Max Liboiron for the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Activist Research

The opening plenary for the 4th International Marine Conservation Congress was given by Max Liboiron, who practices ‘Civic Science’ where she works for the public good, throwing in a feminist slant for good measure. She values accessibility and sharing, equity building and justice. She is moved by the people and animals who dwell in her homeland of Newfoundland and seeks justice for the communities who are disproportionately impacted by plastic pollution and the chemical body burdens that are intimately tied to the issue. She demonstrated a deep concern for indigenous communities as her voice wavered during her description of how they discovered through global media that endocrine disrupting chemicals in Inuit mothers’ breast milk was off the charts. Because of the way chemicals are stored in fat, they are biomagnified through the marine food web, and reach the highest concentration in animals who carry a lot of fat. Because Native populations here in the far north traditionally consume fatty meat from these cold waters, the impact from diet has been severe. She thinks it unfair that they learned of their situation through the global news networks instead of those who were leading the study, and described the fallout as there was no one there to guide them through options. Mothers stopped breastfeeding their babies, and introduced formula which has demonstrated long term health impacts of weakening immune systems. The corporate food source also introduces a neo-colonial framework which severs traditional roots. This situation inspires her to address the unevenness of the scientific field and informs her practice. She talked about ‘Ethnographic refusal’ where communities like this could respond on their own terms. She doesn’t feel that the academic world has a right to everything. And it became an important part of her collaborative practice to arrive at decisions on who gets access to findings, not as censorship, but as a way for a community of people who are directly impacted by the information at hand to assess their own options.

In developing her methodology, Ms Liboiron feels it is vital to state clear intentions with collaborators and to the public. For collaborators, she designs accessible research tools for target communities, namely the outport fishermen who are largely low income, but offer tremendous insight through their own traditional fishing practice. Her design principals are open source, can be built by participants for less than $50 from accessible materials found in local hardware stores, using as little plastic as possible. They should be hackable and repairable so that the fishermen can easily gather material in the field. She acts as a facilitator, following the concerns expressed by outport communities, guided by what they feel is important. She invites them to participate through gathering material for a study, then analyzing it as well, placing a lot of trust in the stewards of this place. Her methods represent an inspiring approach to citizen activated science.

Examples of accessible design developed by the Civic Lab
Examples of accessible design developed by the Civic Lab

Because she works with plastic pollution, she asked that the fishermen could save the guts of their cleaned fish so that they could analyze it for plastic within. Her heart sank as she found contamination in cod, the ‘heartbeat of Newfoundland’, referencing the collapse of the codfish industry that gutted the economy here.

Then she spoke of how to implement the societal changes that are necessary to address the broad issues of plastic pollution. We can raise awareness through information and education, instilling values, inspiring DOers…but then there is a block by infrastructure before we arrive at true behavior change. How can we truly avoid plastic if all of the food available is wrapped in it? She suggested targeting change makers over the masses, and publishing articles in the mainstream media instead of only academic journals. She lauded the efforts of Chelsea Rochman, who has effectively influenced policy change in the US in regards to banning microplastics as an ingredient in personal care products. Her words offered a path to effect change in the overarching structures that define our world today is essential to truly having an impact on plastic pollution.

Leave a Reply