Literature on petroleum and its toxicities understands both as simultaneously social and ecological. Beginning with scholarship on petroleum and its toxicity that captures that simultaneity and mutual constitution, this review defines petrotoxicity as the socioecological toxicity inherent in petroleum commodification. The term signals that petroleum’s social and ecological toxicities are not merely related, but always/already interdependent and inherent in petroleum commodification. Thinking about petrotoxicity this way frames it as something similar to repressive and ideological apparatuses. Althusserian apparatuses shape subjects and spaces in violent and bureaucratic ways. Generating and resisting petrotoxic apparatuses are consistent themes of literature on petrotoxicity. Thinking with Stuart Hall’s critique of Louis Althusser, this review concludes by highlighting scholarship showing the limits of this popular framing of power, ecology, and intervention vis-à-vis petroleum. Long-term fieldwork in North Dakota’s Bakken region informs this article at various points.
Néstor L. Silva
Natalie Bump Vena, Paige Dawson, Thomas De Pree, Sarah Hitchner, George Holmes, Sudarshan R Kottai, Daniel J Murphy, Susan Paulson, Victoria C. Ramenzoni, and Kathleen Smythe
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Middleton Manning, Beth Rose. 2018. Upstream: Trust Lands and Power on the Feather River. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. 244 pp. ISBN 978-0-8165-3514-9.
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Alongside the melting of glaciers, human bodies warn of another petrochemically driven planetary crisis. Much as climate science ignored the early warning observations of Indigenous peoples, the medical establishment has oft en dismissed the canaries struggling to survive in the mineshaft of modernity. In an aleatory Anthropocene, we know not for whom the toxicity will toll. While case studies of environmental justice remain essential, the privileged must also be jolted into understanding their own ontological precariousness (i.e., vulnerability) from toxicants pervasive in everyday life. Moving beyond “citizen science” with inspiration from feminist ethics of care and relational Indigenous epistemologies, I make a case for the extrasensory value of “canary science.” If managerial “risk” was the keyword of the profiteering twentieth century, a sense of shared vulnerability in the coronavirus era could help usher in the transitions needed for survival in this polluted world.
The Biopolitical Science of Toxicity
This article reviews interdisciplinary toxicity literature, building from Gerald E. Markowitz and David Rosner’s “deceit and denial” and Phil Brown’s “contested illnesses” to argue for a third, more critical analytic that I term “empire and empirics.” Deceit and denial pit corporate actors against antitoxins advocates, while contested illnesses highlight social movements. Empire and empirics center the role of imperialism in reproducing today’s unevenly distributed toxic exposures. I find this third path the most generative because the products and the production of science—toxicants and toxicology—are situated in their sociohistorical, politico-economic, ecological, and affective contexts. Revealing the imperialist logics embedded into dominant ontoepistemology also illuminates alternative, liberatory pathways toward more environmentally just futures. I close with examples of “undisciplined” action research, highlighting scholar-practitioners who study toxicity with care and in nonhierarchical collaboration. While undisciplining is challenging, its potential for realizing environmental justice far outweighs the difficulties of doing science differently.
Brittany Kiessling and Keely Maxwell
Our article analyzes interdisciplinary literature within the social sciences on outcomes of environmental cleanups at Superfund, brownfield, and other contaminated sites. By focusing on postremediation sites and outcomes, we expand the understanding of the sociopolitical life of contaminated sites over time. First, we examine the technoscientific practices of how scientists and environmental managers seek to make cleanup outcomes legible and meaningful. Next, we engage with a wider array of literature on pollution/toxicity, uncovering circular temporalities in cleanup processes along with continuities in pollution/toxicity and in political struggle. Finally, we examine the social worlds of postremediation landscapes, drawing attention to how cleanups create new relationships among people, history, and nature. In conclusion, we identify areas of opportunity for these insights to inform the conceptualization and evaluation of cleanup outcomes in ways that better incorporate the complex dynamics of postremediation social worlds.
Ethnography and Environmental Justice
Grant M. Gutierrez, Dana E. Powell, and T. L. Pendergrast
This article reviews ethnographic literature of environmental justice (EJ). Both a social movement and scholarship, EJ is a crucial domain for examining the intersections of environment, well-being, and social power, and yet has largely been dominated by quantitative and legal analyses. A minority literature in comparison, ethnography attends to other valences of injustice and modes of inequality. Through this review, we argue that ethnographies of EJ forward our understanding of how environmental vulnerability is lived, as communities experience and confront toxic environments. Following a genealogy of EJ, we explore three prominent ethnographic thematics of EJ: the production of vulnerability through embodied toxicity; the ways that injustice becomes embedded in landscapes; and how processes like research collaborations and legal interventions become places of thinking and doing the work of justice. Finally, we identify emergent trends and challenges, suggesting future research directions for ethnographic consideration.
Pollution and Toxicity: Cultivating Ecological Practices for Troubled Times
Josh Fisher, Mary Mostafanezhad, Alex Nading, and Sarah Marie Wiebe
Plastic bags ride the currents of the Pacific Ocean and collect in the Mariana Trench; stockpiles of nuclear waste are pumped deep into Earth’s outer crust; smoke and smog (a fusion of particulate matter and ozone) settle in above sprawling urban colonies, slowly killing their denizens; spent oxygen canisters join “forever chemicals” on the snows of Everest; and billions of pieces of space debris endlessly fall in Low Earth Orbit, just beyond a thin and rapidly changing breathable atmosphere. So goes the narrative of the Anthropocene, a purportedly new geological epoch demarcated by the planetary effects of human activity.
The symbolic anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966) understood pollution as “matter out of place,” a kind of disorder that necessarily prompts efforts to “organize” the environment. Anthropologists, geographers, and other social scientists have since pushed the conversation forward by inquiring into the materiality of pollution, the toxicity that manifests in situated encounters between bodies and environments, and the co-production of pollution/toxicity— two sides of the same coin, one overflowing boundaries and the other seeping in—through those extended networks of physicochemical, organic, and sociocultural life that constitute local and global political ecologies.
This issue of Environment and Society explores current thinking about pollution and toxicity at the intersection of political ecology, symbolic anthropology, and science and technology studies. The articles address a broad range of scholarly perspectives, theoretical alliances, and methodological and epistemological approaches. They collectively contribute to historical and contemporary framings of pollution and toxicity and to new understandings of their discursive and material co-production, and they outline the stakes of such an analysis for diverse communities of human and nonhuman beings. Authors in this issue address entangled themes such as the materiality of pollution/toxicity, how it is smelled, tasted, felt, experienced, embodied, or symbolized, both in moments of crisis and in daily life. Articles also home in on how and by whom the impacts—material, sociocultural, political, ethical, etc.—of pollution/toxicity are measured or otherwise accounted for technoscientifically, socioculturally, and historically. These accountings mediate governance mechanisms through policies, infrastructures, and ordinary acts of care and containment (sweeping, cleaning, planting, repairing). Finally, authors consider how pollution/toxicity reshapes sociopolitical life.
Exploring Orbital Debris through Geographical Imaginations
Hannah Hunter and Elizabeth Nelson
Increasing human activity in orbital space has resulted in copious material externalities known as “orbital debris.” These objects threaten the orbital operations of hegemonic stakeholders including states, corporations, and scientists, for whom debris present a significant problem. We argue that the geographical imaginations of powerful stakeholders shape conceptions of orbital debris and limit engagement with these objects. By engaging with interdisciplinary literature that considers orbital debris and geographical imaginations of outer space, we encourage a more capacious approach to orbital debris that goes beyond hegemonic narratives focused on functionality. We explore the connections between debris and injustice, arguing that these objects must also be considered in relation to terrestrial power and ecology. We then contemplate the possibilities that counter-hegemonic framings present when considering speculative futures of orbital space. In these ways, we explore how and why debris are variously engaged with as pollutants, risks, opportunities, or otherwise.
Emerging Contributions in Ethnographic Research
Alexa S. Dietrich
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.
PFAS Pollution Legacies and Toxic Events
Daniel Renfrew and Thomas W. Pearson
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 off er 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.