By Daniel Renfrew, author of Life without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay
The 2018 AAA Annual Meeting theme, Change in the Anthropological Imagination: Resistance, Resilience, and Adaptation, reflects the political urgency stoked by the rise of right wing nationalist and populist movements, the humanitarian crises of mass migration, ongoing wars and civil conflicts, delegitimized systems of global neoliberal governance, and the deepening socio-ecological crises of pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change. It is a timely call for researchers to engage in praxis by drawing from and applying the analytical tools and methods of anthropology as a holistic and eclectic discipline attuned to the intersections of “the epic and the everyday,” as John Comaroff puts it, and committed to understanding how the present is shaped by the longue durée of dynamic historical forces.
When viewed through the lens of lead poisoning, the annual theme takes on interesting and perhaps surprising dimensions. This “disease of antiquity” that ravaged the patrician class of the Roman Empire and much later became the twentieth century’s “mother of all industrial poisons” has, as it has over the past two thousand years, been publicly rediscovered and once again made visible. This time it is among the working class and minority communities of Flint, Michigan, and in the pipes, paints and soils of cities across the United States, while other, similar dramas of lead continue to unfold around the world.
Conducting background research for my new book, Life without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay, I was struck by the parallels between what happened in Uruguay and the stories of Flint, Baltimore, and Chicago in the U.S., but also Paris, Buenos Aires, Callao (Peru), Guiyu (China) and Agbogbloshie (Ghana). These are common stories of corporate malfeasance and unaccountability, inadequate or absent state regulation, decaying infrastructure, battles over scientific knowledge production and its translation into public health policy, biopolitical strategies of blaming victims and explaining disease etiology in “cultural” terms, seething structural violence, and the rise of environmental justice movements. It is through grassroots activism, in alliance with key scientific and institutional actors, that the balance is finally tipped and the lead story becomes public and political.
And yet, in this recurrent clash of metal and human resiliency, we also witness the constancy of change. In Uruguay, as in other sites of lead conflict around the world, changing material conditions and social formations, some transnational in character, give rise to new forms of vulnerability and exposure. New knowledge regimes emerge from the conflict zones of competing national and international academic, state, corporate, and grassroots forms of expertise. New subjectivities are forged as erstwhile labor activists or non-politicized citizens turn to environmental justice as an orienting framework of struggle. These stories demonstrate how lead remains a prime vehicle to reflect upon the tragic foreclosures of possibility and hope in the contemporary world, while revelatory of the continuously innovative efforts of activists to adapt, resist, and forge resilient communities.