A semiotic analysis of WSJ article on Bayer’s glyphosate problems

The original article, published here, takes a rather pro-industry “we’ll engineer our way out of this” approach. Rather than observing a fundamental problem in putting artificial inputs unsustainably into agriculture, the article plays to the upbeat agribusiness narrative of getting over “minor” problems, and that the “health” of a business or industry should and does outweigh the health and well-being of life on earth. A bit quixotic, sure, but such are the narratives of industrial epidemics.

In this blog post, I will take this WSJ article on Bayer’s glyphosate as a paradigmatic example of what George Orwell called “Newspeak,” and what Harry Frankfurt calls “Bullshit”–the use of words and framing to sophisticly make the weaker argument the stronger and the stronger the weaker. In other words, we’re dealing here with the oh-so-common muscular relativism which subordinates truth to power.

Bayer AG BAYRY -0.67% plans to invest €5 billion ($5.64 billion) on developing new ways to combat weeds over the next decade, as the German chemicals and pharmaceuticals giant seeks to win back trust in its business in the wake of thousands of lawsuits alleging its Roundup herbicide causes cancer.

Exhibit A of not taking responsibility: call for more “Research” when plenty has been done, and most says that we need to go to organic regional farming with reduced or no inputs.

A big legal fight over the blockbuster weedkiller—inherited with its takeover of Monsanto Co. last year—has plunged Bayer into one of the worst crises in its 155-year history. The company has lost the first three jury trials to plaintiffs claiming Roundup gave them non-Hodgkin lymphoma, with the highest award topping $2 billion. In response, its shares have almost halved over the past year.

Both Bayer and Monsanto had their origins in poison manufacture, so it makes sense that Bayer would be interested in buying Monsanto. It was a huge mistake, but then again, if you are Bayer, and see Monsanto as a profitable buy, then you know the sort of company you keep. If you’re a shareholder in Bayer, you can only say mea culpa.

It’s not like Bayer’s stock price is going to go up either, any time soon, if ever.

While Bayer is appealing the jury verdicts and continues to vigorously defend the safety of Roundup and the active ingredient glyphosate, its announcement Friday shows how the company is being forced to change tack under pressure from its legal woes. Bayer said glyphosate would retain an important role in its portfolio but that it was also “committed to offering more choice for growers.”

Bayer is not changing tack, it is taking the tried and untrue denialist path of most resistance against accountability, responsibility, sustainability, and science. We don’t need “growers” to be yoked to Bayer, Monsanto, or any other agribusiness. We need them to be free, supported by each other and society, and not in debt to a chemical manufacturer for its survival.

The company said the €5 billion earmarked for herbicide development over the next 10 years would largely fit into the annual spending of €2.4 billion that it had previously estimated for agriculture R&D in coming years. Herbicide research will represent about one-fifth of Bayer’s overall agriculture research investment, and the commitment announced Friday will include chemical research and regulatory expenses as well as new computer-driven farm-management services.

So, the WSJ’s “news” turns out to be no news at all. Instead WSJ is touting industry lies packaged as news in order to attempt to give a “convincing” face-saving “strategy” that Bayer is actually attempting to do something different. Something different is not going to make Bayer more money. If people spray less, they use less chemical, and thus make less money. They’re simply, as a transnational company hell-bent on profit above all (including god?), never going to opt for less. I guess technologization could be an excuse to demand more debt from farmers, but is that even necessary?

The company also said it would cut its “environmental impact” by 30% by 2030 through new technologies and making weedkiller use more precise, and that it would also be more transparent about the safety of its products. These measures, it said, would address health and environmental concerns Bayer has faced since buying Monsanto. Bayer also took out newspaper advertisements to promote its message.

To have a chemical and poison manufacturer say they are going to “cut” their “environmental impact” through “precision” is like death drones say they’re going to cut their kill-counts through “smart bombs.” It simply doesn’t happen and doesn’t exist. Any anybody who buys that rhetoric is doing so full well that they are swallowing some pretty grotesque bullshit. Bayer being more transparent about safety, too would be easy: publish all of your unpublished studies online. We have public documents now showing that Monsanto knew in the early 1980s about the carcinogenic properties of glyphosate. Why did we have to wait more than 30 years for IARC to come to the same conclusions? How are we going to incentivize transparency for a company that would lose even more stock price if they were honest. Again, the words belie the actual situation. Managing transparency – lying about and pretending to be transparent – is not the same thing as independent 3rd-party oversight, real transparency. The icing on the Pinocchio cake is that Bayer is more interested in advertising how it wants to reform than it actually is in reforming (maybe dissolve the company and pay reparations to farmers harmed by its chemicals?).

The company’s leadership has faced intense criticism over its decision to buy Monsanto. At a heated shareholder meeting in late April, some 55% of shareholders refused to endorse management’s actions in the past year.

A vote of no-confidence like this means that the company should come under new leadership at the least, get rid of their toxic Monsanto asset, and trigger public oversight of the company.

Bayer and other agricultural companies are already marketing new herbicides, as glyphosate’s widespread use on U.S. farms has contributed to weeds like palmer amaranth and waterhemp developing resistance to the world’s most widely used weedkiller.

The last thing we need is the next glyphosate. “Now More Deadly than Ever!” Instead, shifting away from the stranglehold of the chemical industry on agriculture is the only way humans and the rest of the planet are going to survive this thing.

Bayer said Friday that with glyphosate’s global success came “widespread use, weed resistance, and in some instances unintended misapplication.”

We call this chess move “responsibilization,” the offloading of corporate responsibility onto consumers. Its CSR in reverse, while making it seem as if the consumers have been “bad.” Really great to blame the victims of the producers’ poisons.

Monsanto in recent years launched a new herbicide based on the chemical dicamba, along with soybean and cotton seeds genetically engineered to withstand the spray.

When all else fails, repackage poison in a new name and pretend people don’t notice.

Some farmers have said the more-powerful weedkiller drifted onto neighboring fields and damaged nonmodified crops. Agricultural researchers estimate that millions of acres of crops have been damaged by drifting dicamba. Bayer has attributed the crop damage mainly to farmers misapplying the spray. In 2018 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said farmers could continue to use dicamba under tighter restrictions.

Because Monsanto’s hat trick was to create GMOs resistant to their poisons, if their poisons get on plants that aren’t engineered to soak up unlimited amounts of highly toxic poisons they die. But guess what? Nothing in this universe stays in “its place.” That’s a pipedream of old white men, viz. Descartes and his gang that thought that you could abstract something, manipulate it, and then reintroduce it into the world as if that abstraction really existed. In critical theory, they call this “reification.” Drift happens. How could it now? If you pee in your own swimming hole, that pee is going to go everywhere, including on you, and those ducks, and your friends. Not cool. Quit pissing out poisons.

Rival Corteva Inc. is marketing a competing crop seed and herbicide combination, based around the herbicide 2,4-D.

As if the solution to the chemical anthropocene were just more herbicides. Again, this “engineering approach” to digging ourselves deeper into the problems we created with profit-driven synthetic chemical thinking is parasitic on actual alternative that would free us from such chemical slavery.

The legal battle over Roundup could take years to resolve as Bayer has said it would appeal decisions and wait for the outcome of a few more cases before considering a settlement.

Bayer will not win 13,400 lawsuits. Not in the US, or elsewhere. The classic technique of buying time and delay tactics mean that every day they refuse to pay up and settle or admit wrongdoing (which our handy documents here show daily that there is more and more malfeasance), is another day that they can still make a buck off of selling glyphosate products.

Investors say Bayer’s stock is likely to struggle until there is more clarity over how much the litigation will end up costing the company. Analysts’ estimates range from €5 billion to €25 billion.

These are conservative estimates based on class-action. The tobacco MSA cost about $300 billion. Let’s see worldwide what happens to Bayer when lawsuits in other parts of the world start kicking in.

Bayer is appealing all jury verdicts so far and has vigorously defended the safety of Roundup.

Vigorously defending the safety of a product or chemical has nothing to do with whether that product is safe or not. Merely, it is part of a process that has been set up so that if a company were to admit guilt, they would lose everything, so instead, they are incentivized to lie and fight as if the company depended on it, because it does. This “too big to fail” approach which does not allow for the admission of guilt and corrective measures without imploding companies doesn’t work. We need to have civil society involved much earlier on, so that the hazards of these products never get to their world-historical proportions which they do today. We need to change our laws to incentivize humility, epistemological and ethical, instead of creating rabid denialists. In a strange way, denialism is a product of a risk regulatory framework that doesn’t allow for people to admit mistakes, pay the consequences, and move on.

In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a World Health Organization unit, classified glyphosate as likely having the potential to cause cancer in humans. That classification triggered the wave of lawsuits. Bayer argues hundreds of studies and regulatory decisions around the world show Roundup and glyphosate are safe when used as directed.

“Safe when used as directed” is another industry-standard phrase. I guess guns are safe when used as directed as well, but nothing in existence is ever used as directed. Unless you pressure test every product for all of its uses, you’re negligent, and should be held accountable so. Monsanto would have lost billions of dollars if they had ever encouraged glyphosate to be used “as directed.”

In the U.S., where Roundup has become integral to farming, Costco Wholesale Corp. recently pulled Roundup herbicides from its stores. Certain cities in California, Florida, Minnesota and elsewhere have also forbidden use of glyphosate weedkillers on municipal property while other farm-state lawmakers have defended the herbicides.

“Integral” is an interesting choice of words. Monsanto for 50 years worked to force American agriculture into its pocket, through path dependent forced coupling of seed and herbicide.

Several European countries, including France and Austria, are considering phasing out glyphosate. Early this year, a French court banned a Roundup product with the ingredient, even though it still has a European Union seal of approval. A senior executive of German public rail operator Deutsche Bahn AG told a German weekly Friday that the company together with the German environment ministry would research alternatives for combating weeds along its 33,000 kilometers of tracks.

After the German Minister of Agriculture went against Merkel and the German government’s directives to not support renewal of glyphosate in the EU, the rest of the German government decided they needed to not wait another 5 years to attend to the problems glyphosate pose to human health. The majority of their citizenry do not wish to be enslaved to a cancer-causing chemical, and no longer wish to be subjected to it. Hence, the Ministry of the Environment is taking steps throughout German society to do what failed at the EU level: protect its citizens from the harms of the next generation of poisons.

The company said it would invite scientists, journalists and representatives from nonprofits to participate in its efforts to secure re-registration of glyphosate in the EU—a review likely to trigger debate about safety. The process is expected to kick off later this year, with a vote in late 2022.

(By Ruth Bender and Jacob Bunge Updated June 14, 2019 3:02 p.m. ET)

The largess of the company to invite (and pay) scientists and others sympathetic to its cause to seduce people with good names to foul them and ruin their professional reputations for the sake of short-term financial gain is overstated. Bayer is saying that it will do everything in its power to extend its network as merchants of doubt to derail science and popular sovereignty over land and food in EU countries.

New Publication: Financial Conflicts of Interest and Stance on Tobacco Harm Reduction: A Systematic Review

My colleagues Manali Vora, Jesse Elias, and Pam Ling and I at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco just Financial Conflicts of Interest and Stance on Tobacco Harm Reduction: A Systematic Review. (Also available at PubMed).

Here are some sources that have blogged about the paper:

https://www.apha.org/news-and-media/news-releases/ajph-news-releases/2019/2019-july-issue

https://tobacco.ucsf.edu/scientific-articles-supporting-tobacco-harm-reduction-more-likely-be-industry-funded-and-lack-empirical-data

Abstract

Background. Tobacco companies have actively promoted the substitution of cigarettes with purportedly safer tobacco products (e.g., smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes) as tobacco harm reduction (THR). Given the tobacco, e-cigarette, and pharmaceutical industries’ substantial financial interests, we quantified industry influence on support for THR.

Objectives. To analyze a comprehensive set of articles published in peer-reviewed journals assessing funding sources and support for or opposition to substitution of tobacco or nicotine products as harm reduction.

Search Methods. We searched PubMed, Embase, Web of Science, and PsycINFO with a comprehensive search string including all articles, comments, and editorials published between January 1, 1992 and July 26, 2016.

Selection Criteria. We included English-language publications published in peer-reviewed journals addressing THR in humans and excluded studies on modified cigarettes, on South Asian smokeless tobacco variants, on pregnant women, on animals, not mentioning a tobacco or nicotine product, on US Food and Drug Administration–approved nicotine replacement therapies, and on nicotine vaccines.

Data Collection and Analysis. We double-coded all articles for article type; primary product type (e.g., snus, e-cigarettes); themes for and against THR; stance on THR; THR concepts; funding or affiliation with tobacco, e-cigarette, pharmaceutical industry, or multiple industries; and each author’s country. We fit exact logistic regression models with stance on THR as the outcome (pro- vs anti-THR) and source of funding or industry affiliation as the predictor taking into account sparse data. Additional models included article type as the outcome (nonempirical or empirical) and industry funding or affiliation as predictor, and stratified analyses for empirical and nonempirical studies with stance on THR as outcome and funding source as predictor.

Main Results. Searches retrieved 826 articles, including nonempirical articles (21%), letters or commentaries (34%), editorials (5%), cross-sectional studies (15%), systematic reviews and meta-analyses (3%), and randomized controlled trials (2%). Overall, 23.9% disclosed support by industry; 49% of articles endorsed THR, 42% opposed it, and 9% took neutral or mixed positions. Support from the e-cigarette industry (odds ratio [OR] = 20.9; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 5.3, 180.7), tobacco industry (OR = 59.4; 95% CI = 10.1, +infinity), or pharmaceutical industry (OR = 2.18; 95% CI = 1.3, 3.7) was significantly associated with supportive stance on THR in analyses accounting for sparse data.

Authors’ Conclusions. Non–industry-funded articles were evenly divided in stance, while industry-funded articles favored THR. Because of their quantity, letters and comments may influence perceptions of THR when empirical studies lack consensus.

Public Health Implications. Public health practitioners and researchers need to account for industry funding when interpreting the evidence in THR debates. (Am J Public Health. Published online ahead of print May 16, 2019: e1–e8. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2019.305106)

Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense

In doing some background research for my book, I remembered that I had read about a year ago of a US Congressman who was working to get rid of the imperative for US health insurers to take patients with preexisting conditions, who shortly thereafter was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The poetic justice was obvious, and I was ready to incorporate the story into mine, to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the political landscape around medical issues, and the demonizing of illness, making it into some Biblical or New Age Law of Attraction bullshit.

And then I noticed that as I went to retrieve this information, that the first hit that came up was from a notoriously provocative website, “The Daily KOS.” I read the article, but it seemed more lukewarm than I remembered in terms of evidence, so I went back and watched the original CNN interview with the supposed damning evidence of hypocrisy of the US Representative from Alabama, Republican Mo Brooks scorning those with preexisting conditions.

In fact, the Daily KOS had cherry-picked Brooks’ words out of context, completely mangling his meaning, which amounted to: those who have lived risk-prone lives should have to pay more than people who have done their best to take care of themselves, and many people are sick “through no fault of their own,” and “we must take care of them.” We can quibble with if we agree with that, but Brooks’ statement looked nothing like the fire and brimstone irony Daily KOS was insinuating.

Shoddy reporting helps no one, and making people whose political ideas you may not agree with into hyperbolic monsters reduces credibility, creates mutual antagonism, and is part of why America is divided. It’s time for journalistic ethics to make a comeback.

Islands of unsustainability

John Rawls’s (1971) notion of national self-sufficiency in terms of resources is about as far from our current globalized world as we can get, in terms of theory aimed at non-ideal applications. Globalization is a fact of life. And yet, with each displacement in our life, we have expended more and more energy to have a never-ending commodity change for each product stretched across the globe, on call and ready at hand for our whim to flick a switch and watch, do, or order something.

Just this week, a new study is out showing that our music streaming, from services such as Spotify and Apple Music, are in fact, creating billowing clouds of greenhouse gasses, leading to more destruction even as we have “virtualized” the materiality of music listening. The cloud–which after all just means storing your data on somebody else’s computers/servers and accessing it via satellite or cable/fiber-optics–is an expensive process to maintain, after all. It turns out that “owning” your own stuff in a place-based location (on your device) makes much more sense ecologically, than having it distributed all over the world and calling it in on a regular basis.

Rawls’ (1999: 39 and 106–7) aim for polity self-sufficiency suggests that a polity may not inflict negative environmental externalities on other polities, and yet, that is what the top 20% economically are doing to the bottom 80%. We (the royal, cosmopolitan, globalized western “we”) are happy to live a fabulous lifestyle as long as the carnage from our consumption are pushed out of sight and out of mind. This is precisely what Ulrich Beck refers to as the “distanciation” of the effects of our actions.

But what allows us to maintain this unsustainability is not that the top 20% don’t care about the consequences, but that we have bought into a sort of exceptionalism that suggests that we and our loved ones will be spared from the worst of the environmental fall-out. We’ve bought into American Exceptionalism Gone Wild–the rampant idea that somehow – through wealth, technology, national identity, gender, race, etc. – that we will be spared. That we are God’s Chosen One’s and can stick out our tongue and thumb our nose at the rest of the world. (Of course, such performances of behavior, implicit or explicit, prove that such people absolutely have no concept of god or powers beyond themselves.) In other words, there is a certain strata of the population, that truly believes that they will get off scot-free by cheating: barraging the world with their waste without having to clean it up or other pay for it. It is the ultimate planetary intergenerational ponzi scheme.

It is also the ultimate abdication of responibility. As we hash out details (what Freud referred to as the “narcissism of minor differences”), the world burns. And elites are quite happy about it too. Because then no nation or their people or leader has to be responsible, and can carry on with the charade. As Elinor Ostrom writes:

“Reducing emissions now is more urgent than reaching an international agreement to reduce emissions by a given percentage, which might not be achieved for some time into the future. We do not face a situation where little harm is caused by overuse until we pass a given threshold, as may be the case with some renewable resources” (2010, 28; italics in original, bold added). No, what is at stake is the world, and nothing less. Fly, eat meat, and burn fossil fuels at your own expense, with each joule and calorie added to you account. There is no pawning off our responsibility any longer.

(Also See Bruno Latour’s Down To Earth and Michele Serre’ The Parasite)

Lunchtime Talk at Erasmus School of Philosophy on Advertising and Agency

Advertising and Agency: An ethological account of how social infrastructure compromises or sustains our autonomy

May 16, 2019 12:00 – 13:00 Bayle Building, J5, Erasmus University Rotterdam
Humans like to think of ourselves as autonomous agents, freely making our own rational decisions, despite the temptations and influences of society. Indeed, especially in individualistic liberal societies, the desire to be “unique” and “different” tugs strongly at our sensibilities. As social animals subject to needs to belong, and to have proclivities for certain stimuli, these instincts are often taken advantage of by marketing and advertising in order to sell products. This lecture will examine mechanisms of supernormal stimuli that manipulate our instincts, rendering us less sovereign over decisions and actions, as well as what sort of social infrastructure may act protectively, insulating us from predatory semiotics. 

Smoking as Acceptable Rebellion.

Notes from a debrief of Philip Morris’s 1998 Litter Focus Group read: “Non-smokers tend to give smokers a lot of slack about throwing down a butt,” claiming that “throwing it on the ground eliminates fire risk,” and that litter is a “natural result of outdoor smoking areas.”  For smokers, littering is a “natural part of the ritual”; an act of “rebellion”; a “small act of civil disobedience”; and an acceptable demonstration of power in “stepping on a lit object and grinding it.” To deal with the “issue” of litter, the key was “don’t be preachy,” and to have “no billboards, no advertising,” “don’t give antis any more reason to yell.”

The tobacco industry aimed to successfully frame littering, just like smoking itself, as an act of “acceptable rebellion” brings pleasure through expressing angst inexpressible elsewhere in society. Protecting and providing a safe space for these meaningless but environmentally polluting expressions of “civil disobedience” was a priority for the industry to retain and attract as many smokers as possible. It also was in the interest of other managerial regimes, such as corrupt governments to give people certain guilty pleasures that they could believe that they were being free with, so that they wouldn’t clamor for real freedoms, like clean water, clean air, a universal basic income, wealth equity, or taking their commons back.

References

Robinson & Maites. N331; The R&M Creative Brief [Internet]. 1998 Apr [cited 2019 Mar 26]. (Truth Tobacco Industry Documents). Report No.: ypyg0085. Available from: https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/#id=ypyg0085

Donohue C. Litter Focus Group De-Brief; N331 [Internet]. 1998 Jan [cited 2019 Mar 26]. (Truth Tobacco Industry Documents). Report No.: npyg0085. Available from: https://www.industrydocuments.ucsf.edu/tobacco/docs/#id=npyg0085

Proctor RN. Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition. 1 edition. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2012. 752 p.

Hendlin Y, Anderson SJ, Glantz SA. “Acceptable rebellion”: marketing hipster aesthetics to sell Camel cigarettes in the US. Tob Control. 2010 Jun;19(3):213–22. DOI: 10.1136/tc.2009.032599

Aphorisms

With research, be as exhaustive as possible without it becoming exhausting. (March 13, 2019)

Superstitions are killing the planet. (Viz., the idea that we need x in order for y to happen or not to happen; that we need more bunkers, armor, weapons, food, etc., in order to feel safe; these are superstitions. And they are killing the planet.) (March 22, 2019)

Maximizing/optimizing extraction/expropriation is not the same as biomimicry. (April 11, 2019)

I’m on team justice. Are you on team conflict avoidance? (April 15, 2019)

Justice is shared sacrifice, including past sacrifices. (April 15, 2019)

People who are conflict avoidant usually are afraid of a reckoning confirming already-held anxieties about the injustice of their position. (April 15, 2019)

One-ply is sufficient if thick enough. Four-ply will never be enough if it’s too thin. (May 11, 2019)

How do we make access to nature equally accessible, or inaccessible, depending on our aims, without having it based on economic access (which often is reliant on illegitimate or violent prior actions, conscious or not)? Or, should access to wilderness be based on care? — On a genuine love and nurturing, and softness and sensitivity to the relational connection of self and environment? In which case, money would not have anything to do with it, but rather a different type of aristocracy, a natural aristocracy based on connectedness to inner and outer nature. (May 23, 2019)

I suspect that people use perfume or cologne in equal proportion to how fetid their underlying smell really is. (May 23, 2019)

Respect it, don’t expect it. (June 11, 2019)

I’ve been having some really intelligent conversations with myself lately. (June 11, 2019)

It’s not the fashion industry, the fascist industry. (June 11, 2019)

Say as little as possible, do as much as is necessary. (June 11, 2019)

Do your due diligence or you’re done. (June 12, 2019)

Erasmus Sustainability Days Keynote

March 4th, 2019, I’ll be giving a keynote to 1500 or so students at my home university, Erasmus University Rotterdam, as part of their Sustainability Days.

They asked me to be fiery and inspirational, so I’ll try my best.

The paper will be put online afterwards on my academia.edu page.

Yes, they forgot my last name, and forgot to put that I’m an assistant professor instead of a full professor (something we academics take very seriously), but it’s going to be a nice event anyhow.

Science and Politics of Glyphosate Workshop June 6, 2019

My Erasmus University Rotterdam colleague Alessandra Arcuri and I are organizing a day-long workshop on the most used pesticide in the world: glyphosate. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, Monsanto’s flagship herbicide, has been linked with cancer by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015.

For more information, registration, and to submit a paper to present at the conference, please visit our website, at the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative.

IARC and EFSA’s differing views on glyphosate

Welcome Lecture at the Erasmus School of Philosophy

I’m pleased to be giving my welcome lecture to the students and faculty of the Erasmus School of Philosophy, where I have been an Assistant Professor since November 2018, on March 13, 2019.

In this lecture, I will survey my research career thus far, in light of the overarching themes of social epistemology and the social determinants of health.

In other words, I will discuss the Pragmatist perspective on political philosophy, ethics, epistemology, and ontology, and explore the mereological tensions between subjects and the communities from which they emerge. This discussion will, furthermore, unfold according to a critical public health perspective, which takes account of the differences in recognition and resources humans experience.

Disposable is NOT Environmental

I was perusing Kickstarter when I happened upon a solution to a problem that I didn’t know was that big of a deal: spices going bad. As it turns out, it’s not that big of a deal, it’s what could easily be classified as a “first world problem.”

Spices, because we live in a commodified society with more supply than demand, often sell us large quantities of pre-picked, pre-ground spices. Moreover, these spices are picked from around the world, very far from where we live, and so by the time we use much of them, they lose some of their pungency.

For the same reason that many people grind their own coffee beans, and in many parts of the world including Europe, their own grains, many people still grind their own spices. (Full disclosure, wherever possible, I grind my own spices too – they taste way better fresh that way; no pre-ground spice, no matter how well packed, will taste as good). There is no secret to this. A couple of good kitchen tools, and you’re good to go with most spices. It keeps the nutrients fresh and less degraded (though of course, from picking a spice, it’s shelf-life starts ticking away), and much more pungent and enticing.

Yet, this Kickstarter doesn’t say, “hey, I’d like to make some money by selling you high quality spices, but you’ll still have to grind them yourselves and take an extra minute of delight every time you cook!” No, instead, it fails to see that good cooking, by its nature is a meditation, not something to create a lot of trash with for convenience’s sake. It is a fail because it does not understand that gourmands who like fresh spices are happy to take the extra 30 seconds and grind their own pepper, ginger, or nutmeg. Instead, it grinds the spices already, prematurely, and puts all of its heft on the claim that it has found a better “preserving” mechanism, better than glass containers, but somehow stopping short of formaldehyde.

By appealing to “design” this company is yet another hipster gourmand appropriation of disposable trashy production in order to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes. They have the gall not to merely discuss how their throw away, potion enough for a bachelor(ette) only spice capsules, but to call their product “revolutionary” for its ability to “keep spice fresher at the molecular level.” At the molecular level! I love it–they don’t explain what they mean (except through appealing to the boogieman of “oxidation”) by saying “molecular,” other than that it has become the new buzzword after “neuro” and “nano.” But hey, if you’re already in the business of commodifying trends, why not throw in meaningless buzzwords to prey on consumer gullibility?

Beyond their appeals to their product perhaps rightly being “more flavorful,” than old forgotten spices, they also make the much more suspect claim of it being more “affordable” as well. But worst – and here it’s just a blatant lie – they also claim that their throwaway aluminum pod peel trash wrapper is also more “sustainable.” And that’s why I’m calling bullshit on Occo, and all products like them that attempt to solve a non-problem for people who have more money than they know what to do with, by creating more trash for future generations.

For fun, let’s take a look at some of their misleading and fallacious sustainability claims:

(1) That aluminum is “the most recyclable material in the world”

(1) A: The price for aluminum is higher today than it has been in many years. That’s why there have been, for the first time a rash of thefts of aluminum bleacher seats at parks. So I ask the very Instagrammable Connie and Lisa: do you know what bauxite is? (The raw material from where aluminum comes from). Have you ever been to a bauxite mine? How about a bauxite processing plant? Ever breathed in those fumes? No, because otherwise, you would avoid aluminum like the plague that it is.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but disposable aluminum (where do you even discuss recycling, and the fact that in many jurisdictions your customers may not even have adequate access to recycling facilities?) is a loser. It’s an environmental nightmare, not the paragon of recyclability you paint it as.

Anything that can be used more than once, or say, used many, many times, for years, is more sustainable than something that is only used once. Period. You don’t have to be an industrial ecologist to do the math and realize that even in the best case scenario, if you melt something down, you’re using a tremendous amount of energy to do so, (coming from where?), and then refashioning that raw material into another thing–losing material and energy along the way.

(2) “Saving food waste” claim.

(2) A: Another fallacy is that Occo is helping reduce food waste and saving the planet by selling expensive spices in high quantities in disposable aluminum. The company even does a masterful deflection of using a loaded label against the waste in bulk food items (they call it the “Movie Soda Mark-Up”), that strikes a chord with their Millennial audience of single, big income, no children. They say that food waste is created because people buy more than what they need, and when people are more minimalistic (I love the movement of minimalism, but detest the way it has become commodified to sell more crap that people don’t need to them in the name of minimalism!). But I truly have to question how true this is around spices: what percentage of the 40% of food waste boils down to spices? 1%? 0.5%? If so, that would boil down to 0.4-0.2% of food waste blamable on too many spices. And this is a generous estimate. Nice try, but this is a clear case of the misuse and abuse of pulling on legitimate environmentalist heartstrings.

 

To sum up: the problem with this scheme and so many like it is that there’s no money in simply telling people to go quality over quantity; and to buy less instead of buying more. The “super premium” segment of the nouveau riche, always eager to virtue signal their “style” and “taste” is one of the leading contributors to ecological disaster and climate chaos.

To falsely claim some sort of ecological currency in doing so, should be met with a healthy dose of reality and opprobrium. There are enough charlatans around; the last thing we need is more cannibalism of truth by poseur minimalists willing to say any ecological lie to make a quick buck.

P.S. After writing this, I just found some more spurious reasoning from these poster-children for the Dunning-Kruger effect (a little bit of knowledge is dangerous–you might actually think you know something when that’s not the case). I’m not going to comment on it, I’ll just put it here:

Thoughts and Prayers and Regulations

There is an epidemic of thoughts and prayers in America. It seems the more politicians think and pray, the more school shootings happen, the more places of worship get gunned and burned down, and the more people die.

Maybe to reverse this trend, politicians need to stop sending their thoughts and quit praying, and instead begin doing their jobs: defending the commonweal against those who would sacrifice it for profit.

New Article in Biosemiotics: I am a Fake Loop

My article, “I Am a Fake Loop: the Effects of Advertising-Based Artificial Selection,” just appeared in the journal Biosemiotics. You can read it here for free.

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In this piece, I explore Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz’s ethological understandings of the human animal, and how certain instinctual heuristics override rational control and analysis. Using the case study of advertising, I investigate how various ways in which human life is subverted through the artificial selection of single-metric selection processes of profit. The myopia of profit even undermines itself in short-term extractivism, so it is definitionally unsustainable.

Also interrogated in this study is the way in which desires are manufactured. Using Tinbergen’s discovery of “supernormal stimuli” and Deirdre Barret’s application of this ethological finding to human epidemiology, I take a public health approach to supernormal stimuli and find that marketing and advertising strangely undermine their form of mimicry, deceiving both the intended targets and the signaler simultaneously. Analyzing sophisticated mass mimicry in contemporary culture, in both intended and unintended forms, allows for insights into how to decolonize human evolution from these insidious forms of artificial selection.

E-cigarette e-waste litter is an environmental health harm that can be stopped before it metastasizes

My op-ed in the American Journal of Public Health that appeared this week discusses the new tobacco waste stream of electronic cigarette waste. Electronic waste is already the fastest growing waste stream globally. Creating a new product that has no current responsible recycling infrastructure, and that may be littered widely, contributing to plastic sinks such as the Great Pacific Gyre (garbage patch) in the Pacific Ocean, is a mistake. This op-ed discusses the problem and some of the solutions that can be taken to avoid a possible environmental health and ecological disaster.

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Photo of a dropped Juul vape on SF MUNI by Julia McQuoid, used with permission

Regarding this article and other research I am conducting, I also wrote a piece in the online academic blog/forum The Conversation on e-cigarettes as the Nespresso of tobacco products, environmentally speaking.

This article was republished by the University of California, Salon, Phys.org, The Houston Chron, the Connecticut Post, The Fresh Toast, Business Insider, EcoWatch, The Chicago Tribune, and many other news sources.

Reuters also interviewed me for a piece titled “E-cigarette policy should consider environmental effects, expert says.”

For my other writing on e-waste, please see my interview with Eric Lundgren in Nautilus.

 

UCSF Chemical Industry Documents

A couple weeks ago, UCSF launched our newest collection of industry documents. The UCSF Industry Documents archive is a repository of almost one hundred million pages of previously secret industry documents now searchable for the public due to discovery and legal mandate.

These documents give unparalleled insight into how the world’s largest and arguably most harmful corporations operate. By reading how these industries regard their own practices, the public, academics, and policy-makers can be more realistic in assessing the rhetoric and claims of toxic industries.

These documents also point to how industries have worked closely with government organizations to cover up bad science and mislead the public. These documents show the important steps that must be taken to restore the credibility of scientific research in the public eye.

 

Whither the Relevance of Print Media?

The great American newspapers have shot themselves in the foot. In the race against online media and decentralized user-based content, when they haven’t been bought up by conglomerates with the intention to destroy them or use them as organs of ideology, newspapers have repeatedly cranked up the sensationalism, obscured good reporting with blaring ads, and made themselves irrelevant.

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The San Francisco Chronicle, our stalwart liberal rag of the Bay Area, regularly obscures its first page with these cover-up inserts that blot out half of the cover with some strident mock-serious ad. While of course they are doing this (1) to obscure the content so people have to buy the paper to read the front page, and moreover, (2) for much-needed revenue, this is a losing proposition. In an era where content is given away for free in order to produce a sale—the shrewd notion of free tasters to lure in the curious, obscuring your headlines deaden curiosity by the miserly action of deliberately obscuring the little free content newspapers show on the upper half of the first page.

 

Revenue can be had through special offers and tie-ins with exclusive companies. Exclusivity should go hand-in-hand with exquisite reporting. Truly unique newspapers, which provide novel rather than recycled content, have thick social capital that they can draw on for higher ad prices, for special offers with honored establishments, affiliate programs, and other arbiters of power. This, rather than sales, is really the primary income stream. But the moment that quality goes down, that uniqueness becomes a liability rather than a treasure, and conformity to the sterile standards of NewsCorp reigns, newspapers become desperate enterprises. They scramble in shambles to keep up the facade of sophistication while serving up only fluff—and still are bemused at dwindling readerships and relevance. Relevance is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Investigative journalism, thoughtful, unorthodox yet principled reporting, and the courage to take stands on controversial issues for the sake of the polity define and build the reputation of news businesses.

 

Diversity in news reporting is needed now more than ever. The dilution of debate to shrill assertions of opinion, often attached with ad hominum uncivil behavior has overwhelmed the 4th estate as fake news. Like the replacement of fact with self-interested, self-promoting fiction (oleaginously patinated as “alternative facts”) has become a major force in monopoly-controlled news companies. The notion of the “free press” even sounds quaint in 2018. While some online groups like Civil aim to harness the trust-embedded authentication of blockchain to develop a new form of press, at best, one has to choose and pick from the grey literature amongst the deluge of SEO (search engine optimized) websites that pay and play to have higher Google rankings. Thus, whatever real journalism that exists, in our quixotic market economy, gets buried at the bottom; while the froth and disinformation rises to the top (in part, because it is financially interested to a magnitude that real journalism never has been and never could be).

 

So, to remake themselves, brick-and-mortar news agencies producing physical (and electronic) products, must lean in to Cory Doctorow’s adage that “Information doesn’t want to be free. People do.” This means giving people the best news agencies have to offer, for free, if possible, with longer, more detailed versions available for purchase (or for favors, such as re-posting, affiliate programs, etc.). Countless creative win-win concepts exist for the flagging newspaper business—if only they take the moral, political, and economic high-ground and learn to adapt rather resist our strange new information environment.

The Elon Musk of E-waste

My new article, “Is This Man the Elon Musk of E-Waste?” in my favorite popular science online magazine Nautilus, describes the Right to Repair movement, and the necessity to move from a linear manufacturing process built on planned and perceived obsolescence to a circular economy.

If we are to combat the 99 billion pounds of e-waste produced per year, ending up incinerated, in lakes and rivers, and trashing our communities and the lives of future generations, we’re going to need to mandate manufactures of electronics such as Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, IBM, Dell, and all the other major players, to engineer products that can DIY be taken apart, repaired, and built to last.

My interview with Eric Lundgren, his last before he was sent to prison for creating 28,000 Microsoft Windows restore CDs meant for refurbishing computers that otherwise would end up as e-waste, describes the necessity for financial mechanisms to incentivize companies and consumers to place e-waste back into an (dis)assembly line of reuse, reduce, recycle.

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Lundgren has championed the right for electronics to be repaired rather than tossed by staging high-profile recycling demonstrations including his Guinness Book of World Records farthest driving on a single charge electric car (999 miles with 90% recycled materials including recycled hybrid batteries) and his flagship solar-powered e-waste recycling factory.

I appreciate the comment on the article made by Ryan Shaw, who wrote:

Mr. Lundgren has done more with far less than what Musk started with so I don’t think the comparison does Lundgren justice (although I am a huge Musk fan). Maybe someday if Tesla starts a car rebuild program to re-use scrapped cars the title would be, “Elon Musk is the Eric Lundgren of car manufacturing.”

New Article: Environmental Justice as a Potentially Hegemonic Concept

As part of my project on land rights in Latin America, a recent paper titled “Environmental justice as a (potentially) hegemonic concept: a historical look at competing interests between the MST and indigenous people in Brazil” appears in Local Environment.

Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability is associated with the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), the international environmental agency for local governments which evaluates and present the methods and tools necessary to achieve local sustainable development worldwide.

My article suggests that by understanding the origins of the Movimiento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra (MST) as a government-driven clash between the state-sanctioned land claims of indigenous peoples (the Kaingang, in this case) and landless peasants,  groups mounting environmental justice campaigns can fruitfully work together in solidarity with other groups. Through analyzing this case study, the weakness of environmental justice movements, I claim, arises when marginalized groups are willing to accept land or other concessions not at the cost of those best off, but off the backs of groups even more marginalized than themselves.

The tendency for government concessions responding to successful protests by borrowing from the resources of the poor to redistribute them to those most fervently clamoring for change, rather than disrupting the status quo and redistributing concentrated land and wealth holdings among the rich, is precisely the problem many environmental justice movements historically and today face.

Hegemony serves as a useful analytic through which to process of distal transfer of resources (from periphery to center) indicative of colonialism. Many environmental justice crises arise from the same properties that arose during historical colonialism and its aftermath, but are not confined to it. Resolving unequal distributions of labor according to gender is another aspect which environmental justice movements such as the MST have aggressively sought to ameliorate, even if such entrenched hierarchies still are actively being deconstructed.

Hacia la paz y la justicia ambiental

 

 

 

New PLOS Medicine Article on Addiction

PLOS Medicine just published an article I wrote with Jesse Elias and Pam Ling at UCSF on “Public versus internal conceptions of addiction: An analysis of internal Philip Morris documents.” This article discusses previously secret industry documents pointing at the disconnect between the Philip Morris’s public statements of addiction as reduced to nicotine, and their secret unpublished research showing that nicotine is a minor overall component of smoking addiction.

Public health researchers interested in helping smokers would do well to critically appraise the public statements, policies, and actions of tobacco and nicotine dealers, especially as these are strictly for-profit companies beholden to their lexical priority of fiduciary responsibility increasing shareholder value at all costs.

Rather than bandwagoning on nicotine determinism, addiction is a biopsychosocial disease with lobbying and advertising as disease vectors.

 

News media on the paper appears in The Outline and other interviews.

The Outline writes:

Publicly, Philip Morris has been willing to admit that cigarettes are addictive since 1998—but would only cop to the role of nicotine in forming an addiction. Yet privately, the company knew that social, psychological, and environmental factors are also central to addiction and how difficult it is to quit smoking. In other words, addiction was never just about nicotine, and Philip Morris knew it.

Gizmodo writes:

the researchers hope to remind public health officials that tobacco addiction is about more than just nicotine, and that there isn’t enough long-term data to show whether “reduced harm products” actually benefit public health. Even Philip Morris recognized this.

OnMedica writes:

In other words, they said, PM’s ‘opportunistic’ shift from denying to affirming nicotine’s addictiveness was driven not by a substantive change in scientific understanding but by public, regulatory, and legal pressures.

Inverse writes:

While Philip Morris publicly acknowledged nicotine’s addictiveness in 2000, the study’s authors suggest that the company scapegoated the chemical as the solitary driver of addiction. By placing the blame on nicotine, company scientists drew attention away from a potential public health focus on biological, social, psychological, and environmental factors that could help people quit smoking….

For addiction researchers, public health researchers, and smokers, it’s clear that smoking is about so much more than the nicotine. But this analysis suggests that a major tobacco company attempted to steer the focus toward only nicotine, decreasing the effectiveness of interventions that could help people quit.

Susan Mayor writes in the British Journal of Medicine writes that while PM’s “Addiction Consensus Group”:

Sounds very virtuous

More like a cover up. An analysis funded by the US National Cancer Institute compared the company’s public position on addiction with what was being discussed within company walls. It found that throughout the 2000s Philip Morris reinforced the idea that nicotine’s pharmacology was the main driver of smoking addiction. But internally, company scientists were saying there was bit more to it than that. Addiction was the result of “interconnected biological, social, psychological, and environmental determinants,” with nicotine just one component.

Euphemisms and Dysphemisms

Here I will attempt to gather and decode euphemisms (saccharine words covering up the dismal reality, e.g., climate change for global warming) and dysphemisms (derogatory terms for neutral ones, e.g., warmist for people who acknowledge the facts of global warming) of corporate-speak.

 

“Crop Protection Agents” = pesticides

Example: Philip Morris attempting to use the natural anti-pest properties of tobacco to make the claim that tobacco is better for the environment than food crops (remember the neonicotinoid pesticides that are decimating bee and butterfly populations? They come from tobacco)

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Fungi Ethics

My new lexicon entry in the Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics on “Fungi Ethics” is online. It can be accessed here. Fungi ethics, which is closely allied to plant ethics, describes how fungi–both for better and worse–are forever imbricated in our food systems. Fungi both destroy and enable crops. Virtually every terrestrial plant is threaded-through with endophytic fungi. A further majority trees and many plants require mycelial mycorrhizae to flourish, and will flag without these crucial extensions and transmitters of their root structure.

 

Electronics reuse or recycle?

I am inspired by recycled electronics. IT Asset Partners (ITAP) recently posted a video about it’s ragtag recycled electronic car surpassing in range the major three manufacturers’ (Tesla, Chevy Volt, and Nissan Leaf) top vehicles. ITAP director Eric Lundgren stresses that we should be reusing electronics rather than reducing them to their elemental components, as this process wastes all the work that went into making these parts, and it takes energy, water, and waste products in order to take apart and reuse the materials in a stripped down form. Lundgren writes,

re-use is the purest form of recycling. it creates zero carbon footprint. re-using parts/components within broken/obsolete electronics is called “hybrid recycling”. this is a much-needed and often missing part of the recycling ecosystem.’

Lundgren, who has come under attack by Microsoft for his efforts in refurbishing and distributing junked computers in a misplaced lawsuit, has made a recycled electric car for $13,000 that outpaces Tesla, Chevy, and Nissan by at least 50 miles.

 

The question of what is to happen with the millions of electric car batteries after their cars are junked needs to be addressed now, rather than waving the hand in a mañana fashion.