Barry Commoner & the Production vs. Consumption Conundrum

Barry Commoner turns 95 today. In 2007, I had occasion to visit him in New York and give a short talk at a large celebration in recognition of his 90th birthday. He’s still actively writing and the last I heard he remains in good health and good form. And his career and writings remain just as relevant to the contemporary environmental discussion. That is to say, Commoner is not simply a key historical figure in environmentalism; I maintain that he is still one of the clearest and most important voices in the continuing struggle for social and ecological justice and sustainability.

Recently, I was asked by a student about consumer power in addressing environmental problems—and whether consumer trends couldn’t sway corporate powers to be more ecologically sensitive. My answer is typically “only to a point,” before I talk about how production methods are the primary drivers here. This morning, I came across the following (older) excerpt from Commoner on the power of consumers. Talking off the cuff during a Q&A at a 1988 meeting sponsored by the EPA, I thought Commoner nailed it:

The reason we’re in trouble with automobile pollution is big cars. As Henry Ford said, “Mini cars make mini profits.” The reason Detroit went to big cars is not that people wanted them — until they were told. It was because big cars were more profitable.

Still, the issue always comes up: Isn’t it up to us? Isn’t it our fault that we buy the big cars, for instance? Well, no it isn’t.

Let me give you my favorite example of why the consumer is not really to blame in most cases. I wear size 12 socks. That’s an intimate fact I will share with you. Not long ago, I went into a well-known New York department store and asked for a pair of size 12. They said, Oh, that’s a special order. But over there you can get size 10-to-I3.”

Today it is very hard to get sized socks. Is this because of consumer demand? Do you know anyone who went into a store and said: “Listen, my feet change size every week. I need a variable-size sock?”

That is not why it was done. It was done to reduce inventories and maximize profits.

I’ll give you a less facetious example. You go to the store to buy a refrigerator. You and the storekeeper have no idea how the thing was delivered from the factory. It could have come by railroad or truck. If it comes by truck, it causes four times as much pollution as if it came by railroad, because the fuel efficiency is four times lower. But what am I going to do, go into the store and say, “Listen, I’m an ecologist. I must have a refrigerator delivered by railroad”?

My response to that kind of situation, and I tend to be somewhat practical, is to get into politics. You have to rebuild the railroads, and you’re not going to do that by saying: “Oh, well, we should not buy these silly refrigerators.”

Certainly there are consumer efforts that are important. For example, I think the plastics industry is going to go into conniptions soon over growing consumer rejection of plastics, and I think that’s fine. But let me tell you, you’re not going to get the petrochemical industry the Dows and Monsantos, to roll over the way McDonald’s did, because Dow and Monsanto don’t sell directly to the public. There are no fast-plastic-selling joints.

So there you are. I tend to see the issue as social, economic, and political. I simply refuse to blame us consumers. Mind you, I have a sort , of religious preference for natural fibers over plastic ones, but that’s about as far as I go.


Happy birthday, Barry!

Stockholm, 1972



We are rapidly closing in on the 40th anniversary of the landmark UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm between June 5 and 16, 1972. 40 years ago today, though, Maurice Strong, the conference’s Secretary-General, was in Toronto addressing the University of Toronto’s graduating class. His convocation speech was “The Hope of a Human Environment,” and it reflected on the environmental future facing the young graduands, as well as Strong’s own experiences in planning for the Stockholm conference.

In the past year and a half it has been my privilege to have access to the knowledge and insights provided by most of the world’s governments and international organizations as well as by a broad cross section of the world’s scientific and intellectual community in preparation for the UNCHE that will open in Stockholm just 10 days from now.

Their contributions must surely constitute the most comprehensive review of man’s present conditions and future prospects that has ever been assembled.

(Maurice F. Strong papers, Box 29, Folder 296)

A few thoughts. First, Strong’s access to the most focused discussions on the global environmental predicament in human history was second-to-none. He was a key facilitator and organizer in this movement—and the importance of the Stockholm conference should not be overlooked. Second, this perspective of one of the most critical “moments” in the history of addressing environmental decline is of vital importance. There’s something very moving—well beyond Strong’s own participation or perspective—of the earnestness and expanse of the preparations surrounding the Stockholm conference and the subsequent aftermath. There is no doubt that the various meetings and events that Strong convened and attended constituted “the most comprehensive review” of the state of the environment at the time and plans for moving forward.

I’ve mentioned before that Strong is a fascinating and enigmatic figure in the history of global environmentalism. At the same time, he was remarkably well-situated and well-prepared for managing the divergent perspectives that characterized the collective movement for environmental protection in the early 1970s. If any singular person typifies or represents the ideals of contemporary sustainability—and its adherence to compromise, dialogue, and the attempt to reconcile the incommensurable priorities expressed by community, corporate, indigenous, and scientific leaders—Strong must be a strong candidate.

Soviet Sustainability

Quite frequently, our analysis of environmental issues and their history concentrates on social and ecological protection in the face of liberal capitalism. As if that were the only system to cause the need for (or confront) sustainability. In a fascinating essay on the foibles of sustainable development in The Wealth of Nature, Donald Worster notes that “the sustainability ideal rests on an uncritical, unexamined acceptance of the traditional world-view of progressive, secular materialism.” Real environmental salvation is attainable without having to forego the amenities that are so environmentally costly to produce. This is a serious problem that requires further investigation, but I’m especially interested in a side issue that relates to the monolithic nature of the western, capitalist environmental cause.

At the 24th Soviet Communist Party Congress in March 1971 (in the build-up to the UN Stockholm conference), Leonid Brezhnev offered an intriguing (if somewhat vague) articulation of the Soviet awareness of the global environmental crisis:

Our country is prepared to participate together with the other states concerned in settling problems like the conservation of the environment, development of power and other natural resources, development of transport and communications, prevention and eradication of the most dangerous and widespread diseases, and the exploration and development of outer space and the world ocean.

The above was quoted in the March 31, 1971 issue of The New York Times (p. 14). There’s a lot to interpret here, not least whether his reference to “other states concerned” is simply “the rest of the world,” or a more loaded criticism of “some other states.” And an interesting reference to the development of outer space as part of a larger environmental/sustainability initiative, though it suggests a rather important connection between science, technology, economy, and nature. Further, Brezhnev’s excerpted quotation above also seems to situate the Soviet Union’s environmental concerns very much in the same spirit as the developing world’s, wherein economic development remained as central (and likely more so) as environmental protection.

A growing literature to draw on to explore this further from Douglas Weiner, Paul Josephson, Loren Graham, and others…

Before Sustainable Development

Sustainable development is closely tied—in global environmental governance circles—to the 1987 Brundtland Commission’s report, Our Common Future; its definition

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

stands as the pivotal interpretation of how 21st-century economists, politicians, and citizens have come to think about the relationship between sustainability and development. Our Common Future is a remarkable document and one that deserves and requires special consideration, especially for its emphasis on social equity and its relationship to ecological prudence. I think historians tend to overlook the text’s significance and, indeed, the discussion therein. In short, the report has been synthesized and reduced to the definition above. Which is a great shame, because the report is far more sophisticated and complex. And much less sympathetic to the kind of globalizing economic growth that has come to typify this approach.

Maurice Strong, circa 1972

Instead of concentrating here on that oversight (a topic for another blog perhaps), I recently went back over some old archival notes from a trip I made in August 2010 to Harvard University’s Environmental Science and Public Policy Archives to investigate the papers of Maurice Strong. Strong was a Canadian entrepreneur and former under-secretary of the United Nations when he became one of the organizers and catalysts for the landmark United Nations Conference on Humans and the Environment (UNCHE), which took place in Stockholm in June 1972. He’s an interesting and little studied figure in environmental history, while at the same time playing one of the most critical roles as one of the most critical moments in global environmental history.

In his papers, I found some interesting attempts to define “eco-development” dating from the 1970s. Given that the Brundtland Commission is frequently credited with coining the term “sustainable development,” it’s not unreasonable to think of eco-development as its predecessor, especially in to the importance of social equality. In preparation for Founex II, a meeting of a panel of experts on development and environment, which met in Geneva in May 1974 (the first Founex meeting occurred in June 1971—also in Geneva—a year ahead of the UNCHE in Stockholm), Strong and others identified the themes for a working discussion of eco-development. Shelter, nutrition, education, health, and integrated rural development were central themes. Nowhere is there mention of first-world economic intervention or, really, comment on eco-development in a developed-world context.

This is an important feature of the larger discussion of sustainable development, and worthy of a quick tangent or diversion. One of the enduring characteristics of preparations for the Stockholm conference was the tension evident between developed world interests and the concerns of the developing world. A number of accounts claim that the developing world’s worries about economic development and the radical emphasis on economy caught the conference and organizers by surprise, but the archival materials suggest otherwise.

With support from the government of the Netherlands, Strong organized a panel of experts to examine how best to put emphasis on the relationship between development and the environment (held in Geneva in 1971, more than a year ahead of the Conference, this was the first Founex meeting). The seminar itself is worthy of some attention from historians; it serves as a veritable and international who’s who of development experts convening on pressing social, economic, and environmental issues. In addition to Strong, and his co-organizers Barbara Ward, Mahbub ul Haq, and Gamani Corea, the list of attendees included Ignacy Sachs, Samir Amin, Enrique Iglesias, Felipe Herrera, William Kapp, Miguel Ozorio de Almeida, Pitambar Pant, Jan Tinbergen, and Shigeto Tsuru. A report of the meeting was subsequently written that explicitly understood the global inequalities that served to bifurcate and divide global interests on environmental protection and economic development. The report included another important olive branch to the developing world and also a clear indication of the road ahead. “If the concern for human environment reinforces the commitment to development,” it claimed, “it must also reinforce the commitment to international aid.”

After the meeting, Strong’s letter of thanks to its participants stressed again the central place of development within the preparatory committee’s plans:

In my view, the report [of the meeting] makes a strong and intellectually sound case for the importance of the environmental issues to the developing countries and the necessity of dealing with it in the context of their development needs and priorities. Thus it will help to clarify many of the narrower views of the environmental issue held in both the industrialized and developing countries. It will also help in a very significant way to assure that developing country concerns are given the fullest possible attention at Stockholm.

(Strong to Participants, 27 July 1971; Maurice F. Strong papers, Box 37, Folder 371).

Back to eco-development. With these conscious recognitions that environment and development needed to be understood in tandem, especially in order to encourage the developing world that environmental protection was as critical to long-term economic wellbeing as rapid industrialization, Strong and others worked to determine what they meant by eco-development. In June 1973, Strong offered the following:

An approach designed to support the efforts of these people (living in villages and other rural settlements) to better understand and utilize in their own development the basic natural resources and human skills available in their own environment.

(Maurice F. Strong papers, Box 37, Folder 372).

Ignacy Sachs

There’s something almost anti-globalization about this, in spite of the fact that these definitions are contrived in response to a global ecological crisis. Not much later (1977), Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment championed the semi-development of the developing world and the de-development of over-industrialized countries. Spurred somewhat (it seems to me) by a presentation from the French economist Ignacy Sachs at a second Founex meeting in early May 1974, and whose comments were subsequently published at the end of the month as “Environment and Styles of Development” in Economic & Political Weekly, an undated memo from V. Sanchez, the director of the Division of Economic and Social Programmes, to staff members in the UNEP Bureau offered a working definition of eco-development:

Ecodevelopment is an approach to development of a given eco-system or locality which harmonizes economic and ecological factors to assure best use of both the human and natural resources of the region to best meet the needs and aspirations of the people on a sustainable basis. It denotes a creative and planned community effort to develop patterns of life, institutions, and techniques which give fullest possible expression to its distinctive cultural and social values and goals and enhance the quality of life of individual people and the community as a whole.

(Maurice F. Strong papers, in box 37, folder 370; In 1974, Strong was the director of UNEP).

It’s interesting to compare this second definition in relation to Strong’s effort from a year earlier. While the spirit remains fairly consistent, the notion seems far more sophisticated. Things of note. First I’m interested that eco-development is a feature of the eco-system, not a product of peoples or resources. This is an interesting, place-based interpretation, which clearly stresses the importance of a place’s carrying capacity. Second, I’m a bit disappointed with the vagueness of the timeline associated with meeting the peoples’ needs and aspirations on a sustainable basis. This is one of the enduring problems with “sustainability” is that its offers no effective measure of time. Finally, and most importantly, there is a careful and measured recognition that local interests, knowledges, and priorities should be central.

In short, while “sustainable development” clearly seems to be a product of 1980s environmental thinking and rhetoric, development emerged as a central catalyst of 1970s global environmental governance, as a means of ensuring that all countries came to the table and participated in trying to realize a greener future. The compromise, I would argue, hasn’t been as successful as the intentions of its original authors would have liked (and it’s interesting to link global ideas about development with the consumer-first models of energy and resource consumption in the North American 1970s).

The above is interesting to me in relation to its place in a larger history of sustainability. My summer project involves finishing a manuscript that consists of a short history of sustainability. The final chapter, “The Earthians’ Last Chance,” the title of which is a play on a New York Times op-ed piece written by Buckminster Fuller, follows the history of global governance of environmental problems, roughly from World War II forward. In this chapter, I’m primarily interested with the various international conventions—on whaling, hazardous materials, biodiversity, etc.—and the manner in which the United Nations Environment Programme served as a clearinghouse for international environmental politics and debate. A future post will explore the decision to situate the UNEP offices in Nairobi.

How A Bicycle is Made

I am the recent recipient of McMaster’s 2012 Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award. It’s a nice sum of money to develop research in tandem with undergraduate teaching. My proposal was geared towards tinkering with my newfound research interest in bicycles, and especially investigating what an environmental history of the bicycle would look like. I have yet to properly frame the project, but I’m excited about its potential, and will write about in more detail in due course. One of the other benefits, however, has been the number of obscure online materials friends and colleagues have sent my way. Yesterday, I received this incredible video from Wyatt Galusky:

This is a 1945 offering from the British Film Council. The date strikes me as fairly significant. Raleigh’s history is also rather interesting. The company began operations in the late nineteenth century, and shortly after World War II, they began to develop lighter and sportier road frames (note the discussion of steel strength and weight in the video).

Mosquitoes & Spores

I’ve been thinking a lot about mosquitoes recently. I came home from a ride in early March to discover that one had bitten me just beside my temple and that seemed rather early in the year to be getting a mosquito bite. But, mainly, I’ve been reading about mosquitoes. In preparing my doctoral students for their major field readings, I was catching up with the reading  list, which included John McNeill’s Mosquito Empires. McNeill argues that malaria and yellow fever had a profound impact on preserving the dominance of the Spanish Empire; in effect, the mosquito was a chief ally of the Spanish during the mid-eighteenth century, by literally wiping out entire fleets of British invaders without a single shot being fired. “Strictly speaking,” McNeill states in his introduction, mosquito-borne diseases,

did not determine the outcome of struggles for power, but they governed the probabilities of success and failure in military expeditions and settlement schemes. It is perhaps a rude blow to the amour propre of our species to think that lowly mosquitoes and mindless viruses can shape our international affairs. But they can.

As an aside, just previously I was looking at Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts, a study of techno-politics in Egypt, which opens with the similarly provocative question: “Can Mosquitoes Speak?” The first chapter traces the malaria outbreak that ravaged Egypt in the early 1940s.

Keep in mind that there were really two invaders. In the summer of 1942, Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps entered Egypt from Lybia. The key moment was the battle at El-Alamein, where between 50,000 and 70,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. Meanwhile, Anopheles gambiae, a mosquito native to sub-Saharan Africa—unknown in Egypt—began descending down the Nile Valley from Sudan. This mosquito carried in its stomach a deadly form of the malaria parasite. With no local defenses or immunities, the parasite was lethal. Over the three years of the epidemic roughly 750,000 contracted malaria and between 100,000 and 200,000 died.

But there’s more to both stories than simply counting bodies (and I hope you will indulge me a little further). What allowed for the mosquito’s relative success in both the Caribbean and in Egypt was an intricate collection of environmental changes that humans (often unwittingly) set in motion.

Let’s concentrate on the Egyptian case study (Mitchell’s book might be less familiar to readers than McNeill’s, although I heartily endorse both). First, there was the damming of the Nile River. The original Aswan Dam was finished in 1902 (raised higher in 1933) and helped bring in a new era of large-scale engineering, which promised not just agricultural development and technical progress, but also for many post-colonial governments, dams represented an expression of the modern state as techno-economic power; they represented transformation and modernization on a massive scale. In India, for example, Jawaharlal Neru referred to dams as the temples of modern India. The Aswan Dam transformed the ecology of the river, by altering the distribution and timing of its flow, as well as the temperature and chemistry of the water. Further, in providing irrigation pools for mosquito larvae and in creating conditions that allowed for the invasion of aggressive plant species—such as pondweed—clumps of which the river’s current carried downstream, transporting mosquito larvae from one breeding area to the next much faster than the mosquito could spread independently, malaria moved northward at an alarming rate.

Even with the Aswan Dam, Egyptians were heavily dependent on fertilizers, especially ammonium nitrate, which came from Germany… until the war’s outbreak. Ammonium nitrate was also essential in explosives manufacturing, and the war both diverted resources for Germany’s war effort (strategically, the Germans likely saw little merit in selling military materiel to the enemy). A lack of fertilizer led to a depletion in Egypt’s wheat crop. Wheat and other crops dropped by 25%. With the population in many regions already weakened by famine and malnutrition, the number of people who succumbed to malaria climbed rapidly.

The war itself also—obviously—played an important role in both malaria’s spread and the death rates. Concentrating on the human invader, British authorities in Egypt downplayed the malaria epidemic, hoping to contain it. But their half-hearted efforts helped the gambiae mosquito to advance. And failure to treat it only compounded the problem. Mind you, this wasn’t strictly a British failing. Half a world away, the Japanese had cut off Java, resulting in a global quinine shortage. The war also expedited the movement of mosquitoes. The mosquito only has a range of two miles; to reach Egypt, it needed vectors of its own. The dam helped, but the Germans already had control of the Mediterranean Sea, so the British supply route to Egypt consisted of reaching Cairo by plane from West Africa and Sudan; it’s entirely conceivable that Anopheles gambiae hitched a ride on the British supply train, enabling its successful spread throughout Egypt.

The above is a light and simple thumbnail sketch of the causes for malaria’s spread throughout Egypt in the 1940s. Many other factors contributed and the story is much more complicated, but McNeill and Mitchell offer an interesting entry into environmental history. Malaria, for example, spreads using mosquito as a vector. But the relationship requires the input of several human and nonhuman actors. As the two examples above suggest, a series of human and nonhuman environmental changes coincided to spread malaria.

This has parallel interests to another project I’m spitballing at the moment. Not quite the same, but I’m developing a growing interest in fungi and their impact on modern agriculture. I submit that fungi constitute one of the most overlooked-but-critical features of environmental history in the modern era. Akin to the mosquito discussion above, fungi have benefited from the technological innovations and economic imperatives of the modern era; their spread and the efforts to control them have had a transformative effect on the modern world.

Where does an interest in fungi come from? My work on mercury is focusing primarily on responses to the discovery of mercury in the physical environment (and the concomitant health crises that erupted); the obvious question I’ve been asked a few times—and which falls outside the scope of project—is where did the mercury come from in the first place? One of those sources is mercury-based fungicides and their place in the industrialization of agriculture at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In response to a recent call for papers, I submitted a proposal for a rather intriguing edited volume on agriculture and the life sciences (my paper was accepted, and I have to supply a clean draft in January 2013). Adopting the working title “From the New Botany to Chemical Control: Mycology, Fungicides, and Environment in Scientific Agriculture, 1885-1915,” I want to explore the crossroads at which fungi, science, agriculture, and environment meet. Here’s what I wrote:

Nature abhors a monoculture almost as much as it abhors a vacuum. In response to single crop farming practices—the template of colonial and industrial agriculture—nature has responded by increasing the conditions for crops’ susceptibility to pathogens. In this capacity, fungi have played a pivotal role in shaping the modern world. And while an array of rusts, smuts, blights, blasts, and bunts are recognized as prominent agents in transforming agricultural fortunes on regional and even global scales, the history of mycology and its place in a larger history of agricultural science is frequently overlooked.

This paper examines the global exchange between mycologists, plant pathologists, chemists, agricultural engineers, and industry in the discovery, laboratory and field testing, and commercial application of chemicals designed to stem the tide of fungal epidemics in food and cash crops in the thirty years straddling the turn of the last century. Influenced, certainly, by the aftermath of the 1840s potato blight and subsequent outbreaks of fungal disease among colonial plantation cash crops, it traces developments in mycological understanding (and importance) and overlays a concomitant expansion of chemical fungicides, from early sulphur and copper mixtures to the industrial production of organo-mercurials just before World War I. It engages these narrative threads by asking the deceptively simple question: what did scientists and farmers learn and what were they seeking to learn? In so doing the paper works to identify the relationship and tensions between the new botany, which clearly promoted mycology as a professional discipline; the chemistry that evolved to arrest fungal outbreaks in fields and plantations all over the world; and the market that stressed the sanctity of western agricultural practices (monoculturing) in the face of nature’s warnings.

Already, I’m conscious of the impossibility of the task I have set out for myself. This is likely a large book project, not a simple article-length piece. But I’m especially intrigued in the relationship between the development of mycological knowledge during the 19th century—and influenced by the new botany—and the rise of chemical control of fungi, and I welcome the opportunity to dip into something a little different. There seem to be competing narratives between the development of biological knowledge on the one hand and chemical knowledge on the other. And how one of these narratives stresses faith in human ingenuity and its capacity to control nature and defy its preordained limits, while the other suggests a more tentative relationship with the physical environment.

As blog posts go, this one is rather incomplete or unsatisfactory. It needs further discussion—and substantiation—of the relationship between mosquitoes and spores as themes in environmental history. I aim to develop this further over the next few months.

Historiographic Mash-Up

Previously, I wrote about the hybrid or interdisciplinary interstice in which my work rests. One of the exciting features of such an in-between area of focus is the freedom to read eclectically across a number of different fields. Here’s a very brief overview of some of the literature that is influencing my approach to the mercury project. Not present is the larger theoretical discussion—and associated literature—behind the politics of post-normal science and interdisciplinarity, discussed elsewhere.

Because my project functions at the intersections of environmental history, the history of science, and policy studies, it is indebted to an interdisciplinary and eclectic body of scholarly literature. The emergence of world environmental history suggests an important intellectual home for my work. John McNeill, Alfred W. Crosby, J. Donald Hughes, Clive Ponting, Richard H. Grove, and John Richards have each examined environmental history, putting particular emphasis on the idea that nature transcends national boundaries and paying careful attention to comparative transfers of materials and ideas across time and place. Further, Alf Hornborg has challenged historians to make distinctions and draw correlations between the social “world system” and the environmental “earth system,” in global historical contexts. But while these works have typically sought to survey the role of nature in world history or within the framework of a specific time period, the new trend—in which I see my project—is interested in tracing the place of a discrete piece of nature through world history. Popular accounts of cod and spice in world history provide popular examples of this trend, while scholars in environmental history are engaged in similar studies on quinine and the coffee rust virus. In exploring a single pollutant and the scientific and regulatory efforts to control that pollutant, I see my project as contributing to a world environmental history from mercury’s point of view.

Understanding mercury’s role in my account also demands that I put environmental history and the history of science in conversation with each other.  Strangely, the overlap between these two fields is limited to histories of ecology and—from the environmental history perspective—criticisms of the ecologically destructive nature of western science and technology. Peter Bowler’s methodical evaluation of the environmental sciences and their evolution is a solid example of important work that has been more roundly adopted by historians of science interested in the history of the expansion of ecological knowledge. Stephen Bocking’s discussion of professional ecology and ecologists provides a template for discussing ecology as both a scientific discipline and a political tool. New work on toxicological studies also offers a bridge between the two historical fields. Christopher Sellers, Gerald Markowitz, and David Rosner have discussed the relationship between toxicology and occupational health and safety as environmental issues. Underpinning my entire discussion of the science and regulation of mercury pollution is the specter of its threat to human health and how this is a critical step in what Sverker Sörlin calls “environing,” the expansion of social environmental awareness.

Addressing the relationship between science, environment, and policy might sensibly be divided into two spheres, one examining the sociology of scientific knowledge—which seeks to illuminate both the structure of scientific disciplines and scientific knowledge more generally—and the other exploring scholarship on international environmental policy. A number of studies have analyzed the “birth” of new scientific disciplines and the manner in which knowledge is manufactured and accepted. The prevailing theme here, championed by Robert Kohler, Harrison Echols, and others is that the development of new sciences is a fundamentally social undertaking. Perhaps the most significant work in this vein is Jan Golinski’s, which highlights scientific knowledge as a product of human culture. At the nexus of scientific knowledge and environmental policy, Chandra Mukerji takes this argument even further, by suggesting a complex interdependence between scientists and the state, in which scientists provide the state not with knowledge but rather legitimacy in return for financial support. From the perspective of policy studies, Sheila Jasanoff’s work follows modern political cultures and their struggles to control scientific knowledge in the public interest, while she and Sylvia Noble Tesh consider the social dynamics of scientists in the public and political arena.  Another important policy avenue involves the study of the chemical regime, writ large.  Jennifer Clapp and Henrik Selin provide valuable guidance in the politics of chemicals, their motility, and their disposal in international treaties, while Elizabeth DeSombre and others critique the dynamics of global environmental governance.

Another important direction in the sociology of scientific knowledge involves questions pertaining to the geography of science and the important assertion that science occurs in places, and is not singularly abstract or universal.  Put more succinctly, scientific knowledge is situated, but mobile.  This is an extension of Bruno Latour’s work and, indeed, Golinski’s, and David N. Livingstone, Nigel Thrift, and others have stressed the role of geography in the production and consumption of scientific knowledge.  In the context of mercury pollution, it matters where mercury is found—and that some people in some places were looking for it—where environmental toxicology was developed, and where and in what shape mercury regulation took place.  But while much of the current scholarship underscores the situated but mobile nature of scientific knowledge, one of the curious—and recurring—characteristics of the mercury story is that the science is situated, but not nearly as mobile as the existing literature might indicate it should be. Indeed, one of the most interesting intellectual features of this project is the tension between the global phenomenon of mercury as a pollutant, the more limited transnational exchange of scientific ideas pertaining to environmental toxicology—spurred forward by specific cases of mercury pollution—and the national and international processes integral to the negotiation and passage of environmental regulation. This warrants further analysis and consideration, but it opens up a fascinating historiographic question about the motility of scientific knowledge and its communication.