Distraction Free Reading

Reading Max Liboiron’s Pollution is Colonialism in a Chemistry Lab

The cover of the book Pollution is Colonialism which has a black background with a petri dish on it.

Pollution is Colonialism book cover

Pollution is Colonialism (Liboiron 2021) uses plastics to trace pollution in fish stomachs in Newfoundland while showing how this pollution is embedded in bad “land relations.” For Liboiron, land relations refers to how land is assumed to be available for settler goals and how it allows for some pollution to occur.  One of their main goal in thinking about environmental science as a practice is to see how science can align with or against colonialism. They point to the fact that even when researchers work toward benevolent goals, environmental science and activism are often premised on a colonial worldview and access to land. Colonialism, according to Liboiron, who borrows their ideas on the subject from Tiffany Lethabo King, is not just bad action or even intention but a set of relations that allows for bad land relations to occur and make sense. Their aim is to illuminate how pollution is not a symptom of capitalism but a violent enactment of colonial land relations that claim access to Indigenous land.

Max Liboiron ends chapter 1 of the book by saying: 

“This chapter is about modern environmental pollution, but it has also been crafted as an invitation for you to look at the structuring logic of your own discipline and forms of knowledge creation to see what its land relations are, what might be colonial about it, and which naturalized and seemingly benign techniques grant access, moralize maximum use, universalize, separate, produce property, produce a difference, maintain the whiteness. If our methodological interventions do not address land relations, then they don’t address colonialism—we just end up with another study on “mismanaged” waste and another Stanley verdict. Let’s do better” (2021, 79).

I take this invitation to explore what land relations are embedded in how chemicals are used and newer forms are made in a lab. How does it privilege certain forms of knowledge, and to what end?

I asked my friend, who works at a chemistry lab at a public university in the United States, to read the book with me. Below you will find a form of “thinking with” (Haraway 2016) some of the ideas that Liboiron gives us. As we read the book together, we asked each other questions about the book, and I asked about his work in the lab. As anthropologists, we are used to going to a new place and immersing in a lifeworld that is unfamiliar and understanding it on its own terms, with its own value systems. With this blog, I am trying to immerse myself in a text with someone who comes from another lifeworld, and through the act of reading together, I hope to immerse myself in their lifeworld. I hope to have a conversation where both of us are readers rather than a researcher and researched.

Reading together is a method to not just immerse in a new lifeworld but also to see how to understand these lifeworlds by reading something that introduces a new set of ideas that might be potentially uncomfortable for both readers coming from our separate value systems. Reading together means approaching the difficult conversations about land being at a University that stands on indigenous land, about being white in Science and a person of color in Social Science, and being marked as Liboiron would say “in different fields with different obligations.” It is to approach the book together from two different fields – anthropology and chemistry- and see what conversations can be had about technique, method, and obligations. Here I present some questions I asked my co-reader and some thoughts he had as we read and thought about the ideas that the book presented.

Reader 1: What is a chemical in your field? 

Reader 2: A chemical is a set of atoms bound together, making a molecule that interacts with one another. These interactions can be used to make newer molecules. 

Reader 1: What are the uses for some of the chemicals you want to make/ are made in the lab you work at?

Reader 2: We make chemicals that are drug candidates. This particular lab works to make chemicals with certain properties in biology. We are trying to figure out the messy map of how the chemical structures would interact with those in the body. 

I don’t know if we have a said goal for doing that, but the idea is that medicine needs to work well with the body rather than fight it or interfere with it. Making chemical structures that have similar properties in biology can be useful for that. These structures are highly unstable and hard to make, though. 

Reader 1: How do you do that?

Reader 2: The chemical reactions that are used to make the drugs are based on thousands of data studies and chemical reactions, which we are mimicking to see how to do them with other chemicals or how to make them do other things. This means that, like chemical reactions that have been done before, all reactions we do should be done in a sound and foolproof way so it is replicable and it adds to science.

Reader 1: What chemicals do you use to make them?

Reader 2: The most common ones that we use are the solvents that are there to purify materials. These are acetone, Hexanes, Dichloromethane, and petroleum solvents. We also use a solid chemical called silica.

Reader 1: What do you know about these chemicals disposal?

Reader 2: I think this is where I feel a bit ashamed because the point of “Land as Sink” from the book really really rings true. It is a lab, and we use materials that are hazardous, and we don’t really talk about it. The maximum is to use the syringe, glass, and solvents carefully and dispose of them carefully. We have not asked where the materials go because these are not like your house trash and need to be disposed of very carefully and far from where people could be exposed to them. It is part of the problem Liboiron points to. It is unbelievably sad that I have never even considered this till now, especially because we sit on land that is not ours in this university. I mean, we have always talked about how a science like chemistry works to reproduce itself – to do science has a lot to do with proving oneself as a scientist that and thinking about where the waste goes is the first time that I have fully grappled with the fact that— like the book said— we do science in a certain way that focuses on the product so much that it intentionally obscures or even silences any conversations about land and whose land it is that we are using for disposal. 

Anyway… One of the biggest feats we are trying to achieve is to make materials that resemble natural building blocks, but I don’t know if the process follows the same logic as the product we are trying to make. 

Reader 1: Are there any harms they can cause while using or after disposal?

Reader 2: Yeah, they are as toxic as it gets. Some of them are known to be carcinogenic or even poisonous on contact. 

Reader 1: Are there alternatives?

Reader 2: There are some solvents that are biologically found in, say, vinegar or minerals, and I, for one, am trying to make that switch, but it is hard, especially when you are starting out in a new lab and following the path of previous scientists to learn chemical reactions and the techniques is the main goal. 

Reader 1: Who do you think you are answerable to when deciding which chemicals to use?

Reader 2: That is limited, unfortunately. It is a huge problem. I think I am answerable to my PI and those who work in the lab with me to be safe and to make sure I use and dispose of the chemicals I use correctly.

Then I am responsible to the scientific community. It is to use the scientific method and reproducibly produce results. Sometimes it is based on the “science for the sake of science” idea that asks you to make things so that you make them. I am answerable to the medical or scientific community to do things a certain way, and the environmental damage of the process is seen as an externality to the overly grandiose purpose of making medicine or even to make science happen. The thing that really struck me in reading this book was the way the environment is a part of medical or human health and we are not doing anyone a favor by trying to fix one by destroying the other. 

I remember I was working on a new antibiotic before joining this lab and that project was based on the idea that antibiotic resistance could lead to another pandemic! We were making something with the idea that is doing something else in the world too. That really makes me think about chemicals as relations and how these relations can tell us who to be answerable to.

Reader 1: Is that a discussion you have with others in the lab?

Reader 2: I do, but with friends in chemistry, not necessarily people I work with or for. There is a big divide between what is considered personal vs. scientific responsibility, though, and I really really want to bridge that over time for myself and those that I work with.

Reader 1: What was the best part about the book?

Reader 2: Chemicals as relations rather than objects. I am still struggling to fully grapple with it, but when I think about the fact that we are willing to create so much pollution in the name of science and in the name of medicine, what other things are we neglecting to pay attention to. 

We ended our conversation by sharing resources that would be useful for me (the anthropologist) to understand how biological structures are useful and for him (the chemist) to see what it would mean to see chemicals as relations, for example, Native Youth Sexual Health Network and Women’s Earth Alliance’s “Violence on the Land, Violence on Our Bodies.” 

In reading together, we were able to have a common ground from which to approach obligations and how to have conversations about incommensurablilities like medical health and the environment.  


Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble. Experimental Futures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Liboiron, Max. Pollution Is Colonialism. Duke University Press, 2021.

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