Mary Douglas, one of the first theorists of pollution, reminds us that pollution behaviour and taboos are “efforts to force one another into good citizenship” (1966). Pollution is about contraventions of order, whether social or material (or likely both simultaneously). The American president-elect, Donald Trump, is polluting in both senses.
In the news, you’ve likely heard concerns about the lack of good social relations exhibited by Trump, manifesting in demands for the Department of Energy to turn over names of staffers who worked on climate change programs, a national registry for people from majority-Muslim countries, and of course, the selection of Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier with an extensive track record of fighting regulations against mercury, arsenic, and other toxicants, to run the Environmental Protection Agency. Some of these efforts literally support and intensify environmental pollution, and some are efforts to make certain people disposable. All are about power and the ability to lay waste.
But people are fighting back. A lot of them are bureaucrats and techies.
Several hundred tech workers have signed on to a pledge titled “Never Again,” saying, “We are choosing to stand in solidarity with Muslim Americans, immigrants, and all people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the incoming administration’s proposed data collection policies.” They are refusing to build the databases, algorithms, and infrastructures that would allow data collection and storage for a Muslim registry.
The Department of Energy said, “No.” They would not release names of employees who worked on climate change. Energy spokesman Eben Burnhan-Snyder: “We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department.” Trump may not have that data.
At the University of Toronto and Penn State, professors, students, and archivists are downloading and saving as much environmental data as they can. Similar anti-environmental government leaders in Canada’s recent history destroyed environmental archives and reduced of access to data. The fear is that the same will happen under Trump, so researchers have partnered with techies at the Internet Archive to save the data: “we expect that there will be not only moves to collect less data relative to those kinds of projects [fracking, climate change, water quality, pipeline spills], but also to make it more difficult for communities to access the data that would help them organize around the environmental effects of those kinds of projects.” If you’re in Toronto this Saturday, you can join them for a Guerrilla Archiving event.
It’s not a coincidence that bureaucrats and techies are at the front lines of resistance. Contemporary decisions about the management of populations, public services, security, and the environment are increasingly made through knowledge gleaned from ‘big data’ and its attendant infrastructures and algorithms. Surveillance and management of populations happens via data. Governmental and legal decisions to take action on environmental problems, from climate change to fracking to toxic chemicals in children’s clothes, hinge on whether there is enough data of the right kind from the right place. That is, politics is happening through data. So is environmental justice.
The types of politics, power relations, and concerns central to discard studies are central to the story of Trump’s quest for more data or to destroy data, but for the most part we have not taken the role of data as seriously as we could in discard studies. Though there are notable exceptions, such as the work of Boudia and Jas, Morgan Robertson, and others in STS, such studies are usually about scientific data as evidence or manipulation, rather than big data per se. Big data and discard studies obviously intersect, and it’s activists, techies, and government employees that are showing us that data is a central node in power relations around pollution, disposability, and waste. Let’s follow their lead.
Boudia, S., & Jas, N. (Eds.). (2014). Powerless science?: Science and politics in a toxic world (Vol. 2). Berghahn Books.
Douglas, M. (2002). Purity and Danger. 1966. New York: Routedge.
Robertson, M. (2012). Measurement and alienation: making a world of ecosystem services. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37(3), 386-401.