International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene

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Dec 14th: How capitalism has ruined our relationship with bacteria

There are many rational reasons why consumers spend huge sums on household cleaning products, but non-rational mechanisms are nevertheless still at work. Adverts for domestic hygiene products usually follow the same simple yet powerful theme - the threat of bacterial contamination -  and the protection that anti-bacterial gels, soaps, fluids, powders or foams can offer. This has led us to a limited, and dangerous relationship with bacteria. This issue is explore in a recent issue of The Conversation by Norah Campbell and Cormac Deane

The authors consider how bacteria are portrayed visually. Although photographs are available they are generally found only in scientific and medical contexts. For the public, bacteria do not appear in a realist way. Instead, they come through advertisements for antibacterial products. The authors analysed advertising images of bacteria from 1848 to the present day fand found four broad conventions. Understanding these conventions showed how our relationship with this essential dimension of earth&;s biome is subject to the aims and desires of the manufacturers of cleaning products.

1. Cute bacteria
Bacteria are cute, small, vulnerable and toy-like. Their eyes are big and their limbs are tiny. This is strange, considering that advertisements for bacterial products are persuading us to kill them. But the cute object evinces a range of negative effects like helplessness, pitifulness and excessive availability. These in turn summon complex secondary reactions: of resentment at being emotionally manipulated, contempt for the weakness of cute objects, and disgust at the cheapness of cute things. Cuteness often places them as objects below ethical consideration, with the result that we feel no remorse in eliminating them.

2. Overpopulated bacteria
Bacteria flourish in their billions. This can be terrifying and awaken fears of overpopulation. This anxiety-laden pairing of overpopulation and bacterial proliferation continues to be provoked in visualising contemporary bacteria. Bacteria continue to be, a channel for fears about overpopulation, immigration and the corruptive influence of living too closely with millions of others.

3. Poor bacteria
Bacteria are often seen to live in squalor and poverty. Their skin is slimy, their teeth and skin are unhealthy, and their clothes are ill-fitting and dirty. This is in contrast with the consumer, the person who uses antibacterial products. While "they" are lower-class, grimy and slothful, the antibacterial person is middle-class, reassuringly clean, and busy in her or his daily life.

4. Sexual bacteria
Bacteria seem to have no regard for "proper" sexual roles and behaviours. People who fail to use antibacterial products are associated with promiscuous, non-reproductive sexual behaviours.

Why it matters

From their research the authors drew the following conclusions:

  • Our research demonstrates that bacteria are a vehicle for fears of what we might be, and of aspects of ourselves and our society that we find it difficult to confront directly.
  • This has disastrous consequences for our planet and the things that live on it, including us and bacteria. We&;re stuck together and there are about five million trillion trillion of them.
  • The visual vocabulary of fear, disgust and dread that has been so effective at selling antibacterial products for over a century has brought us to an ecological dead end. Overuse of antibiotics is the most obvious evidence of the failure of the demonise-and-destroy approach that antibacterial thinking produces, leading to a market failure that some experts posit is bigger than climate change.
  • A totally new understanding of bacteria as a realm that we must live within is needed. An important step in that direction is describing the destructive ways of thinking about bacteria that have stepped in between us and these necessary cohabitants of our planet