A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of hanging out with Mario Veen and talking with him on his Life From Plato’s Cave podcast. It was a rollicking good time and enabled us to enter into some crevasses of why our world is so stuck, and how we can make it more likely to get unstuck.
philosophy of science
Algae communication, conspecific and interspecific: the concepts of phycosphere and algal-bacteria consortia in a photobioreactor (PBR)
How does the race to make algae do tasks for us undermine the ability of those algae to perform their metabolic tasks?
My colleagues and I have a new article out looking at the limits of enclosed ecosystems (lab controlled algae breeding for energy/food/oil, etc). Algae live in consortia and need communities of different organisms to flourish.
How can we design our bioreactors to be more interspecies ecosystems rather than sterile systems, in order to reduce the energy use and inputs for algal photobioreactor (PBR) systems?
Our article discusses this exciting new frontier.
Sergio Mugnai, Natalia Derossi & Yogi Hendlin (2023) Algae communication, conspecific and interspecific: the concepts of phycosphere and algal-bacteria consortia in a photobioreactor (PBR), Plant Signaling & Behavior, 18:1, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15592324.2022.2148371
Object‐Oriented Ontology and the Other of We in Anthropocentric Posthumanism
My new article out in Zygon, “Object‐Oriented Ontology and the Other of We in Anthropocentric Posthumanism” is a philosophical takedown of a misguided notion: that difference that make a difference should be deliberately overlooked or ignored for the sake of respecting the individuality of objects.
While this seems like an extreme form of politically correct identity politics, it’s not. It’s advanced metaphysical gymnastics. Attempting to place being out of grasp while describing it in excruciating detail has been a pasttime of nominalists for generations. Plato, Kant, and others had bad habits of describing the very things they claimed were indescribable, beyond the access of mere mortals. Such privileged access begs the question: either these object whisperers know more than we do, and are able to reach through the veil where mere mortals cannot, or they are speculating without any grounding in reality.
If you’re bicurious about OOO, posthumanism, new materialism, and the bevy of other ungrounded and often non-relational theories de jour that get served up to university students as the new gospel, you might enjoy reading this paper.
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
Decolonizing plant hierarchies in intelligence taxonomies
In her editorial about my ‘Plant Philosophy and Interpretation: Making Sense of Contemporary Plant Intelligence Debates’ article in Environmental Values, Elke Pirgmaier writes
‘Plant Philosophy and Interpretation: Making Sense of Contemporary Plant Intelligence Debates’ by Yogi H. Hendlin addresses the question how to raise the status of plants as worthy of care and protection. There is agree- ment amongst plant biologists that plants are intelligent. They have an ability to sense and respond to signals in their environment, via airborne chemical aromatics and root systems, and they have certain basic capacities of memory. They are thus not deterministic machines, but sensitive beings capable of intentional cooperation and coordination. Yet, disagreement arises as to how to interpret such findings and what they imply for ethics.
The relatively recent field of ‘plant neurobiology’ draws analogies between human/animal intelligence with those of plants, by adopting a language that suggests that plants have ‘brains’ and ‘neurons’ and ‘consciousness’. Hendlin argues that adopting an approach of portraying plants as ‘similar to us’, is misguided because it taps into value hierarchies which subordinate plants to animals that we aim to transcend in the project of decolonising scientific methodologies. He calls us to stop such ‘ontological violence’ against plants, and rather to honour them on their own terms. He advocates pluralism – epistemically, ontologically and ethically – and an ethics of different, not lesser. ‘Comparing plants to humans or animals undervalues the true marvels of plant behaviour on their own merits, which fails to value the evolutionary abilities they perform that animals and humans cannot. […] Respect for other beings, it turns out, has less to do with them, and more to do with us’ (Hendlin 2022: 264).World, Word, Work
There are some presentations at our second cohort at the biomedical ethics residency today that made me queasy because of how backwards causation they were. The whole point of having biomedical ethics is to avoid blinding ourselves to the various factors that create the need for medicalization and individualization of the common(s) problems we face with health and illness.
I’m going to say something that might be hurtful to people’s feelings because it might undermine a large part of their career as fruitless or misguided. If you look at East Germany how child rearing was done, you don’t need to imagine how artificial wombs may make people’s lives better – you just need policies that support women. It’s pretty simple.
The problem is of course that so many people believe that it’s impossible to actually have a political and social system that supports women that instead they are going to blow up the entire earth in the whole universe in order to make that work around. This logic of the workaround which is so central to most of our technological developments is an industry ploy to not confront that which needs to be confronted, whether it’s perversions of religion the state or our dysfunctional social system.
Unless and until we re-gain a sense of the sacred in our lives and in life, we will not be able to make good decisions, but will keep on doubling down on suffering in ways that we can’t even be aware of. Instead of throwing technology at our problems, as if this technology didn’t arise from our own twisted mentality, and could somehow break free from our own contorted mind, we need to work on addressing the traumas and us individually and collectively which gave rise to the problems for which that technology would have been desired in the first place.
Designed to Break: planned obsolescence as corporate environmental crime (new paper)
Is programming premature product lifespans a form of corporate crime?
This the question that Lieselot Bisschop, Jelle Jaspers, and I address in our new publication in the journal of Crime, Law and Social Change.
Planned obsolescence is a core business strategy in today’s economy. The items we buy today are supposed to not last, so that we – the consumers – have to buy them over and over again.
In a blogpost summary, we argue that planned obsolescence is not only something that should be recognized by policy makers, but also considered a corporate environmental crime and treated this way.
How Science can be Manipulated by Industry Podcast
In a 90 minute interview with Ari Whitten, we explore philosophy of science and public health, focusing on how industry can undermine the quality and public trust in sincere science.
I reference the @justsaysinmice twitter handle that addresses the harms of sensationalism in science.
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.
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 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.
International Institute of Social Sciences Development Research Seminar
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.
New Paper: Plant Philosophy and Interpretation
I’m happy that a paper I first drafted in 2015 made it to the light of day in Environmental Values this week: “Plant Philosophy and Interpretation: Making Sense of Contemporary Plant Intelligence Debates.” This paper grew out of an Austrian Science Foundation grant I had as a postdoc in Vienna in 2015 which I presented at the International Society of Environmental Ethics in Kiel, Germany, and finally during the corona lockdown I had time to finish it. Paco Calvo generously offered comments before I submitted it.
The thrust of the paper is that plant neurobiology aims to borrow the nomenclature of animal (including human) biology in order to boost the moral standing of plants. By showing analogs between animal and plant hormones and processes (analogs to brains in the root subapex, as Darwin originally postulated), plants can be treated as moral patients. However, this approach fails to acknowledge the difference of plants, and value that difference. In attempting to use animal biology language for plants, however well intentioned by plant neurobiologists, speaking in the master’s language fails to do plants justice, and reaffirms the human- and animal-centric moral evaluative position. Instead, I offer a (non-utilitarian) pluralistic account of value that allows recognition of plant intelligence without requiring that intelligence to measure up against mammal intelligence.
Here’s the abstract: Plant biologists widely accept plants demonstrate capacities for intelligence. However, they disagree over the interpretive, ethical and nomenclatural questions arising from these findings: how to frame the issue and how to signify the implications. Through the trope of ‘plant neurobiology’ describing plant root systems as analogous to animal brains and nervous systems, plant intelligence is mobilised to raise the status of plants. In doing so, however, plant neurobiology accepts an anthropocentric moral extensionist framework requiring plants to anthropomorphically meet animal standards to be deserving of moral respect. I argue this strategy is misguided because moral extensionism is an erroneous ontological foundation for ethics.
International Federation of Medical Students Association – Netherlands webinar
BMJ Podcast “Big Tan – is the sunbed industry targeting research?”
Senior author Eleni Linos, as well as CTCRE director Stan Glantz and myself discuss our recent paper in the BMJ and the paper’s origins.
BMJ article on conflicts of interest in the tanning industry just published
Working at the CTCRE at UCSF allowed me to meet all sorts of medical practitioners aware of the influence of industry on the health of their patients.
One of those people I happened to meet, was Eleni Linos (now at Stanford), a dermatologist who had noticed throughout the years the influence of the tanning industry on spreading disinformation to the public on the health harms of tanning.
Lola Adekunle, Rebecca Chen, Lily Morrison, Meghan Halley, Victor Eng, Yogi Hendlin, Mackenzie R Wehner, Mary-Margaret Chren, and Eleni Linos’ paper “Association between financial links to indoor tanning industry and conclusions of published studies on indoor tanning: systematic review,” challenges the invisibility of industry as it attempts to blend in its research into the scientific public record. Our paper shows the impressive discrepancy between the scientific conclusions on the health harms of tanning studies with financial links to the indoor tanning industry found, versus those of independent, non-financially-interested researchers.
Jerod Stapleton also published for the British Journal of Medicine an editorial on our article, concluding that “We must challenge industry attempts to change the conversation about tanning.” Stapleton is no stranger to the harms of tanning, having conducted significant research on the health outcomes, as well as leading a paper in JAMA Pediatrics titled “The American Suntanning Association: a “science-first organization” with a biased scientific agenda.” Indeed, according to the tanning industry’s January 2015 issue of Smart Tan, the ASA succeeded in convincing (bullying?) the CDC to remove claims of a 75% increase in melanoma risk from sunbed use that had previously been displayed on the CDC website.
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.
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.
Euphemisms and Dysphemisms
Here I will attempt to gather and decode euphemisms (saccharine words covering up the dismal reality, e.g., climate change for global warming) and dysphemisms (derogatory terms for neutral ones, e.g., warmist for people who acknowledge the facts of global warming) of corporate-speak.
“Crop Protection Agents” = pesticides
Example: Philip Morris attempting to use the natural anti-pest properties of tobacco to make the claim that tobacco is better for the environment than food crops (remember the neonicotinoid pesticides that are decimating bee and butterfly populations? They come from tobacco)
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!
GENERAL CORPORATE CRIME
New paper published in Annals of Internal Medicine picked up by Reuters
Today, with co-authors Pamela M. Ling and Jesse Elias, our paper “The Pharmaceuticalization of the Tobacco Industry” appears in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Our interview with Reuters is available here.
This work contributes to the study of industrial epidemics, and how corporations, instead of dying a quiet death as the world wakes up to the inutility of their products for life, metastasize into other structures to clean up the messes they continue to create–and to charge taxpayers for it (in this case, by getting government health care like the NHS in the UK, to pay for their so-called reduced-harm nicotine products).
Chapter in Michael Marder’s Grafts
In case you missed it, a chapter in Michael Marder’s Minnesota Press book Grafts on plant philosophy contains a short piece we wrote together.
Taste of Science SF
For those in the San Francisco bay area, I will be giving a 15-minute presentation Thursday April 27th 7:30-9:30pm at the TechShop on “The effects of pollution on organism signaling and human health.”
926 Howard Street
San Francisco California 94103
Taste of Science is a public outreach forum for scientists to interact with the public on topics that impact us all, and to make complex concepts and processes intelligible to interested folks.
Truth and Facts in an Extramoral Sense
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?
You must be logged in to post a comment.