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:
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.
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.
I recently published an article in Berkeley’s newspaper, Berkeleyside, about the incessant overhead air traffic, and how this likely is causing significant public health effects.
Here’s the evidence base: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25332277 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22491084 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26356375 “These significant associations were not attenuated after the adjustment for air pollution. The present ecological study supports the hypothesis of an association between aircraft noise exposure and mortality from cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and myocardial infarction. However, the potential for ecological bias and the possibility that this association could be due to residual confounding cannot be excluded.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20881600 “Aircraft noise was associated with mortality from myocardial infarction, with a dose-response relationship for level and duration of exposure. The association does not appear to be explained by exposure to particulate matter air pollution, education, or socioeconomic status of the municipality.”
Today at UCSF, I had the chance to hear Michael Specter deliver the 2017 Chauncey D. Leake Lecture: “Do Facts Still Matter? And What Does It Mean If They Don’t?” It brought out all of San Francisco’s good liberals, concerned about Trump’s anti-science anti-fact Administration. Specter, a decorated journalist for some of my favorite rags, certainly has the credentials to to kvetch at the poor state of US politics.
And yet, he missed an opportunity to channel the despair, rage, and motivation of hundreds of UCSF faculty and students. Cavalierly bashing the science-bashing while not seeing that he was engaging in the same sort of zealotry the room despised, there was a fundamental disconnect in his talk. Instead of understanding the pragmatic even democratic way in which consensus and dissensus coexist in science to push it forward, or acknowledging the unscientific politicization of science which occurs when funding derives from self-interested strings-attached corporations rather than from and for the public good, Specter pontificated about the horror of Trump and basic science communication.
He emphasized how The New Yorker has sold more subscriptions since November 8th than in the past three years, and that this holds for The New York Times as well–as if the raison d’etat of the Fourth Estate is to greedily prey off people’s fears. Perhaps because of his embedded status, Specter can’t see the forest of civilization through the trees of simplistic versions of science as a monolith, failing to crucially discriminate between different motivators for science, let alone including systems thinking perspectives, prevention, or noticing that all of this stuff that medicine and scientific experimentation in the 21st century is based on draws on a dwindling supply of natural capital.
What was most revealing, however, is how his internal logic fell apart. One story he told described how his mother wouldn’t let him eat butter, and fed him only margarine, because it was better for him. She also would give him antibiotics every time he sneezed. Of course, he commented, she didn’t hate him, she loved him, and while today we know both of these “facts” to be totally wrong and harmful to health, she was doing the best she could based on the current state of science in the 1950’s. Specter went on to speak about GMOs and vaccines, and how harmless they are, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is ignorant or worse. Clearly, this narrative hangs together rather than apart.
Yet, the logical tensions of the acknowledged “whoops!” factor of the science of Specter’s youth and the total confidence he held towards the complete safety of these biochemical and genetic interventions was glaring. Like geoengineering, certain types of science are deus ex machina solutions–problems that create more problems for the future. Such science passes the buck to future generations, leaving them the bill when things don’t turn out the way we imagined. Nuclear waste is a good example of this: in the 1960’s when nuclear power generation was first really going online, there was the open question of What are we going to do with the waste? The answer, at the time was that By the time we need to dispose of nuclear waste in 20 or 30 years, our ingenuity will have long since figured out what to do with that! Here we are in 2017, and no one has a clue what to do with nuclear waste so that we don’t have to guard it for the next 10,000+ years.
There is a second type of science, however, a less glamorous, less funded, but ultimately life affording rather than killing type of science; and that is precautionary science. Precautionary science is very poorly funded because there’s no money in it. Instead of aiming to commodify more of the world, and to sink its claws into the last remaining realms that haven’t been privatized, it looks at systems-level solutions that save time and money, and hence puts dozens of obsolete cannibalistic industries out of business. Precautionary science aims at getting at the root of problems, rather than dressing up sickly symptoms with increasingly technicolor gauze.
As an example, Specter talked about a rich, liberal Florida community that plagued with dengue fever mosquitos. When presented with the option of importing genetically-engineered mosquitos (for a plump price) to breed with the dengue mosquitos, hopefully killing them off, the locals swore off any sort of genetic engineered organisms, fearing the technology and not knowing how these genetically-engineered mosquitos might actually change their ecology. Instead, Specter alleges, they deal with the mosquito problem by spraying massive amounts of toxic Dow Chemical insecticide all over their city–clearly not a desirable outcome.
The GMO-chemical dichotomy that Specter presents us with is the fallacy of the excluded middle. The options are all predicated on deus ex machina science rather than precautionary science. Systems science would look at the underlying factors of dengue mosquito inhabitation. They include climate change, urbanization, increased travel and lax controls over shipments of goods, etc. Why a vaccine wouldn’t work in this case (although one exists) is that the serotypes keep on expanding and changing, and that like the futility of the flue vaccine, any vaccine is already based on old biological versions of the virus, bacteria, or disease. Meanwhile, the disease has been evolving, and many pathogens are very adept at overcoming the hurdles we throw at them. Instead of doing the hard trench work of making progress against raising climate temperatures by stopping factory farms, war, and fossil fuels production while planting trees and reforesting using restorative conservation ecology Green Corps, its all too easy to attempt to address the symptoms (the mosquitos with dengue fever that have “invaded” Florida) rather than the cause. Yet, if we got to the cause of things, and actually acknowledged that our current way of life–including our science–is out of sync with natural processes and must be restored, then we’d have a fighting chance at creating healthier lives for all.
Otherwise, we’re involved in a shotgun approach making a holistic problem piecemeal. But if we do this, today it’s dengue fever, tomorrow it will be another one. Are we really so stubborn as a species that instead of resigning ourselves to a little epistemological humility we’d rather mow down the rest of creation because we’ve created such a destructive ecology that we have no other choice?