Nancy Langston, environmental historian
I am an environmental historian who currently studies the mobilization of toxics in northern watersheds: see Sustaining Lake Superior.
This project focuses on three key industries in the Lake Superior basin: mining, paper & pulp production, and fisheries.
I am currently recruiting students to work on the mining and water quality components of the project. This research seeks to understand the use of contested science in regulating toxic contamination from envirotechnical systems—specifically, iron mines in the Lake Superior basin. As chemicals from mines moved into watersheds, some bioaccumulated in fish, eventually making their way into people who ate that fish. They crossed spatial scales to contaminate sites, wildlife, and people far from initial sources of production. Some toxics also crossed temporal scales, for their legacies persisted long after they had been banned. How did these complicated and often uncertain spatial relationships between sites of production, sites of consumption, and sites of exposure influence the understanding and regulation of toxicity?
Mining projects were core components of envirotechnical developments across the north in which engineers mobilized state power (and state power mobilized engineers) to create a high-modernist vision of legibility and order. The expansion into taconite mining received significant state support, required enormous sums of capital, and transformed freshwater ecosystems and the communities that depended upon them. An envirotech approach to chemical pollutants from mining involves reconsidering bodies, technologies, and environments, not as separate isolated objects, but as hybrid networks whose interconnections are often hidden or supressed. A core goal of this project is to examine the spatial and historic processes that have made these connections invisible.
MOBILITY: Using methods from spatial history, the project asks: How did the mobility of contaminants affect emerging scientific understanding and regulation? Seeing the spatial arrangements of historic actions can illuminate the ways the past is viewed and interpreted.
POLICY LEARNING: Additionally, the project asks whether various policy actors learn from the past and incorporate these understandings of the past into future regulatory projects. Specifically, the project hypothesizes that a key stage for regulators who are trying to use scientific knowledge to balance risks with benefits is when new scientific information emerges that questions the safety of existing projects. Whose knowledge counts, and whose knowledge is suppressed or forgotten, in policy learning and broader regulatory debates?
As the largest lake in the world (by surface area), the quality of Lake Superior’s water has significance for the entire world, particularly given the stresses that climate change is likely to place on freshwater resources. The project is located within the Lake Superior basin, but it is expected to generate results that will provide insights for other scientific and regulatory contexts, particularly those that concern toxic contamination and its mobilization. The findings will provide insights for other scientific and regulatory contexts, particularly those that concern toxic contamination and its mobilization.
Beginning July 2013, I am a professor at Michigan Technological University, part of the new Great Lakes Research Center and the Department of Social Sciences. During 2012-2013, I was the King Carl XVI Gustaf Professor of Environmental Science, in residence in the Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious studies at Umeå University. Before that, I was a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 17 years, with appointments in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology.
My most recent book, Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES, was published by Yale University Press in 2010. Toxic Bodies examines the history of synthetic chemicals that disrupt hormones and the struggle for a precautionary principle to protect human and environmental health.