Circulatory Entanglements: Marine Biomaterials and Paradoxes in Ocean Governance”

Environmentalists and public-facing documentaries like Blue Planet foretell the “ends of the ocean”. Many marine ecologists confirm that ocean acidification, coral bleaching, over fishing, and the ubiquitous spread of plastics are endangering fragile ocean ecologies. In response, legislators across governmental scales are enacting new policies that promise to promote biodiversity, reduce pollution, and manage valuable fisheries.

At the same time, states and international trade commissions are touting the growth of the so-call Blue Economy. Nation-states and the World Bank are working with energy, mining, and pharmaceutical sectors to reconceptualise the oceans as a new frontier for economic expansion and site of limitless—and ostensibly sustainable—growth. The Blue Economy remains a loose collection of strategies for economic governance, encompassing deep sea mining as well as biopharmaceutical extraction and sustainable fishing techniques. Collectively, however, these policies integrate ocean futures within a promissory economy that emphasizes the oceans’ abundance, rather than its fragility.

Marine organisms float uncomfortably in this paradoxical ocean. They are at once vulnerable to ecologic change and a particularly promising source of economic expansion through biomedical innovation. According to much of the Blue Economy hype, incorporating marine biomaterials into terrestrial spaces and bodies will improve human and ecological health. Yet, those same biomaterials are seldom considered part of vulnerable ecologies. Indeed, in many cases, biological material extraction risks exacerbating existing threats to ocean biodiversity. This presents challenges for the governance of marine life, particularly where human and marine health are in tension rather than concert.

The disconnect between marine conservation and Blue Economy strategies traces an epistemic divide between the biomedical and ecological sciences, where marine biology is studied in laboratory and in situ settings respectively. There has been little innovation in critical scholarship that attempts to reconcile these epistemological rifts or their implications for marine policies, “Circulatory Entanglements” uniquely considers ocean governance through the lens of biomaterial circulation. Indeed, the growing literature on critical ocean studies and the blue humanities often reflects these patterns of epistemic separation, with much critical scholarship analysing, on one hand, the effects of climate change on marine organisms and sites of extraction and, on the other, the uptake of marine life in the bioeconomy and biopharmaceutical production. But as biomedical industries embed marine biomaterials ever more tightly into human health networks, the separation between biomedicine and ecological science is no longer practicable. 

With STS scholar, Kristoffer Whitney, and artist, Helen Bullard, The “Circulatory Entanglements” project will take shape around three case studies of biomaterials in circulation: horseshoe crab blood, jellyfish proteins and stem cells, and shrimp shell-derived chitosan. Each are central to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. All three re-combine with human bodies and are part of global public health strategies through biopharmaceutical innovation and they signal an uncomfortable tension between unhealthy oceans and healthful futures. The project aims to identify ways to reconcile these tensions in marine science and governance by following these biomaterials as they move through different environmental and epistemic frames to entangle environmental and human health.

“Life’s Work: The Politics of Biological Life”

Over the past two decades, a nonhuman turn has gained traction across the humanities and social sciences. By highlighting the inventiveness of nonhuman others, its authors promise to dismantle the dualism between humans and nonhumans, disrupting biopolitical hierarchies and engendering political frameworks better suited to an increasingly precarious world. However, the inventiveness of non-human life has also attracted attention outside of these circles. With little notice from the academy, transnational corporations and institutions of national defense have been engineering their own nonhuman turns. In the growing fields of biomimicry, biosensing and synthetic biology, scientists and engineers harness other-than-human capacities as resources for innovation. In these fields, the elevation of nonhuman life works to sustain rather than challenge anthropocentrism as well as conventional geopolitical and biopolitical hierarchies. Life’s Work examines the tension surrounding these two seemingly opposed nonhuman turns, offering a critical political ecology of the fields of the biological turn in engineering and examining related shifts in nature-society relations in the twenty-first century. And, uncovering an often unspoken rift between the activity of production and the presumed passivity of biological reproduction, I argue that troubling the divide between human and nonhuman has little meaning if conceptual divides between production and reproduction are not similarly interrogated.