Chemical Colonialism: Environmental justice and industrial epidemics

I’ve got a new blog in the Environment & Society blog loosely connected to my 2021 paper in their journal.

It builds on my interest in environmental history, particularly having read Fabian Scheidler’s The Age of the Megamachine. “Before colonizing the world, Europe itself had been brutally colonized,” Scheidler writes.

I focus on phosphate mining on the island of Nauru, and how this unnecessary practice emerged from a break in the biological circular economy, what Marx called “the metabolic rift.”

Environment & Society do a real service to the academic and public communities, and it’s always a pleasure to work with them. Their articles and content is exactly the sort of research that needs to be done to connect history, community agency, environmental acknowledgement, and policy change.

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.

Stanford Talk on Industrial Epidemics

Today I gave a talk at the Stanford History of Science and Technology Workshop on Industrial Epidemics. It was a pleasure to discuss the ins and outs of public health, corporate malfeasance, and glyphosate in particular with the students and professorate of the History of Science and Technology Program. Especially rich were the insights of Robert Proctor, the coiner of the term agnotology, who has been a great inspiration for my own work.

Here’s the Abstract:

Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) have turned out to be quite communicable; the disease vector isn’t some virus or pest, but instead the very bulwark of industrial civilization. While NCDs have always been with us as a species, their normalcy and multiplication is novel. The very system of corporate science, muscle, and capital that helped eradicate harrowing infectious diseases that threatened generations in the 20th century have left in their wake a new epidemic of chronic disease above and beyond background levels for the 21st century to clean up. The rise of chronic disease tracks directly with the rise in environmental exploitation and industrial pollutants. By virtue of epidemiology and randomized control trials, we know that certain classes of people (such as smokers, obese people, chemical manufacturing workers, farmers using pesticides) have inordinately more chronic disease than people without those exposures. Many people, especially as they age, incur multiple chronic diseases, causing them much suffering, and costing them and society extensive financial resources. Merrill Singer ( 2009, xiv) describes how syndemics represent “a set of enmeshed and mutually enhancing health problems that, working together in a context of noxious social and physical conditions, can significantly affect the overall disease burden and health status of a population.” Adopting the public health descriptor of epidemics associated with infectious disease for chronic disease conditions, framing the rise of chronic disease first in developed countries and now worldwide in terms of an epidemic caused by industrial processes, scrutinizes how corporate behavior socially determines the health of populations. This paper focuses on how these mechanisms have manifested in the agrochemical and petrochemical industries.

And my bio:

Yogi Hale Hendlin is an assistant professor in the Erasmus School of Philosophy and core faculty of the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, as well as a research associate in the Environmental Health Initiative at UCSF. Yogi has been working at the intersection of public health and environmental political philosophy for 15 years and has published in journals such as MMWR, BMJ, Ambio, PLoS Medicine, The American Journal of Public Health, Tobacco Control, Environmental Philosophy, Environmental Ethics, and the Annals of Internal Medicine. Yogi’s work has been taken up in popular media outlets such as Time, National Geographic, The Guardian, BMJ, CNN, Fox, Salon, Reuters, Gizmodo, Bloomberg, Nautilus, The Revelator, and Science Daily. Yogi is currently writing a monograph titled Industrial Epidemics: Chronic Disease and the Corporate Determinants of Health.

Science and Politics of Glyphosate Workshop June 6, 2019

My Erasmus University Rotterdam colleague Alessandra Arcuri and I are organizing a day-long workshop on the most used pesticide in the world: glyphosate. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, Monsanto’s flagship herbicide, has been linked with cancer by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015.

For more information, registration, and to submit a paper to present at the conference, please visit our website, at the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative.

IARC and EFSA’s differing views on glyphosate