Organized Session

SHOT Joint Session

Waste, Resource, Residue: Chemical Histories

Organizers

Evan Hepler-Smith

Duke University

Laura J. Martin

Williams College

Chair

Gabriela Soto Laveaga

Harvard University

Metadata

Session Abstract

Waste is a resource. This is a commonplace of metabolic reasoning in biochemistry and systems ecology (For what process is this waste a resource?) and scholarship in history of science and technology (How are materials rendered as wastes, resources, and hazards? For whom?) Gabrielle Hecht suggests studying waste as a way of "holding the planet and a place on the planet on the same analytic plane" via "interscalar vehicles," objects that "connect stories and scales usually kept apart" for historical actors and historians alike ("Interscalar Vehicles for an African Anthropocene," 2018). Chemical substances are "interscalar vehicles" par excellence, spanning spatial scales from nano to planetary, as well as scales of value linking products, wastes, resources, and, inevitably, residues (as Soraya Boudia, Angela Creager et al. point out in "Residues: Rethinking Chemical Environments," 2018). This session's papers bridge the history of science and the history of technology to scrutinize legacies and contingencies of chemical wastes as resources: world-making material-economic conceptions of nitrogen cycling in colonial India (Nikhil Dharan), the tangled global genealogy of the bio-based pesticide toxaphene (Evan Hepler-Smith), the cultural and climatic entanglements of the artificial plastic grass Astroturf in the 20th-21st century United States (Laura Martin), and neo-colonial configurations of labor and technology arising in e-waste reprocessing in Accra, Ghana (Kwame Otu). This is a joint SHOT/HSS proposal aiming to engage the SHOT conference theme of "Environment, Infrastructure, and Social Justice."

Presenter 1

Gilbert J. Fowler (1868-1953), Energetic Holisms, and the Empire of Nitrogen in India

N. J. Dharan

University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

In 1932, Gilbert J. Fowler, a British researcher and professor of biochemistry at the Indian
Institute of Science in Bangalore, made a modest proposal. Responding to the havoc that
the Great Depression had wrought on the global economy, Fowler suggested a new form of
currency that would not be subject to the mercies of traditional financial markets: nitrogen.
As a chemical entity that trafficked as a key nutritional input from foodstuffs, as energy
metabolized through the performance of physical work, and as waste matter expelled from
the body as excrement, nitrogen represented not merely a more stable monetary unit than
gold and silver bullion, but also a more accurate accounting of how the world worked.
Although his ideas were far from mainstream and his intellectual standpoint was quite
eccentric, Fowler's work nonetheless epitomizes the many ways that nitrogen came to
wield great explanatory power in late colonial India. Through close analysis of his papers
and other records from the last fifty years of British rule in the subcontinent, this paper
situates the nitrogen-as-currency proposal within a contemporary history of holistic
thinking, as well as within a diverse range of nitrogen projects that colonial administrators
undertook. I posit the "empire of nitrogen" as an assemblage of new political and economic
formations that imagined an India endowed with more abundant natural resources, more
fertile lands, and more productive bodies through chemical management. However, this
ideology also worked against imperial agendas, blurring the distinction between colonial
and anti-colonial sentiment among British colonizers, and ultimately forcing us to
reconsider the relationship between science and the end of empire.

Metadata

Presenter 2

Toxaphene: A Chemical History

Evan Hepler-Smith

Duke University

Abstract

This paper takes up the history of the pesticide toxaphene as an opportunity to reckon with
certain methodological challenges in making long-term histories of chemical wastes and
resources responsive and responsible to the global present. Toxaphene was widely used
around the world in the mid-to-late 20th century to protect agricultural crops and livestock
(especially cotton, bananas, pineapples, and cattle) against various insect pests. The human
toxicity, ecotoxicity, environmental persistence, and long-distance transport of toxaphene
residues have made the substance a significant long-term environmental health hazard,
particularly to Indigenous communities in the North American Great Lakes and Arctic, as
Nancy Langston has documented. Yet even as toxaphene exemplifies the category of
"persistent organic pollutant," it defies some of the central assumptions of this model about
what industrial chemicals are, where they come from, and how they relate to each other.
Toxaphene is defined not by one specific molecular structure but an integral mixture of
tens of thousands of them. It was not an output of petrochemical refineries but a "biobased"
product of tree stumps from logged-out pine forests. Drawing inspiration from
recent work in global histories of chemistry (or, as Projit Mukharji puts it,
"parachemistries"), I tell the story of toxaphene as a chemical history of science and
technology in which there is no such thing as a "synthetic chemical" in precisely the same
way as there is no such thing as a "natural disaster."

Metadata

Presenter 3

Chemical Plants and Plants That Are Chemical

Laura J. Martin

Williams College

Abstract

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; / How could I answer the
child? I do not know what it is any / more than he. One century and ten years after Walt
Whitman published the first edition of "Leaves of Grass," two Monsanto employees
invented AstroTurf. The brand made national news the following year, in 1966, when it was
installed in the Houston Astrodome. What is the grass? It is a petroleum product. It is a
response to a Ford Foundation call for proposals to develop playing surfaces for urban
children. It is an ideal of a biological form. It is a source of microplastic pollution. It is a low-maintenance infrastructure. It is the backyard of The Brady Bunch house. It is sincere. It is
ironic. This paper reveals how Astroturf came to exist and what Astroturf offers critical
infrastructure studies and environmental history. It begins and ends with the Houston
Astrodome, the temporary home of tens of thousands of New Orleans residents made
refugees by Hurricane Katrina.

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Presenter 4

E-Waste as Archive: Unsettling Technological Humanitarianism in Neoliberal Ghana

Kwame Edwin Otu

University of Virginia

Abstract

In the past decade, Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra, Ghana's capital, has drawn global attention as arguably home to the largest e-waste dump in the world. The BBC has described the dump as "the place where the world's technology goes to die." In Ghana, the dump has emerged as a/an (un)popular destination for migrants, particularly scrap dealers and burner boys, most of whom originate from impoverished regions of northern Ghana. While scrap dealers dissect the obsolete technology dumped in Agbogbloshie for valuable parts, burner boys incinerate wires and cords accompanying the dumped technology for copper. Convoking e-waste as an archive, I investigate how the e-waste dumped in Ghana amplify Africa's paradoxical location as a site of extraction and deposition, to rephrase the economic historian, Walter Rodney. Therefore, I consider how the dumping of technology in Ghana in the contemporary moment rehearses protocols of extraction executed under colonialism and slavery. The civilizing mission, which arguably converted African bodies into "laboring" bodies for European consumption, anticipates contemporary projects to "bridge the digital divide" that unwittingly put African bodies to work on the leftovers of "western consumption and excess." Drawing on findings from preliminary ethnographic fieldwork, I argue that scrap dealers' and burner boys' interactions with technological leavings unsettle "western technological humanitarian missions" to rescue Africans "perishing" in the "technological heart of darkness." By imagining e-waste as an archive here, I pose two questions, namely: How does the dumpsite in Agbogbloshie haunt Ghana's postcolonial and post-independence status as nation unmoored from a violent past? Second, what futures are made possible or impossible on the e-waste dump, especially for scrap dealers and burner boys?

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