How Extraction Fuels the Anthropocenes: A Conversation with Gabrielle Hecht

Two orange gloved hands hold a round disc of uranium with the number 2068 written on it.

Nearly a fifth of the world’s uranium is mined in African countries. As it passes from African mines into the circuits of the global economy, uranium shapes ecologies of health and geopolitical relationships alike. Investigating this transit in her book Being Nuclear, Gabrielle Hecht weaves together the physical properties of uranium, the geopolitics of its extraction, and the technopolitics of its health effects. In telling the story of an African Anthropocene, Hecht seeks to situate global transformations in human-ecological relations. Inviting her readers to “follow that molecule” and adopt “interscalar vehicles” to move through time and space in their thinking, Hecht’s work on an African Anthropocene seeks to bridge the social, geographic, and political divides around climate catastrophe. I sat down with Gabrielle to discuss her thoughts on citizen science and the Anthropocenes, her strategies for research and writing, and the stories that inspire her.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Stepha Velednitsky: I want to start off by discussing your work on the flows of extraction and consumption that drive the Anthropocene. You write about the role that the dominant communities in the Global North play in producing the Anthropocene through their/our desire for particular kinds of materials. Can you speak to the transnational flows of matter and desire that drive climate change? How might these flows get reworked as communities resist climate destruction?

Gabrielle Hecht: People want stuff. We all want stuff. We need stuff for survival, comfort, and play. And many of us, whether we’d like to admit it or not, like it for the sheer pleasure of accumulation. Of course, stuff is made from so-called raw materials and there are many different complex flows involved here. The classic example I give my students is the iPhone. Just take coltan alone from the iPhone: you start in Congo, you move to Malaysia, and then you go to China, and then finally you have your iPhone in your hand. But coltan is just one of the many heavy metals that is involved in that flow: there are flows of manufactured stuff; there are flows of raw material; there are flows of people as well. The fact that all this stuff keeps getting cheaper and cheaper means that the exploitation keeps getting more and more intense.

A gigantic uranium mine reaches far into the earth with terraced levels, mounds of gray earth, and a small green pool at the bottom.

The Rössing uranium mine in Namibia. It is one of the largest and longest operating uranium mines in the world. Photo from Flickr.

You asked about communities “resisting” climate change disruption. I’m not sure that communities can “resist” climate change. Climate change is not like a political regime where you can engage in resistance. The earth is going to do what the earth is going to do. We may be causing this, but that doesn’t mean that as individuals we can resist the change. What we can do is find practices that are going to slow the change, that are going to help us deal with the change.

I think the word Anthropocene is a useful word. But I agree with its critics in that when it gets turned by the Ecomodernists or the people at the Breakthrough Institute into this idea that you can have a “good” Anthropocene, that we—“we” the undifferentiated mass of humanity—can design our way out of this, I think that is a huge and dangerous illusion.

So what can communities do? They can mitigate, they can adapt, they can flee. More and more of them will need to flee. There are projections that show numerous Pacific Islands disappearing under the sea, and the question really is how fast will that happen and where will their inhabitants go to. There are climate refugees already everywhere, as you know.

SV: In conversations about global flows, you’re also conscious of the political importance of scale, from the scale of the body to the scale of the planet. I imagine that accountability and redress might also take place on a number of scales: from the community level to the national or to the super-national. Could you speak to the scalar forms of redress within the Anthropocene context?

GH: Redress, if it exists (which is arguable), can only ever be piecemeal. The jumping of scale in the seeking of redress is really important. I think that is the main way that communities can achieve any form of compensation, let’s call it. They can sometimes appeal to the national scale, but often not. It can sometimes be easier for them to appeal to international bodies, and sometimes that works.

A chart shows the interconnections between uranium tailings, ground water, dust, radon particles, groundwater seepage, and tailing ponds.

Gabon uranium miners were exposed to dust in the mines as well as the environmental impacts of the mining process. Image from the Oeko-Institut, 2013.

There’s a French NGO called Sherpa. It’s a legal NGO founded by two lawyers, and it’s made it its mission to take French-based multinationals to court for abuses committed in other countries. They were involved in trying to get compensation for Gabonese uranium miners. They’ve also been involved in suing the French oil company Total for their actions in Myanmar. When communities can ally with an NGO like that, then possibilities open up. It’s the fact of the lawsuit that then puts pressure on these corporations to behave somewhat better.

In the case of Gabon and uranium miners, that only worked for a short amount of time, and very quickly the corporation figured out a way to basically not pay out compensation to Gabonese miners.

Glowing neon yellow crystals cover a brown rock.

Uranium mined in Mouana, Gabon. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Another really interesting case is that of Marshall Islanders. They have filed suit both against the US government and against the UK, India, and Pakistan. The basis of all of the suits is that these countries have violated the nuclear non-proliferation treaty by continuing to test nuclear weapons and by continuing to build nuclear weapons. The suit did not seek monetary compensation. What it asked for was that these countries come into line with the strictest provisions of the NPT. The suit against the US government got dismissed fairly recently, and the argument was that the article of NPT that the suit was citing was non-self-executing and thus not judicially enforceable. The panel also found that the claims in the suit were inextricable political questions that could not be decided in court. Similar reasons led the suit to be dismissed by the International Court of Justice. These are Anthropocene refugees who have sought redress at the highest possible levels, and, no, it hasn’t worked.

SV: I’d also like to discuss the tensions that you highlight between corporate, academic, and situated knowledges and sciences in Gabon’s uranium landscape. You write about Gabon’s workers contesting corporate scientific findings about the impacts of uranium mining on health. Can you speak a little more to the kinds of knowledges that communities need in addressing or responding to the changes of the Anthropocene? What else is needed in addition to knowledge?

GH: Knowledge is a necessary first step, but it’s just really a tiny one in the grand scheme of things. The Gabonese miners were seeking compensation for the multiple forms of illness that they were experiencing. The radiation exposure seemed to them to be the lever that they could press on to get some action from the corporation. The kind of general exceptionalizing of nuclear things has made that an attractive lever and sometimes that lever works. It has worked in the past in some situations, but it’s complicated because even when they can prove exposure, different legal regimes have different toxic schedules that list what the illnesses are that are associated with a particular exposure. France’s schedule actually looks very different from the American schedule; it’s much shorter. On all these schedules, cancer is considered to be the main effect, but there has been rebellious science that shows that there are effects of radiation exposure on immune systems and so on.

The Gabonese uranium miners needed historical/scientific knowledge. They kind of needed STS (Science and Technology Studies) knowledge, really, because they weren’t seeking to prove the link— that would have been too impossible to do. What they needed to prove was exposure.

Knowledge is not a kind of abstract thing that floats around in the air. It’s distributed onto infrastructures. There are also infrastructures to link knowledge to health effects/health infrastructures, which are different from knowledge infrastructures. If you want to prove cancer, you need a cancer registry, and that’s usually the thing against which all of these claims fall apart because it’s actually quite rare to find places with really robust cancer registries. And then you also need an infrastructure for participatory democracy of some kind, which Gabon certainly does not have at the national level. It was ruled by one ruler for 40 years and now his son is in power. And then people need money. And they need alliances. They need to not have to do the same work that’s been done over and over again, even though to prove harm you have to prove harm in this time and place over and over again.

A dirt road leads through the middle of a lush forest. Flanked by houses, the road leads to the top of a mountain, which is mostly exposed rock due to mining.

Hecht focuses on how extractive industries, like this manganese mine in Gabon, connect the local to the global. Photo from Flickr.

SV: Citizen science and self-advocacy often take the shape of unpaid labor that’s performed outside of and in addition to people’s working hours, as you wrote about in Being Nuclear. What kinds of visions for citizen science could free up more time for working people?

GH: I think it’s really important not to romanticize citizen science. I have a postdoc working with me now who wrote his dissertation in anthropology at the University of York, his name is Maxime Polleri. He has done fieldwork in Fukushima around citizen science issues, among others. How is TEPCO, the company that owned the Fukushima nuclear power plant, trying to “educate” people around radiation issues? And then, how do people try to educate themselves? He finds that in the first few years after the accident, the Japanese government and TEPCO were strongly resisting these citizen science efforts. And then it was like the penny dropped, and they realized that if citizens were measuring radiation, they didn’t need to measure radiation. So the kind of neoliberal impulse, the neoliberal joy, kicked in. Now those kinds of measurements are being redistributed onto citizens who are doing work that should be done by the company and/or the state. The company can’t pay for this remediation so the state is paying, so that means that taxpayers are paying. Citizen science can be a trap as well.

SV: You have a captivating way of telling stories. You weave together materialities, livelihoods, and geopolitics. Your prose moves between place-based histories and broader theoretical observations seemingly effortlessly. You move also fluidly between scales and across regions in your work and your storytelling. Are there writing or research practices that help you maintain your flexibility and creativity as a thinker?

The title of the book is in bold white font and alligned vertically on the right side of the cover. Behind the title a man wearing a mask stands beside a large wall of rocks.

GH: The thing that I’ve been doing all my life is interdisciplinary reading, and that’s just totally fundamental for me. The academy may be divided into disciplines, but the world is not. So I have never confined myself to reading in just one mode. I’ve always been restless about that, and I think that that has really helped my brain stay flexible. I’ve learned what can I appreciate and get out of a particular mode of writing or a particular mode of research.

My writing practices themselves have changed a lot over time, and the biggest change came again in the shift from The Radiance of France to Being Nuclear. With Radiance of France, I was an assistant professor in a History Department trying to establish myself as an STS scholar and as a historian of technology. I had to rein in my interdisciplinary instincts to some extent, so others would take me seriously. I wrote the book and it did all the things the first book is supposed to, but I cringe when I go back and read that prose. I don’t feel like it’s my voice at all, and by the time I finished that book I just hated it so much. So with Being Nuclear I decided I was going to write what I wanted to write and worry about the audience later. It’s the luxury of tenure.

For many years I’ve been writing talks by starting with images. What I found is that this process helps me think differently about the argument that I’m trying to write. I line up the images and then I type notes, not in complete sentences, into the notes field. This way the talk is really a talk, it’s not a paper that I’m reading. Once I’ve given it a few times and started to work out the kinks in it, then I move from there to the written page. It’s a very slow process, but I’m trying to relax and accept that.

SV: What kinds of stories inspire you? What kinds of stories are you most excited to tell and to hear?

GH: I love that question. I love stories of the small in the large and stories of the large in the small. In terms of fiction, right now I’m working my way through Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series. There are just so many themes in there that speak to our current condition: gene editing, reproduction, the relationship between consent and rape. There’s race, there’s gender fluidity. There’s also interspecies sex—which is of course a metaphor for interracial sex—but which is a condition for survival. And then there are these zero-waste spaceships that are in symbiosis with their Oankali creators. I mean, it’s just amazing stuff!

Featured Image: A billet of highly enriched uranium that was recovered from scrap processed at the Y-12 National Security Complex Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Image from the United States Department of Energy, 2007.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Gabrielle Hecht is Frank Stanton Foundation Professor of Nuclear Security at Stanford University, where she is affiliated with the Department of History and the Center for International Security and Cooperation. She works at the intersection of history, anthropology, and STS. Her book Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade won awards in STS, African history, and other fields. She is presently working on a series of essays around the theme Toxic Tales from the African Anthropocene. Twitter. Contact.

Stepha Velednitsky is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her master’s thesis analyzed the role of Israeli sociology in shaping Middle Eastern Jewish immigrants as racialized agricultural workers. Stepha’s current project investigates the contemporary geopolitical ecologies of migration and labor in Israel-Palestine. Her previous contributions to Edge Effects include a podcast interview with Jason W. Moore (October 2017), “A Syllabus for Teaching Water Politics” (April 2017), and “What a Card Game Teaches us About Moving Through a City” (November 2017). Website. Twitter. Contact.