Governments are supposed to help us live better, survive. You know, all that crap Hobbes went on about, keeping us from killing each other. But when government systematically shuts up those who try to help us from committing collective suicide through broken Nash equilibria – group think stupidity – Houston, we have a problem.
Climate Scientists Rose Abramoff was recently fired from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for rallying people at the AGU – the climate science conference – to participate in principled nonviolent protests. If even this right has been taken away from us, how else do we have our voice heard?
By failing to listen to the canaries in the coal mine, we blow everything up.
By not allowing peaceful, principled, protest by those who know the most, these corrupt institutions are praying to Kali for her to unleash her wrath through her less patient children.
“That seems interesting to me, that we allow the fossil fuel industry, economists, politicians, celebrities, random people on the internet, the youth which are leading the climate movement – everyone has a stake, and a right to comment on these climate policies; except it seems those who have subject expertise in the area. That seems like an odd policy to me, and I take issue with it.” – Rose Abramoff, Earth Scientist and Climate Activist with Scientist Rebellion
Who is a climate denier?
Maybe not who you think?
Maybe it’s even you.
I know a lot of good people at my university, for example, are climate deniers. They would never put it that way, of course, but the fact of the matter is: unless you understand and are willing to do what is immediately necessary for the future thriving of life on earth, including humans, you’re some degree of climate and science denier.
Recently, top scientists briefly held a banner at the American Geophysical Union conference, one of which I have presented and co-organized a panel with at this same conference (in 2019). One of the two scientists got fired from her job as a climate (soil) scientist as a result of her expertise leading to her activism.
If we don’t trust those closest to the data, why not? Who else are we going to trust? The politicians? The fossil fuel companies?
These scientists know more about the topics they study, and how anthopogenic climate change is destroying life on earth, than anyone else alive. They are sacrificing their careers to spread the word. This is what real science communication looks like.
And our very institutions which are supposed to hold up our civilization are instead censoring the scientists which make them up. Our institutions are becoming shells, catering to alternative facts and disinformation. Perhaps, if our institutions cannot keep supporting the most informed and involved, they ought to turn over the keys to the kingdom to those that can.
We need better leadership – not reactive, not snowflake status quo defensive, but – realpolitik savvy, cowardice-proof, and ready to take action.
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.
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.
Environmental philosopher and public health scientist Yogi Hale Hendlin will discuss the relationship between climate and viruses during this webinar and argues for a drastic change in behavior instead of treating symptoms. Is our relationship to flora and fauna not partly to blame for the current crisis? Which insights from climate research offer a perspective for the corona crisis, and vice versa? And how these two pandemics – one infectious, the other chronic – intertwined?
One of my old colleagues, a lawyer at UCSF once said that the tobacco industry finds loopholes in the law and exploits them until someone closes them. And then moves onto the next one. Our new Open Access paper in Tobacco Control discusses some of these problems. https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/31/2/222
“Moving targets: how the rapidly changing tobacco and nicotine landscape creates advertising and promotion policy challenges,” led by UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education Director Pam Ling, discusses the rise of synthetic nicotine to evade regulations.
As cigarettes became déclassé in mature markets and volumes and revenue has dropped, the industry has swooped in just in time to rescue their profits with a potpourri of heated, electronic, and nicotine tobacco products. The strategy is hooking new recruits (kids).
“Make tobacco cool again” could be the industry’s slogan.
Think tobacco’s bad? We’ve got synthetic nicotine for ya! Think smoking will kill you? We’ve got heated tobacco products (with that familiar tobacco taste). Don’t like smoking? Try vaping, or nicotine salt pouches!
The hustle to make a deadly product blend in with the background of consumer items is not new for the tobacco industry, but their recent tactics are even beyond the pale for this morbid industry. Candy flavors and colors and add ons are meant to attract kids. Why do we allow this blatant predation? Because of the always delayed promise of helping inveterate smokers. We sacrifice reason to baby smokers who might switch to slightly less deadly products. Quixotically, the tobacco industry’s raison d’état is now to coddle addicted smokers, as their official party line, in order to cover up the fact that really they are much more interested in recruiting kids to continue their legacy of pollution of the environment and human health. The industry would be all too happy if smokers continued smoking conventional cigarettes, and children and young adults uninterested in smoking would think their new technologized gee-whiz products are cool and harmless – becoming lifelong ‘customers’ (addicts) in the process.
The use of the term ‘pharmaceutical grade’ nicotine to describe recently developed nicotine products and the acquisition of NRTs extends the tobacco industry’s embrace of pharmaceuticalisation —producing products that appear like medical therapeutics conferring perceptions of safety.”
As I’ve always said, the NYT is 5-10 years behind the times (their feedback loop doesn’t extend beyond New Yorkers making 5M+). This has been a subject psychologists have been dealing with for at least 20 years in the west, and non-western versions of psychologists have probably been dealing with since colonialism.
There are probably lots of really great resilience practices grounded in local traditions and meaning-making that could be of use for us in western declension as we confront the shadow side of ‘civilization.’ For example, SF native Ethan Watters has an excellent book called Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche that gives 4 detailed case studies of the DSM messing with local grief and trauma rituals.
Point being: Krishnamurti once said “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Perhaps our collective illness – physical and mental – is not something that can be individually “cured” as long as we still are creating the problem (continued pollution and disrespect for people and planet). Maybe our mental and physical health as now a species (finally reaching the imperial core) will continue to degenerate as we double-down on ignorance (see Proctor’s agnotology). And fighting to remain exceptional to our zeitgeist will just take more resources and energy away from those who need it most (after all, the poor and oppressed “deserve” “therapy” far more than those with so-called first world problems). In the words of David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous, as long as we don’t confront our root unsustainability and disregard for the complexities of life and our biosphere, we’re just shifting disease around (there, not here) rather than actually regenerating or healing the cause. Climate grief is a symptom, not the core problem.
Thus, perhaps what we need most is a collective therapy – a political and economic and social therapy – recognizing that in a biopsychosocial model of disease, we’ve yet again, predictably, neglected the social context which is cannibalizing us all slowly.
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.
From Erasmus Magazine’s misrepresentative title “Smoke-free campus: responsible decision or counter-productive?” for the very pro smokefree campus comments from students actually interviewed in the article to the irresponsible and juvenile “Free to Smoke Zone” cartoon, it appears that more than sentiments of staff or students, it is Erasmus Magazine itself which is against the inevitable. A national law prohibiting smoking on the campuses of all institutions of learning countrywide, EM’s attempt to foment controversy where there is little, is either just clickbait or jousting at windmills.
Granted, EUR could have done better at communicating the law and what that means for students. This would have happened normally, but we are not in normal times.
Furthermore, there are a number of structural issues preventing a smooth transition to the current regulations. For example, at EUR there are no experts on tobacco control in the Smokefree Working Group. Only recently did the university form a “think tank” as an afterthought to address this oversight. In not putting the science of going smokefree on campuses first and foremost, the university has abdicated its responsibility to be science-based in its policy making. Instead, in shying away from actually affective, clear, and unambiguous actions, it is setting itself up to fail on every dimension. Lack of clear communication of the new rules and support for smokers is bound to make some smokers angry because they won’t know the details, and it won’t be clear what the rules or penalties are. EUR’s delay on this issue will also make nonsmokers upset because the national law says that people can’t smoke on campuses of educational institutions but EUR has not yet effective achieved, based on a cowardliness to stand behind clear and fair preventative measures and penalties. And EUR may even fail to comply with the national law, which could cost our university fines from the government, bleeding our university unnecessarily, when we have already suffered budget cuts. Plus, EUR’s potential failure to comply with laws sours our reputation versus business and governmental partners with whom we might pursue future contact.
Especially in times of corona, which is a respiratory disease, smoking will only make it worse. If we have social distancing on campus, lowering the quality of education and costing faculties untold hours of suffering in adjusting to the double responsibility of hybrid education, then we must certainly do our due diligence in not creating more disease vectors on campus. If we’re wearing masks to prevent viruses from entering our nasal passages, it makes only sense to get rid of non-essential pollution sources that weaken our immune system and predispose us to sickness.
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.
I have a new blog post over at the Erasmus University Rotterdam initiative I’m a part of, the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity. This interdisciplinary research team from law, business, and philosophy brings together mavericks who work across disciplines, and are both cognitively and operationally open to working with and between traditionally-siloed faculties.
My latest contribution, Interspecies Prosperity: What it is and why it matters, deals with the paradox of health. As long as we’re preoccupied with our own health and well-being, if we are so to the detriment of our surrounding ecosystem, we end up getting sick, as we are of course permeable membranes to our environments. Hurting others to get ahead ipso facto produces the types of results in public health that we’re seeing today in the US, for example: 4 years straight of decreasing life expectancy. We’ve sunk all the carbon sinks, and compounded the growth on a finite space. Increasingly, in medicine, major institutions as well as rank and file physicians realize that we have to tackle environmental degradation and the climate crisis if we care about health, both at the individual and collective levels. This shift in priorities in medicine of course clashes both with personalized medicine and other expensive and pay-to-play forms of care. Unless we take care of our commons, our medical outcomes are going to be stochastically worse. Even it it’s not me or you, our chances of thriving and surviving go down significantly when we’re breathing contaminated air, have microplastics in our food and water, and toxins in everything we come in contact with. So, we have to learn the hard work of care for our environment, caring for our locality, and also the extension of commodity chains that like lashes connected to our every movement reverberate around the world in their ramifications. We have to learn to work together to take responsibility to clean up this mess. That will be the best medical insurance we can buy.