The Case for Framing Plastic Pollution as a Justice Issue: How a Feminist and Anti-colonial Laboratory Does It
By Caroline E. Ferguson
This blog post was written as part of a new spring course and public seminar series, “Topics in International Justice, Rights and the Environment” (ENVRES 215A/HUMRTS 118) taught at Stanford University in Spring Quarter 2021. This class was designed and offered in response to a growing demand for environmental justice education at Stanford, specifically on the international scale.
Why is marine plastics pollution an environmental justice issue? What does it mean to study this and other phenomena in a feminist and anti-colonial way? These were the questions posed by speaker Elise Earles, a marine plastics pollution researcher reimagining relations between scientists, Indigenous communities, polluters, and the natural world. Earles is a recent graduate of the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR Lab) at Memorial University, a marine science group led by Dr. Max Liboiron pioneering new and more just approaches to research, including new methodologies, new and accessible scientific tools, and new ways of communicating science.
Earles and other members of CLEAR Lab are advancing a framing of marine plastics pollution as an environmental justice issue, an approach that has been all too rare in the scholarly literature. According to Earles, “Our relationship with plastic is uneven, as is our relationship with one another and with the natural world.” Her lecture highlighted, for example, the disproportionate concentration of plastics pollution in racialized communities, as well as the unbalanced severity of plastics’ impact in communities dependent on the ocean for fishing and hunting.
In preparation for Earles’s lecture, our class read, “Toxic politics: Acting in a permanently polluted world,” a peer-reviewed article by CLEAR Lab members that connects the toxicity of pollutants to the toxicity of the politics governing them (Liboiron et al. 2018). This is a radical approach in plastics pollution science, which has been dominated by the study “threshold limits,” the amount of a toxicant (a toxin created by humans through industrial processes) legally allowed to enter bodies and environments. As a group, CLEAR Lab seeks to avoid reproducing the violence of threshold limits, which they argue are at their core about protecting corporate profits as much as they are about protecting people and the planet. The authors give the example of the “As Low As Reasonably Achievable” radiation standard, which takes into account “the state of technology” and “the economics of improvements” to determine acceptable levels of pollutants; the authors highlight that, “while toxicity might disrupt cellular, organ, organism or population health, these definitions of toxicity also maintain the economic status quo” (Liboiron et al. 2018).
Our class also viewed the documentary GUTS in preparation for Earles’s visit, which features many of the innovative and accessible scientific tools developed by CLEAR Lab to study marine plastics pollution. These tools make it possible for local rural Newfoundlanders to monitor the level of microplastic contamination in their water sources, no longer dependent on scientific “experts” to collect data for them. Tools like these are another piece of the feminist and anti-colonial research approach advanced by the CLEAR Lab.
In addition to its empirical work on marine plastics pollution and its advancements of new and more equitable scientific tools, CLEAR Lab is also creating guidance on feminist and anti-colonial methodologies and practices for researchers across disciplines. In the GUTS film, Liboiron explains, “Every time you decide what question to ask or not ask others, which counting style you use, which statistics you use, how you frame things, where you publish them, who you work with, where you get funding from … all of that is political.”
For example, the lab published a peer-reviewed journal article on author order. In it, the authors detail criteria beyond individuals’ contributions to the written work, including care work as well as considerations for an individual’s social location (e.g., gender, race, age). The author order framework advanced by the lab also takes into account such criteria as “Who needs the cultural capital most?”, highlighting that authorship provides different values to academics and non-academics, and that some new or underfunded institutional affiliations may benefit from an ordering higher on the list (Liboiron et al. 2017).
Note: * = required readings/watching for ENVRES 215A/HUMRTS 118 students
Liboiron, Max, et al. “Equity in author order: a feminist laboratory’s approach.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 3.2 (2017).
*Liboiron, Max, Manuel Tironi, and Nerea Calvillo. “Toxic politics: Acting in a permanently polluted world.” Social studies of science 48.3 (2018): 331–349.
*Liboiron, Max, et al. “Abundance and types of plastic pollution in surface waters in the Eastern Arctic (Inuit Nunangat) and the case for reconciliation science.” Science of The Total Environment 782 (2021): 146809.
*“Recycling is Like a Band-Aid on Gangrene.” YouTube, uploaded by The Atlantic, June 13, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgLKoJZ0dHw&t=11s
Caroline E. Ferguson is a marine social scientist focusing on just and equitable community-led approaches to conservation and fisheries management. She is a fourth year PhD candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER). www.ceferguson.com