Environmental philosopher and public health scientist Yogi Hale Hendlin will discuss the relationship between climate and viruses during this webinar and argues for a drastic change in behavior instead of treating symptoms. Is our relationship to flora and fauna not partly to blame for the current crisis? Which insights from climate research offer a perspective for the corona crisis, and vice versa? And how these two pandemics – one infectious, the other chronic – intertwined?
A collection of some of my favorite humans who have ever enlarged our imagination:
(in no particular order, last date updated 5 March 2022)
Alexander F. Skutch – ornithologist and naturalist
Hannah Arendt – chronicler of the human condition
Kalevi Kull – theoretical biologist/biosemiotician
Jakob von Uexküll – father of theoretical biology
Montaigne – pragmatist before his time
Richard Doyle – ecodelic philosopher
Susanna Hecht – terra preta documenter and forest theorizer
Peter Linebaugh – archivist of the commons
Lynn Margulis – symbiogenesis
Howard Thurman – mentor to both MLK and Gandhi
Jacques Ellul – futurist and systems thinker (critical esp. of technology)
Alexander Weygers – Dutch American deep ecologist and inventor of the UFO
Emil M. Cioran – eccentric poet philosopher
Martín Prechtel – wise storyteller of the heart and honey
One of my old colleagues, a lawyer at UCSF once said that the tobacco industry finds loopholes in the law and exploits them until someone closes them. And then moves onto the next one. Our new Open Access paper in Tobacco Control discusses some of these problems. https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/31/2/222
“Moving targets: how the rapidly changing tobacco and nicotine landscape creates advertising and promotion policy challenges,” led by UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education Director Pam Ling, discusses the rise of synthetic nicotine to evade regulations.
As cigarettes became déclassé in mature markets and volumes and revenue has dropped, the industry has swooped in just in time to rescue their profits with a potpourri of heated, electronic, and nicotine tobacco products. The strategy is hooking new recruits (kids).
“Make tobacco cool again” could be the industry’s slogan.
Think tobacco’s bad? We’ve got synthetic nicotine for ya! Think smoking will kill you? We’ve got heated tobacco products (with that familiar tobacco taste). Don’t like smoking? Try vaping, or nicotine salt pouches!
The hustle to make a deadly product blend in with the background of consumer items is not new for the tobacco industry, but their recent tactics are even beyond the pale for this morbid industry. Candy flavors and colors and add ons are meant to attract kids. Why do we allow this blatant predation? Because of the always delayed promise of helping inveterate smokers. We sacrifice reason to baby smokers who might switch to slightly less deadly products. Quixotically, the tobacco industry’s raison d’état is now to coddle addicted smokers, as their official party line, in order to cover up the fact that really they are much more interested in recruiting kids to continue their legacy of pollution of the environment and human health. The industry would be all too happy if smokers continued smoking conventional cigarettes, and children and young adults uninterested in smoking would think their new technologized gee-whiz products are cool and harmless – becoming lifelong ‘customers’ (addicts) in the process.
Building on our previous work, we write:
The use of the term ‘pharmaceutical grade’ nicotine to describe recently developed nicotine products and the acquisition of NRTs extends the tobacco industry’s embrace of pharmaceuticalisation —producing products that appear like medical therapeutics conferring perceptions of safety.”
We conclude: “Finally, as the industry continues to reinvent itself to stay in business, regulatory authorities mostly play ‘catch up’. Current strategies which give the industry ample time to market products while they are brought under regulatory frameworks are not helpful for public health.”
As I’ve always said, the NYT is 5-10 years behind the times (their feedback loop doesn’t extend beyond New Yorkers making 5M+). This has been a subject psychologists have been dealing with for at least 20 years in the west, and non-western versions of psychologists have probably been dealing with since colonialism.
There are probably lots of really great resilience practices grounded in local traditions and meaning-making that could be of use for us in western declension as we confront the shadow side of ‘civilization.’ For example, SF native Ethan Watters has an excellent book called Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche that gives 4 detailed case studies of the DSM messing with local grief and trauma rituals.
Point being: Krishnamurti once said “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Perhaps our collective illness – physical and mental – is not something that can be individually “cured” as long as we still are creating the problem (continued pollution and disrespect for people and planet). Maybe our mental and physical health as now a species (finally reaching the imperial core) will continue to degenerate as we double-down on ignorance (see Proctor’s agnotology). And fighting to remain exceptional to our zeitgeist will just take more resources and energy away from those who need it most (after all, the poor and oppressed “deserve” “therapy” far more than those with so-called first world problems). In the words of David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous, as long as we don’t confront our root unsustainability and disregard for the complexities of life and our biosphere, we’re just shifting disease around (there, not here) rather than actually regenerating or healing the cause. Climate grief is a symptom, not the core problem.
Thus, perhaps what we need most is a collective therapy – a political and economic and social therapy – recognizing that in a biopsychosocial model of disease, we’ve yet again, predictably, neglected the social context which is cannibalizing us all slowly.
Of the academish books I enjoyed the most in 2021, these are among my favorites. Most of them have to do with systemic modes of looking at intractable or wicked problems, suggesting that wicked problems themselves are wicked only because of those factors or assumptions we refuse to bargain with. In other words, these books confront “sustaining the unsustainable” by making independent variables dependent. By removing, say, the sanctity or immortality of the corporation as an Archimedean point around which all policy must rotate, wicked problems don’t seem so wicked anymore, at least in the technical sense. Instead, the generative questions of how we build collective resiliency, and design our lives so we can organize with others to further decide what sort of practices we encourage and which we discourage, provides breathing room and empowerment to stop enabling ecocidal ideologies/epistemologies/theologies.
In no particular order, here are some of the books that helped me in my process of writing my own:
All We Can Save (edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson & Katharine K. Wilkinson) – (behind the plant)
This book is feminist environmentalism done right. It’s like coming home to that place beyond boyish techno-optimism or doomerist despair. It is paced, firm, and caring – for the earth, for each other, for the regular joys and tribulations of being alive during these times of megamachine-driven semiotic, social, and ecological breakdown. Both a sensuous and deeply personal and philosophical book. With the handy glossary modality it uses (underlying, dots, etc., to give you a full understanding of insider speak), it’s a great reference book too.
The Dawn of Everything (not pictured, by David Graeber and David Wendgrow)
This book I liked so much, I decided to launch a reading group on it (also as accountability to finish the thing). It’s main thesis is that the Enlightenment was indigenous-made, and that the Enlightenment in many ways was a counter-Enlightenment to deal with the philosophical issues of colonialism, and the novel arguments (to Europeans) of why European ways of domination were/are whack. Our received western idea that freedom isn’t free (to paraphrase a South Park movie), and that we need to accept various unfreedoms and lack of democracy to have democracy and freedom, the Davids show simply isn’t true. It’s a lack of imagination to think that politics, consciousness, and freedom develop monolithically in a way requiring structural (state and corporate) violence.
The Red Deal (by The Red Nation, an indigenous collective of anonymous scholars)
The Re(a)d Deal is the indigenous response to The Green (New) Deal, which never mentions indigenous rights nor the problem of corporate power. It is a treatise on decolonialization, written in a dense style, but at pamphlet length. It is raw, and doesn’t hold back; and, is one of the most sensible documents on what is necessary, and how to do it, to ensure a just transition away from domination/ecocide.
Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism (by Julia Watson)
In a world of cocaine-fueled hi-tec solutions, the careful architect Julia Watson scours the world for climate adaptations by indigenous communities. Necessity is the mother of invention, and indigenous peoples have already been enjoying for millennia ingenious ways of dealing with the extremes that climate change (or rather the megamachine) has rained down on us. Instead of high-flying dreams of hi-tec solutions that fail and then are abandoned, making habitats even less habitable (hello? World Bank projects?), Watson documents, in this beautiful book, living bridges, floating villages, and other indigenous applied science and architecture which would make whiny tech bros envious.
What’s Up with Assholes (by Jeremy Sherman)
This funny and heartfelt book tries to grapple with the question of how to live in a society with rentier-seekers without becoming one. How do we create society and not fall victim to the paradox of tolerance? And how do we discern assholes from people we don’t like? A punny, quote-worthy, but also serious exploration of how to deal with trolls of all sorts, from presidents, to billionaires, to bigots.
We Keep Us Safe (by Zach Norris)
Director of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, Zach Norris’ book is a masterstroke, alone with the title, but certainly in view of the years of dedication and learning he has put in as a community organizer. Safety doesn’t come from above, or without, but through trust, care, intersectionality, and personal relationships. More social workers (properly coming from within the community working for and vetted by the community), less police killing kids! A great case study of how this actually works.
Ecocide (David Whyte)
Corporations are like giant squid. They eat everything they can get their hands on, spew ink everywhere to cover up their tracks, and lurk in the depths. So goes Whyte’s well-written and lay-accessable introduction to ecocide and corporate crime. A provocative title, but also a good read. We must change corporate structures and incentives – a rehaul of what we take to be corporations and the purpose of businesses – if we hope to translate all that empty rhetoric of CSR and net-zero by 2050 into a livable world.
Enflamed (Rupa Marya and Raj Patel)
Having worked with Rupa at UCSF in the Do No Harm Coalition which she started (with others), I was delighted but not surprised to see the breadth, depth, and radicality of this book. It addresses root causes, going through the entire body and our environments (the social determinants of health) through the trope of inflammation as a physical symptom/cause and righteous indignation at the causes. A must read for all those studying planetary health and decolonial health.
I also wanted to mention Iain McGilchrist’s new books – but I have not read them yet. Both are tomes of considerable heft (literally and figuratively). I intend to dive into them over the summer.
Also, a shout-out to Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. A considerable achievement. Especially the first half of the book I found enthralling, and I thoroughly enjoyed the story, imagination, iconoclasm, and worlding.
For my 41st birthday, my family went skiing at La Rosiere, in the French Alps. Today, I got to go skiing into Italy and back – no passport checks necessary! Truly a unique experience!
I hadn’t gone skiing for years, since I was visiting my friend Josh in the Austrian Alps a few years ago, and he lent me some equipment and we got 10€ lift tickets on a very snowy day.
In contrast, today it was blazing hot. It hasn’t snowed here in over 3 weeks, in January. And this is top snow territory for the French Alps – we’re within sight of Mont Blanc. This is just one more sign that things are out of whack climatically.
Despite the shortened seasons, threatening the livelihoods of those working in the ski industry, I see tons of cars everywhere; petrol fueled snow mobiles, helicopters, and tour buses; meat as the main offering on every menu. So far, I haven’t seen any public transportation (gondolas from the train station up the mountain, or electric buses) that would cut down on the air pollution here in these beautiful mountains. It’s car-centric, even in the mountains.
Clearly, the understanding of what constitutes ‘environmentalism’ is skewed towards denial, displacement, and sustaining the unsustainable. The idea that ski lifts and resorts are actually re-glaciating mountains with ‘snowguns’ (their word, not mine) is ludicrous. If people (like me) weren’t cruising around in cars (and others flying in) to sit on (likely nuclear-powered) electric ski lifts rammed into the rock of the mountain, maybe the mountains would have bit more snow, dontcha think?
I know that mountains are harmed through ski-lifts, artificial snow making makes things worse (even if they think it makes it better). I face myself as an ordinary human, not meaningfully destroying the environment, nor as some eco-saint. I am aware of the contradictions of living in a compromised world, and the absurdities even of downhill skiing (as opposed to cross-country, which is as far as I can see, a totally amazing, challenging, but eco-neutral activity). And yet, I indulge, just like some people who are effective and ardent environmentalists still occasionally choose to fly, or eat meat. I’m not an abolitionist, nor an austere monk punishing myself for having desires. I attempt to reflect on my desires, their cultural creation, the interplay of external and internal desires, wants versus needs, and balance to live a full and flourishing life dedicated to the flourishing of all life – which necessarily involves killing and damaging those I care about. I see this realism as part of a trauma-informed perspective on life minimizing ideology.
And that is why I implore and encourage all those organizations and companies and governments I interact with to do better. To design our choices better, to open choices, and to choose differently than dead-end necro-industrialism.
For example, La Rosiere spends about 1% on replanting trees that directly or indirectly were lost from their activities compared to their new Club Med resort, which they mislabel as sustainable development.
Of course, it is a good thing that La Rosiere gives a 15% discount on lift-ticket for taking the train. It’s a great motivator! But removing cars and asphalt from the streets in their little resort town would do even more. Except for the physically disabled, there’s no reason why people can’t take a train and then have an electric powered bus pick them up from there and take them to a carfree town up the mountain.
On some of the pistes, I saw trash. It would be easy to start a plastic-free norm by simply not selling any disposable plastic in the town, and with good signage about please, no gum wrappers, aluminum, sandwich baggies, etc. Of course, with wind and velocity, these things will find their way into the natural landscape, getting windswept off the mountain and onto protected grounds.
Another environmental commitment La Rosiere can make is going meatfree. Right now, the vast majority of food options are meat-heavy. Even just offering more tantalizing vegetarian or vegan options could have a significant impact of La Rosiere’s environmental footprint.
In the end, I’m really glad I went. My family got to go skiing for the first time, and much joy was had. We’re grateful for the experience. And we hope that it can become more sustainable in the future, setting a good example for all who visit.
When we farm fish, do we think that, perhaps, we’re being farmed as well? If not? Why not?
When we bind life to fulfilling one function: delivering to us what we think we need; do we ponder whether our life also is bound to what someone else desires?
When we subordinate another, do we think that in this same process we are also being subordinated?
These are not idle thoughts, but the fruits of different ontologies. If we believed, for instance, in the Kantian Categorical Imperative – popularized as the ‘do unto others as they would do unto you’ Golden Rule – perhaps more advanced cultures, such as various indigenous peoples and cultures that still venerate wisdom, sophia, might understand it thusly:
It is not just wrong to make another your instrument (your tool) because it takes away their autonomy and agency and cheapens their life and does not develop their capacities not enable the universe to experience more flourishing which could lead to morphic resonance of higher echelons of joy for all – it is because when we involve ourselves in instrumentalism, we become tools.
Hegel basically said as much in his Master-Slave dialectic in Phenomenology of Spirit. When we outsource tasks, we also lose our ability to do things that might again become necessary. By commanding, we also become dependent. It’s like the modern white collar worker who can make you an excel spreadsheet but can’t change his own tires. That’s why when we outsource the growing of our food, we become slaves (or addicted, or susceptible) to the machinations of oligopolists providing our food. They can do anything they want, and unless we’re willing to seriously challenge their power, we’re helpless.
But the thing about instrumentalism which is so rich, is that in a relational ontology/cosmology, you are what you eat eats, to quote Michael Pollan. It’s not just that you do something and get away with it or not according to cosmic laws, but that depending on how you care for and treat yourself and the world, the laws governing reality (for you) themselves change. And when enough people make certain decisions, to enslave and instrumentalize, the planetary oversoul, or noösphere itself reflects the shared practices, calls in attractor energies, and signal boosts them.
This is part of why the relativists and constructivists are on to something. Reality does morph and transform according to how we relate. But that doesn’t mean that you can just do whatever you want with impunity. To the contrary, it becomes very clear that just the opposite conclusion is warranted. The fabric of the responsive universe (Meeting the Universe Halfway, thanks Karen Barad) folds to amplify and feedback our impulse. We have creative direction to alter – but not dominate – the relationship of the circuits of fate and possibility. So, it really matters if our heart is kind, our mind is unperturbed, and our body is feeling at peace, so that we can radiate in our thoughts, emotions, actions, intentions – extensions of these frequencies, rather than ones of rancor, hate, resentment, ressentiment, shame, guilt, regret, not-being-good-enough, imposter syndrome, etc.
In conventional reality, none of this really matters. The rules of the game are given by either nature or culture (natural law or positive law) in a fixed manner. They don’t change. So all you have to do is to learn them and stick with them. And then once you get good and getting consistent results, you can learn where you can cut corners. And as you cut more corners and cheat a little bit, you can notice where in your life the ripple effects of karma from such actions supersede on your mission, or not. Are all cheats just boons, unqualified goods? Or, does such ‘cleverness’ kick you in the but, destroy your sleep, keep nagging worry and anxiety eroding your quality of life? Or worse: do the thinks that you care about start crumbling around you, and you don’t know how to cope, so you just double down on extractive behavior?
These are things we should ponder, and get clear from the outset. This should be the first question we ask of each other before we shake hands.
Planned Obsolescence is just the verso side of perpetuating fossil fuels. GM’s buying up and then sitting on patents for electric cars in the 1960s is but an example of how the fossil fuel industrial complex has retarded energy evolution.
The fossil fuel industry and its frontgroups are the real luddites. They have put incredible, superhuman effort into slowing the eventual economic and efficiency take over of renewable power.
It is precisely the dystopia of kumbaya hippies without energy or the modern conveniences of ‘civilization’ that is one of the boogiemen the fossil fuel industrial complex conjures up to scare us into thinking that we still need them. Like in an abusive relationship, we would be nowhere without them, and by cutting off our access to others, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But the fossil fuel industry are the real luddites. They prevent innovation on less ecocidal energy sources; they gaslight us into thinking there are no real alternatives (ahem, gas hobbs are lame, not cool as big oil pays it’s influencers to tell us); and they fear change.
Any change in energy policy that favors innovation, big oil fears, like a superstitious pearl-clutcher. All they know is their fossil business. They have sunken costs. They don’t want to innovate, even if they are bringing about the end of the world. It is the globalization and monarchy of the most pathologized.
If FF brass were really leaders, they would say, “game on! This is capitalism, it’s a free market – we can do this transition thing. We’ve got tons of capital, and can roll with the times. Let the best capitalist win.”
Instead, the fossil fuel companies are so busy puppeteering the rules of the game so that they still get spoon fed their subsidies and lock out every other innovation (to the extent possible: nothing can resist an idea whose time has come – plus wind and solar now being cheaper per watt hour than coal, oil, or gas).
While planned obsolescence makes it so that for non-fungible goods (clothes, furniture, heck, even houses, but electronic goods are where this practice really shines) they are as crappy as possible, you’re stuck in monopolies and closed non-interoperable formats (hello Apple), and they break or become useless quick enough that you’ll addictively buy another one, corporate ludditism throws the wrench at competition.
The myths of free markets, or corporate transnationals somehow loving capitalism is sheer bullocks. These guys are like mafiosi: they thrive off of oligopolies and violently defend their turf. It’s not about the best products; it’s about preventing better products from reaching consumers.
Rather than competition, the biggies spend a good part of their time, energy, and coin rigging the rules and smashing competition so that they can be the devilish totalitarian rulers of their particular slice of the consumer universe, and more often than not (Google, Apple, Amazon, Disney, Facebook) like well-trained colonialists, are not content until they are drilling into every other aspect of our reality, too.
Corporate domination is the name of the game. One company to rule them all. Will it be Tesla? Will it be Amazon? Who knows? Let’s get some popcorn and watch as Goliath vs Goliath goes as it. Corporate hegemony is the new Monday night football. But with consequences worse than concussions.
This push/pull of corporate hegemony means that nonfungibles become fungible and fungibles (like a particular energy source) become nonfungible. A shortage? No switching allowed! We’ll metabolize our oil into plastic, if that’s what it takes for you to continue buying! Profits up! Stiff upper lip! No exceptions!
So we are dealt austerity on both ends, coming and going. The stuff we’re supposed to buy in locked-in and fast flowing (and breaking). Freedom from such rackets, however, is fiercely defended against. Gaslighting us that we’re addicted, when better alternatives exist, is an elementary powerplay; one that evidently our governments are too dense or greedy to refrain from going along with.
Buckminster Fuller said it best: instead of battling these dinosaurs, we’ve got to create a better alternative. And then vigilantly not let grifters pretend to sell knock-offs of the real thing. Having a strong YES to eco-innovation (socially-understood) and a strong NO to those rentier-seekers aiming to pawn off fakes for the real thing to siphon off business to their old hegemonies, is what will bring us deliverance.
Predictably, more surveillance and bigger data is the answer to dealing with terrorism, this time domestic.
In many ways, this is predictable enough. We need more police power, more data, more panopticon. Not better education, better prosecution of high up officials who goaded the failed coup d’etat, more social cohesion. No, that would actually achieve the end. But the end isn’t the end, viz., the goal is to accrue more power and legibility, not to actually stop terrorism. This cycle of reactivity, to only use the tools of violence, rather than reassessing social engineering and design, is exactly how you get more coup d’etats. On a logical level, it’s almost funny, if it weren’t for the dire consequences, and world-historic mess-ups.
Right now, the US Democrats are part of this treason, doing everything in their power to let voting be corrupted, districts gerrymandered, and terrorists win. There is no authority in the Democrats – they do nothing to staunch the bleeding, but only through gaff after gaff make themselves less potent to represent those they are elected to represent.
It is end times for traditional politics. The right and the left are no longer so clear cut. The long slide towards dictatorship is almost complete – and the mainstream hasn’t noticed this whole time. Those sounding the alarm for the past century have been marginalized, outside the meticulously kept Overton window of acceptable discourse.
There are no winners in this folly. Such inaction now – according to Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance – assures much more intolerance and violence in the future. The system is gearing up for mutual dehumanization, increased deliberate misunderstanding, and a complete meltdown (which is already occurring in not-so-slow motion, if you’ve been watching). Social-ecological-political-economic meltdown is already happening and has been happening for those most marginalized, discriminated against, and materially compromised. Now, it’s beginning to happen to the rest of us. But right now, unless we actually see coordinated, organized leadership in the US government, we’re digging the country’s own grave.
My new paper co-authored with the excellent scientists at the Union for Concerned Scientists “The disinformation playbook: how industry manipulates the science-policy process—and how to restore scientific integrity” appears in the Journal of Public Health Policy.
The article is a summary of how many industries work in similar patterns to undermine democracy and subvert science and the rule of law in order to deflect changing their own unsustainable behavior.
The article is useful to get an overview of how industrial epidemics intervene in the science and policy process, eroding public trust in science.
My recently published paper in Environment & Society “Surveying the Chemical Anthropocene: Chemical Imaginaries and the Politics of Defining Toxicity,” draws on Sheila Jasanoff’s notion of “sociotechnical imaginaries” to describe how chemicals become cultural artifacts as much as material ones. This means that the flows of toxic chemical exposures are not impartial to the fears of contamination of the powerful, nor to to the racist, classist, sexist, gendered, and xenophobic preexisting constructions which have legitimated systemic forms of discrimination. Those who can, remove themselves from the toxics gradient, those who cannot suffer what they must. But such inequalities structurally create ignorance, and an agnotological deconstruction of the methods of how industries prey on preexisting biases to circumvent public feedback and accountability is an oroborous of legitimized harm.
In the article, I deploy Michel Serres’s optic of “appropriation by contamination” to indicate the colonial aspects of toxic chemical manufacture and exposures. Contamination renders necrotic land, flesh, and other areas of materiality, so that they cannot be used for anything else except further contamination. According to Carolyn Merchant, Fabian Scheidler, and many others, such scorched earth chemical and mining practices have been occurring for many hundreds of years, first in Europe, and then in other areas of the world.
In accordance with the infamous World Bank memo by that rational racist Lawrence Summers, once Europe got rich enough and had kicked the pollution of industrialization into high enough gear that it was killing a high enough proportion of its upper and middle classes, it simply virtualized the pollution, not by actually cleaning up the chemical industry’s act, but by shipping it overseas. Thus this wave of chemical imperialism I describe, ends up first poisoning the capital centers, and then once they succeed in regulating such practices, these same industrial processes – unchanged – move overseas. The failure to learn any lessons from the human health harms, the inability to flinch and reflect, before outsourcing our pollution elsewhere, is part of chemical colonialism.
We live in the middle of a chemical soup, created by the ambitions of companies and governments locked in an arms race through the competition of markets and the zero-sum game of market share. There is a huge asymmetry between the testing of chemicals and the invention and deployment of chemicals. Less than one percent of all chemicals produced in 25,000 pounds or more per year in the United States have been fully tested by the EPA’s Chemical Review Program (Krimsky 2017). Yet institutions and companies are under tremendous pressure to roll out new chemicals every year, at an ever increasing harried pace, as part of the Verschlimmbessernpolitik of ‘solutionism‘. Furthermore, 40% of chemical (including pharmaceutical) regulator income comes from the companies themselves, so bureaucrats have a vested interest in keeping the chemical treadmill running and not falling afoul of the cancer-causing gravy boat.
In the conclusion, I discuss that until we get focused on biomaterials, and get away from extracts and synthetics, chemical reduction in our lives or #chemicaldegrowth is necessary. But I don’t shy away from the obvious fact that this means that we can’t have all the nice cheap stuff we have. We need phones and computers that last for 20 years with tiny little pieces we switch out (what the FairPhone and Framework try to do, but better). We need robustness standards on all of our electronics, we need a maintenance culture, rather than an innovation culture. Just like the Manifesto for Maintenance Art, it is the culture of maintenance, or of care, that our epoch requires. In an essence, this is a move away from the macho idea that I am stronger than the chemicals I’m exposed to (or like a good Social Darwinist I deserve to die if I’m not), to honoring and listening attentive to those with chemical sensitivities as the canaries in the coalmine we’re making of the planet. Instead of ridiculing and gaslighting those who have more refined and deeper sensing abilities than the average chemically-intoxicated person, responsibilizing their problems, we should see that we perhaps have just been dulled down too much already through contamination to realize what’s going on.
They say that our capacity for change is inversely proportional with our sadistic willingness to suffer. Maybe it’s time to realize that sacrificing ourselves before the captains of industry to keep the cogs running has diminishing returns, and that the time has come to inventory, reduce stock, and close down shop of the most toxic businesses despoiling biology’s unique promise of intelligence and agency.
In an Earth Day issue of Time magazine (April 26/ May3 2021), we have an advertisement from the RJ Reynolds (or Reynolds American) tobacco company “Natural” American Spirits proclaiming “in more ways than one, bees are worthy of our love.” Yes, we ought to love the bees, and smoke cigarettes made by BAT (the owner of Reynolds), the #2 largest tobacco company on earth. This is what we call “bee washing,” and companies use it because it works.
In my recently published paper “Colony Collapse and the Global Swarm to save the Bees: Sacred Relations with Bees in Film and Literature” I discuss how such instances of beewashing work, and why we are attracted to these pollinators, and why creating (and then abusing) a spiritual connection with bees comes so naturally.
“Beewashing” is using “save the bees” pleas to sell more product.
It resonates with people because for some odd reason, just like early Christian monks organized their monastery on the beehive, we know deep down that the fate of the bees and our fates are intertwined. As Einstein quipped, if bees disappear from the earth, humanity soon follows.
My paper looks beyond the rational reasons for why humans seem to be so captivated by bees – why we are willing to act for them, despite their puny size and relatively difficult to anthropomorphize characteristics (charismatic microfauna, they have been called).
I look at the documentary #QueenoftheSun and novel #FifthSacredThing by Starhawk as depictions of human-bee interspecies relationships based on love & reciprocity as indicative of the spiritual undergirding driving our defense of bees, and suggest such goodwill travels to other contexts. I conclude that connecting with people’s more theological and cosmological orientations is a successful way to motivate falling in love with the earth again, and attending to those aspects of the world deemed expendable in meeting our needs through industrial means. Such care and connection is not without it’s own illusions and perils, but remains an inextricable thread to solving our global climate crisis of meaning as well as material mattering.
My kid doesn’t play with Legos the way that Lego wants you to think that people build Legos.
Instead of those lush displays with those thousand dollar co-branded sets with odious media corporations that only have pieces that you can use in one way once and then it’s not really usable again for just playing and improvising and making your own stuff, my kid makes Franken-lego disturbing constructions. A reason for this, is because I’ve actually never bought a set of Legos for my son. When I was a kid all the pieces interlocked so if you bought a set it would transfer to your overall larger collection of pieces to be used for an infinite number of future builds. But now the pieces don’t really work that way. Instead I see my son looking at the collection that we inherited, and he regularly asks why the Lego men and women – Lego people – are missing their arms or hands or heads. It seems like an aberration to him, and so he always asks why.
He asks why because obviously nothing in nature is piecemeal snaps together or is take-apartable; it doesn’t work that way. So when he’s asking questions about why does this guy have no hands or why does she have no head and he instead just snaps on a computer console piece where the head should be, it makes me understand how deeply ingrained in our society is a mechanistic view of the universe. The idea that it’s all disposable and interchangeable. This is the metaphysics on which Western philosophy and engineering is based on. It’s an engineering view of the world. But nothing living works that way, so there is a discrepency. And that’s why my three-year old is puzzled and disturbed by these missing parts; precisely because they point out that in life, nothing is simply missing.
Previously, no doll simply was toted around without their head unless there was a very intense story about how it got that way. Now we’re able to open cognitively to chimeras of all sorts, because almost all interactions in our lives are based on this hybrid interchangeability, a instrumentalization of everything. Technomedicine tries to accomplish the same interchangability of parts. Replace this organ here (never mind who it comes from, or what black markets exist for some entitled person who blew their kidneys or liver out from years of abuse), get an artificial heart there. If we are not the body, as the Cartesian metaphysics of mis-interpreted Christianity claims, then, you can hack up the whole thing and sew it back together however you please with no remainders.
Of course the shadow side of this, is that nothing has any value if it can just be exchange for something else. No matter how much you can exchange it for, if it is exchangeable and bollocks to the remainder, there is lacking certain forms of value, even if it might have a different sort of value and exchange economy. But it’s important to not collapse these two different types of value into one. Value is contextual. My heart is uniquely clocked to the rest of my body. My hands bear the battle scars of my events and decisions. The tenderness in their weaknesses would not be valued if they were given to another – those sentimental reminders would be interpreted only as weakness, not as years of service.
Thus, the things we play with, engage with, on an everyday basis, form the models we hold for how to treat people and the rest of nature. If our models are fragmentable and fragmentizing, it is all too easy to believe that such fragmentation, such dispensibility and replaceability, is an innate quality of reality, and that life is reducible to things that can be swapped out. If we take this view, we have grasped but half of reality, the digital code aspect, and ignored the analog, the gestalt, the élan vital, which is irreducible to mechanics. We need better toys to represent these aspects of reality, so that we’re not just coding for solely left-brain halls of mirrors, feeding back to us a fragmented self and reality.
My co-edited book with Jonathan Hope, Food and Medicine: A Biosemiotic Perspective, was just published with Springer Nature (2021).
This volume explores how the most basic processes in our everyday lives – the material engagement with food and medicine – affect us and other organisms. The biological signals food and medicine provide are the basic way we as organisms interface with our environment. What gets coded as food/non-food, or medicine/poison is a determinant for every lifeform.
Responding to an article in The Guardian
the medical ethnobotanist and philosopher Stephen Buhner had the following astute observations (posted in Facebook):
There’s a particularly good article in today’s Guardian on covid-19. I think it well worth a read. I have, of course, received scores of emails from people (with varying degrees of insistence) about the origin of the coronavirus. And, as many people know, I have been warning about the emergence of resistant and emerging microbes for over twenty years now. They are inevitable and we are unprepared for them (mostly because the medical industry is corrupt, its relationship with government oversight a joke; it is all about the money, not our health). The coronavirus origin is not and never has been an issue for me, just a matter of minor intellectual interest. Most people seem to believe that if the virus emerged as the result of a lab leak it makes some sort of essential difference. It doesn’t. It is still here, it is still a problem, it still has to be dealt with. I think that the reason that so many people are focused on the lab leak possibility is that then at least we will have someone to blame rather than having to deal with Nature inexplicably doing stuff to us. Oddly enough, the insistence on the lab leak comes out of an underlying belief that Nature can be controlled (it can’t) and we would be safe (we aren’t). In other words, IF the scientists had left well enough alone, none of this would have happened. Or, if they had practiced better safety protocols it would not have happened. The thing is, pandemics are inevitable. There are simply too many of us, there is too much pressure on natural systems, and ecosystems are beginning to fail. This always allows pathogen emergence. In fact it is a form of protection from ecosystem overload. We are just an animal, like all the others. If we put too much pressure on ecological systems we will pay for it. It is not personal, just as gravity is not personal if we drop a rock on our toe. It is just the way things work here. Should scientists be messing about with genetically altering organisms on this planet? No, they should not. Should they be messing about with pandemic capable pathogens? No they should not. It is part of the hubris of the rationalists and their scientific priests, the scientists (which are themselves part of the most successful of the protestant sects: science). I have been writing about the problems among the scientific and medical community for decades. The fact is that they are just people, no more important or valuable than a plumber or a waitress. As long as they are socially placed on a pedestal, considered better and more valuable human beings because of their degrees or job, we are in trouble. BECAUSE . . . they are people and possess all the limitations and stupidities that all of us do. Human error is inevitable. Always. Still, a lot of people believe that if it came from a lab, somehow that makes things different. Again, it really doesn’t. You have to consider the possibility that instead of us deciding to alter the organisms in the lab that the organisms decided to be altered in a human lab and simply used scientists who believe in human control to do it for them. This, of course insults core rationalist beliefs but there is far more going on here than rationalists can accept. They prefer simple reductionism and the foolish belief that humans are superior to all other life forms on this planet. (Haven’t they seen the movie? Everyone else has.) Earth is not as insentient as the rationalists and monotheists believe. Nor are our companion species. As my writings have shown (esp in Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, Healing Lyme, and the antibiotic and antiviral books) bacteria are some of the most intelligent species on this planet. So are viruses. They are not as stupid as most researchers believe them to be — and have convinced most people they are. In any event, here is the link to the article (the links in the article are well worth reading as well):
I’m happy that a paper I first drafted in 2015 made it to the light of day in Environmental Values this week: “Plant Philosophy and Interpretation: Making Sense of Contemporary Plant Intelligence Debates.” This paper grew out of an Austrian Science Foundation grant I had as a postdoc in Vienna in 2015 which I presented at the International Society of Environmental Ethics in Kiel, Germany, and finally during the corona lockdown I had time to finish it. Paco Calvo generously offered comments before I submitted it.
The thrust of the paper is that plant neurobiology aims to borrow the nomenclature of animal (including human) biology in order to boost the moral standing of plants. By showing analogs between animal and plant hormones and processes (analogs to brains in the root subapex, as Darwin originally postulated), plants can be treated as moral patients. However, this approach fails to acknowledge the difference of plants, and value that difference. In attempting to use animal biology language for plants, however well intentioned by plant neurobiologists, speaking in the master’s language fails to do plants justice, and reaffirms the human- and animal-centric moral evaluative position. Instead, I offer a (non-utilitarian) pluralistic account of value that allows recognition of plant intelligence without requiring that intelligence to measure up against mammal intelligence.
Here’s the abstract: Plant biologists widely accept plants demonstrate capacities for intelligence. However, they disagree over the interpretive, ethical and nomenclatural questions arising from these findings: how to frame the issue and how to signify the implications. Through the trope of ‘plant neurobiology’ describing plant root systems as analogous to animal brains and nervous systems, plant intelligence is mobilised to raise the status of plants. In doing so, however, plant neurobiology accepts an anthropocentric moral extensionist framework requiring plants to anthropomorphically meet animal standards to be deserving of moral respect. I argue this strategy is misguided because moral extensionism is an erroneous ontological foundation for ethics.
Some entitlements are deserved: added respect and deference for those who have dedicated their lives to the common good; accommodation for the elderly, pregnant women, children, and those who need it; respect for those who have sacrificed their own good and interests for those of (especially underserved) others.
We have all sorts of entitlements: ambassadors don’t have to be responsible for infractions and misdemeanors in most countries; the rich buy lawyers that can help exculpate them from crimes ranging from pedophilia rings (Epstein) to murder (O.J. Simpson), to genocide and medical cruelty (Trump’s immigrant death camps and medical experiments).
Somehow, we willy-nilly accept these sorts of entitlements – by virtue of them actually occurring, the fact that these monsters have gotten away with it. Meanwhile, our society locks up indigenous protestors protecting the water sources for millions of people, Black children get shot to death by police in America, and in the Netherlands, people with ‘foreign’ sounding names get pegged for child benefit fraud (this very claim the result of racist fraud).
So, what does this have to do with undeserved entitlement? And environmental (in)justice?
If historically advantaged minorities create two-tiered legal and moral systems preventing others from getting away with the crimes they enjoy with impunity, this gives them undeserved entitlements. Undeserved, because these entitlements are predicated on their wealth, power, and authority derived from colonialism, violence, and harming others. If you agree as I do, that no just society could have billionaires, just as no just society could have dictators because even if they are benevolent or philanthropic ones, at any given time they could easily ‘flip’ and arbitrarily exercise power harming others according to their will and caprice, then clearly these forms of power and authority lead to undeserved entitlements.
Just as we view as noxious mafias exercising their own form of illegitimate extrajudicial power, the judicial and extrajudicial powers of economic elites too should be reframed as abuses of illegitimate power. Illegitimate because economic hoarding has precisely zero correlation with largess, beneficence, magnanimity, or any virtue, for that matter.
After 20 years of meditating on the subject, I’ve noticed one thing: health inequalities and environmental destruction have a single source: in exclusion. Gated communities and sacrifice zones are predicated on opting out of a shared fate. The idea of expendables, that these people will have to fend for themselves while we do what we can to protect ours, leads to further eroding the social and ecological commons we all rely on for survival and meaning-making. As long as we can throw others under the bus to get ahead, those with the means to do so and get away with it will continue to do so. The moment we agree that such corrupt and cruel action will not be permitted under any circumstances and punished by stripping offenders of their means to commit such crimes, our ecological and social commons will regenerate and improve, making things better for all — and especially the historically most discriminated against.
If it weren’t for the separation of pollution into the categories of those subject to it and those profiting off it, pollution wouldn’t exist. That’s why I strongly advocate that anyone making money off of contaminating processes should be those most exposed to the contamination. In such a scenario, we’d see how long pollution would continue.
“Cargo vessel stuck in Suez Canal drives up shipping losses estimating $9 billion per day” – CBS’ headline reads
Global commodity markets can fail spectacularly.
One little tie up like a stuck boat, and $9 billion is lost a day.
What people don’t realize is that this $9 billion is the same money that poor and rich people worldwide destroy their ecosystems, communities, and themselves for every day in order to survive or get ‘ahead.’
We need a better system that isn’t a system.
As part of my procrastination today from writing my book, I stumbled upon this video by the YouTube science communicator Veritasium.
What’s so lovely about the video is how clearly it explains reams of philosophical debates between liberals and libertarians in twelve minutes, and comes to a more cogent conclusion than most of them.
Basically, situated epistemologies require those most advantageously situated to help other have better luck. Combining social psychology and behavioral economics, this video clarifies through an experimental model how luck always plays some role.
The myth of the self-made man is one of the most destructive ones of our society, and acts as cover for those well-off to not value others who have not been so lucky. The punchline of the entire video is that we have benefited from intergenerational largess, and so those who have benefited the most have a duty to enlarge the ability for others to get recognition, validation, and resources through creating opportunities for other to enlarge the pool of luck – horizontally, not vertically.
Thus, policy implications include:
- Getting rid of the possibility for billionaires (using a combination of taxation, demurrage (negative interest rates), taxes on trading financial assets, etc)
- Regenerating the welfare state (including a universal basic income)
- Social norm changes: quit venerating billionaires or other wealth hoarders as false idols
- Not let people like Bill Gates or Elon Musk make public health or climate policy decisions — as these are far out of their expertise — only because they are rich or influencers
- Quit using philanthropy as an ersatz for a functioning social democracy.
- Return society to science, rather than let the irrationalities of greed eclipse scientific progress, insights, and applications
I just read the New York Times excerpt of Michael Patrick F. Smith’s (names don’t get more American, or Irish–his middle, middle name is Flanigan) book The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown. What struck me first was how successful this guy is in the liberal darling — rough outsider: he’s story is about working on an oil rig — while still being pro-climate policy. He’s exactly the darling liberals have been waiting to come forward and lavish their praise on, to show that they are right and conservatives are wrong. But Smith aims to short-circuit this narrative with zingers: “Like most Americans I know, I have both strong progressive and conservative values.” This statement is immediately arresting because it is true. The Tweedledee-Tweedledum liberal conservative polarity is simply bunk. Any person, if they look into their own complexities realizes that the ideological camps we’re told we have to camp out in, never really represent our full values.
In reading the reader comments, the reason for the NYT (and Viking press) lauding and promoting this book are obvious, in addition to those described above. What is at stake is the definition of sustainable. Smith says that his conservative rural buddies have lower-carbon impacts than the liberal city slickers. This was the line most attacked by NYT readers. But what is at stake is something greater: liberals want an energy regime that sustains the unsustainable lifestyles of urbanites, tuning out to where there food, energy, water, and infrastructure come from. Cities are the classic reverse-Robin Hood: they rob from the peripheries and funnel resources to the centers. Most cities grow little food, and import almost all their stuff. Meanwhile, growing and sourcing your own food, and knowing your local ecology is something that you have to learn by default living rurally. You have to budget your ecology, live within your limits. Sure, you might burn a lot of wood during winter, but hell, its romantic — and local (if you’re not some rich ski person who buys or imports their wood).
So, the question is: does sustainability mean living off the land, more locally, more simply? Or does it mean technologically-driven and dependent futures that strive to be less impactful? The conceit of the first is that this is available for all — it’s not. We have to drastically reduce the world population to live sustainably like pioneers. The fallacy of the second is that we can have our cake and eat it too: that sustainability doesn’t require drastically re-engineering everything about our habits and lives. We can just surf on clean energy into the singularity. Both views are flawed, and will not get us to avoid collapse; but also have their merits. We must live more simply (without cars) but also in greater connection to the land. Slowing down the pace and scope of life will be necessary. We can choose it, or it will choose us. Global coordination and innovation, the type that cities provide, however, is also crucial for our future. The trick is, as Smith suggests, combining the virtues of both while owning up to their respective dark sides. Are conservatives ready for that? Are liberals?
The Washington Post‘s expose today 18 Dec 2020 on the few island nations that are still 100% COVID-19-free discusses the economic meltdown that has occurred as tourism has collapsed, especially as many of these island nations have imposed what the Post calls “preemptive lockdown” and “most drastic anti-coronavirus travel ban in the world.”
The Post insinuates that this is a bad thing — that had Micronesia been a bit more permissive and welcoming of the pandemic, they would have had less devastating economic losses. But perhaps this framing is backwards. Instead, what it reveals is the unsustainability of exogenously-sustained economies. That islands have become completely dependent on the global business model of travel and tourism. Long term, this is fragile, instead of anti-fragile (in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s description). John Rawls in his Theory of Justice even devotes an entire section on resource sovereignty and not needing external imports to sustain oneself (an implicit ecological argument — for my analysis on this elsewhere, see “The Threshold Problem in Intergenerational Justice“). In a sense, this is the opposite of Kant’s notion of Cosmopolitan Citizenship in Perpetual Peace, where trading makes us all so reliant on one another, that peace reigns because fighting each other destabilizes our economic and metabolic dependencies.
But instead of focusing on retooling these island nation’s ability to provide for themselves, to go back to their permaculture roots, they are given a false gambit: open up and woo biological misfortune, or stay closed and woo economic disaster. This is a great teaching moment.
Biological integrity is a thing. It has been swept under the rug for the last century, as elites, and a trickle down of upper middle class jet setters have drummed up an entirely just-in-time global logistics network where most of the food we eat and resources we use come from far, far away. It’s nice to eat bananas and avocados — I’ll admit. But would I give them (and many other things up) for a healthier world? You betcha.
If the choice is between being a potato-eater and being able to work and hug, versus getting exotic fruits in a closed-down quarantined life, I’ll choose the former any time.
Last year an edited volume on speculative vegetation that I contributed a chapter to on Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume came out with the University of Wales press in the New Dimensions in Science Fiction series (with a beautiful cover, I might add).
Since then, some nice reviews have surfaced, for example:
Locus listed the volume at the top of their 2020 non-fiction recommendation list: https://locusmag.com/2021/02/2020-locus-recommended-reading-list/
Other accolades include:
“Science fiction teaches us to ‘be-with others better.’ This is the core argument of Plants in Science Fiction, captured in one of its chapters and suffused throughout. Readers will come away with a profound and challenging understanding of what it means to be human, as well as a deep appreciation for the critical function of science fiction in a threatened world.” — Eric Otto, Florida Gulf Coast University
“Plants in Science Fiction demonstrates that science fiction and ecocriticism have much to say to each other. By considering ‘speculative vegetation,’ of course, we learn much about our own lives in the present moment on Earth.’ — Scott Slovic, Editor-in-Chief, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment
Lunch lecture on the relationship between climate and viruses by environmental philosopher and public health scientist Yogi Hale Hendlin.
The impact of the Covid-19 crisis on climate is contradictory, to say the least: besides positive effects like reduction of CO2 emissions from fewer airplanes in the sky and cars on roads, the negative effects include “ghost flights” and tens of millions of littered face masks daily. Corona and climate-change both are global “wicked” problems without current solutions. With the idea of ‘never waste a good crisis’ in the back of our heads, we investigate what lessons we can learn from eco-philosophy?
Environmental philosopher and public health scientist Yogi Hale Hendlin will discuss the relationship between climate and viruses during this webinar and argues for a drastic change in behavior instead of treating symptoms. Is our relationship to flora and fauna not partly to blame for the current crisis? Which insights from climate research offer a perspective for the corona crisis, and vice versa? And how these two pandemics – one infectious, the other chronic – intertwined?
Dr. Yogi Hale Hendlin is an assistant professor in the Erasmus School of Philosophy and core member of the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative at Erasmus University Rotterdam. At the University of California, San Francisco, Hendlin is a research associate in the Environmental Health Initiative, working on the Chemical Industry Documents and Fossil Fuel Industry Documents. Hendlin has published in journals such as BMJ, Plos Medicine, Annals of Internal Medicine, MMWR and AJPH.
From Erasmus Magazine’s misrepresentative title “Smoke-free campus: responsible decision or counter-productive?” for the very pro smokefree campus comments from students actually interviewed in the article to the irresponsible and juvenile “Free to Smoke Zone” cartoon, it appears that more than sentiments of staff or students, it is Erasmus Magazine itself which is against the inevitable. A national law prohibiting smoking on the campuses of all institutions of learning countrywide, EM’s attempt to foment controversy where there is little, is either just clickbait or jousting at windmills.
Granted, EUR could have done better at communicating the law and what that means for students. This would have happened normally, but we are not in normal times.
Furthermore, there are a number of structural issues preventing a smooth transition to the current regulations. For example, at EUR there are no experts on tobacco control in the Smokefree Working Group. Only recently did the university form a “think tank” as an afterthought to address this oversight. In not putting the science of going smokefree on campuses first and foremost, the university has abdicated its responsibility to be science-based in its policy making. Instead, in shying away from actually affective, clear, and unambiguous actions, it is setting itself up to fail on every dimension. Lack of clear communication of the new rules and support for smokers is bound to make some smokers angry because they won’t know the details, and it won’t be clear what the rules or penalties are. EUR’s delay on this issue will also make nonsmokers upset because the national law says that people can’t smoke on campuses of educational institutions but EUR has not yet effective achieved, based on a cowardliness to stand behind clear and fair preventative measures and penalties. And EUR may even fail to comply with the national law, which could cost our university fines from the government, bleeding our university unnecessarily, when we have already suffered budget cuts. Plus, EUR’s potential failure to comply with laws sours our reputation versus business and governmental partners with whom we might pursue future contact.
Especially in times of corona, which is a respiratory disease, smoking will only make it worse. If we have social distancing on campus, lowering the quality of education and costing faculties untold hours of suffering in adjusting to the double responsibility of hybrid education, then we must certainly do our due diligence in not creating more disease vectors on campus. If we’re wearing masks to prevent viruses from entering our nasal passages, it makes only sense to get rid of non-essential pollution sources that weaken our immune system and predispose us to sickness.