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The emergence of Ideonella sakaiensis, a microorganism with the capacity to metabolize the widely used plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET), raises important questions about how human and nonhuman agency are related in responding to pressing environmental issues. The article explores how the agency and expertise of I. sakaiensis is a constitutive but often overlooked collaborator in scientific research into plastic biodegradation, and it attempts to develop a methodology for enrolling microorganisms as active research participants from the outset. Knowledge coproduced with microbial others, and specifically those microbes with the capacity to detoxify anthropogenic pollutants, may inform and enact inclusive and prescient responses to ongoing environmental degradation. Accordingly, drawing from theoretical orientations in more-than-human participatory research and animals’ geographies, the article asks how microorganisms might express their own directives, preferences, and constraints on the research process, and how, in turn, we might listen and be directed by them. Although the ontological and ethical commitments of the environmental humanities are well suited for welcoming microbes as partners in deliberative processes, the challenges of communicating with them across vast scalar and bodily differences suggests a need to engage with techniques traditionally considered the disciplinary property of the natural sciences. Some of these concepts are contextualized with respect to a research project currently being undertaken at the River Lea in East London and the attempt to enroll I. sakaiensis as a collaborator in responding to plastic pollution in the river.
Environmental Humanities – Duke University Press
Published: Jul 1, 2022
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