On Solidarity and Molecules (#MakeMuskratRight)

Last night, I was at a union meeting where my fellow university faculty were deciding whether to stand in solidarity with #MakeMuskratRight, an Inuit-lead protest in Labrador (northern Canada) defending the Land against a new hydroelectric dam that will result in widespread methyl mercury contamination in water, bodies, and traditional food.

During the deliberations, a colleague said they would vote “no” because they didn’t know enough about methyl mercury. But here’s the thing: you don’t need to know all the scientific facts to be ally to Indigneous peoples. In fact, solidarity means trusting people to know what they need, and standing with them on their terms. I’m a pollution scientist, and when it comes to acts of solidarity, I say screw the science. I’m not alone in this charge; anthropologist Mary Douglas, one of the founding theorists of discard studies, defines pollution as practices that put relations “out of place, a threat to good order” (1966, 160). In her theories, contamination is not a case of molecules, but of harm and poor relations.

The way my colleague framed their decision–in deference to molecules rather than social movements when it comes to contamination–is a case for discard studies to consider because it is such a popular refrain with acute consequences. Often we are too focused on materials in discussions about environmental justice, which naturalizes certain power relations. The fetishization (mistaking the thing for the concept) and reification (making something abstract into something concrete) of harm-as-molecules has been going on since the early 20th century. During that time, scientists shifted from looking at contamination-related diseases like lead poisoning in terms of changes in cells rather than symptoms experienced by workers (Sellers 1997, Davies 2014). Harm became a measurable biochemical change, rather than an expression of pain or distress.

Because of this historical development in Western Science, conversations about environmental justice now have an obligation to “prove” harm at the molecular level, rather than based on the lived experiences and knowledge of those in harm’s way. However, as feminist science studies scholar Andrea Wiley has written, that “the concept of matter is itself culturally and historically specific and, as such, contested terrain. I argue that the science that is privileged and often conflated with matter […] is the same capital ‘‘S’’ Science critiqued by postcolonial feminist science studies” (2016, 993-994). That is, molecules-as-harm is a colonial Scientific concept rather than something that can capture all instances of pain and suffering (for a critique of how science fails to capture pain even at the molecular level, see Murphy 2006, Klienman & Suryanarayanan 2013, Davis 2014).

Indigneous activists and allies well know that  claims about rights, Land, and harm have to be made in the logics and proofs of the colonizers. It is a subtle and ongoing form of violence to have to use colonial tools to make claims against colonialism. This extends to Science about contamination and environmental harm. The #MakeMuskratRight campaign constantly refers to a scientific study out of Harvard University on methyl mercury accumulation in the area as the linch pin in their protest — I doubt the word “Harvard” has been spoken so regularly in Labrador before. This is an appeal to capital S science to make the case that local people already know– when big industry comes to town, contamination is left in its wake. Every time.


Page detail from “Lake Melville: Avativut, Kanuittailinnivut (Our Environment, Our Health),” a scientific report by the Nunatsiavut Government, 2016.

Molecules have power. Or more specifically, Western Science and its definitions of harm that reify suffering as molecules has power. It has enough power that a professor with a PhD who teaches students from Labrador could not stand in solidarity with them because the professor did not know enough about the molecules that would end up in those students’ bodies, food, and breastmilk. The power of molecules and their associated Science was especially striking because this professor’s comments came directly after an alternative way of understanding harm and contamination was presented by a colleague who works in the dam area. He wrote:

I see the tent where Billy Gauthier [a local Inuit artist on hunger strike] normally does his carving everyday from my office, and almost every waking moment is consumed by some thought or discussion about whats going on (at least three other young people have now joined Billy in his hunger strike). There is very poor PR about the project locally and people are seriously concerned about their health. Even setting aside the potential health concerns stemming from the development, I’m legitimately afraid of what the longterm impacts are going to be to mental health. If it is causing me this much stress I can only image the affects its having on people who rely on the land, and who’s homeland this is. It’s also causing divisions within the community, and if there is some way to hit the pause button so everyone can take a breath I think it would be a great help. Even the smallest bit of recognition for the situation the local citizens find themselves in provides a bit solace, that they are not alone. I think whether or not you are for or against the project is besides the point right now. There is a very serious divide, and anxiety, being created within Labrador and the province as a whole and if something isn’t done to close the damper people will die, whether from starving or suicide. This may seen dramatic, but it is very, very real up here. Before the additional stress we had a suicide rate at somewhere around 3x the Canadian average, and this certainly isn’t going to go down as a result of the project. I have had to council students dealing with this and please take my word for it that I am not over stating the situation.

I was very pleased earlier this evening to see that the Canadian Federation of Students has released a statement in support of the #MakeMuskratRight campaign. I would be overjoyed if MUNFA could follow their lead and do the same. And once MUNFA sets the example maybe we can ask the CAUT to do the same.

I never would have thought of this, and am extremely glad to learn that it may be a possibility. Right now its the small gestures that seem to be making a real difference. If it is passed, can I also suggest that the press release be made at 2pm Atlantic time, on Thursday. There are going to be actions taking place all across Canada, and even around the world at that point in time, and it would be huge symbolic gesture.

Thanks to you all for taking the time to read this, and for at least considering the suggestion.

Scott Neilsen
Department of Archaeology/Labrador Institute
North West River, Labrador

It was after this message that my colleague appealed to molecules, even though molecules play little role in this description of harm from contamination.

My call is aligned with other scholars who urge us to abandon the reified and fetishized molecule as the main indicator of distress, violence, and disaster (Erikson 1994, Murphy 2006, 2013, Shapiro 2015, Wiley 2016, and many others). There are other forms of knowledge that describe harm. But more importantly, when it comes to solidarity–a union of values, objectives, and ethics–molecules can be taken off the table. Solidarity is based on morals and ethics, and is premised trusting that collectives are able to identify goods and evils for themselves. In terms of pollution, solidarity enacts what Mary Douglas has identified as the root of all pollution, material or otherwise: that there is “a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order” (36). Identifying pollution–and standing in solidarity against it–is about “rejecting inappropriate elements” (36) and “forcing one another into good citizenship” (3), molecules be damned.

In the end, the faculty at the meeting voted overwhelmingly to stand in solidarity with #MakeMuskratRight. There was only one “no” vote. I didn’t look to see who it was.

You can read more about #MakeMuskratRight, including signing a petition, here:  MakeMuskratRight


Dr. Max Liboiron is an Assistant Professor in Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Director of Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), a marine science laboratory that specializes in grassroots environmental monitoring. Today she is proud of her union, MUNFA, and the assembled colleagues who voted overwhelmingly in favour to support #MakeMuskratRight


Further Reading and Works Cited

Nunatsiavut Government. (2016) Lake Melville: Avativut, Kanuittailinnivut (Our Environment, Our Health). Summary for Policymakers.

Burrows, P. (2016). Poison in the Arctic and the Human Cost of “Clean” EnergyHarvard Gazzette. 

Michilin, O. (2016). Labrador Indigenous leaders echo calls of protesters to halt Muskrat Falls dam project, National News.

Parsons, J. (2016). Subverting Muskrat Falls Resistance. The Independent.

Davis, F. R. (2014). Banned: A history of pesticides and the science of toxicology. Yale University Press.

Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge.

Erikson, Kai. (1994). A New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience of Modern Disasters. New York: Norton. Gifford, Robert.

Kleinman, D. L., & Suryanarayanan, S. (2013). Dying bees and the social production of ignorance. Science, technology & human values, 38(4), 492-517.

Murphy, M. (2006). Sick building syndrome and the problem of uncertainty: Environmental politics, technoscience, and women workers. Duke University Press.

Murphy, M. (2013). Distributed reproduction, chemical violence, and latency.Scholar and Feminist Online, 11.

Sellers, C. C. (1997). Hazards of the job: from industrial disease to environmental health science. Univ of North Carolina Press.

Shapiro, N. (2015). Attuning to the chemosphere: Domestic formaldehyde, bodily reasoning, and the chemical sublime. Cultural Anthropology, 30(3), 368-393.

Willey, A. (2016). A World of Materialisms Postcolonial Feminist Science Studies and the New Natural. Science, Technology & Human Values, 41(6), 991-1014.