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Open access

Pollution, Health, and Disaster

Emerging Contributions in Ethnographic Research

Alexa S. Dietrich

Abstract

The materiality of pollution is increasingly embodied in humans, animals, and the living environment. Ethnographic research, especially from within the fields broadly construed as medical anthropology, environmental anthropology, disaster anthropology, and science and technology studies are all positioned to make important contributions to understanding present lived experiences in disastrous environmental contexts. This article examines points of articulation within recent research in these areas, which have much in common but are not always in conversation with one another. Research and writing collaborations, as well as shared knowledge bases between ethnographic researchers who center different aspects of the spectrum of toxics-based environmental health, are needed to better account for and address the material and lived realities of increasing pollution levels in the time of a warming climate.

Open access

The Social Life of the “Forever Chemical”

PFAS Pollution Legacies and Toxic Events

Daniel Renfrew and Thomas W. Pearson

Abstract

This article examines the social life of PFAS contamination (a class of several thousand synthetic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and maps the growing research in the social sciences on the unique conundrums and complex travels of the “forever chemical.” We explore social, political, and cultural dimensions of PFAS toxicity, especially how PFAS move from unseen sites into individual bodies and into the public eye in late industrial contexts; how toxicity is comprehended, experienced, and imagined; the factors shaping regulatory action and ignorance; and how PFAS have been the subject of competing forms of knowledge production. Lastly, we highlight how people mobilize collectively, or become demobilized, in response to PFAS pollution/toxicity. We argue that PFAS exposure experiences, perceptions, and responses move dynamically through a “toxicity continuum” spanning invisibility, suffering, resignation, and refusal. We offer the concept of the “toxic event” as a way to make sense of the contexts and conditions by which otherwise invisible pollution/toxicity turns into public, mass-mediated, and political episodes. We ground our review in our ongoing multisited ethnographic research on the PFAS exposure experience.

Open access

Surveying the Chemical Anthropocene

Chemical Imaginaries and the Politics of Defining Toxicity

Yogi Hale Hendlin

Abstract

Faced with the non-optional acceptance of toxic chemical artifacts, the ubiquitous interweaving of chemicals in our social fabric often exists out of sight and out of mind. Yet, for many, toxic exposures signal life-changing or life-ending events, phantom threats that fail to appear as such until they become too late to mitigate. Assessments of toxicological risk consist of what Sheila Jasanoff calls “sociotechnical imaginaries,” arbitrations between calculated costs and benefits, known risks and scientifically wrought justifications of safety. Prevalent financial conflicts of interest and the socially determined hazards posed by chemical exposure suggest that chemical safety assessments and regulations are a form of postnormal science. Focusing on the histories of risk assessments of pesticides such as DDT, atrazine, PFAS, and glyphosate, this article critically reviews Michel Serres's notion of “appropriation by contamination.”

Open access

Toxic Research

Political Ecologies and the Matter of Damage

Noah Theriault and Simi Kang

Abstract

In a world saturated by toxic substances, the plight of exposed populations has figured prominently in a transdisciplinary body of work that we call political ecologies of toxics. This has, in turn, sparked concerns about the unintended consequences of what Eve Tuck calls “damage-centered research,” which can magnify the very harms it seeks to mitigate. Here, we examine what political ecologists have done to address these concerns. Beginning with work that links toxic harm to broader forces of dispossession and violence, we turn next to reckonings with the queerness, generativity, and even protectiveness of toxics. Together, these studies reveal how the fetishization of purity obscures complex forms of toxic entanglement, stigmatizes “polluted” bodies, and can thereby do as much harm as toxics themselves. We conclude by showing, in dialog with Tuck, how a range of collaborative methodologies (feminist, decolonial, Indigenous, and more-than-human) have advanced our understanding of toxic harm while repositioning research as a form of community-led collective action.

Open access

Toxic Sensorium

Agrochemicals in the African Anthropocene

Serena Stein and Jessie Luna

Abstract

Pesticides and toxicity are constitutive features of modernization in Africa, despite ongoing portrayals of the continent as “too poor to pollute.” This article examines social science scholarship on agricultural pesticide expansion in Sub-Saharan Africa. We recount the rise of agrochemical usage in colonial projects that placed African smallholder farmers at the forefront of toxic vulnerability. We then outline prevalent literature on “knowledge deficits” and unsafe farmer practices as approaches that can downplay deeper structures. Missing in this literature, we argue, are the embodied and sensory experiences of African farmers as they become pesticide users, even amid an awareness of toxicity. Drawing on ethnographic research in Mozambique and Burkina Faso, we explore how the “toxic sensorium” of using agrochemicals intersects with farmers’ projects of modern aspiration. This approach can help elucidate why and how differently situated farmers live with pesticides, thereby expanding existing literature on structural violence and knowledge gaps.

Open access

Toxic Waste and Race in Twenty-First Century America

Neighborhood Poverty and Racial Composition in the Siting of Hazardous Waste Facilities

Michael Mascarenhas, Ryken Grattet, and Kathleen Mege

Abstract

In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice released its groundbreaking study, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States. The report found race to be the most significant predictor of where hazardous waste facilities were located in the United States. We review this and other studies of environmental racism in an effort to explain the relationship between race and the proximity to hazardous waste facilities. More recent research provides some evidence that the effect is causal, where polluting industries follow the path of least resistance. To date, the published work using Census data ends in 2000, which neglects the period when economic and political changes may have worsened the relationship between race and toxic exposure. Thus, we replicate findings using data from 2010 to show that racial disparities remain persistent in 2010. We conclude with a call for further research on how race and siting have changed during the 2010s.

Restricted access

Contact with Nature as Essential to the Human Experience

Reflections on Pandemic Confinement

Alan E. Kazdin and Pablo Vidal-González

Abstract

Human contact with nature is more important than ever before considering the global confinement brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the increased urbanization of society, and increased rates of mental disorders and threats to human well-being. This article conveys the importance of contact with nature from three perspectives: historical, sociocultural, and scientific. These perspectives convey the many ways in which contact with nature is essential to human life, the multiple ways in which this is expressed, and the broad range of benefits this has. The case for preserving the natural environment continues to be made in light of the dangers of climate change, the deleterious effects of pollution, and the importance of habitats. We add to the case by underscoring how human well-being has depended on contact with natural environments and how the need for this contact is more salient now than ever before.

Restricted access

Ștefan Dorondel, Stelu Şerban, and Marian Tudor

Abstract

This article tells the story of possibly the first ecological restoration project in the postsocialist world (1994), which is an example of a broader set of ecological restorations carried out in Eastern Europe. By exploring the two intertwined processes of the ecological restoration of an island in the Danube Delta and the advancement of neoliberal economic ideas through land reform, decollectivization, and land privatization, we contribute to the understanding of ecological restoration in societies in turmoil. We engage a social sciences perspective in order to show the entanglement between ecological restoration processes and institutions, political arrangements, and various forms of land tenure. This theoretical perspective also shows a model all too often present in ecological restoration projects: a proclivity for adopting a neoliberal approach toward administrating natural resources at the expense of local ecological knowledge and the local administration of natural resources.

Restricted access

Narratives of Socioecological Transition

The Case of the Transition Network in Portugal

Vera Ferreira and António Carvalho

Abstract

This article explores narratives and characteristics of sociological transitions displayed by members of the Transition Network (TN) in Portugal. It is informed by scholarly work on grassroots innovations, sociological transition narratives, and environmental engagement in Portugal. It furthers this research in three ways: (1) it analyzes an original case study—the Portuguese TN; (2) it identifies and defines the various socioecological narratives conveyed by its participants; and (3) it interprets the TN's sociopolitical appeal as a grassroots innovation in the context of environmental mobilization in Portugal. Drawing on 20 semistructured interviews with current and former members of the Portuguese TN, three narratives of sociological transition were identified—utopianism, inevitability, and pessimism—as well as seven characteristics that motivated interviewees’ engagement with the TN.

Restricted access

Sustainability Metamorphosis

An Inconvenient Change

Erland Mårald and Janina Priebe

Abstract

The institutionalization of sustainability agendas on the local and global levels has largely failed to deliver the promised change. In this essay, we develop the idea of sustainability metamorphosis as a way to break with the pathological paradigm of sustainable development that weakens society's capacity to transform in the face of global crises. Sustainability metamorphosis, in our understanding, draws on the Bakthian perspective of carnivalization and dialogical truth. In this sense, sustainability metamorphosis is an outlook on change in society and a source of strategies for long-term societal change. Our understanding of metamorphosis is inspired by the historical and literary understandings that saw ungraspable forces, acting upon both inner and outer worlds, and suspended hierarchies as the sources of necessary but inconvenient change.