Max Liboiron and the power of the ‘how?’

Max Liboiron was researching impossible pollution and environmental crises when they first got into plastic. A self-proclaimed “discipline agnostic,” with background in fine art and social science, Liboiron was pursuing a PhD, focusing on solid-waste management in 1800s New York, when a simple suggestion re-routed them.

“I told someone that I was working on impossible waste problems and how they became possible and they said, ‘Oh, so you must be working on plastics. And this was in the early 2000s when there was barely any research on it,” Liboiron says. “I said, ‘No, because that’s actually impossible.’ I thought about it for a week and decided I should turn all my attention to that. Halfway through my PhD, I changed the topic.”

After delving into plastics research, studying how scientists and activists were articulating this new kind of pollution, Liboiron decided it was time to start doing the science. Now, Liboiron wears many hats. An activist, scientist, mentor and associate professor at Memorial University, their work is making an impact—and helping others to do the same—on many levels.

"Every move we make we say, OK how can we do this more equitably? In a more humble way?"

“Science is very aligned with colonialism and has been historically. But because I spent a lot of time critiquing it, when it came time to do science I was like—how about we don’t do that,” says Liboiron. “And because I spent so much time critiquing it, I understood that the reason science is like that because there are structural issues. There are norms. There’s a culture. There’s precedent. There’s this huge inertia of infrastructure and culture that make it like that. So, I thought, how do we structurally change this? We’re going to lead with a values.”

Enter Liboiron’s anti-colonial, feminist marine science lab, CLEAR (Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research)—a multi-disciplinary collective of researchers that’s been specializing in grassroots environmental monitoring of plastic pollution for the past five years, working on community-based monitoring programs, regional plastic surveys and animal respect protocol.

“The lab does two things, plastic pollution research…but the coolest part is that we’re an incubator for feminist and anti-colonial science. And that’s what I get out of bed in the morning for. Every single thing we do: Who we hire, how we hire them, how we take out the garbage, what we think is garbage to begin with, how we ask research questions, with whom and on what time frames—all of those things we think how can we do this in a more feminist or anti-colonial way? Which is very hard to answer,” says Liboiron.

“You boil that down and ask: How can we do this with equity? How can we do this with humility? And how can we do this with good land relations? Those are much easier to answer. Every move we make we say, OK how can we do this more equitably? In a more humble way?”

In 2018, Liboiron was named Memorial’s Interim Associate Vice-President (Indigenous Research) where the majority of their focus has been drafting a policy on Research Impacting Indigenous Groups for the university. Liboiron says the document—which is the first of its kind—impacts not just the institution but, as a result, the province of Newfoundland as a whole. It’s a smooth continuation of her lab’s work and its values.

“It’s where goodness comes out of, the ‘how?’ question. Not even the ‘why?’ question or the ‘what?’ question,” says Liboiron. “It’s how you go about things, that’s where goodness comes out of.”