Opportunities in Pollution

May 17, 2022 | Projects, Transformations (Issue 6)

Dr Kimberley Jamie (Sociology) and Dr Margarita Staykova (Physics)

The ‘Opportunities in Pollution’ project is borne out of two previous IAS projects which both ran in the academic year 2019-20 – ‘Material Imagination’ and ‘Antibacterial Clay Therapy’. The ‘Material Imagination’ project focused on the design and exploration of a new class of ‘biohybrid’ materials, which contain living cells and with that, their capacity to adapt, evolve and respond to the external environment. The ‘Antibacterial Clay’ project looked at the therapeutic and detoxifying use of clay minerals across time, and space (in the global south and in ‘Western’ scientific practice).

Running through both of these projects were the themes of materiality and human and non-human interactions. We wanted to extend these themes into offering a broader discussion and experience of pollution, and this is how our project “Opportunities in pollution” came about.  Pollution is predominantly understood as human behaviours, actions and materials which inflict harm on the natural world and threatens how people live. We want to unpack and question this human-centred understanding, and the established differentiation between ‘pollutant’ and ‘polluted’. Our starting point is that pollution involves relationships and entanglements of human and non-human actors across a range of spaces and systems. The entrance of pollutants into an eco-system can provide a new opportunity or impetus for evolution, the emergence of new materials, technologies and human activities, and for the reconfiguration of balances and relationships. We want to understand these complex and often hidden relations and opportunities.

The objective of the project is to bring together a multidisciplinary collective of academics with expertise on pollution, ecology and evolution, material science, multispecies anthropology and sociology. We want to investigate the physical and social dimensions of pollution and more importantly, the possibilities it offers for new technological, social and economic assemblages. To anchor our investigations in specific ecosystems and habitats, species, and stakeholders, we will focus on the Northeast of England, where the heavy industrial past and the subsequent deindustrialization has not only left a legacy of pollution on the physical landscape but also shaped how individual lives have been, and are, lived in the area.

We will be spending the rest of the year (2022) pinning down some concrete ideas for what activities we will undertake during the project and the methodological innovation required to run them. We plan to open the project with an Interdisciplinary Academic Workshop in January 2023, as an opportunity to ‘show and tell’ the work that we do in the area of pollution and as a prompt to imagine the types of futures we want to live in, the types of collaborations we want to develop with non-human collaborators, and how to start work in this direction. After this, we will hold a number of Stakeholder Workshops. Some of these will be ‘walkshops’ where we will bring together academic and non-academic stakeholders in polluted landscapes in close contact when research questions are being formulated. This will be done through visual, artistic, and story-telling methodologies to allow different participants to share their stakes. We haven’t yet decided on the location of these walkshops but will likely be in places where pollution is visible on/in the landscape (e.g. through algae blooming, smells of polluted soils, changes to colours/textures of plant life). You might see us, for example, walking around the steel works at Redcar which has high soil contamination, the River Tyne source at Nenthead or the Durham coastline, which are heavily polluted by historical mine works.  These activities would allow us to experience the different forces, species and interactions at play, hear diverse voices and perspective and open our thinking to what pollution is, how it’ s experienced by different participants and what futures it holds.

As well as our team of Durham-based researchers, we are delighted to be joined by our international fellows: Professor Elizabeth Povinelli from Columbia University, who brings expertise on populations living in polluted landscapes, Dr Eben Kirksey from Deakin University- one of the founders of the field of multispecies ethnography, and Dr David Kneas from the University of South Carolina, with his interest on the history and legacy of sea glass in Seaham.


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