Hope and Alterlives

Dr. Max Liboiron, author of "Pollution is Colonialism" – winning awards with anticolonial research and methodology

by Odette Auger

Image from Liboiron’s Dinner plate series – plastics taken from northern fulmar’s stomachs.

Max Liboiron, Michif/Settler, starts their morning in the dark, running with their dogs and gathering food. Right now, that’s rosehips and partridge berries. Then they start their day as an associate professor at Memorial University, in Beothuk and Mi’kmaq territory.

Dr. Liboiron is an Indigenous science and technology studies scholar of plastic pollution research. Liboiron is also the founder and director of the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR). Liboiron has been recognized for early career excellence, and their brilliance has a broad scope: in research, teaching, methodology – and hope.

On September 7, Liboiron was awarded one of the highest honours for early career academics. There’s an interesting shift happening, when a researcher can win an award from the Royal Society of Canada for their anticolonial science. Liboiron describes anticolonial sciences as being “characterized by how they do not reproduce settler and colonial entitlement to Land and Indigenous cultures, concepts, knowledges, and life.”

CLEAR marine science laboratory’s work is based on values of humility, accountability, equity, and anti-colonial research relations. CLEAR places “Land relations at the centre of our knowledge production, as we monitor plastic pollution in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador,” the website explains. “This requires critique but mostly it requires action.”

Dr. Max Liboiron

Dr. Max Liboiron, Indigenous science and technology studies scholar of plastic pollution research

The community-based research specializes in how plastic pollution relates to food webs.

“We’ve stopped using toxic chemicals to process samples, which means there is a whole realm of analysis we can’t do. We also use judgmental sampling rather than random sampling in our study design, to foreground food sovereignty when we look at plastics in food webs,” says Liboiron.

“We don’t abstractly sample fish, we sample food – all that food has been eaten,” Liboiron says – meaning the samples are gathered from fishers as they clean their fish.

Pollution is Colonialism

Liboiron’s book Pollution is Colonialism weaves together Indigenous studies, pollution research, and decolonial scientific practices.

In the book Liboiron describes pollution as “an enactment of ongoing colonial relations to Land,” adding that “Pollution is best understood as the violence of colonial land relations rather than environmental damage, which is the symptom of violence.”

There are many ways to do environmental science and actions that are “specific, place-based, and attend to obligations,” says Liboiron.

Pollution is Colonialism explains how the “threshold theory” of pollution originated from a 1925 paper by H.W. Streeter and E.B. Phelps. Studying a specific stretch of the Ohio River, their theory of pollution was “that a moment existed when water could not purify itself and that moment could be measured, predicted, and properly called pollution,” explains Liboiron.

Pollution science and activism need to “move beyond thresholds of allowable harm, beyond disposability, and beyond the access to Land that both thresholds and ‘away’ require.”

For almost a century now, it has served corporate interests as government regulations assume that “a body – water, human, or otherwise – can handle a certain amount of contaminant before scientifically detectable harm occurs.” The assimilation theory doesn’t account for plastics.

As Liboiron pulls “little pieces of burned plastic out of a dovekie gizzard,” they reflect, “the threshold theory of pollution and the future of plastics as waste look like bad relations.”

Liboiron expands upon these bad relations: “I mean the scientific theory that allows some amount of pollution to occur and its accompanying entitlement to Land to assimilate that pollution. I mean colonialism.”

Pollution is Colonialism book cover“The structures that allow plastics’ global distribution and full integration into ecosystems and everyday human lives are based on colonial Land relations, the assumed access by settler and colonial projects to Indigenous Lands,” for their own goals, writes Liboiron. Pollution science and activism need to “move beyond thresholds of allowable harm, beyond disposability, and beyond the access to Land that both thresholds and ‘away’ require.”

The book also discusses how any methodology is always part of Land relations, and therefore a very good place to start “to enact good relations (sometimes called ethics).” Liboiron describes the CLEAR lab in a tweet as “a methodology incubator for anti-colonial methods. From who we hire to how we dispose of animal parts, we figure out ways that settlers and Indigenous scientists can work in parallel.”

Liboiron specifies in Pollution is Colonialism, “The methodological question is: how do I get to a place where these relations are properly scientific, rather than questions that fall outside of science, the same way ethics sections are tacked on at the end of a science textbook?”

“How do I, as a scientist, make alterlives and good Land relations integral to dominant scientific practice?”

Albatross, teaching, and hope

Remember the famously haunting image of the albatross, dead with exposed viscera, plastics filling its young body?

That photo is shared often, serving as an alarm and perfect powerpoint slide. Liboiron wants that to stop.

“Those images get me drove, as they say out here – they make me really angry,” says Liboiron. “Number one is that you’re showing the dead body of your kin, you don’t do that. Number two, they’re using a really fucked-up model of justice to say ‘if I don’t show you this gruesome image of this death, then justice won’t happen.’ If you have to traumatize people for justice, then your model of justice must be wrong.”

Thirdly, that image isn’t being used accurately, says Liboiron. Albatross don’t die from ingesting plastics. “Like many other bird species, albatross maintain their population by having lots of babies, and a lot of those babies die. But some small number of babies live on. It’s also how humans have kept our populations – back in the day, before vaccines.”

“The idea of alterlife is that you don’t wait for the decolonial horizon to appear. You start working now, with what you have, to try and build the world you want – while also respecting that it is sick, and contaminated.”

Most of the albatross live in one place, the Midway Atoll. They roost there, and return there every year. That is the one place in the world where marine birds are flourishing and increasing their population, says Liboiron. The increase is from an estimated 18,000 pairs in 1923 to 590,000 pairs in 2005.

“So it’s a really good example of ‘alterlife.’” Liboiron is using the term as coined by historian and technoscience scholar Michelle Murphy, who describes the concept: “Alterlife embraces impure and damaged forms of life, pessimistically acknowledging ongoing violence, living within and against the worlds technoscience helped make. Alterlife is resurgent life, which asserts and continues nonetheless.”

“I use ‘alterlife’ instead of just saying something like: thriving in the world, even as a fucked-up world,” says Liboiron. “The idea of alterlife is that you don’t wait for the decolonial horizon to appear. You start working now, with what you have, to try and build the world you want – while also respecting that it is sick, and contaminated.”

“These birds that are totally full of plastic are some of the only marine birds that are flourishing – even though they’re also very full of plastic.”

The plastic-filled albatross is a symbol of hope, explains Liboiron. Of how we can thrive, despite the pollution, in this case. “A lot of folks say you only flourish if you’re pure,” says Liboiron. They note that there are many people who wouldn’t meet up to that term, or use it. “Whether it’s the ‘60s scoop or albatross or people with disabilities, that term is not available to us.”

How does Liboiron research pollution and teach environmental science to young people – without despairing?

Liboiron spends thirteen weeks of each semester teaching about theories of change and how there are multiple ones. Part of their work is teaching students “where do we put these little nuggets of information that come flying at us, so that we don’t end up under a giant pile of horrible facts?”

Expertise is feeding those into the larger picture, says Liboiron. “This is not the worst problem we’ve ever had to deal with, right. Intergenerationally we went through genocide in action. And, here we are,” they reflect.

“The larger picture isn’t that we’re all going to die,” says Liboiron. “The larger picture has a lot of different moving parts with a lot of unevenness and a lot of different ideas of justice and a lot of different long-term survivances.* ”

In Murphy’s view of alterlife, “the openness to alteration may also describe the potential to become something else, to defend and persist, to recompose relations to water and land, to become alter-wise in the aftermath.”

Liboiron shares, “We have some skills, and we have some knowledge to deal with very long-term and very grave problems – and still flourish, and laugh as part of our living.”

*  Survivance is a critical term in Indigenous Studies: “Survivance is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry.” —Anishinaabe cultural theorist Gerald Vizenor, in his 1999 book Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance.

Odette Auger, Sagamok Anishnawbek, is a guest on Klahoose, Homalco, Tla’amin territories. Her journalism can be found at Watershed Sentinel, IndigiNews, the Discourse, APTN, and the Toronto Star, among other places.


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