Myra Hird – Feature Profile

We introduce you to:

Dr. Myra Hird, Professor, Queen’s National Scholar, and Graduate Studies Coordinator Director, genera Research Group (gRG) Sociology/Obstetrics and Gynecology Queen’s University

I was born and raised in Canada. I earned undergraduate degrees at The University of Western Ontario and The University of Windsor, a Masters degree at McGill University, and a D.Phil. at Oxford University. After leaving the UK, I took up academic positions at Auckland University, and The Queen’s University at Belfast, until I moved back to Canada, where I am currently a professor at Queen’s University (Kingston). More information may be found at http://www.myrahird.com/Myra_Hird/Home.html

How did you become interested in environmental sociology?

My passing interest in environmental issues grew into a theoretical and more recently empirical interest while I was a professor at Auckland University, where I audited several courses in environmentalism, biology, and philosophy. This interest grew exponentially when I had the very good fortune to spend a sabbatical year in the laboratory of Distinguished University Professor Lynn Margulis, in the Geosciences Department at UMass Amherst. Professor Margulis focused my interest on the microcosmos, and the connection between bio-, geo-, and lithospheres. I am deeply saddened by her recent death.

What are your research interests?

My research interests are focused on a number of inter-related topics. First of all, I am interested in what we mean by the term ‘environment’. In some disciplinary contexts (biology for instance) the environment tends to be conceptualized as a separate entity to which an organism must somehow relate in order to survive. In this sense, the environment is distinct from the organism. Bacteria largely challenge this conceptualization. The generators of all life on earth, bacteria’s abilities to reproduce extremely rapidly, metabolize, exchange DNA well beyond their own ‘kind’ and so on invites interesting questions. How, for instance, do we maintain a conceptualization of human individuality (upon which all western rights-based discourses are based) when ‘we’ constitute muti-organism assembling compilations? I am also interested in how bacterial communities assemble, communicate, metabolize, exchange DNA, and transform the biosphere over time. These transformative abilities extend far beyond animal and plant metabolism to such large-scale phenomena as plate tectonics, and methane and carbon dioxide production.

What research are you currently working on?

As I increasingly like to say, all roads lead to…garbage. My current research – entitled Canada’s Waste Flow – involves a collaboration with Dr. Kerry Rowe (Civil Engineering, Queen’s University). This is an interdisciplinary research project connecting people interested in the topic of waste, to consider landfills and Canada’s waste future. The first stage of this project is funded through SSHRC’s Insight Development Fund, and brings together researchers in sociology, environmental studies, geography, and civil engineering. The project asks these central questions:

(1) What is waste? From both local and global perspectives, waste is a relative term. Several phenomena, including dumpster diving, yard/car boot sales, vintage clothing stores, or the thriving garbage picking industries in developing countries, point to the fact that one person’s garbage is another person’s sustenance, livelihood and/or treasure. Moreover, in important ways, we never actually get rid of anything: things we discard are transformed into other things. In this way, nothing is ever finally waste. Landfill waste may be out of sight, but it is material that variously resists and transforms into other substances, such as leachate. So in asking the question, what is waste? we critically consider what it means from cultural, economic, political, and material perspectives to identify certain entities as ‘discardable’ and discarded.

(2) What do we do with our waste? Canada is the world’s highest per capita municipal solid waste producer. Between 1990 and 2005, Canada’s per person production of municipal solid waste increased by 24%. By 2000, Canadians produced more waste per person than Americans. By 2005, Canada was generating 791 kg of municipal waste per person – well above the OECD 17-country average of 610 kg per person, and almost twice as much as Japan. By 2006, Canadians produced over 1000 kg of waste per person. This translates into 35 million tones of waste in a single calendar year. Canadian waste management focuses on the three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle. Of these, reducing waste is most effective but receives the least attention because it requires a significant change in consumption patterns. Reusing waste materials is next in effectiveness, and receives some attention in the form of drop-off depots, designated curbside exchanges and the like. Recycling waste material is least effective, yet receives the most interest. In asking what do we do with our waste? we are interested in finding out what material, political, economic, historical and cultural decisions contribute to our current waste management practices, and how these practices might change in the future.

(3) What is our waste future? Most of the waste produced by humans globally ends up in landfills. In 2010, 30% of existing Canadian landfills reached or surpassed capacity. Over 1 million tones of waste were exported out of Canada in 2002, much of it headed from southern Ontario to Michigan or Canadian regions. Some cities have settled on new landfill locations, and in some cases invested in construction, only to discover both significant public opposition and problems in risk and impact assessment. With increasing consumption and waste export and landfill sites close to or at capacity, landfills are emerging as a knowledge controversy. People are concerned with landfills in the vicinity of housing, schools and other public spaces, and wary of industry, science and government denial of citizen hands-on experiences with, and lay knowledge of, the potential dangers of landfill sites. Other members of the public, industry representatives and municipal government officials may interpret protest as NIMBYism. Scientists are cautious about government, industry and policy views of landfilling as an indefinitely viable solution to increasing volumes of garbage. We ask what is our waste future? in order to explore ways of engaging members of the public, landfill engineers, community organizations, public officials, and social scientists in discussions of landfilling and its alternatives.

Our key interest here is to explore viable ways of engaging engineering and scientific knowledge about:

o landfills – siting, design, construction, operations and post-closure care, leachate, contaminants of concern and so on

o Bioreactors – new methods of landfill operations are being advocated on the basis of some benefits (e.g. energy recovery and allowing more waste to be disposed in a given landfill) without fully understanding the potential consequences in terms of the longterm performance of the liner systems

o Recycling – forms of diversion that are actually routinely landfilled, or, in their recycling, produce hazardous toxins and require considerable energy with consequential environmental impacts.

With citizen concerns about the practicalities of waste disposal, policy concerns with adhering to provincial and municipal regulations, industry concerns with profit-making, and global concern with increased consumption and disposal.

I want to highlight two further key aspects of this project. The first is the project’s commitment to transdisciplinarity, which involves both the learning and appreciation of several disciplines that span the humanities, and social and natural sciences, as well as how the topic of waste flow might be transformed through a transdisciplinary approach. The second key aspect is graduate and postgraduate training. I currently supervise three graduate students whose research projects focus on important aspects of waste flow, including indigenous issues, industry take-up of waste management regulations, and university institution waste management policies and practices. These graduate students are forging important relationships with the numerous graduate students in engineering and science who are also studying various aspects of waste management. I believe this generation of graduate students is building transdisciplinary research approaches into their training in innovative ways that my generation of academics tended not to do, and that this approach has the potential to transform academia in positive ways.

What are some of your more interesting findings that you would like to share with us?

Since this project began in the fall of 2011, it’s too early to have garnered results. I very much look forward to sharing this research as it evolves. I am organizing a session at the 2012 CSA conference on waste flow, and I look forward to the discussion there.

What would you like to pursue with your research in the future?

I very much hope this research project expands into something larger, and that we are able to provide more graduate and postgraduate training opportunities.

What is your favourite place in Canada to spend time?

My favourite place in Canada is my parent’s cottage. Located in Quebec’s Gatineau hills, I situate my love for this landscape with both my good fortune to have parents who paid what is now ridiculously little for two allotments of land bordered by hills on one side and a long wide lake on the other, and with the fact that we are anglophone city-dwelling cottage owners within a francophone rural community. We share this land, water, and sky with deer, racoons, countless squirrels, chipmunks, mink, fish, white cedar, poplar, oak, silver birch, moss and fungi, bacterial multitudes, and countless memories old and in the making. The journey from my work space to my parent’s cottage effects no less than a personality change.

Is there a particular Canadian situation that concerns you as a social scientist or impacts your research with respect to the social environment relationship?

Waste is what Latour might call a ‘matter of concern’, and I am strongly committed to exploring ways of engaging the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences with non-academic communities around this issue.

What are your professional affiliations?

I am fortunate to be affiliated with several professions: sociology, environmental studies, geography, anthropology, philosophy, engineering, geosciences, and microbiology.

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