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.
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.
“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
I was perusing Kickstarter when I happened upon a solution to a problem that I didn’t know was that big of a deal: spices going bad. As it turns out, it’s not that big of a deal, it’s what could easily be classified as a “first world problem.”
Spices, because we live in a commodified society with more supply than demand, often sell us large quantities of pre-picked, pre-ground spices. Moreover, these spices are picked from around the world, very far from where we live, and so by the time we use much of them, they lose some of their pungency.
For the same reason that many people grind their own coffee beans, and in many parts of the world including Europe, their own grains, many people still grind their own spices. (Full disclosure, wherever possible, I grind my own spices too – they taste way better fresh that way; no pre-ground spice, no matter how well packed, will taste as good). There is no secret to this. A couple of good kitchen tools, and you’re good to go with most spices. It keeps the nutrients fresh and less degraded (though of course, from picking a spice, it’s shelf-life starts ticking away), and much more pungent and enticing.
Yet, this Kickstarter doesn’t say, “hey, I’d like to make some money by selling you high quality spices, but you’ll still have to grind them yourselves and take an extra minute of delight every time you cook!” No, instead, it fails to see that good cooking, by its nature is a meditation, not something to create a lot of trash with for convenience’s sake. It is a fail because it does not understand that gourmands who like fresh spices are happy to take the extra 30 seconds and grind their own pepper, ginger, or nutmeg. Instead, it grinds the spices already, prematurely, and puts all of its heft on the claim that it has found a better “preserving” mechanism, better than glass containers, but somehow stopping short of formaldehyde.
By appealing to “design” this company is yet another hipster gourmand appropriation of disposable trashy production in order to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes. They have the gall not to merely discuss how their throw away, potion enough for a bachelor(ette) only spice capsules, but to call their product “revolutionary” for its ability to “keep spice fresher at the molecular level.” At the molecular level! I love it–they don’t explain what they mean (except through appealing to the boogieman of “oxidation”) by saying “molecular,” other than that it has become the new buzzword after “neuro” and “nano.” But hey, if you’re already in the business of commodifying trends, why not throw in meaningless buzzwords to prey on consumer gullibility?
Beyond their appeals to their product perhaps rightly being “more flavorful,” than old forgotten spices, they also make the much more suspect claim of it being more “affordable” as well. But worst – and here it’s just a blatant lie – they also claim that their throwaway aluminum pod peel trash wrapper is also more “sustainable.” And that’s why I’m calling bullshit on Occo, and all products like them that attempt to solve a non-problem for people who have more money than they know what to do with, by creating more trash for future generations.
For fun, let’s take a look at some of their misleading and fallacious sustainability claims:
(1) That aluminum is “the most recyclable material in the world”
(1) A: The price for aluminum is higher today than it has been in many years. That’s why there have been, for the first time a rash of thefts of aluminum bleacher seats at parks. So I ask the very Instagrammable Connie and Lisa: do you know what bauxite is? (The raw material from where aluminum comes from). Have you ever been to a bauxite mine? How about a bauxite processing plant? Ever breathed in those fumes? No, because otherwise, you would avoid aluminum like the plague that it is.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but disposable aluminum (where do you even discuss recycling, and the fact that in many jurisdictions your customers may not even have adequate access to recycling facilities?) is a loser. It’s an environmental nightmare, not the paragon of recyclability you paint it as.
Anything that can be used more than once, or say, used many, many times, for years, is more sustainable than something that is only used once. Period. You don’t have to be an industrial ecologist to do the math and realize that even in the best case scenario, if you melt something down, you’re using a tremendous amount of energy to do so, (coming from where?), and then refashioning that raw material into another thing–losing material and energy along the way.
(2) “Saving food waste” claim.
(2) A: Another fallacy is that Occo is helping reduce food waste and saving the planet by selling expensive spices in high quantities in disposable aluminum. The company even does a masterful deflection of using a loaded label against the waste in bulk food items (they call it the “Movie Soda Mark-Up”), that strikes a chord with their Millennial audience of single, big income, no children. They say that food waste is created because people buy more than what they need, and when people are more minimalistic (I love the movement of minimalism, but detest the way it has become commodified to sell more crap that people don’t need to them in the name of minimalism!). But I truly have to question how true this is around spices: what percentage of the 40% of food waste boils down to spices? 1%? 0.5%? If so, that would boil down to 0.4-0.2% of food waste blamable on too many spices. And this is a generous estimate. Nice try, but this is a clear case of the misuse and abuse of pulling on legitimate environmentalist heartstrings.
To sum up: the problem with this scheme and so many like it is that there’s no money in simply telling people to go quality over quantity; and to buy less instead of buying more. The “super premium” segment of the nouveau riche, always eager to virtue signal their “style” and “taste” is one of the leading contributors to ecological disaster and climate chaos.
To falsely claim some sort of ecological currency in doing so, should be met with a healthy dose of reality and opprobrium. There are enough charlatans around; the last thing we need is more cannibalism of truth by poseur minimalists willing to say any ecological lie to make a quick buck.
P.S. After writing this, I just found some more spurious reasoning from these poster-children for the Dunning-Kruger effect (a little bit of knowledge is dangerous–you might actually think you know something when that’s not the case). I’m not going to comment on it, I’ll just put it here:
Today at UCSF, I had the chance to hear Michael Specter deliver the 2017 Chauncey D. Leake Lecture: “Do Facts Still Matter? And What Does It Mean If They Don’t?” It brought out all of San Francisco’s good liberals, concerned about Trump’s anti-science anti-fact Administration. Specter, a decorated journalist for some of my favorite rags, certainly has the credentials to to kvetch at the poor state of US politics.
And yet, he missed an opportunity to channel the despair, rage, and motivation of hundreds of UCSF faculty and students. Cavalierly bashing the science-bashing while not seeing that he was engaging in the same sort of zealotry the room despised, there was a fundamental disconnect in his talk. Instead of understanding the pragmatic even democratic way in which consensus and dissensus coexist in science to push it forward, or acknowledging the unscientific politicization of science which occurs when funding derives from self-interested strings-attached corporations rather than from and for the public good, Specter pontificated about the horror of Trump and basic science communication.
He emphasized how The New Yorker has sold more subscriptions since November 8th than in the past three years, and that this holds for The New York Times as well–as if the raison d’etat of the Fourth Estate is to greedily prey off people’s fears. Perhaps because of his embedded status, Specter can’t see the forest of civilization through the trees of simplistic versions of science as a monolith, failing to crucially discriminate between different motivators for science, let alone including systems thinking perspectives, prevention, or noticing that all of this stuff that medicine and scientific experimentation in the 21st century is based on draws on a dwindling supply of natural capital.
What was most revealing, however, is how his internal logic fell apart. One story he told described how his mother wouldn’t let him eat butter, and fed him only margarine, because it was better for him. She also would give him antibiotics every time he sneezed. Of course, he commented, she didn’t hate him, she loved him, and while today we know both of these “facts” to be totally wrong and harmful to health, she was doing the best she could based on the current state of science in the 1950’s. Specter went on to speak about GMOs and vaccines, and how harmless they are, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is ignorant or worse. Clearly, this narrative hangs together rather than apart.
Yet, the logical tensions of the acknowledged “whoops!” factor of the science of Specter’s youth and the total confidence he held towards the complete safety of these biochemical and genetic interventions was glaring. Like geoengineering, certain types of science are deus ex machina solutions–problems that create more problems for the future. Such science passes the buck to future generations, leaving them the bill when things don’t turn out the way we imagined. Nuclear waste is a good example of this: in the 1960’s when nuclear power generation was first really going online, there was the open question of What are we going to do with the waste? The answer, at the time was that By the time we need to dispose of nuclear waste in 20 or 30 years, our ingenuity will have long since figured out what to do with that! Here we are in 2017, and no one has a clue what to do with nuclear waste so that we don’t have to guard it for the next 10,000+ years.
There is a second type of science, however, a less glamorous, less funded, but ultimately life affording rather than killing type of science; and that is precautionary science. Precautionary science is very poorly funded because there’s no money in it. Instead of aiming to commodify more of the world, and to sink its claws into the last remaining realms that haven’t been privatized, it looks at systems-level solutions that save time and money, and hence puts dozens of obsolete cannibalistic industries out of business. Precautionary science aims at getting at the root of problems, rather than dressing up sickly symptoms with increasingly technicolor gauze.
As an example, Specter talked about a rich, liberal Florida community that plagued with dengue fever mosquitos. When presented with the option of importing genetically-engineered mosquitos (for a plump price) to breed with the dengue mosquitos, hopefully killing them off, the locals swore off any sort of genetic engineered organisms, fearing the technology and not knowing how these genetically-engineered mosquitos might actually change their ecology. Instead, Specter alleges, they deal with the mosquito problem by spraying massive amounts of toxic Dow Chemical insecticide all over their city–clearly not a desirable outcome.
The GMO-chemical dichotomy that Specter presents us with is the fallacy of the excluded middle. The options are all predicated on deus ex machina science rather than precautionary science. Systems science would look at the underlying factors of dengue mosquito inhabitation. They include climate change, urbanization, increased travel and lax controls over shipments of goods, etc. Why a vaccine wouldn’t work in this case (although one exists) is that the serotypes keep on expanding and changing, and that like the futility of the flue vaccine, any vaccine is already based on old biological versions of the virus, bacteria, or disease. Meanwhile, the disease has been evolving, and many pathogens are very adept at overcoming the hurdles we throw at them. Instead of doing the hard trench work of making progress against raising climate temperatures by stopping factory farms, war, and fossil fuels production while planting trees and reforesting using restorative conservation ecology Green Corps, its all too easy to attempt to address the symptoms (the mosquitos with dengue fever that have “invaded” Florida) rather than the cause. Yet, if we got to the cause of things, and actually acknowledged that our current way of life–including our science–is out of sync with natural processes and must be restored, then we’d have a fighting chance at creating healthier lives for all.
Otherwise, we’re involved in a shotgun approach making a holistic problem piecemeal. But if we do this, today it’s dengue fever, tomorrow it will be another one. Are we really so stubborn as a species that instead of resigning ourselves to a little epistemological humility we’d rather mow down the rest of creation because we’ve created such a destructive ecology that we have no other choice?