The signature on an email from Terry Hazen is a paragraph long. It has to be- it lists a multitude of titles. He’s the Head of the Ecology Department at the University of California at Berkeley. The Head of the Center for Environmental Biotechnology. The Lead of Microbial Enhanced Hydrocarbon Recovery at the Energy Biosciences Institute. The list goes on. Hazen is, therefore, the perfect man to talk to about our current attempts to correct massive ecological f-ups, and what that means for artists.
Hazen’s world is inhabited by mircoorganisms, or, as he colloquially refers to them, “bugs.” There are bugs that eat pollution, bugs that chemically reduce uranium, bugs that feed on hydrocarbons. ” I still feel a lot of people are amazed that there’s a bug out there that can degrade just about anything, ” he says. While the idea of the “magic bug” is sometimes helpful to the remediation industries, there is, he cautions, no bug without context.
“It’s so easy to sell bioremediation, ” he says. “It can completely degrade contaminants in laboratory settings, (but) in the environmental settings it may not work as effectively, or make it worse.” He cites the example of arsenic, which actually becomes more soluble– and likely to contaminate the water table– when reduced.
“Some companies will go for the quick fix, not realizing that in cleaning up one contaminant, they exacerbate three others, ” he laments. “They often don’t look for a complete solution.” Hazen’s work is dedicated to more of a “complete systems biology” approach. Sometimes, he argues, the best thing for a polluted site is to just leave it alone. You can see one of his excellent and comprehensive lectures here.
While navigating the maze of invisible bug-land, Hazen keeps environmental art within reach. On his office wall hangs a piece of artwork by a 10-year old girl, depicting storks in the Danube river riparian zone. He obtained it while in Serbia for an Environmental Remediation meeting.
“Art that educates or just inspires people to reuse, recyle, reduce, and remediate, to make our land and water less toxic and less toxic for generations to come makes us all better doesn’t it,” says Hazen. He would know: he spends much of his time managing the methods that attempt to clean up our mistakes.