Reflections on EUR’s Roundtable on Academic Freedom and Sustainability

After the 28 November, 2022 occupation of the Sanders Building at Erasmus University Rotterdam, where I work, by OccupyEUR, the students involved in the very nonviolent protest were violently removed by riot police at the Executive Board’s behest. Not the finest day for our university.

Thankfully, the Executive Board (CvB) are people, not machines. Which means that they felt contrition – a healthy and appropriate emotional response to exaggeratedly preemptively striking out against your own student population, while protecting the business interests of your oil and gas donors. Because of their display of human emotions – whether due to genuine genuflection and soul-searching, or the heaps of bad press their actions precipitated – this provided an unique opportunity for the campus to come together in dialog about the nontransparent kowtowing to the most polluting industries on earth. It brought up the asymmetric application of Erasmian Values, and the underestimation of the actual threats of climate collapse versus the imagined harms that could come from growing a backbone and cutting ties with the fossil fuels (and other ecocidal) industries.

So, my colleagues, many with whom I had organized together a petition for the professorate signed by over 550 university scholars condemning EUR’s police presence and violence against students on campus, the refusal to listen to them and take them seriously as an early warning system, and the university’s involvement in apologetics and social license for the fossil fuel industry – organized a roundtable with the CvB (top leadership) of EUR, as well as with some students and professors, to discuss how to move forward. (You can watch the entire thing here.)

One of the fundamental weaknesses of such a ‘townhall’ model, however, are the following:

(1) The tendency for conversations to go around in circles, with lots of finger pointing, abstraction, and he said she said

(2) The invitation for those who are insincere to actually address the graveness of the situation to blame the wrong people (blame the victim) and play light of the fundamental issues being discussed

(3) The tendency for those who are least informed about an issue to presume that they deserve the loudest voice in reinforcing normalcy bias.

All three of these tendencies were in full force at the Roundtable. Allow me to explain.

Anyone who has studied rhetoric knows the fallacies of argumentation – the weaknesses of thought that allow people to jump prematurely to conclusions. These are often similar to what Daniel Kahneman and others describe as our System 1 (fast, ‘gut’ instinct, emotional) and System 2 (slow, logical, deliberative) ways of thinking. Ironically, many times, those in the Roundtable who were asking for the introduction for accounting for our emotions were actually the most logical, those using their System 2 capabilities more than the others.

Facts matter. That doesn’t mean that we can’t contest them, á la science studies. But to make statements that are patently false, and verifiably false, especially in a moment or event where we are trying to create a collective emotional tone and way forward, is a sort of unintentional violence based on ignorance.

Because there was so much misinformation and fossil fuel talking points in the Roundtable, I routinely teach my students about the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is important to understand because most people know that (1) OccupyEUR did not close down the campus or even the Sanders building; that was the direct reaction (however illogical) of the CvB, which had many other options on the table that due to their preemptive strike mindset, they chose not to follow (so the University Council gentleman who got that wrong, with bravado, simply doesn’t know how the university works, which is understandable and predictable since becoming a council member became a popularity contest rather that a faculty appointment based on excellence); (2) False equivalencies of a group of peaceful protesters doing your labor for you (of raising awareness about the actual level of existential catastrophe of climate change) is somehow morally on-par with right-wing racist extremist groups protesting because they want to kill you (as the University Council dame somehow made this mistake); (3) Shell did not give the Nigerians jobs (as an ESPhil postdoc incorrectly proposed) – Shell and the rest of the colonial fossil fuel predators destroyed the ecology of a thriving and self-sufficient flourishing people, destroying their clean water and ability to farm due to oil slicks. All of these major mistakes could have been prevented if those with the least amount of knowledge could have watched their emotions and realized they didn’t possess the rationality in that moment to contribute meaningfully, but only wished to poison the atmosphere with their virtue signalling hyperbolic doubt.

Any good researcher, like Albert Einstein, Peter Kalmus, Katherine Heyhoe, and Ruha Benjamin, amongst others, are compelled to act on the truths they discover. To do so otherwise would be unethical. To know exactly the cutting edge of climate science and pretend like you can keep on living unmoved in our unsustainable cultural and material oil soup, would be unconscionable. Literally, it would be lobotomizing, to remove our consciousness. Are universities really places for removing empathy and compassion? Are we training each other to become more dead inside, more automatic, more machinelike, for the sake of a death-creating system. I hope not. That’s not what I signed up for.

Unfortunately, the majority of research (money and funding) is focused on the contemporary equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In order to not do the hard sociological and cultural work of developing our conscience and changing the course of locked-in toxic power dynamics, research is exploited to reevaluate things we already know. Downstream versus upstream.

The loss of science in our process of doing science, in our university attempting to be a university, is sad but not surprising. We are happy to pay consultants the big bucks to help us manage people ‘better’ or create more paperwork, or try to get us higher in some rankings, but we’re unwilling to listen to the world-renowned experts at our own institution. This deliberate overlooking of expertise is in order to pretend that there’s not a problem. We’re happy to have worldclass researchers and teachers attracting students, bringing in grant money, and publishing in recognized peer-reviewed journals, but to listen to them on the most important questions of the millenia? Nah, to vulnerable. Too honest to admit that the top brass doesn’t know what they are doing and needs help. It would require being human, admitting mistakes fully, admitting failure even. And admitting, like any addict (to oil, to prestige, to a broken and breaking structure of global gaslighting) that you have a problem. And seeking help. From people who are doctors, and know how to treat this particular addiction. Please listen to us. Please listen to more than your own echochamber. As I mentioned, I’m part of a much larger group of experts, both at our university, and as part of the Climate Social Science Network, a group of people who have read the documents of the largest transnational fossil fuel companies on earth (you can too!), and have been studying these topics for decades, might have some idea of what works best, and what doesn’t. We could discuss the pernicious effects of normalcy bias (don’t look up!), how adaptive preferences assume like Dr. Pangloss that we are living in the best of all possible worlds, the world of agnotology and how ignorance is perpetuated (like a virus) systematically, or how to make sense in a traumatized society. Unlike those on the peak of Mount Stupid in the Dunning-Kruger curve, we have been studying these things with peers and have a recognized discourse and epistemic culture upholding our own Overton window.

Experts who study catastrophic climate change, the end of civilization, the destruction of the Megamachine, and the harm of industrialization, like myself, are always happy to help sincere inquirers. If you are ready to change your mind, and are open to learning, we’re happy to have a conversation with you, and lead you down the path of how we came to the conclusions we hold. All you have to do is ask. Sincerely.

After the event, one of the CvB approached me, and asked me in a blustered matter: “Well, Shell is investing €1 billion in green hydrogen at the Port of Rotterdam. Don’t you think that’s a good thing? Surely, we desperately need the Port to clean up its pollution.” While I agree that the Port of Rotterdam, with its bunker oil-filled ships, the diesel trucks carrying stuff from Europe’s largest port across Europe, I am sure that Shell, like other corporations, does not engage in largess without calculated significant strategic advantage. Perhaps Shell’s investment will give them leverage to retard actualization of hydrogen shipping, or to help reinforce the brain worm that shipping will only increase when in fact it will have to drastically ramp down. I don’t know the actual mechanism at play, because in this case I haven’t looked at their documents on this issue. But to blindly assume that a drop in the bucket of green technology amounts to Shell suddenly becoming (again) The Great White Savior is hogwash. No corporation makes investments without an expected ROI, not just monetarily, but also in terms of securing their social license to operate, and to keep competition out. To not engage in the complexity of these issues is patently unscientific. How can we let such small gestures (compared to their total expenditures and earnings) compensate for the fact, say, that when the Dutch Courts ruled that Shell needed to significantly reduce it’s CO2e output, it jumped ship and reestablished (as UnRoyal and NonDutch Shell) in London? Are our memories so short? Are we so pro-industry that we only remember the greenwashing?

To wit, The New York Times just came out with an article titled “Big Oil Companies Are Bullies That ‘Want to Be Seen as Good Guys’” that discusses how our society is addicted to helping out the worst perpetrators in our society because of their successful global gaslighting that has convinced us that they really are the victims, rather than the violators. The biggest surprise after a year of US Congressional investigation was the “lack of introspection.” Perhaps it is our own lack of introspection that has us falling for their empty promises again and again.

As I publicly proclaimed at the Roundtable: even if we have a love affair with Shell and other genocidal fossil fueled groups, if we really love them, we need to set them free, and if they come back, then we know it’s meant to be. We must break all relations with these poisoning groups, and if their actions change, at a later point, may reconsider. But business as usual is killing them and us.

In these times of moral and material darkness, let us remember that especially if you find yourself on the side of hate and ignorance, that there is work to be done. And for the rest of us too, that to move forward, we will have to sacrifice our egos (however hard it may be for me!) in order to achieve a better world for all, even for those kicking and screaming against their own very most exquisite self-interest.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

― St. Francis of Assisi

The Chemical Anthropocene as Devolution

My recently published paper in Environment & Society “Surveying the Chemical Anthropocene: Chemical Imaginaries and the Politics of Defining Toxicity,” draws on Sheila Jasanoff’s notion of “sociotechnical imaginaries” to describe how chemicals become cultural artifacts as much as material ones. This means that the flows of toxic chemical exposures are not impartial to the fears of contamination of the powerful, nor to to the racist, classist, sexist, gendered, and xenophobic preexisting constructions which have legitimated systemic forms of discrimination. Those who can, remove themselves from the toxics gradient, those who cannot suffer what they must. But such inequalities structurally create ignorance, and an agnotological deconstruction of the methods of how industries prey on preexisting biases to circumvent public feedback and accountability is an oroborous of legitimized harm.

In the article, I deploy Michel Serres’s optic of “appropriation by contamination” to indicate the colonial aspects of toxic chemical manufacture and exposures. Contamination renders necrotic land, flesh, and other areas of materiality, so that they cannot be used for anything else except further contamination. According to Carolyn Merchant, Fabian Scheidler, and many others, such scorched earth chemical and mining practices have been occurring for many hundreds of years, first in Europe, and then in other areas of the world.

In accordance with the infamous World Bank memo by that rational racist Lawrence Summers, once Europe got rich enough and had kicked the pollution of industrialization into high enough gear that it was killing a high enough proportion of its upper and middle classes, it simply virtualized the pollution, not by actually cleaning up the chemical industry’s act, but by shipping it overseas. Thus this wave of chemical imperialism I describe, ends up first poisoning the capital centers, and then once they succeed in regulating such practices, these same industrial processes – unchanged – move overseas. The failure to learn any lessons from the human health harms, the inability to flinch and reflect, before outsourcing our pollution elsewhere, is part of chemical colonialism.

We live in the middle of a chemical soup, created by the ambitions of companies and governments locked in an arms race through the competition of markets and the zero-sum game of market share. There is a huge asymmetry between the testing of chemicals and the invention and deployment of chemicals. Less than one percent of all chemicals produced in 25,000 pounds or more per year in the United States have been fully tested by the EPA’s Chemical Review Program (Krimsky 2017). Yet institutions and companies are under tremendous pressure to roll out new chemicals every year, at an ever increasing harried pace, as part of the Verschlimmbessernpolitik of ‘solutionism‘. Furthermore, 40% of chemical (including pharmaceutical) regulator income comes from the companies themselves, so bureaucrats have a vested interest in keeping the chemical treadmill running and not falling afoul of the cancer-causing gravy boat.

In the conclusion, I discuss that until we get focused on biomaterials, and get away from extracts and synthetics, chemical reduction in our lives or #chemicaldegrowth is necessary. But I don’t shy away from the obvious fact that this means that we can’t have all the nice cheap stuff we have. We need phones and computers that last for 20 years with tiny little pieces we switch out (what the FairPhone and Framework try to do, but better). We need robustness standards on all of our electronics, we need a maintenance culture, rather than an innovation culture. Just like the Manifesto for Maintenance Art, it is the culture of maintenance, or of care, that our epoch requires. In an essence, this is a move away from the macho idea that I am stronger than the chemicals I’m exposed to (or like a good Social Darwinist I deserve to die if I’m not), to honoring and listening attentive to those with chemical sensitivities as the canaries in the coalmine we’re making of the planet. Instead of ridiculing and gaslighting those who have more refined and deeper sensing abilities than the average chemically-intoxicated person, responsibilizing their problems, we should see that we perhaps have just been dulled down too much already through contamination to realize what’s going on.

They say that our capacity for change is inversely proportional with our sadistic willingness to suffer. Maybe it’s time to realize that sacrificing ourselves before the captains of industry to keep the cogs running has diminishing returns, and that the time has come to inventory, reduce stock, and close down shop of the most toxic businesses despoiling biology’s unique promise of intelligence and agency.

International Federation of Medical Students Association – Netherlands webinar

I’ll be giving a webinar lecture Friday May 8th for the International Federation of Medical Students’ Association – the Netherlands as part of their Youth Delegate Programme masterclass series in collaboration with the Dutch ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports (VWS), and the Ministry of International Affairs (BuZa).
I’m excited to share my research in their series on Global Health amidst the COVID-19 crisis.
Please feel free to attend. Here’s the link to register:
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Stanford Talk on Industrial Epidemics

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.

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.

Database of Industry Documents Databases

In an ongoing effort to compile the corruption of science and politics by short-sighted, manipulative industries, I am beginning to list the sites that document industrial epidemics. Enjoy!










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