On ‘Anti-Environmentalism’

There’s a new Handbook of Anti-Environmentalism, which is a new term to me. It seems it should be commonplace. For it articulates the madness which we have experienced in the 20th and 21st centuries, descending on us like a dark, inarticulate cloud. The delay and denial of anti-environmentalism is like the squid’s ink, which serves to obscure and conceal. Rather than being an accident, a casual gesture, anti-environmentalism is a paradigm, a research program, and an ideology, centered on retaining power over others; in short, domination.

Of course, anti-environmentalism, while the term is new, is not new as a concept. It borrows heavily from Proctor’s agnotology, the merchants of doubt, and the study of denial and the systemic spread ignorance. Ignorance as a disease vector could be seen as a form of industrial epidemics. Disease is the outcome of externalities, which are baked into certain types of processes, which deny that the externalities are intrinsic parts of the processes of extraction.

In other words, anti-environmentalism is a form of slow violence, but one that compounds. The slow violence of anti-environmentalism doesn’t just poison the earth as us inhabitants, but also infects us with self-covering-up brain worms that prevent us from even being aware of what we no longer are aware of or deny. This is the looping property of agnotology, that we are not even aware of what we are not aware. Becoming aware of this vast expanse of knowledge would threaten our entire worldview, thus sending us into either ego death, cognitive dissonance, or conceptual chaos. We would feel as if our previously held beliefs were false, and thus our previous goals, projects, aspirations, desires, and actions were inauthentic, based on a lie, and hence perhaps even counterproductive. Such a realization is too much for most mortals to bear, as there is much pain involved in these revelations.

Like Hannah Arendt writes in On the Origins of Totalitarianism about bureaucracies, anti-environmental countermovements are made to be like onions, with one shell group inside the next, with nothing of substance at the center, only air that will make your eyes tear. Anti-environmental countermovements, and frontgroups in general are usually collusions between self-interested individuals controlling public and private groups in order to keep their mafia work going, to keep oligopoly alive, and to make domination total again.

The term itself ‘anti-environmental’ is a timely and powerful antidote to the staid news reporting which fails to include the insidiousness of anti-environmentalism. To wit, in a recent New York Times article announcing the $1.1 billion gift John Doerr gave to Stanford University to create the Stanford Doeer School of Sustainability, the inaugural dean of the schooln Arun Majumdar insists: “We will not go into the political arena,” he said. “That’s a very slippery slope for us.” To not go into advocacy for environmental issues when environmental issues are 99% political is to prove that this big billion donation will shoot itself in the foot, and perhaps even be counterproductive. But it gets worse:

Mr. Majumdar, who currently holds a chair at Stanford named for Jay Precourt, a businessman who made his name in the oil business, also said that the new school would work with and accept donations from fossil fuel companies.

“Not all oil and gas industries are on board, but there are some who are who are under pressure to diversify, otherwise they will not survive,” Mr. Majumdar said. “Those that want to diversify and be part of the solutions, and they want to engage with us, we are open to that.”

This kowtowing to the fossil fuel industry, making those responsible for the problem, and the very worse and heavy-handed anti-environmental tactics, is courting the devil. Co-optation of the school, even if it had pure intentions, will ensure that any actual environmental agenda gets hijacked and hopelessly diluted, or worse, sent into cloud cuckoo land of geoengineering, techno solutions, and more indulgences to let the fossil fuel industry keep on polluting.

Anti-environmentalism has brought us enough hair-brained schemes that have focused on CO2-reductionism at the expense of blocking and stopping continued ecocide. That a new monstrously funded school of sustainability will likely actually be a school of unsustainability the moment it ‘partners’ ‘strategically’ with the merchants of doubt, will create yet another anchor of ignorance in our society, all the while believing to be upholding righteousness. This gaslighting will be unbeknownst most of all to those participating in it, and most palpable at the frontlines of the worsening environment from the continued pollution for which such an institution will be running interference and apologetics.

The tobacco industry’s endlessly “new” tactics: find a loophole in the law, and f%$# it until it’s gone

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.

Building on our previous work, we write:

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.”

We conclude: “Finally, as the industry continues to reinvent itself to stay in business, regulatory authorities mostly play ‘catch up’. Current strategies which give the industry ample time to market products while they are brought under regulatory frameworks are not helpful for public health.”

Climate Change (Finally) Enters the Therapy Room (for the Rich, who can afford Therapy)

(Background NYTimes Article for Reference)

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.

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.