From Immunity to Collaboration Microbes, Waste, and Antitoxic Politics
In this paper I trace the emergence of a more-than-human antitoxic politics where microbes are cultivated agents of environmental remediation. Following a successful anti-incinerator protest, a group of urban waste activists in China turned to the brewing of eco-enzymes, a fermented solution made from organic waste, as a means of fortifying the health of bodies, homes, and their local environment. I illustrate how the material effects of microbes catalyze a grassroots response of experimental speculation among middle-class waste activists in response to China’s polluted environment. Following feminist science and technology studies scholars and the work of Roberto Esposito, I argue that eco-enzyme brewers engage in a microbiopolitics of immunity and collaboration to reconstitute human and nonhuman collectives in acts of cooperation and care for the environment. Eco-enzymes brewing illustrates how the uncertain effects of microbial transformation can sustain an experimental inquiry into the modes of ecological action that are possible under China’s authoritarian politics and polluted landscape.
The first hint that something was brewing inside the plastic two-liter water bottle was a slight bulge at the top that dissipated with a hiss of air as Ling turned the cap.1 During a workshop on how to make eco-enzymes in Garden Villa, a gated housing complex in the district of Panyu in southern Guangzhou, assembled participants talked excitedly about the first time they opened the lid to release the built-up gas. A woman in her midthirties smiled as she recounted a fondness for her daily routine of listening to the familiar hiss as the air escaped whenever she squeezed the bottle to feel how much pressure had built up over the previous day. Her neighbor nodded in agreement and called the process “addictive” (shangying). This small hiss of air was a sign of life inside the brownish brew, made up of fermenting vegetable leaves, brown sugar, and water.
In 2013, I began attending workshops on how to brew eco-enzymes (huanbaojiaoshu). Eco-enzymes, also known as “garbage enzymes,” are a solution made from water, brown sugar, and leftover organic waste, mostly vegetable leaves and fruit peels. Specifically, leftover kitchen scraps are cut up and mixed with one part brown sugar, three parts kitchen scraps, and 10 parts water (fig. 1). Left to ferment for three months, the resulting cloudy brew was first used as an alternative to chemical cleaners, shampoos, and detergents. However, participants soon advocated a range of other uses—applied to skin as a serum and bug repellent, added to plant soil as an organic fertilizer, and poured into rivers to cleanse them of chemical pollutants. In addition to kitchen scraps, participants also devised recipes using ingredients chosen for ingestion, for instance, pomelo peels and honey fermented to cure stomach discomfort and indigestion and rosehip buds used to fortify skin against signs of aging.
From organic fertilizers in the premodern era to the socialist project of building rural biogas digesters, microorganisms have been used to manage organic waste throughout China’s long agricultural history (King 1927; Xue 2005). In agrarian societies, microbes were used to speed up decomposition, minimize bacterial infection, and cycle nutrients. Eco-enzymes’ popularity in China and across Asia in the last 10 years, however, reflects a growing environmental awareness and a shift toward a consumption-based green movement that endorses a return to so-called natural products, predominantly among middle-class urbanites (Lou 2017).2 Yet, for waste activists in Garden Villa, eco-enzyme brewing also catalyzed what Heather Paxson calls a “microbiopolitics,” an investment in the proliferation of microorganisms inseparable from an inquiry into how humans ought to live with one another (Paxson 2008). In this case, microbes and their material effects sustained a collective experiment into how to transform waste into an agent of ecological repair amid a pervasive condition of pollution.
The “microbial turn” in scientific research and in the broader culture is challenging a once-dominant association between microbes and disease. Scientists, health researchers, and environmentalists have become increasingly interested in the role of microbes in facilitating the development of healthy bodies and ecosystems (Benezra, DeStefano, and Gordon 2012; Paxson and Helmreich 2014). Food producers in the raw or health food sectors increasingly reject Pasteurianism, a regime of state governance centered on the regulation and elimination of microbes, and instead advocate individually negotiated relationships with and to microbes (Paxson 2008; Spackman 2018). In the realm of food politics, microbiopolitics reflects growing dissent over the form and limits of top-down governance.
In the realm of politics, art, and food movements, microbes appear in experimental projects to realize alternative social and political visions. For example, by using microbes to transform oil collected from his local community into fuel, fermentation advocate Sandor Katz demonstrates how microbes enable communities to experiment with self-subsistence by opting out of capitalist production and exchange networks (Povinelli 2011). Fermentation practices undergird feminist political experiments that, in a move away from individualism, emphasize co-laboring, reproduction, and survival (Fournier 2020; Tsing 2015). In Bosnia, home brewing and the exchange of mushrooms invite speculation into “thing-agency” and how fermentation can incite a “form of vital responsiveness of all living organisms that can be neither predicted nor controlled for” (Jasarevic 2015:58).
At Garden Villa, in the context of an authoritarian regime that simultaneously pursues a top-down program of environmental planning while curtailing political dissent, microbial experimentation catalyzes and sustains a more-than-human grassroots antitoxic politics. Microbial experimentation with eco-enzymes emerged out of a community of do-it-yourself (DIY) brewers made up of predominantly middle-class homeowners who, through their brewing, sustain an ecological relation to waste in the aftermath, as I explain below, of a more explicit engagement with the state and the political. In Garden Villa the fermentation of waste incited an ecological experiment that, rather than expelling waste, transformed it into an agent of environment resuscitation.
In 2009, when a Waste to Energy (WTE) incinerator was slated to be built in Panyu district within 10 kilometers of Garden Villa, the organizers of the eco-enzyme workshop took part in one of China’s most well publicized anti-incineration protests. Residents argued that WTE incinerators would emit a range of pollutants including nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, and dioxin contaminating the air, waterways, and soil. Garden Villa residents organized through online groups and eventually took to the streets alongside those living in nearby housing complexes and villages (Zhang 2014). Their protests succeeded in halting construction. Shortly after, the municipal government relocated the proposed facility farther outside the city center. Panyu was a rare political victory for urban environmental activists. However, faced with police interrogation and charges of inciting social unrest, most middle-class residents who participated in the protest distanced themselves from organizing.3
Four years later, eco-enzyme brewing reunited participants of the Panyu anti-incineration protest. In workshops, discussions focused on techniques of fermentation and sidestepped politics. However, the outsized investment and enthusiasm that formed around the fermentation of the home remedy sustained a collective inquiry into what forms of antiwaste politics might persist under an authoritarian regime. Microbes and their material effects opened up an experimental space that transformed waste activism.
The material effects of microbes in the eco-enzyme project shifted a politics that focused on the relocation of a state-sponsored technology deemed to be a source of pollution to the question of how grassroots community action not only can reduce waste but invest in practices of ecological repair. At a time when late-industrial capitalism has unleashed toxins that threaten life and the health of species (Fortun 2012), science and technology studies scholars point out that ecological survival depends on novel collectives, practices, and strategies to reconstitute heterogenous collectives (Haraway 2016; Latour 2010; Tsing et al. 2017) and devise new practices and collaboration with nonhuman agents (Vaughn 2017; Zhang 2020a).
At the same time, a probiotic turn to environmental conservation has emerged in late-modern Western scientific contexts (Lorimer 2020). The probiotic approach “us[es] life to manage life,” by “working with biological and geomorphic processes to deliver forms of human, environmental and even planetary health” (1–2). The “probiotic turn” shows a preference for diverse and uncertain outcomes; biome restoration and rewilding are important tactics of ecological resuscitation (Lorimer 2020). Through fermentation and an investment in microbes, eco-enzyme brewers rethink how waste and toxicity should be managed in China’s postindustrial era. Eco-enzymes sustained a microbiopolitics of immunity and collaboration, a grassroots response to pollution, and a more-than-human antitoxic politics. Brewers invest in the proliferation of microbes to neutralize waste once subjected to a sanitary regime of containment and expulsion so that it can be reincorporated back into their bodies and ecologies as an act of fortification. Eco-enzymes transform waste toward immunity as the material medium to combat a pervasive environmental toxicity and to forge new connections to the health of bodies, ecologies, and communities.
Like the brewers, I am less interested in scientific explanations of how microbes work and more interested in examining how the material effects of microbes catalyzed the political and ecological project of the brewers. For the community of brewers in Garden Villa, fermentation and the materiality of microbes prolonged and recomposed social collectives under a repressive authoritarian regime. In China’s authoritarian context, eco-enzyme brewing enabled citizens to collectively act to address pollution in ways that transcended state-sanctioned petitions, overt protests, or quiet resignation (Lora-Wainwright et al. 2012; van Rooij 2010). Microbial effects transform an oppositional politics to state technopolitical intervention into a project of ecological resuscitation that reestablished an ecological connection between waste, bodies, and the local ecology. The practice of brewing eco-enzymes establishes more than human collectives that enable social ties forged in political resistance to persist in a manner unrecognizable to state surveillance and state-policed political dissent.
I begin this paper by examining how toxicity and chemical pollution have become ubiquitous conditions of daily life in contemporary China. Ecological enclaves like Garden Villa exemplify a middle-class desire to escape toxicity, even as life under pollution created a sense of pervasive insecurity and severed a connection to the local ecology. Next, drawing on the works of feminist science and technology studies scholars on collaboration and Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito’s writings on biopolitics and immunity, I show that eco-enzymes transform an ecological relation to waste. Persistent and ever-present chemical entanglements undermine attempts to manage waste through containment and geographical displacement. Instead, eco-enzymes mobilize the unknown potential of microbes to neutralize and to reincorporate waste back into bodies and environments in an act of fortification. My ethnography of eco-enzyme brewing centers on how the material effects of enzymes catalyze transformations that sustain a community of believers, backed not by scientific accounts but observable effects. Uncertain material effects sustain collective efforts and precipitate the application of the enzyme to home, bodies, and ecologies as a method of ecological remediation. I conclude by reflecting on how eco-enzymes and the practice of brewing them expand the forms of toxic politics and ecological action possible under China’s authoritarian regime.
The Limits of Action in a Toxic World
The ubiquity of industrial pollution has transformed China into a “permanently and unevenly toxic world” (Liboiron, Tironi, and Calvillo 2018:332). Starting in the early 1980s, a shift to industrial manufacturing, the pursuit of a program of rapid development, and consumerism have made pollution and toxicity a ubiquitous condition of daily life. The penetration of pollution into urban ecologies is manifest in smog that grounds flights, exploding chemical facilities, and cancer villages, where the effects of toxic remains on bodies and the local ecology have rightfully incited citizen suspicion of the state’s environmental governance (Economy 2010; Lora-Wainwright et al. 2012; Tilt 2013; Zee 2015). While environmental justice scholars elsewhere have demonstrated the impact of the uneven distribution of toxicity and risk for marginal populations and communities of color living next to petrochemical facilities or waste dumping sites (Auyero and Swistun 2009; Checker 2005), in China, pollution’s impact crosses sociological boundaries of class, the rural and urban. A shared condition of dwelling under toxic exposure makes China a key site to observe a “chemical kinship” or a form of “chemo-sociality,” an emerging condition of shared dwelling from bodies enveloped in toxins (Agard-Jones 2013; Kirksey 2020; Nading 2020).
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, municipal solid waste management emerged as a central environmental concern across China’s cities. China’s economic miracle and urban development in the last 40 years has generated an exponential increase in waste. In Guangzhou, municipal solid waste grew eightfold from 1984 to 2012, with over 50% of the waste stream composed of organics. Whereas the dominant method of waste treatment was landfilling designed to contain pollution, in the early 2000s, national and municipal governments identified WTE incinerators as the official state-sponsored technology for waste management. State and industry supporters claim that WTE incineration burns waste for energy with minimal toxic output. However, anti-WTE incineration activists argue that the burning of a mixture of waste with inadequate environmental oversight meant that WTE incineration also transformed municipal solid waste into pollution that circulated in different states, as liquids, gases, and molecular particles.
Xi Jinping’s pursuit of authoritarian environmentalism in recent years promises to strengthen the role of the state to dictate the terms of environmental politics, not only through setting the state’s policy agenda but through shrinking the space of public participation (Li and Shapiro 2020). Despite the burgeoning of civil society over the last 20 years, institutionalized channels of environmental politics, petitioning, arbitration, and the formation of environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) offer a limited forum for both rural and urban citizens battling pollution. Villagers suffering from pollution often turn away from explicit political action to avoid the risk of state repression (Lora-Wainwright 2017; Lora-Wainwright et al. 2012). NGOs are acutely aware of state presence and carefully self-police their own actions (Dai and Spires 2018; Ho and Edmonds 2007; Sima 2011; Wu 2013). The dominance of state science means that citizens in China are only beginning to mobilize through a prevalent form of antitoxic politics, that of citizen science, where pollution victims gather their own data and toxicological evidence (Fortun 2001; Graeter 2017; Hoover 2017; Ottinger 2013; Petryna 2002; Polleri 2019).
Scholars argue that the political response to WTE incineration is one example of the birth of a novel form of environmental public across China (Steinhardt and Wu 2016). Yet, the 2009 Panyu anti-incineration protest illustrates that the form that environmental publics can take remains highly constrained by an authoritarian politics that seeks to prevent organized dissent from turning into a sustained political challenge. The urban middle class can organize, petition, or even take to the streets, yet, despite their greater resources and knowledge compared with rural victims of pollution, there are significant barriers to their environmental advocacy. During the organization of the protest, residents were regularly invited for tea with public security officials, a well-known technique that reminded protesters both that they were being closely and actively surveilled and, further, that the state intended to wipe out—through coercion, force, or violence—any form of organized civic dissent, even peaceful demonstrations over less sensitive political issues like the environment. After the 2009 protest, aside from a few homeowners who continued to lobby the state, write op-eds, and form environmental NGOs, most residents disengaged from waste politics. The central challenge of politics under authoritarianism would prove to be how to sustain collective action.
For the residents of Garden Villa and participants of the WTE incineration protest, pollution remained a pervasive condition and a major source of concern even after they successfully organized to push for the facility’s relocation. For many, environmental quality was an important factor in their decision to reside in a green gated community. Among the urban middle-class, a popular response to pollution has been to seek refuge in such ecological enclaves (Sze 2015). Garden Villa, a typical eco-community in the southern district of Panyu, is a private housing development and self-sufficient community with a mixture of single-family homes, townhouses, and apartments in addition to restaurants, schools, buses, and even a hospital. Its environmental features are particularly notable. The complex features an artificial lake, impeccable landscaping, and manicured lawns that emulate a country home. This sanitized, green aesthetic provides an environmental refuge to protect against the crowded and polluted inner city of Guangzhou and embodies the sanitized, protected living of suburban landscapes.
Waste and WTE incineration allowed the middle-class residents of Garden Villa to act on a broader concern with toxicity that plagued them. When I ask Xing Xing, an entrepreneur in her early 30s and a mother of two, who was active in the 2009 protests, which type of pollution she was most concerned with, she did not explicitly mention WTE incineration but spoke of a concern with a range of pollution issues caused by China’s environmental regulations:
We see no obvious improvements with air quality. The state has remediated the waterways; they used to be black, and at least they no longer smell as bad … [When it comes to] industrial pollution, many industrial plants don’t abide by regulation or standards. There are no restrictions [for the release of emissions]. Officials in charge of inspection are corrupt! They won’t conduct any monitoring. If they are caught polluting, they just have to pay a fee and they can carry on as usual. (Interview transcript, 2012)
Ecological enclaves like Garden Villa provided a level of solace, but brewers foregrounded how toxicity generated a sense of insecurity that severed a connection between one’s bodies to the broader ecology. For many, living in such enclaves has not eased the sense that toxicity has penetrated every aspect of life and contributes to broad feelings of insecurity. Jun, an eco-enzyme brewer, put it this way:
You can get almost anything nowadays. The supermarkets are well-stocked. Although you have more conveniences, everything you buy is manufactured. This makes you feel that life is insecure. You always worry. You go online and the first thing you read about is some food not meeting technical standard, or another brand has problems. There are different worries every day. You constantly live with this type of anxiety. But here [in the countryside] even if you didn’t plant your own vegetables, your neighbors planted them. You use the eco-enzymes that you produced yourself, which can dissolve some toxins, and you feel much more comforted. (Interview transcript, 2013)
What actions can citizens take to address a prevalent condition of pollution under a regime of political repression? Almost none of the homeowner protesters in Panyu had previously engaged in any form of protest, and only a few describe themselves as activists. As with other organizers of Green Family, Xing Xing sees herself as an ordinary middle-class citizen who eschews political confrontation. For Xing Xing and a handful of other residents who founded Green Family, the hope was that the nascent grassroots community center could be a way to continue their waste politics.
In the summer of 2013, Xing Xing and fellow anti-incineration protesters regrouped in a newly established activity center in a first-floor apartment in Garden Villa. Participants reflected that while protests stopped the construction of a waste facility, they had so far failed to address the root of the waste crisis.4 At the outset, the brewing of eco-enzymes started as just one among a range of activities offered in the workshop aimed at waste reduction, along with the collection of batteries and the exchange of second-hand goods. Yet almost immediately, eco-enzyme workshops eclipsed all other activities. DIYers espoused the myriad capacities of the solution to transform leftover food waste into a cleaning solution, detergent, and medicine, and to rejuvenate plants and waterways. Brewers insist on the observable material effects of enzymes to remediate toxicity. Brewers quickly scaled up production. By fall 2013, eco-enzymes were the dominant, if not the sole, focus of the Green Family workshop.
The explicitly nonconfrontational posture of Green Family might be interpreted as one more instance of the Chinese state’s capacity to assimilate and neutralize political opposition. The cultivation of eco-enzymes, at first glance, might be characterized as an example of a private, individual act of self-cultivation toward the preservation of environment and health. Eco-enzyme brewing echoes the rise of the yangsheng movement in the early 1990s that characterized a private turn toward the self under authoritarianism as the state withdrew from the provision of health care in the postreform era. Chinese citizens developed an interest in augmenting and preserving the body through mountain walks, calisthenics, and the consumption of nutritious foods (Farquhar and Zhang 2012). The types of passions yangsheng cultivated “allow[ed] people to ‘escape without leaving’ a sometimes uncertain social and political order that is both experienced and remembered as hand built, but fragile, always threatened by ‘chaos’” (22). Personal preservation through the yangsheng movement was one response to how to live and act within the limits of what is deemed to be livable by the state (16).
Larisa Jasarevic emphasizes the similarly experimental nature of the informal exchange of fermented mushrooms in Bosnian kitchens (Jasarevic 2015). Her study hesitates to characterize such experimental exchanges as a form of “politics.” For Jasarevic, fermentation is not explicitly a “political matter” (Braun and Whatmore 2010) and the brew circulates neither as “an object of technoscience or items of capitalist consumer economies” (Jasarevic 2015:40). Yet, for Manuel Tironi, everyday acts of care and practice against pollution and toxicity that occur in the private realm are forms of “hypo-interventions”—minor but life-enabling acts—that sustain an ethical response to pervasive chemical harm (Tironi 2018:439). These practices are a form of intimate activism that expands the realm of the political and “situates politics at the intersections of passiveness and action, coping and contesting, reclusion and mobilization and feeling and knowing” (Tironi 2018:439).
In Garden Villa, eco-enzyme brewing reunited neighbors in an experiment toward a more-than-human antitoxic politics, one that placed microbes and their transformative effects at center stage. My ethnographic research illustrates that the material effects of microbes transform and catalyze a form of political investment and energy that exceeds quiet, everyday acts of individual preservation and care and also the types of “hypo-interventions” of intimate activism. As fermentation practices neutralize and transform waste, brewers begin to invest in microbes not only as an agent to combat the insecurity generated by a toxic environment but as a way to establish new ecological relations to their local environment. The eco-enzyme sustains a political collective under repressive conditions and a collaborative experiment of humans and nonhuman toward mutual survival in China’s late-industrial cities.
Microbial Advocacy: From Immunity to Collaboration
Bruno Latour showed that modern regimes of sanitation and health emerged alongside the discovery, management, and governance of microbial life (Latour 1988). Modern sanitation and health practices that regularize life and biological processes exemplify what Michel Foucault calls biopolitics (Foucault 2003:246–247). Biopolitics, according to Paxson, was accompanied by a “microbiopolitics,” an impulse to govern and regularize life “predicated on the indirect control of human bodies through direct control over microbial bodies” (Paxson 2008:36). Pasteurization and the Pasteurian regime in particular produced categories and a method for the anthropogenic management of microscopic biological agents “engaged in infection, inoculation, and digestion” (Paxson 2008:17). A significant legacy of Pasteurization is the production of a germophobic subject who internalized a broader attitude toward microbes generated through public health, that the elimination of microbial life is central to the practice of safeguarding bodies.
Esposito argues that Foucault’s biopolitics is not only concerned with a negative biopolitics, or a power over life, expressed through efforts to discipline, normalize, and optimize bodies. Instead, Esposito identifies an affirmative biopolitics that contains the seeds of “a power of life” invested in the unknown potentials that stem from the proliferation of life (Esposito 2008:32). Esposito uses microbial interactions to demonstrate his political theory of immunity. In the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries the advent of medical bacteriology and the discovery of vaccination shifted immunity from a natural to an acquired condition. Immunity is brought about by the purposeful introduction of “an attenuated form of infection to protect against a more virulent form of the same type” (Esposito 2011:7). Rather than expelling poisons and guarding the body against impurities, life is preserved and fortified by neutralizing and absorbing its contradiction. Throughout much of the twentieth century, the association of microbes with pathogens and disease meant that immunity was and is understood as a process of inoculating an enemy force that emanated from the outside (Martin 1994; Paxson and Helmreich 2014). Instead of purging microbes from a social community, an affirmative biopolitics means immunity is understood as an investment in the proliferation of microbial life as a mode for generating a space of indeterminacies.
Political theorists have used Esposito’s concept of immunity as a model for theorizing political relations. For instance, immunity has been used to describe the relationship between nation-states and their members and how individuals outside the nation-state can be absorbed into the polity (Fishel 2017). Esposito’s concept of immunity uses microbial interaction as a model for what constitutes a political community. A political community is made up not of individuals but of humans and nonhumans engaged in a continuous exchange between the self and the surrounding environment critical to perpetuating and governing life (Esposito 2008:165).5 The capacity to absorb the environment into the body as a mechanism of self-protection opens up a way for thinking about how microbial interactions are central to the question of what types of collectives can ensure ecological survival (see Lynch 2019).
As people cultivate microbial life to ensure community and environmental health, they engage in instances of “microbial advocacy,” the purposeful cultivation and deployment of microbes as a way to shape the relationship between bodies and environments by enacting ecological change at the smallest scale (see Ford 2019). Waste, once viewed as something to be ejected from communities, is transformed and neutralized through the logic of immunity for the purposes of strengthening community protection. Immunity highlights the process of a continuous exchange between the self and the surrounding environment. In immunity, the outside is absorbed into organisms as a critical strategy for the fortification of life (Esposito 2011:165).6 An investment in microbes lays the groundwork for a model of immunity as an experiment into novel collectives and recompositions that addresses an environment of pollution and waste.
In an era where bodies and ecologies are so thoroughly enveloped in chemicals, scholars have argued that it is no longer possible to contemplate a politics of purity that aims to purge substances of danger from the social body (Douglas 1991). A return to “an ideal of uncontaminated body, has become unthinkable practically and politically” (Langwick 2018:421). Instead, feminists and posthumanist scholars advocate practices that make possible “partial and robust biological-cultural-political-technological recuperation and re-compositions” (Haraway 2015:160). Microbial advocacy challenges the fortress mentality of guarding bodies from chemicals, germs, and other microorganisms. The material effects of microbes facilitate an experiment into what constitutes a social and political collective that exceeds the project of environmental governance.
Kristina Lyons has argued that the regenerative potential of decomposition challenges the bifurcation of living and dying and produces new ecological imaginaries and “life politics” not based on productivity or growth but collectives that allow for new possibilities for living and relating to death (Lyons 2016). Organics and the process of decomposition are useful sites to observe material breakdown, a process that challenges the boundaries between the inside and the outside, the subject and its environment (Abrahamsson and Bertoni 2014; Zhang 2020b). In the eco-enzyme project, decomposing waste is an act of transformation, as the substance that was once waste is welcomed back into bodies and environments as an agent of remediation. The cultivation of microbes represents a “probiotic turn” and an environmental mode of the biopolitical aimed at the transformation of the body and the local ecology (Lorimer 2017). As I illustrate below, the material effects of microbes sustain a collective experimentation with waste.
Catalysts of Transformation
The popularity of eco-enzymes hinges on their capacity to produce effects that can be seen and felt. I visited Ling, an accountant, mother of two, and once an active participant in petition meetings and protests against the proposed Panyu WTE incinerator, about four months after our first interview in a workshop for the brewing of eco-enzymes. Seated on a couch, holding a small, 50-mL, clear spray bottle filled with a liquid solution the color of cantaloupe, Ling urged two women sitting across from her who had come to the workshop to stick out their hands. She sprayed some of the contents of the bottle onto one woman’s wrist. “This is great as a mosquito repellant and I’ve been using this [eco-enzymes] shampoo for my hair for the past few months,” Ling exclaims while running her fingers through her own ponytail, “and it’s now shinier, sleeker, and darker” (interview transcript, 2013). Halfway through the demonstration, Ling stood up from the couch and handed each of us a pamphlet. The title, Chinese characters in a comic book font, read “eco-enzymes save the world.” Beneath it was a four-line slogan across the front: “With the simplest action, the most economic method, we can alter our living environment” (fig. 2).
Ling told me that in her initial use of eco-enzymes, she didn’t have many expectations until she used it on her hair and noticed its effect. Fang told me a similar story about using the formula to rejuvenate a dying plant. Most of the workshop participants agreed that what convinced them of the effectiveness of the solution was not scientific evidence but observable results. In workshops, first-time participants were not given a scientific account of how or why the formula worked, but focused instead on methods of how to cultivate the most effective microbes. DIYers often exchanged stories on their successes experimenting with different recipes. Traditional ingredients like soap berry were added to the formula meant for cleansing. Aloe vera plants were fermented to make a skin potion. By the end of the first few months, the scale of brewing in the workshop had grown exponentially. Boxes of brown sugar piled up in the living room like bricks. Large bottles and jugs piled up in the backyard (fig. 3). Participants complained that their hands were sore from cutting vegetables.
Participants invoked scientific explanations only when pressed for an account of how the enzymes worked. At one workshop, for example, Ling suggested that the formula is slightly acidic, allowing it to dissolve fats such as grease and oil. Xiao Huang, on the other hand, contended that the solution was actually basic. Reluctant to argue and eager to stress its usefulness across a wide range of contexts, Xiao Huang referred to a biochemical formula inside the promotional pamphlet (fig. 4; this translation by me):
Eco-enzyme begins a biochemical reaction from starch and sugar that produces an acetic acid (CH2COOH), which when combined with water disintegrates into starch, fat, and protein producing acetyl-CO-A (acetyl coenzyme A), a molecule that participates in many biochemical reactions in protein, carbohydrate, and lipid metabolism.
CH3COOH (acetic acid) + O1 + O2 = O3 + H2O
The product O3 ozone has the capacity to kill bacteria and also to reduce the amount of pollutants and toxins in the air, and can also increase the amount of oxygen in the air.
Eco-enzymes brewers appeal to scientific language to legitimate the effects of the formula. Yet, among a limited but growing number of scientific studies, there is a lack of consensus on the efficacy of waste enzymes (or eco-enzymes) (Nazim and Meera 2013; Tang and Tong 2011).7 The lack of scientific consensus, however, has done little to dampen the enthusiasm among practitioners. DIYers might refer new participants to the existence of scientific evidence, but in workshops their discussion turned to their insistence on the efficacy of eco-enzymes based on observable results.
The biochemical formula, however, captures the scientific process that practitioners believe undergirds the efficiency of eco-enzymes, of the ability for enzymes to catalyze chemical reactions at the smallest scale. Enzymes are proteins that act alone or in larger groups (complexes) to accelerate chemical reactions by lowering the activation energy, or the lowest energy required for a chemical reaction. Enzymes harbor a transformative capacity due to their catalytic ability to speed up biochemical reaction. In order to break down nutrients in the environment to aid cellular digestion, enzymes are secreted beyond the membranes of cells. In this process, the environment is absorbed into the cell itself, rendering indistinct the self-contained organism and its environment. In doing so, enzymes exemplify the concept of sympoiesis, the collective production of systems without defined spatial or temporal boundaries (Haraway 2016). Instead, individual organisms transform matter through taking in various agents in their environment.
At the heart of the metabolic process, enzymes facilitate the biochemical reactions that precipitate the transformation of matter. Elizabeth Povinelli argues that if signs of life are reduced to the smallest capacity for biochemical change, enzymes, as a catalyst of change, mediate the very process that separates the inert from the living (Povinelli 2016). Catalysts ensure the continuity of cellular transformations and enable the transfer of electrons (Povinelli 2016:39).8 The formula is the biochemical representation of change and transformation between an organism and its environment.
By catalyzing the breakdown of organic waste, eco-enzymes produce visible effects of material transformation that precipitate further experimentation. As Povinelli notes of Katz’s fermentation of oil, his experiment was political because it turned the material excess of “capitalist waste production” into an anticonsumption movement and “a set of new relations” that undergird them (Povinelli 2011:124). Eco-enzymes’ felt effects on the bodies it was applied to were further evidence of the brew’s capacity to transform bodies and ecologies. The effect of eco-enzymes was uncertain. Yet, it was precisely the uncertainty of these material changes that gathered a community of sympathetic users who viewed these material transformations as impetus for further collective experimentation.
During DIY classes, community activists willingly grew, ingested, and smeared bacterial enzymes from fermented organic waste on their bodies, as a means to enacted a hoped-for effect of fortification. The capacity of enzymes to catalyze change is experienced as a shared material affect, the “intensity [that] is embodied … at its interface with things” (Brian Massumi [2002:25] quoted in Parreñas ). Just as enzymes transgress cellular boundaries to emit effects of biochemical transformation of an exchange between an organism and the environment, the cultivation and use of eco-enzymes facilitate a transgression of a social boundary, of a previous repulsion from rotting organic matter and waste. Brewers reject a culture of a hygienic modernity where bacteria cultures are viewed as a threat. Instead, antiwaste activists engaged in a probiotic act of environmental resuscitation by creating “conditions in which naturally occurring wild organisms thrive and proliferate” (Katz 2008:3; see fig. 5).
In workshops the conversation revolved around the material effects of enzymes and when and how brewers could tell that the solution was working. When I ask Jun why she resists turning her eco-enzyme formula fermented from a wide range of herbs and fruits that she proclaims cures her daughter’s stomachaches into a product, she explains:
When you drink eco-enzymes there’s a reaction period, because it is supposed to help your entire body adjust. It’s [the eco-enzymes] trying to help you to restore your body’s functions. But during this period, some people who have high blood pressure, diabetes, they say that after a period of drinking eco-enzymes, they will feel dizzy, faint, have diarrhea, fever, coughs, but these are all signs that the eco-enzymes is chasing the illness out of your body, then it will restore it slowly. A lot of people don’t understand these effects, or they try to control these situations. If you sell it, you might mean well, but end up causing harm. Even if you give a bottle of eco-enzymes to friends and they drink it for a few days, but end up feeling ill … people will feel like you don’t have their best interests at heart. … You must, at the same time, be able to convince people into believing in eco-enzymes, not just as a product to sell. (Interview transcript, 2013)
Jun’s account demonstrates that users must be willing not only to withstand the uncertain terms and effects of eco-enzymes, but also to acknowledge the gradual process of adaptation that may cause illness. Instead of producing a standardized result to enable the solution to circulate more widely, eco-enzymes depended on a community of sympathetic users invested in an experimental process that remains open-ended and uncertain.
Reconstituting Ecological Collectives
Eco-enzymes provoke more than just individual actions of reflection and contemplation typical of a form of intimate activism. Instead, they also facilitated a collective experiment of how to reconnect with one’s ecology. The material effects of microbes, particularly their catalytic function, are central to the collective inquiry of how to devise community strategies to move waste politic beyond an opposition to top-down state policies. The cultivation and application of eco-enzymes pushes participants toward a more expansive experiment into the types of actions and collectives that can sustain Guangzhou’s urban ecology.
Ling first introduced Jun to me as the brewer who famously began to dump eco-enzymes into the local waterway in hopes of cleansing pollution. Urban water channels are a ubiquitous and visible part of the delta city of Guangzhou. Long before this region became a center of China’s industrial production, fishing was an important form of livelihood. As the region turned into the world’s factory floor, these waterways changed visibly, polluted with pesticide and industrial runoffs.
One Sunday morning I met with Jun to walk the length of the riverway outside her village. Jun wanted to show me the results of years of dumping eco-enzymes in the water. Jun was an active member on the local eco-enzyme chat group in QQ and one of the earliest members to join the online eco-enzymes forum.9 Unlike the activists in Garden Villa, mostly white-collar workers, Jun lived in a peri-urban village home that she shared with her parents, husband, and two young children. Jun tells me that she comes from a line of fishermen dating back generations. As a child, she remembers walking barefoot down the same mud path along the riverway. When Jun first started using eco-enzymes, it was primarily for washing dishes and for household cleaning. When an online friend told her that in Taiwan they also use eco-enzymes to clean waterways, Jun immediately brought her leftover enzyme dregs and poured them in front of her door. “At the time I didn’t think of pouring it on the bottom of the river bed, and ended up pouring it on the dirt. When I went to look the next day, I realized that the mud was much cleaner, the dirt and black spots were gone. A few days after, it was even more clear” (interview transcript, 2013; fig. 6).
Jun has been pouring the enzyme into the river since 2006. “I didn’t know why before, but since I started making eco-enzyme, I realized that I was raised by the water and I should also give back” (interview transcript, 2013). Jun’s understanding of pollution comes from being connected to the river. “When I was little my mom used to be able to catch fish that was over 10 Catty heavy (over 10 pounds heavy), but now all the fish are the size of a palm, you can’t even sell it for money. We used to talk about how delicious the fish was, but now it tastes of gasoline. Once we catch all the fish, what will children eat?” (interview transcript 2013).
By deploying eco-enzymes as an agent of remediation, Jun is engaging in a form of “ethical doing” an act geared toward care and obligation for future generations (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011). Ethics here is not imagined as a moral disposition but as action that is instantiated in mundane acts of maintenance and repair in hopes of achieving ecological preservation. The slow and methodical application of the formula over time to the waterway highlights how microbes constitute a material substrate not only for Jun to articulate a critique of the logic of technological development but also a way for Jun to reconnect with older historical practices of dwelling with the river. The question of whether or not eco-enzymes are taking effect remains to be seen. By acting with microbes, the significance of Jun’s action is to demonstrate a turn toward a mode of co-laboring with nature that resists a dominant understanding of environmental remediation as technoscientific solution. Instead, microbes’ uncertain and experimental effects enable an investigation into how humans and nonhumans can be recomposed to practice an ethic of daily care and to reconstitute a connection to local ecologies and histories in a contaminated landscape.
Environmental Transformation at the Microbial Scale
On the afternoon of January 1, 2014, members of the eco-enzyme collective gathered at the Yingzhou ecological park in front of steps leading down to the riverway. DIYers from all over Guangzhou came with half bottles, buckets, and one-liter containers of solution. Ling had secured permission from the local police to transport eco-enzymes to the river. Participants planned to mark the New Year with an expansion of Jun’s individual efforts to purify the local waterway, and after passing around pamphlets, they proceeded to pour 100 liters of eco-enzymes into the river. As eco-enzyme brewers started to organize more publicly, critics began to challenge its proclaimed efficacy. Some in the popular media argued that the effects of the brew were at best exaggerated and at worst a form of magical thinking. Other antiwaste activists were similarly skeptical. They argued that eco-enzyme brewing focused too much on the transformative effects of the enzyme rather than on waste reduction itself. Like the state’s agenda of building WTE incinerators, eco-enzyme brewers also rested their hopes for environmental resuscitation narrowly on a singular technology.
The significance of eco-enzyme brewing is not whether or not it cleanses pollution but rather what is produced out of the “doing”: an energy and fervor that prompts brewers to gather (with each other and microbes) in acts of experimental speculation. With the rise of consumer society, a growing waste crisis, and pervasive toxicity, the Chinese state has chosen to invest in centralized solutions, typically technological infrastructure, to address the environmental crisis. Faced with the pace and extent of China’s urban waste problem, eco-enzymes’ uncertain microbial effects appear miniscule at best. Yet, as waste activists point out, China’s authoritarian approach to environmental governance favors quick-fix solutions at the expense of eliminating grassroots experiments and meaningful citizen participation. In this context—of severe environmental decline and authoritarian repression—the scale and energy of eco-enzyme brewing speaks to the will of citizens to redirect their desire to act environmentally toward everyday practice. Brewers invest in an expansion of the scope and form of environmental action, even if the real scale of their work is at the level of microbial transformation.
Eco-enzyme brewers engage in a microbiopolitics of immunity and collaboration. By reconstituting human and nonhuman collectives in acts of cooperation and care for the environment, brewers enact an alternative mode of ecological relation to waste in a more-than-human antitoxic politics. Brewers’ investment in the cultivation of microbes demonstrates a desire among everyday citizens not only to reduce waste but to labor and invest in everyday acts of care and environmental repair. The consequences of their work, environmental transformation, are achieved and sustained not by brewers laboring alone but in close collaboration with the microbes that catalyze the visible effects of change. To take seriously, as the brewers do, the “magical quality” of microbial interactions, is to assert the political potential of unknown effects.10 Against a more muscular definition of what constitutes the political, brewers invest in the space of the unknown and the indeterminate effects of matter in an experimental inquiry. Through the recomposition of mundane, everyday matter and practices, of infusing organic waste, sugar, water, with time and human care, brewers transform waste into an agent to fortify the capacity of bodies, homes, and the local ecology to enact ecological and political endurance in a toxic environment.
Earlier versions of this paper were presented—and I received constructive comments from participants—at the AAG panel “Affective Ecologies” (2015), the “Urban Ecologies in Asia” Workshop at Yale University (2016), the AAA panel “How Nature Works” (2017), “Waste Matters Symposium” presented by the Environmental Humanities Workshop of the Kaplan Humanities Institute at Northwestern University, and the Wenner-Gren symposium “Cultures of Fermentation” (2019). Special thanks to Anne Rademacher, Kalyanakrishnan (Shivi) Sivaramakrishnan, Sarah Besky, Alex Blanchette, Corey Byrnes, and the organizers of the Wenner-Gren symposium (Mark Aldenderfer, Christina Warinner, Jessica Hendy, and Matthäus Rest) for their invitation to workshop this article. Matthäus Rest, Jamie Lorimer, and Christy Spackman deserve thanks for their generous comments. Thanks also to anonymous reviewers for their sharp critique that significantly improved the piece.
Amy Zhang is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology of New York University (25 Waverly Place, New York, New York 10003, USA [[email protected]]).
1. All ethnographic data and interview extracts are taken from fieldwork conducted in Guangzhou from 2012 to 2014. Pseudonyms are used.
2. Initially popular in Taiwan, Thailand, and Malaysia, eco-enzymes became a movement across China, and by 2014 one of the main Chinese eco-enzyme websites had over 66,000 registered members and is still active as of 2021.
3. The participants were especially wary of more serious accusations of collusion, particularly when they had contact with other groups involved in anti-incinerator protests.
4. The municipal government continued to build WTE incinerators, which activists viewed as a poor technological solution, as the waste stream was composed of over 50% organic waste.
7. According to these studies, eco-enzymes catalyze the digestion of certain large organic compounds and can be effective in diluting ammonia nitrogen and phosphorus (Nazim and Meera 2013; Tang and Tong 2011). There are a limited number of scientific publications that track the effects of eco-enzymes in controlled environments such as gray water treatment plants, but scientific verification of eco-enzymes as a biotechnology is growing. No scientific study addresses the broad range of proclaimed effects by cultivators.
8. What is particular about enzymes is that they have the capacity that is vital to the reproduction of the organism but has no intention beyond this, thus challenging the idea of a higher telos (Povinelli 2016:39).
9. QQ is a popular instant chat app in China similar to MSN Messenger.
10. I follow J. K. Gibson-Graham’s proposal to amplify the heterogenous effects of counter-hegemonic practices in scholarly work as a method for imagining alternative economies and political futures (Gibson-Graham 2008).
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