing that. And so microbes that are adapted to the Gowanus Canal are likely not well adapted to a different kind of environment. And that their selective advantage is one that corresponds to a contaminated environment. If we were to displace them and put them in a completely pristine environment, they would not have a selective advantage. So I don’t see a danger of mutant Gowanus Canal microbes taking over the world.

A more contained version of that approach is using extracted DNA rather than the living microbes. And so microbes are able to absorb DNA from their environment and kind of hot swap it in and just start using it. So we use that fact when we do microbial transformation, so genetic engineering. So the way you genetically engineer a microorganism is you make the DNA that you want for it to have, and then mix it up with your culture of bacteria and then stress them somehow. So either with heat or with electrical shock, and that causes them to spontaneously absorb DNA from their environment. That happens with a certain probability and then they start using it. You could think of seeding environments with extracted DNA from the Gowanus Canal microbes, as opposed to live Gowanus Canal microbes. What you’re doing there is setting up a situation where the local microbiome would be able to absorb and use the genes from the Gowanus Canal microbiome, but you are not transplanting living organisms.

  

Elaine:

Are there things you can teach people to see in the field? How do you get people to care? Why should people care? You know, how do you take this in a way, very large, very abstract, very frightening thing called climate change and scale it down in a way, you know, make it something that a high school student might understand.

Elizabeth:

That’s, that’s a very good question. And I think that that’s something that I struggle with as a biologist, but also as an educator, to be able to talk about things that you can’t see and be able to speak about them in a way that feels intuitive and be able to communicate the understanding that I have constructed over many years of studying these phenomena. I think that the fact that these organisms exist at a scale that is very different than ours impedes our understanding, but also our empathy for them. And that’s been something that I’ve been thinking about a good bit. And I think that there’s different ways to develop that kind of relationship. One of them being through scientific study, but another one being through art installations. And so this was actually the topic of an installation at the Detroit Science Gallery that I worked on in collaboration with Heather parish, who is a professor at the university of Iowa and a printmaker and Luna Husaid, who is an acoustics engineer at ARUP in the city. And so we created a multi-sensory immersive installation that tried to communicate through several different means this kind of duality in our relationship to the environment of the Gowanus canal.

In this installation, we had one part that was these jars of sludge. So we collected 10 gallons of sludge and like drove it to Detroit and this Mad Max kind of road trip adventure. So we collected 10 gallons of sludge from the Gowanus canal and installed it in these closed jars in the gallery and exposed them to grow lights. And so over the course of installation, which was only a couple of weeks, we saw all sorts of interesting life forms grow. And through close observation, we were able to see that there was actually all sorts of stuff going on in the sludge. So we had algal growths, there were little shrimp creatures, a kind of millipede worm, the shrimp and the worm were at war. The worm was trying to eat the shrimp. And then, we had a set of prints that were attempting to convey the relationship between macroscopic environments and human scale and microscopic environments. And then finally, a spatialized sound installation with a generative soundscape that follows a similar type of algorithm that dictate growth and decay patterns of microorganisms.

I think that the human centric perspective is always the one that people care most about. Decentralizing the human is I think, a difficult but necessary thing to do. We often consider humans in the environment to be separate entities, but trying to convey the fact that we are part of our environment, that we influence our environment, but that our environment also influences us is important. And I think that this kind of continuum of the microbiome is a good thread to pull at to talk about the relatedness of humans and their environment. Because if human health is related to the human microbiome and the human microbiome is influenced by the environmental microbiome and our design decisions for the environment sculpt the environmental microbiome, then ultimately that’s all kind of connected. And if we can figure out each one of those pair-wise relationships, we should be able to think about our environmental interventions as also part of this feedback loop.

With younger folk like high school students, it’s nice to be able to give very specific examples because the notion of environment or climate change are all very large and abstract, but being able to give specific examples that resonate with people and being able to talk about this specific example, which is the very iconic Gowanus Canal that is known to be a toxic wasteland and has inherited all of these, you know, different names like Lavender Lake, which is tongue in cheek terminology for the fact that it actually smells very bad most of the time. And so being able to speak to these very concrete examples and give hard data that supports the fact that this environment is active and that nature is remediating itself and responding to our interventions in a way that is also meaningful to us.

I currently teach a class in bio-design, which I frame around studying and designing interfaces between macroscopic and microscopic organisms. My students are usually either design students or art students or bioengineering students. And the best is when I have a class with a little bit of everything. And so the course is structured kind of in two parts. The first part is a crash course in biology and microbiology and methods in microbiology. So we do some lab experiments. We do some microscopy experiments. We learn how to analyze DNA sequences. We learn how to source primary source information in scientific journals. So how to even read a scientific article and parse out the format and read the methods and methodologies. So that’s the first part of the course and then the second part of the course is more like a studio practice where the students work in groups to design an interface between macroscopic and microscopic organisms that depart from the clinical interfaces that we have with microorganisms already.

So the swabs that I referred to, that we used to take microbial samples, they look like very clinical devices, so they’re white and they have like a white clinical looking label. They definitely belong in a doctor’s office. And so when we were doing the subway study we actually had some really interesting interactions with, um, various riders in the subway who directly interpreted that tool that we were using as a clinical tool. And so we were asked whether we were studying an epidemic in the subway. We were accused of bioterrorism and of implanting HIV in the subway. And so it was really interesting to see how this tool that we were using dictated the relationship that people had immediately before even knowing anything about the thing that we were studying. Taking a sample with these clinical looking swabs is the same thing as grabbing a handful of dirt. But if you grab a handful of dirt, you have all these associations of groundedness and earthy and healthy. And, if you asked someone to take a sample with a swab or to grab a handful of dirt and ask someone what do you think you’re getting with that swab or in that handful of dirt, then you’re going to get in general very different responses. And so the class is organized  as a response to that observation of how our tool dictates the relationship to the thing that we’re studying and it invites students to design new tools and new interfaces that are going to initiate and propose different kinds of relationships.

Elaine:

Thank you so much.

Elizabeth:

Thank you for having me.

Heather Davis

Heather Davis

HEATHER DAVIS talks about plastic in the United States, discussing its materiality, geography, and toxic histories. Combining feminist and queer theory with chemistry, geology, history, and art, Davis unpacks the constitution of throwaway culture, petrochemical industries, pvc, feminized male bodies, human endocrine systems, multidisciplinary collaboration, mealworms, and mermaids’ tears (also known as nurdles) in order to think through questions of justice, inheritance, and multispecies kinship.

Davis works across the fields of environmental arts and humanities, and feminist and queer studies. She teaches at Eugene Lang College at the New School in New York City and is a member of the Synthetic Collective, a multidisciplinary group of artists and scientists who are mapping the material effects of plastic in the Great Lakes.

ELAINE:

Welcome to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. My name is Elaine Gan. It’s February 14, 2020 and we’re in New York City speaking with Heather Davis. Heather Davis is a writer, feminist scholar and curator who teaches at Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College of the New School. Dr. Davis’s book projects include two co-edited volumes “Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies” published in 2015 and “Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada” published in 2017. Her current book project focuses on plastics and petrocapitalism or the petrochemical industry. Thank you for joining us today, Heather.

ELAINE:

How might you describe yourself and your practice?

HEATHER:

I think I primarily think of myself actually as a writer. I really enjoy the process of writing itself and I think of writing as a kind of practice. So one of the things that I get to do — not sometimes as much in academic writing because the form is fairly standard — but certainly in some of the other kinds of writing that I do for art publications or in other places, in part, what I’m really trying to capture in that writing is the kind of movement of things. So I’m really interested in the writing as a form in and of itself. So thinking about writing in the same way that other people might think about filmmaking or other kinds of practices.

ELAINE:

Let’s talk about your work with plastic. So the news and statistics are startling. Billions of pounds of plastic are produced and thrown out every year. There are vast islands of plastics floating in the oceans. The presence of plastics, as you write, is one of the markers of this new geologic epoch called the Anthropocene. You write about what you call the Plastisphere. So how did plastic become so pervasive so fast?

HEATHER:

That’s an interesting story. One of the things that you find out when you start researching plastics is that they sort of appear as if we have some kind of conceptualization that they’re surrounding us because of some kind of consumer desire or demand, that they’re fulfilling some kind of need that we didn’t even know that we had. And then they appeared as the kind of answer to this need. But when you look into the historical record, it’s really the opposite of that kind of a story. Certainly the very early plastics, so things like celluloid or Bakelite or Parkesine, all of these kinds of early primarily non-fossil fuel-based plastics. They were really developed to fill a need, which was that other kinds of polymeric structures that are things like tortoise shell or horn or ivory of various kinds. Those things were becoming increasingly rare but also increasingly in demand. So people really wanted those products to make combs, to make billiard balls, to make various other kinds of luxury goods and sort of non-luxury goods. But those were increasingly in demand. And because of that, it meant that a lot of those animals were being hunted to endangerment. People became aware of this. And so, they thought, is there another way to make a similar kind of structure? And so this is the history of the very early plastics, the non-fossil fuel-based plastics. So those plastics were primarily created through plant materials, through various kinds of celluloses.

And then in 1906, then that was the first time that a fossil fuel-based plastic was developed. Those plastics were first really used for military applications. Then it was only after the Second World War that they were transferred into kind of domestic everyday products or household items. And the public was really skeptical of these items at first. They really thought of them as cheap, as imitative, as not desirable. So they weren’t considered products that people actually wanted. The other thing that was really interesting was that the public in general kind of had to be taught to be consumers, especially in relationship to the ways that we think about consumption nowadays, which is that you buy something and throw it away, right? People really had to be taught to throw stuff away. This was not something that came naturally, especially to a generation of people who had just lived through the war. And I’m thinking primarily of the American context here and in that context, people really did have to be taught. So there was a huge range of advertising campaigns that were all geared towards really trying to encourage people to throw out plastic items. One of the stories that I ran across in my research that really drove this home in a very illustrative way was, when plastic bags, were first put on the market. And especially plastic bags that were used for dry cleaning. There was a lot of deaths that were associated with plastic bags, first of all, because people would use them to line their cribs for their babies, which made a lot of sense because they’re water-resistant and so it makes a lot of sense. They’re easy to clean. So, you know, it makes a lot of sense to put those plastic bags down. And also people still really have this mentality of saving everything that came into your home. So, if you had something that came into your home, then that was an item that was precious and that you were going to reuse in some capacity or save for future reuse for something that was yet unknown. And so in this case, people were really reusing these plastic bags as crib liners. And then because of that, there was a number of suffocations that happened because of these plastic crib liners or plastic bags being turned into crib liners. In response to this, there was a huge kind of public outrage and the first response by the public was that plastic bags were evil and bad. They should be banned and we shouldn’t have them anymore. This was kind of the very first response to this crisis that was in the media at the time. But the plastics industry really saw this as an opportunity, they saw it as a way to educate the public to throw the bags away. So it became, not that the bags were bad, but that consumer behavior was bad and the bad consumer behavior was to hold onto the bags that the bags themselves were meant to be disposable. To me, what’s interesting in this story is it really illustrates the ways in which disposability and disposable culture and this kind of culture of consumption that we now take very much for granted was very much an industry effort. And they really had to put a lot of effort into it. It wasn’t for a period of 10 or 15 years before people really started changing their behavior in relationship to throwaway culture. And you can really see this in relationship to plastics.

ELAINE (07:13):

So you’re talking about the production of a particular kind of subject that comes about because of the plastic industry.

HEATHER:

It’s difficult I think at this point in time in history for us to really see what is it about our particular type of subjectivity now that was really manufactured by a particular industry in a particular advertising campaign and what is just a kind of response to a set of practical concerns. And what’s really interesting is going through the plastics literature and the archives is you can really see the very concerted effort to produce this kind of culture, this kind of subject where we think of matter and materiality as essentially disposable and in a certain way as essentially ephemeral. Even though plastics have this incredible longevity to them, which is one of the ironic paradoxes at its heart, we’ve been trained rather to think of plastics as essentially ephemeral items that really are only just passing through our hands on their way to the garbage dump.

ELAINE:

You talk about the differences between the kinds of plastic that are around. That the kind of plastic actually matters a lot. So did the industry, and I think when you say industry you mean in the U.S….

HEATHER (08:37):

So my research really focuses on the United States. And the reason for that is both because I’m located here. So it’s the context that I understand. You know, coming from a feminist point of view, I feel like it’s incredibly important to kind of root oneself in context that you can actually speak to with some degree of authority. But also because I’m interested in the histories of plastic, really where it comes from and how it emerges in the world. And the two primary sources for that historically were America and Germany. Even though now we see plastics being produced virtually anywhere where there is close proximity to any kind of fossil fuel. So the interesting thing about plastics production is that it has to be in close proximity to fossil fuels. So either a fracking plant or an oil plant or something along those lines. A natural gas plant. And most of those are small facilities. So most plastics production facilities are companies with a hundred employees or less. They’re not these kinds of giant corporations. There’s certainly lots of sort of umbrella organizations that govern plastics in all kinds of ways. But the actual production of plastics is done in these much more small-scale, often family-owned businesses, but they do have to be located next to oil or natural gas refineries.

ELAINE (10:06):

And that’s because the production of plastic depends on those fossil fuels, so it’s very easy if they’re geographically close to each other?

HEATHER:

Exactly. It’s very difficult to transport both ethylene and napthalate. It’s very difficult to transport those two petrochemical substances. And so it’s much easier to just put the plant next to the place where those things are being manufactured.

ELAINE:

And are these East coast locations? West coast locations? 

HEATHER:

So primarily in the United States, the companies are in the places where there are oil refineries. That would mean right now there’s a lot of fracking that’s happening in Pennsylvania and North Dakota, so in those places. And also a lot of the historic production of plastics is around Louisiana because that’s the place where so much petrochemical companies are situated. But it is throughout the country, basically anywhere where there’s an oil refinery or a natural gas refinery.

ELAINE:

So I’d love to find out how do you follow something as pervasive and as big as plastic. You mentioned a feminist approach. So one would assume that plastic is best studied by chemical scientists and engineers and industrial designers. So what does feminist theory or queer analytics, what does that have to do with something like plastic?

HEATHER:

That’s a good question. Certainly I don’t see my work in opposition to other approaches to thinking about plastics. There’s lots of things, you know, you were asking before about what the differences between plastics are, for example. And there’s lots of materially important differences between various types of plastics, primarily in terms of toxicity levels. So, polyethylene for example, is a fairly benign plastic, whereas polyvinyl chloride or anything that has a chloride monomer in it, in relationship to plastics is incredibly carcinogenic. It’s PVC. Any vinyl, basically anything from vinyl pants that you might want to wear or a vinyl couch or anything that’s made with PVC, which also includes things like shower curtains at this point in time. Anything that’s made of PVC or any kind of vinyl monomer in its production is both incredibly toxic to the consumers and also especially to the people who are producing those plastics in the first place.

So clearly I think an analysis or a conversation with people who are doing this type of chemical engineering or this type of analysis from a more of a scientific point of view is deeply important. One of the things that I do in relationship with plastics and my work around it is that I’ve been involved with collective called the Synthetic Collective. There’s three artists, two scientists or two geologists, one chemist, an art historian, and myself who are part of the collective and we really see that as an important step in relationship to really thinking about questions of plastic pollution is that if we can think of these questions from an inherently multidisciplinary perspective to begin with, then the questions that we can ask and therefore the solutions that we can find are going to be far more useful to us, I would argue, than otherwise. So there’s all kinds of things that you can see if you employ this kind of multi-perspectival approach that really allows for each of us to draw deep into our own training in order to approach this object.

To sort of then go back to your other question about, so what does feminism or queer theory have to do with this study? I mean, I think that, for me there’s a couple of different things. One is that, from the feminist perspective then to me this brings to mind the question of justice. So feminism for me has always been a justice oriented approach to thinking in the world and to acting in the world. Because of that, the project isn’t a kind of distanced critique. It really is a project that’s embedded and really cares about the quality of things, about the quality of what are the actual ramifications of various kinds of plastics or the ways in which they’ve been produced or taken up in the world. The other thing about a kind of feminist approach is that I think that there’s a kind of attention to not taking things for granted from the outset, but really trying to look for the kinds of ties and connections that one might think of as something like a situated knowledge. And you could argue that other disciplines do this as well. But from my training, this is where I situate myself.

In terms of queer theory, the connections actually arose more organically and that is because one of the things about plastics is that in order to make any kind of a plastic product, one to up to 80,000 additional chemicals are added to the polymer structure of plastic itself. And those additional chemicals are known as plasticizers. And those plasticizers have various different kinds of effects both for the plastic and for people’s and other creatures’ bodies. For the plastic, it’s in order to do things like, you know, make something black or hard or heat-resistant or whatever other kinds of qualities, we want that plastic object to have. We add the plasticizers in order to be able to achieve those qualities from the outset. One of the byproducts of this is that there’s a category of plasticizers called phthalates. The most well-known of these is BPA. And you know, you go everywhere now and it’ll say BPA-free, but they’ve just actually replaced BPA with BPS. So it doesn’t necessarily matter if something is BPA-free. What you actually want in terms of your health is phthalate-free rather than BPA-free. This entire class of chemicals, what it does is that it primarily affects the human endocrine system. And that is a really big problem because endocrines are hormones. Hormones regulate virtually everything in our bodies. So if you disrupt the endocrine system, then you end up with a huge range of health problems in a human body. This can be everything from neurological disorders to cancers to diabetes to early onset senility to a whole host of other issues and problems. And one of the things that has arisen as one of the issues or problems is the interference with both the reproductive system and what’s called the feminization of male fetuses, which includes things like reduced sperm counts, the urethra moving down the shaft of the penis, so it’s no longer at the end. All of these things indicate what scientists call the feminization of male fetuses. And so there’s been a kind of panic around saving men and saving a certain form of masculinity as a result of the pervasiveness of these types of chemicals in the world. And I think that feminism and queer theory have a lot to offer us in this regard, which is that maybe we don’t want to just see those things only as toxic, right? Or maybe there’s a way to be able to disentangle the kind of queering of the body effects that these phthalates are having from the kind of conversations around cancers or something else. Something that’s obviously a form of harm. In other words, the production of queer bodies we might not want to think of as a form of harm in and of itself. But I think that one of the things that’s been really interesting is that, that’s also the argument that chemical industries make. They also argue that the queering of the body is not a form of harm. One of the things that I’ve been really interested in is, how do we think about feminist and queer theory in relationship to this set of very entangled problems? And how do we have a kind of adequate accounting of any kind of notion of justice in the kind of mix of all of this?

ELAINE:

We started out this conversation talking about the chemical industry producing, after the war, a certain kind of mentality where people start disposing of things. So it seems to be more of an economic relation that’s produced and now what you’re talking about is out of that economic relation, we now have a queering of bodies. So in a way we’re also needing multiple kinds of theoretical lenses to talk about what’s happening. And if you use plastic to begin with that you’re able to kind of navigate those different webs.

HEATHER (19:14):

Yeah, that’s it exactly. I guess you know the question that you asked earlier, but like how do you follow something as pervasive as plastic? In a lot of ways I haven’t done maybe what other folks who would follow a particular substance or material or type of being would do, which would be to kind of literally follow it. Because with plastic it’s virtually impossible to do that because it’s just everywhere. At this point, it’s very difficult to sort of pick a path for plastic. But I think for me, what I’ve done instead is kind of pick this more intellectual path or a path through a certain kind of history or path through certain kinds of disciplinary perspectives that allow us to look at this object from multiple different perspectives simultaneously. One of the things that I also suggest in my work is that perhaps we might also want to draw from feminist and queer theory to rethink our notions of kin and kinship structures to really value and revalue how we think about our relations to other beings in the world. And one of the things that I propose is to about the Plastisphere or the bacteria that can now eat plastics or the mealworms that can now eat plastics as a kind of human kin, as a kind of nonhuman progeny because the plastics industry has created these beings. And so for those of us who are entangled with the plastics industry, then we are also entangled with the emergence of these new forms of life. If we think about that seriously and think about those as a real substantial kin or a real substantial kinship structure or as really our babies in some way, then I think it helps us to reorient our ethics in relationship to questions of plastic. And it helps us to give a much more expansive sense of what kin and caretaking and relationality might mean in the world outside of just the kind of reproduction of sameness that we often kind of see it as. And those things are very much indebted to a kind of feminist and queer take on the world, especially for queer subjects who never took family structures or biological family structures as necessarily the places of care or reproduction to begin with.

ELAINE:

The useful term you use is “toxic progeny.”

HEATHER:

Yeah. I think about those creatures as a kind of toxic progeny.

ELAINE (22:08):

And that relates to these new kinds of queer kinship networks or webs that are coming out of plastic now being so central to many of our relationships.

HEATHER:

Yeah. And to the literal new beings that exist in the world because of the pervasiveness of plastic. So you know, mealworms have existed for a long period of time, but the bacteria that are in their stomachs that can digest polyethylene and styrofoam, those are new. So it’s a kind of bacterialization of life and a kind of orientation to a kind of queer bacterial formation. We have to seriously consider that we’re responsible for the creation of these beings. So if we think of them then not as something abject but as something that we have to care for, I think that that gives us a different kind of ethical perspective.

ELAINE:

And I think in your work you’re also very clear about questioning who the “we” is. There are some we’s who are more abject and some who are more causes for these sorts of queering relations.

HEATHER:

Yeah. I know it’s difficult to talk sometimes about like, you know about the “we” because in some respect you want to, you have to be able to say “we” sometimes. But certainly in my work, I try to be extremely careful about who I’m including as a part of this structure and who I think is not responsible for the state of affairs. And one of the ways in which I do this in my longer book project is through a kind of differentiation between inheritance and transmission. So for those of us like myself who are the beneficiaries of this way of being in the world, the beneficiaries of the kind of pervasiveness of plastic. And in my case, my grandfather worked for DuPont and was a chemical engineer. And so that’s a much more direct line of descent than for many people. But I think you could generalize and say for anybody who has been sort of the beneficiary of the kind of mass production of plastic and who has benefited from this, you can think about that in terms of the kind of structures of inheritance. Whereas for the many people around the world for whom the kind of proliferation of plastics has resulted in forms of harm or violence or misery, primarily in places where people are responsible for recycling, which often happens by hand and in very material ways or for people who’ve been displaced because their communities became so toxic that they had to leave. All of those kinds of things, those kinds of relations I think about in terms of transmission. So, you know, I have this kind of binary system. It’s maybe not as clear-cut as that in real life, but I think it’s at least a helpful way to begin to disentangle who is responsible for this set of conditions and who has really sort of been both not responsible for, but who has received, these sets of conditions whether they liked it or not.

ELAINE (25:27):

I’m really interested in how you pointed out that the introduction of plastic was actually a solution to some materials becoming more and more scarce. Which sort of puts plastic into perspective, as not always all bad or not always all good, that it’s always produced in certain kinds of relationships. How might that help us think about collaborative survival or multispecies worldbuilding. Maybe another way of putting that question is, what are the possibilities of living queer plasticized worlds?

HEATHER:

Yeah. Well, I think for me, one of the things you know, and I certainly know that, that you’ve been thinking along these lines as well, which is that one of the things that I think we need and many other people have also been thinking along these lines. One of the things that we really need to be thinking about is not some retreat to some Edenic past that probably didn’t exist in the first place, right? So really thinking about toxicity as itself potentially productive, which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also be paying attention as Mel Chen says in their work, paying attention to all the kind of screaming negative affects of toxicity. But we might also want to be paying attention to the ways in which things can survive and potentially even thrive under conditions of toxicity. And in terms of my work, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about more is, what would it look like for kind of redistribution of toxicity to happen? Clearly this is not a very implementable goal, right? I doubt that this will happen. But I’m thinking about, what would it mean for those of us who are more the inheritors of plastic to take on the responsibilities of living with its toxicity? What would it mean for those of us who have benefited from this way of living to take on more of the environmental burden? What would that kind of mean in terms of geographical relocation or the relocation of dumps or the relocation of incinerator plants or those kinds of things? I mean, certainly there’s much more practical solutions that other people have come up with. Things like, we should ban PVCs. We should not use the really harmful forms of plastics and we could maybe just only produce the less harmful forms of plastics. Maybe we should think about stopping the production of plastics altogether and trying to figure out ways of recomposing the plastics that already exist in the world. You know, there’s all kinds of much more practical means of really thinking through this in terms of, you know, extended producer responsibility laws and various other kinds of things. But I think that for me, one of the things that has been really fundamental about thinking with plastic is also the ways in which it really shows us the kind of intractability of the problems that we’ve entered into. There really is no sense of return to a previous idyllic moment, which as I said before, probably never existed in the first place. I think that there is some sense of really having to just work through what we have, which in that sense I think does mean caretaking or attuning to the kinds of beings that have arisen. Like the mushrooms that can digest plastics or the various other kinds of micro-organisms. What might it mean to caretake for them as they are inadvertently taking care of us. I don’t want that kind of move to thinking about bacteria who can successfully biodegrade plastics as a kind of excuse for the rampant production of plastics across the world. Yeah. Plastic certainly teaches us that the world is fundamentally different than what it once was.

ELAINE:

And the technoscientific fix of being able to, you know, possibly breed bacteria, that these are false solutions.

HEATHER:

They’re false solutions in the sense that they are not going to solve the problems of microplastics in waterways, for example. They’re not going to solve the problems of the globalized plastic worlds that we live in. And I think it really doesn’t address the real fundamental issue, which is that, you know, when you think back there was a proposition in the 60s, I think it was, called the Monsanto House. And the Monsanto House was this kind of ….it looked like a spaceship or something. Everything in it was this very kind of curved, sleek surfaces of plastic. You know, in some ways it was kind of very beautiful in that kind of 1960s futurism kind of vibe. And everything in it was made from plastic, the cushions, the wall coverings, the paints, the housewares, everything. And the interesting thing about this Monsanto House is that, you know, we might not live within that kind of aesthetic, but we certainly do live within that kind of environment now. A technofix that still is intractably seduced by oil and the ways in which oil can transform the world is certainly not going to help us because we’ve basically created these like sealed-off barriers where everything that we surround ourselves with is plastic. Even if we were to get these bacteria, it would mean that all of our infrastructure would fall apart, if we were really serious about it. We would have no more digital technologies. The planes would fall out of the sky. Most of our buildings would fall down and most of us would be walking around naked. So we actually don’t want bacteria to run rampant and eat all the plastics that already exist. Aside from all of the carbon that would then be released back into the atmosphere as a result of doing that.

ELAINE:

Since we’re already dealing with unintended consequences for all the other things that we’ve done… Would it be possible to go back to this non-fossil fuel-based plastic production? Is that still a possibility?

HEATHER (32:21):

That’s what people are trying to do, right? So with the development of “bioplastics”. Bioplastics for the most part are cellulose-based plastics, meaning that they are plastics that are produced not with any kind of fossil fuel as their source or their base. They’re produced from a cellulose structure from plants. But the problem for me with that is that it doesn’t address the kind of subjectivity that you were talking about earlier. So it doesn’t address the production of a subject or our relations to materiality where we really think about things as ultimately disposable or a subject that really interacts with the world and with matter as something that’s inherently ephemeral. And that is just a matter of taking something and throwing it away. It doesn’t address any of those problems. So I mean, I’m sympathetic to trying to come up with solutions in the kind of short term for the replacement of particular kinds of goods. But I think that certain other things are potentially much more doable. I was at the Healthy Materials Labs at Parsons [School of Design] yesterday and they’ve come up with a hemp-based building material, which is really fascinating because you actually don’t need anything except for the hemp to create the qualities of flame retardancy. You don’t need material on the outside. It’s an insulating material. It’s already hydrophobic, so it’s water-resistant. It already does everything that you would want in a building material and something like that to me seems like a good use of a kind of… you wouldn’t necessarily normally talk about that as a kind of biopolymer, but essentially it’s not so dissimilar from a biopolymer. So we could think about that as a kind of alternative to plastic that might be really useful. 

ELAINE:

Yeah, I was trying to think about the temporalities of plastic, you know, because it does force us to think about time in a different way, because its timescales are so different from this human scale.

HEATHER:

Yeah, I think in that regard, I often think of it as more akin to the geologic rather than to biologic timescales because it really does exist more on the timescales of something like fossil fuels or exists more on the timescales of various kinds of rocks. We don’t really have any real sense of how long most plastics will persist in the world. Most of the hypotheses say that it’s highly variable depending upon where the plastics are. And of course, you know, the fact that there are all these new organisms that can eat plastics and those were enhanced by scientists, but they weren’t created by us. They were created out of evolution itself. To me, it really is a matter of this kind of conjunction between evolutionary time and geologic time. So evolutionary time is bumping up against geologic time when you think about plastics, because it’s really a matter of how much time is necessary for various kinds of organisms to take advantage of the fact that plastic is everywhere. And clearly we’re going to need different types of organisms for different types of environments. It’s not going to be the same organism and it’s not going to be the same for everything. So the bottom of the sea is a very different environment than in your kitchen cupboard where mealworms like to live, right? So it’s a very different kind of environment to think with. Clearly one of the kind of fundamental issues with plastic is how to think about time differently. And Michelle Murphy has this really beautiful concept of latency and she talks about the ways in which petrochemicals, plastics included in them because of these plasticizers primarily is that the effects on the human body, the toxic effects on the human body might not be seen within your lifetime. They might not even be seen within your children’s lifetime. They might be seen within your grandchildren’s lifetime. There’s a latency between when you’re exposed to something and when you might feel the effects.

 

There’s all kinds of ways in which we have to think about time differently. Another, another source of inspiration for thinking about the relationships of time is to think about Christina Sharpe’s residency time and she thinks about that as the amount of time that it takes for a body –and she’s specifically thinking about the people who were captured and enslaved in the transatlantic slave trade and the people who either fell or jumped or were pushed overboard, and how long their bodies took to enter and exit the oceanic system. So what is the residency time of plastic? 

ELAINE:

I’d love to talk a little bit more about the Synthetic Collective. It seems like a dream interdisciplinary project. You know, there’s a growing call for interdisciplinary approaches or multidisciplinary approaches, so this mix of scientific-artistic methods that might help us look at issues as large as plastic differently.

HEATHER:

Yeah, it’s been an amazing experience. They’re just the kind of dream team of really wonderful, incredibly smart people and very easy to work with. Which is also really important in terms of collective work. Yeah, I’ve been really privileged to work with this group of people. I think one of the examples that we have drawn on in the past, that I personally wasn’t involved with, but two of the key core members were involved with: Patricia Corcoran who’s the geologist who’s a part of our team, and Kelly Jazvac who is an artist. Together, they were the people who named the new rock plastic formation, the plastiglomerate. And what is interesting about that collaboration is that Patricia really wanted to go to Kamilo beach in Hawaii to go look at these new forms of rocks because she has long been interested in the kind of relationship between fossil fuels and particularly plastics and rocks as a geologist. And Kelly was really interested in the aesthetics, how these rocks looked. And so they went there and one of the things that happened when they got there was that they discovered, they originally had thought that the rocks were being formed through volcanic activity, but they’re not. Those rocks are formed through campfires. And it’s because there’s so much plastic on the beach that if you just have a kind of innocent campfire, then that is how these rocks are formed. Patricia was originally kind of very like, Oh, that sucks, what am I going to say about geology in relationship to this? And Kelly was like, no, this is a more interesting story because of this relationship. And I think that it really shows the ways in which that object came to light through two different sets of knowledges that really came together. But also the ways in which that object has since circulated. You know, it’s been written about in Nature, it’s been written about in the Geological Society. It also got picked up in the New York Times. It also has circulated to the Smithsonian Museum and the Yale Peabody museum. So I think that one of the really strong characteristics of these kinds of art-science collaborations is that you can disseminate similar information to different sets of audiences and it can be seen in different ways in different places. So it doesn’t have to always be carrying the exact same message with it. It can be kind of transportable or transposable as a kind of object. Also in terms of our work with the Synthetic Collective, primarily we’re interested in plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, because not a lot of people have done a lot of work on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. And one of the things that has been a strength and a real interest in that is also the questions of both where scientific knowledge can lead us, but then also where it might end and where we might need other kinds of ways of transmitting information. So one of the first things that the collective did was to go around and do a study of preproduction plastic pellets that were being released directly into the Great Lakes. 

ELAINE:

What is a preproduction pellet?

HEATHER:

So it’s called a nurdle or sometimes it’s called mermaid’s tears. So basically when you produce plastic, it goes through this whole kind of procedure. It’s sort of this long procedure where you get a bunch of chemicals. You kind of swish them around a container under extremely high pressures, often with certain degrees of heat. And then what you end up with is some kind of gooey substance mostly. And then that goes through usually an extractor of some kind and then that gets flattened out into like a long sheet. And then that long sheet then often gets broken down, sort of recomposed and broken down. And then the industry standard for any kind of plastic that’s going to be made into a consumer object is these little preproduction plastic pellets or nurdles or mermaid’s tears. And they’re literally like maybe about two millimeters or like maybe five millimeters long by about two millimeters wide. They’re kind of cylindrical. They can come in all colors. They’re very identifiable. If you know what they look like, they’re really easy to spot because they’re so perfect in their composition. They don’t look at all like what happens after, say a water bottle or a plastic bag or a lighter or whatever else starts to corrode and photo degrade or break apart under other processes. They really have this standardization to them, but they make them into these small things so that then they can be shipped. Because the plastic has to be made next to oil or a natural gas refineries, there has to be a mechanism for being able to get the plastic once it’s made to places where they’re going to make it into an object. And so the way to be able to do that is to turn it into these preproduction plastic pellets and then those get shipped all over the world. So sometimes they get shipped in container ships, sometimes they’re put on railway lines. Sometimes it’s just in transport trucks or whatever, all the ways in which we normally ship things, they go out and then they go to other factories where they make them into something. Sometimes factories will make them into something where they are, but mostly those two processes are not the same.

ELAINE:

And how do they end up in the Great Lakes?

HEATHER:

So they up in the Great Lakes because there are a bunch of these factories that surround the Great Lakes because there’s actually a lot of oil refineries around the Great Lakes or particularly around Detroit and Sarnia. In those areas, there’s a lot of oil refinery and because there’s so much oil refinery there, it also means there’s so many plastics production facilities there. And then what happens is, so two primary mechanisms: Sometimes there’s a spill, so sometimes they’re trying to ship these preproduction plastics somewhere and it spills and then it ends up in the Great Lakes. Or the other way is, at least this is what we hypothesize and that we’ve heard from anonymous sources, is that sometimes the factories, if they produce a batch of bad plastics, they’ll just pour them down the drain and then the drain literally leads to the Lake. Sometimes it’s not quite as insidious as that. It’s more just like, you know, you’re making a bunch of stuff on a factory floor and there’s still that drain that goes into the Lake. That’s primarily how it happens, at least as far as we understand up until this moment.

HEATHER:

Since nobody had really studied this before from any perspective really, and also because we thought it would be an easier policy demand in terms of really thinking about pollution in relationship to plastic, we decided to first go out and map where all these plastic pellets are ending up. So we went and did mapping on the shorelines of the Great Lakes to try to figure out how much plastic was in the Great Lakes. And then also what percentage of that was pre-production plastic pellets. That’s the kind of thing that we can do with the kind of geologic surveys that Patricia taught us how to do. That’s the kind of mapping that we can do through that kind of scientific knowledge.

But then the collective wanted to bring this to a wider public. And so we’re having an exhibition that’s going to open at the University of Toronto and that is going to also include these maps that are getting drawn that show the kind of possible paths that these pellets have taken. So what are the hydrological cycles in the lakes that would maybe make it so that certain plastics end up in certain areas and none end up in other places. And is this a way to try to be able to map to see where the plastics are originating from, which companies are most responsible, etc. At least it’s also, I think another way of just visualizing things. I think one of the other things that’s important in terms of scientific and artistic collaborations is that from an artistic point of view, I think you don’t want to be saying things that are not accurate. And from a scientific point of view, I think one of the problems is that people are often quite alienated by scientific language and scientific discourse, and the ways in which science disseminates information. And so I think that trying to bring these two pieces together to both create something that really affects you and that is visual and that can be understood from multiple perspectives, I think that that is a much more effective means of using all of our knowledge and our sets of skills and also to really get the public much more interested and animated over these questions.

 

One of the goals of the exhibition that we’re doing at the University of Toronto is to put together a User Manual for how to reduce your carbon footprint in relationship to exhibition production. And so we’re doing everything from not repainting the walls, not filling in the holes from the previous exhibition that will be up, to not having any video works because they take up too much energy in terms of the projectors. So instead, all of our video and media works are going to be on iPads that are going to be powered with solar panel backpacks that people have to go out with docents outside to power up. And the manual itself is going to be hosted on a website that also uses solar energy. And so sometimes the website will exist and sometimes the website won’t exist depending on whether it’s sunny or cloudy. And so it’s been really amazing to sort of see this come together because there’s like so many things that I never thought of before and so many things that the other folks have been so incredibly thoughtful about how to think about this. Teagan Moore has been doing incredible amounts of research to put all of this together. 

ELAINE:

Well, I like your project with the Synthetic Collective because you’re clearly trying to make policy interventions and it seems that the scale of the plastic issue actually has to be tackled at a structural… You know, it’s a structural issue. It can’t depend on individual choices. I mean in a way governments have to…

HEATHER:

Governments have to make these decisions. Yeah, exactly. It’s like lead in the gasoline.

ELAINE:

Because so many of the solutions are posed as individual responsibility.

HEATHER:

You know, really if you’re just thinking about it in terms of time, translation into time. It is much better for you to not go to the no-waste grocery store and to use that time instead to call your representative, you know, or to do some kind of political lobbying. That is a much better use of your time if you actually care about plastic packaging. It doesn’t matter if we all go to the no-waste grocery store in Williamsburg, that is not, it’s just so far outside of the kind of scales at which these things have to be changed.

ELAINE:

You know, I always close this with some hope. In your capacity as a professor, a writer, curator, collaborator, what do you tell your students or your kin or your toxic progeny about what you do in relation to climate change? So how do you have conversations with people that might be less focused on disaster and end of the world scenarios and more focused on how to live now? 

HEATHER:

For me, a couple of things that I’ve really learned from plastic is that our desire for containment isn’t helping us. Our desire for really sealing ourselves off from the world and from each other has not been especially helpful in the long run because we never will be able to do that. And so embracing, I think the kind of porousness of our bodies, the necessity for entanglements I think is incredibly generative as a starting point. One of my colleagues said to me the other day that he was reading a news article and it was saying that the things that we’re really going to need if there is a kind of climate breakdown or maybe more like when there is a climate breakdown or if there’s a kind of radical shift in the ways in which our societies are composed, that one of the skills that’s going to be, you know, often people think about like, Oh, we need to like stash and hoard water. We need to stash and hoard food. We need to stash and hoard guns. And he was saying that the skills that are going to be some of the most useful in addition to being able to grow food and those kinds of practical things is also really thinking about community building. And so I think that one of the things that climate change really affords us an opportunity to do is to really radically rethink our relationships to things. I think that there’s so much on offer there. There’s so much to be learned in really re-paying attention to the world around us. You know, it might be a diminished world, it might be a damaged world, but it’s still a world that’s full of so many surprises and so much beauty and so much joy and so much love. And if we can really tap into those things, then we might live in a much more livable world actually. Even if some of our material conditions have to really be rethought or maybe because some of our material conditions have to be rethought it allows us the opportunity to then rethink relations in a way that I think is much more deeply engaging. What would that mean if we really held ourselves to be accountable in terms of relation? What would that mean if we really privileged relations with each other and with other beings in the world as our primary form of nourishment? And I think that that world is a very hopeful world, right? That’s, that sounds like a really lovely world. It’s not like we wouldn’t have conflicts or everything would be rosy all the time, but I think that there would be a way of being with each other that would give us a lot of nourishment that we might not know that we’re lacking.

ELAINE:

That’s like the perfect way to end. Thank you so much.

HEATHER:

Thank you.

ELAINE:

Thank you for listening to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. This episode is produced by Ben Montoya, Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Alex Guillen, Hannah Tardie, and Elaine Gan. The lab is made possible by the Green Grants program of New York University’s Office of Sustainability and NYU Center for Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement.