Semiofest, the largest meeting and organization professional semioticians (working commercially rather than academically) just had a session biosemiotics. In many ways, it was also sustainability 2.0, tackling the issues of performativity and power in how we make sense of our social and natural world.
My own presentation urged commercial semioticians to “select wider” than advertising to our parasites, suggesting that we can get better results (for whom? over what time span?) advertising to holobionts.
What does select wider mean? It means focusing less on whatever we think the problem is and more on contexts, environments. As Mazzy Cameron puts it: “Companies looking to send their employees to a one-hour training to promote joy, only to return their employees to their toxic environment will fail fast.” Fixing localized symptoms can never do justice to the diffused, far-reaching genesis of disease. To do otherwise that address systemic, long-term, and diffuse sources of health and disease is to offer snake oil, to sell false promises and cures that don’t work. Desperate people will sometimes fall for grift. But eventually such grifting runs out of new markets. It is a self-undermining business model. Sustainable semiotics isn’t just about sustaining profit, though that comes along the way too, as a positive side-effect. Sustainable semiotics is about creating the conditions for continued sensemaking, not just leeching on epistemic commons as a form of extended sensetaking.
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.
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.
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 articlegets 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.
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.
I have a new blog post over at the Erasmus University Rotterdam initiative I’m a part of, the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity. This interdisciplinary research team from law, business, and philosophy brings together mavericks who work across disciplines, and are both cognitively and operationally open to working with and between traditionally-siloed faculties.
My latest contribution, Interspecies Prosperity: What it is and why it matters, deals with the paradox of health. As long as we’re preoccupied with our own health and well-being, if we are so to the detriment of our surrounding ecosystem, we end up getting sick, as we are of course permeable membranes to our environments. Hurting others to get ahead ipso facto produces the types of results in public health that we’re seeing today in the US, for example: 4 years straight of decreasing life expectancy. We’ve sunk all the carbon sinks, and compounded the growth on a finite space. Increasingly, in medicine, major institutions as well as rank and file physicians realize that we have to tackle environmental degradation and the climate crisis if we care about health, both at the individual and collective levels. This shift in priorities in medicine of course clashes both with personalized medicine and other expensive and pay-to-play forms of care. Unless we take care of our commons, our medical outcomes are going to be stochastically worse. Even it it’s not me or you, our chances of thriving and surviving go down significantly when we’re breathing contaminated air, have microplastics in our food and water, and toxins in everything we come in contact with. So, we have to learn the hard work of care for our environment, caring for our locality, and also the extension of commodity chains that like lashes connected to our every movement reverberate around the world in their ramifications. We have to learn to work together to take responsibility to clean up this mess. That will be the best medical insurance we can buy.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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:
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.
As the New York Times recently reported, State SenatorScott Weiner’s California Legislature bill to increase density allotments along transit corridors is a much-needed method to solve both housing and environmental burdens. Driving, no matter how you slice it, takes more energy than public transportation, so getting people on high-quality and convenient public transportation, is a sustainability priority.
Unsurprising, however, is that many of the bluechip environmental groups, like Sierra Club, oppose higher density housing zoning near transit centers because their members may be negatively affected by, say, decreased property values from higher density. Such self-serving agendas are understandable, if misguided. Those who got in early in a housing rush, enjoy their peace and privacy, and higher density changes the feel of the neighborhood. On the other hand, a commitment to sustainability, which really means finding a livable way to continue business as usual as much as possible without too much discomfort (like cataclysmic climate change), requires simple measures like smart zoning in order to make it happen. The very notion of a transition town, or a sustainable city is based on accessible public transportation. We shouldn’t fail to see the forest of preventing climate change through the trees of inconvenience. Sustainability means that we all make some small sacrifices now in order to prevent much larger ones down the road.
Sharing the sacrifice is a fundamental principle of democratic societies. For too long, women, people of color, and the poor have had to make sacrifices (living further from work, paying more than half of their paycheck in rent, etc.) while the middle-class and wealthy have serially insulated themselves from as severe costs. Having mixed neighborhoods is a small but important gesture from those who comprise well-funded environmental groups. Overcoming internal resistance to change will allow greater accessibility for those in need of convenient housing. Higher density live/work areas (like any major city in Europe) is smart, low-carbon planning. It is effective because it obviates the need for a car. Sustainable cities are resilient because they have redundancy (more than one way to get to work), flexibility (if one option is closed, take the other), diversity, and slack (abundance, more than enough niches for everyone). California can achieve this much better with more environmentally-sound zoning. One can only hope that the major, private donor-funded environmental orgs can get on the right side of history.
One of the things that resonates the most about systems theory, is that it focuses on how different pieces of large puzzles interrelate and interlock. For, it is the inter aspect that gives phenomena movement, gusto, dynamism, spark. Speaking of things, essences, stuff, or problems, tends to slump description into the corner of inexorability, and worse, resignation.
When we look at climate change, war mongering, oil interests, urban design, transport diversity, and factory farming in concert, then suddenly, the intractable problems of each become much more tractable. The haze lifts, and the easy solutions abound. Instead of the Sisyphusian task of unravelling Gordian Knots (to mix my Greek metaphors), like Alexander the Great, we simply cut through it. With systems thinking, we cut through the lies, the bad habits, the greed, excuses, and story. We take care of what calls for attending, without the oppositionality, the rage, hate, or anger. We don’t even resent the system of destruction that has killed millions, and will likely kill billions more (not to mention the thousands of species extinct, priceless waterways despoiled, mountains detonated, etc.).
No, instead, a systems view asks: what is the most opportune point of intervention? Where can I (and we, because it is always a we, this I) most skillfully intervene now? What is the first step? And then: what is the next step after that?
Having a goal is important. We don’t want to make great time in the wrong direction, to paraphrase Yogi Berra. But, planning without action does little good to soothe our own anxieties, nor to shine as an examples. Nor does it form good habits, to think without acting, for we shall too soon grow content with such a pattern, forgetting the thrill of satisfaction when we follow through with a dedicated plan.
Paul Hawkins’ new book and ground-restoring Project Drawdown has made this plan, indicating the best points for intervention in our anthropo-patriarchal-colonialist-scene. This blueprint shows the problem, in its glorious complexity, and details what interventions will produce what results. México, the first developing country to take the lead in reducing emissions through a carbon trading plan, is working on an important component of drawing down CO2 from industrial producers. Of course, a carbon tax is much smarter policy than a cap-and-trade system, as most climate policy scientists agree. Nonetheless, such leadership as México’s will no doubt have a cascading effect on other developing and BRIC countries, as the rest of the world gains more power as climate leaders in the vacuum left by the Trump presidency. Brazil and China are already stepping up, in various ways, and the US may soon be an island, exceptional only because no other country wants to trade with it until it institutes strong sustainability policies.
Understanding the changing dynamics of international politics through US abdication of responsibility despite its role as the world’s largest economy, and 2nd largest polluter (likely first largest, when we include Chinese imports), helps contextualize the contemporary situation. While from a media-saturated point-of-view, Trump and co. are dead-set on bringing about the apocalypse, from an international perspective, the long-overdue transfer of power to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America is simply being accomplished as these areas reduce trade with the US and stop looking to the US for guidance. What emerges from this transition will be exciting to watch. Perhaps an improved UN? Perhaps planetary citizenship, doing away with the need for climate refugees, instead implementing climate justice? Perhaps a new healthy form of regionalism? Perhaps reduced consumption? These exciting times promise nothing, but offer many exciting paths.
The 2016 Oxford University Press book The Greening of Everyday Life: Challenging Practices, Imagining Possibilities I contributed a chapter to on “Bicycling and the Politics of Recognition,” has received a kind review from environmental philosopher Robert Paehlke.
Two chapters on mobility, Chapter 13 on automobility (John Meyer) and Chapter 14 on cycling (Yogi Hendlin) were particularly interesting to me…
Hendlin brilliantly conveys cycling’s ethos and challenges. Cars rule the roads ‘granting cycling little latitude to freely compete as a viable form of mobility’ (p. 232). Redesigning roads is a complex undertaking. I hold Copenhagen and Amsterdam in awe and my nephew’s wife is an environmental engineer doing cycle route design in Maryland. Hendlin shows the ways most cyclists in North America are still second class citizens – and why this may not be entirely a bad thing in terms of motivating needed change of many kinds…
Overall this volume is academically important because it grounds greening in theoretically-grounded case-based research. Simultaneously, it is also helpful to those considering the personal and political implications of greening their own everyday existence.
It’s gratifying to see this volume, which emerged from an invite-only conference at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, be recognized by our environmental political theory peers as a book bridging the theoretical and practical through applying theoretical analysis to environmental case studies.
If you haven’t read the book yet, do ask your library to acquire it!
A good friend of mine, from Austria of all places, found herself in Miami amongst the evacuations.
She posted to Facebook:
Thank you everyone for your sweet messages! Yes – I am still in Miami and not sure if I have a chance to leave before the hurricane hits Florida…All flights are sold out and no gas for cars…I trust that things will turn out the way they should and staying like the hurricane in the centre where its calm and safe. LOVE YOU ALL
What is striking to me is the ordinariness of the disaster paradigm in an anarcho-capitalist country: I’ll take care of me, if you can’t take care of you, too bad, you may die.
This logic of individual privilege is about as far from “civilized” as I can imagine. It’s the Mad Max world many fear. But the future is here. It’s been here for a long time. Comparing Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s victims, and the response to that of Fukushima Daichi shows that in both cases, those exposed to radiation and surviving, me(e)t ostracization, fear, and pariahdom. Also, after the Fukushima disaster, women, the poor, the disabled, and the old, often had less ability to immediately flee the area than their male, rich, abled, younger counterparts.
So, it seems that willy-nilly, and against the very basis of the US Constitutional Rights, in times of crisis, we have created a system that disadvantages and leaves behind those most vulnerable. In this case of my friend, foreigners.
Of course, this is already a tired story. Hurricane Katrina neatly showed us the racism of America, before the Tea Party and the boogieman threat of an African-American president.
But when I hear from a good friend “all flights are sold out and [there is] no gas for cars,” it somehow drives home the point of the systematicity of the problem, causing me to balk at the possibility for democracy, equity, and solidarity in a future of empty supermarkets and broken water infrastructure.
Just as our streets are unsafe, and those differently abled, slower, or less normatively predictable (the elderly and children especially), are especially at danger to the road rage that has infected virtually every driver. The barriers of separation have been expertly erected, from cars to climate-conditioned bubbles, have over the generations done their work, seeping into a generalized disconnection from others we don’t know and who we don’t identify as our tribe. Cheered on by the feedback loop of narcissistic social media advertising, our biases get entrenched rather than checked in a predatory advertising free-for-all.
What still amazes me, is the fact that human survival has turned into this constructed Social Darwinism, that shrinks our circle of concern in the face of crisis. Those without family, or broadcast ability, are simply forgotten and left behind.
As it turns out, Lisa found a way out of Miami, on the very last climate-changing flight out of Miami before Irma hit. But I cannot help but wonder about all of those who were left behind, to rot in the rush of countless souls attempting to save their own.
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