A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement, and Endurance

Toxic: A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement and Endurance at Yale March 3-4, 2016.

Narrating a Past for New Futures

Jody Roberts, Chemical Heritage Foundation

The takeaway: How do we narrate stories that help us to understand how our remaking of this world, and ourselves, is not over, but a process; a process open to our efforts of remaking.

Here’s the setup: When I first began narrating toxics I told simple stories. They had simple questions (do you know what’s in that plastic container?). They had simple plots (we’ve only recently started to understand how these chemicals interact with our bodies, but it changes everything). They gave me a simple role (there’s Jody again, telling us how toxic everything is; why’s he such a downer?). They had simple morals (Stay away from plastic! Don’t eat that! Buy this instead!).

These simple stories had an obvious, fatal flaw: their simplicity failed to match the complexity of the world around me.

A few quick examples:

In 2009 and 2010, we took advantage of the possible reform of the U.S.’s framework for chemical management as an opportunity to unpack the construction of a system for regulation that is simultaneously invisible as well as essential across the broadest swath of our nation’s commercial industries. Rather than digging into the debates around the Toxic Substances Control Act that pitted industry lobbies on one side (the ACC, SOCMA, e.g.) and environmental and health advocates on the other (EDF, the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families Coalition, e.g.) we wanted to experiment with how historical methodologies might disrupt an ongoing and entrenched dialogue in ways that might provide a shift in how the problems and solutions are perceived. We wanted to know how the architects of the law and those responsible for its implementation understood their experience with TSCA. What did they learn about its successes and failures? What was it like to be charged with implementing a law that was widely deemed broken before it even became real?

Sarasota Herald Tribune, 30 October 1977, Page 1.

Sarasota Herald Tribune, 30 October 1977, Page 1.

Here’s what we learned along the way: what counts as “safe” or “toxic” is as much a result of science as it is politics. Right: no surprise there. But the shifting nature of those two pillars combined with the concrete, if momentary, inscription that the law produces creates a jarring effect that is far more disruptive than the process by which these two worlds are brought into alignment. The politics of management are different now. The science, too, has changed in remarkable ways (key indicators, endpoints, and tools for understanding risk, exposure, hazard, etc.). But while the science and politics have changed, the law itself has remained remarkably unchanged due to factors not simply attributable to one of these pillars.

A second experiment: how does historical memory and experience frame one’s experience of and approach to superfund cleanups? Working with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, we have been engaged with a community north of Philadelphia in the midst of a second superfund cleanup of asbestos waste. The goal has been to find ways to highlight the different historical frames brought by community members to the issue to better understand how risk is framed, what cleanup means, and what success would look like.  Again, perhaps not surprisingly, differences across the community emerged based on: how long the individual or family has lived in the community; what section of the community the individual lives (or lived) in [the community is cut by three different local municipalities of varying wealth, etc.]; and the proximity of the waste site(s). We then experimented with bringing these stories back to the community: through a small exhibition, newspaper insert, and series of original one act plays based on the interviews. Community members came to hear (simultaneously) stories about the joys of sled riding down white hills in summer; fears of increased gentrification and loss of home; and Mary Ambler, the heroine namesake of the community who saved dozens following a trainwreck in the 19th century in conversation with community activists about their responsibility to their neighbors.

What we’re learning: material and cultural legacy are deeply entangled in this community (and those spanning the rustbelt). What is toxic comes with answers that are multiple and simultaneous, and not easy to prioritize. Endurance is not a passive exercise, but an active pursuit of something else…something after.

Leslie Nevon Holden and Pat Lamborn in The White Mountains; photo credit: Conrad Erb, 2015

Leslie Nevon Holden and Pat Lamborn in The White Mountains; photo credit: Conrad Erb, 2015

Where I’m returning to: I take to heart the provocation provided by my colleague Nick Shapiro who suggests we avoid the low hanging fruit of toxicity to see what else may lie beyond. We are now asking: what is “toxic” a proxy for in these communities, histories, stories?

In my own story, I am returning, quite literally, home.

Photo credit, the author

Photo credit, the author

The experience of life on the brink remarkably reshaped how I thought about “the toxic”: what I knew; what needed to be done; what a post-toxic future might look like. But these experiences have also brought a renewed commitment to moving beyond both the simple narratives that I once used and the overly-simplistic dichotomies that informed them. Our entanglements endure. We are all exposed, but not equally. Escape is not an option, especially for many who are most commonly exposed. Our endurance must be an active one that sees beyond what is to what is becoming. For me, I need new narratives to begin reimagining what still could be. Denied the luxury of disengagement, how do we become more materially entangled in ways that are of this (molecular) world and not an imagined past one? How do we tell stories in which becoming less toxic means becoming with rather than without?