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*Repost* HCST Lecture with Chloe Ahmann

Time Bomb: 200 Years of Toxic Disavowal in South Baltimore


Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Building (ILSB) : 233

Date & Time

April 22, 2024, 4:00 pm5:30 pm


Time Bomb: Two Hundred Years of Toxic Disavowal in Late Industrial South Baltimore

Chloe Ahmann, Assistant Professor, Anthropology, Cornell University

In December 2021, South Baltimoreans watched as a devastating blast at the CSX coal terminal broke windows and sent a thick layer of carcinogenic coal dust into the air, which coated every surface in a 12-block radius. Deliberations at the city, state, and corporate level since have concerned how to prevent the next catastrophe. Palatable interventions range from promoting better coordination between industry and first responders in the event of trouble, to improving neighborhood alerts, to facilitating mass displacement. Decidedly off the table have been meaningful responses to the everyday disasters that have cut lives short on this industrial peninsula for the past two centuries.

South Baltimore has seen such a drama unfold before—most spectacularly during the late Cold War, when industrial accidents were on the rise and residents made sick over years of toxic exposure were moved to organize for recompense. Rather than politicize their health to do so, they learned to dramatize their imminent demise in the event of the next emergency. In the sense that they eventually secured a buyout of their homes, this argument was a success. But it hinged on an agreement to limit charges to the hypothetical. It proceeded as if the gravest obstacles to life lay then, in the devastating future, and not now, ambient and tedious. Examining how residents came to strike this painful bargain, the bleak conditions that made it seem like their best choice, and the painful resonance of both in the wake of the CSX explosion, Ahmann considers what it means to privilege an analysis that works over an analysis that speaks to life as lived—especially when the former holds that a hypothetical death carries more political value than a real one.

Organized by the Human Context of Science and Technology Program

Co-sponsored by the Department of Philosophy; the Center for Social Science Scholarship; the Dresher Center for the Humanities; and the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Public Health