The Tech Megamachine

As annoying as I find Russell Brand on occasion, in this case he makes a good point. The marriage of corporate and state power – technology and the monopoly on violence – which Mussolini called ‘fascism’ and Lewis Mumford called the megamachine, is getting closer and closer to a totalitarian checkmate the likes of which Hitler and Stalin could only dream of. While the purported ends of this power is far different (we hope) in putative democracies than for those dictators, it behooves us not to throw out Lord Acton’s admonition about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

That is to say, even in the best case scenario of enlightened despotism, good people can easily become quite unenlightened and arbitrary despots when shoehorned into the role. Or to modulate parlance, Marshall McLuhan understood the hubris that comes with the ability to manipulate. The mediums of communication and expression aren’t only constraining on the degrees of freedom for those bound by them, but also for those who construct them. When all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail. When access to more data must be justified through results, then more and more events must be legible as actionable. Otherwise, the justification for such police powers is anemic, and easily refuted, with legitimacy possibly undermined. Thus, technologies of surveillance and violence themselves must give rise to more cases that allow the opportunity for violent intervention, or else risking their claim to providing actual services in the public’s interest.

The Ring commercial Brand reruns here is a classic case of what Andrew Szasz has critiqued as building up a personal commodity bubble. Instead of, like any addict, acknowledging that we have a problem, and then working with others maturely to solve it, Amazon’s Ring video doorbell surveillence system markets an exclusively individual solution to what is in reality a preventable collective action problem. Ring’s commercial pitch goes like this: If there are robbers, keep them moving along, not so that they can improve their lives, and change professions, but so that instead of robbing you, they go rob your neighbor’s house!

Such galimatias attempts to gaslight you into thinking that it is inevitable that we live in a fundamentally unsafe world. Because if we believed that we could live in a safer world, we might be able to build that world. And you can bet, that world would not require as many cameras or police.

This gets to the heart of why Ring’s preying on nebulous fears which are brought on by the megamachine itself is so successful as a ploy. Because of the manufactured stochastic crime created by an every-man-for-himself system without safety nets or a healthy welfare state, inequality breeds both blue-collar crime (the type we’re all made to be afraid of) and white collar crime (which kills millions at a time through enforced poverty, impoverishing our environment, and harming our health behind the scenes). This is not to minimize the trauma to people of actual violent crime or thievery. Instead, it is to say that all of this is preventable – and not just by playing an arms race (or evolutionary treadmill) with robbers. Getting smarter systems just makes robbers get smarter, and the same amount of crime occurs.

Amazon’s wish is to make it so that only those opting out of their private neighborhood watch program get robbed, because they will be easier targets. So those opting out for moral, religious, or financial reasons from their racket then become left out of their ‘protection,’ and the insinuation goes, become the targets of least resistance.

“No, I think you’re in the wrong place.” As the video shows, the idea that would-be criminals are only in the “wrong place” rather than needing help for reform and redemption, cements the trope of cleverness. I’m clever because I have the Ring alarm system by Amazon, so I get off fine, but that poor schmuck down the street, well, he’s screwed. Such notions reinforce the tech megamachine, where you keep on having to buy into the racket because crime is inevitable, and just don’t let it happen to you. It is, what Davids Graeber and Wendgrove call a “failure of imagination.” It is capitalist realism, or crime realism, where those evil people out there are uncorrectable, and just bad people, rather than just victims of a broken system. With such pathological thinking comes the inevitability that crime stays constant (or increases, especially in election years!). Manipulating perceptions of crime, and stripping away access to human dignity so things feel more precarious for everyone, is the perfect catfishing for expensive subscription services of mass totalizing surveillance that Foucault could only dream of.

I’d be interested to see data on how many false positives Ring delivers to police; how many times the cameras have been hacked by perverts; how many times leaked clips of children playing have appeared on dark web sites; etc.

Ring touts itself as “Neighborhood Watch for the digital age.” There’s a long, racist history of the invention of Neighborhood Watch programs springing up in response to de-segregation and the policing of white spaces, which continues today. Shawn Fields’ excellent new treatment of this history discusses the abuse of emergency response systems, which rarely fight crime, but often lead to unwarranted police violence.

Platforming Anti-Eco Trolls is Stochastic Terrorism

You would think that at Erasmus University, that those trolls wishing the end of the world so that they don’t have to examine their own lives would have the good sense to keep their mouths shut. Unfortunately, that seems to be an unfounded belief.

The me-first trolls, who are slaves to their own desires, ressentiment, and smallness, understand very well that it’s easier to tear something down than to build something. So, the transnational industries hire science trolls to nitpick meaningless typos in studies in order to discredit them, while bloviating about their own swisscheese riddled studies as ‘sound science.’ This is status quo maintenance culture.

We environmentalists are builders. We create anew. We follow the logic of Buckminster Fuller who remarked that we shouldn’t waste our time tearing down the old, but just build a more attractive alternative, and people will naturally flock to it.

To the purpose of this post. After writing our original article in Erasmus Magazine, the independent news service of our university, Erasmus University Rotterdam, a troll comes along and is given royal treatment to bloviate.

There seems also to be asymmetries between the prominence of the two articles.Erasmus Magazine put the most pukey of pictures on our article, while had an artist make a nonsensical but artistically well-done graphic for our troll. There’s also no linkback on the trolling to Ginie’s and my original article, a misstep for EM, and bad journalism which decontextualizes the trolling.

Our original article gets a response, because for every step forward ecologically, we have to take two back, according to the logic of capitalism. They didn’t even link back to our article in the troll response.

The economist has no background in climate, behavioral economics or anything having to do with the topic. But, because clickbait rags like EM are addicted to fake controversy, they let some clueless enraged dude have the floor. But please, that’s hardly pro-science. It’s like giving equal platform on covid topics to QAnon. Thanks, EM!

Love me some reactionaries. The troll writes in conclusion:

“I feel that such an [libertarian] approach is much more effective and better reflects Erasmian values than enforcing veganism and pointing the finger, regardless of the actual impact and the opinion of students and staff.”

Anytime someone says – regardless of the impact on the world or opinion of others, I’m going to do whatever I want and will advocate for others to ignore respectability and decency as well – you might not want to be in the same organization as that sociopath.

These are precisely the sort of people who have never sacrificed for anyone else and think that they have earned their position in life. Yes, it’s the entitled class: mostly men, mostly white, but regardless: displaying a craven disrespect for being part of a team. These are dinosaurs of a bygone era, proud of their excesses (Aristotle would hate them), immune to growth and evolution.

A gross picture of a gross “vegan” wrap – totally unappetizing – by the EUR caterer Vitam that our university should have replaced years ago with an actual ecological one.

It’s quizzical that Erasmus Magazine feels every time there’s some movement vaguely environmental in their issue, that they have to publish something from an angry libertarian who has no background in the subject of the environment, just to be “fair and balanced” like Fox News.

This is actually called “false equivalency” (please google if you don’t know what it means). Pretending that two opposing positions are equal but opposite – in this case, greed and smallness versus willingness to give up a teeny bit of comfort for the good of the whole (in this case, all life on earth) – is an industry created brainworm. As I’ve been hunting the tobacco and fossil fuel industries for over 16 years, I’m not naive about this.

For equal platforming of trolls, Erasmus Magazine ought to rethink their approach. In addition to being counterproductive, it’s also criminal, if the effects are stochastic harms of making our school go under water faster.

Belgian journalists have cordon sanitaire against platforming fascism. Maybe it is now time for the Netherlands to institute one against platforming climate denialists (also known as stochastic terrorists).

Stochastic terrorism is where people say things that will kill people, but the utterance does not determine which people will cause more violence to whom. It is gross aggregate violence, rather than paying someone to assassinate another person. It is diffuse, rather than precise. It is violence nonetheless. And it is related – especially in its ecological varieties – to what Joan Martinez-Alier and Rob Nixon call ‘slow violence.’ In terms of actual outcomes stochastic terrorism is little different than outright direct killing of people, it just makes causality less direct, giving criminals an easier out to deny culpability.

Erasmus University Rotterdam is a top university worldwide for a reason. But our Impact Rankings are woefully behind. As long as our university and associated organs continue to platform climate denialism – what should really be called stochastic terrorism, as it creates a planetary holocaust in slow motion. We need to stop being in denial about our organization’s contribution to ecocide, genocide, and war – due to the rotten core of unsustainability in our system.

the machine takes out the tenderest part of feeling

Pat McCabe, Weyakpa Najin Win (Woman Stands Shining) of the Diné (Navajo) Nation describes the difference between lighting a fire by hand, versus with a standard plastic or metal lighter: “the machine takes out the tenderest part of feeling.” It’s not as if nothing is lost – it makes it harder to connect with the yearning for the thing that occurs. The miracle of the product – the creative spark. When we mechanize, technologize, automate, or routinize the creative process – which is not just originality, but production and reproduction – we lose the depth of longing. We lose the densities of prayer. The threads of the hologram.

Okay, so it’s an oligopoly, not a monopoly or duopoly

So, I came across this brilliant comedian on Facebook the other day, and Facebook, in all of their infinite wisdom censored it from me, according to their factcheckers (who have done absolutely nothing to curb climate change, by the way).

Toni Bologna claims Vanguard and Blackrock own the world – and it turns out they do. Only they do so with a few of their friends, according to ‘fact checkers’.

AAP – the Australian Associated Press fact checkers – are funded by major corporations. It makes sense that they wouldn’t want people revealing that fact. Because that would undermine their legitimacy, and the standing they have to fact check (read: censor) those who they disagree with, like this dancing lady fact checking them: https://www.aap.com.au/factcheck/global-corporate-monopoly-claim-dances-on-edge-of-reality/

Their article goes to pains to show that Toni Bologna is in fact correct in her assessment, but spin it by the letter of the law rather than the spirit. This is spin doctorism at it’s most wall street shamanic.

It is narrative control while admitting wholeheartedly to the open conspiracy of a few corporations controlling virtually all capital.

What is striking is this is not a video getting millions of views, and telling people to overthrow their governments. No, it has been shared less than a thousand times, with probably as many watches. So why pick on small fry? Especially when there are real misinformation artists out there with weapons and deadly intentions? Maybe because these “false” by-a-technicality claims are directed at the very platforms and factchecking funders themselves?

For simplicity’s sake, I’ve reposted AAP’s entire article below. See if you can point out how they both admit to the truth claim while spinning it as if it was false, when really, they are saying they win on a technicality.

(Like climate change, addressing corporate power is often a whataboutism exercise in misdirection)

Global corporate monopoly claim dances on edge of reality

AAP FactCheck March 18, 2022

A video shared on Facebook claims two companies own most of the world’s corporate giants including competing firms Apple and Microsoft, and Coke and Pepsi.

The social media user makes the claim in the video while performing an interpretive dance.

However, experts have told AAP FactCheck the two companies she names, BlackRock and Vanguard, are investment managers which in most cases “own” less than 10 per cent of shares in the corporations and have a negligible influence on them.

The video has been posted on Facebook accounts such as this one (archived here). The post’s text says: “Want to know who REALLY runs the world ?? Everything is owned by the same people, and I’ll admit. Their strategy to conceal it, is clever.”

In the video, the woman says: “Since the 1970s, two corporations have gobbled up most of the earth’s companies – Vanguard and BlackRock,” (video mark 6 sec).

Later she says: “These two mega-corporations own all the smaller corporations so we have a monopoly inside of a monopoly. Vanguard and BlackRock own Coke and they own Pepsi. They own Apple and they own Android, i.e. Microsoft. They own American Airlines, they own Delta. They own oil and they own solar. They own eBay and they own Amazon,” (video mark 50 sec).

It’s true Vanguard and BlackRock are major shareholders of many corporations she names, strategically investing their client’s money in order get a good return.

At the time of writing, Vanguard is Apple’s major shareholder with 7.33 per cent of stock, while BlackRock is third at 4.14 per cent. Vanguard is also Microsoft’s major shareholder at 7.80 per cent; BlackRock second at 4.45 per cent.

Vanguard is Pepsi’s major shareholder at 8.44 per cent; BlackRock second at 4.73 per cent. Vanguard is Coca-Cola’s second major shareholder at 7.55 per cent; BlackRock third at 4.13 per cent.

But they are not alone in dominating the shareholdings.

Businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett’s investment company Berkshire Hathaway is Apple’s second-largest shareholder and Coke’s major shareholder.

Asset managers State Street is the third-largest shareholder in Microsoft, Pepsi, eBay  and Amazon.

However, financial experts say it’s incorrect to equate these shareholdings with control of the corporations.

Rob Nicholls is associate professor of regulation and governance at the UNSW Business School and widely published in areas such as common ownership.

He told AAP FactCheck that because there are large money market funds or institutional investors in most developed countries, there is a degree of common ownership, but that isn’t a monopoly.

“It just says they (BlackRock and Vanguard) might each be the largest shareholder in a large number of businesses, but that large shareholding is likely to be in proportion through the relevant index – so they might be the largest shareholder because they have seven per cent of the shares,” he said in a phone interview.

“Occasionally they get to 10 (per cent), but that doesn’t mean that they control that business. It doesn’t always mean they influence that business.”

Dr Nicholls says Vanguard and BlackRock are not “owners” of corporations in the sense depicted in the Facebook video.

He says investors who want exposure to the stock market can purchase an exchange traded fund, a passive investment that buys shares in proportion to market capitalisations – but someone has to actually buy the shares that build the funds and that’s the role of Vanguard and BlackRock.

“So what you tend to find is that large businesses, because of their market capitalisations, tend to have the larger institutional investors as significant or major shareholders – and indeed so significant that on disclosure listings the likes of BlackRock and Vanguard appear to own everything.”

Lorenzo Casavecchia,  a senior lecturer at UTS Business School, told AAP FactCheck an investor can only control a company if they have more than half of the votes cast at a general meeting.

“Even the largest of the index funds (e.g., Vanguard) will have very small absolute ownership stakes (around 5%) in Australian companies,” Dr Casavecchia said in an email.

“While such holdings could influence proxy voting or firm governance matters it is difficult to imagine how a single institutional investor with a small percentage holding would have the motive and influence (or capability) to push corporate executives to engage in uncompetitive practices across an entire industrial sector.”

Adam Triggs, research director at ANU’s Asian Bureau of Economic Research, also told AAP FactCheck it’s inaccurate to say Vanguard and BlackRock own many of the world’s largest companies.

“They invest money on behalf of other people and (are) not the beneficial owners themselves,” Dr Triggs said in an email.

“They are the largest single shareholder in many publicly listed companies but this is not the same as ownership.”

However, Dr Triggs says there’s evidence common ownership of competing firms, such as Coke and Pepsi, reduces competition and has argued this can cause anti-competitive outcomes.

The Verdict

The claim two companies own most of the world’s major corporations is false. Experts told AAP FactCheck that Vanguard and BlackRock are two of the world’s biggest investment managers and appear among the top shareholders of many corporations, without actually owning them or having a major influence on how they are run.

Vanguard and BlackRock are also not exclusively the major shareholders. Investment companies State Street and Berkshire Hathaway also appear among the top shareholders of many large corporations.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

Chemical Colonialism: Environmental justice and industrial epidemics

I’ve got a new blog in the Environment & Society blog loosely connected to my 2021 paper in their journal.

It builds on my interest in environmental history, particularly having read Fabian Scheidler’s The Age of the Megamachine. “Before colonizing the world, Europe itself had been brutally colonized,” Scheidler writes.

I focus on phosphate mining on the island of Nauru, and how this unnecessary practice emerged from a break in the biological circular economy, what Marx called “the metabolic rift.”

Environment & Society do a real service to the academic and public communities, and it’s always a pleasure to work with them. Their articles and content is exactly the sort of research that needs to be done to connect history, community agency, environmental acknowledgement, and policy change.

Climate Change (Finally) Enters the Therapy Room (for the Rich, who can afford Therapy)

(Background NYTimes Article for Reference)

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.

Skiing in the anthropocene

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.

image

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.

Fractal Instrumentalism

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.

Pyramid Consciousness on Instagram: ""If we are to have ...

Jan 6 2021 and Sept 11 2001

Predictably, more surveillance and bigger data is the answer to dealing with terrorism, this time domestic.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/white-house-jan-6-lessons/2022/01/04/10970c9c-6cd2-11ec-a5d2-7712163262f0_story.html

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.

The Chemical Anthropocene as Devolution

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.

Lego Metaphysics: The Engineering View of the Universe, and the non-assemble-ability of life

..ott creative..: A morning of Lego's: Finn turns 6!

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.

Interspecies Prosperity: What it is and why it matters

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.

Designing cities for silence

As an academic, I crave silence. In fact, without silence, I can’t think. And since thinking is my job, in our current media blitz steal-your-attention economy, I’m often miserable. When I don’t wish to work from home or my office, or am on the road, there are scant places where I can simply walk in, sit down, open my computer, journal, or book, and get to work. It’s a tyranny of noise. Or in the words of Grand Master Flash in “The Message”: “It’s like a jungle sometimes It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”

The noise, the stress of noise, the violence of noise, is one of the elements that push us close to the edge.

As I study harmony inside and outside, among humans and between humans and nature, silence – or the science of listening – plays major. If we wish to cultivate a harmonious society, where we can invest our resources in art and movement and beauty and biomimcy and regeneration, then we need to create the conditions where we no longer have to contend with broken social norms; where crime is low to nonexistent; where hunger is nonexistent. Where we’re not polluting our air and our pure water is sacred. Where we respect silence and freedom of movement enough to create large carfree swaths of our cities. Where we find better ways to deliver goods like rail and cargo bike. Where we plant trees for shade and beauty.

People always lament: how do we get from here to there?

I always answer: queerly. Asymmetrically. In fits and starts. Non-linearly. Start with where you are. Don’t wait for a new city. Transform what you’ve got.

Buckminster Fuller always said that it’s easier to create alternatives and magnetize the world to the new innovation than to battle antiquated ideas. We have to actively make the old ideas obsolete by making the new ones simply more sexy.

But how do we make silence sexy? How do we make the tao sexy? How do we make sitting around and doing nothing (meditation) sexy? How do we make things sexy without the manipulative strobe-light grab you by the eyeballs and ears approach of hype-media that has come to be the dominant carnie form in late capitalism?

We do this by fairyrings of trees, solidarity circles of silence, nested neighborhoods of stillness. Dedicated communities upon communities showing the shades and nuances and varieties of silence, stillness, quietude, tranquility. We show the 1001 ways of doing silence. The abundant variety of nuance. We help people downregulate from numb dumb shouting blaring beeping to listening to jazz, then classical, then kora and koto, then the water in the river, the wind in the leaves, their own breath. We take people down in stages. We titrate with waves of in and out, so it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, so severe. But it does become all-encompassing in a non-cloying, non-forced way. Like the unforced force of the better argument – which only works under the auspicious conditions of listening and self-reflection and openness – silence can be won. It can be wooed.

For if we don’t have places to think, what good are our cities? Without silence, how do we think? How do we enter conversation, if not from a place of knowing our own thoughts? How can we truly join a crowd or a team if we don’t already know the beautiful solitude of trusting our senses, by living in places of beauty and the song of the elements?

The Failure of COP25

I recently read – from afar – the sorry state of the UNFCCC #COP25 in Madrid. According to 350.org, instead of barring fossil fuel companies from engineering the COP, the security guards at the UNFCCC forcibly removed hundred of activists and scientists who aimed to bring gravitas to an otherwise hypocritical and superficial discussion.

LIVE feed from the #COP25 UN climate meeting pic.twitter.com/KukPvMAtVx
— Dr. Lucky Tran (@luckytran) December 15, 2019

The de-badging of climate activists, who refused half-measures and rhetoric as adequate given the current hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars of damages each year due to corporate- and government-induced climate chaos and decades of enforced ignorance, is not surprising–but it is the first time this has occurred on this scale at the UNFCCC.

As The Onion burlesques the denialism,

In response to the attention she was receiving for her vocal objections to international leaders’ refusal to address global warming, critics in the 2030s asked why teen climate activist Elisa Garcia-Reilly wasn’t in an abandoned school bailing water and shooting enemy foragers. “Instead of constantly screeching about how all our policies are selling out her generation and dooming them to unavoidable suffering, maybe this little hussy ought to spend more time in the remains of what was once a high school choosing which infants to save and defending her family’s food cache from scavengers,” said television pundit Caden Williams of the 16-year-old climate activist, voicing the sentiments of critics who declared that she had no clue what she was talking about and was trying to catastrophize being constantly starving and up to her waist in water.

A cinematic cityscape depicting a destroyed city.

Having myself attended the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002, in an action with AdBusters, I too was de-badged as US representative to the meeting Colin Powell obfuscated effective action. That was 17 years ago. Things have gotten even worse since then, and now climate chaos is felt in every part of the world.

The question remains: what will it take before we prioritize life over profit?

Will the currents have to stop? Massive crop failures from extreme weather events? Heat waves that kill millions? Dikes cracking from prolonged droughts? Wild fires destroying trillions of dollars of real estate? The end of business as usual as commodity chains break down?

The problem is, in our current system, there simply is no circuit breaker. There is nothing that could happen – within our current dominant mindset – that would force action. It’s like the person bleeding profusely who swears they’re healthy until they fall over and die, instead of getting the help they need and interceding on the “inevitable.”

This clip is an apt metaphor for Capitalist Realism.

Climate chaos is a spectrum. The more we double down with ignorance and denialism, the worse it gets. The sooner we clean up our act, the less possibility that doomerism will be correct. The irony of deterministic ideas such as “Well, we destroyed the climate, so might as well enjoy the luxuries before they’re all gone,” is that the path is made by walking. Yes, we have created since the industrial revolution, a tremendous amount of path dependency, creating ozone holes, the 6th great extinction, and making life on earth very difficult for the next hundred (or thousand – our choice) years.

But, what we do now crucially influences whether we get to keep some of the goods of human civilizations while jettisoning as soon as possible the bads; or, if we take out the majority of complex life on earth out with our species. It’s our choice. But it requires completely reorganizing society according to our interspecies interdependence, and revere the processes of nature which human artifice and systems of control and domination have swerved into dysfunctional and perverse fragmentation.

National Geographic and Guardian Articles about Ecigarette Waste and EPR

In the flurry of the semester starting, I’ve been remiss in updating this blog with a couple important articles that have come out in the press discussing the environmental harms of electronic cigarette (ecig) electronic waste (ewaste).

Both The Guardian and National Geographic did excellent jobs surveying the topic and getting across the complexities as well as most important points. And I’m grateful to through interviews have been able to contribute to these articles.

I think the most important point I made in The Guardian article is the need for Extended Producer Responsibility, and how it practically works:

Hendlin said he and other environmental advocates have endorsed an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) model for e-cigarettes – one JUUL is considering. This would include charging users an extra deposit (ie $1.00 per pod, $5.00 per vape unit) that consumers get back when they return them, practices like returning old packaging to JUUL after receiving new pods each month, and refunding or giving credits for returned pods/vapes.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/aug/26/vapings-other-problem-are-e-cigarettes-creating-a-recycling-disaster

ADDED BONUS:

What made me want to puke however, is just before I was settling down with my popcorn to watch the (excellent!) National Geographic video they made on the effects of e-cig waste, I was subject to a 15-second propaganda piece by the grandmasters of waste and treachery themselves, Nestle. Especially as in my piece in The Conversation, I write

The two largest global brands of capsule coffee, Nespresso and Keurig, are regarded by many as environmental nightmares. Billions of the throwaway nonrecyclable plastic products currently clutter waste dumps, waterways and city streets. Both inventor of the “K-cups” John Sylvan and former Nespresso CEO Jean-Paul Gaillard have publicly bemoaned the environmental consequences of the products they once championed. Sylvan has stated that the disposable (but not biodegradable) coffee capsule is “like a cigarette for coffee, a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance.”

https://theconversation.com/e-cigarettes-and-a-new-threat-how-to-dispose-of-them-105096

The comparison between cigarette butts and capsule coffee is surprisingly fitting. Both butts and capsules are intentionally designed to be convenient, single-use products. Both are also nonbiodegradable and unrecyclable. As pervasive and polluting as cigarette butts are, however, the e-waste from e-cigarettes presents an even more apt comparison.

https://theconversation.com/e-cigarettes-and-a-new-threat-how-to-dispose-of-them-105096

You can imagine how I felt then, when Nestle pimps this feel-good (Spanish language!) advertisement at me, never mentioning the billions and billions and billions of plastic-metal-paper non-recyclable single-use bad-tasting coffee hits it blights the planet with each year.

The Nespresso ad video before the cool National Geographic video. So nice (not!) that National Geographic is producing videos for Nespresso, to preempt people realizing that environmental health problems (having to do with the environmental determinants of health) are intersectional, too.

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.

isee_2019_meeting_graphic

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.

Disposable is NOT Environmental

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2) “Saving food waste” claim.

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

 

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

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

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

Thoughts and Prayers and Regulations

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

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

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

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

signal-2018-03-20-083324

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Elon Musk of E-waste

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

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

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

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

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

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

The need for hermeneutics in science communication

There’s this popular pro-science YouTube video. I like it–it’s bold, brash, and has good knock-down arguments. It also espouses a defensive attitude against stances which I too find abhorrent.

There’s only one problem with it. It’s wrong.

Even though I like the pro-science sentiment, there are many ways to do science, or to solve a math problem. We could easily have a science that doesn’t require tearing things apart to know or understand them. In fact, that science is being born as we speak (see the work of Isabel Stengers, Barbara McClintock, Participatory Action Research, etc.). So, properly speaking, there is no such thing as monolithic science; there are always only sciences, plural. Still, these are different from fiction, ideology, or theology. But, to say that facts aren’t inflected by values is quite imperialistic.

 

 

A Systems Approach to Dysfunction

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One of the things that resonates the most about systems theory, is that it focuses on how different pieces of large puzzles interrelate and interlock. For, it is the inter aspect that gives phenomena movement, gusto, dynamism, spark. Speaking of things, essences, stuff, or problems, tends to slump description into the corner of inexorability, and worse, resignation.

When we look at climate change, war mongering, oil interests, urban design, transport diversity, and factory farming in concert, then suddenly, the intractable problems of each become much more tractable. The haze lifts, and the easy solutions abound. Instead of the Sisyphusian task of unravelling Gordian Knots (to mix my Greek metaphors), like Alexander the Great, we simply cut through it. With systems thinking, we cut through the lies, the bad habits, the greed, excuses, and story. We take care of what calls for attending, without the oppositionality, the rage, hate, or anger. We don’t even resent the system of destruction that has killed millions, and will likely kill billions more (not to mention the thousands of species extinct, priceless waterways despoiled, mountains detonated, etc.).

No, instead, a systems view asks: what is the most opportune point of intervention? Where can I (and we, because it is always a we, this I) most skillfully intervene now? What is the first step? And then: what is the next step after that?

Having a goal is important. We don’t want to make great time in the wrong direction, to paraphrase Yogi Berra. But, planning without action does little good to soothe our own anxieties, nor to shine as an examples. Nor does it form good habits, to think without acting, for we shall too soon grow content with such a pattern, forgetting the thrill of satisfaction when we follow through with a dedicated plan.

Paul Hawkins’ new book and ground-restoring Project Drawdown has made this plan, indicating the best points for intervention in our anthropo-patriarchal-colonialist-scene. This blueprint shows the problem, in its glorious complexity, and details what interventions will produce what results. México, the first developing country to take the lead in reducing emissions through a carbon trading plan, is working on an important component of drawing down CO2 from industrial producers. Of course, a carbon tax is much smarter policy than a cap-and-trade system, as most climate policy scientists agree. Nonetheless, such leadership as México’s will no doubt have a cascading effect on other developing and BRIC countries, as the rest of the world gains more power as climate leaders in the vacuum left by the Trump presidency. Brazil and China are already stepping up, in various ways, and the US may soon be an island, exceptional only because no other country wants to trade with it until it institutes strong sustainability policies.

Understanding the changing dynamics of international politics through US abdication of responsibility despite its role as the world’s largest economy, and 2nd largest polluter (likely first largest, when we include Chinese imports), helps contextualize the contemporary situation. While from a media-saturated point-of-view, Trump and co. are dead-set on bringing about the apocalypse, from an international perspective, the long-overdue transfer of power to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America is simply being accomplished as these areas reduce trade with the US and stop looking to the US for guidance. What emerges from this transition will be exciting to watch. Perhaps an improved UN? Perhaps planetary citizenship, doing away with the need for climate refugees, instead implementing climate justice? Perhaps a new healthy form of regionalism? Perhaps reduced consumption? These exciting times promise nothing, but offer many exciting paths.

 

The Limits to Magical Thinking

Philip K. Dick once wrote: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” (“How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”, 1978).

It is so tempting, as academics, activists, or advertisers, to want to believe in a purely constructivist world.

Trump and Breitbart and Neonazis are not original in their glorification of alternative facts. New Agers have been at it for decades, with their fluff around abundance consciousness, making people responsible for being poor. It is only because you haven’t cleared away the cobwebs of scarcity consciousness, they croon, that you’re poor. Say nothing of institutionalized racism, inequality of opportunity, nepotism, trust-funds, or lookism. No, the New Age ideology long ago took Social Darwinism and internalized it, so that its interiorization meant that your socioeconomic level remained pegged to your inner spiritual development, nothing more.

Working in the world of public health policy and epidemiology, the writing is on the wall: placebo, as powerful as the effect is, only goes so far. There is a “there” there in the world of matter and things. For example with cigarettes, putting a filter on the cigarette–something initially lauded as a harm reduction measure–did not, despite millions in advertising dollars and the hopes of smokers wishing to resolve their cognitive dissonance, actually reduce negative health outcomes. If anything, filters allowed smokers to take deeper puffs, drawing smoke deeper into their lungs, while believing that they were somehow having their cake and eating (smoking?) it too. All the optimism in the world still gave them cancer. All of the social construction of smoking as safe did little to stave off the morbidity and mortality suffered. And this has also been the case with so-called “light” and “mild” cigarettes–fancy descriptors, with absolutely no scientific mooring.

So how do we square the circle of ideation, which admittedly is an attractive frame to believe in, with the hard reality that there is a world out there recalcitrant to the imposition of conceptualization? This question is wrapped up with the productive debates at the intersection of analytic and continental philosophy since the 1960’s, revolving around the “remainder” or différance (Derrida, “Cogito et histoire de la folie,” 1963). In the hermeneutic tradition, one can see this difference between the interpretation and how the text or event plays out against the asymptote of time. As time passes, the careful observer will detect glitches in the assumed way of seeing, and allow herself to shift perspective in accordance with how things really show up (or are revealed) in realtime versus accumulating more resistance to phenomena, building up increasingly elaborate hoaxes and twists to resolve an incompatible Weltbild with an increasing rebellious reality.

Ultimately, reality will win. But the more we try to save face, and sweep reality under the rug of ideology, the larger the dustbunny of death and destruction that comes from the disconnect between our acting as if reality were as we wished it, and how reality actually is, becomes. Currently, in late capitalism, we have been behaving as if we lived on an infinite earth, where every type of capital is interchangable with every other kind. But complex systems theory and punctuated equilibrium show us quite plainly that irreversability exists. No amount of technological hooha can change the arrow of time, and put things back as they once were, or create life and complexity ex nihilo. We can create houses from forests, but not forests from houses. Yet, in a commodity culture of transubstantiation, such as digital currency, where everything is reduced to a common “price” on the same scale of value, this great ontological flattening is precisely what occurs. We rage against reality with the relativism of fake sameness, praying to the false idol of fungibility. Perhaps, this is one of the problems with the object-oriented-ontology (OOO) or new materialism people–in the end, they are engaged in little more than the narcissistic solipsism of magical thinking.