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 transporation (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
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.
In many ways, this is predictable enough. We need more police power, more data, more panopticon. Not better education, better prosecution of high up officials who goaded the failed coup d’etat, more social cohesion. No, that would actually achieve the end. But the end isn’t the end, viz., the goal is to accrue more power and legibility, not to actually stop terrorism. This cycle of reactivity, to only use the tools of violence, rather than reassessing social engineering and design, is exactly how you get more coup d’etats. On a logical level, it’s almost funny, if it weren’t for the dire consequences, and world-historic mess-ups.
Right now, the US Democrats are part of this treason, doing everything in their power to let voting be corrupted, districts gerrymandered, and terrorists win. There is no authority in the Democrats – they do nothing to staunch the bleeding, but only through gaff after gaff make themselves less potent to represent those they are elected to represent.
It is end times for traditional politics. The right and the left are no longer so clear cut. The long slide towards dictatorship is almost complete – and the mainstream hasn’t noticed this whole time. Those sounding the alarm for the past century have been marginalized, outside the meticulously kept Overton window of acceptable discourse.
There are no winners in this folly. Such inaction now – according to Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance – assures much more intolerance and violence in the future. The system is gearing up for mutual dehumanization, increased deliberate misunderstanding, and a complete meltdown (which is already occurring in not-so-slow motion, if you’ve been watching). Social-ecological-political-economic meltdown is already happening and has been happening for those most marginalized, discriminated against, and materially compromised. Now, it’s beginning to happen to the rest of us. But right now, unless we actually see coordinated, organized leadership in the US government, we’re digging the country’s own grave.
My 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 ISEE, or the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology, is an organization that one would expect to walk its talk. After all, it has been around for 31 years with its annual conferences, and is one of the most sophisticated and cutting edge of the biological medical sciences. Environmental epidemiology’s ability to aggregate data across many different scientific domains in a meaningful way, to build off of findings in genetics, population biology, medicine, and public health, is truly extraordinary. Furthermore, the field has demonstrated a commitment to addressing questions of environmental racism, classicism, and gender inequality, and is actively diverse.
Why then, at my first ISEE conference, in Utrecht, which was a 30 minute train ride from my home in Rotterdam, am I bombarded with 1960s style catering?
I know, I know. Why pick on such a minor detail? After all, the content of the meeting is driving policies far more important than some PC peccadillo having to do with food, right?
I do not dispute the good of bringing people together here. I do not dispute the good of the research, the necessity of the work. But I do object to the weak argument that because of all the other good being done, that we can ignore our own personal emissions and harms, that we can refuse responsibility to do our part, to do better, to be the change we wish to see in the world.
The metaphor is how discredited Al Gore has been for flying all around the world on his private jet to promote sustainability. It doesn’t pass the smell test. How can we say, “Do as I say, not as I do?” It’s this sort of elitist thinking that got us into this quandary in the first place.
Example A. In a Symposium session today on “A World less dependent on fossil fuels — scientific evidence and corporate influence,” a presenter brought up the fact that the way academic conferences are organized are going to have to change. But, the presenter said the AMA (American Medical Association) has to change, but immediately addended his comment with, “But not the ISEE.” I and a few others blurted out “Why not?” Why is our precious little conference exonerated? How are we any different, except for our smaller size? People still are arriving from all over the globe via airplanes to spend 3 days presenting a 10 minute paper and then hanging around nervously at the peripheries hardly communicating with people they didn’t already know.
Which leads me to the point of my post.
I have been to APHA and many other larger and smaller conferences, in Europe and the US, and I am sorry to say that this is the least environmentally sustainable conference I have ever been to. The fact that hundreds of thousands of pieces of single-use plastic are being used every day for this conference should be sobering to us all.
And the fact the majority of the food is meat and animal-based shows the height of hypocrisy on environmental issues—not leadership.
Therefore, I propose that the ISEE adopt the following two binding resolutions, effective immediately, and for all future conferences:
(1) Conference organizers and any other contracted companies and caterers shall only use reusable forks, knives, spoons, plates, bowls, cups, and other food ware items. This includes no longer relying on single-use creamers, sugars, etc.
(If the ISEE and its conference organizers are still addicted to disposables, at least have them be PLA (compostable bioplastics), which is a far second-best to washing actual silverware and dishes, but is still better than sucking down more on the plastic-petrol pipeline.)
(2) In light of the well-documented harmful effects to personal and planetary health, ISEE conferences and gatherings shall only serve vegetarian meals, with a minimum of 50% of all meal items being vegan (and clearly labeled). This is consistent with the evidence base and ISEE’s leadership in walking our talk on health and climate change. Please forward these resolutions to the authorizing boards, and let me know the outcome of the vote.
I see this as a beginning, not a destination. Complacency on these issues will just make the ISEE less relevant. For example, the name badges are oversized non-recyclable hard plastics. A huge amount of waste. And instead of giving steel water bottles out at every conference, just start selling them, and advertise in large font “BRING YOUR OWN REUSABLE WATER BOTTLE.” A little prevention goes a long way. But we, more than anyone, environmental epidemiologists, already knew that.
It turns out, that in the ISEE’s 2018 meeting in Ottowa, Canada, a country quickly becoming synonymous with oil power obliterating public health, that affiliated societies part of the ISES-ISEE joint conference received financial sponsorship by ExxonMobil — a huge conflict of interest! That the ISEE, and its local organizers let this one “slip past them,” is a huge cognitive-ethical bungle. How can public health researchers be credible in evaluating the science of pollution when they are lining their pockets and funding their meetings with those very same polluters’ dollars?
In the Introduction to the symposium on “A world less dependent on fossil fuels – scientific evidence and corporate influence” Prof. Dr. Manolis Kogevinas, Research Professor of the NCDs Program at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, gave a talk on August 26th, 2019 that included the following abstract:
The Symposium organised by the Policy Committee of ISEE originated following the widespread surprise and annoyance of our members from the sponsorship of the 2018 ISES-ISEE joint conference in Ottawa by ExxonMobil. ISEE did not directly accept these funds but other societies are more willing to accept them. We will argue that organizations representing health researchers should not accept support from the fossil fuel extraction companies. Banning health research funded by the tobacco industry helped bring major public health gains; we will argue that we should do the same with BigOil. We further argue that ISEE should become more vocal on this issue and promote measures such as divestment from these industries. There are three main reasons for taking this position: (i) The most important is that fossil fuel industries are major determinants of human disease and environmental deterioration; (ii) The second is that they knew! Like the tobacco industry, Big Oil knew for decades that their products could make the planet uninhabitable, and intentionally buried the evidence; (iii) The third reason is that like our stand against the tobacco industry that resulted to significant public health advances, we should take a categorical, effective and clear-cut position against the products and actions of these harmful industries. The science is more than adequate to warrant action. Unless we do this, we will not be able to effectively convince the lay public and our politicians of the urgency with which we must mobilise. The proposed Symposium will illustrate major aspects of health consequences of fossil fuel combustion and the reactions of the industry trying to influence epidemiological research. We will discuss on the way epidemiologists should continue providing essential support to health policies avoiding corporate interests while encouraging industry and other stakeholder involvement as a part of the solution to the problem.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.