My recently published paper in Environment & Society“Surveying the Chemical Anthropocene: Chemical Imaginaries and the Politics of Defining Toxicity,” draws on Sheila Jasanoff’s notion of “sociotechnical imaginaries” to describe how chemicals become cultural artifacts as much as material ones. This means that the flows of toxic chemical exposures are not impartial to the fears of contamination of the powerful, nor to to the racist, classist, sexist, gendered, and xenophobic preexisting constructions which have legitimated systemic forms of discrimination. Those who can, remove themselves from the toxics gradient, those who cannot suffer what they must. But such inequalities structurally create ignorance, and an agnotological deconstruction of the methods of how industries prey on preexisting biases to circumvent public feedback and accountability is an oroborous of legitimized harm.
In the article, I deploy Michel Serres’s optic of “appropriation by contamination” to indicate the colonial aspects of toxic chemical manufacture and exposures. Contamination renders necrotic land, flesh, and other areas of materiality, so that they cannot be used for anything else except further contamination. According to Carolyn Merchant, Fabian Scheidler, and many others, such scorched earth chemical and mining practices have been occurring for many hundreds of years, first in Europe, and then in other areas of the world.
In accordance with the infamous World Bank memo by that rational racist Lawrence Summers, once Europe got rich enough and had kicked the pollution of industrialization into high enough gear that it was killing a high enough proportion of its upper and middle classes, it simply virtualized the pollution, not by actually cleaning up the chemical industry’s act, but by shipping it overseas. Thus this wave of chemical imperialism I describe, ends up first poisoning the capital centers, and then once they succeed in regulating such practices, these same industrial processes – unchanged – move overseas. The failure to learn any lessons from the human health harms, the inability to flinch and reflect, before outsourcing our pollution elsewhere, is part of chemical colonialism.
We live in the middle of a chemical soup, created by the ambitions of companies and governments locked in an arms race through the competition of markets and the zero-sum game of market share. There is a huge asymmetry between the testing of chemicals and the invention and deployment of chemicals. Less than one percent of all chemicals produced in 25,000 pounds or more per year in the United States have been fully tested by the EPA’s Chemical Review Program (Krimsky 2017). Yet institutions and companies are under tremendous pressure to roll out new chemicals every year, at an ever increasing harried pace, as part of the Verschlimmbessernpolitik of ‘solutionism‘. Furthermore, 40% of chemical (including pharmaceutical) regulator income comes from the companies themselves, so bureaucrats have a vested interest in keeping the chemical treadmill running and not falling afoul of the cancer-causing gravy boat.
In the conclusion, I discuss that until we get focused on biomaterials, and get away from extracts and synthetics, chemical reduction in our lives or #chemicaldegrowth is necessary. But I don’t shy away from the obvious fact that this means that we can’t have all the nice cheap stuff we have. We need phones and computers that last for 20 years with tiny little pieces we switch out (what the FairPhone and Framework try to do, but better). We need robustness standards on all of our electronics, we need a maintenance culture, rather than an innovation culture. Just like the Manifesto for Maintenance Art, it is the culture of maintenance, or of care, that our epoch requires. In an essence, this is a move away from the macho idea that I am stronger than the chemicals I’m exposed to (or like a good Social Darwinist I deserve to die if I’m not), to honoring and listening attentive to those with chemical sensitivities as the canaries in the coalmine we’re making of the planet. Instead of ridiculing and gaslighting those who have more refined and deeper sensing abilities than the average chemically-intoxicated person, responsibilizing their problems, we should see that we perhaps have just been dulled down too much already through contamination to realize what’s going on.
They say that our capacity for change is inversely proportional with our sadistic willingness to suffer. Maybe it’s time to realize that sacrificing ourselves before the captains of industry to keep the cogs running has diminishing returns, and that the time has come to inventory, reduce stock, and close down shop of the most toxic businesses despoiling biology’s unique promise of intelligence and agency.
Today I gave a talk at the Stanford History of Science and Technology Workshop on Industrial Epidemics. It was a pleasure to discuss the ins and outs of public health, corporate malfeasance, and glyphosate in particular with the students and professorate of the History of Science and Technology Program. Especially rich were the insights of Robert Proctor, the coiner of the term agnotology, who has been a great inspiration for my own work.
Here’s the Abstract:
Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) have turned out to be quite communicable; the disease vector isn’t some virus or pest, but instead the very bulwark of industrial civilization. While NCDs have always been with us as a species, their normalcy and multiplication is novel. The very system of corporate science, muscle, and capital that helped eradicate harrowing infectious diseases that threatened generations in the 20th century have left in their wake a new epidemic of chronic disease above and beyond background levels for the 21st century to clean up. The rise of chronic disease tracks directly with the rise in environmental exploitation and industrial pollutants. By virtue of epidemiology and randomized control trials, we know that certain classes of people (such as smokers, obese people, chemical manufacturing workers, farmers using pesticides) have inordinately more chronic disease than people without those exposures. Many people, especially as they age, incur multiple chronic diseases, causing them much suffering, and costing them and society extensive financial resources. Merrill Singer ( 2009, xiv) describes how syndemics represent “a set of enmeshed and mutually enhancing health problems that, working together in a context of noxious social and physical conditions, can significantly affect the overall disease burden and health status of a population.” Adopting the public health descriptor of epidemics associated with infectious disease for chronic disease conditions, framing the rise of chronic disease first in developed countries and now worldwide in terms of an epidemic caused by industrial processes, scrutinizes how corporate behavior socially determines the health of populations. This paper focuses on how these mechanisms have manifested in the agrochemical and petrochemical industries.
And my bio:
Yogi Hale Hendlin is an assistant professor in the Erasmus School of Philosophy and core faculty of the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, as well as a research associate in the Environmental Health Initiative at UCSF. Yogi has been working at the intersection of public health and environmental political philosophy for 15 years and has published in journals such as MMWR, BMJ, Ambio, PLoS Medicine, The American Journal of Public Health, Tobacco Control, Environmental Philosophy, Environmental Ethics, and the Annals of Internal Medicine. Yogi’s work has been taken up in popular media outlets such as Time, National Geographic, The Guardian, BMJ, CNN, Fox, Salon, Reuters, Gizmodo, Bloomberg, Nautilus, The Revelator, and Science Daily. Yogi is currently writing a monograph titled Industrial Epidemics: Chronic Disease and the Corporate Determinants of Health.
In the flurry of the semester starting, I’ve been remiss in updating this blog with a couple important articles that have come out in the press discussing the environmental harms of electronic cigarette (ecig) electronic waste (ewaste).
Both The Guardian and National Geographic did excellent jobs surveying the topic and getting across the complexities as well as most important points. And I’m grateful to through interviews have been able to contribute to these articles.
I think the most important point I made in The Guardian article is the need for Extended Producer Responsibility, and how it practically works:
Hendlin said he and other environmental advocates have endorsed an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) model for e-cigarettes – one JUUL is considering. This would include charging users an extra deposit (ie $1.00 per pod, $5.00 per vape unit) that consumers get back when they return them, practices like returning old packaging to JUUL after receiving new pods each month, and refunding or giving credits for returned pods/vapes.
What made me want to puke however, is just before I was settling down with my popcorn to watch the (excellent!) National Geographic video they made on the effects of e-cig waste, I was subject to a 15-second propaganda piece by the grandmasters of waste and treachery themselves, Nestle. Especially as in my piece in The Conversation, I write
The two largest global brands of capsule coffee, Nespresso and Keurig, are regarded by many as environmental nightmares. Billions of the throwaway nonrecyclable plastic products currently clutter waste dumps, waterways and city streets. Both inventor of the “K-cups” John Sylvan and former Nespresso CEO Jean-Paul Gaillard have publicly bemoaned the environmental consequences of the products they once championed. Sylvan has stated that the disposable (but not biodegradable) coffee capsule is “like a cigarette for coffee, a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance.”
The comparison between cigarette butts and capsule coffee is surprisingly fitting. Both butts and capsules are intentionally designed to be convenient, single-use products. Both are also nonbiodegradable and unrecyclable. As pervasive and polluting as cigarette butts are, however, the e-waste from e-cigarettes presents an even more apt comparison.
You can imagine how I felt then, when Nestle pimps this feel-good (Spanish language!) advertisement at me, never mentioning the billions and billions and billions of plastic-metal-paper non-recyclable single-use bad-tasting coffee hits it blights the planet with each year.
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.
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.
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.
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:
My op-ed in the American Journal of Public Health that appeared this week discusses the new tobacco waste stream of electronic cigarette waste. Electronic waste is already the fastest growing waste stream globally. Creating a new product that has no current responsible recycling infrastructure, and that may be littered widely, contributing to plastic sinks such as the Great Pacific Gyre (garbage patch) in the Pacific Ocean, is a mistake. This op-ed discusses the problem and some of the solutions that can be taken to avoid a possible environmental health and ecological disaster.
Photo of a dropped Juul vape on SF MUNI by Julia McQuoid, used with permission
Regarding this article and other research I am conducting, I also wrote a piece in the online academic blog/forum The Conversation on e-cigarettes as the Nespresso of tobacco products, environmentally speaking.
My new article, “Is This Man the Elon Musk of E-Waste?” in my favorite popular science online magazine Nautilus, describes the Right to Repair movement, and the necessity to move from a linear manufacturing process built on planned and perceived obsolescence to a circular economy.
If we are to combat the 99 billion pounds of e-waste produced per year, ending up incinerated, in lakes and rivers, and trashing our communities and the lives of future generations, we’re going to need to mandate manufactures of electronics such as Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, IBM, Dell, and all the other major players, to engineer products that can DIY be taken apart, repaired, and built to last.
My interview with Eric Lundgren, his last before he was sent to prison for creating 28,000 Microsoft Windows restore CDs meant for refurbishing computers that otherwise would end up as e-waste, describes the necessity for financial mechanisms to incentivize companies and consumers to place e-waste back into an (dis)assembly line of reuse, reduce, recycle.
Lundgren has championed the right for electronics to be repaired rather than tossed by staging high-profile recycling demonstrations including his Guinness Book of World Records farthest driving on a single charge electric car (999 miles with 90% recycled materials including recycled hybrid batteries) and his flagship solar-powered e-waste recycling factory.
I appreciate the comment on the article made by Ryan Shaw, who wrote:
Mr. Lundgren has done more with far less than what Musk started with so I don’t think the comparison does Lundgren justice (although I am a huge Musk fan). Maybe someday if Tesla starts a car rebuild program to re-use scrapped cars the title would be, “Elon Musk is the Eric Lundgren of car manufacturing.”