Hypocrisy at the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology

The ISEE, or the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology, is an organization that one would expect to walk its talk. After all, it has been around for 31 years with its annual conferences, and is one of the most sophisticated and cutting edge of the biological medical sciences. Environmental epidemiology’s ability to aggregate data across many different scientific domains in a meaningful way, to build off of findings in genetics, population biology, medicine, and public health, is truly extraordinary. Furthermore, the field has demonstrated a commitment to addressing questions of environmental racism, classicism, and gender inequality, and is actively diverse.

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Why then, at my first ISEE conference, in Utrecht, which was a 30 minute train ride from my home in Rotterdam, am I bombarded with 1960s style catering?

I know, I know. Why pick on such a minor detail? After all, the content of the meeting is driving policies far more important than some PC peccadillo having to do with food, right?

I do not dispute the good of bringing people together here. I do not dispute the good of the research, the necessity of the work. But I do object to the weak argument that because of all the other good being done, that we can ignore our own personal emissions and harms, that we can refuse responsibility to do our part, to do better, to be the change we wish to see in the world.

The metaphor is how discredited Al Gore has been for flying all around the world on his private jet to promote sustainability. It doesn’t pass the smell test. How can we say, “Do as I say, not as I do?” It’s this sort of elitist thinking that got us into this quandary in the first place.

Example A. In a Symposium session today on “A World less dependent on fossil fuels — scientific evidence and corporate influence,” a presenter brought up the fact that the way academic conferences are organized are going to have to change. But, the presenter said the AMA (American Medical Association) has to change, but immediately addended his comment with, “But not the ISEE.” I and a few others blurted out “Why not?” Why is our precious little conference exonerated? How are we any different, except for our smaller size? People still are arriving from all over the globe via airplanes to spend 3 days presenting a 10 minute paper and then hanging around nervously at the peripheries hardly communicating with people they didn’t already know.

Thanks for the trash, ISEE!

Which leads me to the point of my post.

I have been to APHA and many other larger and smaller conferences, in Europe and the US, and I am sorry to say that this is the least environmentally sustainable conference I have ever been to. The fact that hundreds of thousands of pieces of single-use plastic are being used every day for this conference should be sobering to us all.

And the fact the majority of the food is meat and animal-based shows the height of hypocrisy on environmental issues—not leadership.

Therefore, I propose that the ISEE adopt the following two binding resolutions, effective immediately, and for all future conferences:


(1) Conference organizers and any other contracted companies and caterers shall only use reusable forks, knives, spoons, plates, bowls, cups, and other food ware items. This includes no longer relying on single-use creamers, sugars, etc. 

(If the ISEE and its conference organizers are still addicted to disposables, at least have them be PLA (compostable bioplastics), which is a far second-best to washing actual silverware and dishes, but is still better than sucking down more on the plastic-petrol pipeline.)

(2) In light of the well-documented harmful effects to personal and planetary health, ISEE conferences and gatherings shall only serve vegetarian meals, with a minimum of 50% of all meal items being vegan (and clearly labeled). This is consistent with the evidence base and ISEE’s leadership in walking our talk on health and climate change.
Please forward these resolutions to the authorizing boards, and let me know the outcome of the vote.

I see this as a beginning, not a destination. Complacency on these issues will just make the ISEE less relevant. For example, the name badges are oversized non-recyclable hard plastics. A huge amount of waste. And instead of giving steel water bottles out at every conference, just start selling them, and advertise in large font “BRING YOUR OWN REUSABLE WATER BOTTLE.” A little prevention goes a long way. But we, more than anyone, environmental epidemiologists, already knew that.

CODA

It turns out, that in the ISEE’s 2018 meeting in Ottowa, Canada, a country quickly becoming synonymous with oil power obliterating public health, that affiliated societies part of the ISES-ISEE joint conference received financial sponsorship by ExxonMobil — a huge conflict of interest! That the ISEE, and its local organizers let this one “slip past them,” is a huge cognitive-ethical bungle. How can public health researchers be credible in evaluating the science of pollution when they are lining their pockets and funding their meetings with those very same polluters’ dollars?

In the Introduction to the symposium on “A world less dependent on fossil fuels – scientific evidence and corporate influence” Prof. Dr. Manolis Kogevinas, Research Professor of the NCDs Program at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, gave a talk on August 26th, 2019 that included the following abstract:

The Symposium organised by the Policy Committee of ISEE originated following the widespread surprise and annoyance of our members from the sponsorship of the 2018 ISES-ISEE joint conference in Ottawa by ExxonMobil. ISEE did not directly accept these funds but other societies are more willing to accept them.
We will argue that organizations representing health researchers should not accept support from the fossil fuel extraction companies.
Banning health research funded by the tobacco industry helped bring major public health gains; we will argue that we should do the same with BigOil. We further argue that ISEE should become more vocal on this issue and promote measures such as divestment from these industries.
There are three main reasons for taking this position: (i) The most important is that fossil fuel industries are major determinants of human disease and environmental deterioration; (ii) The second is that they knew! Like the tobacco industry, Big Oil knew for decades that their products could make the planet uninhabitable, and intentionally buried the evidence; (iii) The third reason is that like our stand against the tobacco industry that resulted to significant public health advances, we should take a categorical, effective and clear-cut position against the products and actions of these harmful industries. The science is more than adequate to warrant action. Unless we do this, we will not be able to effectively convince the lay public and our politicians of the urgency with which we must mobilise.
The proposed Symposium will illustrate major aspects of health consequences of fossil fuel combustion and the reactions of the industry trying to influence epidemiological research. We will discuss on the way epidemiologists should continue providing essential support to health policies avoiding corporate interests while encouraging industry and other stakeholder involvement as a part of the solution to the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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Bioneers 2016

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This is the first time since I moved back to California last November that I’ve been able to engage a world-class group of scholars and change-makers gathered together with the sole purpose of harmonizing human systems with natural ones.

Last weekend at the 27th annual Bioneers Conference, I had the pleasure to converse with an array of people implementing the ideas of ecology and symbiotic biology so crucial to this current phase of our planetary development.

In moving out of linear, industrial factory-based models of the world and the self, the cyclical, spiral, redundant, diverse, resilient, and networked models of living organisms and ecosystems emerge as the tenable schemas best suited to life–human and otherwise.

Biological Pioneers are those who despite resistance from business-as-usual forge ahead to dream up, pilot, and implement technologies and policies that nudge our consciousness and practices towards a more equitable, sustainable, diverse, and fruitful organization.

In coordination with the Biomimicry Institute, the Conference brought researchers and activists from the frontlines of science and society to discuss inter-kingdom signaling, decoding of sea mammal communication via sonogram mapping and computer-aided filtering, growing the future of food with sea vegetables through zero-input seaweed farming, and developing methods to help all people reconnect with their indigenous roots and knowledge to bring forth sustainable and stewarding practices of land cultivation based on place, season, and community.

As this work has profound resonance with my own projects, I was delighted to share company with Paul Hawken, Janine Benyus, Joanna Macy, Starhawk,  Bill McKibben, James Nestor, Mark Plotkin, Bren Smith, and Vien Truong, not to mention the numerous activist artists and performers. There were many other talks and conversations I would have loved to engage in, were it not for the limitations of time.

As filmmaker René Scheltema identifies in Normal is Over, just as there are keystone species for an ecosystem, so too are their keystone individuals for movements; and in the movement towards regenerating harms from planetary anthropogenic disruptions, Bioneers is definitely a hub for bringing together the keystone individuals and groups working for an ecologically just and beautiful future.

One of the takeaway messages from Bioneers that warrants further reflection is the connection between the Beautiful, the True, and the Good–Socrates’ classic koan that repeatedly becomes the foundation for further dialogs about the metaphysical nature of the universe as well as the practical question of how ought we to live. That ecological aesthetics, a certain harmony between species, however carnivorous, dangerous, agonistic, and harsh that harmony might be, can be a guiding thread for understanding nature at a deeper level, remains with me. Bioaesthetics, or the beauty of life, the harmony of composition, is not something that permits judgment from anthropocentric–or, let’s be frank, culturally-specific and often manipulatively propagandized–aesthetic standards. Rather, bioaesthetics knits with complex systems theory as a pattern we can recognize to intuit ecological milieus inhabiting a state of resilience. The slack (buffer room), diversity, flexibility, and redundancy of complex resilient systems, proffers poigniant lessons for a planet in crisis (Gallopín 2002, 390). These patterns lead us organize and compost existing material into pathways that enable rather than undermine the development and evolution of complexity, synergy, and symbiosis.

 

 


Gallopín, G., 2002. Planning for Resiliance: Scenarions, Surprises, and Branch Points, in: Gunderson, L.H., Holling, C.S. (Eds.), Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press.