I have a new blog post over at the Erasmus University Rotterdam initiative I’m a part of, the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity. This interdisciplinary research team from law, business, and philosophy brings together mavericks who work across disciplines, and are both cognitively and operationally open to working with and between traditionally-siloed faculties.
My latest contribution, Interspecies Prosperity: What it is and why it matters, deals with the paradox of health. As long as we’re preoccupied with our own health and well-being, if we are so to the detriment of our surrounding ecosystem, we end up getting sick, as we are of course permeable membranes to our environments. Hurting others to get ahead ipso facto produces the types of results in public health that we’re seeing today in the US, for example: 4 years straight of decreasing life expectancy. We’ve sunk all the carbon sinks, and compounded the growth on a finite space. Increasingly, in medicine, major institutions as well as rank and file physicians realize that we have to tackle environmental degradation and the climate crisis if we care about health, both at the individual and collective levels. This shift in priorities in medicine of course clashes both with personalized medicine and other expensive and pay-to-play forms of care. Unless we take care of our commons, our medical outcomes are going to be stochastically worse. Even it it’s not me or you, our chances of thriving and surviving go down significantly when we’re breathing contaminated air, have microplastics in our food and water, and toxins in everything we come in contact with. So, we have to learn the hard work of care for our environment, caring for our locality, and also the extension of commodity chains that like lashes connected to our every movement reverberate around the world in their ramifications. We have to learn to work together to take responsibility to clean up this mess. That will be the best medical insurance we can buy.
The ISEE, or the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology, is an organization that one would expect to walk its talk. After all, it has been around for 31 years with its annual conferences, and is one of the most sophisticated and cutting edge of the biological medical sciences. Environmental epidemiology’s ability to aggregate data across many different scientific domains in a meaningful way, to build off of findings in genetics, population biology, medicine, and public health, is truly extraordinary. Furthermore, the field has demonstrated a commitment to addressing questions of environmental racism, classicism, and gender inequality, and is actively diverse.
Why then, at my first ISEE conference, in Utrecht, which was a 30 minute train ride from my home in Rotterdam, am I bombarded with 1960s style catering?
I know, I know. Why pick on such a minor detail? After all, the content of the meeting is driving policies far more important than some PC peccadillo having to do with food, right?
I do not dispute the good of bringing people together here. I do not dispute the good of the research, the necessity of the work. But I do object to the weak argument that because of all the other good being done, that we can ignore our own personal emissions and harms, that we can refuse responsibility to do our part, to do better, to be the change we wish to see in the world.
The metaphor is how discredited Al Gore has been for flying all around the world on his private jet to promote sustainability. It doesn’t pass the smell test. How can we say, “Do as I say, not as I do?” It’s this sort of elitist thinking that got us into this quandary in the first place.
Example A. In a Symposium session today on “A World less dependent on fossil fuels — scientific evidence and corporate influence,” a presenter brought up the fact that the way academic conferences are organized are going to have to change. But, the presenter said the AMA (American Medical Association) has to change, but immediately addended his comment with, “But not the ISEE.” I and a few others blurted out “Why not?” Why is our precious little conference exonerated? How are we any different, except for our smaller size? People still are arriving from all over the globe via airplanes to spend 3 days presenting a 10 minute paper and then hanging around nervously at the peripheries hardly communicating with people they didn’t already know.
Which leads me to the point of my post.
I have been to APHA and many other larger and smaller conferences, in Europe and the US, and I am sorry to say that this is the least environmentally sustainable conference I have ever been to. The fact that hundreds of thousands of pieces of single-use plastic are being used every day for this conference should be sobering to us all.
And the fact the majority of the food is meat and animal-based shows the height of hypocrisy on environmental issues—not leadership.
Therefore, I propose that the ISEE adopt the following two binding resolutions, effective immediately, and for all future conferences:
(1) Conference organizers and any other contracted companies and caterers shall only use reusable forks, knives, spoons, plates, bowls, cups, and other food ware items. This includes no longer relying on single-use creamers, sugars, etc.
(If the ISEE and its conference organizers are still addicted to disposables, at least have them be PLA (compostable bioplastics), which is a far second-best to washing actual silverware and dishes, but is still better than sucking down more on the plastic-petrol pipeline.)
(2) In light of the well-documented harmful effects to personal and planetary health, ISEE conferences and gatherings shall only serve vegetarian meals, with a minimum of 50% of all meal items being vegan (and clearly labeled). This is consistent with the evidence base and ISEE’s leadership in walking our talk on health and climate change. Please forward these resolutions to the authorizing boards, and let me know the outcome of the vote.
I see this as a beginning, not a destination. Complacency on these issues will just make the ISEE less relevant. For example, the name badges are oversized non-recyclable hard plastics. A huge amount of waste. And instead of giving steel water bottles out at every conference, just start selling them, and advertise in large font “BRING YOUR OWN REUSABLE WATER BOTTLE.” A little prevention goes a long way. But we, more than anyone, environmental epidemiologists, already knew that.
It turns out, that in the ISEE’s 2018 meeting in Ottowa, Canada, a country quickly becoming synonymous with oil power obliterating public health, that affiliated societies part of the ISES-ISEE joint conference received financial sponsorship by ExxonMobil — a huge conflict of interest! That the ISEE, and its local organizers let this one “slip past them,” is a huge cognitive-ethical bungle. How can public health researchers be credible in evaluating the science of pollution when they are lining their pockets and funding their meetings with those very same polluters’ dollars?
In the Introduction to the symposium on “A world less dependent on fossil fuels – scientific evidence and corporate influence” Prof. Dr. Manolis Kogevinas, Research Professor of the NCDs Program at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, gave a talk on August 26th, 2019 that included the following abstract:
The Symposium organised by the Policy Committee of ISEE originated following the widespread surprise and annoyance of our members from the sponsorship of the 2018 ISES-ISEE joint conference in Ottawa by ExxonMobil. ISEE did not directly accept these funds but other societies are more willing to accept them. We will argue that organizations representing health researchers should not accept support from the fossil fuel extraction companies. Banning health research funded by the tobacco industry helped bring major public health gains; we will argue that we should do the same with BigOil. We further argue that ISEE should become more vocal on this issue and promote measures such as divestment from these industries. There are three main reasons for taking this position: (i) The most important is that fossil fuel industries are major determinants of human disease and environmental deterioration; (ii) The second is that they knew! Like the tobacco industry, Big Oil knew for decades that their products could make the planet uninhabitable, and intentionally buried the evidence; (iii) The third reason is that like our stand against the tobacco industry that resulted to significant public health advances, we should take a categorical, effective and clear-cut position against the products and actions of these harmful industries. The science is more than adequate to warrant action. Unless we do this, we will not be able to effectively convince the lay public and our politicians of the urgency with which we must mobilise. The proposed Symposium will illustrate major aspects of health consequences of fossil fuel combustion and the reactions of the industry trying to influence epidemiological research. We will discuss on the way epidemiologists should continue providing essential support to health policies avoiding corporate interests while encouraging industry and other stakeholder involvement as a part of the solution to the problem.
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.
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.
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)
With such a provocative title as “Pet Ownership Protects Us Against Allergies,” UCSF’s Dr. Homer Boushey makes the claim that children brought up with pets inherit some of their protective microbes that mitigate against developing allergies.
While certainly the science on exposing human children and adult humans to other forms of life soundly concludes that microorganism transfer is on the whole necessary for healthy (mind and body) development, owning life for the instrumental good of health is quite a quixotic mission. Destroying the planet and then importing charismatic genetically-altered (through breeding now, later through genetic engineering) cute critters that bypass our evolutionary instincts for fear by mirroring the oversized eyes of babies and other exaggerated features, is like getting silicon peck implants instead of actually doing manual labor to help society. It puts a natural symbiotic process into the realm of money–the financialization of nature. This devalues nature as such, and sees pets in terms of their use value for boosting infant immune systems. Such a logic is hopelessly backwards. Instead, we should be concentrating our energies on rewilding our cities, returning our suburbs to parks where humans can go, and letting our wild areas get a breather from human interference for at least a few generations. Then, living everyday with healthy dirt, animals and plants, we will receive the bounty of beneficial microbes we need to stay healthy and avoid sickness. Proper farming and permaculture principles, and creating new definitions of hygiene which are integrated with healthy ecosystems, achieves to a much greater degree the goods Dr. Boushey might wish to confer on our ailing feeble-minded culture, while also solving most of our other problems along with it.
Furthermore, it’s high time humans question ownership. Ownership of other bodies for our own benefit–bringing these bodies out to use and cuddle or parade, is just another misbegotten form of biopower. Where are those Foucaultians who apply biopower to pets? How do we think humans got the beneficial microbes we needed before there was even possible ownership of pets? Perhaps we need to rethink our antiseptic western civilization, our throwaway economy, and slavery of life to realize that continuous contact with the more-than-human word is the only way we will regenerate ourselves and nature.
This is the first time since I moved back to California last November that I’ve been able to engage a world-class group of scholars and change-makers gathered together with the sole purpose of harmonizing human systems with natural ones.
Last weekend at the 27th annual Bioneers Conference, I had the pleasure to converse with an array of people implementing the ideas of ecology and symbiotic biology so crucial to this current phase of our planetary development.
In moving out of linear, industrial factory-based models of the world and the self, the cyclical, spiral, redundant, diverse, resilient, and networked models of living organisms and ecosystems emerge as the tenable schemas best suited to life–human and otherwise.
Biological Pioneers are those who despite resistance from business-as-usual forge ahead to dream up, pilot, and implement technologies and policies that nudge our consciousness and practices towards a more equitable, sustainable, diverse, and fruitful organization.
As this work has profound resonance with my own projects, I was delighted to share company with Paul Hawken, Janine Benyus, Joanna Macy, Starhawk, Bill McKibben, James Nestor, Mark Plotkin, Bren Smith, and Vien Truong, not to mention the numerous activist artists and performers. There were many other talks and conversations I would have loved to engage in, were it not for the limitations of time.
As filmmaker René Scheltema identifies in Normal is Over, just as there are keystone species for an ecosystem, so too are their keystone individuals for movements; and in the movement towards regenerating harms from planetary anthropogenic disruptions, Bioneers is definitely a hub for bringing together the keystone individuals and groups working for an ecologically just and beautiful future.
One of the takeaway messages from Bioneers that warrants further reflection is the connection between the Beautiful, the True, and the Good–Socrates’ classic koan that repeatedly becomes the foundation for further dialogs about the metaphysical nature of the universe as well as the practical question of how ought we to live. That ecological aesthetics, a certain harmony between species, however carnivorous, dangerous, agonistic, and harsh that harmony might be, can be a guiding thread for understanding nature at a deeper level, remains with me. Bioaesthetics, or the beauty of life, the harmony of composition, is not something that permits judgment from anthropocentric–or, let’s be frank, culturally-specific and often manipulatively propagandized–aesthetic standards. Rather, bioaesthetics knits with complex systems theory as a pattern we can recognize to intuit ecological milieus inhabiting a state of resilience. The slack (buffer room), diversity, flexibility, and redundancy of complex resilient systems, proffers poigniant lessons for a planet in crisis (Gallopín 2002, 390). These patterns lead us organize and compost existing material into pathways that enable rather than undermine the development and evolution of complexity, synergy, and symbiosis.
Gallopín, G., 2002. Planning for Resiliance: Scenarions, Surprises, and Branch Points, in: Gunderson, L.H., Holling, C.S. (Eds.), Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press.
Lappé’s essay packs lucid argumentation citing exciting research. Perhaps most important, however, she elegantly frames the issues surrounding agroecology and its structural impediments as political negligence rather than inevitability.
Her convincing counterexamples melt deflationary perspectives of predetermined outcomes and the supremacy of industrial agribusiness’s overwhelming power, exposing the rich and varied minor histories and subaltern resistance of farmers and governments the world over (but especially in the Global South) simply following the engaged relational interface with the land traditional farming practices entail.
In essence, the 2013 report of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and many other such reports in the last several years agree on the necessity for a sort of devolution of farming practices.1 Decentralization means less monocropping, which, because of synergistic nutrient cycles, requires fewer nutrient inputs and more vitamin-rich soil (and hence more nutritious vegetables). Rather than increasing monopolization and chemical inputs, regionalism, agroecological and relational food practices contextualizing fulfillment of human needs with the fortification of a resilient local ecology, is quickly gaining foothold.
The one word conspicuous by its absence from Lappé’s essay that warrants appending is permaculture. In the tradition of restoration ecology, permaculture is the scientific study and practice of planting and land cultivation which meticulously composes agroecological settings so as to provide the maximum amount of food, biodiversity, and vegetal flourishing for the minimum amount of exogenous inputs.2 The contours of agroecology and permaculture overlap significantly, and each has much to add to the conceptualization and practices of the other. A major difference is that while agroecology tends to emphasize the human dimensions of ecologically astute agriculture, permaculture tends to focus on the nutrient systems of agroecology and the compositional science of these sorts of farming practices.
Insofar as the “feeding the world” question is concerned, Lappé is on point in her critique of industrial, chemically-driven agriculture that requires ever-increasing inputs. An exhaustive study comparing organic agricultural practices to conventional, chemical-driven ones found that in the North, going organic is just shy of comparable with conventional in terms of efficiency, while in Southern countries, agroecological practices produced greater quantities of food with the same work as conventional means.3 The net energy and resource savings of going agroecological&mash;not to mention the second-order benefits for birds, animals, insects, groundwater, and soil quality—give added impulse for agroecology as the only viable paradigm for farming practices. By historically contextualizing the rise of the poison, chemical, and fertilizer industries as a recent aberration of farming’s 10,000-year varied past, it makes much more sense to return to agroecological practices that support all links in the production process.
1. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Wake Up Before It Is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security and Changing Climate (Geneva: UNCTAD, 2013). 2. Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (Sisters Creek, Australia: Tigari Publications, 1988). 3. Catherine Badgley et al., “Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply,” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22, no. 2 (2007): 86-108.