This week, staff writer Simon Panfilio attended a book talk on Heather Davis’ views on plastic pollution and how to grapple with its effects.

On Tuesday, November 15, 2022, the Columbia Climate School hosted author and professor Heather Davis for their Book Talks in Medical Humanities event. The subject of the event was Davis’ book Plastic Matter, published in March of 2022, which deals with the crisis of plastic pollution and the many social and cultural problems associated with it. Notably, Davis looks at ways both physical and spiritual to address the ramifications of this problem. Throughout the book talk, Davis, who is an assistant professor of culture and media at the New School, spoke about comprehending the wider scope of plastic pollution. Intriguingly, she also proposed several more abstract, and even spiritual, ways to analyze the gravity of pollution, tackling both the physical and metaphysical.

Davis began her talk by emphasizing the uncertainty that looms large in our scientific understanding of plastic pollution. “We really don’t have a lot of understanding as to what this means for the ecosystem and human health—it’s not as straightforward as it might appear,” Davis said, citing a lack of data reaching back more than a few generations. “It’s kind of an open-ended experiment with no control system… despite the growing body of scientific literature, there are more questions than answers.”

Davis took time to detail a few of the many biological concerns of plastic production: the harmful nature of chemical ingredients, the disruption of cellular processes and degradation of tissue by micro-plastics in cells, and chemical dispersion into waterways after being absorbed by plastic material.

Something immediately clear about Davis’ Plastic Matter was that it was not limited to a material assessment of plastic in the environment. She argued that we must pay “critical attention to the ways [plastic pollution and dispersion] plays out along lines of race, class, gender, and mobility,” noting that many factories are built in close proximity to low-income communities, which, in North America, tend to be Black and Indigenous communities. “The concerns with plastic toxicity and its relationship to health are promoted as a matter of individual choice and consumer selection,” Davis said. “That’s not primarily where I think the most concerning health effects and toxicity come from.”

It seems impossible to address issues like pollution and toxicity because, like the larger existential threat of climate change, they can appear too gargantuan and overwhelming for us to rationalize. And as Davis pointed out, there is no end in sight for the problem of plastic pollution; even as global industries begin to acquiesce to pro-climate policies, “fossil fuel companies are putting more and more stock and energy into making plastics, one of the revenue streams that is predicted to increase.” In order to help us grapple with the environmental threat posed by plastic pollution, Davis proposes several frameworks and perspectives to view pollution, and it is here where she begins to tap into the metaphysical—the mystical, even.

The first framework that Davis detailed was the concept of inheritance. She began by showing the audience a photograph of her grandmother in a kitchen. Davis explained that this photograph serves as a reminder of the legacy of pollution she inherits—her grandfather was a chemical engineer at DuPont and the kitchen depicted in the photograph is covered in plastic materials in the “utopian, 1950s style.” Expanding on the theme of inheritance, Davis discussed how “plastic as a material does the work of shoring up privilege and consolidating the ways in which race and class, in particular, are already organized in the world, through the relationship of how toxicity spreads, who gets exposed to it, and in what quantities.” She pointed to how the deliberate positioning of petrochemical factories in low-income communities exacerbates the disposition they already find themselves in, citing Max Liboiron’s description of pollution as colonialism—“there’s always an assumed access to land, whether it be for extraction, recycling, or waste management”.

Next, Davis elaborated on what she called the “fantasy of enclosure,” a reference to the characterization of plastic pollution as a structure of white supremacy. “Plastic has materialized as a sealant, a barrier, a container… an imaginary where technology can protect us from harm, from Hazmat suits to Tupperware,” she said. “It embodies the Western desire to rid ourselves of our obligations and connections to the land.” She referenced the relatively recent history of plastic permeating all aspects of our everyday lives, after developing in the context of World War II technology, and described how the plastic in our lives symbolically represents the presumed ability to disengage ourselves from the burdens of the world with artificial barriers. “The fantasy of self-enclosure is at the heart of what plastic is and does in the world,” said Davis, summarizing what she called a “misunderstanding of materiality.” 

Moving deeper into the metaphysical, Davis next discussed the role of historical haunting in environmental injustice. This approach begins by acknowledging the irreparable nature of harmful behaviors and accepting not being able to deny or correct the past when searching for resolutions. To exemplify this, Davis brought up Mossville, Louisiana, one of the first towns to be settled by free Black Southerners and a “vibrant space of Black survival and cultural life” since the 1700s. However, in recent years, Mossville “has been undermined through rampant exposure to petrochemicals” by factories that have dispossessed Mossville’s inhabitants and marred its historical, cultural fabric in a way that can’t be easily resolved. Davis brings up haunting to conjure images of ghosts and spirits lingering over the scene of a dramatic event, waiting for closure that will never arrive. The idea of haunting appeals to Davis because “it describes a temporality that is indeterminate,” and it refuses to allow us to separate past events from the present and future. In the case of pollution in places like Mossville, there is a possibility of restoration, Davis says, but no possibility to return to the way things were before—it is “immediately obvious… that plastic is completely and utterly uncontainable, so we have to think about different ways of relating to these chemical legacies that just can’t be redeemed.” Haunting is powerful not because it can change perceptions or lead to any kind of reconciliation, but “its power lies in not stopping”.

Furthermore, Davis underscored the nature of our intimacy with plastic pollution. “Plastic affords no distance to think clearly,” Davis says, speaking literally about vulnerable communities and their inability to escape the toxicity of plastic. She explained that she grew up in a town where the only industry present was the nuclear industry. The town worked tirelessly to convince the provincial government to allow it to manage its own nuclear waste because they felt they were best equipped to manage the risk. Davis used this anecdote as an avenue to explore “the ways in which toxicity is pushed [upon] people who don’t have the political power to resist it.” While she asserted that the toxic effects of plastic should not justifiably be endured by anybody, regardless of income level, she pointed out that privileged populations have the capacity to take on much of the burden of plastic pollution’s effects—inherent intimacy is “vitally important” to these questions of distribution.

The final framework Davis proposed was the idea of queering in assessing and analyzing our relationship with the environment. She began with yet another anecdote, telling us about bacteria and mycelium that are capable of decomposing plastic. With the help of another photograph, Davis told us about a type of mealworm (of which she’d kept several as pets) that evolved to build up stomach bacteria that can digest styrofoam. Drawing on “queer theory of kinship building,” she described her connection to these mealworms as a “non-filial progeny,” drawing on the idea that “species are becoming morphologically less bifurcated.” In other words, the inter-structural relationships between different organisms contain a level of randomness. This interpretation of biological relationships represents a new frontier for thinking about solutions to plastic pollution. It is “not a redemptive strategy for violences endured through petrochemical saturation,” Davis admitted, “but this draws together approaches of intimacy and haunting at the same time.” She ended her discussion on queering on a more open-ended note than the previous perspectives she offered, asking “how might this morphological queerness actually be interesting or useful?”

Davis’ analysis of plastic pollution and its scientific foundations through such seemingly-unscientific frameworks was not only fascinating, but it highlighted how our strict definitions of the “scientific” and “unscientific” can sometimes amount to barriers that, like plastic and its ‘fantasy of enclosure,’ prevent us from thinking critically and holistically about the weight of our environmental legacy. The lines between the spheres of scientific research and of our cultural experiences are blurred, because, at the end of the day, everything people do has an effect on our environment. And the more we understand the complexities of plastic pollution, the more we comprend their breadth, which is, among other things, intimidating. To return to the problem hinted at earlier: how do we rationalize the “hugeness of climate change,” in Davis’ words? When the results of scientific research, while eminently and utterly invaluable, contain uncertainty and a lack of answers all the same, and when our personal role in such a cosmically-large quandary is nearly impossible to quantify, how do we do anything besides remain static? According to Heather Davis, the answer lies in taking ownership of the unimaginable temporal effects of plastic.

Heather Davis’ book Plastic Matter is available through Duke University Press.

Image of Professor Heather Davis via Simon Panfilio