Q&A with Michael Lengefeld
Michael Lengefeld is a visiting assistant professor of environmental sociology at Goucher. In this Q&A, he discusses his research on nuclear weapons development, Latin American cocaine production, concussions in sports, zoonotic spillover, and how it’s all connected.
By Molly Englund
What is environmental sociology?
Environmental sociology focuses on power and inequality, and on the interconnectedness between humans and nature. Both of those things are woven together. In order to understand one, we need to understand the other.
What did you find in your recent nuclear weapons research?
I’m essentially looking at two locations in the United States. Hanford, in Washington state, is considered the most contaminated space on Earth because of the amount of high-level nuclear waste held there, which is a byproduct of the nuclear weapons process.
This other space right outside Denver, the Rocky Flats Nuclear Arsenal, made all the triggers for thermonuclear weapons in the U.S. military’s arsenal. A thermonuclear weapon—fusion—is thousands of times more powerful than a (fission) nuclear weapon. If the fission bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were like a matchstick, then thermonuclear weapons are equivalent to dynamite.
I studied the history of the environmental practices, not in using nuclear weapons but in producing them and maintaining them. I wanted a sense of what kind of societal investment was made by producing and maintaining this arsenal, which can never be used because it will result in a global environmental catastrophe.
When you produce all this highly radioactive stuff, it eventually starts leaking into the environment. This isn’t something that randomly happened; it happened systematically. The evidence was covered up systematically, too.
Hanford produced the plutonium that was sent to Rocky Flats. To make it into a nuclear weapon, you have to shape it to fit into the bombs, and that produces a lot of waste. The waste at the Rocky Flats Plant produced plutonium fires [that] distribute this stuff as air toxics. The wind can carry this many miles. The research shows the city of Denver and surrounding areas received significant doses of plutonium.
Did the same thing happen in the USSR?
Yes, but it’s less known. That’s a strange privilege of being in relatively open and democratic societies; a lot of these atrocities are on record. The way Soviet bureaucracy was set up resulted in even less environmental regulation. The practice essentially was to disregard environmental concerns, especially when it came to national security and nuclear weapons projects.
There was a secret explosion in 1957, called the Kyshtym disaster. It was worse than Chernobyl. They had a bunch of plutonium waste, which they were dumping into a pit. It’s a heavy metal; when it collects, it can reach a critical mass and inadvertently explode, creating catastrophic environmental contamination. Approximately 10,000 of the 270,000 people who live nearby were evacuated after the enormous disaster, which created what is perhaps the largest open area of radioactive contamination on the planet.
The U.S. and some of its allies who also had nuclear monitoring capabilities recognized something severe had happened. Scholars have argued that the other nuclear countries kept it secret because they likely didn’t want their citizens to know the dangers of these programs.
Tell me about your study into Latin American cocaine production.
You have armed forces fighting for control of a resource, an environmental resource, that they can use to increase their power. Because of the price per pound, coke has been very heavily trafficked. Many other things, like diamonds and gold, have been trafficked, but coke is a sustainable resource. And the coca plant itself has a long indigenous history in the region.
In Peru and Bolivia, coca was grown for a thousand years sustainably for use by local and regional consumers. Cocaine emerged in the 20th century and became a commodity grown for a lucrative market in the global economy, and profits are used by a variety of armed groups to fund violent geopolitical projects. You have this interesting dynamic where America covers about 60% of the market for cocaine. America is driving this environmental calamity in the production of cocaine, fueling its own drug problem.
At the same time, you have the U.S. telling Latin American states, “Deal with this drug problem or we’re going to stop development aid and funding.” Then the deforestation comes. The state will come in, defoliate, and kill all the plants. The farmers are forced to go deeper into the forest and start a new plot. These cycles go deeper into these protected regions, where you get more and more environmental degradation.
It seems like environmental sociology comes down to violence and militarization.
Economic sources of power also use violence. The history of Exxon’s activities in many of these countries gives a lie to any belief that it doesn’t happen. In Latin America, it was a convergence of military and economic processes driving, in a more intense way, the degradation of this highly sensitive region of the planet.
Cocaine production operates like a balloon in Latin America, what a lot of the security scholars call “the balloon effect.” If you squeeze the air, the balloon just expands somewhere else and the production moves. It moves between Bolivia, Columbia, and Peru, all around the Andes and the Amazon. It’s a really complex problem in that way.
What were you looking at in the concussion study?
That study was part of an overlapping interest I had with my colleague Dr. Rotolo. We’re both interested in sports, and he’s an excellent scholar of social networks. We were looking at “return to play,” which is a provision in state law that mandates you must be approved to play after a concussion, in most cases by someone with medical training.
We looked at this and said, “Between 2009 and 2014, all 50 states passed this. Why did they all decide to pass these laws at this time?” We asked this question with opposing ideas. One, if you have a bunch of high school football players in a state, that’s likely a group you want to protect. You’re more likely to pass the law sooner if you have more high school football players. The opposing hypothesis is that if you have a lot of high school football players, this type of state might have a cultural attitude about what football and masculinity are. They might actually see resistance to passing this type of law. We found in states where there were more high school football players, there was resistance.
We were looking at “institutional medicalization.” That’s the social scientific component here—how social inequality plays out across the medical establishment and how the ideas about what makes a medical problem are socially constructed.
What is the driving principle behind your research?
I’ve always been interested in big questions, and those questions are generally centered on how societies develop. But it also means understanding how they collapsed. All societies die. Humans prefer to think they do not. In the modern world, there are clear links between the way humans interact with the environment and environmental collapse. Societal upheaval results from this. There’s a serious need to consider multiple dimensions of societal collapse as they may interact with each other. That’s what my larger project is about—understanding that the creation and maintenance of environmental inequality are outcomes of social dynamics.
Does this keep you up at night?
In the last four years, I haven’t had a lot of sleep. It’s always good to put things in a historical and multicultural perspective. For example, many scholars and thinkers from Latin America have pointed out that what we just experienced [with the insurrection at the White House] was a very tepid version of what the United States implemented in governments throughout Latin America and across the world.
What are you researching now?
I’m working with a colleague looking at COVID rates of infections and deaths related to ICE detention facilities and mass incarceration facilities. The counties near these facilities have much higher rates of infection. As my co-author put it, these facilities are hotbeds of not only infection but also death. That really weaves together immigration, incarceration, environmental justice, and public health.
I’m also working on zoonotic spillover, the thing that leads to a pandemic. There are, I believe, 1.5 million viruses existing in animal reservoirs, and something like 800,000 or more might be able to infect humans. If you look at the rate at which these pandemics happened historically, it’s increasingly fast. These are going to increasingly happen, and we need to figure out how to mitigate this problem.
In a world of limited resources and focus, we desperately need to focus on disproportionately harmful environments or practices that are driving collapse of our societies.
How will environmental sociologists remember this time?
The emergence of social movements today is critical. People commonly think of social movements as positive, but it’s also critical to recognize the role of counterrevolutionary and counterproductive forces in our society. Societies go through swings, right to left. We’re entering a very tumultuous time in history again. But it’s in those moments when we can do great things. The Green New Deal, just like the New Deal, is at a moment in human history when it’s very important to have that scale of thinking about the world and the problems we face.