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.

Talk: Berkeley-Tartu biosemiotic summer seminar July 11 2019

After a successful 2019 Biosemiotics Gathering in Moscow, I’m happy to be sharing a deeper look at my project at the University of Tartu, in Estonia, giving a talk on Multi-level semiosis – and the impact of supernormal stimuli in the human superorganism and holobiont.

This is as part of the Berkeley-Tartu biosemiotic summer seminar in Tartu.

Part I: June 26, with Jeremy Sherman

Part II, July 11, with Yogi Hendlin

Part III: July 15, with Terrence Deacon.

Here is information about the part II.

On Thursday, July 11, at 14.15, Jakobi 2–336, Yogi H. Hendlin (University of California and Erasmus University of Rotterdam) will give a talk

Multi-level semiosis – and the impact of supernormal stimuli in the human superorganism and holobiont

Abstract. This talk draws on classic ethology and insights for humans as superorganisms living in artificial environments. It first describes the case for seeing the human body, and not just cultures, as itself a superorganism, but through the unconventional form of defining superorganism not as cells or individuals only of one species, but as inherently an interspecies phenomenon. Second, I describe how the holobiont view of the human organism helps make sense of this definition of the superorganism as interspecies. Finally, I’ll look at both classical and cognitive ethology to examine how even individuated human cells or other endosemiotic symbionts can also become affected by unfamiliar stimuli stronger than those their evolutionarily-geared heuristics are geared for. This overflow or flood of response to certain stimuli I see as a relevant form of supernormal stimuli, as Niko Tinbergen described this condition, even as I extend it to endosymbionts, beyond Tinbergen’s use of the concept specifically on the individual animal.

After a break, the meeting will continue at 6 p.m. at Vikerkaare 7–8. 

We also expect to discuss some new ideas from the recent Gathering in Biosemiotics that took place in Moscow.

Everybody very welcome! 

Science and Politics of Glyphosate Workshop June 6, 2019

My Erasmus University Rotterdam colleague Alessandra Arcuri and I are organizing a day-long workshop on the most used pesticide in the world: glyphosate. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, Monsanto’s flagship herbicide, has been linked with cancer by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015.

For more information, registration, and to submit a paper to present at the conference, please visit our website, at the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative.

IARC and EFSA’s differing views on glyphosate

Speaking at the Creative Edge Conference

top-createcon

I’m honored to be presenting on “The Ecological Self: Harnessing the Power of Our Interspecies Nature for Good” alongside Flow author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi this Saturday, May 13th 2017 at the Creative Edge Conference organized by West LA College.

I’ll be speaking during  the Creative Space Session during 10:45am – 12:20pm.

The WEST TALKS, in the spirit of the TED Talk series, aim to expose students and the public to avant-garde ideas that can help transform the notions under which we operate as a society. Creativity, thinking diagonally, will give us the tools to confront the systemic breakdowns we currently face, and allow us to create better alternatives with finesse and elegance.

The Conference is free with RSVP. Click here to download a PDF of the Conference.

 

 

 

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.

 

2016 APSA appearances

Please visit one of the exciting panels I’m participating in this year in Philadelphia at the annual APSA Conference.

 

Collective Action, Environmental Politics, and (Nonhuman) Animal Rights

Division 3: Normative Political Theory

Thu, September 1, 2:00 to 3:30pm, PCC, 107-B

Yogi Hale Hendlin, Chair

 

Cities, Climate Change, and Sustainability Policy

Division 30: Urban and Local Politics

Fri, September 2, 10:00 to 11:30am, Marriott, Room 310

Yogi Hale Hendlin, Discussant

Interrogating the Anthropocene

Division 42: New Political Science / Related Group: Green Politics and Theory

Sun, September 4, 10:00 to 11:30am, Marriott, Room 411

Session Description

There is no doubt that the environment is under stress as a result of a quickly transforming climate. The increasing pressures on the Earth’s resources are linked to transformations within the population and increasing consumption, producing socio-environmental consequences that invite a reconsideration of green political thought. What perspectives within green political thought best respond to contemporary planetary challenges? And how might green political thought address an array of socio-environmental tensions? To what extent does green political thought help to address uneven geographies? And, how might differing ideologies within green political thought come together to address the challenges of our contemporary political, social, economic, and environmental climate?

My paper

Climate Change and the Discursive Gap: Querying Nonhuman Political Agencies

Abstract

It is ironic that despite our pressing concerns of environmental sustainability, humanity has yet to consult with the rest of nature. Regardless of the urgent need to address the crisis of reason in human action creating a destabilized ecological order, the contentious sustainability and climate change discourses have inadvertently neglected to query nonhuman nature as to what arrangement works best for our mutual survival and flourishing. Sure, the natural sciences have attempted to ascertain how environmental systems work objectively, but their approach has been instrumental, not communicative. Insofar as we view “instrumental” and “communicative” as discrete categories, the type of information available from instrumental investigations, more often than not, amounts largely to mirroring back our own interests and presuppositions in a feedback loop full of distortions where output reflects input, leaving little room for listening-based inquiry, leading to appreciation for the full polychromism of phenomena. Even among those working in animal studies, the tendency has been, more often than not, to treat animals as moral patients rather than communicative agents. Addressing this discursive gap in environmental political theory rectifies the oversight that nonhuman political agencies currently contribute to political outcomes only indirectly.

While democratic societies have come a long ways in the last few hundred years, extending the opportunity for political participation to non-propertied males, to the poor, people of color, indigenous groups, and women, nonetheless it seems like such progress stops abruptly at the species barrier. Whether for philosophical a priori assumptions that nonhumans do not have agency, or for more practical reasons that the communicative possibilities of nonhumans de facto exclude them from having voice as our political systems define it, with few exceptions nonhuman agents has been systematically left out of the question of political inclusion, or have been subsumed under larger phenomenological approaches that have obscured the difference between living organisms and lifeless things. Jane Bennett and other theorists allied with the object-oriented ontology (OOO) movement, for example, often collapse the ontological distance between beings and things, natural processes and the human domain of history. The agency of nonhuman organisms becomes merely representational in OOO as all things borrow their agency from human meaning, without any notion of intention, or meaning-creation or -orientation for nonhuman organisms. The implications of this is that this line of theorizing (including Steven Vogel, from a different theoretically committed direction) emphasize there is no substantial difference between field mice and trackpads, ecosystems and malls.

In order to diagnose and remedy a discursive gap involves several steps. First, the constituency being effected by negative political outcomes or lacking political involvement must be certified as a legitimate party relevant to the political process that should, because of such standing, be included. Second, it must be proved that the constituency in question actually can communicate and contribute to the already involved political actors, so that translation does not become an insurmountable problem. Third, the predominating decision-making processes must shift and evolve to take into account the unique ways in which these new relevant members of the expanded polis interact and express themselves, assuring that new polity members are not forced into political ventriloquism, speaking in the master’s dialect(ic).

Rather than just including nonhuman organisms or processes passively or indirectly through their impact on human actors—displacing their agency onto human recognition and action precipitating through their behavior—nonhuman natural beings can have direct political consequences. The inverse of the totalizing narratives of the anthropocene starring human actors monopolizing planetary environmental agency, nonhuman political agencies have long shaped cultural factors, whether acknowledged or not. Recognizing and interacting with these constituents of the ecological polis in ways eliciting their true interests, and weighing their interests in political decisions (e.g., through ambassadors or representatives, as Bruno Latour has suggested, or through granting rights, as Donaldson and Kymlicka have proposed), helps close this discursive gap. Other methods stemming from biosemiotics and democratic theory are also relevant to closing the discursive gap, and are pertinent to transforming political institutions and processes as we reorient towards sustainable environmental policy and tackling the systemic issues undergirding climate change.