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27-31 August 2019
Poznań, Poland
Europe/Warsaw timezone
programme last update: 23 August 2019
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Contribution Paper

Poznań, Poland - Morasko Kampus, room: 2.123

Kidneys as indicator organs in the chemical Anthropocene


  • Dr. Tom WIDGER

Primary authors


Over recent decades, epidemics of chronic kidney disease of uncertain origin (CKDu) have appeared across the globe. Predominantly located in low- and middle-income regions across Africa, Mesoamerica, and South Asia, they have likely emerged from late industrial socio-ecological conditions, including poverty, pollution, and global warming. Despite extensive investigation, CKDu researchers have failed to agree on likely aetiology or prevention strategies. However, the common denominator in these epidemics is the kidney – an organ that acts as a funnel and filter of environmental insults on the body and hence emerges as a bioindicator for Anthropocene processes. Using the Sri Lankan CKDu epidemic as a case study, this paper explores what thinking ethnographically with the kidney as an indicator organ entails. It argues that kidneys provide an especially productive frame for making sense of complex, deeply uncertain economic, social, and political processes, including, in Sri Lanka, transitions from subsistence to intensified farming, from colonialism to post-colonialism to globalisation, and from a relatively stable to an unstable climate. When viewed from this perspective, kidneys resemble nodes around which nephrotoxicities gather, their tissue scarring a visceral marker of the environmental uncertainties that bodies bear in late industrial networks.