Revealing the toxic legacies of mining: Dr Lilian Pearce

Revealing the toxic legacies of mining: Dr Lilian Pearce

Dr Lilian Pearce is a lecturer in environmental humanities at La Trobe’s Centre for the Study of the Inland. In 2021, she was awarded the Moran Award for History of Science Research to explore the ways that mining toxicity has been understood, resisted, managed and silenced by Australian mining communities and industries, and also inform current debates about responsibility, rehabilitation, and controversial approvals for mines across Australia.

Contamination and corporate narratives

Drawing on records from the 1880s on, I seek to understand the ways that mining toxicity has been understood, resisted, and silenced by local communities and industries alike. My research considers the history of knowledge, science, public discourse, policy and practice related to toxicity from mining contaminants in Australian mining communities.

I work on lead contamination in Broken Hill, and, with Dr Cameron Muir, am embarking on an environmental history and contamination associated with the Rum Jungle Uranium mine in the Northern Territory. From later this year, I’ll begin working on a study of Victoria’s legacy mines called Lost Mines: The Troubled Legacies of Former Mining Landscapes. I have published in fields of ecology, ecological restoration, oral history, and geography, and am currently working on a project that considers the past, present and future of protected area conservation in Australia.

Grounding stories in their environment

I love the combination of historical archival research with place-based field work that seeks out local voices and stories that need to be told. From my background in ecology, I’m always looking for ways to ground these stories in their unique environmental context. I love the craft of storytelling and the challenge of thinking and writing across disciplinary divides. Often, my work involves content that is uncomfortable, challenging, and political. This is when I know I’m doing my best work, but it’s hard. I try to follow Donna Haraway’s advice to ‘stay with the trouble’.

Managing country better means turning away from the loudest voices

My field works to address the climate crisis by articulating and challenging the extractive and violent relationships that underpin many societies’ engagements with the non-human world, and with one another. Particularly in settler-colonial societies, there are so many dominant assumptions about how the country can be treated that are informed by values and myths that need a complete and collective re-write.

Redistributing accountability to address gender inequality

Responsibility for health, for much environmental protection, and for all forms of care-work has traditionally fallen to women. History can help to not only recognise and celebrate this important work, but also to realise the way that it has been employed as a mechanism to prop up extractive and toxic industries. There are multiple stories around the world, for example, about domestic cleanliness being a solution for managing lead levels in children and contamination in the home. This deflects the responsibility to the domestic space, and often to women.

I think it’s crucial that women, and mothers, are protected from becoming scapegoats for big business and industry where accountability lies. The same goes for demanding action on climate change from the biggest polluters.

A sustainable and equitable future requires a diversity of voices

Our First Nations leaders that continue to battle so much, after so much — especially those taking on the immutable powers of international gas and mining conglomerates.

Their fight might seem like a local one for Country and culture, but they fight to protect lands and waters that sustain us all, and to keep fossil fuels in the ground too. That deserves all our admiration and support.

A sustainable and equitable future needs to include all, and to include a diversity of voices. Issues of environmental justice and social justice are deeply entwined.

The importance of mentors and female support networks

I have been incredibly fortunate to be mentored by brilliant and generous scholars, including Professor Ruth Beilin, Professor Katie Holmes, Professor Susan Lawrence, Professor Libby Robin, and Professor Clare Wright (and some stellar men too!). My advice is to seek these kinds of women out; they are precious. I am also inspired every day by my closest friends. They are intelligent, strong, caring and determined women who are experts in their field and make the juggle of career and motherhood a shared and often hilarious pursuit.

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