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.

Designed to Break: planned obsolescence as corporate environmental crime (new paper)

smartphone tombstones

Is programming premature product lifespans a form of corporate crime?

This the question that Lieselot Bisschop, Jelle Jaspers, and I address in our new publication in the journal of Crime, Law and Social Change.

Planned obsolescence is a core business strategy in today’s economy. The items we buy today are supposed to not last, so that we – the consumers – have to buy them over and over again.

In a blogpost summary, we argue that planned obsolescence is not only something that should be recognized by policy makers, but also considered a corporate environmental crime and treated this way.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Fuel emission standards

Who is fueling the Alice in Wonderland media world which slowly is infecting and deceiving people around the world, spreading the ignorance virus?

Let’s take the way that Trump wanted to roll back the Obama-era federal fuel emission standards as an example. While Trump and the oil companies thought this would be a marvelous idea, to stick it to the liberals, so that we’d waste more oil, astonishingly the four biggest auto manufacturers were opposed to this, as they had already begun producing cleaner cars, and other big markets like Europe have similar fuel and pollution auto standards, so going Neanderthal in vehicle fuel and emissions standards didn’t make sense. It was a big surprise to the White House, apparently, that creating more pollution and costing individuals more to fill up their tank didn’t work, even with auto manufacturers. What a surprise for Trump and Co. to realize that even pandering to the worst possible arguments didn’t work. Then 4 of the largest automakers and the state of California made a pact that they would uphold the previous Obama-era emissions standards and fuel targets. Because it made good business sense. (Nevermind the fact that it saves consumers hundreds of billions of dollars and reduces pollution).

The New York Times somehow thought it fitting to ask the Trump Whitehouse to weigh in.

“Unfortunately, California is trying to impose its failed policies on the rest of the country by making new cars significantly more expensive for American consumers and less safe,” said Russ Vought, the acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, in an emailed statement. “Even worse for Americans on the road, a handful of irresponsible automakers are aiding California’s radical agenda that will hurt every one of us.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/05/climate/trump-auto-pollution-california.html

This completely up-is-down-and-down-is-up response, which is about as far away from reality you can get unless some giant loaded you in one of those dog ball-throwing launchers and whipped you into a few galaxies down the lane, not only reaffirms that US Government has become a premier propaganda machine, in their attempts to rival North Korea and China, but also shows how the New York Times is working for the same corporate masters. Why? Two reasons.

First of all, the dumb idea to force California to not enforce it’s laws is a non-starter. What ever happened to states’ rights? Oh yeah, that was only a corporate tool, and to gain libertarian votes and then give them the finger. Classy, tea partiers and Koch Co.

Second, there’s the fact that California will not comply with unreasonable federal the-sky-is-falling threats. Sorry, California is the world’s 5th largest GDP, you can’t push it around like that. We control your freaking internet ;) But why is the NYT giving more platform to the Competative Enterprise Institute, a well-known rabid racist, misogynist, and overall ahistorically-inclined corporate front-group? There are a million intelligent people to interview about how laughable this proposal is, how the Trump administration will never achieve this, and that it’s just shirtcocking posturing from Mr. smallfingers. But no, the NYT goes for its one interview with the humpback goon of Trump. Great balanced reporting, right there.

Of course,

“The Obama-era tailpipe pollution rules that the administration hopes to weaken would require automakers to build vehicles that achieve an average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, cutting about six billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution over the lifetimes of those vehicles. The proposed Trump rule would lower the requirement to about 37 miles per gallon, allowing for most of that pollution to be emitted.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/05/climate/trump-auto-pollution-california.html

And of course,

“Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general, restated his intention to sue over any attempt to undermine his state’s legal authority to set its own pollution standards. “California will continue its advance toward a cleaner future,” he wrote in an email.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/05/climate/trump-auto-pollution-california.html

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.

San Francisco BART’s Unpleasant Design

Introducing: The inverted guillotine

Having lived for the better part of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have put in my time on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. From it’s loud, overcrowded, clunky, and infrequent trains, to the spate of BART police shootings of young men of color, this privatized (militarized?) operation has a monopoly on public transport, and unashamedly has its will with the region with little grace.

The latest offense is the instillation of “skull crusher” “inverted guillotine” pop-up spring-loaded barriers, that could hurt or maim (it’s just a lawsuit waiting to happen).

Instead of pouring money into education, or helping the homeless, the Bay Area has now apparently prioritized metal spikes shooting up from their BART turnstiles. Way to go, gentrification!

The fact that “fare jumping” is solved by violence is telling. Instead of maybe just making the BART – a public service – into a public company, free for all riders, payed by a corporate property tax (or some other public funding in the insanely overpriced Bay), as many other localities such as Tallinn in Estonia have done, doubling down on menacing design elements further marginalizes the marginalized. BART really doesn’t lose much money at all on fare jumpers. Their financial mismanagement is sui generis. Yet, like all administrative classes, the propensity to pay themselves more to harm the poor is too tempting; it exculpates their responsibility for mismanagement (and points to the need for the region to re-buy the service to run it correctly), and instead finger-wags at “scofflaws” for being bad people, when all they really are doing is what is necessary to get around their own town when they haven’t benefited from the Silicon Valley boom.

The book Unpleasant Design discusses the epidemic of public infrastructure that makes being in public an injurious experience for those worst off. From bus benches in shelters that slope so you can’t sleep on them (you’d fall off), to “anti-homeless spikes,” sonic warfare (projecting odious or repetitive noises, like that corporately-engineered “hit” “Baby Shark“), ordinances against “sitting” or lying in public spaces for too long — rich countries, especially English-speaking ones, have declared war on public space.

London, UK. 10th June 2014. Anti-Homeless Spikes Protest outside Stock Photo: 70030582 - Alamy
Anti-homeless spikes

Unpleasant design takes what little of the commons are left – the nooks and the crannies – and puts money into destroying them to keep out “undesirables.” This racist and classiest action is often the result of gentrification; justified to keep the zoos of the rich free of those who can’t pay their entry fee.

These artists are tackling London's anti-homeless spikes head on
Activists in London combat the painful anti-homeless spikes

The psychological warfare of guillotine turnstiles makes the entire experience of public transportation less comfortable for everyone. Instead of dealing with the 80-20 principle that 80% or 90% of riders will pay no problem, and that there will always be a remainder of the population that for what ever (often very legitimate) reason cannot or will not pay, BART has chosen to harm the public, pushing more people into their polluting cars.

I’m sure before long, people will be defacing these violent turnstiles. And it is likely that the accumulated rage against BART will reduce paying ridership (despite their monopoly), actually bringing them less money than they had before–the exact opposite result than they profess to so-desperately and so-forcefully want.

The public outrage on Twitter is already loud and clear against BART’s weaponization of its service. Such aggrandizement activities miss the point of their charge: they are in the business in providing a public service, and some people can pay more, some less, and not at all. Perhaps peg BART tickets to income. Then the rich might pay $100 per ride, the poor the normal $3.40 trip, and the very poor nothing. That would be a fair approach. Our society is far from that enlightened thinking, sadly, even in that hotbed of *potential* San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and environs.

But let’s not deceive ourselves. There’s a reason why you can’t take the BART to Marin County: racism. Back in the 1950’s there was a plan in place to extend the San Francisco BART to Marin (North Bay), but because of vocal refusal by residents, it failed. And now, no easy public transportation (besides the ferries) go to Marin. The Bay Area is disconnected by design, an open gated community in a natural and cultural paradise predicated on class, race, and exclusion.

Have we not evolved as a city in 70 years? Are we still just as violent towards those less fortunate than us. San Francisco is a mess because of its wealth. But at least on this case of BART structural violence, the people are having their day of reckoning.

Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense

In doing some background research for my book, I remembered that I had read about a year ago of a US Congressman who was working to get rid of the imperative for US health insurers to take patients with preexisting conditions, who shortly thereafter was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The poetic justice was obvious, and I was ready to incorporate the story into mine, to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the political landscape around medical issues, and the demonizing of illness, making it into some Biblical or New Age Law of Attraction bullshit.

And then I noticed that as I went to retrieve this information, that the first hit that came up was from a notoriously provocative website, “The Daily KOS.” I read the article, but it seemed more lukewarm than I remembered in terms of evidence, so I went back and watched the original CNN interview with the supposed damning evidence of hypocrisy of the US Representative from Alabama, Republican Mo Brooks scorning those with preexisting conditions.

In fact, the Daily KOS had cherry-picked Brooks’ words out of context, completely mangling his meaning, which amounted to: those who have lived risk-prone lives should have to pay more than people who have done their best to take care of themselves, and many people are sick “through no fault of their own,” and “we must take care of them.” We can quibble with if we agree with that, but Brooks’ statement looked nothing like the fire and brimstone irony Daily KOS was insinuating.

Shoddy reporting helps no one, and making people whose political ideas you may not agree with into hyperbolic monsters reduces credibility, creates mutual antagonism, and is part of why America is divided. It’s time for journalistic ethics to make a comeback.

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.

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

capitalism

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.

 

ExxonMobile Responds to Hurricane Harvey

oil tank hurricane harvey.jpg

Cognitive dissonance is a phenomena common amongst human beings who want to have their cake and eat it too. It comes from a willing ignorance to repress and suppress the world’s inconvenient truths and hold onto the frame (or fairytale) one inhabits (or chooses) with tenacious vigor.

In their weekly missives, ExxonMobile’s “Energy Perspectives” newsletter this week features a typically tone-deaf and gumption-filled story on how destroying the world through oil and gas exploitation is actually saving the world. It’s a classic psy-ops strategy (formerly known as propaganda), only with a slicker sheen, more convoluted rhetoric, and patriotic pictures.  According to the Department of Defense, psy-ops are:

Planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to… audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of… governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives.

So Jerry Wascom, president of ExxonMobil Refining & Supply Company writes in the ExxonMobile Perspectives blog

I’ve been in this business for more than 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.  The impact of this hurricane has been unprecedented.

There’s no reconciliatory tone. No regret. No mention of climate change. No, instead we are invited to see nature’s disrupted patterns and 500-year weather events (happening within years of each other) as mere temporary roadblocks to the further entrenchment of global capitalism. Wascom writes:

At ExxonMobil, we’ve had to temporarily shut down some operations, but we haven’t stopped working.  Just the opposite.   My team is working around the clock to bring everything back on line as quickly as we can and get fuel to drivers that need it.

But, in light of the horrors of anthropogenically destabilized climates, wouldn’t the only moral thing to do seem to be stopping working? Wouldn’t conceding at the card game before you go broke actually seem like a better strategy than doubling down with your last chips?

No, instead this is reframed as merely a logistics problem. Indeed, “the current challenge we face is mainly a logistical one,” Wascom writes.

Not all the fuel is where it needs to be.  We have to quickly reroute trucks and tankers to get supplies from more distant locations to places that previously relied on the Gulf Coast refineries.

Instead of acknowledging that in catastrophes we might have to use less, ExxonMobil is pulling a GW Bush: Buy, baby, buy. The paraphrase Ingolfür Bluhdorn, ExxonMobil is looking for creating sustainability and resiliency just in those same unsustainable practices that got us in this climate disruption in the first place. Don’t pause to reflect. Don’t use less fuel. Don’t travel less. Because such actions might cause a reevaluation of the insane oil subsidies, and our fossil-fueled toxic culture.

Of course, such psy-ops are bolstered by the other Breitbarts of news, such as Business Insider, Money, and other unidimensional news outlets who care only how any event will impact their stock prices. Thus the intentional ignorance of ExxonMobile is perpetuated throughout our culture system by the help of greed, instantiated in a news media and financially-myopic media willing to poison the world for a few more points on their stock.

ExxonMobile reassures us that they will go to the ends of the earth to ensure that our illusion of cheap fossil fuels isn’t broken.

And that’s exactly what we’re doing.  We’re going the extra mile to reconnect the dots and move fuel quickly and safely.

Amidst dire environmental justice murmurings of the toxic exposures due to hazardous waste seeping out of its quarantine in Houston, harming entire communities (especially poor and migrant communities), we are supposed to trust the self-serving interests of the world’s largest oil machine, and one of the largest funders of climate change denial.

The last stake in the heart of Corporate Social Irresponsibility is ExxonMobile’s responsibilizing consumers for the problem. They urge

drivers can help by not “panic-buying.”  Topping off your tank is one thing; stockpiling fuel is another, and puts unnecessary stress on the system.  We can all help each other if we don’t go overboard.

Who’s this “we” you’re talking about, paleface? ExxonMobile has proven time and again that they don’t care for anything but profit, yet they are doing the British gag of “let’s all play together” for their own benefit–not ours. This rallying cry to keep normalcy in the face of an insane, corrupt, oligopolistic system, is itself sick. In the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 07.54.50

 

New paper published in Annals of Internal Medicine picked up by Reuters

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 16.05.10

Today, with co-authors Pamela M. Ling and Jesse Elias, our paper “The Pharmaceuticalization of the Tobacco Industry” appears in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Our interview with Reuters is available here.

This work contributes to the study of industrial epidemics, and how corporations, instead of dying a quiet death as the world wakes up to the inutility of their products for life, metastasize into other structures to clean up the messes they continue to create–and to charge taxpayers for it (in this case, by getting government health care like the NHS in the UK, to pay for their so-called reduced-harm nicotine products).

The Philosophical Salon

A recent article I wrote for The Philosophical Salon can be found here. Titled “Not an Era for Apologetics,” it looks at the systematic bullying of university students by alt-right pseudo-intellectuals, and the reinforcement of hegemonic discourse in the university setting.

taken at the sf women's march

As the recent hooligan rallies by fascist groups in Portland after the attack of a white supremacist on Muslim women was thwarted by three white men, two of which died defending them and the other severely injured, the pattern of bolstering up assaults with violent gatherings either in words or deeds seems by now to be a routine intimidation tactic against people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community.

The article focuses on the so-called, and much overwrought “Middlebury Affair” where the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray was rejected from speaking on pseudoscientific racism at the campus. While liberals around the nation have rallied in favor of free speech, oddly enough, they deny free speech to those that wish not to have hate in their houses. Against the party line, I argue that the spread of hate via speech should not be conflated with freedom to speak, as free speech must be defined according to the commonweal. As long as ontological essentialism coupled with systematic discrimination reigns, such speech cannot be termed “free,” as it constricts others’ common good. I take a classic republican view on free speech to empower local communities to decide if interlopers aim to unite or divide their union.

Of course, in a humorous performative of my point, The Philosophical Salon post received its share of trolls, performing the very act I described.

Future thoughts: What is the difference between deserved critique versus trolling? My article takes an attempt at this question.

 

Bernie Sanders is bandwagoning on Ann Coulter Berkeley Debacle

Vermont US Senator Bernie Sanders’ remarks calling for UC Berkeley to go ahead and permit the alt-right darling Ann Coulter speak despite the recent violence of neonazis descending on Berkeley and harming local citizens have been spread across the internet by right-wing and politically correct gatekeeper pundits.

Sanders is quoted as saying, “Obviously Ann Coulter’s outrageous ― to my mind, off the wall. But you know, people have a right to give their two cents-worth, give a speech, without fear of violence and intimidation.” This claim itself is innocuous. What philosophers should be more circumspect of is his claim that

Taken out of context, as a disembodied principle, letting people speak their piece, and being a good listener are of course basic principles of decency that should only be contravened in exceptional circumstances.

But the times we are in are not innocuous. Black people are dying. Women are being forced to have babies they don’t want and can’t take care of. Hispanic people are being deported. Islamic people are enduring hate-crimes and denied entry to the US. LGBTQ people are being killed, harassed, and institutionally discriminated against. These are not events that arose out of thin air, but are the product of speech–speech which has led to hate, which has led to violence. Pretending that there is no correlation between the unleashing of hate speech and violent hate acts is a grave mistake.

Especially in light of recent violence as a result of UC Berkeley allowing alt-right hate groups to sponsor bigot Milo Yiannopoulos, and that expensive, failed fiasco, and the descent of neonazis nationwide on Berkeley two weekends ago, causing bloodshed, violence, and property destruction, it makes sense for UC Berkeley to learn from its mistakes of forcing on the local community hateful people and prevent people such as Coulter who spread disease vectors of violence through their hate memes. Quarantining infectious diseases of hate memes is the responsibility of government and universities, as well as informed, aware citizens.

We get specious sentences, like this one from Inquisitr that “A non-partisan group originally invited Coulter to Berkeley for a speech on April 27.” Drilling a little deeper, Young Americans for Freedom, a wing of the Young American Foundation, is a Koch brothers front-group. The same people that brought you the Tea Party alt-right and Trump, also bring you Young Americans for Freedom, a perverse euphemism if ever there was one. And this group is the real force between the Coulter scandal. Alt-right billionaires are puppeteering foolish youth into doing their bidding for them to create scandal and to confuse the over-apologetic progressive center. Running such a disinformation campaign, where hate speech becomes allowed and spread like the virus that it is, while constraining the rights of peaceful protesters is the perverse sense of freedom that these UC Berkeley front groups are perpetuating, whether they are aware of it or not. Meanwhile, Berkeley college Republicans declare “the Free Speech Movement is dead,” another opportunistic abuse of the Civil Rights Movement to promote hate speech.

Sanders, I’m sure, did not make his comments in light of recent events. On this account, he is simply mistaken that saying NO to parasitic elements is a “sign of intellectual weakness.”  I’m not sure who Sanders’ publicist is who encouraged him to fall into this alt-right trap, but his moral high ground should not be eroded over a misunderstanding of the stakes of this issue, in light of the context of recent events.

While those unschooled in making distinctions tend to default to the knee-jerk response that not inviting detestable people and their divisive and violence-inducing hate speech into their home, their habitat, the communities in which they live, is censorship, let them be reminded that no one has the right to say whatever they want wherever they want. You can preach to your own choir as much as you want; but if you want into my church, I’m going to vet you first–thoroughly. If I yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, that’s creating a situation of malicious harm, and I am culpable for the consequences. People like Coulter should also be liable for any hate acts following their hate speech. To conflate speech as any speech, is to abuse the ideals of democracy and the sanctity of words. It is to make war by other means. To feign innocence while one’s actions cause violent acts by those moved by the passions stirred up by those words. Fanning the flames of hate is as bad as the ensuing acts that follow from those words. Words and deeds go inextricably hand-in-hand. We ignore this simple fact at our own peril.

So I urge Sanders, and all other thinking people to think a little deeper.

The counter-argument–if we don’t give people like Coulter a forum, then maybe other people in other places won’t give us a forum–is, I believe, the underlying concern most good-hearted but misguided people have in their strategic apologetics for the free screech fallacy. They treat all language as equal, or equally deserving listening, because they fail to differentiate between public-good-oriented speech, and destructive speech. Of course, the fear boils down to: but who is the arbiter of such speech? Who decides what is hateful and what is helpful? It’s like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s controversial definition of porn: I know it when I see it.

Differences are a healthy component of a pluralistic democracy. However, “some differences are asserted so irrationally that debate is foreclosed, and those differences, while they must be tolerated in a free society, must also be denounced by all right- thinking persons. Hate speech-speech directed against women, Jews, blacks, and gays-falls into the second category,” writes Stanley Fish. Like Jürgen Habermas’ refusal to allow religious fundamentalists a legitimate place in his constitutional republic because they “claim exclusiveness for a privileged way of life” that precludes “civilized debate … in which one party can recognize the other parties as co-combatants in the search for authentic truths,” so too must hate speech by divisive self-proclaimed bigots be excluded from the fora of academics, politics, and civilized life.

Amy Gutmann, among others, classifies hate speech as a different form of speech than regular speech,

Milo Yiannopoulos’s threat that he will “return Berkeley to its rightful place as the home of free speech — whether university administrators and violent far-left antifa thugs like it or not” sounds like a threat of violence.  What if Greenpeace said, “We are going to stop the rape of the earth fossil fuel companies are perpetuating, whether these companies or the corporate shills in government like it or not?” I’m guessing if they tried to do this, they would (1) be unsuccessful, and (2) be met with violent opposition. Why should alt-right thugs like Yiannopoulos and Coulter (who self-describes herself as a “mean-spirited, bigoted conservative”) be treated any differently? Why should democrats and city officials roll over, play dead, and let neofascists steamroll them and what they have built? I know I don’t want my taxpayer dollars going to such nonsense.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes in Abrams v. United States declared hate speech as that speech “fraught with death,” anyone compounding existing structural inequalities by calling for more structural inequality or bigotry against those historically beaten down by the white supremacist patriarchy ought to be censured from inclusion into the community of discourse.

I’ll end  by citing a passage from Stanley Fish in his essay Boutique Multiculturalism, or Why Liberals Are Incapable of Thinking about Hate Speech:

“Banishing hate speakers from your little conversation leaves them all the freer to pursue their deadly work in the dark corners from which you have averted your fastidious eyes. Gutmann’s instinct to exclude is the right one; it is just that her gesture of exclusion is too tame-it amounts to little more than holding her nose in disgust-and falls far short of wounding the enemy at its heart. A deeper wound will only be inflicted by methods and weap- ons her liberalism disdains: by acts of ungenerosity, intolerance, perhaps even repression, by acts that respond to evil not by tolerating it–in the hope that its energies will simply dissipate in the face of scorn-but by trying to stamp it out.”