Living in the Toxcene: Toxicity as a Form of Life
by Dipali Mathur (Edinburgh, UK)
EDITORS’ NOTE: This essay was originally published as “The Planetary Scale of Toxic Pollution,” a section in Dipali Mathur’s 2022 book, Available to Be Poisoned: Toxicity as a Form of Life. To work as a stand-alone piece, the original has been slightly modified. For in-depth treatments of all topics sketched out here, we enthusiastically recommend the book itself. The material is reprinted courtesy of Lexington Books / Rowman & Littlefield.
“RECENT years have witnessed a tremendous growth of knowledge productions relating to the toxic ecology of the human body,” as Mel Y. Chen observed.1 Indeed, what we do know through scientific research and inquiry is disquieting, confirming the hypothesis that in the twenty-first century, toxicity is a form of life.
To begin with, “all human bodies tested, anywhere in the world, contain industrial chemicals”2 in varying quantities and diverse mixtures. According to biologist and endocrinologist Barbara Demeneix, not only are all children today born pre-exposed to a complex mixture of dangerous chemicals in their mothers’ wombs, but, more worryingly, synthetic chemicals are interfering with normal brain development, sex hormones, and the body’s other hormones crucial for growth and development. This intensifying chemical trespass on our bodies has been linked to rising incidents of a host of diseases, chronic illnesses, and disorders such as cancer, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in children, deformed births, declining IQs across populations, diabetes, obesity, and asthma, to name a few. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, new research has connected exposure to “multiple toxic stressors,” which degrade the body’s immune system, with the increased “likelihood for comorbidities and mortality associated with COVID-19.”4
Moreover, today, the majority of the drinking water supply in the United States of America likely contains perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), commonly known as “forever chemicals,” a class of synthetic chemicals that can take thousands of years to break down in the natural environment and are known to accumulate in the human body, potentially leading to severe health problems such as “kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, liver damage, developmental toxicity, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced preeclampsia and hypertension, and immune dysfunction.”5
The most recent addition to this growing corpus of scientific literature, following the legacy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, is environmental and reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan’s observation in her recently released book, Countdown, that human sperm counts in Western countries have declined by over 50 percent between 1973 and 2011, and simultaneously female fertility has also been steadily declining. According to Swan, the proliferation of human-made endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) “found in everything from plastic containers and food wrapping, to waterproof clothes and fragrances in cleaning products, to soaps and shampoos, to electronics and carpeting”6 is significantly to blame for the present crisis. As Swan reveals, “These endocrine-disrupting chemicals are playing havoc with the building blocks of sexual and reproductive development. They’re everywhere in our modern world—and they’re inside our bodies.”7 If we don’t address this toxic crisis, Swan warns, by 2050 many couples will be entirely reliant upon assisted reproductive technologies.8 In other words, the unnatural concentrations and combinations of hazardous synthetic chemicals in our natural and built environments could threaten the very future of humanity.
These devastating health effects are compounded by the fact that the damaging effects of synthetic chemicals are not restricted to one generation but can reverberate across multiple generations. For instance, Swan recounts the example of diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic form of the female hormone estrogen, first put to a range of “therapeutic purposes” in the 1940s, including being commonly prescribed to pregnant women as a means to prevent miscarriages.9 In 1971, it was discovered that the daughters of women exposed to DES during pregnancy had a higher risk (about forty times higher) of developing adenocarcinoma of the lower genital tract, a rare type of cancer, than the daughters of unexposed mothers.10 Furthermore, even the grandsons of pregnant women exposed to DES have been found to have an increased risk of genital abnormalities.11 Swan also points to research uncovering that “exposure to environmental toxins can lead to the intergenerational inheritance of PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome] or a premature reduction in the pool of viable eggs (aka diminished ovarian reserve).”12
Two of the most prominent examples in this regard are provided by the horrifying toxic legacies of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak in India and the chemical warfare of Agent Orange by the US military during the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971. The negligent leak of the highly toxic methyl isocyanate gas (MIC) from an American-owned pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, continues to cause congenitally deformed births and significant developmental issues in children belonging to the third generation of gas survivors. Similarly, as a result of the Vietnamese population’s exposure to the carcinogenic by-product of herbicide manufacture, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), a type of dioxin, in addition to other active ingredients of the defoliating herbicide called Agent Orange and a deadly cocktail of other poisonous chemicals, half a million children are estimated to have been born with serious birth abnormalities.13
These adverse and alarming disruptions to health are not restricted to the human species but extend to the extra-human world, where the proliferation of human-made toxic chemicals has occasioned catastrophic and often irreversible alterations to nonhuman forms of life. Today, there is mounting evidence that Rachel Carson’s prediction, made over sixty years ago, that rapid ecosystem decline is inevitable if the unregulated use of pesticides continues unchanged, has come true. According to the meticulously monitored and recorded data for a research study by the entomologist Martin Sorg and his colleagues, between 1989 and 2017 there has been a shocking 75 percent decline in insect populations across 63 nature reserves in Germany.14 The data collected by Sorg “ruled out changes to weather and vegetation”15 as the cause of this extraordinary decline, instead identifying the chemicals and pesticides used in modern farming as the root cause of the problem. The ripple effects of the monumental decrease in the insect population are being felt across the ecosystem. Professor Hans De Kroon from Radbound University in the Netherlands has noticed a significant decline in wildlife numbers over the years. As he explains, “about 80 per cent of our crops depends on insects for pollination. Eighty per cent of the wild plant species as well. A major part of the insects is being eaten by birds and by other animals […] essential in the food chain. So if we are losing all of that, we are losing the […] ecological foundation of ourselves.”16
In yet another alarming study, conducted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and published in 2019, Dr. Ken Rosenberg and his team of scientists revealed that since 1970, the population of grassland birds in North America has declined by 53 percent, bird populations across all biomes have reduced by 29 percent, and 74 percent of grassland species have registered a decline in populations in the same 48-year period.17 According to the study, these declines are driven by “habitat loss and more toxic pesticides use.”18 Similarly, in a report published by marine scientists Jon Brodie and Matt Landos in 2019, 50 individual pesticide residues were detected in the ecologically threatened Great Barrier Reef waterways in Queensland, Australia.19 These agricultural chemicals included several hazardous chemicals, among them atrazine, a herbicide banned in sixty countries for its potential to cause endocrine disruption and adverse reproductive effects such as miscarriages, reduced male fertility, and birth defects, as well as for its toxicity to animals.20 More worryingly, most industrial chemicals persist in the environment “in a geological time frame that exceeds the timescale of the human species.”21
In the twenty-first century, countless such studies have armed us with incontrovertible evidence that the unabating speed and scale at which humans have discharged industrial chemicals into the earth’s ecosystems has poisoned and contaminated all forms of life on the planet. As environmental sociologist Rebecca Altman has noted, “Synthetics created in the 20th century have become an evolutionary force, altering human biology and the web of life.”22 We are living in a new chemical age that I have called the Toxcene, where “toxicity as a form of life” has become a condition of our being on the planet.
I offer the term Toxcene despite the prevalence of “–cenes” in contemporary critical theory because, as Raj Patel and Jason Moore have said, “we need an intellectual state shift”23 to start thinking about our new reality with new conceptual tools. The first task, therefore, as Patel and Moore have argued, must be one of “linguistic rigour” in reframing the very terms of the debate to envision a more potent politics for the present crisis. The challenge is to make toxicity thinkable and to make it available to think with. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, “‘If one concept is ‘better’ than an earlier one, it is because it makes us aware of new variations and unknown resonances, it carries out unforeseen cuttings-out, it brings forth an Event that surveys us.’”24
My use of the term Toxcene to name our new chemical age is an effort to capture the specific product of human ingenuity on the planet which has occasioned the ecological catastrophe of our present historical moment. The Toxcene foregrounds “toxicity” as the agent of planetary-wide disruptions to traditional ways of living and being in the world, and names the kind of human legacy we are leaving behind in the “Anthropocene”—a toxic legacy. Toxic pollution, whether this be the result of nuclear radiation, pesticides, e-waste, plastic pollution, or other hazardous anthropogenic chemicals, is the disruptive capacity of human activity on the planet that is not captured by the term Anthropocene. From an ecological multispecies perspective, the Toxcene identifies the material problem that has led us to the “age of humans.”
Given the relative “newness” of these human-made products of planetary-wide disruption, the emergence of the Toxcene as a new age of toxicity coincides with the period of “Great Acceleration” in human activity, which Bonneuil and Fressoz position as occurring between the years 1945 and 1973, corresponding to “a capture by the Western industrial countries of the ecological surpluses of the Third World.”25 In effect, this capture amounted to the further pauperization and impoverishment of so-called third world ecologies and populations through “the unequal relations of ecological credit and debit that set in with the Great Acceleration.”26 It was also during this time period that the world began to see the formation of a new “logic of toxicity” according to which there was a shift in intention from “prevention” of toxic contamination to “management” after the fact. The Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984 in India was the outcome of this mindset. The term Toxcene, therefore, is useful to identify the historical moment and the ideo-structures which support the ecological and humanitarian contamination of the planet at a scale and with an intensity unparalleled in human history.
And yet, despite the recent trajectory of the Toxcene, the foundations for our intoxicated present are built on the longer, violent histories of colonial and capitalist onto-epistemological frameworks and structures of exploitation. In this context, while the concept of the “Eurocene,” preferred by Jairus Victor Grove, names who is responsible, and the concept of the “Capitalocene,” preferred by Bonneuil and Fressoz as well as Patel and Moore, names the system that is responsible, my concept of the Toxcene becomes a way to identify the specific artifacts (or the what) of planetary catastrophe. My purpose in forwarding a new “–cene” to think with, therefore, is not to replace one concept with another, but rather to recognize that each of these terms brings forth new resonances and takes us one step closer to a more comprehensive understanding of how “we” arrived at the Anthropocene and the damages “we” have caused to earth systems.
The enormity of the problem of toxic pollution makes it imperative that we first find effective ways to think though and articulate the problem of toxicity before we begin finding “solutions” to address its global spread. As Max Liboiron points out, the way in which we think about a problem “matters, because policy makers, NGOs, and other change-makers define solutions in response to how problems are defined. […] The representation of a problem forecloses some forms of action while allowing others to make sense.” Till such time as the problem of toxicity is framed as the unavoidable price of progress, it will continue to naturalize what is in fact an entirely unnatural way of life.27
To find out more about Dipali’s book, check out the PICT podcast, Bookaholics #14: Dipali Mathur, Available to Be Poisoned: Toxicity as a Form of Life, in which Dipali is interviewed by PICT faculty member Iain MacKenzie. The podcast is available on YouTube and SoundCloud.
1. Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, Durham: Duke University Press, 2012, 189.↑
2. Max Liboiron, Manuel Tironi, and Nerea Calvillo, “Toxic Politics: Acting in a Permanently Polluted World,” Social Studies of Science 48:3 (2018): 332.↑
3. Barbara Demeneix, Toxic Cocktail: How Chemical Pollution is Poisoning our Brains, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, 2-3.↑
4. Ronald N. Kostoff et al., “The Under-Reported Role of Toxic Substance Exposures in the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Food and Chemical Toxicology 145, no. 111687 (November 2020). See also Laurie Schintler et al., “Environmental and Occupational Exposure to Toxic Industrial Chemicals and COVID-19: An Exploratory Analysis of United States Counties,” SSRN (1 July 2020).↑
5. Annie Sneed, “Forever Chemicals Are Widespread in U.S. Drinking Water,” Scientific American, 22 January 2021 [14 January 2023].↑
6. Erin Brockovich, “Plummeting Sperm Counts, Shrinking Penises: Toxic Chemicals Threaten Humanity,” The Guardian, 18 March 2021 [14 January 2023].↑
7. Shanna H. Swan with Stacey Colino, Countdown: How Our Modern World is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020, 9.↑
8. Swan with Colino, Countdown, 8.↑
9. Swan with Colino, Countdown, 117.↑
10. Swan with Colino, Countdown, 117. See also “Diethylstilbestrol (DES) and Cancer,” National Cancer Institute [10 June 2020].↑
11. Swan with Colino, Countdown, 139.↑
12. Swan with Colino, Countdown, 139.↑
13. “Agent Orange,” history.com, updated 16 May 2019 [14 January 2023].↑
14. Eric Campbell, “Insectageddon,” for Foreign Correspondent, ABC Australia, 15 October 2019 [14 January 2023].↑
15. Campbell, “Insectageddon.”↑
16. Campbell, “Insectageddon.”↑
17. Kenneth V. Rosenberg et al., “Decline of the North American Avifauna,” Science 366, no.6561 (19 September 2019): 120-124.↑
18. Rosenberg et al., “Decline of the North American Avifauna.”↑
19. Virgilio Marin, “Researchers Find High Levels of Pesticides in the Great Barrier Reef, Including One That’s Banned in 60 Countries,” Pesticides.News, 23 December 2020 [14 January 2023].↑
20. Ben Smee, “Great Barrier Reef: Scientists Find High Levels of Pesticides and Blast Chemical Regulator,” The Guardian, 6 November 2019 [14 January 2023].↑
21. Liboiron, Tironi, and Calvillo, “Toxic Politics,” 332.↑
22. Rebecca Altman, “Time-Bombing the Future,” Aeon Magazine, 2 January 2019 [14 January 2023].↑
23. Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet, Victoria: Black Inc., 2018, 12.↑
24. Ian Buchanan, “Introduction,” in Assemblage Theory and Method, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021, 2.↑
25. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, trans. David Fernbach, London: Verso, 2016, 236.↑
26. Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, 236.↑
27. Max Liboiron, “Redefining Pollution and Action: The Matter of Plastics,” Journal of Material Culture 21:1 (December 2015): 2.↑