Distraction Free Reading

Confronting Legacies of Toxic Goodness: Speculative Reflections from the 4S 2021 Annual Meeting

This piece was originally posted on November 24, 2021 on the EnviroSociety blog here. To cite, please use the following:

Caporusso, Jessica, Duygu Kaşdoğan, and Katie Ulrich. 2021. “Confronting Legacies of Toxic Goodness: Speculative Reflections from the 4S 2021 Annual Meeting.” EnviroSociety Blog, November 24. https://www.envirosociety.org/2021/11/confronting-legacies-of-toxic-goodness-speculative-reflections-from-the-4s-2021-annual-meeting/.

The logo of the 4S 2021 conference: thin black lines in a dense tangle overlay abstract color blocks in yellow, orange, and turquoise.

The 4S 2021 conference logo.

Renewable energies, green/blue/bio-economies, waste management systems, as well as sustainable agriculture and aquaculture hold within them the possibility of working towards a “Greater Good,” however, “goodness” is frequently built on toxic colonial and capitalist processes that are rendered invisible through sustainability discourse. How can good practices, relationships, and things be cultivated in an environment where toxicants, toxic politics, and toxic relationalities are constantly reproduced? How do toxic production systems—based on extractivism, colonialism, and plantation capitalism—foment new forms of sustainability that cannot be excised from these deadly foundations?

At this year’s Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) Annual Meeting, we examined such questions through a set of panels entitled, “Toxic Goodness: Harmful Legacies, Hopeful Futures.” Focusing on a wide range of topics—from harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie, to mining’s effects on flamingo chicks in South Africa, to contaminated water and geosymbiosis in Chile—our contributors included Caitlynn Beckett, Carina Truyts, Emma Schroeder, Gebby Keny, Ivy Serwaa Gyimah Akuoko, Jen Richter, Jessica Vandenberg, Jill Fallman, Karin Otsuka, Katie Ulrich, Kirk Jalbert, Lauren Kamili, Marlena Skrobe, Noa Bruhis, Patricio Flores, Ruth Goldstein, Sebastian Ureta, Suzy An, and Zsuzsanna Dominika Ihar. In this essay, we aim not to simply summarize the conversations that came out of the insightful papers that were presented (and which can be accessed by anyone here). Instead, we seek to enumerate some puzzles and questions that further emerged during the discussions. These queries will be crucial for addressing ongoing considerations of sustainability and toxic goodness. Our thoughts here build directly on the exceedingly generative remarks offered by our three discussants, Dr. Zoë Wool, Dr. Tim Neale, and Dr. Kim Fortun.

Many papers in the panel empirically challenged techno-optimism, a well-known critique for STS scholars. Critiques of techno-optimism unravel how utopic thinking of technological innovations become waylaid by technological determinism, regimes of hope, or the political economic logics of populist hype. Beyond denaturalizing “good” technologies and addressing their non-innocent occurrences, Zoë Wool invited us to reconsider how we know what we know of technology-driven solutions. Wool pondered:

I wondered not so much about better technological solutions (that is the trap we’re trying to get out of), but about a sociotechnical imaginary that was not so dazzled by ‘good’ technologies that it couldn’t perceive their non-innocence, a sociotechnical imaginary up to the tasks of degrowth, reparations, and landback. A sociotechnical imaginary up to the task of good relations.[1]

The shift from focusing on “good technologies” to “good relations”—in line with the conference theme—is not only analytically and politically significant, but necessary. For example, carbon-neutral technologies can be considered as good technologies within the framework of climate friendly production processes. Yet, they may likely be built and operated through extractivist, racist, and exploitative relations—what we consider as ‘bad relations.’ It is currently obvious to many that technological change is and never has been a solution to repair damaged ecologies. Instead, radical sociocultural and political economic changes are required in response to climate change. Therefore, good technologies located within bio/blue/green economies—insomuch as they address toxic goodness—do not provide us earnest ways out, nor do they absolve “settler moves to innocence” (Tuck and Yang 2012). Rather, we need new narratives that enable different ways of living centered on good relations.

Yet, the ‘goodness’ of good relations exposes another seam of inquiry: how and by whom are relations considered good—and, further, to what ends?  This is surely a big question, as it speaks to extensive philosophical, political, and moral questions about virtues and values. Here, we evoke the conference organizers’ framing of ‘good relations’ as a provocation: “To be in good relations means confronting the challenges of colonialism, racism, and inequality, but it also highlights the generative and relational work of Indigenous, Black, feminist, and queer scholarship.”[2] This call to cultivate good relations further impels us to confront toxicity not as simply a biological, physical, chemical, or ecological fact, but instead as something with multiple dimensions that arises in specific material and social milieus.[3] To name something as ‘toxic’ means attending to such conditions.

How we locate toxicity and toxic relations is thus dependent on the conceptual work that categorization does. When and how does something become toxic for particular actors or institutions? After all, toxicity is not a “settled categor[y] … because what counts as a good and right order is not settled” (Liboiron et al. 2018, 334). The question of how such relations are framed draws our attention to the work of categorization and classification (Bowker and Star 1999). Following STS scholarship on systems of classification as mechanisms of control, we believe that contemplating and changing categorizations may be another way to start thinking about good relations (Shotwell 2016). Yet, while sustainability rhetoric imagines new ecologies and social worlds as emergent terrains for crafting better relations, they are also susceptible to reinscribing romanticized/nostalgic invocations of what technoscience can do (or should do). During discussions, Kim Fortun invited us to reconsider how categories and sociotechnical imaginaries mobilize new worldings that are simultaneously predicated on unequal relations. As Fortun reminded us, creating new categories for thinking is always laden with risk as “…our visions of remedy are sedimented with the past” (conference communication, 2021).

Creating new category schemes is not only laden with risk, but also difficult due to the slipperiness of words like toxic and goodness. It’s perhaps precisely due to this slipperiness that new categories become so urgent. Tim Neale, during his remarks, reminded us of the double sense of the word “good” with regard to toxicity and toxic materials. First, toxic sites may easily slip into places for the rediscovery of new goods, as in new commodities. Commodification of toxic entities, including the valuation of algae amid harmful algal blooms, can be perceived as a good thing to do. Second, the good can refer to moral values. For example, corporate actors perform goodness around toxicity through actions that are allegedly “socially responsible” and eco-friendly, such as supporting lake cleaning processes. Thus, while sustainability logics aim to mitigate or to minimize harm, it is not enough to rely on finding goods or performing goodness as a method of enacting meaningful social and ecological change.

Categories, then, are not neutral. Rather, they shape multiple ways of beings and doings. Category formations have themselves long been subject to critical theories and skepticism (e.g. Haraway 1991). For example, categories of sustainability and/or sustainable development have been critiqued for becoming empty signifiers devoid of history (e.g. Alaimo 2012). However, there are still more stories that need to be told. Rather than reaching a definitive conclusion, the “Toxic Goodness” panels served as an opening provocation to unpack how categories continue to do harm. Papers across the panel series sought to render some of these stories visible, and opened space to question how new ecologically good and socially just worlds might be crafted otherwise. Good relations, then, could be read as an invitation: one that constitutes both new worldings and categories, but those grounded in a critical relationality. Stated otherwise, we take seriously how things and people relate to each other as a starting point. Instead of working towards an ambiguous, techno-optimistic “good horizon” that ignores difference, justice, and accessibility, what might happen if we attend to the specificities of existing relations as a central premise? Focusing on when our interlocutors themselves understand their work as creating new good categories might be one entry point, as Kim Fortun suggested during her discussant remarks. At the same time, it seems important to continue examining our own academic categories and the optimisms (and perhaps pessimisms [Murphy 2017]) embedded in them that make it harder to analyze the multiple dimensions of toxicity.


[1] The remarks by Zoë Wool are available in written format here: https://stsinfrastructures.org/content/discussant-remarks-zoë-wool.

[2] https://www.4sonline.org/meeting/

[3] See the array of resources gathered at https://discardstudies.com/resources/ for work on toxicity in this vein, and see especially Agard-Jones (2014), Shadaan and Murphy (2020), and Liboiron (2021) for how colonial relations and “good relations” have directed such conceptualizations of toxicity.


Agard-Jones, Vanessa. 2014. “Spray.” Somatosphere. http://somatosphere.net/?p=7854.

Alaimo, Stacy. 2012. “Sustainable This, Sustainable That: New Materialisms, Posthumanism, and Unknown Futures.” PMLA 127(3): 558-564.

Bowker, Geoffrey and Susan Leigh Star. 1999. Sorting Things Out : Classification and its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, pp.149–181.

Liboiron, Max. 2021. Pollution is Colonialism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Liboiron, Max, Manuel Tironi, and Nerea Calvillo. 2018. “Toxic Politics: Acting in a Permanently Polluted World.” Social Studies of Science 48(3): 331-349.

Murphy, Michelle. 2017. “Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations.” Cultural Anthropology 32(4): 494-503.

Shadaan, Reena and Michelle Murphy. 2020. “Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) as Industrial and Settler Colonial Structures: Towards a Decolonial Feminist Approach.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 6(1): 1-36.

Shotwell, Alexis. 2016. Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Kang. 2012. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity,    Education & Society 1(1): 1-­40.

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