Defending ‘Chemicals’: Justice in the Parliament of Things

I’ve been a humanist for as long as I can remember knowing what that word meant. I went to a secular humanist Sunday school, where ethics and history were taught in place of religion. I went to a humanist high school, founded by Holocaust survivors, and run on an explicit philosophy of interdependence and anti-nationalism. I quote Vonnegut almost as often as I quote Borges.

As part as being a humanist, I’ve always thought of my ethical boundaries as being tightly drawn around the space of “human”. Of course there are some borders to be drawn around that category – debates around fetuses and people with very diminished capacity, clinically brain-dead, etc. – but I had always thought of that category as the relevant one for talk of rights and justice. I’ve been mostly vegetarian since 2003, but I always joked that my vegetarianism stems from my dislike of animals – if we stopped eating meat, we’d have a lot fewer cows and chickens running around. More seriously, I’d say – I don’t eat animals for health reasons, my own and the environment’s, which I care about because I and other humans live in it, not for its own sake.

A recent incident and a recent reading have made me question that tight link between “human” and “of ethical concern”. As part of my attempts to become a certified Science Studies Scholar, I’ve been reading some of the slightly less famous Latour works, including most recently We Have Never Been Modern. It’s a fascinating book, and very useful for thinking about the “politics of things”, so to speak. In a section deliciously titled, “The Parliament of Things”, Latour ends the book with a political suggestion, that we should acknowledge “quasi-objects”, those things that are neither natural nor artificial (which is to say, social), but some interesting amalgamation. These quasi-objects are proliferating – in other words, human and non-human are getting a lot harder to cleanly and usefully distinguish, and instead of fighting those definitional battles we should embrace complexity, but also embrace the regulation of complexity, to acknowledge hybrids in order to control them and modulate the pace of change.

Reading that book reminded me of a funny conversation I had with my colleague at the bowling alley a few weeks ago, which in turn invoked my high school chemistry teacher. Bear with me. My friend started complaining about something – I think it might have been skin or hair products? – and she argued that the natural, organic ones were so much better than the artificial, chemical-heavy ones. And I, in my usual tactless way, stood up for chemicals. “What are ‘organic’ products made of if not chemicals? A chemical is almost anything – I mean, water is a chemical.” Believe it or not, my high school chemistry taught me to say that, much as activist-minded sociology instructors teach students to stand up when racial or sexual minorities are slandered. My friend laughed and said something about how much of a nerd I was, and the conversation moved on. But, as I’ve been reflecting on that moment, I wondered, why did it matter to me so much that chemicals not get a bad rap? That we recognize that good or bad, we are all made of gloopy masses of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and so on.

My Chemistry teacher, I think, would have said that our politics – our human politics – suffer when we misunderstand nature. If we equate “chemical = bad”, “natural = good”, all sorts of incorrect claims follow, not to mention silly advertising that emphasizes the natural vs. artificial distinction for particular ingredients that may all be equally terrible.* And I agree with that – it’s important to understand why “chemical” is a pretty silly slander on some substance. But on some level, I really cared because I felt like chemicals deserved better. Think of all the things they do for us – starting and ending with constituting our selves (to the extent that we’re all just messy mixes of water and hydrocarbons and whatnot), and continuing on to powering our delightful internet, and so on.

Maybe that’s silly. Maybe it’s just a consequence of letting the non-human/human divide relax a bit. But either way, I think my ethical boundaries might have grown a few sizes today.

* See, for example, the hilarious DHMO scare.



  1. Thomas

     /  March 25, 2011

    Good post, Dan.

    I’ve found myself in more and more of these discussions, recently (especially doing social history of chemistry). In the same line: I wonder, with all the celebration of ‘the organic’, if we are experiencing a sort of ‘neo-vitalism’.

  2. An interesting post indeed.
    Although I agree with your general point that we need to mindful of the conceptual categories that we use, I also think we oughtn’t ride the ‘natural/organic’ (to continue with the example you used) pendulum too far to the other side. Despite the fact that everything may be construed as ‘natural’ in that either it occurs in nature or is created by humans out of ‘natural’ materials, it seems that there are some distinctions that can be made if only from a pragmatic point of view.
    A vitamin isolate that you’d buy at GNC, for instance, is ‘natural’ in that it’s created from organic matter by human beings using technology that we’ve developed for such tasks. However, our bodies use such vitamins very differently than they’d use the same vitamins that occur in food (also ‘naturally’). Vitamin C is in all kinds of foods, but it’s never by itself. There’s always a host of other vitamins, minerals and enzymes that accompany it, and this affects the way it’s used in our bodies.
    I guess my quibble is part epistemological and part ontological: by labeling something in a particular way, it either promotes or precludes closer investigation of it. The devil is always in the details. Although saying that “natural always equals good” DOES lead to silly and dangerous conclusions, saying that the line can’t be drawn anywhere leads to equally silly and dangerous conclusions. I’m not saying that the line isn’t fuzzy or wide or even zig-zaggy, only that it exists.
    Props on the vegetarianism by the way.