Toxic Fear in America—The Slidecast

At the end of March, I attended the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting in Seattle, WA. I gave a slightly shorter and more coherent version of this talk. It’s basically an overview of the project as a whole, which comes with the advantages of trying to map out bigger themes, but the disadvantages of feeling a little too vague and general. I’d like to think there’s more narrative force and structure in the manuscript. I’ve been meaning to convert the talk to slidecast for some time (I get my students to do these fairly regularly, so it seemed only right for me to try to struggle with the format—I need to work on it).

The Toxic Century: An Organizing Principle

I thought I’d written this post already. For more than a year I have been organizing my research agenda around the Toxic Century—a period, post-World War II, in which a host of toxic chemicals proliferated the physical environment and created a series of health concerns. My introductory summary in a grant proposal, submitted last year:

We live in a toxic century. Each of us is a walking, breathing artifact of humanity’s toxic trespasses into nature. Unwittingly or not, we are all carrying a chemical cocktail in our blood, our bones, and our tissue, which constitutes the problematic legacy of persistent organic pollutants. This project is a history of that century from within, where “within” refers to the fact that we are still living in the toxic century—it begins after World War II—but also that this is an embodied history, which explores the history of the toxins we carry around inside us.

Persistent organic pollutants, such as synthetic pesticides, plastics, and PCBs, defy environmental degradation. As a result they pose considerable risks to human and environmental health insofar as they are able to move great distances from their points of origin and because they tend to magnify up the food chain and accumulate in human and animal tissue. They are a by-product of the chemical revolution that began at the end of the 19th century and proliferated in the marketplace in the years immediately following World War II. As carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, persistent organic pollutants have become the ominous centrepiece of the global toxic story that continues to haunt us.

The toxic century refers to the contamination of the entire planet. The synthetic chemicals defining this century have become a ubiquitous feature of the human footprint on the global landscape. More than 350 of them have been identified in the Great Lakes, where they would persist, even if their emission were halted tomorrow. They also have demonstrated a distinct capacity to travel over great distances in waterways, in the atmosphere, in our mobile bodies. Multiple chlorinated chemical by-products have been located in measurable quantities in the Canadian Arctic and over the Atlantic Ocean, for example, thousands of kilometers from their point of manufacture.

As a history of persistent organic pollutants and their science in a global context, this project first explores the manufacture and proliferation of toxic chemicals before concentrating on the post-World War II environmental science that raised alarms about their threats to human health and ecological integrity. In this manner, the project merges environmental politics with public health and toxicology to uncover the scale and scope of our toxic crisis, putting special emphasis on the emergence of environmental toxicology as a hybrid discipline designed to confront the uncertainty that has driven so much of the recent history of chemical harm. And it helps readers understand that, since World War II, a variety of military and industrial practices have introduced new chemicals into the environment and into our bodies, many of which pose serious health risks and have wrought damage to the physical environment, the extent of which we do not even know. This project aims to ensure that even if the damage remains uncertain, our understanding of the history that produced these problems—and the history of efforts to repair them—should not.

Over the past year, I moved away from the idea of drafting a project on the Toxic Century writ large. Instead, my interest in toxic fear is an avenue of inquiry within this framework. Further, the idea of telling “history from within,” provides a context for linking the Toxic Century to my other interests in the history of the future. Another angle I mean to pursue involves investigating the history of disaster science, which explicitly links toxics and the future around ideas of planning and anticipating environmental contamination.

The Limits to Growth

Over the last little while, I have been writing a short excerpt on The Limits to Growth for part of a collection on predicting environmental futures. The volume is being edited by Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin, and it looks like it will make a terrific classroom contribution to teaching environmental history and the history of the future. The volume is organized around short excerpts from seminal works on predicting the future of nature, prefaced by a brief essay from an historian, situating the work in its historical (and futurist) context.

I read The Limits to Growth while I was working on the Commoner book. Donella Meadows et al. approached the environmental crisis rather differently than did Commoner (and I seem to recall Commoner being somewhat critical of their findings—in large part because they failed to think about technological production choices in a more complex manner). Coming back to the book in a different light has been fascinating. I’ve enjoyed the re-read and have been thinking about integrating their work on system dynamics and their World3 model more thoroughly into my own teaching and (eventually) research. Here’s an excerpt from the final chapter on equilibrium. Their modeling was based on a radical and unrealistic about-face in population and industrial growth by 1975. They admit to this, but offer the warning:

A society choosing stability as a goal certainly must approach that goal gradually. It is important to realize, however, that the longer exponential growth is allowed to continue, the fewer possibilities remain for the final stable state.

This is the central point of the book, as inferred from the title: that exponential growth is not sustainable (they use that word in 1972!). The book is part of a whole body of literature from the late 1960s and early 1970s that stressed a drastic revision of resource exploitation. It coincides nicely with the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, and also represents a definitive point in a larger environmental history of sustainability. By 1972, the environmental crisis is unquestionably a human crisis. Environmentalism or the emerging sustainability had become an exercise in saving civilization from itself, rather than saving nature from civilization. This had been a gradual transition since World War II, but it was complete by the Stockholm Conference and the publication of The Limits to Growth. Meadows et al. continue:

Many people will think that the changes we have introduced into the model to avoid the growth-and-collapse behavior mode are not only impossible, but unpleasant, dangerous, even disastrous in themselves. Such policies as reducing the birth rate and diverting capital from production of material goods, by whatever means they might be implemented, seem unnatural and unimaginable, because they have not, in most people’s experience, been tried, or even seriously suggested. Indeed there would be little point even in discussing such fundamental changes in the functioning of modern society if we felt that the present pattern of unrestricted growth were sustainable into the future. All the evidence available to us, however, suggests that of the three alternatives—unrestricted growth, a self-imposed limitation to growth, or a nature-imposed limitation to growth—only the last two are actually possible.

Accepting the nature-imposed limits to growth requires no more effort than letting things take their course and waiting to see what will happen. The most probable result of that decision, as we have tried to show here, will be an uncontrollable decrease in population and capital. The real meaning of such a collapse is difficult to imagine because it might take so many different forms. It might occur at different times in different parts of the world, or it might be worldwide. It could be sudden or gradual. If the limit first reached were that of food production, the nonindustrialized countries would suffer the major population decrease. If the first limit were imposed by exhaustion of nonrenewable resources, the industrialized countries would be most affected. It might be that the collapse would leave the earth with its carrying capacity for animal and plant life undiminished, or it might be that the carrying capacity would be reduced or destroyed. Certainly whatever fraction of the human population remained at the end of the process would have very little left with which to build a new society in any form we can no envision.

Representation of one of the many projections of environmental collapse if population growth, resource depletion, and pollution continue unabated. In the text, the authors indicate that 2000 might be a point of no-return.

A Mercurial History

For a little too long now, I’ve been working on the history of knowing and regulating mercury pollution. The project is more or less global in scale and concentrates on the period since World War II, starting with Minamata in the 1950s. When asked what it’s about, I tend to say that it follows the struggle for epistemic clarity among and between scientists and policy makers—how science and politics work at different speeds and how the twentieth-century environmental crisis has pushed knowledge makers and brokers into novel and curious collaborations. It’s also a book about environmental toxicology, but I still have to work that out more clearly. I’ll be writing about this project from time to time on this blog, largely as a means of trying to organize my own thoughts and prod the writing along. Here’s a recent attempt at providing a summary overview of some of the project’s themes:

Twentieth-century mercury pollution is a slippery subject. Mercury’s transition from elemental isolation to unwelcome ecological integration—a physical and an epistemological journey—offers an intriguing blend of human and natural partnerships of the sort that make environmental history an important avenue of inquiry; in effect, the history of the global mercury problem affords scholars with a valuable lens through which to examine interaction with an element that human practices invoke but do not define.

The challenges inherent in understanding and regulating this dangerous and prolific environmental pollutant across boundaries, jurisdictions, and constituencies constitute a vital testing ground for the examination of how environmental knowledge and policy travel in tandem over time and across boundaries; it also comprises one of the most critical chapters of a larger history of the hazardous chemicals regime—a series of independent but functionally related treaties and programs—that emerged after World War II to address the proliferation of new chemicals and pollutants introduced into the environment. In the decades after World War II, mercury was identified as a pollutant deriving from fungicides, mildew-resistant paint, run-off from gold mining, coal-fired power plant emissions, and the construction of hydroelectric reservoirs. Devastating mercury “epidemics” struck local populations in Japan, Guatemala, Ghana, Pakistan, Iraq, and Canada; high concentrations of mercury were discovered in water systems throughout the developed world, most notably in Sweden, Canada, and the United States; and as mercury became universally recognized as a toxic hazard, its disposal posed myriad new problems. In a focused study of this problem, I propose to examine the development of environmental toxicology in light of growing international concerns over mercury pollution after World War II, and put the budding scientific field in conversation with the policies that urgently sought to control mercury’s dangers.

While national and international governing bodies sought to develop legal and commercial mechanisms to reduce the release of mercury into the environment, sustainable resolutions have been elusive, due in no small measure to the apparent disconnect between scientific knowledge and policy decisions. As mercury proliferated throughout the environment, scientists and policymakers around the world scrambled to make sense of and respond to this new hazard. Within the scientific community, environmental toxicology emerged as an important branch of toxicology studies that aimed to illuminate the relationship between environmental pollution and public health. For their part, politicians at both the national and international levels sought to reconcile competing industrial and public health interests.  That these competing interests were frequently incommensurable only magnifies the tension between our exploitation of the physical environment and our understanding of it.

“All history is the history of unintended consequences,” writes historian David Blackbourn, “but that is especially true when we are trying to untangle humanity’s relationship with the natural environment.” In the case of mercury pollution, the proliferation of mercury and the difficulties inherent in regulating it were the direct result of a new science—and the scientific institutions that drove it—being asked to weigh in on the severity of a problem after the ecological hazard had already presented itself.  The unintended consequences that drive the history of knowing and regulating mercury constitute an important lesson in the politics of scientific engagement.