Lorenzo Feltrin – University of Warwick
On 25 September 2020, the news was confirmed that petrochemical magnate Sir Jim Ratcliffe – one of the richest men in the UK with an estimated wealth of £17.5 billions, whose fortunes have only grown during the pandemic crisis – had moved his tax residence to the Principality of Monaco. Ratcliffe is the founder, main owner, and CEO of INEOS, a young multinational private company that swiftly escaladed the world ranking of chemical giants to reach Number 5. The liberal press was quick to underline the paradox of yet another billionaire who had ridden the wave of a nationalist Brexit before fleeing to a very un-British tax haven. However, Ratcliffe’s smokestack nostalgia promise to “put the factories back” thanks to Brexit-induced business deregulations can be taken to symbolise a deeper and more far-reaching paradox. In fact, while the heyday of post-WWII industrial capitalism sublimed in Western collective consciousness as a time of growing prosperity and security, open factories do not come with comparable benefits anymore. Successful industrial production in a given area can even be associated with declining shares of industrial employment, while nearby communities remain exposed to the burdens of heavy industry. I call this paradox “noxious deindustrialisation”.
I define noxious deindustrialisation as employment deindustrialisation in areas where burdensome industries are still active. The main driver of noxious deindustrialisation is industrial automation in a context of slow output growth, which raises industrial productivity while expelling workers from industry itself. In fact, insofar as automation is necessary to keep factories competitive, employment deindustrialisation is a necessary condition for keeping industries in place. Noxious deindustrialisation is thus an on-going and self-reproducing process linked to operating factories that need less living labour than they used to. Therefore, noxious deindustrialisation differs from both the toxic legacies of prior production – e.g. long-term contamination of land and water – and the social disruption caused by changing employment patterns – e.g. underemployment and mental health disorders – after the factories have closed.
The term “noxiousness” as used here is a translation of the Italian word “nocività”, which indicates the property of causing damage. Through its use by Italian labour, it came to refer to production-induced damage against both human and non-human life. The “noxiousness” in noxious deindustrialisation has a double meaning. The first meaning is noxiousness traditionally understood, as direct damage to both human health and non-human environments caused, in the case of the petrochemical industry, by toxic emissions, greenhouse gases, plastic waste, and industrial accidents. The second meaning is noxiousness in a broader sense, comprising environmental degradation and health damage (both physical and mental) engendered by the rising social inequality, precarious work patterns, and loosening community ties that come with noxious deindustrialisation and, more generally, with the rule of markets over concrete needs.
I first began to elaborate the concept of noxious deindustrialisation during my fieldwork for the Toxic Expertise project in Grangemouth, Scotland’s petrochemical capital, whose industrial landscape is dominated by INEOS’ refinery and petrochemical complex (as well as smaller plants such as Fujifilm, Syngenta, and Versalis). Just like any other visitor in town, I was impressed by the sheer magnitude of the industrial infrastructure:
A city of fire, of epic size, in which huge machines move fantastic objects between iron and fire, and where fear, beauty and wonder weave into a modern form of what Romantic poets and philosophers, from Kant to Blake, called “the sublime”.
Yet, once the conversations with the locals started, I was equally struck by the stories on how just about everything in town seemed to have slowly “gone downhill” from the late 1970s onwards. The participants reported a decline in industrial jobs, prosperity, population, community cohesion, mental health, public services, etc. that mirrored the accounts of factory closures I had read in so many deindustrial studies texts. As an interviewee summarised: “Grangemouth has got all the symptoms of a town that industries left it”. This quote remained stuck in my mind as particularly counterintuitive, as I only had to look out of my B&B window to see the orange glow and clouds of smoke emanated by the petrochemical complex.
In order to make sense of the paradox, I went back to three bodies of literature: political economy, deindustrial studies, and environmental justice studies. In political economy, deindustrialisation usually refers to shrinking shares of industrial in total employment, regardless of industrial output. Due to productivity gains, in fact, industrial output can very much expand while industrial employment shares contract. Deindustrial studies, on their part, have offered in-depth qualitative analyses of deindustrialisation’s human costs, in terms of unemployment, precarity, fraying community networks, and loss of a sense of purpose, as portrayed also in so many UK deindustrialisation movies, from Full Monty to Brassed Off. Yet, in deindustrial studies – different from the political economic custom – deindustrialisation tends to be understood as factories shutting down rather than as declining shares of industrial employment. This excludes, by definition, the possibility of employment deindustrialisation in areas where the plants are up and running, as it happens with noxious deindustrialisation.
Another significant point arises by juxtaposing deindustrial studies and environmental justice studies, whose main focus is the uneven distribution of health and environmental damage caused by burdensome industries. While deindustrial studies concentrate on the hardships brought to communities by factory closures, environmental justice studies uncover the strains caused by open factories, for example environmental degradation in many forms, industrial hazards, and epidemiological effects. These two sets of problems are normally considered as mutually exclusive, but – if deindustrialisation is understood in terms of employment levels rather than as plants shutting down – they can be visited upon communities simultaneously. Underemployment and smog are far from incompatible.
At first glance, noxious deindustrialisation could be assumed to be a niche and even transient phenomenon, specific to those former “white working-class” strongholds in the Western world where large-scale industrial production still lingers on. In the first three post-WWII decades, “Fordist compromises” were in place in these communities, granting widespread access to good jobs for the local male workforce. Such implicit social contracts differed widely depending on contextual factors and their benefits were unevenly distributed, as the Fordist compromise itself was based on manifold exclusions along gendered, racial, imperial, and environmental lines.
Grangemouth is an example of such “Fordist asymmetries”, as its core petrochemical workforce was almost entirely constituted of white male British citizens, and the high profitability of the industry also depended on the appropriation of resources from the Global South and unrestrained pollution. Here, the local petrochemical branches substantially contributed to the stable employment and tax revenues that created for Grangemouth the reputation of Scotland’s Boomtown.
However, competitive pressures brought changes to employment and fiscal patterns that gradually unravelled the social contract, and the quantity and quality of industrial jobs available to the locals diminished as a result. For example, due to waves of automation and outsourcing to a partially itinerant workforce, the number of direct employees in the ex BP complex (bought by INEOS in 2005) fell from 5,500 in the 1980s to about 1,300 today, of whom only a few tens reside in town due to long-range recruiting. This led to the current situation of noxious deindustrialisation, in which the fenceline community no longer significantly benefits from the industry in terms of jobs and public services but is still exposed to its socioenvironmental burdens (heavy pollution, hazards, obstacles to economic diversification, etc.).
Grangemouth is indeed a particular case. After all, the scale and concentration of industrial infrastructure there is unique in today’s UK and similar only to a small subset of localities across the planet. In another sense, however, Grangemouth can be understood as a particularly paradigmatic case of a worldwide tendency. In fact, automation is a global phenomenon fuelled by international market competition aimed at reducing labour costs. While employment losses could in theory be offset by large-enough increases in output, such increases have been consistently failing to materialise. Critical political economist Aaron Benanav has demonstrated that technological change led to growing underemployment in recent decades not due to exceptionally high productivity gains but because of exceptionally low output growth:
[E]ven if automation is not itself the primary cause of a low demand for labor, it is nevertheless the case that, in a slow-growing world economy, technological changes within a near-future horizon may still threaten large numbers of jobs with destruction, in a context of economic stagnation and slower rates of job creation. Technological change then acts as a secondary cause of a low labor demand, operating within the context of the first.
The combination of automation and slow growth thus engenders employment deindustrialisation as a global phenomenon, as even countries that never reached large shares of industrial employment import employment deindustrialisation together with advanced manufacturing machinery or cheap manufactured products. Slow growth also means that losses in industrial jobs are not completely recuperated in the service sector at comparable relative wages and conditions. Insofar as large-scale industry in general – as currently organised – is environmentally unsustainable and thus noxious, noxious deindustrialisation concerns the world as a whole. Behind the aseptic statistics, lies the ruination of the livelihoods and modes of existence of thousands of communities and millions of households.
In sum, while Grangemouth is a dramatic example of employment deindustrialisation coupled with operating noxious industries, this combination applies on a planetary scale, affecting areas much less prosperous than Scotland. In support of this hypothesis, we encountered a quantitative and qualitative decline of industrial jobs coupled with the persistence of burdensome industry in several other cases covered by the Global Petrochemical Map, an online public resource including 75 reports on petrochemical sites across the world.
Local community concerns towardsburdensome industrial installations are frequently dismissed as egoistic and against the general interest, as expressed by the well-known phrase Not In My Backyard (NIMBY). Yet, what constitutes the general interest is a contested and open notion. In the present ecological crisis, what is good for highly polluting industries does not necessarily need to be seen as good “in general”. Conversely, fenceline grievances can be harmonised with broader demands over environmental degradation, climate justice, and social inequality.
No doubt, the glossy patina of nostalgia makes for an idealised past just as the starkness of proximity makes for a disenchanted present. Yet the dystopian picture of extreme inequalities and precarity, cumulative environmental damage, and weakening community ties – with related risks for physical and mental health – that I call noxious deindustrialisation is something one can be forgiven to be troubled about. All the more so because, if the combination of automation and slow economic growth spurs employment deindustrialisation onwards – a very real possibility globally –, noxious deindustrialisation will become less and less exceptional. The prospect of masses of surplus workers – excluded from core production – left to face the environmental destruction – wreaked by that very production – is a gloomy scenario but, to some extent, it is already part of our world, think for example of “climate migrants”.
While many long for a comeback of the so-called “glorious” years of capitalist development that followed WWII, returning to a romanticised golden age of industrial capitalism is arguably both impossible and undesirable. Impossible because market imperatives force companies to cut costs and raise productivity, no matter the pleasing or unpalatable personality of their bosses. Undesirable because the output growth required to re-industrialise employment today is irreconcilable with the sustained reproduction of life on earth. A better way out could rather proceed along the lines of wealth redistribution, shorter working hours, and a just transition to green production. As an interviewee noted: “Grangemouth has already transitioned away from the high-paid jobs, so we’ve started that transition and it’s not been just. We need something else”.
Acknowledgment: The research for this project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (Grant Agreement No. 639583), and further research findings will be published in due course.
Cover image: Alice Mah, petrochemical complex, Grangemouth, April 2019.
 Alessandro Portelli, 2014, Biography of an Industrial Town: Terni, Italy, 1831-2014, London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 374.
 Aaron Benanav, 2019, “Automation and the Future of Work–1”, New Left Review, 119, 5-38., p. 38.