By Alistair Anderson
This post outlines my dissertation project exploring how the One Health initiative and the problem of antimicrobial resistance can be explored in biopolitical terms. The post outlines the empirical example of One Health and the methods of investigation, and situates the project within more-than-human geography and biopolitics.
‘One Health’ describes an approach to health that encompasses human health, animal health, and environmental health, considering them in tandem and being attentive to their commonalities (Zinsstag et al. 2012). The initiative of One Health emerged in the mid-2000s in response to the increasing prevalence of zoonotic diseases with pandemic potential (Gibbs 2014), though acknowledgement of the links between human health, animal health, and the environment can be traced back to Hippocrates. The One Health movement has grown significantly since its emergence, influencing institutional policy directions, framing new modes of engagement with health issues around the world, and troubling disciplinary divides that have for a long time hindered medical responses to crises. For example, veterinarian disease surveillance may pick up symptoms in cattle that precede an outbreak of West Nile virus in humans (as happened in New York in 1999), and so increasing communication between human and veterinarian medical professions would transmit the beneficial early-warning to human medical authorities (Kahn 2006). This holistic approach is shown through the One Health concept umbrella.
This project is situated in the field of more-than-human geography. More-than-human geographic research does not privilege species or objects in any particular hierarchy, as opposed to humanism’s privileging of the human. More-than-humanism bears some significant distinctions from humanism and post-humanism, as it not only challenges “animals’ longstanding […] invisibility wrought through the practices and ontologies of modernism and humanism,” but focuses towards that which “exceeds” rather than “comes after the human” (Buller 2016 p423; Castree et al. 2004 p1361). What this means for the project is that the research is attentive to the ways in which human and animal health are both beholden to the evolutionary processes that underpin the undermining of antimicrobial drugs by antimicrobial resistance. This attention is not in itself new; however, it has yet to be approached significantly in the terms of more-than-human geography.
One area of more-than-human geography that this project intervenes in is animal geography. Contemporary animal geography has evolved from the biogeography of the early 20th century into “a porous, shifting and eclectic heterogeneity of ideas, practices, methodologies and associations within a more-than-human life/world” (Buller 2014 p310). The project of more-than-human geography has “profoundly ethical” implications, such as the re-politicisation of animals as “bodies and voices” in their challenge to ethical invisibility and acknowledgement of that which exceeds the human in the shaping of cultures and societies by “more than human geographies” (Buller 2016 p423; Johnston 2008 p634; Hinchliffe et al. 2005 p644).
More-than-human thought does not only consider the animal, however, and a significant aspect of my thesis is the consideration of that which is not “big like us” in the microbe, as well as the materiality of antimicrobials and their “thing-power” (Hird 2009 p20; Bennett 2004 p348). ‘Thing-power’ is a “less specifically human kind of materiality,” that presents ‘things’ as vital players in the world (Bennett 2004 p348) that interact, distract, transgress, and destabilise human flows and processes. The selective influence of antimicrobial drugs for resistance genes in bacteria is one example that this project explores as a manifestation of ‘thing-power’, and the ways in which such a vital materialism can “explore the possibility that attentiveness to (nonhuman) things and their powers can have a laudable effect on humans” (Bennett 2004 p348).
The aim of my Master’s thesis is to create a space for the discussion of One Health as a distinctly more-than-human economy. The vehicle for this conceptual intervention is the problem of antimicrobial resistance, itself a deeply more-than-human phenomenon.
The overarching ambition of my project is to detail the leap from the more-than-humanist position to the political project of One Health, and additionally present an understanding of the problem of antimicrobial resistance as both a lively and technical more-than-human issue. The mobilisation of biopolitical thought following on from Foucault’s expositions on biopolitics in particular will play a significant role in exploring the more-than-human framing of antimicrobial resistance as a One Health issue.
Biopolitics describes any analyses of the various ways in which life is brought into the realm of political calculation. Biopolitics emerged in the 18th century, according to Foucault (2000), as an endeavour to rationalise governmental problems associated with phenomena characterising living populations. An example of biopolitical praxes include the introduction of statistics (e.g. birth and mortality rates) to intervene at “the level of life itself” (Foucault 1978 p143), turning politics, law, and economics into functions of “the qualitative welfare and quantitative increase of the population, considered purely in its biological aspect” (Esposito 2011 p138). Biopolitics and biopower have been positioned as anthropocentric concepts by some, including Foucault, with one example from Rabinow and Rose (2006 p197) arguing that biopolitics embraces contestations over “problematizations of collective human vitality, morbidity and mortality; over the forms of knowledge, regimes of authority and practices of intervention that are desirable, legitimate and efficacious.” Anthropocentrically, biopower extends biopolitics to focus upon the vital characteristics of collectivities or populations made up of “human beings, as living creatures who are born, mature, inhabit a body that can be trained and augmented, and then sicken and die” (Rabinow and Rose 2006 p197). The anthropocentrism of these concepts has been challenged by Holloway et al. (2009), arguing that forms of sovereign power re-emerge in new forms relative to biopower when animals are brought into the realm of lively calculation within biopolitics. Braun (2007 p7) also contests the human focus of biopolitics, pointing to an understanding of genomic bodies “thrown into a chaotic and unpredictable molecular world filled with emergent yet unspecifiable risks.” Such risks include zoonotic diseases, whose danger to humans (and in reverse, to animals) lies in their crossing of the species barrier. By positioning human and animal bodies as displacements within a molecular world, not only are nonhumans brought into the realm of biopolitics, but comparisons can also be drawn with the language of One Health literature such as Zinsstag et al’s (2012 p107) reference to human-animal relations as “a continuum across which pathogens can emerge and spread.” My project situates One Health within these concepts through the case of antimicrobial resistance, whilst tracing a more-than-human frame to the project as a whole.
My method for this goal follows two particular angles. Firstly, I will draw upon a sample of government publications around antimicrobial resistance to outline recent policy movements in the area of antimicrobial resistance. This particularly pertains to the biopower perspective on this topic. Secondly, I will be conducting a small sample of interviews with veterinary professionals with experience in farm practices and zoos. The purpose of these will be to explore their perspectives on anti-microbial resistance as a particular gap in the geographic literature on animal biopower, and to examine views on inter-institutional actors in the antimicrobial resistance issue. This will in part facilitate the conceptual development of the problem of antimicrobial resistance as a more-than-human issue in both farming (and consequently, as part of the food chain) and conservation. The interviews will additionally enable the later critical investigation of the analytic consequences of a biopolitical examination of antimicrobial resistance. The aim of this is investigation is to understand the ways in which governmental decisions over antimicrobial drug use are reflected in practice, with the particular focus on how this practice manifests for different species. This project is heavily theory-driven, and the sample of interviews will not be taken as representation of entire fields or professions, but will rather be used to add nuance to concepts as they are taken into areas that they have not previously visited.
My project will additionally engage with new materialist perspectives such as Jane Bennett’s vital materialism to consolidate the union of the vital and the technical that underpins the problem of antimicrobial resistance and the more-than-humanised One Health biopolitics surrounding it. This will feed into the critical exposition of antimicrobial resistance as a phenomenon of biopolitical consequence, drawing upon the previous sections’ critical understanding of animal-focused biopower.
What I hope to achieve with this thesis is the opening of a new front from which both antimicrobial resistance and One Health can be engaged with by geographers. The work of animal geographies and wider more-than-human geographies is in many ways a broad ethical project – and there are ethical issues within both the ontology of One Health and the real material problem of antimicrobial resistance that a more-than-human positioning would be able to productively explore and address. This project is the first step towards broader and deeper PhD research that will expand into areas such as the pharmaceutical industry and the growing field of infectious disease biobanking.
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