Getting Value or Poison? Benefit–Harm Dilemmas in Efforts to Improve Life
Workshop hosted by the Center for the History of Global Development, Shanghai University
29-30 April, 2018
Shanghai University, Shanghai

The last two centuries have seen a dramatic increase in the release of toxic substances into the environment. Though the effects of this development have often been serious and the long-term consequences are, as yet, unclear, the historical evaluation is complicated by the fact that it is part of larger developments of increasing production, income, living standards and wellbeing.

If substances could be easily divided into two categories, those that do good and those that cause harm to humans and the rest of the environment, avoiding toxins would have been much easier than it has been. But in reality, this distinction has often been blurred, and materials that have ended up as toxins in one context have provided some real benefit in another. Pharmaceutical drugs and hospital instruments have saved lives, but their production and disposal have polluted rivers and landfills. Plastics have served countless helpful purposes, ranging from feeding tubes for prematurely born babies to hygienic food packaging, but their residues have littered the oceans, starving fish and sea-birds, and entered the food chains as a slow poison. Nuclear power plants have provided energy without causing climate-changing emissions, but have left waste that will be so highly contaminated for millennia that no safe disposal place has yet been found.

The list could be continued. Sometimes, toxins have been produced only because they were cheap and the beneficiaries did not bear the brunt of the damage. But sometimes, it has genuinely been difficult to identify an alternative for a positive good, turning every decision into a painful trade-off between different types of burdens. Such decisions have further been complicated by the fact that information about the effects have often been incomplete or contested or working on different time scales, as immediate and anticipated gains have been juxtaposed to long time problems, which may have been unknown or difficult to imagine.

This workshop considers some of these dilemmas and reviews various decisions taken at different times. It also explores if or to what extent historicizing these dilemmas and the horizons of those that have faced them, bring new insights into the study of harmful substances and the historical questions they raise.

Contributions are invited both addressing theoretical considerations and specific case studies. Proposals are particularly welcome on – though not limited to – one of the following aspects:

  1. The construction of “burdens” and “benefits”: how much burden is considered worth how much benefit and who decides? How have burdens and benefits been imagined over time?
  2. Decision making processes during incomplete or evolving knowledge;
  3. Changing evaluations of substances or processes as a result of evolving evidence;
  4. Power relations as determinants of decisions and/or processes; Who gets to benefit and who gets to carry which burden? How have decisions and policies been connected to aspects of race, class, gender and location?
  5. The role of time and space in determining burdens and benefits;
  6. The role of disciplinary contexts (economics, politics, ecology etc.) in cost-benefit analyses;

Please send an abstract and a short cv (one page) until 30 January, 2018 to [email protected].

The workshop is part of collaborative workshop series between the Deadly Dreams Network, the Hazardous Travels research group of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society and the Center for the History of Global Development at Shanghai University.

The Center will cover costs for accommodation and meals. Funding is also available for some travel assistance. Priority for travel assistance will be given to PhD students and junior researchers.