An Interview with Max Liboiron - Believer Magazine

Max Liboiron, who is Métis, runs an anti-colonial, feminist, marine science lab in Newfoundland, Canada where they focus on the study of plastics, particularly in the local food web. An associate professor of Geography at Memorial University with a deep background in Science and Technology Studies, Liboiron founded the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) with the intention of incorporating Indiginous, and especially Métis, conceptions of respectful and reciprocal land relations into scientific study. At CLEAR, the means do not justify the ends. For example, if toxic chemicals are needed for certain types of analyses, the lab will not pursue that data. 

Liboiron’s new book, Pollution is Colonialism, explores the methods that CLEAR has been employing to do anti-colonial science within colonial institutions, while also presenting the theory and experiences that undergird these developing methodologies. At the center of CLEAR’s philosophy is an understanding that pollution is colonialism— not merely a product of colonialism. In other words, colonialism is bad land relations, and those bad land relations are pollution.

Even environmental sciences can end up reproducing the conditions of pollution. Liboiron’s work on specific cases of plastic and pollution sciences illuminates these issues with incredible clarity and accessibility, aided by their humor and lively, conversational footnotes. In providing alternatives to the Western, colonial gaze that informs how institutions approach science, Liboiron gets back to the core of essential concepts like care and universalism. Histories of science production and theories of relation converge, creating a novel tapestry of a socially bound science. 

While the theory of anti-colonial science might feel difficult to enact, opportunities for making ethical decisions exist at every moment.. Liboiron got on the phone with me (first-gen Latin American settler) to discuss CLEAR, the plastisphere, and the need to discard theories and practices that originate from a desire for purity—a desire that calls for a terra nullius. 

—Shanti Escalante-De Mattei

THE BELIEVER: Can you tell me about the history of CLEAR?

MAX LIBOIRON: Pretty normal story there. Most scientists have a lab, so when I got a professor position at Memorial University in 2014, one of the first things I did was found a lab. The lab was always going to be different from a normal science lab because I’ve been brought up in science and technology studies and these other disciplines that critique science a lot. At first I thought I was going to critique science, but when I got to Newfoundland and Labrador, there wasn’t any science on plastic to critique, so I thought, “Oh, I’ll do the science, because I know how to do that.” We went from a feminist to an anti-colonial lab, though I think they’ve always been both. There’s a lot of precedent for feminist science and technology studies, but anti-colonial or Indigenous science is not as articulated in Western scientific or academic spaces.

BLVR: Did you face resistance when developing these unorthodox methods?

ML: No, because the model in academia is that people have their labs, that’s part of our academic freedom and that’s part of our autonomy. 

BLVR: But I remember you mentioning at some point that a paper on community peer review as a method wasn’t accepted by journals.

ML: I mean, one of the things we don’t do is go into the marine pollution bulletin saying this is a feminist, anti-colonial approach. That is pointless. We write into the marine pollution bulletin and say, “This is our science and these are methods from a scientific perspective.” That’s not lying, but it’s sort of like if you run into a lesbian bar and say, “I hate lesbians!” That’s just not going to go right, so you don’t do the scientific equivalent of that. So, we have had mild pushback on things like that. 

The community peer review thing, yeah, we’ve never been able to publish that paper in a scientific journal which is where we want to put it. We’ve just left it as a preprint, which means you publish it so that people can peer review it, but it doesn’t go through an official publication. But the point is that it’s out there, it’s being read, so we don’t care.

BLVR: One of the first things you talk about in the book is  how the threshold theory of pollution was developed, how it became possible to say that it’s fine to live with x amount of x pollutant. While it’s galling to say, “We can have a little bit of arsenic in the water,” others might think that maybe a threshold for plastics is exactly what’s missing to curb production, as we’ve been producing plastics with impunity. But when you were on a call with government entities that put forward exploring a threshold for research, you were adamant that not happen. Can you explain why?

ML: Plastic only comes from one place and that’s industry, and for the vast majority of consumers, you don’t have a choice. That’s  industry accountability, that’s not consumer accountability. 

Secondly, there has never been a case in the history of [threshold theory] where a threshold gets put in, and there’s change that makes that threshold problematic. What I mean is, as soon as you allow a threshold you’re saying that certain land relations are okay and that becomes so naturalized that other alternatives disappear, nearly completely. 

That’s why the people on that call went for a threshold so readily even though there’s zero scientific evidence that there is a threshold theory for plastics. It’s so naturalized that even if other ways of thinking exist, even in nascent forms, they’re completely unacknowledged or can’t be brought up. The harm mitigation model is important in some ways, but not to the project of anti-colonial science.

BLVR: Why plastics?

ML: Over a decade ago when I was a graduate student I was looking at moments in history when there was a waste problem that seemed impossible to solve, and then looking at how it became solvable. One of my main case studies was New York City, [and the question of] how you get  waste out of the street seemed totally impossible and then three years later they had one of the best municipal waste systems in the world. Someone asked me, “Are you going to study marine plastics as one of your case studies?” And I said no because it’s actually impossible to solve. And then I thought about it for a while and thought, “Well then, I guess that’s the problem I’m working on now.” So I sort of changed my career trajectory to specialize in plastics after that

BLVR: Towards the end of your book you write, “We sample freezers, not oceans, Thus, we study food, not fishes.” Do you get a lot of questions asking if it is okay to eat fish? Or certain fish? 

ML: The threshold theory of pollution is so ubiquitous that whenever we do community meetings, that’s the first question they ask. 3% of cod have plastic in them. The relationship between plastic and fish and harm is not documented by any form of knowledge. I usually say whether I eat the fish or not. That’s part of why there’s a rule in the lab that all the fish we’ve looked at have been eaten so that we can talk from that perspective and our ethics come from that perspective. 

BLVR: You also take time to discuss incommensurability, writing, “Compromise is what happens when you have obligations to incommensurabilities,” and, “Admittedly, an ethic of incommensurability within anti-colonial science is hard to wrap my head around. But only in theory. On the ground it is easier because my obligations are clear.”

Something I’ve encountered a lot in my education is this totalizing cage of capitalism. Every issue comes from it and the implication is that we’re powerless before it—that’s how it’s taught. But as you mention, capitalism is patchy. Do you think that our pedagogical methods are lacking on the ground components, or are perhaps overly theoretical? 

ML: I think it, again, depends on who “our” refers to.? Tribal colleges and community-based universities historically do more of the “vocational” work of changing the world than elite universities and colleges. I think even within elitist institutions that can be really patchy. There’s a great book called A Third University is Possible by la paperson that talks about this exact question of how to work in a colonial institution, because these elite institutions never completely reproduce themselves faithfully. These concepts of capitalism or the university or colonialism as these smooth monoliths are not only not useful, but also quite incorrect. 

BLVR: There’s a really interesting definition of care that you and your CLEAR lab members have put together: “[…] an affective relation whose leading ethic is to create attachments within infrastructures of inequity.” This definition is used to reconcile really, really violent behavior that comes from a place of what appear to be good intentions. I was wondering how this definition of care perhaps developed alongside your own thinking about compromises and commensurability.

ML: That theory of care for me and others in CLEAR came through experience. I think a lot of us have experienced things that are called care that are well-intentioned but actually really horrible and really violent and actually don’t serve you at all in any way. There were lots of personal examples that people readily thought of in the lab: Relationships, medical care, schooling, all sorts of stuff, so there’s an intuitive part of that. One of the things that book picks up is how mainstream environmentalism often also accomplishes colonialism, by maintaining Indigenous land for the good of the world but not necessarily for Indigenous people. In terms of sort of articulating it as theory, compromise is a theory of action and change. Thinking about care as something that can do good and bad simultaneously and doing the reflective work to try and identify those incremental abilities is a big part of the ethics in how we think about enacting change.

BLVR: Is there a type of care that exists within equal relations or equal infrastructures? Is that even possible?

ML: It’s not even possible when you’re caring for yourself. There’s no even playing field within myself to look after myself because one part of you is like, feeling guilty for not working and the other one doesn’t really believe that, but the other part of you totally does it anyway. There was that time when you drank too much even though you told yourself not to. This goes back to a strong desire for purity politics, no one wants to work from a place of compromise. But there’s no clean slate, there’s always relations before you get there. So, it’s all about how you work within those [pre-existing relations]. 

BLVR: Something else you acknowledge is how plastic can support life and how the plastisphere can create a thriving environment for living beings, yet just as frequently it causes great harm. How do you theorize living with what we have already created, this material that we have to live with forever?

ML: I use Michelle Murphy’s concept of alterlives for that. How do we live well with the harm that is already here while also trying to move towards less harm. Most groups of people in the world have experienced genocide or systemic trauma or oppression of various types, you can flourish and be traumatized at the same time, you can succeed and fail simultaneously by different measures. That’s the world’s best common theory of change and living. It’s that same sort of thing for plastics; you can be polluted and also thrive. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to pollute, it means it’s a condition for living, so you tend to those problems while being accountable to them. Instead of sort of dismissing them—being like, “Well, we’re screwed anyway,” or something like that. 

BLVR: Are you worried that the nuances of your work might be abused?

ML: That has nothing to do with me. I’m sure they make those moves in other places. It’s the industry line, right? When you put something out in the world you’re not responsible for how third parties use it, you’re responsible for you being in good relations to it. I do a ton of work in the book to predict those moves and to call those folks out, often in the footnotes. I talk about appropriation, I talk moves to innocence and fetishization.

BLVR: Concerning footnotes, in one of the book’s first annotations  you explain your method of labeling people by their self-stated land relations or lack thereof. How did you first start doing that?

ML: A major form of privilege, especially white privilege, is to just be the norm. Therefore, you’re not remarkable, but all the others have to mark themselves. This is old, right? I mean, slaves knew this, Indigenous folks knew this, early feminists knew this. Experientially, where it’s really obvious is when you’re at some kind of event where there’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and only the Indigenous people introduce themselves according to land relations and everyone else is just like, “I’m Fred.” That’s where it gets really grating. It’s obvious that person has no manners, has no ethics, and is not seen as any kind of problem in terms of land relations. I’ve been taught very seriously to introduce myself in certain ways and not in others and to get the words right and to get the terms right. This is a huge part of Indiginous kin sort of labor. The problem became, what do I do when I write a book? How can I possibly replicate this white privilege and settler privilege? I worked through a bunch of different versions of that methodology before settling on naming people by their land relations.

BLVR: Once you started tracking who was naming their relations to the land, was there anything that was surprising in those patterns?

ML: It’s pretty much as you would expect. Indigenous folks, Black people, and people of color tend to secure themselves and understand that where they’re from is a big part of how they know and what they know. Most white folks or elitely-trained folks didn’t do that because they are pretty sure they’re objective and don’t have a culture or something like that. Occasionally, I found Indigenous folks who made the move into whiteness, and who are like, “No, I’m not going to name those things, I’m just a scholar.” That’s part of their compromise, part of their claiming power in those places. Sometimes I was surprised by who did that and who didn’t. 

BLVR: There was one example that surprised me, Mary Douglas has “British” next to her name. But then Karl Marx goes unmarked?

ML: Well, in Purity and Danger, in her preface she says, “As a British anthropologist I, blah, blah, blah.” So she named her relation. Marx doesn’t say, in Capital, “By the way I’m Jewish and German and I’m hiding in the mountains right now.” If he did I would’ve put something in the brackets but it’s just Capital by Marx, and off he goes.

BLVR: Let’s talk about universalism, especially in the realm of the sciences. You mention Donna Haraway’s quote on objectivity and universalism as “the view from nowhere.”  Questioning the merits or reality of objectivity is something that might be shocking to a lot of people who think the very essence of truth can only be found in what can be endlessly replicated as a natural law, especially in physics. Are there some fields in which concepts of objectivity are more appropriate than others?

ML: Actually, physics has the perfect example. Under some experimental conditions light is a wave and then there are other experimental conditions when it acts like a particle. And so physicists say, “We can’t really nail it down, because when you look at it in different ways it is a different kind of thing.” They accept that just fine. Universalism is a cultural conceit and it doesn’t become less cultural in certain contexts. And that’s fine. That’s fine. 

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