Technocentric ‘saviorism’ as ‘slow violence’: Lead in drinking water and the urgency to reimagine technical experts’ relationship with communities in need
About the Talk
When considering structural determinants underlying drinking water contamination crises, we often focus on governmental and corporate entities that promote the interests of the few to the detriment of the many, inflicting – to employ Rob Nixon’s concept – imperceptible, ‘slow violence.’ This talk argues that there are additional contributors to drinking water injustice that are routinely overlooked: namely, technical experts setting out to “save” communities from harm, while discounting community experiences and expertise. Using lead in drinking water as a case study, the talk examines a) the US federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), which was adopted in 1991 to protect consumers from lead at the tap; b) the historic lead-in-water crises of Washington, DC and Flint, MI, which erupted 10 and 23 years respectively after the LCR’s promulgation; and c) the scientific and engineering interventions launched to address these crises, which were celebrated as heroic and triumphant by the US STEM establishment among others, over objections from members of the affected communities. The talk posits that technocentric ‘saviorism’ is not only built on a flawed premise – that technical experts alone can “solve” environmental injustices – but, by its very nature, obscures community knowledge, resourcefulness, and innovation. Thus, it tends to augment the power of technical experts, hindering community activism, replicating structural inequities, and perpetuating social and physical harm. The talk closes with an urgent call for reimagining the relationship of technical experts – and, by extension, all experts, and academia at large – with communities in need.
About the Speaker
Yanna Lambrinidou, PhD is affiliate faculty in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech and founder of the non-profit children’s environmental health organization Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives. Her work focuses on environmental health, policy, and justice at the intersection where scientists, engineers, and diverse publics meet.
As a resident of Washington, DC, Dr. Lambrinidou lived through the District’s historic lead-in-water crisis of 2001-2004. This event involved a 2½-year cover up of severe contamination, wrongdoing by scientists and engineers in local and federal government agencies, and extensive health harm: several hundred – and possibly up to 42,000 – cases of elevated blood lead levels among children and a 37% spike in fetal deaths. In the years that followed, Dr. Lambrinidou helped uncover continued irregularities in the government’s response to the problem. The educational blog she created in 2009 to keep District residents abreast of the science of lead in water and problems with official research, claims, and practices, triggered fundamental changes in the leadership and culture of Washington, DC’s water utility.
Since 2007, Dr. Lambrinidou has worked extensively on lead in drinking water, in Washington, DC and nationally. In 2014-2015, she served on the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) work group that was convened to issue recommendations for revisions to the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). In October 2015, she filed the work group’s sole dissenting opinion, which highlighted regulatory gaps, loopholes, and power asymmetries between water utilities and the communities they serve that can compromise the LCR’s effectiveness in protecting the public’s health. In 2016, part of Dr. Lambrinidou’s research was featured in The Guardian, catalyzing long-overdue action by the EPA to put an end to improper lead-in-water monitoring practices by water utilities across the country. That same year, Dr. Lambrinidou was invited to serve as advisor to the Policy and Infrastructure subcommittees of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee (FWICC).
With the support of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Education and Centers (EEC) grant, Dr. Lambrinidou co-founded Virginia Tech’s graduate class “Engineering Ethics and the Public” to foreground voices of communities directly affected by the work of scientists and engineers. Foundational to this class is Dr. Lambrinidou’s “Learning to Listen” module, which employs an ethnographic approach to ethics instruction that trains students to recognize the technical and moral relevance of community knowledges, experiences, and values. In 2016, the module was recognized by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) as exemplary in infusing ethics into engineering education.
Dr. Lambrinidou has been interviewed for multiple media outlets, including the Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Al Jazeera, Huffington Post, National Public Radio, and Mother Jones. She has been an invited speaker at events sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the Environmental Justice and Science Initiative (EJSI), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In 2016, she testified at the US House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing on “The Flint Water Crisis: Lessons for Protecting America’s Children.” Her commentary on the cultural context of the Washington, DC and Flint, MI lead-in-water crises appeared on CNN.com.
She is currently researching engineers’ imaginaries of “the public” under an NSF “Early-concept Grant for Exploratory Research” (EAGER) and co-leading a national conversation about community rights in collaborations between engineers and diverse communities.
Dr. Lambrinidou earned her doctoral degree in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of Alternative Medicine in Childhood Cancer: Challenges of Vernacular Health Perspectives to Biomedicine (ProQuest AAI3225488, 2006) and coauthor of Crossing Over: Narratives of Palliative Care (Oxford University Press, 2000).
Event Flier: Dr Yanna Lambrinidou – Poster