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Toxic Expertise Webinar Series: Struggles for Environmental Justice

Wednesday 2nd September – Friday 4th September 2020

In place of our final Toxic Expertise workshop and as a bookend to the project, we hosted a series of interlinked webinars across three days in early September.

The final workshop was originally scheduled to take place in Venice, Italy, featuring international comparisons alongside place-based reflections about Porto Marghera, a petrochemical industrial community in Venice with a distinctive history of “working-class environmentalism.” Retaining some of this place-based ethos, the first webinar, On the Petrochemical Fenceline, brings us virtually to Italy and then back to the UK, examining enduring environmental and employment challenges for fenceline petrochemical communities, with many commonalities but also divergent contextual specificities. The second webinar, Climate Justice, Decarbonisation, and a Just Transition, pans out from local to global perspectives, critically reflecting on how we can transition to renewable energy systems inclusively, sustainably, and equitably, across different contexts in the Global South and Global North. The final webinar, Toxic Expertise: Environmental Justice and the Global Petrochemical Industry, highlights key findings from the five-year project, including case studies from fenceline communities in the US, China, and Europe, multiscalar corporate ethnography, and possibilities for future research and collaboration.

The schedule is as follows:

• Wednesday 2 September, On the Petrochemical Fenceline: Environmental and Employment Challenges in Community-Industry Relations, 3-5pm BST.

Speakers: David Brown (University of Warwick), Giulia Malavasi (University of Florence), Alfonso Pinto (University of Lyon), Elisa Privitera (University of Catania). Chaired by Lorenzo Feltrin (University of Warwick).

Due to its environmental and health impacts and hazards, the petrochemical industry is often perceived as a difficult neighbour by its fenceline communities. While there have been a number of studies of environmental justice struggles in fenceline petrochemical communities in the United States since the 1980s, similar struggles in petrochemical communities in Europe have been less visible, at least within the Anglophone literature. The case of “working-class environmentalism” in the petrochemical fenceline community of Porto Marghera in 1970s Italy is an important and notable exception. The presentations in this webinar seek to explore distinctive traditions of labour and environmental conflicts in Europe, focusing on cases in Italy and the UK, where class has played a strong role in petrochemical fenceline dynamics. When large petrochemical complexes were established in Europe, corporations won their social licence to operate by offering access to relatively high-quality (but often unsafe) jobs to the local male workforce. However, as the presentations make clear, employment restructuring and plant closures have in many cases unravelled these implicit community-industry social pacts. In such cases, fenceline residents have been exposed to the socioenvironmental burdens of present and past industries but reap decreasing benefits in terms of jobs and public services. Local community concerns vis-à-vis major industrial installations have been often dismissed as selfish and in contradiction with the general interest, as the famous acronym Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) indicates. The locals have been thus asked to put up with the burdens of the petrochemical industry in the name of national prosperity. However, what constitutes the general interest is an open and contested notion, particularly in the current ecological crisis. While many commonalities can be found across these cases, each locality has important and widely different contextual specificities, which open up wider questions about comparative research in fenceline petrochemical communities.

• Thursday 3 September, Climate Justice, Decarbonisation and a Just Transition, 3-5pm BST.

Speakers: Tomas Aritzia (Universidad Diego Portales), Shalanda Baker (Northeastern University), Dunja Krause (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development). Discussant: Diane Sicotte (Drexel University). Chaired by David Brown and co-organised by Patricio Flores Silva.

Scientists, activists and policy-makers have highlighted the urgent need for a rapid transition away from fossil fuels in order to mitigate against climate change and to have any chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. It is necessary to ensure that social justice is placed at the forefront of a transformative decarbonisation strategy, one which secures the livelihoods and health of both workers in energy sectors and of frontline communities. With the latter, we consider those whose lives are entangled with both fossil fuel industries and the renewable energy sector. In this session, we think through ways in which we can respond to the climate crisis and transition to renewable energy systems inclusively, sustainably and equitably. As an interdisciplinary panel, these discussions cut across concepts of climate, energy and environmental justice. In shifting away from fossil fuels, there is a need to critically examine how renewable energy transitions interact with- and may exacerbate- existing structural, racial and social inequalities, disproportionately burdening low-income communities and people of colour across the global North and South. Inclusive decision processes are also vital in establishing a fair and equitable energy transition. This panel scrutinises and reflects on the concept and practices of a just transition across multiple contexts and scales of enquiry, considering, for instance, the impacts of renewable energy developments at the community level and the importance of engaging with decolonial ecological perspectives.

• Friday 4 September, Toxic Expertise: Environmental Justice and the Global Petrochemical Industry, 3-5pm BST.

Speakers: Alice Mah (University of Warwick), Thom Davies (University of Nottingham), Loretta Lou (University of Macau), Lorenzo Feltrin (University of Warwick), Barbara Allen (Virginia Tech University, Washington DC ). Chaired by Alice Mah.

This webinar brings together multiscalar and multi-site research perspectives on environmental justice and petrochemical toxicity from the Toxic Expertise research project, funded by the European Research Council between 2015 and 2020. In this project, “toxic expertise” has a double meaning: expertise about the effects of toxic pollution, and the toxic nature of expertise that is used to justify a lack of corporate social responsibility. The research project focuses on the global petrochemical industry as a significant but controversial source of toxic pollution, with unequal regulations and risks across different countries and populations. First, Professor Alice Mah discusses the history of the project: how it emerged; the people, places, and perspectives it brought together; the key findings- particularly in terms of multiscalar corporate ethnography; and the surprises and challenges along the way. Next, three different Toxic Expertise case studies are presented from the US, China, and Europe: 1) Dr Thom Davies discusses research in St James Parish in “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana; 2) Dr Loretta Lou presents findings about an environmental NGO’s citizen science practices in Nanjing, China; and 3) Dr Lorenzo Feltrin discusses recent research with residents and working living in the petrochemical town Grangemouth in Scotland. To conclude the panel and open up the discussion, Professor Barbara Allen, a member of the project’s advisory board, reflects on her insights from conducting community-based participatory environmental health research over several years in different petrochemical regions. Overall, the webinar raises questions about how to attend to systemic limitations to environmental justice struggles, while finding new opportunities to transform a polluting, toxic industry.

This webinar series was hosted by the Toxic Expertise team at the University of Warwick, funded by the European Research Council.


Public Seminar: Corporate Power in Regulating the Circular Economy

Sandra Eckert, Associate Professor of Politics, Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, Denmark and Goethe University Frankfurt/Main


Fellow at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies
30 October 2019, 3-5pm, Venue: S0.19.

*Hosted in collaboration with the Department of Sociology, the Research on Global Governance Network (RiGG-Net), and the Centre for Law, Regulation and Governance of the Global Economy (GLOBE).

The Circular Economy package proposed by the incoming Juncker Commission in 2015, and withdrawing an earlier, seemingly more ambitious Action Plan of the previous Commission, is frequently portrayed as a formidable example of policy dismantling and industry co-optation. Yet we have also seen visible and decisive policy action in the form of banning single-use plastics products, with policymakers thus opting for the most stringent instrument (restriction) available in the toolbox of the Circular Economy policy arsenal. In her talk, Sandra Eckert will elaborate on power struggles in the transformative process towards a Circular Economy in the European Union (EU). More specifically, she will examine the role of diffuse and corporate interests in influencing the emerging political agenda seeking to tackle the environmental issues posed by plastics products and waste. She will present key findings discussed in her recently published book on Corporate Power and Regulation. Consumers and the Environment in the European Union (Palgrave 2019).

About the speaker: Sandra Eckert is Associate Professor for Politics in the European Multilevel System at Goethe University Frankfurt / Main. She is currently holding a research fellowship at the Aarhus Institute for Advanced Studies (AIAS). During the winter term 2019/2020 she is also invited guest professor at Sciences Po Lyon. Sandra previously held positions at the Universities of Berlin, Darmstadt, Mannheim, Osnabrück and at the Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute in Florence. She received her PhD in political science from Free University Berlin. In her research, Sandra studies issues related to European integration, comparative public policy and international political economy.

Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Petrochemical, Fossil Fuel, and Related Industries
Fourth annual Toxic Expertise workshop
University of Warwick, Thursday 30th – Friday 31st May 2019


 The European Research Council-funded “Toxic Expertise” project, led by Professor Alice Mah, interrogates the global petrochemical industry across its value chain, from the extraction of raw materials, to the refining and cracking of petrochemicals, to the production of plastics. This multi-sited, mixed method research explores questions of environmental justice and corporate sustainability across multiple scales.

The aim of this workshop is to share research findings and to foster collaboration and exchange with scholars and activists working in this interdisciplinary field. Over the two-day workshop, we will discuss research in a series of panel sessions on the following topics:

  • Risk Perception towards a variety of industrial and environmental hazards. We will introduce the results of our residents’ survey on risk perception and trust in the context of the Antwerp petrochemical complex.
  • Labour mobilisation in the petrochemical sector, which will discuss theoretical frameworks and empirical case studies dealing with the role of workers and trade unions in environmental conflicts over toxic pollution.
  • Environmental Justice and the petrochemical industry, which will include our ethnographic research findings in the US and China.
  • The (In)visibility of Environmental hazards from industry panel, will critically explore environmental monitoring, injustices of exposure and the associated health burdens. This session will include the findings of our meta-analysis study, which evaluates the strength of published research on cancer incidence along petrochemical fence-line communities.

Our concluding roundtable discussion will focus on possibilities for collaboration, exchange, and critical interventions among participants, bringing together the different themes of the panels. We will introduce a participatory mapping resource developed by the Toxic Expertise team and our forthcoming book Toxic Truths (Davies and Mah) on environmental justice and citizen science in a post-truth age.


(In)visibility and Pollution: Making ‘Sense’ of Toxic Hazards and Environmental Justice
Third Annual ‘Toxic Expertise’ Workshop
May 15-16th 2018, Radcliffe Conference Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry

Creating and disseminating knowledge of toxic pollution is a key challenge for academics, activists, and local communities alike. Not all toxins are detectable through human sensory perceptions; and our bodies do not always react to toxins immediately. The long-term health impacts of accumulated contamination are severe, but the elusive nature of toxic pollution makes appropriate actions difficult if not impossible.

Since toxic landscapes are replete with deferred harms, secreted hazards, and invisible layers of ‘slow violence’ (Nixon 2011), making toxic pollution known is a contested social and political process (Hecht 2012, Walker 2012). Informal knowledge is regularly overlooked while expensive scientific expertise is often required to ‘translate’ toxicity into legible and/or legal forms. But even when contaminated communities can ‘sense’ or ‘measure’ the pollution surrounding them, converting that knowledge into political action is not a straightforward process.

In a world full of contested toxic hazards, how pollution is made visible - or rendered unknowable - is of critical concern for the social sciences. Using visibility as a starting point to explore our sensorial engagements with toxic times and spaces, this workshop will showcase papers from a range of disciplines that tackle the challenge of making ‘sense’ of toxic pollution and environmental injustice through qualitative and quantitative approaches, including participatory methods, storytelling, affect, spatial data analysis, and ethnographic research, among many others. We invite theory-driven and empirically rich papers from a broad range of disciplines that explore how toxicity can be sensed, embodied, and made visible. Possible topics and themes include but are not limited to:

What methods and approaches can we use to make the unseen world of toxic pollution visible?
What other senses, beyond the visual, are important in narrating and making sense of toxicity?
Can ‘citizen science’ provide new ways of understanding toxic hazards?
How do local communities ‘sense’ and make sense of pollution?What role does visualising and sensing pollution play in the success and failure of environmental justice campaigns?
How can quantitative analyses be used in telling stories of pollution without oversimplifying or overgeneralizing?
What are the politics that surround sensing pollution; in what ways do powerful actors make toxicity (in)visible?

The two-day event is the third annual interdisciplinary Toxic Expertise workshop at the University of Warwick, funded by the European Research Council (ERC). The Toxic Expertise project, led by Dr Alice Mah, is the first in-depth sociological exploration of the global petrochemical industry in relation to corporate social responsibility and environmental justice.

Accommodation will be paid for, and there is limited financial support for travel.

Annual Workshop May 2017: Workshop on Pollution, Environmental Justice, and Citizen Science


(Above, Sam Geall, Sussex University)

We invited people to join our workshop on the theme of Pollution, Environmental Justice, and Citizen Science, which we held on 3-4 May 2017, at the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick, UK.

"The two-day event involved over thirty scholars and members of the public who shared their experiences of environmental justice, pollution and citizen science from a variety of perspectives. Environmental justice experts Phil Brown (Northeastern University) and Gwen Ottinger (Drexel University) gave keynote addresses, and fourteen other academics from a range of disciplines presented fascinating research papers that highlighted cutting edge scholarship at the nexus of citizen science and environmental justice."

"We were lucky with the weather during the workshop, and fortunate to be joined by Cindy Regalado from Public Lab and UCL, who gave a fantastic ‘Kite Mapping’ demonstration."


The above quotes are extracts from a summary piece by Thom Davies, published in Toxic News May 2017. Thom's full summary of the workshop can be found here.

Thursday November 3rd 2016: Toxic Expertise: Environment, Economy, Politics

At our first public engagement event we discusses the following questions: what value does 'expertise' still have in our society? How is expertise used, manipulated or ignored for political, social and environmental reasons? Has expertise itself become ‘toxic’?

A full write up of the event which inluded presentations from Mary Creagh MP, Neena Gill MEP, Dr Erik Van Sebille, Dr Frank Kelly, David Powell (New Economics Foundation) and Ruth Bergan (Trade Justice Movement) can be accessed here.

Mary Creagh MP at the Toxic Expertise event

(Photo Credit: Angeliki Balayannis, attendee)

This even was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council ‘Impact Acceleration Account’ and the ERC Starting Grant 'Toxic Expertise' - Grant Agreement No. 639583

Event Feedback from our Annual Workshop 2017:

"What things did you enjoy most about today's event and why?"

"This conference got the exact right balance between critical studies and reports of case studies between engagement and reflexivity."

"The ideation workshop - I've never done anything like that!"

"How will anything you have learnt during this event lead to changes in your understandings of certain things?"

"This conference reinforced to me the importance of thinking through environmental justice issues on a case by case basis. The importance of nuance, history and context when addressing EJ issues and leaning with citizen science."

“Different methods in this work, very thought provoking.”

“Will anything you learnt during this event lead to changes in things that you do?

“Definitely now interested in using participatory and DIY methods as a form of knowledge production.”

“What, if anything, could we improve regarding our events?”

“Nothing! Best conference in a very long time.”

“It was great. Well organised and interesting, I really enjoyed it.”

Thursday 19 May 2016: 'Pollution, Health & Global Governance': Roundtable Discussion and Film Screening of 'Warriors of Quigang' 
Friday 20th May 2016: Annual Toxic Expertise Workshop: 'Environment & Expertise'

Speakers included: Barbara Allen (Virgina Tech Washington DC Campus); Scott Frickel (Brown University) Anna Lora-Wainwright (University of Oxford); Mao Da (the co-founder of two Chinese ENGOs, Independence and Justice for Sustainability, Beijing); Gordon Walker (Lancaster University); and Sujatha Raman (University of Nottingham).

This one-day workshop provided a platform to discuss key issues surrounding the competing claims of expertise, agency and environmental knowledge. We explored debates about expertise in relation to pollution and health, environmental justice, public participation, and social movements, drawing on examples in the United States, China, and Europe. Expertise exists in all societies, and what it means to be an expert has been challenged, interrogated and unpicked by scholars from a variety of disciplines. Despite key insights by Bruno Latour, Brian Wynne and many others, there remain many questions surrounding expertise and the environment that are yet to be answered. In an era where we are increasingly facing ‘wicked’ environmental problems (Rittel 1973), it is more important than ever to understand whose expertise is valued and which information is discarded. Whether concerning the impacts of environmental disasters, or the slower brutality of climate change, competing claims are often made, reinforced, unmade and hidden from public and policy view.

  • What is meant by expertise?
  • Who can lay claim to expert knowledge?
  • Which knowledge is excluded and what expertise is hidden?
  • What makes us experts?

The workshop facilitated interdisciplinary and exploratory conversations and collaborative knowledge exchange.

Project Launch:

On 4 November, we celebrated the launch of our project at the University of Warwick, showcasing our project website and the first issue of our e-magazine Toxic News. The launch featured presentations from our project team and a lively discussion, with participation from our advisory board and from academics across the university.