You are currently viewing Of Pigeons and Process

Of Pigeons and Process

During the kickoff meeting, Matthew Tuggey of CEMUS started us off with a poetic, thoughtful speech on process. He has kindly given us permission to reprint his speech here.

An agony of scientists

Good afternoon everyone.

When I was first asked to speak here this afternoon, I thought it would be a great idea to talk about sustainability! I’m a semi-intelligent human, I read the event title and sustainability seemed like a winner as far as topics go. I’m teaching a couple of courses this fall, the first is climate change leadership in practice – for which anyone who can argue convincingly that they understand what the title means – passes with flying colours. The second is global challenges and sustainable futures, which has a less fun acronym.

So, it felt like a great meeting point. Lab sustainability, challenges … what can go wrong?

So, instead … I thought I’d like to talk about pain and frustration and let’s start lightly. I’d like to talk about the pain of being ‘scientists’, since there are a number of us here, all together. I don’t want to unfairly label you as a ‘scientist’ if you don’t see yourself that way but I hope we can share a little in the pain of being seen as a scientist!

All those moments when someone asks you what you do and you know that there is just no point in trying to explain; the moments when people seek to strike up a conversation about ‘scientific’ topic with you that you have no idea about and frankly, neither do they. My personal favourite is my dad, who invariably brings up nuclear fusion with me … my masters project was in inorganic synthesis.

For me, after I graduated, I went into international school teaching and it was little better. I had to cope with the moments in social events with parents, when – half way through an otherwise perfectly enjoyable conversation – they would ask what I teach their offspring, and then the tumbleweed moment when I tell them ‘chemistry’ … … the most socially able amongst parents, would quickly recover, offering something elegant and dignified like “Chemistry … I hated that at school”.

a tumbleweed moment

I don’t know what the collective noun for scientists is, but I think it should be an ‘agony of scientists’. That might be how other humans feel in our company and for me, it pretty accurately describes my feeling of being a scientist in the company of others. It’s a pain being involved in science and it can also be painful, sometimes.

Doing sustainability . . . processes and pigeon fanciers

So I think it’s great that we’re all gathered here today for the opening of a lab sustainability competition. I don’t know who was involved in making this happen. I don’t know the conversations, the arguments, the paperwork, the dreams, hope and the care that were shared in being able to align us on this trajectory but I want to thank you and I want to encourage you, simply from one human to others, to continue engaging in this.

When I am engaged with students in a course such as climate change leadership in practice, a huge amount of effort, anxiety and searching on behalf of the students, is about what they should be doing. Sustainability, at least in the students and people I encounter, is a question of doing.

Donna Haraway, in her book, staying with the trouble, talks about pigeons and racing pigeons. Stay with me. She talks about the lives of those people that train pigeons. What do they do? What are they doing? They are training the pigeons to become racing pigeons. What about the pigeons? They are becoming racing pigeons. The human ‘does’, the pigeon ‘becomes’.

What I love in this account is that Haraway continues to ask what happens to the people?The people that train those pigeons. She contends that they engage in a process of becoming pigeon fanciers.

Haraway talks about the idea of becoming with. In engaging in a sustainability lab project what am I becoming? What I am becoming with? How am I becoming with? For me, the value of these questions is they ask us to look beyond and broaden the idea from ‘doing sustainability’. How does this change how and what I am thinking? How does engagement with this affect what I am being and how I am becoming?

Furthermore, I think these types of questions push us towards thinking more about process. This lab sustainability competition is great, great things will be done and exciting things will come out of it. How do we prevent this from just being a moment, a location that we arrive at, devoid of any trajectory, when all is said and done? How do we engage with this project, how do we engage with ourselves and with one another and our spaces in a process as opposed to an end in itself? A process of continued renegotiations of how we live with one another on this planet.

Processes and sustainabilities

Maybe at this point I should reveal that most of my lab experience was as a process

Those kinds of jokes are why Chemistry teachers get bad reputations.

Mike Hulme, talking about climate change, offers that “at heart climate change is entangled with eternal questions about human meaning, purpose, responsibility and ethics”. He continues that it relates to “people’s identities and values, their attitudes to technology…and about how they understand their relationships with human and non-human others”.

What I value in Mike Hulme’s work is that he doesn’t seek to replace the technical components and concerns of climate change (and I will extend his ideas to sustainability here) but rather invites us to glimpse a multiplicity of entangled views, definitions and concerns, most of which have no end or no solution but that can only be engaged in as a process. What is sustainability to each of us, if it is a process that our lives, our values and cares are entangled with and for which there is no one simple definition?

In this context I think lab scientists have something surprising and valuable to offer; the quality of our pain and frustration.

Brick walls

During my penultimate project for my Chemistry masters I spent 9 months working at Novartis in Switzerland. The final 3 months, I hit a brick wall. Whatever I tried, I couldn’t make progress. As I’m sure you can all empathise with, I spent 12 hours a day in the lab, grappling with matter. The level of frustration was fascinating now that I look back at it. I have of course experienced frustration at several times in my life but the actual quality and type of that frustration was unique and I think it can be instructive within the sustainability discourse.

So, while I want to encourage us to view and engage with sustainability as a process of continual renegotiations of how we live with one another, I also want to posit that being engaged in processes, to become with is to engage with frustration. Within the arena of frustration there is something invaluable that an ‘agony of lab scientists’ can bring us.

Two hats / what happens in the lab, stays in the lab

A number of lab scientists I have spoken to over the last week in preparation for this have spoken about their two ‘hats’. The scientist hat and the person hat. Indeed, when I censor myself in conversations that skirt close to a topic that I have interest in, I censor myself so that I don’t start my sentence with “as a scientist…” I wonder what that is and what it recreates? If we have these two hats, to what extent is either of them or any one of them engaging in sustainability? What are the limitations of each and do the properties of the whole change as these two hats are brought closer together?

I often find myself thinking something similar about laboratories. In Switzerland, my frustration was not confined to the lab. Science is not the only thing that occurs within laboratories, life occurs within laboratories and life bleeds out and overflows from laboratories. Science also does not only occur in laboratories, it is not made there and magically copied and pasted elsewhere, it overflows the laboratory with us, it is renegotiated elsewhere with us and without us in the presence of others.

Let me try and bring together these ideas, as I close.

Frustration, process, two hats becoming with

I think the quality and types of frustration and pain that lab scientists tend to experience is valuable and important. How would our engagements and relationships be different if we asked more questions of this and if we spoke to other people about it more? How does the frustration of the process of grappling with matter shape us? How has it shaped you?

I think following the thread of frustration across the apparent border of the laboratory door, helps us ask questions of ourselves and of scientific knowledge creation that will be helpful in sustainability discourses. Scientific knowledge production is entangled with our individual frustrations and with our individual lives. That’s amazing! Science and lab scientists have so much to offer in their relationships with others and for me the point is that this is far more than the papers we publish and the materials we transform. Our relationship to pain and frustration, something that might derive from our process of becoming with matter is not trivial.

On pain, in hope

Finally, I have sought to encourage us to engage in the process of sustainability, whilst guaranteeing that pain and frustration will emerge alongside us, as we do this.

Gibran writes that “your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding”. I hope for you that this lab sustainability competition yields reductions in waste and improvements in areas that we might most immediately seek to measure. I also hope that it becomes a process that you are able to engage in, a process of becoming with that we are able to fully participate in as person-scientists.

I wish you high quality frustration in manageable amounts and I wish you high quality questions. That we are here today, is a product of a number of us engaging in processes of frustration, care, loneliness and hope, something that deserves all of our admiration and gratitude. I hope, in our ongoing engagement with sustainability that we can ask questions of our relationships. Our relationships with our labs, our relationships to funding and grant models, our relationships to scientific knowledge production, our relationships to others and our relationships with ourselves and with our frustration and with our joy.

Thank you for being here today. I wish you well.

Thank you Matthew Tuggey!

Leave a Reply