Microontologies of Waste, and the Radical Asymmetry of a Stratified Planet

Lecture by Hird, Myra

Abstract: Microbes famously starred in Latour’s path-breaking account of a modern networked power that hinged upon turning microscopic life into visible, present and negotiable participants in socio-political worlds. Microorganisms continue to feature in accounts of global power in which human actors mobilize – globally, speedily, even preemptively – to counter threats of emergent pathogenic life. More recently, anthropogenic environmental disasters provide an opportunity for industry to set bacteria to work eating oil spills and cyanide in water systems. Both characterizations harbor a sense of control and mastery; that humans will overcome nature’s vicissitudes, and ultimately put nature – in this case the microcosmos – in our service as we imagine geo-engineering solutions to anthropogenic environmental change. This talk suggests an alternate framing of bacterial life as providing the condition of possibility for all other life forms on Earth. Through an analysis of the creative capacities of bacteria in metabolizing our global detritus, I argue that the ontological provocation of the human waste-bacterial conjunction is the fact of our total dependence on life forms whose life-worlds and trajectories are likely to remain overwhelmingly unknown to us. If this offers a cautionary note about our own increasingly hyperbolic perturbations of the Earth’s constitutive strata, perhaps its more profound prompting is about the force of the stratifications and destratifications proper to the planet itself.

BIO: School for Environmental Studies, Queen’s University

Myra J. Hird is Professor, Queen’s National Scholar and FRSC in the School of Environmental Studies, Queen’s University, Canada ( Professor Hird is Director of Canada’s Waste Flow, an interdisciplinary research project focused on waste as a global scientific-technical and socio-ethical issue (, and Director of the genera Research Group (gRG), an interdisciplinary research network of collaborating natural, social, and humanities scholars focused on the topic of waste. Hird has published nine books and over sixty articles and book chapters on a diversity of topics relating to science studies.

Title of Journal / Edit Volume, incl. names of editors:

Hird, Myra

Research Area:
Deep Earth, Toxic Embodiment, Multispecies stories




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