Hypocrisy at the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology

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.

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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.

Thanks for the trash, ISEE!

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.

CODA

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.

Interspecies Vision Design Lab at the California Academy of Sciences’ NightLife series

This Thursday, November 2, 2017, from 6-10pm, I’m very pleased to be presenting my work on interspecies seeing at the California Academy of Sciences. Their NightLife series, where the CAS becomes a 21+ venue for cocktail-fueled science, exhibits cutting-edge hands-on research to the public. Mingling scientists and community, the evening also offers access to their planetarium and living rainforest biosphere exhibit.

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My exhibit will be on Interspecies Vision–a look at how other critters see the world, and how we can make sense of their sensory experience through the confines of our human-specific senses.

We’ll also be presenting the 4th yellow experiment: a yellow that only 2-10% of women can distinguish as different, based on the fact that instead of being trichromates like the rest of us (3 different types of color cones in their eyes), they actually have a fourth cone, making them tetrachromates capable of seeing a wider range of the visible color spectrum.

This after-hours museum-going made fun experience seeks to thrill with inquiry, curiousity, and the bizarre wonder of nature.

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Owning Life versus Thwarting the Hygiene Hypothesis

 

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.

Taste of Science SF

For those in the San Francisco bay area, I will be giving a 15-minute presentation Thursday April 27th 7:30-9:30pm at the TechShop on “The effects of pollution on organism signaling and human health.”

TechShop
926 Howard Street
San Francisco California 94103

Taste of Science is a public outreach forum for scientists to interact with the public on topics that impact us all, and to make complex concepts and processes intelligible to interested folks.

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Ensemblist Identities and the Ecological Self

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I’ll be presenting October 5, 2016, 6:30-8:30pm at the California Institute of Integral Studies on the book I’m working on, Interspecies Politics.

The presentation, “Ensemblist Identities and the Ecological Self” is part of my larger project of decentering autonomy into situational cues (à la Kwame Appiah’s work), our biological contingency within and without, and the vulnerability and porosity of human and nonhuman life, borrowing from 4E cognitive science, autopoeisis, biosemiotics, and feminist and postcolonial critiques to democratic theory.

This talk is open to the public, and is a part of CIIS’s Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Forum.

 

 

Desperate for Nature

The Guardian recently aired an article on a boutique hedgehog petting zoo-café that opened in Tokyo. For $9 per person, visitors can drink coffee and cuddle these animals. Popular with kids and adults alike, this café, named Harry to pun on the Japanese pronunciation of “Hari” meaning spiky, aims to soothe the souls of nonhuman nature deprived urbanites.

While the Guardian sells the phenomena of animal voyerism cafés as a cute part of Japanese culture, I read this situation of one of perversity. These animals, 30 different species of hedgehog, are for sale, and their raison d’etat is to be handled, petted, and inadvertently abused by children and well-meaning connection-deprived adult humans.

Capturing animals in the wild and breeding them for commercial purpose is like putting an ape on display to be laughed at and anthropomorphized. The authentic hedgehog encounter happens conveniently enough in a city, where these animals would not last 5 minutes outside the café before being run-over by a car or otherwise killed. These animals are given what Agamben has called “bare life.” Yes, they are living. But they are stripped of their Umwelt. They have been deprived of their prey and predators and are kept in glass cages; looking happy enough to the projecting human. But their lives remain ones of involuntary slavery, and at-will arbitrary torture.

Certainly, the humans paying their blood-money for an hour of handling these creatures don’t think of their actions as morally or physically abhorrent. They are simply buying a service, a product, that happens to be free and unrestrained access to another living body without consent. But the pervasiveness of such shops in Tokyo, and with much of pet ownership in general, is that these creatures end up becoming the dumpsters for unresolved human emotions and energies, positive and negative. They are infected with our moods and attitudes, on what invariably end up being what Karen Barad calls “marks on bodies.” When you put hedgehogs in a commercial setting, you don’t get hedgehogs “as a representative of a species” or as a token of a type. Instead, what you get is an onto-ethical-epistemological nexus of performances which can only be true as every aspect of the encounter.

While such encounters might assuage some of the Naturverlassenheit of zombie robot consumers, it does little to establish anchor of learning from these hedgehogs as autonomous agents with geographic and environmental histories and desires of their own.

 

Cruelty?

Not sure what to make of this. I respect the Japanese and their culture on so many counts – but amphibians are intelligent, and this seems to be excruciatingly cruel. To not be able to identify other living beings as having an inner world of their own, to treat them as mere objects, or even to glorify their macabre treatment does not bring us closer to our own finest nature as humans. Rather, it allows us to start an in-group/out-group (whether that is other humans or other animals) bifurcation that allows us to be ceaselessly violent to anything (notice that they are now things instead of beings) that falls out of the in-group (of ____ like us).

Yes, certainly, there are certain automatic processes of the bullfrog, that once eviscerates keep its muscles twitching even though it is by some counts ‘dead’. But death is a limn rather than an automatic point; and we ought to respect the entire process, not just some arbitrary cut-off point where we decide something is dead, and hence disposable.