Toxic Heritage

Collaborative research

Association of Critical Heritage Studies – Toxic Heritage session

By on August 13, 2020

Co-convenors: Elizabeth Kryder-Reid and Sarah J. May


Session abstract: The heritage of the Anthropocene requires confronting the landscapes, residues, health impacts, and histories of toxicity and their impacts on affected communities. Toxic heritage often traces the fault-lines of social inequalities as marginalized communities are exposed in disproportionate ways to physical harms such as contaminated water, soil, and air, as well as the social conditions that create harmful environments such unsafe working conditions and other threats to personal safety. Toxic heritage is often the site of resistance, resilience, and social action, as communities mobilize to demand mitigation, embrace citizen science, advocate for environmental causes, and document the histories of homelands and neighborhoods. The study of toxic heritage invites, therefore, interrogations of the ways in which heritage works in the contemporary world, as well as of the histories of the industries, policies, and practices that have led to such dramatic impacts on the planet. How are toxic sites remembered in both the memory practices of communities and in official heritage narratives such as museums and historic markers? How are sites used, modified, and managed in the aftermath of the contamination, including the often liminal periods of extended litigation, mitigation, or, in the case of nuclear waste, long-term decay? Where in fields of power surrounding toxic heritage can we understand the roles and responsibilities of corporations, governments, and individuals in the creation and remediation of environmental harm? How are toxic heritage sites being deployed in the broader projects of environmental and climate justice?  This session explores toxic heritage from a variety of perspectives, scales, and locations including industrial, extractive, and nuclear sites. It considers the policy, practices, and materiality of toxic heritage in contexts such as rubber production, and earth’s atmosphere, as well as the social experience of toxic heritage in sites of containment and community activism.



Associate Professor of Anthropology, Director of Undergraduate Studies

Michigan Tech University

Department of Social Sciences

1400 Townsend Drive

Houghton, MI 49931-1295

Waste Sits in Places: Rethinking Concepts of Waste in Post-Extractive Zones (#168)

Abstract: Understanding the impacts of mining wastes on ecosystems and communities is an urgent global concern. These concerns are particularly acute for post-industrial communities in northern Michigan, who struggle in the wake of historic industrial copper mining activities that discharged toxic wastes into the air, land, and water. This region includes an active Superfund site, high concentrations of heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and more than a billion tons of mine waste tailings distributed along the shorelines of Lake Superior. These wastes pose substantial threats to the socio-cultural health, well-being, and economies of Great Lakes communities. For Great Lakes tribes, for example, they present a profound challenge: resource areas have been physically transformed and culturally-important foods contaminated. Despite decades of coordinated and strategic efforts to remediate mining wastes, current policies and approaches (e.g., fish advisories, cleanup, and mine waste removal) have not yet found a resolution. This paper argues that ideas of what constitutes waste are often contradictory and contested: government agencies, scientists, tribal communities, and heritage organizations each have competing and contradictory definitions of waste. Using lessons learned from an ongoing investigation, and a detailed overview of mining waste and anthropology, this paper traces how different actors’ perceptions and negotiations of waste are shaping cultural practices. It asks: What drives how different groups interpret and mobilize ideas of toxic waste, cleanup, or approach? Do definitions of waste impede communities’ efforts toward cultural renewal and environmental remediation? By tracing the socio-cultural and historical contexts (think heritage) of mining waste, I argue that actors (non-state, industry, community, and experts) are leveraging concepts of waste to exert power. In these contexts, we can derive lessons and explore how power is exercised and how structural inequalities emerge, and how these ideas of waste shape contemporary practices.


Chair Environmental Policy & Sustainability Management Program

Assistant Professor of Professional Practice

Director, Tishman Environment & Design Center (TEDC)

Milano School of Policy, Management and Environment, The New School University

Environmental Justice Tours: Transformative Narratives of Struggle, Solidarity and Activism (#170)

Abstract: Located on the eastern edge of the City of Newark, New Jersey is a place called Ironbound known for its industrial history and legacy of grassroots activism.  The Ironbound community also has a rich oral history tradition of tours led by resident activists to highlight their toxic struggles and environmental justice activism. The Ironbound and communities like it, exist around the globe. These are places where marginalized, poor, indigenous, communities of color, are impacted by the exploitative forces of globalization, ecological destruction, dispossession, industrial pollution and structural racism. The environmental justice movement has long held up the principle that “We Speak for Ourselves”. Environmental Justice tours are guided by this core principle of self-determination and they serve as a means by which communities reclaim despoiled spaces and transform the stigma of sacrifice zones into spaces of liberation and action. The empowering narratives articulated through the local stories of impacted residents can help shape action and support systemic change, framing a call to action for people both within and outside the community. The goal of this paper is to share the power of Environmental Justice Tours as a means to address a legacy of disenfranchisement, misrecognition and stigmatization of environmental justice communities. These tours can lift up authentic voices of those who are most directly impacted by environmental racism and transform toxic spaces into spaces of solidarity and empowerment.


Heritage Futures I Archaeology

School of Cultural Sciences

Linnaeus University

391 82 Kalmar, Sweden

The Future Heritage of Toxic Waste (#174)

Abstract: This paper is based on almost a decade of work on nuclear waste, collaborating with industry and other stakeholders in Sweden and beyond. As archaeologists and heritage experts we consider long lived nuclear and other toxic waste as part of the human legacy and a very particular form of cultural heritage of the future, possibly representing the Anthropocene in a particularly poignant way. We therefore believe not only that our academic expertise is relevant to the long-term management of toxic waste but also that we in turn have much to learn for our task to “preserve the heritage for the benefits of future generations”, as it goes in many heritage policy documents. Our aim has been all along to contribute to knowledge exchange and capacity building on both sides. This juxtaposition of two seemingly very different fields like cultural heritage and toxic waste has been able to generate a high degree of intellectual energy. We believe that we can contribute to making long-term strategies for taking care of toxic waste more sustainable by applying insights we have learned in recent decades, in particular regarding the significance of contested and variable heritage values and the benefits of focussing on heritage processes in managing cultural legacies. At the same time, we also believe that Critical Heritage Studies and heritage management can benefit from the professionalism and open-mindedness with which the nuclear waste sector in particular has engaged with questions concerning the long-term preservation and possible future recovery of records, knowledge and memory, taking an international and multidisciplinary approach. Focussing on the long-term management of toxic waste can help us understand the roles of heritage in managing the relations between present and future societies.

Keywords: Nuclear waste; future generations; heritage processes; heritage values; open-mindedness


Associate Professor

University of Maryland

Our Toxic Atmosphere: Developing Awareness of Anthropogenic Climate Change and American Environmentalist Pathways (#175)

Abstract: This paper considers early developments in how climate change came to be seen as anthropogenic in the United States, and the challenges for fitting increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases within the prevailing American environmentalist discourses framed around pollution and toxicity. These historical challenges for rendering climate change publicly “visible” and actionable continue to shape climate change responses in the US today. The invisibility of greenhouse gases, their global dispersal and distribution, the long timeframes of their action on climate, their cross-sectoral ubiquity, and their complicated (sometimes additive, sometimes subtractive) relationship to air pollution represent some of the difficulties involved in treating greenhouse gases as pollution. At the same time, understanding greenhouse gases as toxic pollutants has yielded benefits for climate change mitigation, in tracking a well-worn pathway to environmental policymaking, and in sharing similarly intransigent conditions of inequity, of differential risks and responsibilities that work to exacerbate existing inequalities and harm. There is also substantial value in redefining toxicity, to account for the case of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, in building on public sentiments and experiences of environmental destruction, and tapping into the fundamentally moral and ethical remit of climate change and climate action. In the context of the US, tracing the contingent histories of environmental discourse and practice on toxicity tells us something about the rising social consciousness of anthropogenic climate: how it came to be imagined and not imagined, acted upon and not acted upon, and how climate, as anthropogenic, came to be cultural heritage.


Senior Lecturer in Public History and Heritage,

University of Swansea,

Containment and Control; Toxic heritage and liminal legacies (#173)

Abstract: The management of toxic materials often relies on containment. This can function through physical  measures such as concrete and bentonite; spatial measures, such as planning controls; or social measures such as policies and procedures. While an industrial site is functioning the containment has resource and force. When it closes, the containment can be maintained through legislative requirements (as in the case of nuclear waste), but the change in containment regimes is still significant. In some cases the containment regime changes very abruptly and the social and even spatial elements collapse. This reconfigures the site as a liminal space, neither controlled nor open. Such sites are important places, which can be used for activities not welcome or possible in the adjacent landscape – drinking, drug taking, sex work. They can also be important in personal life histories. Heritagisation of former toxic sites once decontamination has occurred risks erasing these liminal legacies. This paper will explore these issues with reference to the former copperworks sites in Swansea, South Wales.


Visiting researcher at Dept. of Cultural Sciences – Linnaeus University

Collaborator researcher on Rubber technology for the Amazon (TecBor) – University of Brasília (UnB)

PhD student on Anthropology/Archaeology – Federal University of Pará (UFPA)

Rubber as toxic heritage: The creation of a material that changed the world and the materiality of rubber period (1850-1920) at the Brazilian Amazon (#172)

Abstract: Rubber production since the second half of the 19th century attracted many people to the Amazon rainforest to work as rubber tappers. The labour conditions included explicit rules: never leaving the post, never complaining, and meeting production quotas. In many cases the conditions were comparable to slavery situations. In addition, it was not healthy to breathe the smoke during the process of turning latex into solid balls. Many workers died during the rubber period (1850-1920) due to work conditions, tropical diseases, punishments and escape attempts. Recognizing the rubber tappers’ agency and also the role of things and rubber trees unravels the complex of Amazonian knowledge behind these relationships. My focus is to analyze rubber smoke as material culture, the entanglement among plants-things-humans, and their impacts over the most important historical event that took place at Amazon. In this sense, historical and contemporary archaeology contributes to heritage studies and heritage futures at the Amazon addressing the rubber tappers agencies, whose knowledge still is blurred.

Keywords: historical archaeology, contemporary archaeology, historical ecology, critical heritage studies, material culture studies.


Independent Scholar

Now Sun City (#185)

Abstract: This paper will consider the ‘stickiness’ of fire and smoke in relation to the mythos of the Ruhrgebiet in West Germany. Fire still retains a close relationship to the industrial heritage of the region, not least through the continued use of the moniker the ‘Land of a Thousand Fires.’ Structural change and the nation’s Energiewende have resulted in significant and ongoing economic, cultural and technological shifts, not least away from fossil fuel extraction and toward renewable energies. Concomitantly, the use of firelight – and symbolic forms of ‘fire’  – are maintained within various heritage and cultural realms at differing scales. In this paper, I draw on the region’s rich photographic and artistic traditions to map out the aerial heritage of the Ruhrgebiet, set against environmental and bodily histories of air pollution.


Linköping University (LiU).

Department of Thematic Studies

SE-581 83 Linköping, Sweden

Eternal Care: Nuclear waste as toxic matter and existential future fantasy (#186)

Abstract: Heritage is generally understood as something positive, a resource drawing from the past to contribute to affirmative identity building in the present. The selection and canonization of heritage objects and phenomena is made in the perspective of assumed benefit for countless future generations and ultimately for eternity. Heritage might also denote difficult and dangerous remnants, for example, of war atrocities or toxic industries. Some of these unwanted legacies, or wounds, from the past will heal into scars that are possible to live with in terms of hurt but reconfigured landscapes and societies. However, some of them will not, but instead require eternal care in order to mitigate their potential danger to humans and other biota. In this paper, I will outline categorizations and management of nuclear waste as a heritage practice pointing simultaneously to contemporary power relations and responsibilities, and to a perpetually changing global living environment. Empirically I will highlight three different waste management contexts: areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster fallout in Belarus and Ukraine; burial sites of military nuclear waste in Russia; and planned high-level waste repositories in Sweden. Through applying a heritage approach to nuclear waste I will link an empirically observable taxonomy of waste management to a wider understanding of how temporalities based on half-lives of isotopes are becoming pertinent to humanity.

The paper is based on collaborative work with Tatiana Kasperski, Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona.