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.

(Like climate change, addressing corporate power is often a whataboutism exercise in misdirection)

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 Verdict

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.

Skiing in the anthropocene

For my 41st birthday, my family went skiing at La Rosiere, in the French Alps. Today, I got to go skiing into Italy and back – no passport checks necessary! Truly a unique experience!

I hadn’t gone skiing for years, since I was visiting my friend Josh in the Austrian Alps a few years ago, and he lent me some equipment and we got 10€ lift tickets on a very snowy day.

In contrast, today it was blazing hot. It hasn’t snowed here in over 3 weeks, in January. And this is top snow territory for the French Alps – we’re within sight of Mont Blanc. This is just one more sign that things are out of whack climatically.

Despite the shortened seasons, threatening the livelihoods of those working in the ski industry, I see tons of cars everywhere; petrol fueled snow mobiles, helicopters, and tour buses; meat as the main offering on every menu. So far, I haven’t seen any public transportation (gondolas from the train station up the mountain, or electric buses) that would cut down on the air pollution here in these beautiful mountains. It’s car-centric, even in the mountains.

Clearly, the understanding of what constitutes ‘environmentalism’ is skewed towards denial, displacement, and sustaining the unsustainable. The idea that ski lifts and resorts are actually re-glaciating mountains with ‘snowguns’ (their word, not mine) is ludicrous. If people (like me) weren’t cruising around in cars (and others flying in) to sit on (likely nuclear-powered) electric ski lifts rammed into the rock of the mountain, maybe the mountains would have bit more snow, dontcha think?

I know that mountains are harmed through ski-lifts, artificial snow making makes things worse (even if they think it makes it better). I face myself as an ordinary human, not meaningfully destroying the environment, nor as some eco-saint. I am aware of the contradictions of living in a compromised world, and the absurdities even of downhill skiing (as opposed to cross-country, which is as far as I can see, a totally amazing, challenging, but eco-neutral activity). And yet, I indulge, just like some people who are effective and ardent environmentalists still occasionally choose to fly, or eat meat. I’m not an abolitionist, nor an austere monk punishing myself for having desires. I attempt to reflect on my desires, their cultural creation, the interplay of external and internal desires, wants versus needs, and balance to live a full and flourishing life dedicated to the flourishing of all life – which necessarily involves killing and damaging those I care about. I see this realism as part of a trauma-informed perspective on life minimizing ideology.

And that is why I implore and encourage all those organizations and companies and governments I interact with to do better. To design our choices better, to open choices, and to choose differently than dead-end necro-industrialism.

For example, La Rosiere spends about 1% on replanting trees that directly or indirectly were lost from their activities compared to their new Club Med resort, which they mislabel as sustainable development.

Of course, it is a good thing that La Rosiere gives a 15% discount on lift-ticket for taking the train. It’s a great motivator! But removing cars and asphalt from the streets in their little resort town would do even more. Except for the physically disabled, there’s no reason why people can’t take a train and then have an electric powered bus pick them up from there and take them to a carfree town up the mountain.

image

On some of the pistes, I saw trash. It would be easy to start a plastic-free norm by simply not selling any disposable plastic in the town, and with good signage about please, no gum wrappers, aluminum, sandwich baggies, etc. Of course, with wind and velocity, these things will find their way into the natural landscape, getting windswept off the mountain and onto protected grounds.

Another environmental commitment La Rosiere can make is going meatfree. Right now, the vast majority of food options are meat-heavy. Even just offering more tantalizing vegetarian or vegan options could have a significant impact of La Rosiere’s environmental footprint.

In the end, I’m really glad I went. My family got to go skiing for the first time, and much joy was had. We’re grateful for the experience. And we hope that it can become more sustainable in the future, setting a good example for all who visit.

Fractal Instrumentalism

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.

Pyramid Consciousness on Instagram: ""If we are to have ...

Bread and Roses

I’m a jazz fan and player, and during the corona quarantine I started reaching beyond my normal playlist, and found the amazing work of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah after stumbling across his stunning NPR Tiny Desk Concert. (If you don’t know this pioneering *stretch* jazz trumpeter and composer, look him up)

Especially noteworthy is his interlude monologue preceding the final song.

The flautist in his band, Elena Pinderhughes, he introduced as being only 20 in the 2015 recording, which is impressive in of itself. Upon looking her up, she has performed multiple times at the Obama White House, at Carnegie Hall, etc. So, it turns out she is a child prodigy.

Pinderhughes also sings. Her phrasing and swung rhythm is quite impressive, especially for a young person. For example in this 2013 video, where she must have been in junior high or high school, the push and pull against the beat, both in her singing and her flute playing (back to back, no less), creates the jazz flavor of suspension of time, eloquently.

As I found out that she is originally from Berkeley, California, my alma mater and home for many years, I became interested in her current work – whether perhaps I had seen her play out once at the Starry Plow, La Peña, Ashkanaz, or the Freight and Salvage, all venues I frequented.

Despite the fact that Christian Scott’s album titled by the same type of hip-hop and beyond jazz blend called “stretch jazz” featured Pinderhughes in the title – Stretch Music (Introducing Elena Pinderhughes) – Pinderhughes has not yet released a solo album in the last 5 years surprisingly.

She has played at so many high profile concerts, and recently accompanied funk jazz legend Herbie Hancock. Here’s an amazing solo she did at the Obama White House with Common, the famous hip-hop artist.

I’m not sure if they’re siblings, but here’s Samora Pinderhughes rapping accompanying Common at another Tiny Desk concert by the group August Greene.

On several write-ups and bios on Elena in 2015, there’s the following text:

“In 2015 Ms. Pinderhughes signed with SRP Music Group — responsible for signing Rihanna, among others — and began her journey as a solo artist. She is working on her debut project, which will showcase her voice and songwriting, and bring together her musicality, harmony, rhythm, and culture to create a specific sound all her own.”

This made no sense: she signed to a prestigious label, and 5 years later no album and hardly any social media presence? It was an enigma.

Upon looking on my usual music services, I found that Elena Pinderhughes had been reincarnated (most likely by SRP Music Group) as “Elena Ayodele.”

Such reincarnations are not uncommon in the music “industry” where artists become commodities, and one has to perform according to a contractual role.

I was a bit surprised though that SRP had both achieved constraining Elena’s output (for example, her sparse YouTube videos in the past 5 years) without producing the debut album. The only video they made, a trailer for the song “Roses,” released in 2017, has a scant few thousand views. Such an artist deserves better than that. But the literal suffocation with roses makes one think if Pinderhughes hasn’t also been suffocated under her contract.

The full version of the song can be heard here on Soundcloud.

The song itself is not bad, it has a nice complex melody, but the flue isn’t nearly as integrated as I’m sure many fans hoped. It’s much more trap than jazz, perhaps a little too stretch for many jazz fans.

As I got watching her rather bizarre, mock-epic, overblown production video, and saw the immense waste of roses – and of her talent, signed away and locked up with some mega shadow record label (thinking of Prince here) – I couldn’t but help remember an article during the early days about the corona flower industry crash.

https://www.bloomberg.com/bbg-gfx/video_loops/flowershop/bq7ncn1grhtc72l1e26g/20200401_130108_DSCF1655-00001.jpg
https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-flower-industry-crash/

Living in Holland, the world emporium for cut flowers, the images of empty auction houses struck a cord – the global commodity chains seem overwhelming. Roses were down 70% from last year.

To have such markets for life – performers or flowers – everything a means without an end, without a value in of itself, without any final pleasure or good or truth, but just to be consumed – the connections between Pinderhughes/Ayodele and the global flower market under corona times somehow dovetailed as tragedies with common sources.

Bloomburg writes: “The blooms are sold under the traditional Dutch auction system, in which prices start high then tick lower as a clock counts down. The first buyer to pounce wins. As the lots are bought, electric tractors pull long trains of wagons loaded with blooms from one side of the warehouse to the other. The average day sees more than 100,000 transactions. Most of the flowers end up elsewhere in Europe, in under 12 hours.”

Just as the global flows of flowers is tightly controlled by an artificial system of supply and demand, killing off interest in local flowers for the pruned porno version of flowers, I wondered about the health of Pinderhughes under her contract. Was she yet another artist being strangled by a thanatogical system? What would have been her creativity in these past 5 years if she had been enabled rather than constrained. If she could have been free to be all the different versions of herself, and stumble and evolve along the way?

As Bloomburg reported: “The crash of the $8.5 billion global trade in cut flowers shows how quickly and distinctively the new coronavirus is disrupting supply chains, even in places where it isn’t yet pervasive.” People lost their professions and tens of thousands lost their jobs in Africa, because of a pandemic that had yet to hit them. This is how global capitalism works – it takes away home markets and instead of creating interdependence, creates global fragility, where the poor are contingent upon the whims of the rich and there is no more self-sufficient local economy. It’s like dating: if you have nothing to offer, you’re going to look for your second half because you’re not complete. And no person can ever complete an incomplete person. That’s why the sacred marriage spoken of in alchemy has to do with self-sufficiency, becoming both man and woman to oneself, to not have to need the other. Only then does interdependence actually exist. Because then you can depend on each other; otherwise, its co-dependency.

A different example of a child prodigy which has worked is that of Jacob Collier. He turned town controlling contracts, even by Quincy Jones, and instead handled things on his terms, getting the best of both world. Perhaps with Pinderhughes her being a woman has played into the traditional misogyny of the music industry, the idea of women being “managed” by music firms, as the pressure for women in our society to present in particularly sexualized and stereotyped ways is far greater than men. As a fan of her work, I can only wish her freedom, creative license, and the respect of all those who she works with – because she deserves it.

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.

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.

Of course,

“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.

isee_2019_meeting_graphic

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for the trash, ISEE!

Which leads me to the point of my post.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

CODA

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

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

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

San Francisco BART’s Unpleasant Design

Introducing: The inverted guillotine

Having lived for the better part of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have put in my time on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. From it’s loud, overcrowded, clunky, and infrequent trains, to the spate of BART police shootings of young men of color, this privatized (militarized?) operation has a monopoly on public transport, and unashamedly has its will with the region with little grace.

The latest offense is the instillation of “skull crusher” “inverted guillotine” pop-up spring-loaded barriers, that could hurt or maim (it’s just a lawsuit waiting to happen).

Instead of pouring money into education, or helping the homeless, the Bay Area has now apparently prioritized metal spikes shooting up from their BART turnstiles. Way to go, gentrification!

The fact that “fare jumping” is solved by violence is telling. Instead of maybe just making the BART – a public service – into a public company, free for all riders, payed by a corporate property tax (or some other public funding in the insanely overpriced Bay), as many other localities such as Tallinn in Estonia have done, doubling down on menacing design elements further marginalizes the marginalized. BART really doesn’t lose much money at all on fare jumpers. Their financial mismanagement is sui generis. Yet, like all administrative classes, the propensity to pay themselves more to harm the poor is too tempting; it exculpates their responsibility for mismanagement (and points to the need for the region to re-buy the service to run it correctly), and instead finger-wags at “scofflaws” for being bad people, when all they really are doing is what is necessary to get around their own town when they haven’t benefited from the Silicon Valley boom.

The book Unpleasant Design discusses the epidemic of public infrastructure that makes being in public an injurious experience for those worst off. From bus benches in shelters that slope so you can’t sleep on them (you’d fall off), to “anti-homeless spikes,” sonic warfare (projecting odious or repetitive noises, like that corporately-engineered “hit” “Baby Shark“), ordinances against “sitting” or lying in public spaces for too long — rich countries, especially English-speaking ones, have declared war on public space.

London, UK. 10th June 2014. Anti-Homeless Spikes Protest outside Stock Photo: 70030582 - Alamy
Anti-homeless spikes

Unpleasant design takes what little of the commons are left – the nooks and the crannies – and puts money into destroying them to keep out “undesirables.” This racist and classiest action is often the result of gentrification; justified to keep the zoos of the rich free of those who can’t pay their entry fee.

These artists are tackling London's anti-homeless spikes head on
Activists in London combat the painful anti-homeless spikes

The psychological warfare of guillotine turnstiles makes the entire experience of public transportation less comfortable for everyone. Instead of dealing with the 80-20 principle that 80% or 90% of riders will pay no problem, and that there will always be a remainder of the population that for what ever (often very legitimate) reason cannot or will not pay, BART has chosen to harm the public, pushing more people into their polluting cars.

I’m sure before long, people will be defacing these violent turnstiles. And it is likely that the accumulated rage against BART will reduce paying ridership (despite their monopoly), actually bringing them less money than they had before–the exact opposite result than they profess to so-desperately and so-forcefully want.

The public outrage on Twitter is already loud and clear against BART’s weaponization of its service. Such aggrandizement activities miss the point of their charge: they are in the business in providing a public service, and some people can pay more, some less, and not at all. Perhaps peg BART tickets to income. Then the rich might pay $100 per ride, the poor the normal $3.40 trip, and the very poor nothing. That would be a fair approach. Our society is far from that enlightened thinking, sadly, even in that hotbed of *potential* San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and environs.

But let’s not deceive ourselves. There’s a reason why you can’t take the BART to Marin County: racism. Back in the 1950’s there was a plan in place to extend the San Francisco BART to Marin (North Bay), but because of vocal refusal by residents, it failed. And now, no easy public transportation (besides the ferries) go to Marin. The Bay Area is disconnected by design, an open gated community in a natural and cultural paradise predicated on class, race, and exclusion.

Have we not evolved as a city in 70 years? Are we still just as violent towards those less fortunate than us. San Francisco is a mess because of its wealth. But at least on this case of BART structural violence, the people are having their day of reckoning.

Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, Big Vape

About a decade ago, the “American Vaping Association” railed against RJReynolds (later RAI, now part of British American Tobacco (BAT)) for attempting to persuade the FDA to “ban the sale of open-system e-cigarettes, including all component parts.” Now that pretty much all of the e-cigarette companies are tobacco companies, from Altria’s 35% stake in JUUL to RAI’s Vuse being #2 in the US, the question is moot. Big Tobacco won. Open systems are on the fringe, for people like Leonardo di Caprio.

Reynolds’ play to racism and prejudice by equating Chinese manufacture with poor quality is telling. Their own products are manufactured in China. But in order to try to dissuade the FDA from allowing open tank vape systems, it plays the China card. We need to educate people to stop doing this, as 99% of the time they are being hypocritical anyways (their own products are being made in China); and also, American manufacture now is mainly robot-run anyhow. Few quality American manufacturing jobs exist, compared to the 1970’s, for example.

What remains to be seen in the indefinite postponement of the E-cigarette regulations by the FDA is whether Big Tobacco got their way; or if public health will see their day.

Science and Politics of Glyphosate Workshop June 6, 2019

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

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

IARC and EFSA’s differing views on glyphosate

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.

Hacia la paz y la justicia ambiental

 

 

 

New PLOS Medicine Article on Addiction

PLOS Medicine just published an article I wrote with Jesse Elias and Pam Ling at UCSF on “Public versus internal conceptions of addiction: An analysis of internal Philip Morris documents.” This article discusses previously secret industry documents pointing at the disconnect between the Philip Morris’s public statements of addiction as reduced to nicotine, and their secret unpublished research showing that nicotine is a minor overall component of smoking addiction.

Public health researchers interested in helping smokers would do well to critically appraise the public statements, policies, and actions of tobacco and nicotine dealers, especially as these are strictly for-profit companies beholden to their lexical priority of fiduciary responsibility increasing shareholder value at all costs.

Rather than bandwagoning on nicotine determinism, addiction is a biopsychosocial disease with lobbying and advertising as disease vectors.

 

News media on the paper appears in The Outline and other interviews.

The Outline writes:

Publicly, Philip Morris has been willing to admit that cigarettes are addictive since 1998—but would only cop to the role of nicotine in forming an addiction. Yet privately, the company knew that social, psychological, and environmental factors are also central to addiction and how difficult it is to quit smoking. In other words, addiction was never just about nicotine, and Philip Morris knew it.

Gizmodo writes:

the researchers hope to remind public health officials that tobacco addiction is about more than just nicotine, and that there isn’t enough long-term data to show whether “reduced harm products” actually benefit public health. Even Philip Morris recognized this.

OnMedica writes:

In other words, they said, PM’s ‘opportunistic’ shift from denying to affirming nicotine’s addictiveness was driven not by a substantive change in scientific understanding but by public, regulatory, and legal pressures.

Inverse writes:

While Philip Morris publicly acknowledged nicotine’s addictiveness in 2000, the study’s authors suggest that the company scapegoated the chemical as the solitary driver of addiction. By placing the blame on nicotine, company scientists drew attention away from a potential public health focus on biological, social, psychological, and environmental factors that could help people quit smoking….

For addiction researchers, public health researchers, and smokers, it’s clear that smoking is about so much more than the nicotine. But this analysis suggests that a major tobacco company attempted to steer the focus toward only nicotine, decreasing the effectiveness of interventions that could help people quit.

Susan Mayor writes in the British Journal of Medicine writes that while PM’s “Addiction Consensus Group”:

Sounds very virtuous

More like a cover up. An analysis funded by the US National Cancer Institute compared the company’s public position on addiction with what was being discussed within company walls. It found that throughout the 2000s Philip Morris reinforced the idea that nicotine’s pharmacology was the main driver of smoking addiction. But internally, company scientists were saying there was bit more to it than that. Addiction was the result of “interconnected biological, social, psychological, and environmental determinants,” with nicotine just one component.

A Systems Approach to Dysfunction

capitalism

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.

 

Everybody loves postdocs

Although many young academics rightfully complain of being used for their expertise while failing to receive either the remuneration or job security fitting to their contribution, it is always humorous to hear statements that openly admit this unspoken condition.

Upon my usual investigations of the Industry Documents, I came across a RJ Reynolds’s tobacco company document emphasizing the point. Their Biochemical/Biobehavior devision wrote:

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 13.44.21

This document is from 1987. The same remains true today 30 years later–both for private industry and universities. Postdocs are still the oft-unsung heroes and heroines of research innovation and everyday scientific inquiry. But the ability to influence the scientific community through giving early-career researchers temporary jobs working for the tobacco industry also interested RJR by drawing talent that would then go on to work for other esteemed firms and universities.

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 13.52.25

The diffusion effect of getting researchers at the waist of the hourglass in their careers, would allow their postdoctoral research program to also bring recognition to RJR for their scientific endeavors, increasing their prestige.

Thus, for RJR, the manipulation of the postdoc is double: cheap high quality labor, and prestige by association, when the postdocs continue their careers as successful researchers, always marking on their resumes that they spent a postdoctoral research period at RJR’s research facilities.