The Invisibility of Waste in the Middle East: 5 Questions with Toby Jones
This interview was conducted during Toby Jones’ visit to Washington University in St. Louis on January 26. The interviewer, Olivia (Wenjia) Chen, is a Mellon Sawyer graduate fellow.
“What I’m interested in, analytically, is not where there are, or are not, waste landscapes. But where similar landscapes—particularly dystopian landscapes or toxic landscapes—are considered waste or not considered as waste, where they are considered consequences of a certain kind of violence and where they are not.”
Olivia Chen: Can you share with us about how you came to your present project?
Toby Jones: From 2003 to 2006, I lived between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The first part of that was spent working on the project that would become my dissertation and my first book, which was about environmental politics in Saudi Arabia in the twentieth century, mostly about water and oil. I had an interest in oil’s social, political, and economic complexities as a graduate student, but they were mostly tied to the things that we were trained to think about: national histories and the state. You go and you study a country, you study a community in a country, and you tell a story about it. But I also happened to be in the Gulf when the Iraq War started. The US invaded Iraq in March 2003. I was both concerned about the war, but also interested in how you might think about 2003 historically, how to situate it in earlier moments of American intervention. After finishing coursework and the book and getting through tenure, I started thinking seriously about the consequences and legacies, as well as the conditions and causes, of the war. The work that I’m sharing with the seminar today—about environmental contamination and toxicity—all emerged out of the way the war was fought in 2003. But it was also influenced by my training in environmental history and what proceeded it.
“My interest in waste is the politics around how places come to be designated as damaged.”
OC: What does the term waste evoke for you?
TJ: I think that the use of waste tells us more about the person using the term than about what they are describing. Somebody who describes a place as a slum tells us about their socioeconomic position and political power. Waste functions similarly. What I’m interested in, analytically, is not where there are, or are not, waste landscapes. But where similar landscapes—particularly dystopian landscapes or toxic landscapes—are considered waste or not considered as waste, where they are considered consequences of a certain kind of violence and where they are not. I do a lot of global work around particular concepts of weapon systems and sites of weapon production that are considered waste sites. For example, in the United States, places that manufacture toxic weapons often get caught up in American environmental politics where they are designated officially as toxic, compared to places that are used to warfare like Iraq, where many of the same American agencies say they are not toxic or they are not waste. My interest in waste is the politics around how places come to be designated as damaged. It’s not the same everywhere. In this way what counts as waste, at least the people who evoke it and think about it, are usually using scientific language. The problem with this is that science ends up being adaptable to politics. The same science at one place says something different than the same science at another place. That to me is worth scrutinizing in understanding how it works.
“In Iraq it’s very different, because the Pentagon or its partners in the Iraqi government control access to information and sites. They engage in what Robert Proctor calls agnotology—that’s the production not only of ignorance around things, but they close off access to archives in multiple ways. And there are also, of course, the underlying challenges of gaining access to field sites, or being willing to risk the security environment in Iraq at all.”
OC: Can you talk about the practical and intellectual challenges of your archives or the materials you work with?
TJ: Well, let me take the example of the use of depleted uranium in Iraq in particular, which is a big part of what I write about. In the United States, there is a tremendous documentary trail. Much of it is digitized, because much of it is late twentieth- and the twenty-first century, relatively easy to find; it is part of public court proceedings or environmental prosecution. There are multiple political agencies as well as activist groups that interrogate the consequences or the political conditions in which something like depleted uranium is either manufactured or tested. For example, in Massachusetts where there is a plant that manufactures DU weapons, citizens can become engaged and they can approach the state, environmental agencies, or the EPA at the national level, and create a documentary trail. In Iraq it’s very different, because the Pentagon or its partners in the Iraqi government control access to information and sites. They engage in what Robert Proctor calls agnotology—that’s the production not only of ignorance around things, but they close off access to archives in multiple ways. And there are also, of course, the underlying challenges of gaining access to field sites, or being willing to risk the security environment in Iraq at all. I can’t travel to some parts of Iraq to do the work, or choose not to. So some of the practical challenges are how do we gather information. Now fortunately it raises an intellectual possibility. Back to my previous question about science, this is one of the racialized aspects of science. When European American scientists talk about waste or toxicity, they often diminish the expertise of Arab or other scientists as not having the technical capacity or the training. What I found is that epidemiological work in Iraq is quite scrupulous: it’s institutionalized, it’s reasonably well funded, Iraqi scientists are trained much like their counterparts globally. One of the ways I overcome the practical challenges is to rely on experts in Iraq who do the field work and use their information. There is certain problems with that. Why be generous to Iraqi scientists but then critical of American scientists? But, I try to parse this as best as I can: there is evidence available. I just have to rely on others to generate it and make it available.
OC: Yes. And sometimes invisibility itself offers food for intellectual thought.
TJ: I think so. I think it does, I think it matters. Invisibility in the case of toxicity operates at multiple levels. It operates at the molecular level; it operates at the environmental level; it also operates on the level of political economy. That is, people manufacturing toxic stuff don’t want us to know that it’s toxic stuff. It is productive to think about not only why they do so, but why it is invisible or why it is visible.
“Invisibility in the case of toxicity operates at multiple levels. It operates at the molecular level; it operates at the environmental level; it also operates on the level of political economy. That is, people manufacturing toxic stuff don’t want us to know that it’s toxic stuff. It is productive to think about not only why they do so, but why it is invisible or why it is visible.”
OC: I’m wondering if collaboration has played a role in your research and writing. If yes, how has it worked? If no, are you thinking about doing collaborative work in the future? TJ: I would like very much to do collaborative work. Historians are notoriously poorly trained, and often enthusiastic in this respect. Other disciplines do better. There are certainly unwilling collaborators. The Iraqi scientists and doctors who engage in epidemiological work and whose work I rely upon, don’t know I’m using their material or data. I think they would approve. I’m really relying on them. That’s not collaboration. That’s just me taking their work. That’s a different thing.
OC: But maybe a network can be built in some way?
TJ: One would hope. I think for both political and intellectual reasons, networks would be useful. I’m interested in global networks in particular. We’re not trained particularly well as historians to think in all places at all time. Nor do we have the language skills necessary to do this. There are institutional limits to collaboration, unfortunately—funding, for example. But there is more of this than there has been before. I think between digital tools and communication networks it’s possible to do it, and I would like to.
OC: Maybe it’s not necessarily transnational, but interdisciplinary collaboration—maybe that’s another way to do it.
TJ: Absolutely. Perhaps that’s the most promising way for it. I’ll be honest, or at least frank. I think historians probably have the most room to grow. We are a little too bound to archives, to dust the old places, and to work alone, whereas anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists like to think together in and outside the field and have tools to do so. Ethnography lends itself to discussion, to thinking out loud and to reflexivity that historians would not necessarily do enough of them. So, yes, interdisciplinarity would be great.
“I’d like to think the environmental humanities has a future off-campus—but I’m not sure that’s the case. The assault on science outside universities is so staggering that the anti-intellectual environment in the US has to be chipped away—maybe environmental humanities can help with that too.”
OC: I’d like to hear about your thoughts on the future of environmental humanities. What kind of role do you imagine this discipline might play in the future?
TJ: Universities have done a spectacularly poor job, outside of the sciences, of taking seriously public audiences and seeking avenues to reach out and influence everything from policy to local practice around the environment. The environmental humanities exist in multiple forms. Where I teach at Rutgers, there is a kind of fledgling effort to organize an interdisciplinary major, from geography, anthropology, history, and several other sites to train students in the environmental humanities in a rigorous way. But it’s not enough to create programing on campus. I live in the most toxic state in the country: New Jersey is by order of magnitude some of the most environmentally devastated landscape. The environmental humanities needs not be the kind of intellectual project that a lot of us were trained to think we were doing, but needs to have a kind of practical engagement. I teach a public history course at Rutgers that encourages students to take one place—last time we took Camden, which has a number of toxic sites—to think about its toxic history, to go and do oral history and graphic work in its communities, to visit EPA field offices close to campus, to bring those people in to think about expertise. This is a way to get students to think about the relations between the university and the community as well as to create opportunities for them to take what they learn in the classroom and make sense of the world around them. It challenges many of them and the assumptions they bring in. A lot of my students come from white, middle-class New Jersey communities and here we are taking them to predominantly African-American cities to think about the environment as something to be understood historically. I’d like to think the environmental humanities has a future off-campus—but I’m not sure that’s the case. The assault on science outside universities is so staggering that the anti-intellectual environment in the US has to be chipped away—maybe environmental humanities can help with that too.