Fire in an elemental Anthropocene

How an Anthropocene is conceptualized (or not) matters insofar as it can help to understand the root causes and distributed effects of wide-scale, uneven, environmental disruptions. That is, the concept of the Anthropocene can help think about why and how factors like climate change and pollution act in uneven, often non-consensual ways, and how these issues might be addressed. What’s causing environmental disruption? Is it capitalism? Settler colonialism? Heterosexism? Anti-blackness? Combinations of each?

One way (among others) to understand the anthropocene is to start by thinking about it topically. In the new special issue ‘An elemental Anthropocene’ in Cultural Studies Review (edited by Timothy Neale, Will Smith, and Alison Kenner), anthropocenes are interrogated via different ‘elemental’ starting points, from water to air to fire and land. The different papers in the collection show how issues that characterize an anthropocene (think floods, wildfires, toxic pollution in cities) are differentially produced and felt based on the larger structures, noted above.

Wildfire smoke in Saskatoon, Sasktachewan. Photo: A. Zahara 2018,

In our new paper,‘An Eternal Flame: The Elemental Governance of Wildfires pasts, presents, and futures’, Timothy Neale, Will Smith and I look at the ways in which fire– and wildfire in particular– has come to shape lives and ecologies in three continents: Canada, Australia and the Philippines. We show that wildfires in particular have been shaped through settler colonial relations to land as well as capitalist forestry endeavors. Popular solutions for dealing wildfires (risk and emergency management practices, the protection of particular ‘values at risk’, the harvesting of carbon credits), not surprisingly, continue to tap into these logics. While these politics may be understood locally, they often go uninterrogated by environmental managers. To read more, check out the paper here.

Burned trees in the Boreal Forest. Photo: A. Zahara

All the papers in the collection are open access and stem from the Anthropocene Campus Melbourne, held at the Alfred Deakin Institute. The paper is part of ongoing collaborations stemming from my time as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute, working with Dr. Tim Neale and Dr. Emma Kowal in 2018.

Full paper citation: Neale, Timothy., Zahara, Alex., and Will Smith. (2019) An eternal flame: the elemental governance of wildfire’s pasts, presents and futures. Cultural Studies Review, 25(2): 115-134.

Risk, chemicals, and justice

How ‘risk’ and ‘harm’ are defined is always political. That is, these categories do not exist outside in the world but are defined by particular groups of people– scientists, government regulatory boards, public health authorities– who always have preconceived and culturally informed ideas about what it means to be healthy or ‘at risk’.

Inevitably toxic
Inevitably Toxic (2018) Edited by Brinda Sarathy, Vivien Hamilton., & Janet F. Brodie. University of Pittsburgh Press.

That categories of risk and health are not inevitable but historically and socially produced is the subject of Inevitably Toxic: Historical Perspectives on Contamination, Exposure and Expertise a new edited collection out of University of Pittsburgh press. The collection contains essays on a range of topics from x-rays to nuclear waste storage to pesticide use and oil drilling.

It also includes an essay I wrote as part of my previous research on waste in Arctic Canada.  My chapter ‘On Sovereignty, Deficits and Dump Fires: Risk Governance in an Arctic ‘Dumpcano” discusses the controversy of a summer-long dump fire in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Public protests, led by Inuit, reframed what would otherwise be seen as a single, exceptional, catastrophic event, as an effect of ongoing settler colonialism in Nunavut Territory. You can read the chapter, here.

For further reading about contamination, research, and expertise, I’ve also written the following short pieces:

sperm egg plants
From ‘Queering Chemicals’. Image of plants titled ‘Sperm, Egg, Fertilization, Sex Cell‘ Creative Commons Zero – CC0 1.0, Public Domain.


Discard Studies is Back!

In the last 5 years, I’ve gone from working as a research technician in a toxicology lab, to conducting ethnographic research about waste, to doing more cross-disciplinary work with CLEAR and throughout my PhD. During all this time, Discard Studies has been an incredible resource for keeping up-to-date on the latest theory, texts, and conferences in the field. Its also helped my transition across disciplines and introduced me (virtually or otherwise!) to a community of researchers, journalists and activists interested in waste and pollution. I’m incredibly grateful for the blog and the tremendous work that’s been put into it by long-term editor Dr. Max Liboiron and founder Dr. Robin Nagle.


On September 1st, Discard Studies officially went live with the latest iteration of the blog (check out the opening post, here!). Some changes to the site include a new public interface, a Twitter account (!), and a new post series called The Dirt (featuring latest texts, journals, calls for proposals, and research positions in the field). In addition to this, I’m super excited to be joining the Discard Studies editorial team, along with Dr. Josh Lepawsky. I’m also incredibly appreciative that as a graduate student, this work will be a paid position. This is rarely the case for graduate student editor positions, which tend to perpetuate a culture unpaid labour for junior and precarious scholars.

Some previous Discard Studies posts that I’ve written, include:


Repair and maintenance are a part of how systems of value are built and maintained. Photo taken on 2 March 2002. From Wikimedia Commons.

If you would like to support Discard Studies blog, please consider becoming a patron.

Queer Science has Ethics; Silver Hake (and many fish!) Don’t Eat Plastic

Since starting my PhD in 2016, one of my favourite groups I’ve been a part of has been the Queer Science Reading Group. The group is comprised of a fantastic bunch of undergrads, graduate students, staff, and faculty from fields spanning anatomy and cell biology to geography to gender studies to medicine. We meet twice a month, drink tea, and learn about queer theory. In a, dare I say it, ~fabulous~ interview with Lady Science, group members Elise Earles (she/her) and I talk about what we’ve learned so far through the Queer Science Reading Group.  Topics covered include doing queer placed-based science in Newfoundland, opportunities and incommensurabilities between settler and Indigenous queer activism, queer food webs, queer quant, our reading list, and more. Check out the interview, here:  “Categories aren’t these things that are just there”: An interview with the CLEAR Lab’s Queer Science Reading Group’. The group will start up again in a new iteration this January. E-mail me if you’d like to join!

We’re making a manifesto! Preliminary thoughts from members Elise, Nic, Taylor, Ignace, Jackie, Caitlynn, Marie, and I.  Photo: Alex Zahara

Another CLEAR project that was recently published is the study, A zero percent plastic ingestion rate by silver hake (Merluccius bilinearis) from the south coast of Newfoundland, Canada’, which is out now in Marine Pollution Bulletin. After not finding any plastics in silver hake off the coast of Newfoundland, we compared our results to the literature. We found that 41% of all recorded plastic ingestion rates for fish reported a value of zero.  Despite the ubiquity of plastics in the ocean, this is not surprising given that where pollution goes, who and what it effects is always unevenly distributed (i.e. in this case, an effect of where plastics are located, how they float, where fish swim, what fish like to eat).  Given low sample sizes reported in the literature, we are unable to determine what fish are most effected by plastic pollution– what is necessary for justice-based interventions. The key takeaways of the paper: (1) studies with higher sample sizes for a single fish type are important for understanding the effects of plastic pollution; and (2) report your null results!

A rainbow of microplastics on Kamilo Beach, Hawai’i. Photo: Alex Zahara, 2012.

You can read more about the study and it’s implications in the piece, ‘Not All Marine Fish Eat Plastics’ published on the Conversation by co-author Dr. Max Liboiron.

Full Citations:

Elise Earls & Alex Zahara (interviewer, KJ Shephard) (2018).  “Categories aren’t these things that are just there”: An interview with the CLEAR Lab’s Queer Science Reading Group’. Lady Science.

F. Liboiron, J. Ammendolia., J. Saturno., J. Melvin., A. Zahara., N. Richard., and M. Liboiron. (2018). A zero percent plastic ingestion rate by silver hake (Merluccius bilinearis) from the south coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Marine Pollution Bulletin 131: 267-275.



New Paper: Equity in Authorship Order

As an interdiscplinary researcher studying equity and justice issues, one of my key interests is incorporating lessons learned through social science theory into scientific practices. In our new paper, published in Catalyst: Journal of Feminist Theory and Technoscience, members of Civic Lab for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), discuss how we incorporate feminist values into consensus-based decision-making about authorship order. Factors we consider when deciding authorship order include: multiple types of labour (ideation, care work, data entry), social location (class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, abilities), and need (point in career, previous instances of data theft, and career trajectories, and more). Abstract below:

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Lab members during conversation about author equity, 2016. Photograph by CLEAR photographer-in-residence Bojan Fürst.

Liboiron et al. (2017). Equity in Author Order: A Feminist Laboratory’s Approach. Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 3: 1-17.

Author order is crucial; it is the currency of academia. Within STEM disciplines, women and junior researchers–those who are the primary constituents of our lab– consistently receive less credit for equal work. Our Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) is a feminist marine science laboratory at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. Recognizing that the stakes are high for CLEAR members, we have developed an approach to author order that emphasizes process and equity rather than system and equality. Our process is premised on: 1) deciding author order by consensus; 2) valuing care work and other forms of labour that are usually left out of scientific value systems; and 3) taking intersectional social standing into account.  Although CLEAR’s approach differs from others’, we take author order seriously as a compromised but dominant structure within science we must contend with. That is, rather than attempt to circumvent author order, we stay with the trouble. This article outlines this process.

Studying Wildfire Management: Northern Exposures Meeting + CAG

This May, I pre-empted my Summer field season by testing out my proposed dissertation research at a couple of conferences. For my PhD fieldwork, I’ve decided to (a la an ethnographic refusal) examine a contamination issue closer to my home.

The Canadian military in Prince Albert, SK, during wildfire evacuations in 2015.

In Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where I’m from, wildfires are a major source of smoke contamination, and– as much research has pointed out– often result in major displacement issues. So far, much of the research on wildfires has focused on the experiences of evacuated communities. This research has been in human dimensions and medical anthropology, and is concerned about how the North’s primarily Indigenous residents encounter wildfires and evacuations, focusing on the ways in which Northern life and culture becomes disrupted. For my research, I’ll be taking up Eve Tuck’s suggestion of ‘studying up’: I’ll be examining the history, culture and politics of wildfire management in Saskatchewan, focusing on how particular ideas of ‘nature’, ‘community’, ‘family’ and ‘wellbeing’ have come to be embedded in wildfire science and technologies. In doing so, I hope to keep open the possibility that wildfires can be managed differently, and in ways that foreground community self-determination and definitions of wellbeing.

This proposed research was first presented at the Northern Exposures workshop and meeting in Edmonton, May 8-9th. The meeting was convened by my supervisor, Dr. Arn Keeling and involved discussions with long-term northern activists and researchers about the politics and ethics of doing research in northern communities. We talked about how and in what instances this type of research should be done (there are many instances in which it shouldn’t), how researchers make themselves accountable and to whom (e.g. to community determined deadlines, not to SSHRC).

Burned trees near La Ronge, SK. Photo: A. Zahara 2017

My proposal on wildfires was also presented in poster form at the Canadian Association of Geographers in Toronto, ON May 28-June 3rd.

Toxic Expertise Workshop

Very much looking forward presenting at the ‘Pollution, Environmental Justice, and Citizen Science’  workshop held at the University of Warwick, May 3rd and 4th, 2017. The workshop is part of the Toxic Expertise: Environmental Justice and the Global Petrochemical Industry research project, led by Dr. Alice Mah. The project focuses on debates arising between ‘experts’ and supposed ‘non-experts’ about contaminant-related issues.

The paper I’ll be presenting is co-written with Dr. Max Liboiron, and examines the ways in which our lab, Civic Lab for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), is incorporating the concept of ‘ethnographic refusal’ into citizen science. CLEAR is an STS-informed, feminist and justice-based marine science lab, directed by Dr. Liboiron, that examines plastic pollution.  Abstract below.

Cod is an important local food that was examined by CLEAR as part of a citizen science research project on marine plastics. Photo by Bojan Furst, taken during the Newfoundland cod fishery.


Refusal in Citizen science: A Decolonial, Ethical Approach to Data Circulation (or Not)

Ethnographic refusal is an methodological approach originating in anthropology about not disclosing data. At first, settler anthropologists saw refusing to disclose all information as an ethical problem as the right to know was paramount. Over time, Indigenous scholars have rearticulated refusal as a decolonial and deeply ethical method; settler researchers and audiences should not be able to access all information about Indigenous and other groups, and that the refusal to recount some information so it remains locally controlled and related is sometimes the more ethical stance. In this paper, we explore how our citizen science laboratory (Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research, or CLEAR) has brought ethnographic refusal and people’s right to refuse into the natural sciences through a case of studying plastic pollution in sustenance food webs in Newfoundland, Canada. Refusal and other decolonizing methods are under-explored in citizen science literature and practices, and offer new avenues through which to think about methodologies and ethics for environmental justice premised on the idea that free and open circulation of contamination data is not inherently good.