Under Pressure: A Mercurial Musical Medley

Freddie Mercury statue, Montreux, Switzerland (photo: Henrik Selin)

By Henrik Selin

Editor’s Note: Mercury Stories: Understanding Sustainability through a Volatile Element is available now through MIT Press. Join the GDP Center on Tuesday, Nov. 10th for an online presentation and discussion of the new book with Henrik Selin and Kevin P. Gallagher, Director of the Global Development Policy Center. Register now to attend.

On a Wednesday afternoon in early October 2013,  Noelle Eckley Selin, Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and I sat alongside hundreds of representatives of countries, intergovernmental organizations, and civil society groups from around the world in a crowded auditorium in Minamata, Japan.

In that auditorium, we heard Rimiko Yoshinaga tell her personal story about mercury pollution. She told us how fishers and their family members around Minamata began to suffer devastating health consequences in the 1950s from eating seafood contaminated by methylmercury discharged from a local chemical factory. This exposure to methylmercury caused permanent and sometimes fatal damage to the brain and central nervous system, and is now commonly known as Minamata disease. Rimiko Yoshinaga lost her father to Minamata Disease.

All of us who gathered to hear Rimiko Yoshinaga’s story were in Japan to attend the adoption of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a new global treaty to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury. The next day, country representatives formally adopted the final text of the Minamata Convention in the prefectural capital Kumamoto, 90 kilometers north of Minamata. Its adoption concluded three years of treaty negotiations, which involved five meetings spread across Europe, Asia, and South America. Entering into force in 2017, 123 countries have so far become parties to the Minamata Convention, including the United States, as well as the European Union.

Encounters like those told by the Minamata victims not only provide historical information, but also inform understanding of what a more equitable and sustainable world may look like. The courage of the Minamata storytellers, and other victims of mercury pollution who have struggled to be heard and recognized, inspired Noelle and me to write our book, Mercury Stories: Understanding Sustainability through a Volatile Element, published by MIT Press.

Stories involving mercury—an element that humans have extracted and used for at least 8,000 years—provide a wealth of empirical material through which to analyze sustainability. We tell “mercury stories” in our book, analyzing them from a systems perspective—examining system components, interactions, and interventions—as a way to help scholars interested in sustainability better understand how human actions have engaged with physical quantities of matter in ways that simultaneously support and harm human well-being over generations.

As delegates during the Minamata Convention negotiations broke into smaller groups to address contentious issues, the organizers played Freddie Mercury and David Bowie singing Queen’s “Under Pressure” – a song about high-stakes stresses in today’s world and hopes for a better future – over the loudspeakers.

When the negotiations concluded at 6:59 a.m. on Saturday, January 19, 2013, in the Geneva International Conference Center, the organizers switched to another Queen song, “We Are the Champions.” That song delivered a congratulatory message to the delegates, as well as an exhortation to the Minamata Convention’s chief champions going forward. Given Queen’s “presence” at these events, it seems appropriate that the stylized fish logo for the Minamata Convention is affectionately nicknamed Freddie.

The two Queen songs played during the treaty negotiations provided us with musical inspiration as we began writing our book in 2018 — and also serve as inspiration for two of the book’s concluding chapter titles, chapter 9 (Sustainability Insights: Earth ‘Under Pressure’) and chapter 10 (Sustainability Champions: “We’ll keep on Fighting…”).

There are also many other songs that reference or are connected to mercury in its many forms. We have created a playlist related to some of these cultural touchstones that readers can listen to as they make their way through the book. The playlist is available through Spotify — and each of the tracks and its relevance to mercury is described below.

Track 1. Under Pressure (Queen with David Bowie). As we discussed above, this song was played at the Minamata Convention negotiations to encourage delegates to come to consensus on thorny issues. We describe this in chapter 1 and use Under Pressure in chapter 9 to reflect the influences that human activities exert on the Earth, posing major challenges for sustainability.

Track 2: The Hounds of Winter (Sting). Sting’s album “Mercury Falling” both starts and ends with this phrase. In The Hounds of Winter, the narrator wakes up on a cold morning with the mercury falling and collects his thoughts — an apt metaphor for chapter 2, in which we summarize our Human-Technical-Environmental systems framework (the HTE Framework) and the matrix-based approach that we introduce and use for studying mercury as a sustainability issue.

Track 3: We Will Rock You (cover by Red Hot Chili Peppers). This one’s for the mercury scientists. Every two years, the community of researchers studying mercury comes together at the International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant. In 2013, the conference took place in Edinburgh, where participants were serenaded by the Red Hot Chili Peppers in a particularly memorable opening session. Their cover of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” is a fitting accompaniment to the issues of mercury science we discuss in chapter 3.

Track 4: My Silver Lining (First Aid Kit). We include a track from this Swedish band as a nod to the fact that we wrote much of this book while we were on sabbatical at Linköping University (Henrik and Noelle) and Stockholm University (Noelle) in Sweden in 2018. This was the last song played when we saw First Aid Kit in concert in Stockholm that spring. Mercury’s historical use in silver mining, discussed in chapter 3, both fueled international trade and caused health and environmental damages that persisted for centuries.

Track 5: Mercury Poisoning (Graham Parker). Although this song is not completely scientifically accurate — mercury poisoning is not always fatal — it draws attention to the sometimes very serious health impacts of mercury exposure. Many of the dangers associated with mercury exposure have been known for centuries, which we discuss in chapter 4.

Track 6: Don’t Come Around Here No More (Tom Petty). The music video for this song features Petty as the Mad Hatter, a character from Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Mercury was used extensively in the felting process in hat manufacturing, and it has been claimed that the Mad Hatter was mad because of mercury poisoning. However, the origins of Carroll’s character are contested, as we discuss in chapter 4.

Track 7: Lady Marmalade (Patti LaBelle). This song references prostitution and includes the suggestive French lyric “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir.” Mercury was used for centuries as a component in medicine, including as a treatment for syphilis, also known as the “French Disease,” as discussed in chapter 4. Though we have included the 1970s version by Patti LaBelle in the playlist, the 2001 version from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack is also worth a listen.

Track 8: Youngstown (Bruce Springsteen). We begin chapter 5 by telling the story of Steubenville, Ohio, which was deemed a “hot spot” of mercury pollution in the 2000s due to air pollution from industrial point sources. Springsteen’s song focuses on Youngstown, a town 70 miles north of Steubenville, and draws attention to the economic and social challenges posed by transitions away from polluting activities. Many communities worldwide struggle with similar issues.

Track 9: Working in the Coal Mine (Lee Dorsey). In chapter 5, we discuss the importance of coal burning, which is one of the major sources of atmospheric mercury emissions globally. While some countries have taken measures to control mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, or to transition to cleaner sources of energy, the future of mercury emissions is closely tied to the ability to move beyond societies’ continuing dependency on fossil fuels.

Track 10: Thermostat (They Might Be Giants). The importance of mercury use in thermometers, thermostats, and other measuring devices is described in chapter 6. The use of mercury in these devices provided a groundbreaking improvement in accuracy, fueling scientific discovery and enabling new manufacturing techniques and health care advances. This upbeat track illustrates the optimism that accompanied early uses of mercury in these applications — uses that are now increasingly seen as problematic.

Track 11: Sinaloa Cowboys (Bruce Springsteen). Mercury was used extensively in chemicals manufacturing for over a century and posed many dangers to workers and surrounding communities. This includes Minamata, Japan, where methylmercury released during acetaldehyde production caused substantial harm. We discuss mercury use in manufacturing processes in chapter 6. While this song does not describe a production process that used mercury, we return to Springsteen to illustrate how workers often have little influence on their employment and working conditions in dangerous industries.

Track 12: Fields of Gold (Sting). Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), which we discuss in chapter 7, involves tens of millions of miners mostly in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The often rudimentary extraction of gold in these mining areas provide a critical income for these ASGM miners and their families. At the same time, the extensive and growing use of mercury in ASGM poses both local and global challenges for the environment and human health.

Track 13: After the Gold Rush (Neil Young). Over the past forty years, multiple factors have come together to drive a large surge in ASGM dependent on mercury use, as we discuss in chapter 7. The lyric “Look at Mother Nature on the Run in the 1970s” from Young’s song is, unfortunately, still resonant five decades later, as the use of hazardous materials and release of mercury and other pollutants in service of economic growth cause environmental damage and pose lingering challenges for sustainability.

Track 14: Du Hast (Rammstein). We borrow from the titles of the films of the Matrix franchise for our section titles in chapter 8, where we reevaluate the use of the HTE Framework and matrix-based approach with the empirical material from chapters 3 to 7. Du Hast is a song from the soundtrack of the original Matrix film. Rammstein also seems appropriate to include, as we completed much of the manuscript in Germany, where we were Hans Fischer Senior Fellows at the Technical University of Munich’s Institute for Advanced Study.

Track 15: Never Ending Story (Limahl). Stories about mercury in the context of sustainability provide a running theme throughout the book. Storytellers from Minamata have played an important role in raising global awareness of the dangers of mercury pollution for almost 50 years. In chapter 10, we discuss how stories of individual people who seek better lives for themselves, their families, and future generations are central to the challenge of advancing sustainability.

Track 16: We are the Champions (Queen). We end the playlist, as we end the book, with a charge to the current and future “champions” who are fighting to protect people and the environment from environmental challenges like mercury. In chapter 9, we summarize insights for those sustainability researchers whose results might inform action, and in chapter 10, we distill lessons for researchers, decision-makers, and concerned citizens. On this human-dominated planet, people are both the source of many sustainability problems and are uniquely positioned to work towards a more just and sustainable future. 

Editor’s Note: Mercury Stories: Understanding Sustainability through a Volatile Element is available now through MIT Press. Join the GDP Center on Tuesday, Nov. 10th for an online presentation and discussion of the new book with Henrik Selin and Kevin P. Gallagher, Director of the Global Development Policy Center. Register now to attend.