Shattuck, Annie. Toxic Uncertainties and Epistemic Emergence: Understanding Pesticides and Health in Lao PDR. Annals of the American Association of Geographers. Published online June 10, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1080/24694452.2020.1761285
Agrichemicals and other toxicants are now ubiquitous in both human bodies and the environment, yet public debate and scientific practice on their effects are still mired in uncertainty. Recent research in the history of science, feminist science, and technology studies has advanced ways of thinking about ignorance and uncertainty. Combined with key insights from political ecology, specifically the ontological continuity of bodies and environments and the uneven production of both knowledge and exposure, I suggest a conceptual intervention. I propose epistemic emergence—a way of thinking about the relations between forms of often situated, partial, and imperfect evidence that could be greater than the sum of their parts—as a way of working with uncertainty. Epistemic emergence pairs conventional scientific data with lay methods, takes into account the complex ecology in which exposures occur, considers how exposure interacts with social lives, and asks what forms of knowledge might make harm articulate enough for action (Liboiron 2015) in a particular context. Using a case study of community-based biomonitoring in upland Laos where pesticide use was near zero fifteen years ago and today risky levels of biomarkers for insecticide appear in children, I discuss what epistemic emergence might look like in practice.