The Chemical Anthropocene as Devolution

My recently published paper in Environment & Society “Surveying the Chemical Anthropocene: Chemical Imaginaries and the Politics of Defining Toxicity,” draws on Sheila Jasanoff’s notion of “sociotechnical imaginaries” to describe how chemicals become cultural artifacts as much as material ones. This means that the flows of toxic chemical exposures are not impartial to the fears of contamination of the powerful, nor to to the racist, classist, sexist, gendered, and xenophobic preexisting constructions which have legitimated systemic forms of discrimination. Those who can, remove themselves from the toxics gradient, those who cannot suffer what they must. But such inequalities structurally create ignorance, and an agnotological deconstruction of the methods of how industries prey on preexisting biases to circumvent public feedback and accountability is an oroborous of legitimized harm.

In the article, I deploy Michel Serres’s optic of “appropriation by contamination” to indicate the colonial aspects of toxic chemical manufacture and exposures. Contamination renders necrotic land, flesh, and other areas of materiality, so that they cannot be used for anything else except further contamination. According to Carolyn Merchant, Fabian Scheidler, and many others, such scorched earth chemical and mining practices have been occurring for many hundreds of years, first in Europe, and then in other areas of the world.

In accordance with the infamous World Bank memo by that rational racist Lawrence Summers, once Europe got rich enough and had kicked the pollution of industrialization into high enough gear that it was killing a high enough proportion of its upper and middle classes, it simply virtualized the pollution, not by actually cleaning up the chemical industry’s act, but by shipping it overseas. Thus this wave of chemical imperialism I describe, ends up first poisoning the capital centers, and then once they succeed in regulating such practices, these same industrial processes – unchanged – move overseas. The failure to learn any lessons from the human health harms, the inability to flinch and reflect, before outsourcing our pollution elsewhere, is part of chemical colonialism.

We live in the middle of a chemical soup, created by the ambitions of companies and governments locked in an arms race through the competition of markets and the zero-sum game of market share. There is a huge asymmetry between the testing of chemicals and the invention and deployment of chemicals. Less than one percent of all chemicals produced in 25,000 pounds or more per year in the United States have been fully tested by the EPA’s Chemical Review Program (Krimsky 2017). Yet institutions and companies are under tremendous pressure to roll out new chemicals every year, at an ever increasing harried pace, as part of the Verschlimmbessernpolitik of ‘solutionism‘. Furthermore, 40% of chemical (including pharmaceutical) regulator income comes from the companies themselves, so bureaucrats have a vested interest in keeping the chemical treadmill running and not falling afoul of the cancer-causing gravy boat.

In the conclusion, I discuss that until we get focused on biomaterials, and get away from extracts and synthetics, chemical reduction in our lives or #chemicaldegrowth is necessary. But I don’t shy away from the obvious fact that this means that we can’t have all the nice cheap stuff we have. We need phones and computers that last for 20 years with tiny little pieces we switch out (what the FairPhone and Framework try to do, but better). We need robustness standards on all of our electronics, we need a maintenance culture, rather than an innovation culture. Just like the Manifesto for Maintenance Art, it is the culture of maintenance, or of care, that our epoch requires. In an essence, this is a move away from the macho idea that I am stronger than the chemicals I’m exposed to (or like a good Social Darwinist I deserve to die if I’m not), to honoring and listening attentive to those with chemical sensitivities as the canaries in the coalmine we’re making of the planet. Instead of ridiculing and gaslighting those who have more refined and deeper sensing abilities than the average chemically-intoxicated person, responsibilizing their problems, we should see that we perhaps have just been dulled down too much already through contamination to realize what’s going on.

They say that our capacity for change is inversely proportional with our sadistic willingness to suffer. Maybe it’s time to realize that sacrificing ourselves before the captains of industry to keep the cogs running has diminishing returns, and that the time has come to inventory, reduce stock, and close down shop of the most toxic businesses despoiling biology’s unique promise of intelligence and agency.