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Why pollution is as much about colonialism as chemicals — Don’t Call Me Resilient transcript EP 11

3 Nov 2021

In this episode, two Indigenous scientists offer a different theory of pollution — one that includes colonialism at its root. This understanding may help us make a better future. Here, logging activities in Australia. Matt Palmer/Unsplash

Why pollution is as much about colonialism as chemicals.

Vinita Srivastava (VS): From The Conversation, this is “Don’t Call Me Resilient”, I’m Vinita Srivastava.

Michelle Murphy: The question is like, how are you working towards building something else? So when it comes to pollution, it’s not just documenting that pollution is colonialism, but thinking what could be a different theory of pollution. That’s about making the world I’d rather be in.

VS: We’ve all seen the images and the streams of plastic washing up on shorelines. Those are the plastics that end up in the guts of birds and fish in our food systems and eventually settle into our bodies. Our guests today are both Indigenous scientists who say we will never get rid of industrial plastics and chemicals. Yet they are surprisingly optimistic. They both run labs to address our climate crisis and say bringing an Indigenous understanding to environmental justice is necessary to moving forward. Learning to accept, live with and even love the parts of us infused with industrial toxins is part of it. The real key, though, comes in the redefinition of pollution and chemicals to include colonialism at its root. To understand that our rain is laced with both toxic chemicals as well as racism. Max Liboiron joins us from St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. They are Associate Professor in Geography at Memorial University and the author of Pollution is Colonialism. Their work focuses on plastic pollution and marine food webs.

Also here is Michelle Murphy, who is part of an Indigenous-led environmental justice lab at the University of Toronto. They are a professor of history and women and gender studies and a Canada Research Chair in science and technology studies and environmental data justice. Welcome to both of you.

This episode already feels special because we generally don’t have guests that know each other as well as you two do. You two are more than just academics. I know there’s a deeper relationship here. Murphy, you said that you felt lonely before you met Max.

MM: Well, yeah, that’s very true. Max was the first person in academia that I met that had a similar biography to me that kind of came from a similar place that had to overcome obstacles in a similar way. And then working in a field science and technology studies and environmental justice. We both do that. But that field can be super white, and there were very few Indigenous people, even people of colour when I was younger in these fields. And so, you know, when I met Max, it was kind of life-changing. We also kind of look alike. We’re like the same height when we get like, we are collaborators, we have similar interests in like walking our talk. So like our work is not just words, but must be actions. And so I really learn so much from Max in terms of like the practise and method side of trying to do anti-colonial feminist work. And yeah, well, you know, you see kind of pictures of us. We almost look like twins or siblings are, you know, we’re definitely relatives of some kind. We just don’t know how.

Max Liboiron: The best compliment is at conferences when people mistake us for each other. And I’m like, “Yes, that is methodologically appropriate.” Although if you actually want to talk to Murphy, they’re like over there.

MM: It’s very true. Yeah, so we are we have been on a journey together about how to run labs, how to do a kind of anti-colonial environmental justice work and how to be a person in universities which are very, you know, racist and how to live as human beings in a good way. And so as a connected and deep project.

VS: I love the story of the two of you because at first when you hear that you guys are connected in this way, it sounds like, Oh, is there a mentorship or? But the mentorship clearly goes both ways.

MM: Definitely.

Max: Yeah, I feel like we’re more twins, right? Even to the point where I had health issues the other day and I was like, I should call Murphy to see if they had the exact same symptoms for this.

VS: So talking about your work a little bit, I think everyone listening has an idea what pollution is, but both of you see it slightly differently than most. And so I’m wondering, Murphy, can you tell us what pollution is?

MM: Well, Max has really helped me understand how pollution is an expression of colonialism. How it’s a disruption to land-body relations. It is premised on property and, the kind of we could say, white supremacists, claim that the state or companies can put violence into the world without responsibility for that violence. When that violence hits particular kinds of people’s communities’ bodies, that it’s kind of OK to kill up to a certain level that may be the other way is, you know, we’re tempted to think about pollution in terms of measuring carbon dioxide in the air or a particular kind of, you know, nasty chemical. And we are kind of taught by the sciences, by the predilections of a government that pretends to regulate pollution, but doesn’t. That pollution is, you know, small chemicals and hard to see and difficult to get a handle on. But pollution is really something that’s infrastructural. It’s extensive. You can see plumes in the air. People feel it inter-generationally. It is something that’s in our roads, our pipelines. It’s connected to our consumption. It’s in the factory, it’s in the refinery, it’s in the laws. So pollution is also something that’s very extensive. It’s not just a particle in the air, it’s a whole way of arranging a condition of living. And so that is also what pollution is.

Max: And over time, I’ve come to understand through Murphy’s work that pollution isn’t just, you know, the substance that is causing harm and those harms, but also the finances that enable that and the corporations and the regulations that let certain things be seen. And other things just can’t be seen because, you know, certain types of knowing can’t ever see those things and the people in the events and the spirits all tied together, not as a sort of network that has like different balls and nodes. But as the same thing, right, as the thing. Not these things aren’t in relationship. They are the thing. And so when we say chemical, you mean all of that, that big ball of wax. And so that’s why I like these little tweaks like, let’s decolonize data collection, or like, let’s change how much pollution is allowable. Like that does not impact that giant nugget at all. Right. And so you actually need a very different approach if you’re going to address those things.

VS: Well, let’s talk a little bit about that approach. Like that voice might have been the well-meaning environmentalist. What do you think that well-meaning environmentalist misses when they don’t understand pollution in this way?

Max: So I have a big section in my book, and I know Murphy has a lot of experience in this too, which is that if you skip over colonialism, then you think things that are good and well-intentioned are automatically not colonial. But if you say do a beach clean up and you go on to Indigenous land and you clean that beach without permission, that’s not Indigenous access to Indigenous land for non-Indigenous schools, even though it’s benevolent, and that is colonialism. So there are the things that count as good and well-intentioned and benevolent and environmentalism are frequently, almost ubiquitously also colonial. Like hydroelectric power. Well, that’s actually putting methylmercury into Inuit fish around here or right? There’s all of these sort of environmental goods that are also colonial bads.

MM: You were asking about what does the kind of good environmentalists do where they and that they don’t kind of realize they’re kind of implicated in colonialism? Well, that simple environmental position might be: let’s go to the state. Let’s go to Canada, the Canadian state or the U.S. state, and try to get them to regulate companies and prevent their pollution. But what that’s not thinking about is that state is a settler-colonial state, that what that action is doing is affirming settler-colonial jurisdiction over land and life and including Indigenous land and life. And so, pollution becomes colonialism too by the habit of trying to fix pollution is always affirming the settler state and that settler state along with the company. And you know, here in Canada, the settler state began as a company. It began as the Hudson’s Bay Company. In the United States, it began as the Massachusetts Company. Here in North America, the settler state is built out of colonial charter companies. And so the relation between the state and companies is very, very tight. The state is made to enhance and support the company. And so when these two things are kind of working together, you know, they are part of a legacy of saying they have an entitlement to disrupt land and life. The company and the state work together in there, affirming their entitlement to have no accountability and their right to just disrupt land and life with their actions. And that can be genocide, that can be taking kids away. That can be all sorts of things, and it includes putting pollution into the world.

Max: But that disruption can also be helping. Like beach cleanups and carbon credits. Those are still disruptive interventions on the part of the state that reaffirms the settler state and what counts as good and right and true.

VS: I guess even just who you’re negotiating with, I mean, which nation that you’re negotiating with?

Max: Yeah, if your invaders bring in recycling, that’s not a net good. You’re still invaded. That’s still not great.

MM: And there’s a question of who has jurisdiction. Like, I live on the Great Lakes. This is Anishinaabe Haudenosaunee territory. What are the laws? Who has jurisdiction? Laws aren’t just rules. They’re ethical systems, they’re systems of responsibility. So the way the science is in the settler-state gets us to think about pollution is their physical objects. We kind of regulate them with law. But thinking in our territories and out of our own traditions of thinking, any relation, any physical relations, is also an ethical relation. It’s a responsibility. It’s not just an attachment, it’s not just an ecological connection. It is responsibilities between fish and water, between people and fish, between air and people, between peoples and peoples are both human and non-human. And so that comes out of a whole different jurisdiction, a whole different epistemology. It’s a whole different way of being. And so if we’re not affirming that, then I think we’re not doing anti-colonial work.

VS: Murphy, listening to you talk reminds me of reading some of your work and …

MM: Like the run-on sentences?

VS: Well, just how poetic it is. Sometimes you have this concept: alter life, which is, I mean, there’s just so many beautiful lines in the work that I’ve read of yours. Can you explain alter life?

MM: So alter life is the condition of having already been altered, but still being open to alteration. So in our particular condition right now, all of us on this conversation have been profoundly altered by colonialism. We’ve all been profoundly altered by heteronormativity. We all have particular persistent pollutants in our bodies that have been there since we were developing fetuses that have participated in our development as beings. So we live in a condition of being altered, and some of those alterations are incredibly injurious. Some of them kill us, but that alteration isn’t only negative. So we live in community. We might persist, despite colonialism. We take hormones on purpose in order to alter ourselves. So alterations both already happened, but it’s ongoing. And sometimes it’s consensual. Sometimes it’s non-consensual. Lots of times it’s happening to us and we’re navigating it. So alter life is about thinking about that, but trying to think about that in a way that doesn’t stigmatize for being altered. You know, in Canada, in the conditions we live of capitalism and colonialism and white supremacy, we tend to stigmatize and render disposable or as a site of further injury, any being or land that’s already been harmed. If you’ve been hurt, then we’ll pay you cheaper. If this land has garbage on it, let’s put more, then let’s concentrate the garbage there. We live in a world where certain people are rendered disposable and they have to have the burden of intensive violence is coming at them from many angles, the world hostile to their existence. So alter life also has an ethical commitment, which is to value altered life, to have a loving relation to think as sacred wasted lands, injured life, life that has been had to come into existence in relationship to colonialism or white supremacy. So, of course, that’s another twisting, long answer. Max is really good at, you know, one of the complementary things about thinking with Max is I give like really long sentences, and Max is really, really much better at putting it in a nutshell.

Max: Yeah, I make the bumper stickers and Michelle drives the truck. This concept of alter life has been really instrumental to my theory of change, my idea of how change happens and letting go of these purity politics that are very, very prevalent in mainstream activism, including environmental activism, which is like, well, if you work for the man, then you can’t possibly be doing activism. Or if an area has been so far altered, then it becomes the best place to have a sacrifice zone or something like that. And so I use the term compromise, which is heavily based on Murphy’s concept of alter life, which is that, yeah, sometimes you reproduce the crappy system you’re trying to change because there’s no outside of that system, and you can just release that to Jesus or whoever looks after that thing for you, that guilt. Because if there’s not, I mean, that’s just what’s going to be. So let’s go and let’s flourish in that compromise as opposed to feeling guilty about it. So I do some of my best activism as a university administrator for a colonial university on a place that has had one of the only successful genocides in Canada. Right? And that is where I’ve done my best Indigenous activism and I do anti-colonial science in a western scientific laboratory, and none of those are oxymorons. If you think about alter life in the way that Murphy talks about it, they just are. And you just got to get on with things.

VS: This idea that we are part of chemicals or chemicals are part of us or, you know, that it’s irreversibly changed us or changed our world. I mean, all of this could sound very, all of this could sound very negative, but neither of you focus on the negative. Can you talk a little bit about that, just continuously resisting and how you do that?

Max: I don’t think it’s about not attending to the negative. I mean, I study plastic pollution. It’s super crappy. But at the same time, I don’t understand plastic as this evil, wayward pollutant that has run amok and we’re destroying the planet, which really misunderstands a lot of those relations. I understand it is really old relatives that were plants and animals that were minding their own business thinking about, “do I want to be crude oil or do I want to be a diamond? Don’t worry, I have another 10,000 years to make up my mind,” when suddenly they’re rudely ripped out of the ground, go into a cracking tower and are put into this service that is against their nature and against the sort of relations and the natural law, and now they’re bad relatives and we all have bad relatives. You can’t tell me your entire extended family is warm and fuzzy and doesn’t give you horrific, toxic problems, right? But they’re still your family. And so even if you’ve ostracized parts of your family, you still have obligations in relation to them and that really changes the playing field of relations as opposed to like annihilation as a relation which a lot of plastic pollution activism is based around. So it’s not about not dealing with the bad stuff, it’s about eating the bad stuff and being like, yep, that’s what it tastes like.

MM: I think too we are both influenced by some of the work of Eve Tuck. She talks about damage- versus desire-based research, and in environmental justice, it makes sense. You know, the state doesn’t care. The science is not lining up, right? The studies aren’t serving you. So what do you do? The habit is you then try to use your body and your suffering and represent that in order to prove environmental violence is happening, or colonial violence is happening and that mostly doesn’t work either. So then what we have is community after community documenting their pain, trying to represent it in report after report. And the university coming in and sucking those stories out of people, getting publications, getting grants, getting tenure out of the suffering of people. So desire-base work is a different theory of change. You know, first of all, it starts with nothing about us without us. And then the question is, how are you working towards building something else? So when it comes to pollution, it’s not just documenting that pollution is colonialism, but thinking what could be a different theory of pollution that’s about making the world I’d rather be in. So that can start with how you run your lab, how you collaborate, what your research is like, how you interact, how you treat each other, all the way up to how you represent the work, how you build community, how you build actions, how you support things beyond the university, like, for example, toxic tours or legal challenges or alternative systems of notification. Whatever it is, you’re trying to build something else that’s better, whether it’s something small or something technical as opposed to just sticking with we’re going to just show this violence in particular bodies. We know pollution is happening.

VS: You said the university uses these stories or this data or this info, and their kind of way to better their stature or their positions. But Murphy, you’ve also written about leveraging data for anti-colonial purposes. So can you explain what do you mean by that?

MM: So the environmental data justice lab is Indigenous-led, Indigenous majority of the lab, and our work focuses on an area in Ontario called Chemical Valley, which is on Anishinaabe territory, and it kind of surrounds and is on the land of Aamjiwnaang First Nation, and the lab includes community members of Aamjiwnaang First Nation. So there is a lot of data that’s produced by the company in the state that is not adequate to the needs of addressing environmental violence in Chemical Valley. So one approach would be let’s make more data, let’s extract more numbers from bodies in order to show this violence is happening. Well, you don’t need to do that. You can just stand anywhere in Aamjiwnaang and the smoke is thick and you feel it in your skin and it’s every day and there’s an accident, a release of flare. So then what our lab tries to do is take this existing data that’s produced by companies, the state mostly, that is produced in a bad relation, and try to use it to show that pollution is colonialism, show the bad relations that are attached to data. And then can we attach data, like about air pollution levels or health information, that’s almost always treated in isolation of one another and reattach it to one another? Can we put it under the jurisdiction of Indigenous law and make that data work for people in a different way?

VS: You’re both working within mainstream academic institutions and you’re both anti-colonial scientists. So I’m wondering how you navigate the colonial academic scientific institutions that you’re dealing with or living with.

Max: I think it’s similar to all BIPOC, queer, trans people manoeuvred spaces that are not built for them and are dominated by the, you know, an aggressive norm of a different kind. You code switch, you grift, you pass, you make a mess, you break things down, you leave out the back, you come back later with a different name. All of those things. You steal the stuff, you give it out. I mean, and all these things so much that you do what they ask and exactly what they ask, even though you think it’s dirty, you do all of those things, right? So I think the difference for folks like Murphy and I is that the more we progress in our career and the more autonomy and stability and the better we are at recognizing the unwritten rules, the bigger our jurisdiction gets in how we can do research in a very different way. So, yeah, so one of the most anti-colonial things I do in my lab, I think, is … so a lot of Indigenous nations in Canada cannot hold grant funds on their own because they’re not recognized to have “proper accounting.” So I hold the money and I do all the reporting and I do all the administration and all that sort of stuff. And that puts money and resources back into Indigenous life and land on their terms. I don’t even use the partnership model, which is one of the most exalted models for Indigenous-settler and academic things where, like you partnered together and your equals. I am not equals. I am their financial grunt.

VS: It’s a sovereignty model. You’re giving them or you’re allowing them to hold the power.

Max: Yeah, with the exception of extractive models, I don’t think there’s an inherently best way to do anti-colonial work. Yeah. And then I also, yeah, like I do research as a plastic pollution scientist with, you know, mostly Inuit plastic pollution researchers who may not have degrees and it doesn’t matter. And we make data together that answers their nations questions and needs, so that they can govern their lands in ways that matter to them.

VS: For maybe 30 seconds, we could just step back because I think that many people still believe that science is neutral.

Max: There’s this great article by Mary O'Brien from like 1999 that’s called Being a Scientist Means Taking Sides, and she’s writing this as a scientist. And she says, as soon as I ask one question … there’s infinite numbers of scientific questions you ask. As soon as you ask this question, not that question, you’re aligned with some things and not others, some powers and not others, some interest and not others. Then you choose who you work with. Are you working with industry? Are you working with community groups? Are you working with nobody? All of those are political decisions. Then you choose your metrics. Are you using, in the case of pollution, assessments that allow certain amounts of pollution to occur through a threshold model? Or are you using alternative methods that measure harm in different ways? Those are political decisions. Who do you publish with? Where do you publish? Do you publish in that horrible MDPI or whatever it’s called … horrible conglomerate of journals? Or do you do open access? These are all about reproducing some goods and not reproducing other goods. There isn’t a single decision you can make as a scientist that isn’t political. How you deal with bias, whether you deal with bias, right? All of these things.

VS: So can we talk about your labs? You know, what does an anti-colonial lab … you mentioned a little bit about what it looks like. I’d love to hear a little bit about your labs.

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MM: Great. Well, the lab that we run at the University of Toronto, which I co-run with Kristen Bos, who is another Métis Indigenous feminist scholar. It was inspired by Max’s lab in part, and we had Max come and help us set it up, and we spent like the first six months just figuring out how are we going to come together, be in good relation. What are our values? So the lab is not just like a lab where data is collected or like there’s some microscopes or something. It’s about kind of claiming a space inside the university and then asking how could we make that space operate differently? Can it have different ethics? Can it refuse extractive research? Who is going to be there? Is it limited to just students and professors? Who needs to be part of research? And so I think both of our labs start with these kind of really big questions about how to do research or do study in a good way or take action in a good way.

VS: Yeah. Who needs to be there is a good one. You know, the question about who needs to be there is really opening up space in a very different way.

Max: Yeah, I just had a tussle with HR about hiring a 16 year old who lives in the Arctic, but because he doesn’t have a degree, they’re like, “Oh, we can’t pay him what he’s worth.” I’m like, “Oh, let’s have a fight.” And luckily, the guy is now getting paid what he’s worth, but same deal. He’s an expert. There’s no one else who knows some of the things he knows, which is more valuable than degrees. So let’s pay him like an expert.

VS: And what’s his expertise?

Max: His expertise is to where to get the gull eggs. We need gull eggs, where are they? I don’t know. Nobody knows. He knows.

VS: It’s invaluable for your work.

Max: My lab does three things at the same time. One is we study plastic pollution. The other is that we’re a collective, which means we’re bound by ethics and each other’s wellness, even when we don’t get along. And that takes a lot of work, and this is what Murphy also does in their lab. And then third, we’re a methodology lab. So like, OK, we have to take out the garbage. How do we do that in a way that is humble and in good relations? OK, it’s time to do my budgeting. How do I do it in a way that is accountable and in good relations? OK, it’s time to hire someone. How do I? … We only have one research question, which is how to be in good relations when we do this thing and we do it for everything,

MM: We don’t imagine that we are going to fix the relationship between colonialism and fossil fuel violence in like a week or a year or a lifetime. So it’s also super important that besides the research itself, the other project is how to be together in a good way.

VS: Well, how can we on the outside support? And also, how do you think you can help spread this idea of anti-colonial science?

MM: Often when people ask me, like, where do I start? You know, my kind of answer is, you start where you are. And that means figuring out where are you? Whose territory? What’s the histories, what’s the presences? What’s the jurisdiction? What’s the law? Who are you responsible to? And what are you responsible to that you haven’t been taught? And that work of figuring out where you are is the first step. You know, and you have to do that in order to begin the process of being in good relation and understanding your responsibilities to colonialism, which is really different across different people, different sites, different lives.

Max: Yeah. So I’ve been working in this province of Newfoundland and Labrador for seven years, and it took me four years to get invited to Labrador, which is a mainly an Inuit and Innu and part of the province. And that was because I had to do my homework and I had to show up in a good way until they invited me without me bugging them or asking them. And that also involved a lot of problems where I brought Métis and First Nation ideas of Indigenousness. And yeah, those are not the same as Inuit. Holy crap, are they not the same, right? So. Yeah, and that took five years, but our work is so good and so tight now because I took the time and I did that, what Murphy was talking about, I would call homework, right? Doing your homework.

VS: So it’s partly about doing homework and understand, you know, educating oneself. But it’s also about starting a relationship with, you know, the nations or the nation or the communities of where you are living.

Max: Yes and no. I mean, in many ways, those are the same things, but it’s, it’s … I would not say that it is necessary or even desirable to reach out to Indigenous communities as an academic. In fact, I would say just don’t. Just work on your own discipline in your own area and how it benefits from colonialism and how it’s related to local things and is already, you know, totally enwrapped in those things. That’ll take you at least five to seven years. And when you’re done that, you will probably realize that maybe you are not the best person to go bother Innu Nation or something like this, right? And or they will kick your butt if you try that. Or not answer your calls or, you know. So, I mean, and sort of in line with the like, actually, it’s not inherently good to go to Indigenous partnership. I also don’t think it’s inherently good and I don’t feel the drive to share what an anti-colonial science should look like. I model it. If people want it, they knock on my door. I provide a lot of videos and blog entries and protocols and open source things, so that people actually don’t need to talk to me directly because I’m busy like doing the work.

MM: Because there’s no universal recipe. That’s why you have to start where you are and figure out where are you and what are your responsibilities? And so, you know, when you say Vinita about building relations, like the relations … it’s not about building relationships, it’s about figuring out what your responsibilities are and then beginning to act on them in a good way and then relationships emerge out of that.

Max: Yeah, I think what a lot of academics don’t understand when they talk about building relations is that they already have them and they are 99 percent not good. And they were there before you showed up and you’re still participating in them. So actually, you don’t have to build them. They are super strong and solid. And maybe actually you want to change them.

MM: Yeah, maybe you got to stop some of them and take them apart and do some dismantling. That might be some first actions.

VS: Thank you very much for taking the time today to be here.

MM: Thank you. Our pleasure. It’s good to see you, Max, as always.

Max: You, too.

VS: My mind is blown after speaking with Murphy and Max, not only are they brilliant, they’re poetic, too. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking after that conversation. I’m on Twitter at WriteVinita. That’s @WriteVinita. And don’t forget to tag our producers @ConversationCA. Use the hashtag #DontCallMeResilient. And if you’d like to read more about Indigenous environmental justice, go to TheConversation.com. We have all kinds of information in our show notes with links to stories and research. Finally, if you like what you heard today, please help spread the love. Tell a friend about us, or leave a review on whatever podcast app you’re using. Don’t Call Me Resilient is a production of The Conversation Canada. It was made possible by a grant for journalism innovation from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The series is produced and hosted by me, Vinita Srivastava. Our producer is Susana Ferreira. Our associate producer is Ibrahim Daair. Reza Dahya is our incredibly patient sound producer and our fabulous consulting producer is Jennifer Moroz. Lisa Varano leads audience development for The Conversation Canada and Scott White is our CEO. And if you’re wondering who wrote and performed the music we use on the pod, that’s the amazing Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called “Something in the Water.” Thanks for listening, everyone, and hope you join us again. Until then, I’m Vinita. And please, don’t call me resilient.


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