Myra Hird’s work intersects with so many of the conversations that we have been having through the Boundaries series. And it operates at two, sometimes divergent, but equally necessary levels simultaneously. On the one hand, Hird’s work on the role of bacteria and their indifference to human life serves as a profound reminder that to be human is to owe one’s existence to other life forms, life forms that will certainly outlive us. In differentiation from other relational modes, such as Karen Barad’s intra-activity, Hird aptly points out that the relations with bacteria are primarily one way: we need them. This radical indifference of certain organisms to others points to the limits of human hubris, and the limits of our powers of control or even prominence on a planet that was primarily shaped by bacteria. In fact, claims that humans have had a unique geological effect on the planet – the very basis for the proposal of the Anthropocene – are blatantly false, or at least willfully blind to the reality that bacteria are responsible not only for the geologic properties of the planet, but also for the very composition of its atmosphere. The largest mass extinction in the earth’s history was because of the emission of oxygen due to bacteria. Anything we can dream of, and any power that we might have, is almost immediately dwarfed by bacteria.
However, there is also a more immediately political orientation to her work that speaks of the work of bacteria inside such things as landfills and military and industrial dumps, bacteria that are creating new and untold relations that can have very specific and material consequences for humans, especially racialized humans, now. Bacteria might be indifferent to us, but we cannot be indifferent to them. And even if there is no way to predict the untold toxic soups that constitute the accumulated waste produced through such activities as mining and plastics production, there is still a necessity to try to mitigate harm and to realize that we are way out of our depth when we try to manage the effects of waste. One of the most powerful and troubling of the statistics that Hird emphasized in her presentation was the fact that 98% of that waste is generated through the military and industry, and so her fascinating work on the biopolitical relations that we have to consumer waste, and its attendant “cup shaming” (righteous attitude of those who always bring their reusable mugs) and moral subjectivities, means that in so many ways when it comes to waste we are being diverted. There is a politics of diversion in the waste stream not only due to the fact that here, in America, it is whisked away to an unseen location, but more primarily that the majority of the waste that is produced is done outside of consumer realities.
It is this duality, of the philosophic and political, that is necessary to think through the question of the more-than- human within the context of social or environmental justice.