Here’s the follow up to yesterday’s post about the world café workshop!
The afternoon workshop had focused on exploring different types of toxicity – from stress to habitat destruction to pollution – before identifying difficulties for engaging in these contexts. These difficulties were then elaborated on in the evening session, ‘Toxic Interventions’, where speakers presented four fascinating case-studies that clarified the stakes – and the barriers – to intervening in toxic environments.
The night was kicked off by MCC’s very own Pawas Bisht, who presented his research into the repercussions of the Bhopal gas disaster. His focus was not on the initial gas leak itself, but the subsequent ground water contamination. What I found shocking was not only that this disaster had been hidden from people, who hadn’t been informed about the toxic legacies of the land they were moving onto or the water they were drinking, but that people initially attributed the effects of these poisons to personal health problems. What really struck me was the careful way that activists had worked to engage with local people, in order to enable them to make sense of their experiences, rather than just ‘speaking for’ residents. Some important tactics were also revealed, such as bringing bottles of local water to politicians and inviting them to drink it. This process of bringing contaminated things from places where they could be ignored, to the people (in part) responsible for the situation, seemed a really important and provocative approach to making toxicity visible.
Pawas’s excellent talk had some strong affinities with Thom Davies, our next speaker’s, work. Thom discussed a similar environment with toxic legacies: Chernobyl. He had engaged with local people living just outside the nuclear exclusion zone, but near enough that they were still getting compensation money to buy decontaminated food from outside the region (compensation that came to the grand total of 20p a month). Thom’s images – many of which can be found here – were not actually his own, but those of local people who he’d asked to document their everyday lives, using disposable cameras. Again, Thom’s work raised questions of how toxicity – especially something invisible like radiation – could be made visible. This question has also been addressed in his most recent work, which engaged with farmers in the area near Fukushima, who were – again – trying to make visible how the disaster was affecting their animals, their land and their everyday lives. One farmer had even been labelled a ‘Cow Terrorist’ in the media, for bringing his cow to the government in order to demonstrate the impact of radiation sickness.
Bev Gibbs’s work focused not on disasters that had already happened, but on future toxic legacies that relate to uses of Arctic resources and her research really brought the difficulties of intervening in toxic environments to the fore. The melting of the Greenland ice sheet has raised concerns about climate change, it has also, however, revealed rare earth metals that could be mined. These metals are used in devices such as smartphones and other electronic devices, they are also used in sustainable technologies such as wind turbines. They also generate lakes of toxic sludge when they are mined, due to uranium being a by-product of the mining process. The tensions are not just in the uses of these metals versus the contamination caused by their mining, but due to their political value in helping Greenland become economically independent and providing employment. With the highest suicide rate in the world, there has been local lobbying to engage in mining in order to combat a different type of social toxicity. The issues raised, therefore, were very messy, and this theme was continued into the final presentation…
Richard Helliwell did a sterling job as a last minute replacement, and if he hadn’t mentioned it at the start then no one would have known!! He made a topic, anti-microbial resistance, that – if I’m being honest – I didn’t really understand, both accessible and engaging. Unlike the other discussions of ‘bad’ forms of toxicity, anti-microbials are themselves a form of toxicity but they kill things (such as germs!) that we don’t like!! Anti-microbials are found in everything from antibiotics (e.g. penicillin) to anti-septics (e.g. Dettol). The problem is that they invisibly affect the microbial ecologies that they come into contact with, in ways that don’t always kill them but sometimes create resistant super-bugs (think MRSA scares in hospitals). Resistance has implications for everything from food to medicine, and is something that – to my mind – needs to be made visible and discussed more. What seems especially important (and resonated with the other presentations) is making visible how the failures of anti-microbials disproportionately affect those in the Global South. We hear a lot about MRSA in the media, but what about anti-biotic resistant TB?
I think we were all left a bit stunned at the implications of the panellists’ presentations, so we spent the next 40 minutes discussing the complex issues raised by each talk. We began in small groups (my group focusing on the questions of visibility, and how this could inform activist tactics), before moving to a larger group discussion to round off the day. Hopefully it’s come across in the blog, but I was just incredibly impressed with what everyone had to say, how the panelists framed their discussions, and at the connections between the different talks that helped the panel work together as a whole.
On a personal note: Huge thanks to Pawas for coming and speaking, it was very appreciated – not just by me but by everyone who attended.