Chemical Unknowns: Toward a Preliminary Environmental History of Fear

Because I’m not currently going in nearly enough directions, I thought I would share this kernel of an idea that I hope to develop in the coming months. On a whim, I submitted a proposal for the “Framing Nature: Signs, Stories, and Ecologies of Meaning” semiotics conference in Tartu, Estonia. On some impish level, I rather liked the idea of attending a semiotics conference in Estonia, but it was a terrific event full of interesting paper. And I met some wonderful people. The call for papers came out while I was working on a broader grant proposal surrounding the toxic century (more on which soon), which I see as being a useful organizing theme for much of my mercury work and other research interests on the history of chemical hazards since World War II. Coming out of that grant proposal, I had found my curiosity piqued by the assertion in some sociological circles that toxic chemicals provoked new kinds of fear. It’s an interesting proposition, and I flirted with it in the grant proposal, but was reluctant to take the idea too far. Along came the call for papers, and maybe this was my chance to play with some of the ideas that had captured my imagination. Here’s the proposal I submitted to the conference (the paper’s title serves as the title of this post):

We live in a toxic century. While we cannot see it, each of us is a walking, breathing artifact of humanity’s toxic trespasses into nature. Sociological findings suggest that persistent organic pollutants scare human beings in new and special ways. This has more to do with what we do not know about their danger than what we do know, and those unknowns strike at the epicentre of how fear is individually and culturally manifested. The method through which persistent organic pollutants assault human and environmental health, the manner in which they proliferated after World War II, and the unanticipated consequences of their spread are key characteristics of this new landscape of fear. Persistent organic pollutants contaminate rather than merely damage; their pollution penetrates human tissue indirectly rather than attacking the surface in a more straightforward manner; and the threat from exposure is not acute, but rather slow, chronic, and enduring. That we lack a full understanding of the hazards they pose and have little control over environmental mobility distinguishes chemical toxins in the litany of environmental hazards. As a result, a rising culture of fear associated with new toxins is an explicit and unmistakable feature of the post-World War II world.

I mean to investigate fear’s environmental narrative and how it has unfolded during the toxic century. A growing fear of chemicals over the past seventy years is a distinct cultural phenomenon, and it warrants some careful historical analysis. My paper proposes to develop an environmental history of fear, using the global proliferation of persistent organic pollutants as its vehicle. I am especially interested in charting change and continuity in chemical fear as an abstract notion—over time and across geographic space—drawing on cultural responses to chemical threats in Canada, Japan, Sweden, and the United States. I argue that chemical hazards combine with scientific uncertainty, industrial obfuscation, regulatory inaction, and ineffective public communication to formulate an algorithm for social malaise centred on environmental fear.

The good news/bad news upshot was that my paper was accepted. Good news, because it afforded me the opportunity to explore the history of toxic fear a little further. Bad news, because I was embarking on another project before wrapping up an earlier one. It turns out the session was filmed, and you can see my paper in truncated form (I managed to eke out ~5000 words in preparation for the conference):

I’d love to say the paper was well-received. Maybe it was. The Twittersphere got this far:

I did get some very good feedback after the session and a number of good ideas I ought to pursue. But the presentation and the conference served its purpose in providing me a chance to test-drive a rough draft.

So: toxic fear. In a future post, I’ll expand on its historiography. Or, rather, how drawing from other aspects of the history of psychology and emotions and fear, we might start to draw up a framework for thinking about the history of toxic fear. Just before leaving for Estonia, I was taking the train between Hamilton and Toronto. In the hour it took to get to Toronto, I had mapped out a series of questions and what form a book project on toxic fear might take (note to self: try to find the essay on the back of which I did that scribbling). But the moral of the story is you never know how or when a new project idea—however good, poor, or foolish—might jump out at you. Or how quickly its scope will come together into a viable outline…

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