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Project description

This project will look at the biological, physical and social impacts of pollution on micro- organisms, plants, animals and human stakeholders in the North East and the interdependent mechanisms of evolution and adaptation to it.

Primary participants

Principal Investigators:  
Dr Kimberly Jamie, Department of Sociology, 

Dr Margarita Staykova, Department of Physics,

Visiting Fellows: 

Dr Eben Kirksey, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation

Dr David Kneas, University of South Carolina 

Professor Elizabeth Povinelli, Columbia University

About Opportunities in Pollution

The project will allow us to build a comprehensive multidisciplinary understanding of pollution by linking academic research across several departments in Durham, local companies, environmental and social organizations. We draw inspiration from Multispecies Ethnography to look at pollution as a potential for biological, material and social evolution, and for discussing new models of human materiality and circular economic structures based on human and non-human collaboration.

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Predominantly ‘pollution’ is understood as human behaviours, actions and materials which inflict harm on the natural world. In this project, we intend to move away from this one-dimensional, anthropocentric approach to understand the multi-directional and negotiated more-than-human story of pollution. In doing so, we will approach pollution as not just something (harmful) we (humans) do to the natural world but as an opportunity for new relations and processes to form and thrive; for new material and functional balances to be achieved within ecosystems and human social life.

The project aims to link

  1. the biological and physical aspects of pollution- types and flow of pollutants through ecosystems, changes in local microflora and fauna, the emergence of biological phenotypes and interspecies relations
  2. the social implications of pollution- how individual people, social structures and organizations respond, adapt and tackle pollution
  3. the opportunities which a more fluid notion of pollution brings, i.e. for offsetting harmful effects, for thinking of circular material and economic structures by considering the evolutionary processes in the anthropocene.

The Northeast England with its heavy industrial past and polluted local ecosystems offers a prefect case for a multidisciplinary collaboration on understanding the shared story of pollution.

‘Pollution’ is most commonly understood from a human-centred perspective as a harmful human infliction upon the natural world, which threatens how people live. This human centric construction understands pollution as wholly negative, unidirectional and is premised on the existence of narrow material categories of ‘pollutant’ and ‘polluted’. Even where definitions of pollution incorporate culture to recognise pollution as culturally contingent (Douglas 1966), ‘matter out of place’ is still assumed to be an agreed notion. Such perspectives obscure the ebbs, flows and fluidity in the effects of ‘pollutant’ and ‘polluted’ materials and invisibilises the complex, multi-directional and sometimes convivial relationships between ‘polluting’ and ‘polluted’ materials of different kinds (animal, human, microbial, synthetic, natural).

Yet, pollution whereby one material ‘invades’ another is more complex than the dominant human-centred approach suggests, involving entanglements of human and more-than-human actors across a range of spaces and systems. The entrance of pollutants into an eco-system can provide a new opportunity or impetus for evolution, the emergence of new materials, technologies and human activities, and for the reconfiguration of balances and relationships. This is a relatively recent topic of research, demonstrated through several international case studies (Amaral -Zettkler 2020, Gillings 2014, Tsing 2015, Kirksey 2015, Nova and 2021) . Our project is inspired by studies from members of our team that uncover similar trends in the NE region.

For example, the industrial and agricultural past of the NE region has contaminated local ecosystem with heavy metals, fly ash particles, elevated levels of non-organic phosphorus and nitrogen, herbi- and insecticides, etc (Johnson, Sharples, Greenwell, Gröcke, Knapp). As a result, new microbial and plant phenotypes, as well as new symbiotic relationships have been uncovered that make certain organisms resilient to toxic landscapes and even able to use them for their benefit (Chivasa, Blake, Sharples). An exciting direction of research is the possibility to harness such biological changes and functions for bioremediation and for creating circular economic and material systems. This involves the use of waste for soil remediation (Johnson, Chivasa, Blake), harnessing microorganisms that proliferate in waste waters for production of biogas and useful fatty acids (Greenwell, Chivasa), use of plants that can metabolise pollutants or produce natural anti-pollutants/toxicants (Lindsey, Chazot, Chivasa).

Together with the biological and material sides of pollution, our project also focuses on the human and social dimensions of it. The heavy industrialisation and subsequent deindustrialisation of our region has not only left legacy pollution on the physical landscape but also shaped how individual lives have been, and are, lived in the area. While heavy industry forged strong communities and shaped individual lifecourses, deindustrialisation has symbolically polluted the area with relatively poor health, low educational attainment, high rates of unemployment, domestic violence and suicide etc. (Widger, Jamie, Moreira). Alongside this however, the NE region has probably given oneof the first examples, where highly polluted areas such as former mines and quarries have been repurposed for recreational and community spaces, and even to sites of natural and historical interests to stimulate tourisms in the region (see Turning the tide - Heritage Coast (

By joining the diverse perspectives and methodological approaches of our team we want to depart from the dominant anthropocentric notion of pollution and explore its multi-directional and negotiated story in our local region. A large part of the project is motivated by two recent IAS projects- ‘Material imagination’ and ‘Anticbacterial clay’, in which we explored how on one side, living cells and synthetic materials can be combined and evolved to create new living materials, and on another- how we can use participatory and speculative methods to include various stakeholders in our research (Staykova, Moreira). We want to extend these approaches to pollution to study how polluting and receiving agents, human and non-human players, materials and ecosystems interact and relate to each other, creating and adapting new habit(ats).

The objectives of the project are deliberately speculative and open-ended given our intention to establish a network of Durham academics, local organization and communities who work together on finding and creating opportunities in the polluted areas in the North East. We envisage the simultaneous development of three interrelated strands of activities within the project:

  1. Pollution of local habitats and ecosystems. We bring here our expertise on identifying pollutants, their material flows through time and space, and the new physical and biological balances being temporarily created between living and non-living actors. The academic research will be developed in close collaboration with local companies, environmental agencies, and members of the public who are closely linked to the areas of interest.
  2. We intend to explore pollution as a methodological opportunity for closer examination of materiality of things and relationships between human and non-human materials. New methodologies are needed to capture on one hand the experience and stakes of non-human participants (Roy, 2018), and on the other to prompt involvement and imaginative reflection about possible collective futures from all participants. We propose to experiment with walkshops (mobile conversations that ‘actively engage with and use landscapes as stimuli for discussion’ (Springgay et al. 2017, Wickson et al. 2015), speculative workshops and citizen science engagement to co-produce shared definitions and understandings of pollution and responses to it. Our aim is to involve members of the public from the onset of our discussion, who use the areas daily and find new ways of living alongside highly polluted materials and troubled ecosystems.
  3. New technologies. Experimental work aiming at harnessing the power of biological evolution and adaptation to develop both technologies for bioremediation and somewhat more speculatively, to think of shared future where human materiality is a natural part of the ecosystem, subject to same mechanisms of biological evolution and adaptation

To facilitate the development of these three strands, we will use the IAS project to organise the following events that will bring the team together and help us focus the research questions and collaborations.


Amaral-Zettler, L.A., Zettler, E.R. & Mincer, T.J (2020). Ecology of the plastisphere. Nat Rev Microbiol 18, 139–151.

Douglas M (1966) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Gillings M, Paulsen I (2014),Microbiology of the Anthropocene. Anthropocene 5 (1-8).

Nova N, DISNOVATION.ORG (2021) A Bestiary of the Anthropocene. Hybrid plants, animals, minerals, fungi and other specimens. Eindhoven: Onomatopee.

Roy D (2018) Molecular Feminisms: Biology, Becomings and Life in the Lab. Washington: University of Washington Press.

Kirksey E (2015) Emergent ecologies, Duke Press.

Springgay S,Truman SE. A transmaterial approach to walking methodologies: Embodiment, affect and a sonic art performance. Body & Society, 2017, 23(4), 27-58.

Tsing AL (2015) Mushroom at the end of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. New York: Princeton University Press.

Wickson F, Strand R, Lein Kjølberg K. The Walkshop Approach to Science and Technology Ethics. Science & Engineering Ethics, 2015, 21, 241-264.