A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of hanging out with Mario Veen and talking with him on his Life From Plato’s Cave podcast. It was a rollicking good time and enabled us to enter into some crevasses of why our world is so stuck, and how we can make it more likely to get unstuck.
When Institutions start arresting or firing climate scientists, government is infested
Governments are supposed to help us live better, survive. You know, all that crap Hobbes went on about, keeping us from killing each other. But when government systematically shuts up those who try to help us from committing collective suicide through broken Nash equilibria – group think stupidity – Houston, we have a problem.
Climate Scientists Rose Abramoff was recently fired from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for rallying people at the AGU – the climate science conference – to participate in principled nonviolent protests. If even this right has been taken away from us, how else do we have our voice heard?
By failing to listen to the canaries in the coal mine, we blow everything up.
By not allowing peaceful, principled, protest by those who know the most, these corrupt institutions are praying to Kali for her to unleash her wrath through her less patient children.
“That seems interesting to me, that we allow the fossil fuel industry, economists, politicians, celebrities, random people on the internet, the youth which are leading the climate movement – everyone has a stake, and a right to comment on these climate policies; except it seems those who have subject expertise in the area. That seems like an odd policy to me, and I take issue with it.” – Rose Abramoff, Earth Scientist and Climate Activist with Scientist Rebellion
Who is a climate denier?
Maybe not who you think?
Maybe it’s even you.
I know a lot of good people at my university, for example, are climate deniers. They would never put it that way, of course, but the fact of the matter is: unless you understand and are willing to do what is immediately necessary for the future thriving of life on earth, including humans, you’re some degree of climate and science denier.
Recently, top scientists briefly held a banner at the American Geophysical Union conference, one of which I have presented and co-organized a panel with at this same conference (in 2019). One of the two scientists got fired from her job as a climate (soil) scientist as a result of her expertise leading to her activism.
If we don’t trust those closest to the data, why not? Who else are we going to trust? The politicians? The fossil fuel companies?
These scientists know more about the topics they study, and how anthopogenic climate change is destroying life on earth, than anyone else alive. They are sacrificing their careers to spread the word. This is what real science communication looks like.
And our very institutions which are supposed to hold up our civilization are instead censoring the scientists which make them up. Our institutions are becoming shells, catering to alternative facts and disinformation. Perhaps, if our institutions cannot keep supporting the most informed and involved, they ought to turn over the keys to the kingdom to those that can.
We need better leadership – not reactive, not snowflake status quo defensive, but – realpolitik savvy, cowardice-proof, and ready to take action.
Reflections on EUR’s Roundtable on Academic Freedom and Sustainability
After the 28 November, 2022 occupation of the Sanders Building at Erasmus University Rotterdam, where I work, by OccupyEUR, the students involved in the very nonviolent protest were violently removed by riot police at the Executive Board’s behest. Not the finest day for our university.
Thankfully, the Executive Board (CvB) are people, not machines. Which means that they felt contrition – a healthy and appropriate emotional response to exaggeratedly preemptively striking out against your own student population, while protecting the business interests of your oil and gas donors. Because of their display of human emotions – whether due to genuine genuflection and soul-searching, or the heaps of bad press their actions precipitated – this provided an unique opportunity for the campus to come together in dialog about the nontransparent kowtowing to the most polluting industries on earth. It brought up the asymmetric application of Erasmian Values, and the underestimation of the actual threats of climate collapse versus the imagined harms that could come from growing a backbone and cutting ties with the fossil fuels (and other ecocidal) industries.
So, my colleagues, many with whom I had organized together a petition for the professorate signed by over 550 university scholars condemning EUR’s police presence and violence against students on campus, the refusal to listen to them and take them seriously as an early warning system, and the university’s involvement in apologetics and social license for the fossil fuel industry – organized a roundtable with the CvB (top leadership) of EUR, as well as with some students and professors, to discuss how to move forward. (You can watch the entire thing here.)
One of the fundamental weaknesses of such a ‘townhall’ model, however, are the following:
(1) The tendency for conversations to go around in circles, with lots of finger pointing, abstraction, and he said she said
(2) The invitation for those who are insincere to actually address the graveness of the situation to blame the wrong people (blame the victim) and play light of the fundamental issues being discussed
(3) The tendency for those who are least informed about an issue to presume that they deserve the loudest voice in reinforcing normalcy bias.
All three of these tendencies were in full force at the Roundtable. Allow me to explain.
Anyone who has studied rhetoric knows the fallacies of argumentation – the weaknesses of thought that allow people to jump prematurely to conclusions. These are often similar to what Daniel Kahneman and others describe as our System 1 (fast, ‘gut’ instinct, emotional) and System 2 (slow, logical, deliberative) ways of thinking. Ironically, many times, those in the Roundtable who were asking for the introduction for accounting for our emotions were actually the most logical, those using their System 2 capabilities more than the others.
Facts matter. That doesn’t mean that we can’t contest them, á la science studies. But to make statements that are patently false, and verifiably false, especially in a moment or event where we are trying to create a collective emotional tone and way forward, is a sort of unintentional violence based on ignorance.
Because there was so much misinformation and fossil fuel talking points in the Roundtable, I routinely teach my students about the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is important to understand because most people know that (1) OccupyEUR did not close down the campus or even the Sanders building; that was the direct reaction (however illogical) of the CvB, which had many other options on the table that due to their preemptive strike mindset, they chose not to follow (so the University Council gentleman who got that wrong, with bravado, simply doesn’t know how the university works, which is understandable and predictable since becoming a council member became a popularity contest rather that a faculty appointment based on excellence); (2) False equivalencies of a group of peaceful protesters doing your labor for you (of raising awareness about the actual level of existential catastrophe of climate change) is somehow morally on-par with right-wing racist extremist groups protesting because they want to kill you (as the University Council dame somehow made this mistake); (3) Shell did not give the Nigerians jobs (as an ESPhil postdoc incorrectly proposed) – Shell and the rest of the colonial fossil fuel predators destroyed the ecology of a thriving and self-sufficient flourishing people, destroying their clean water and ability to farm due to oil slicks. All of these major mistakes could have been prevented if those with the least amount of knowledge could have watched their emotions and realized they didn’t possess the rationality in that moment to contribute meaningfully, but only wished to poison the atmosphere with their virtue signalling hyperbolic doubt.
Any good researcher, like Albert Einstein, Peter Kalmus, Katherine Heyhoe, and Ruha Benjamin, amongst others, are compelled to act on the truths they discover. To do so otherwise would be unethical. To know exactly the cutting edge of climate science and pretend like you can keep on living unmoved in our unsustainable cultural and material oil soup, would be unconscionable. Literally, it would be lobotomizing, to remove our consciousness. Are universities really places for removing empathy and compassion? Are we training each other to become more dead inside, more automatic, more machinelike, for the sake of a death-creating system. I hope not. That’s not what I signed up for.
Unfortunately, the majority of research (money and funding) is focused on the contemporary equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In order to not do the hard sociological and cultural work of developing our conscience and changing the course of locked-in toxic power dynamics, research is exploited to reevaluate things we already know. Downstream versus upstream.
The loss of science in our process of doing science, in our university attempting to be a university, is sad but not surprising. We are happy to pay consultants the big bucks to help us manage people ‘better’ or create more paperwork, or try to get us higher in some rankings, but we’re unwilling to listen to the world-renowned experts at our own institution. This deliberate overlooking of expertise is in order to pretend that there’s not a problem. We’re happy to have worldclass researchers and teachers attracting students, bringing in grant money, and publishing in recognized peer-reviewed journals, but to listen to them on the most important questions of the millenia? Nah, to vulnerable. Too honest to admit that the top brass doesn’t know what they are doing and needs help. It would require being human, admitting mistakes fully, admitting failure even. And admitting, like any addict (to oil, to prestige, to a broken and breaking structure of global gaslighting) that you have a problem. And seeking help. From people who are doctors, and know how to treat this particular addiction. Please listen to us. Please listen to more than your own echochamber. As I mentioned, I’m part of a much larger group of experts, both at our university, and as part of the Climate Social Science Network, a group of people who have read the documents of the largest transnational fossil fuel companies on earth (you can too!), and have been studying these topics for decades, might have some idea of what works best, and what doesn’t. We could discuss the pernicious effects of normalcy bias (don’t look up!), how adaptive preferences assume like Dr. Pangloss that we are living in the best of all possible worlds, the world of agnotology and how ignorance is perpetuated (like a virus) systematically, or how to make sense in a traumatized society. Unlike those on the peak of Mount Stupid in the Dunning-Kruger curve, we have been studying these things with peers and have a recognized discourse and epistemic culture upholding our own Overton window.
Experts who study catastrophic climate change, the end of civilization, the destruction of the Megamachine, and the harm of industrialization, like myself, are always happy to help sincere inquirers. If you are ready to change your mind, and are open to learning, we’re happy to have a conversation with you, and lead you down the path of how we came to the conclusions we hold. All you have to do is ask. Sincerely.
After the event, one of the CvB approached me, and asked me in a blustered matter: “Well, Shell is investing €1 billion in green hydrogen at the Port of Rotterdam. Don’t you think that’s a good thing? Surely, we desperately need the Port to clean up its pollution.” While I agree that the Port of Rotterdam, with its bunker oil-filled ships, the diesel trucks carrying stuff from Europe’s largest port across Europe, I am sure that Shell, like other corporations, does not engage in largess without calculated significant strategic advantage. Perhaps Shell’s investment will give them leverage to retard actualization of hydrogen shipping, or to help reinforce the brain worm that shipping will only increase when in fact it will have to drastically ramp down. I don’t know the actual mechanism at play, because in this case I haven’t looked at their documents on this issue. But to blindly assume that a drop in the bucket of green technology amounts to Shell suddenly becoming (again) The Great White Savior is hogwash. No corporation makes investments without an expected ROI, not just monetarily, but also in terms of securing their social license to operate, and to keep competition out. To not engage in the complexity of these issues is patently unscientific. How can we let such small gestures (compared to their total expenditures and earnings) compensate for the fact, say, that when the Dutch Courts ruled that Shell needed to significantly reduce it’s CO2e output, it jumped ship and reestablished (as UnRoyal and NonDutch Shell) in London? Are our memories so short? Are we so pro-industry that we only remember the greenwashing?
To wit, The New York Times just came out with an article titled “Big Oil Companies Are Bullies That ‘Want to Be Seen as Good Guys’” that discusses how our society is addicted to helping out the worst perpetrators in our society because of their successful global gaslighting that has convinced us that they really are the victims, rather than the violators. The biggest surprise after a year of US Congressional investigation was the “lack of introspection.” Perhaps it is our own lack of introspection that has us falling for their empty promises again and again.
As I publicly proclaimed at the Roundtable: even if we have a love affair with Shell and other genocidal fossil fueled groups, if we really love them, we need to set them free, and if they come back, then we know it’s meant to be. We must break all relations with these poisoning groups, and if their actions change, at a later point, may reconsider. But business as usual is killing them and us.
In these times of moral and material darkness, let us remember that especially if you find yourself on the side of hate and ignorance, that there is work to be done. And for the rest of us too, that to move forward, we will have to sacrifice our egos (however hard it may be for me!) in order to achieve a better world for all, even for those kicking and screaming against their own very most exquisite self-interest.
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
― St. Francis of Assisi
Decolonizing plant hierarchies in intelligence taxonomies
In her editorial about my ‘Plant Philosophy and Interpretation: Making Sense of Contemporary Plant Intelligence Debates’ article in Environmental Values, Elke Pirgmaier writes
‘Plant Philosophy and Interpretation: Making Sense of Contemporary Plant Intelligence Debates’ by Yogi H. Hendlin addresses the question how to raise the status of plants as worthy of care and protection. There is agree- ment amongst plant biologists that plants are intelligent. They have an ability to sense and respond to signals in their environment, via airborne chemical aromatics and root systems, and they have certain basic capacities of memory. They are thus not deterministic machines, but sensitive beings capable of intentional cooperation and coordination. Yet, disagreement arises as to how to interpret such findings and what they imply for ethics.
The relatively recent field of ‘plant neurobiology’ draws analogies between human/animal intelligence with those of plants, by adopting a language that suggests that plants have ‘brains’ and ‘neurons’ and ‘consciousness’. Hendlin argues that adopting an approach of portraying plants as ‘similar to us’, is misguided because it taps into value hierarchies which subordinate plants to animals that we aim to transcend in the project of decolonising scientific methodologies. He calls us to stop such ‘ontological violence’ against plants, and rather to honour them on their own terms. He advocates pluralism – epistemically, ontologically and ethically – and an ethics of different, not lesser. ‘Comparing plants to humans or animals undervalues the true marvels of plant behaviour on their own merits, which fails to value the evolutionary abilities they perform that animals and humans cannot. […] Respect for other beings, it turns out, has less to do with them, and more to do with us’ (Hendlin 2022: 264).World, Word, Work
What do we mean by thinking ‘upstream’? A look at 3 levels
The Abbott Baby Formula catastrophe is what I’ve been writing about for years: it doesn’t matter if you’re making nuclear missiles or baby food, the industrial model predictably results in industrial epidemics.
Here, I will look at how this story is told from three different points of view.
New York Times predictably goes the ‘what went wrong’ approach, pointing the finger every which way, compounding the confusion and simultaneously providing an alibi for it, and all associated snafus. This corrupt world paradigm is self-entrenching.
In other words, NYTimes gives the human interest story with the it was everybody’s fault story, hard to assign blame story – just like they did on the Flint Michigan lead corporate-state crime.
Next, let’s look at that old red rag, The Jacobin. They rally around that dog whistle of the poor being sacrificed for the rich, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift. Markets are the bad guys, we’re told, and that’s why this corp killed babies with it’s corner-cutting behavior.
Finally, we could ask the questions: Why should baby formula not be a nationalized product, a non-profit service? And, why don’t we work on helping women breastfeed, and resurrect wet nurses?
Designed to Break: planned obsolescence as corporate environmental crime (new paper)
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.
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.
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 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.
corona and climate – still relevant
Environmental philosopher and public health scientist Yogi Hale Hendlin will discuss the relationship between climate and viruses during this webinar and argues for a drastic change in behavior instead of treating symptoms. Is our relationship to flora and fauna not partly to blame for the current crisis? Which insights from climate research offer a perspective for the corona crisis, and vice versa? And how these two pandemics – one infectious, the other chronic – intertwined?
When we farm fish, do we think that, perhaps, we’re being farmed as well? If not? Why not?
When we bind life to fulfilling one function: delivering to us what we think we need; do we ponder whether our life also is bound to what someone else desires?
When we subordinate another, do we think that in this same process we are also being subordinated?
These are not idle thoughts, but the fruits of different ontologies. If we believed, for instance, in the Kantian Categorical Imperative – popularized as the ‘do unto others as they would do unto you’ Golden Rule – perhaps more advanced cultures, such as various indigenous peoples and cultures that still venerate wisdom, sophia, might understand it thusly:
It is not just wrong to make another your instrument (your tool) because it takes away their autonomy and agency and cheapens their life and does not develop their capacities not enable the universe to experience more flourishing which could lead to morphic resonance of higher echelons of joy for all – it is because when we involve ourselves in instrumentalism, we become tools.
Hegel basically said as much in his Master-Slave dialectic in Phenomenology of Spirit. When we outsource tasks, we also lose our ability to do things that might again become necessary. By commanding, we also become dependent. It’s like the modern white collar worker who can make you an excel spreadsheet but can’t change his own tires. That’s why when we outsource the growing of our food, we become slaves (or addicted, or susceptible) to the machinations of oligopolists providing our food. They can do anything they want, and unless we’re willing to seriously challenge their power, we’re helpless.
But the thing about instrumentalism which is so rich, is that in a relational ontology/cosmology, you are what you eat eats, to quote Michael Pollan. It’s not just that you do something and get away with it or not according to cosmic laws, but that depending on how you care for and treat yourself and the world, the laws governing reality (for you) themselves change. And when enough people make certain decisions, to enslave and instrumentalize, the planetary oversoul, or noösphere itself reflects the shared practices, calls in attractor energies, and signal boosts them.
This is part of why the relativists and constructivists are on to something. Reality does morph and transform according to how we relate. But that doesn’t mean that you can just do whatever you want with impunity. To the contrary, it becomes very clear that just the opposite conclusion is warranted. The fabric of the responsive universe (Meeting the Universe Halfway, thanks Karen Barad) folds to amplify and feedback our impulse. We have creative direction to alter – but not dominate – the relationship of the circuits of fate and possibility. So, it really matters if our heart is kind, our mind is unperturbed, and our body is feeling at peace, so that we can radiate in our thoughts, emotions, actions, intentions – extensions of these frequencies, rather than ones of rancor, hate, resentment, ressentiment, shame, guilt, regret, not-being-good-enough, imposter syndrome, etc.
In conventional reality, none of this really matters. The rules of the game are given by either nature or culture (natural law or positive law) in a fixed manner. They don’t change. So all you have to do is to learn them and stick with them. And then once you get good and getting consistent results, you can learn where you can cut corners. And as you cut more corners and cheat a little bit, you can notice where in your life the ripple effects of karma from such actions supersede on your mission, or not. Are all cheats just boons, unqualified goods? Or, does such ‘cleverness’ kick you in the but, destroy your sleep, keep nagging worry and anxiety eroding your quality of life? Or worse: do the thinks that you care about start crumbling around you, and you don’t know how to cope, so you just double down on extractive behavior?
These are things we should ponder, and get clear from the outset. This should be the first question we ask of each other before we shake hands.
Jan 6 2021 and Sept 11 2001
Predictably, more surveillance and bigger data is the answer to dealing with terrorism, this time domestic.
In many ways, this is predictable enough. We need more police power, more data, more panopticon. Not better education, better prosecution of high up officials who goaded the failed coup d’etat, more social cohesion. No, that would actually achieve the end. But the end isn’t the end, viz., the goal is to accrue more power and legibility, not to actually stop terrorism. This cycle of reactivity, to only use the tools of violence, rather than reassessing social engineering and design, is exactly how you get more coup d’etats. On a logical level, it’s almost funny, if it weren’t for the dire consequences, and world-historic mess-ups.
Right now, the US Democrats are part of this treason, doing everything in their power to let voting be corrupted, districts gerrymandered, and terrorists win. There is no authority in the Democrats – they do nothing to staunch the bleeding, but only through gaff after gaff make themselves less potent to represent those they are elected to represent.
It is end times for traditional politics. The right and the left are no longer so clear cut. The long slide towards dictatorship is almost complete – and the mainstream hasn’t noticed this whole time. Those sounding the alarm for the past century have been marginalized, outside the meticulously kept Overton window of acceptable discourse.
There are no winners in this folly. Such inaction now – according to Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance – assures much more intolerance and violence in the future. The system is gearing up for mutual dehumanization, increased deliberate misunderstanding, and a complete meltdown (which is already occurring in not-so-slow motion, if you’ve been watching). Social-ecological-political-economic meltdown is already happening and has been happening for those most marginalized, discriminated against, and materially compromised. Now, it’s beginning to happen to the rest of us. But right now, unless we actually see coordinated, organized leadership in the US government, we’re digging the country’s own grave.
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.
In an Earth Day issue of Time magazine (April 26/ May3 2021), we have an advertisement from the RJ Reynolds (or Reynolds American) tobacco company “Natural” American Spirits proclaiming “in more ways than one, bees are worthy of our love.” Yes, we ought to love the bees, and smoke cigarettes made by BAT (the owner of Reynolds), the #2 largest tobacco company on earth. This is what we call “bee washing,” and companies use it because it works.
In my recently published paper “Colony Collapse and the Global Swarm to save the Bees: Sacred Relations with Bees in Film and Literature” I discuss how such instances of beewashing work, and why we are attracted to these pollinators, and why creating (and then abusing) a spiritual connection with bees comes so naturally.
“Beewashing” is using “save the bees” pleas to sell more product.
It resonates with people because for some odd reason, just like early Christian monks organized their monastery on the beehive, we know deep down that the fate of the bees and our fates are intertwined. As Einstein quipped, if bees disappear from the earth, humanity soon follows.
My paper looks beyond the rational reasons for why humans seem to be so captivated by bees – why we are willing to act for them, despite their puny size and relatively difficult to anthropomorphize characteristics (charismatic microfauna, they have been called).
I look at the documentary #QueenoftheSun and novel #FifthSacredThing by Starhawk as depictions of human-bee interspecies relationships based on love & reciprocity as indicative of the spiritual undergirding driving our defense of bees, and suggest such goodwill travels to other contexts. I conclude that connecting with people’s more theological and cosmological orientations is a successful way to motivate falling in love with the earth again, and attending to those aspects of the world deemed expendable in meeting our needs through industrial means. Such care and connection is not without it’s own illusions and perils, but remains an inextricable thread to solving our global climate crisis of meaning as well as material mattering.
Time to Clear the Air on EUR Smokefree Policies
From Erasmus Magazine’s misrepresentative title “Smoke-free campus: responsible decision or counter-productive?” for the very pro smokefree campus comments from students actually interviewed in the article to the irresponsible and juvenile “Free to Smoke Zone” cartoon, it appears that more than sentiments of staff or students, it is Erasmus Magazine itself which is against the inevitable. A national law prohibiting smoking on the campuses of all institutions of learning countrywide, EM’s attempt to foment controversy where there is little, is either just clickbait or jousting at windmills.
Granted, EUR could have done better at communicating the law and what that means for students. This would have happened normally, but we are not in normal times.
Furthermore, there are a number of structural issues preventing a smooth transition to the current regulations. For example, at EUR there are no experts on tobacco control in the Smokefree Working Group. Only recently did the university form a “think tank” as an afterthought to address this oversight. In not putting the science of going smokefree on campuses first and foremost, the university has abdicated its responsibility to be science-based in its policy making. Instead, in shying away from actually affective, clear, and unambiguous actions, it is setting itself up to fail on every dimension. Lack of clear communication of the new rules and support for smokers is bound to make some smokers angry because they won’t know the details, and it won’t be clear what the rules or penalties are. EUR’s delay on this issue will also make nonsmokers upset because the national law says that people can’t smoke on campuses of educational institutions but EUR has not yet effective achieved, based on a cowardliness to stand behind clear and fair preventative measures and penalties. And EUR may even fail to comply with the national law, which could cost our university fines from the government, bleeding our university unnecessarily, when we have already suffered budget cuts. Plus, EUR’s potential failure to comply with laws sours our reputation versus business and governmental partners with whom we might pursue future contact.
Especially in times of corona, which is a respiratory disease, smoking will only make it worse. If we have social distancing on campus, lowering the quality of education and costing faculties untold hours of suffering in adjusting to the double responsibility of hybrid education, then we must certainly do our due diligence in not creating more disease vectors on campus. If we’re wearing masks to prevent viruses from entering our nasal passages, it makes only sense to get rid of non-essential pollution sources that weaken our immune system and predispose us to sickness.
BMJ article on conflicts of interest in the tanning industry just published
Working at the CTCRE at UCSF allowed me to meet all sorts of medical practitioners aware of the influence of industry on the health of their patients.
One of those people I happened to meet, was Eleni Linos (now at Stanford), a dermatologist who had noticed throughout the years the influence of the tanning industry on spreading disinformation to the public on the health harms of tanning.
Lola Adekunle, Rebecca Chen, Lily Morrison, Meghan Halley, Victor Eng, Yogi Hendlin, Mackenzie R Wehner, Mary-Margaret Chren, and Eleni Linos’ paper “Association between financial links to indoor tanning industry and conclusions of published studies on indoor tanning: systematic review,” challenges the invisibility of industry as it attempts to blend in its research into the scientific public record. Our paper shows the impressive discrepancy between the scientific conclusions on the health harms of tanning studies with financial links to the indoor tanning industry found, versus those of independent, non-financially-interested researchers.
Jerod Stapleton also published for the British Journal of Medicine an editorial on our article, concluding that “We must challenge industry attempts to change the conversation about tanning.” Stapleton is no stranger to the harms of tanning, having conducted significant research on the health outcomes, as well as leading a paper in JAMA Pediatrics titled “The American Suntanning Association: a “science-first organization” with a biased scientific agenda.” Indeed, according to the tanning industry’s January 2015 issue of Smart Tan, the ASA succeeded in convincing (bullying?) the CDC to remove claims of a 75% increase in melanoma risk from sunbed use that had previously been displayed on the CDC website.
Changing Hearts and Minds: Jan 30-31 conference at EUR
As co-organizer of the Positive state obligations concerning fundamental rights and ‘changing the hearts and minds’ conference at Erasmus University Rotterdam January 30-31, 2020, I cordially invite my colleagues working on cognate topics to attend.
The conference is free of charge, but registration must be completed beforehand.
This international conference will cover topics of enduring relevance and growing importance concerning (the reach of) positive state obligations in relation to prejudice and discrimination; and will address these from a multidisciplinary perspective.
While it stems from a legal perspective, the contributions go far beyond traditional definitions of the law to reach into the societal movements and norms that create and influence law.
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.
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.
Having myself attended the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002, in an action with AdBusters, I too was de-badged as US representative to the meeting Colin Powell obfuscated effective action. That was 17 years ago. Things have gotten even worse since then, and now climate chaos is felt in every part of the world.
The question remains: what will it take before we prioritize life over profit?
Will the currents have to stop? Massive crop failures from extreme weather events? Heat waves that kill millions? Dikes cracking from prolonged droughts? Wild fires destroying trillions of dollars of real estate? The end of business as usual as commodity chains break down?
The problem is, in our current system, there simply is no circuit breaker. There is nothing that could happen – within our current dominant mindset – that would force action. It’s like the person bleeding profusely who swears they’re healthy until they fall over and die, instead of getting the help they need and interceding on the “inevitable.”
Climate chaos is a spectrum. The more we double down with ignorance and denialism, the worse it gets. The sooner we clean up our act, the less possibility that doomerism will be correct. The irony of deterministic ideas such as “Well, we destroyed the climate, so might as well enjoy the luxuries before they’re all gone,” is that the path is made by walking. Yes, we have created since the industrial revolution, a tremendous amount of path dependency, creating ozone holes, the 6th great extinction, and making life on earth very difficult for the next hundred (or thousand – our choice) years.
But, what we do now crucially influences whether we get to keep some of the goods of human civilizations while jettisoning as soon as possible the bads; or, if we take out the majority of complex life on earth out with our species. It’s our choice. But it requires completely reorganizing society according to our interspecies interdependence, and revere the processes of nature which human artifice and systems of control and domination have swerved into dysfunctional and perverse fragmentation.
National Geographic and Guardian Articles about Ecigarette Waste and EPR
In the flurry of the semester starting, I’ve been remiss in updating this blog with a couple important articles that have come out in the press discussing the environmental harms of electronic cigarette (ecig) electronic waste (ewaste).
Both The Guardian and National Geographic did excellent jobs surveying the topic and getting across the complexities as well as most important points. And I’m grateful to through interviews have been able to contribute to these articles.
I think the most important point I made in The Guardian article is the need for Extended Producer Responsibility, and how it practically works:
Hendlin said he and other environmental advocates have endorsed an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) model for e-cigarettes – one JUUL is considering. This would include charging users an extra deposit (ie $1.00 per pod, $5.00 per vape unit) that consumers get back when they return them, practices like returning old packaging to JUUL after receiving new pods each month, and refunding or giving credits for returned pods/vapes.https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/aug/26/vapings-other-problem-are-e-cigarettes-creating-a-recycling-disaster
What made me want to puke however, is just before I was settling down with my popcorn to watch the (excellent!) National Geographic video they made on the effects of e-cig waste, I was subject to a 15-second propaganda piece by the grandmasters of waste and treachery themselves, Nestle. Especially as in my piece in The Conversation, I write
The two largest global brands of capsule coffee, Nespresso and Keurig, are regarded by many as environmental nightmares. Billions of the throwaway nonrecyclable plastic products currently clutter waste dumps, waterways and city streets. Both inventor of the “K-cups” John Sylvan and former Nespresso CEO Jean-Paul Gaillard have publicly bemoaned the environmental consequences of the products they once championed. Sylvan has stated that the disposable (but not biodegradable) coffee capsule is “like a cigarette for coffee, a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance.”https://theconversation.com/e-cigarettes-and-a-new-threat-how-to-dispose-of-them-105096
The comparison between cigarette butts and capsule coffee is surprisingly fitting. Both butts and capsules are intentionally designed to be convenient, single-use products. Both are also nonbiodegradable and unrecyclable. As pervasive and polluting as cigarette butts are, however, the e-waste from e-cigarettes presents an even more apt comparison.https://theconversation.com/e-cigarettes-and-a-new-threat-how-to-dispose-of-them-105096
You can imagine how I felt then, when Nestle pimps this feel-good (Spanish language!) advertisement at me, never mentioning the billions and billions and billions of plastic-metal-paper non-recyclable single-use bad-tasting coffee hits it blights the planet with each year.
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.
“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.
Why then, at my first ISEE conference, in Utrecht, which was a 30 minute train ride from my home in Rotterdam, am I bombarded with 1960s style catering?
I know, I know. Why pick on such a minor detail? After all, the content of the meeting is driving policies far more important than some PC peccadillo having to do with food, right?
I do not dispute the good of bringing people together here. I do not dispute the good of the research, the necessity of the work. But I do object to the weak argument that because of all the other good being done, that we can ignore our own personal emissions and harms, that we can refuse responsibility to do our part, to do better, to be the change we wish to see in the world.
The metaphor is how discredited Al Gore has been for flying all around the world on his private jet to promote sustainability. It doesn’t pass the smell test. How can we say, “Do as I say, not as I do?” It’s this sort of elitist thinking that got us into this quandary in the first place.
Example A. In a Symposium session today on “A World less dependent on fossil fuels — scientific evidence and corporate influence,” a presenter brought up the fact that the way academic conferences are organized are going to have to change. But, the presenter said the AMA (American Medical Association) has to change, but immediately addended his comment with, “But not the ISEE.” I and a few others blurted out “Why not?” Why is our precious little conference exonerated? How are we any different, except for our smaller size? People still are arriving from all over the globe via airplanes to spend 3 days presenting a 10 minute paper and then hanging around nervously at the peripheries hardly communicating with people they didn’t already know.
Which leads me to the point of my post.
I have been to APHA and many other larger and smaller conferences, in Europe and the US, and I am sorry to say that this is the least environmentally sustainable conference I have ever been to. The fact that hundreds of thousands of pieces of single-use plastic are being used every day for this conference should be sobering to us all.
And the fact the majority of the food is meat and animal-based shows the height of hypocrisy on environmental issues—not leadership.
Therefore, I propose that the ISEE adopt the following two binding resolutions, effective immediately, and for all future conferences:
(1) Conference organizers and any other contracted companies and caterers shall only use reusable forks, knives, spoons, plates, bowls, cups, and other food ware items. This includes no longer relying on single-use creamers, sugars, etc.
(If the ISEE and its conference organizers are still addicted to disposables, at least have them be PLA (compostable bioplastics), which is a far second-best to washing actual silverware and dishes, but is still better than sucking down more on the plastic-petrol pipeline.)
(2) In light of the well-documented harmful effects to personal and planetary health, ISEE conferences and gatherings shall only serve vegetarian meals, with a minimum of 50% of all meal items being vegan (and clearly labeled). This is consistent with the evidence base and ISEE’s leadership in walking our talk on health and climate change.
Please forward these resolutions to the authorizing boards, and let me know the outcome of the vote.
I see this as a beginning, not a destination. Complacency on these issues will just make the ISEE less relevant. For example, the name badges are oversized non-recyclable hard plastics. A huge amount of waste. And instead of giving steel water bottles out at every conference, just start selling them, and advertise in large font “BRING YOUR OWN REUSABLE WATER BOTTLE.” A little prevention goes a long way. But we, more than anyone, environmental epidemiologists, already knew that.
It turns out, that in the ISEE’s 2018 meeting in Ottowa, Canada, a country quickly becoming synonymous with oil power obliterating public health, that affiliated societies part of the ISES-ISEE joint conference received financial sponsorship by ExxonMobil — a huge conflict of interest! That the ISEE, and its local organizers let this one “slip past them,” is a huge cognitive-ethical bungle. How can public health researchers be credible in evaluating the science of pollution when they are lining their pockets and funding their meetings with those very same polluters’ dollars?
In the Introduction to the symposium on “A world less dependent on fossil fuels – scientific evidence and corporate influence” Prof. Dr. Manolis Kogevinas, Research Professor of the NCDs Program at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, gave a talk on August 26th, 2019 that included the following abstract:
The Symposium organised by the Policy Committee of ISEE originated following the widespread surprise and annoyance of our members from the sponsorship of the 2018 ISES-ISEE joint conference in Ottawa by ExxonMobil. ISEE did not directly accept these funds but other societies are more willing to accept them.
We will argue that organizations representing health researchers should not accept support from the fossil fuel extraction companies. Banning health research funded by the tobacco industry helped bring major public health gains; we will argue that we should do the same with BigOil. We further argue that ISEE should become more vocal on this issue and promote measures such as divestment from these industries.
There are three main reasons for taking this position: (i) The most important is that fossil fuel industries are major determinants of human disease and environmental deterioration; (ii) The second is that they knew! Like the tobacco industry, Big Oil knew for decades that their products could make the planet uninhabitable, and intentionally buried the evidence; (iii) The third reason is that like our stand against the tobacco industry that resulted to significant public health advances, we should take a categorical, effective and clear-cut position against the products and actions of these harmful industries. The science is more than adequate to warrant action. Unless we do this, we will not be able to effectively convince the lay public and our politicians of the urgency with which we must mobilise.
The proposed Symposium will illustrate major aspects of health consequences of fossil fuel combustion and the reactions of the industry trying to influence epidemiological research. We will discuss on the way epidemiologists should continue providing essential support to health policies avoiding corporate interests while encouraging industry and other stakeholder involvement as a part of the solution to the problem.
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.
Disposable is NOT Environmental
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:
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.
New Article: Environmental Justice as a Potentially Hegemonic Concept
As part of my project on land rights in Latin America, a recent paper titled “Environmental justice as a (potentially) hegemonic concept: a historical look at competing interests between the MST and indigenous people in Brazil” appears in Local Environment.
Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability is associated with the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), the international environmental agency for local governments which evaluates and present the methods and tools necessary to achieve local sustainable development worldwide.
My article suggests that by understanding the origins of the Movimiento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra (MST) as a government-driven clash between the state-sanctioned land claims of indigenous peoples (the Kaingang, in this case) and landless peasants, groups mounting environmental justice campaigns can fruitfully work together in solidarity with other groups. Through analyzing this case study, the weakness of environmental justice movements, I claim, arises when marginalized groups are willing to accept land or other concessions not at the cost of those best off, but off the backs of groups even more marginalized than themselves.
The tendency for government concessions responding to successful protests by borrowing from the resources of the poor to redistribute them to those most fervently clamoring for change, rather than disrupting the status quo and redistributing concentrated land and wealth holdings among the rich, is precisely the problem many environmental justice movements historically and today face.
Hegemony serves as a useful analytic through which to process of distal transfer of resources (from periphery to center) indicative of colonialism. Many environmental justice crises arise from the same properties that arose during historical colonialism and its aftermath, but are not confined to it. Resolving unequal distributions of labor according to gender is another aspect which environmental justice movements such as the MST have aggressively sought to ameliorate, even if such entrenched hierarchies still are actively being deconstructed.
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