From Mining to Phytomining: Bioinspired Practices and Hopeful Forms of Life in a Contaminated World

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The former zinc mines in the village of Saint-Laurent-Le-Minier, located in the Gard region of southern France, have been closed since the 1990s. A jewel of French industry for a time, the mines and their closure have left neither the environment, whose waters and soils are now heavily polluted with zinc, lead and cadmium, nor the village, impoverished and exposed to these contaminations, unscathed. Since 2008, the Laboratory for Bio-inspired Chemistry and Ecological Innovations in Montpellier has been conducting depolluting experiments on these former mining sites using hyper-accumulating plants, which are capable of concentrating heavy metals from the soil in their roots and leaves, and are thus able to live in these toxic places. Drawing from ethnographic fieldwork both in the laboratory and in the contaminated village, this paper examines a particular project that aimed at recreating a self-sustaining ecosystem in an ecological ruin. What kind of technical, material, affective and political relationships with the plants, people and place, do these scientific bio-inspired practices produce? I first describe the technical actions that make up bio-inspiration, focusing on the system through which the vital process of plant bioaccumulation is captured and reoriented towards human projects. By partnering with plants to decontaminate this site and « grow livable worlds » (Myers 2018), chemists actually make them live in a toxic environment, forming ambivalent relationships of domestication, care and control. This regime of co-dependency and exploitation nevertheless creates the possibility for hopeful forms of life for the village, the lab, and beyond.

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September 9, 2021 - 4:17pm

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Abstract for 4S 2021.

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Lauren Kamili, "From Mining to Phytomining: Bioinspired Practices and Hopeful Forms of Life in a Contaminated World", contributed by Katie Ulrich, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 9 September 2021, accessed 20 September 2021.