Rewilding the Human Biome: A Conversation with Jamie Lorimer

Bacteria samples under a microscope

Whether caring for the human gut, a farm, or a regional prairie landscape, the turn to “rewilding” is gaining traction in policy and science across disciplines and scales. In his book, The Probiotic Planet: Using Life to Manage Life, Dr. Jamie Lorimer calls this the “probiotic turn.” Lorimer ties this probiotic turn to an uptake in Gaian thinking and places it on a timeline in relation to a growing realization of “antibiotic” modes of managing life and their socioecological blowbacks. 

In March 2021, I sat down with Dr. Lorimer to discuss his new book and what “probiotic recalibration” means for the future of microbiomes and (macro)biomes. More than one year into COVID-19 and amidst ongoing activism around racial inequality, we also discuss his research’s importance for thinking about pandemics, uneven development, and environmental justice.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chris Reimer: You have been focused on rewilding for quite some time, but your theoretical approach has shifted. How did you come about this pivot from the politics and science of a post-nature wildlife to the politics and science of probiotics?

Jamie Lorimer: For a good 10 years I have broadly followed developments in wildlife conservation, particularly in Europe and North America, and I have tracked the emergence of rewilding as a new way of thinking about environmental management. Rewilding is a movement in conservation away from being largely preoccupied with saving endangered species towards reintroducing organisms that could reset landscapes to deliver desired services and functions, particularly famous through the stories of wolves, beavers, tortoises, and organisms like that. While working on a project with conservation colleagues, I set up one of these Google News alerts set up for terms like “rewilding” and “ecological restoration,” and I started seeing those terms being used in very different intellectual spaces—by microbiologists and immunologists in the context of thinking about the human body.

There was a wider understanding around this time of the human body as an ecology, where microbes come to play a really significant role in training our immune systems, enabling gut health, and affecting our moods in different ways. There’s a story emerging that there was a widespread dysbiosis in the western gut, in particular because of the overuse of antibiotic ways of managing life such as hygiene, antibiotic drugs, et cetera. So, I started tracking this and doing some empirical work with people who were doing DIY microbial therapeutics, working on their microbiomes to tackle chronic diseases. I also began to interview some of the scientists involved in developing wild mouse models where they would take lab strains of mice and selectively rewild them to see if they could create mice with immune systems that were more like normal (non-lab) mice and therefore more like normal humans.

Thinking across those spaces, it struck me that there were comparable developments underway between wolves and microbes in this idea that you could use life to manage life, that you could restore these keystone species to try and return desired functions and services into these ecosystems. The book came out of an interest to track this probiotic turn that was underway, particularly in these two sites. But as I cast the net a bit wider and spoke to other colleagues, I began to see manifestations of this thinking in other spaces, for example around food and agriculture and waste management, which led me to make a grander claim that there is this probiotic turn underway in how life is being conceived and managed.

CR: What’s your primary intervention with this book and who’s your target audience?

Portrait photograph of smiling man with glasses, Dr. Jamie Lorimer.
Dr. Jamie Lorimer. Professor of Environmental Geography, University of Oxford.

JL: The book is making an intervention into debates in more-than-human scholarship or posthuman scholarship, trying to make sense of what I call a probiotic turn in social theory. This refers to the ways in which theorists like Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, and Bruno Latour are creating new alliances with science—in the context of a range of microbial issues—to try and overcome some of the problems in the science wars where social theory and science were antagonistic to each other. But they also find in contemporary science a much more palatable story of the place of humans in the world, so I described this as a sort of enthusiasm for Gaian science in which the human is subsumed within the microbial. There’s a decentering of the human in stories of how things work, but also a sense of responsibility because of the magnitude of human influence on the planet. The other intervention is more for the communities of people I’m writing about, who are primarily scientists but also citizens engaged in these experiments in the WEIRD world (I use the label from psychology), so the western-educated, industrialized, rich democratic world.

Conservation biologists and immunologists don’t read each other’s work for understandable reasons and yet they’re both using similar ecological concepts, so the hope was that the book might enable a trafficking of ideas between those domains of knowledge and also amongst the citizens doing their own DIY fermentation projects, their own DIY microbial restoration projects, or even people with a small plot of land tinkering around with what lives there, to give them a story about what they’re doing and to understand why they’re doing it. The key intervention for the book for critical social theory is to say there are many ways of going probiotic—there isn’t a single path to salvation within this movement. So, it’s to give people a road map to make sense of the probiotic turn.

CR: What is the distinction between antibiotic and probiotic management?

JL: The probiotic approach is premised on an idea that there are non-human actors in any relation that have quite a lot of agency to change things. For example, a beaver or a wolf is able, through the webs of life that they’re entangled with, to re-figure the dynamics of the system. Antibiotic approaches often involved broad-stroke lethal efforts to kill all sorts of things—it’s better to clear the forest and plant your monoculture than have a mixed agricultural landscape of plants and forests. It’s an aesthetic of speed, simplicity, and optimization that was seen by necessity to be a good thing, a gesture of human mastery and control. We don’t necessarily know what’s causing the problem, but if we blast everything out of the sky, if we if we poison everything on the land, we’ll have a blank slate to begin with.

There is a probiotic turn underway in how life is being conceived and managed.

It’s worth saying that the antibiotic approach has brought a lot of good things to the world, so I’m not saying we should give up on it, but what’s distinct about the probiotic approach is more of a recalibration of antibiotic approaches rather than a rejection of them. In the microbial world I’m really taken by the work of Heather Paxson, an anthropologist at MIT who talks about a post-Pasteurian approach to thinking about hygiene and health practices. She’s writing about raw milk cheese manufacturers in upstate New York. She’s looking at how in these worlds you differentiate between good and bad microbes and you look at the relations that form between microbes in particular settings. With the Pasteurian approach, we just need sanitation.

CR: In one of my favorite chapters called “Geographies of Dysbiosis,” you look at the unevenness of the probiotic turn through the hookworm. I really liked when you drew distinctions between hookworm encounters in a Mumbai luxury apartment versus a Mumbai informal settlement, which was quite helpful in thinking about how one’s relationship with a hookworm would change significantly based on socioeconomic, spatial, and historical conditions. I think this is something we really need to pay attention to in our contemporary moment of racial and environmental justice, making sure that the probiotic turn is not just for a few but designed with everybody in mind. Could you talk a bit more about these patchy geographies?

JL: The hookworm only becomes a public health concern when it becomes a cause of labor productivity problems on plantations in North America at the end of the 19th century. It’s called the “germ of laziness” because it stopped workers from working hard, and it’s only at that point that those bodies, which had clearly been subject to all sorts of historical violences, became a source of concern. The Rockefeller Foundation spent lots of money to tackle hookworm, which gave rise to the whole apparatus of public health–the World Health Organization grew out of the Rockefeller Foundation. But it was a capitalist project of securing a workforce on one account.

Pen sketch of hookworm
“Necator americanus” or hookworm. Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library.

Another contemporary version of that inequality comes out of work by people like Melinda Cooper, who is interested in the ways in which drug development companies allow running collective public experiments without the constraints of the clinical trial. It was clear to me from spending time on social media with people doing a range of microbial restoration intervention projects that there were people monitoring these collective experiments to see what worms people were using in the hope that they might bring them into forms of proprietary ownership that are amenable to drug development. So, the ultimate hope of the pharmaceutical solution is you could synthesize the molecules that are secreted by the hookworm, get them into a pill, patent the pill, and sell them to people to ensure the margins on drugs for chronic illness, which is a very big business for the pharmaceutical industry. But these weren’t experiments that were being paid for and done by drug companies as far as I could establish, so it was outsourcing the risk of experimentation onto these people who were at the margins of what healthcare could provide for them. So, it’s also the ways in which proprietary drug interests develop and ways in which experiments and knowledge are produced that lead to some futures being enabled and some futures being constrained.

CR: Where do you see your research going from here?

JL: I’ve been trying to think through manifestations of the probiotic turn in food and agriculture, particularly at the producer end, tracking the rise of “regenerative agriculture” as this new buzzword for making sense of how life is being managed in the food system. That touches down in work on soils and putting the soil to work to sequester carbon, work in plants as kind of new agents of carbon circulation, and new ways in which plants can be combined to return to crop rotations that were there in the past. There’s a way in which ecological thinking about plants and microbes is resetting agriculture as agriculture becomes much more visible as a cause of climate change. And then on the consumption side, I have lots of interest in fermentation, which builds on some of the strands of the book around the microbiome. So quite a few ongoing projects trying to fill in some of the empirical spaces that the book doesn’t cover.

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

Featured Image: Bacteria samples under a microscope. Photo by Michael Schiffer, 2018.

Jamie Lorimer is an environmental geographer whose research examines the production of environmental knowledge, and how this knowledge comes to shape the world around us. He focuses on powerful understandings of nature and their consequences for human and nonhuman life across different spatial scales. Past projects have examined human relations with a range of organisms—from elephants to hookworms—and policy domains, including conservation, health and agriculture. He combines concepts and approaches from more-than-human geography with those from science studies, using ethnographic, participatory and historical methods. Website. Twitter. Contact

Chris Reimer is a political ecologist and geography Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia. He is interested in critical liberation ecologies and justice-oriented praxis. His current work is focused on the nexus of conservation, carceral technoscience, and white supremacy in South Florida. Prior to UBC, Chris studied Power, Participation and Social Change at the Institute of Development Studies and worked as an international development practitioner supporting participatory action research and rural community organizing programs in Southeast Asia. Website. Twitter. Contact