Mercury Stories

Mercury Stories

Understanding Sustainability through a Volatile Element

By Henrik Selin and Noelle E. Selin

An interdisciplinary analysis of human interactions with mercury through history that sheds light on efforts to promote and achieve sustainability.





An interdisciplinary analysis of human interactions with mercury through history that sheds light on efforts to promote and achieve sustainability.

In Mercury Stories, Henrik Selin and Noelle Eckley Selin examine sustainability through analyzing human interactions with mercury over thousands of years. They explore how people have made beneficial use of this volatile element, how they have been harmed by its toxic properties, and how they have tried to protect themselves and the environment from its damaging effects. Taking a systems approach, they develop and apply an analytical framework that can inform other efforts to evaluate and promote sustainability.

After introducing the framework, which uses the lens of a human-technical environmental system and a matrix-based approach to analyze mercury use and exposure, the authors examine five topical mercury systems that each illustrate important issues in mercury science and governance: global cycling of mercury through the atmosphere, land, oceans, and societies; mercury's dangers to human health, including from occupational, medical, and dietary exposure; mercury emissions to the atmosphere from industrial sources; mercury in commercial products and production processes; and mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Finally, looking across the five mercury systems, they distill insights for sustainability analysis more broadly, and draw lessons for researchers, decision-makers, and concerned citizens.


$35.00 X ISBN: 9780262539203 352 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 30 b&w illus.


  • "The book demonstrates a multifaceted conceptualization of sustainability, considering societal, technical, and environmental factors while highlighting the importance of both deep technical knowledge and responsive governmental institutions for effective management. Perhaps the most valuable contribution is the matrixed analytical framework, which could be applied in the understanding and management of a broad range of complex sustainability challenges. Viewed in this way, the book should interest all scholars focusing on sustainability and socioenvironmental systems."



  • With a uniquely historical perspective and richly detailed case studies, Mercury Stories offers a new approach for systematically thinking through every element of sustainability as a human, technical, and environmental matter.

    Harriet Bulkeley

    Professor, Durham University and Utrecht University

  • Mercury Stories presents a conceptually novel, operationally useful systems framework for analyzing complex interactions among technology, society, and nature, showing how attention to knowledge and institutions can help manage such interactions in pursuit of sustainability.

    William C. Clark

    Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy, and Human Development; Director, Sustainability Science Program, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

  • Mercury Stories offers a valuable contribution to sustainability science by employing a systems perspective to analyze humanity's complex interrelationship with mercury. The book illuminates how mercury pollution led to a regulatory revolution in 1970s Japan and ultimately the world through the Minamata Convention.

    Kazuhiko Takeuchi

    President, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies