24 January 2017

Democracy Is Not A Team Sport

Once, at a check-up in Wisconsin, a nice young dental hygienist asked me if I followed the Green Bay Packers. She happened to be a huge fan, bristling with excitement about the upcoming game. I hail from a different state, have lived in a number of cities, and never cared much for football. No, I was not a fan. In fact, I always enjoyed playing sports more than watching them. Nevertheless, the woman went on to talk about her team for the entire time she cleaned my teeth.

Americans, by and large, are infatuated with their teams. Look at the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry or the jubilation over the Cubs winning the world series this past year. When I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, a sea of red-clothed enthusiasts washed over the streets on Badger game days.

But we choose teams in more than just sports. The recent Gilmore Girls revival on Netflix had viewers arguing over whether they were "Team Jess" or "Team Logan." Movie fanatics ally with Team Star Wars or Team Star Trek. Consumers join Team Coke or Team Pepsi. And the majority of the American population forge an allegiance to Team Democrat or Team Republican.

In our increasingly fragmented, screen-obsessed society, we all long to be a part of a community. Teams make us feel like we belong, like we matter. But team loyalty is often as insipid as the endless entertainment we devour as a country. It is based on personality, proximity, and style rather than substance - very apropos in our hyper-consumerist culture. It is an identity that seemingly enriches the egos of the disciples, but in reality, it only serves to enrich those at the top.

Team alliances in such trivial matters as sports and pop culture may be of little significance, save for the time, effort, and money spent on these trivialities which could be better spent on matters of consequence. However, strict team alliances in politics serve to manipulate the masses and obfuscate the issues. What results is a highly polarized, divisive society in which the suffering of the people and the crumbling of our ecological life support system go on almost unabated. Those at the top of Team D and Team R forge forward, reaping the rewards of our toils on the bottom.

Dichotomous political teams exist to provide an illusion of choice. Real life, real issues are messy and multifaceted. Tackling climate change, for example, is much more than merely a matter of choosing between Team Prius versus Team Hummer. But teams provide a simple heuristic so that people can avoid the difficulty of analyzing and considering complex matters. We choose teams so that we can spend our time chasing careers, wealth, and a host of other shallow pursuits rather than participating in building a better world every day. Finally, teams allow those in power to go about their self-serving, often destructive, business while the powerless squabble with each other over which side they are on.

When we are aligned with a particular team, we tend to excuse and rationalize that team's bad behavior, because that team becomes attached to our own ego. We project our beliefs and feelings onto that team and its representative leader. Thus, any attack on the team becomes a personal affront, regardless of the fact that the team seldom cares about us.

Consequently, Democrats rarely balked at Bill Clinton's roll-back of welfare, repeal of Glass-Steagall, enactment of an excessively harsh crime bill, passing of NAFTA, and deregulation of the Telecommunications industry. In addition, many Democrats justified or ignored Obama's increase in foreign wars, bail out of Wall Street, expansion of offshore oil drilling, extension of Bush's tax cuts to the wealthy, and promotion of free trade agreements that empower and enrich corporations. There is no direct Republican corollary to the actions of the Democrats because Republicans do not implement policies that would be otherwise considered Democratic. However, what occurs with Republicans is that when confronted with such policies from Clinton and Obama - policies that are inherently Republican in nature - the Republicans reject rather than support them because they originate from the wrong team. All of this refusal to address the actual political issues stems from blind adherence to teams (and in the case of Republican repudiation of Obama, sometimes blatant racism).

The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., the ACA or Obamacare) serves as an apt illustration of the nonsensical political team activity. This sometimes helpful but deeply flawed health care initiative - in that it protects and expands the coffers of the unnecessary health insurance industry - bears far too many striking similarities to the plan conceived at the conservative Heritage Foundation and the plan enacted in Massachusetts by Republican Governor Mitt Romney. Any wonder why the Republicans have no other ideas now that they are poised to repeal the ACA? Because the Democrats stole their idea. But both teams deny this fact. Moreover, Democrats will argue the spurious claim that Obamacare is the best we can do, that we could never enact universal single-payer health coverage (which would save the country billions).

In order to fight the fascist and regressive Trump regime, we would do well to learn from past mistakes. We cannot battle Trump with the goal of simply switching the team in power. In 2011, the co-option of a populist rebellion in Wisconsin by the Democratic party signaled doom for the movement. Likewise for Occupy. In the aftermath, several Democrats won while the rest of us continued to lose.

Some attending the historic Women's March expressed the opinion that those who voted for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson - i.e., not Team Hillary - were not welcome. This team sentiment is highly destructive. In a similar vein, it does women no good to decry Trump's misogyny and history of sexual assault without at least acknowledging that a number of President Clinton's numerous past indiscretions amount to sexual harassment as well. While these behaviors may not necessarily be equivalent, neither behavior should be condoned based upon team loyalty.

Democrats and Republicans and their anointed leaders such as Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump are brands and personalities. There is a reason that the Obama campaign won  Advertising Age's award for marketer of the year in 2008. Part of belonging to a particular team involves the cult of celebrity. Charming, good-looking, dignified, witty team leaders cultivate that sense of belonging even more so. But even the most distinguished leaders come replete with empty rhetoric and broken promises. It is important that we see through the charismatic character, that we analyze the practices rather than embrace the platitudes. 

The political dichotomies are a means to divide those who should be united, and so they have. I received numerous notes from people and heard tales from friends who recounted fractured relationships - some permanently - arising from the divisiveness between teams in this past 2016 election. By choosing teams, we were forced to defend the indefensible, whether it be Hillary's war mongering and pro-corporate agenda on one side, or Trump's immaturity, racism, and probable psychopathy on the other (again, not that they are necessarily equivalent). People are tired of hypocrisy and lies, but these emanate from both teams. To circumvent this foible, we could acknowledge the positive (in those rare instances) and speak out vehemently against the negative of all parties and all politicians - in short, speak the truth. Defending your team despite its flagrant deficiencies is a vacuous, disingenuous endeavor that we should all find intolerable.

Furthermore, when it comes to teams in presidential elections, we forget that we've been manipulated into choosing a president from what are often limited and very poor choices provided by the rich and powerful. These choices (in this case, both Hillary and the Donald) may not reflect the citizenry of the country at all. Even so, we fall in line, bickering over the unfavorable choices thrust upon us, rather than come together against them both and defend our democracy and the policies that would be best for us all.

It's amazing how nonplussed people become when you raise issues without the context of the major political parties - when you do not affiliate with a team. Sometimes they deflect the subject or try to pinpoint your nonexistent team. Then, they are loath to agree with you if they conclude they are on a different team, even though you assure them that you do not belong to one. This default team position needs to end if we want any chance of combating the most pressing concerns facing all of our citizens including poverty, income inequality, and wholesale environmental degradation.

For any real democracy, our alliances need to shift from superficial teams to substantive ideas. We want to be a part of a group, yet we fail to recognize our more salient connections to the majority of humanity. Our delusions about the Team D and Team R blind us to the largest struggle of all: the oppressed versus the oppressors. And currently, in that war, you know what team both the Democrats and the Republicans represent.

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the Mad Dog General.  Email: k_mattis@outlook.com Twitter: @kristinemattis

11 January 2017

Meryl, Have We Been Living in the Same America All This Time?


Credit: B. Coady

Clearly not. In fact, not many people live in Meryl Streep's America. Most of those that do were in that Golden Globes ballroom with the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award winner, cheering her triumphant anti-Trump speech in which she never even had to utter the ignoramus's name. And right on cue, Trump retorted with a ridiculous attack on the ability of one of the most deservedly honored actors of our day, surprisingly refraining from a crack about her looks or age.

Thank goodness we are all still entitled to free speech, for the time being, at least. Though their voices are unduly and unfairly amplified, celebrities have a right to their opinions. Likewise, my muted voice has a right to call celebrities out on their hollowness. Streep's speech was perfectly suited for Hollywood, believing itself to be important, but lacking the necessary depth from which most meaningful things come.

Let's be clear. There is good reason for Meryl Streep to use her public platform to lament the incoming sociopath-in-chief and to encourage resistance to the upcoming fascism. There is good reason to be fearful of the future. But while Meryl and her peers have been blissfully unaware of the destination toward which humanity has been heading for at least four decades now - with every single Democrat and Republican at the helm - others of us have been watching each presidential administration lead us closer to the proverbial cliff. Actually, far too many citizens have already fallen to their deaths. For the rest of us, the only difference now is that the velocity at which we approach the precipice is merely accelerating.

It is not hard to call out Trump for mocking a disabled person, as Streep did. Anyone with half a heart felt horrified at the sight of Trump's deplorable impression. But it is hard to abide the shallowness of scorning the corrupt and contemptible president-elect without also admonishing the equally corrupt and contemptible institutions from which he emanated, including the two-party political system and the entertainment industry.

Streep spoke of the inclusively of her industry, remarking on the diverse backgrounds from which so many of her colleagues came. It was a typical telling of the popular Horatio Alger myth that anyone can find success in America. But we all know the truth: that the accomplishments of people like those at the Golden Globes are one in a million - and it just so happens that the success tales come from those very ones-in-millions. We do not hear the stories of the failures. So-called successes are products of luck, timing, ambition, connections, nepotism, often corruption and compromised ethics, and sometimes, hard work and/or talent. "Making it" in Hollywood is a windfall, yet for the majority of the hard-working and talented people who do not, the entertainment industry is emblematic of the rampant income inequality in this nation. Many worthy artists never make it and never even have a chance. It's a lottery and a crapshoot, but it does not have to be. It does not have to reward few and leave the majority to struggle.

No one deserves the massive wealth that these people enjoy. That wealth is always at the expense of those who have little. Furthermore, if everyone in America lived so lavishly - as do both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as well - the earth would be destroyed because it could not sustain such wealth and excess.

(Speaking of sustainability, most of those in the entertainment industry like to tout themselves as concerned about the environment, but their industry itself is awash in almost unbridled energy and resource use, waste, and pollution.)

Streep stressed the importance of the profound artistry produced by Hollywood. Granted, I admit watching some select television series and the occasional film. There is quality to be had; there are some very worthwhile endeavors. But that does not mitigate the fact that the entertainment industry produces complete and utter crap in far excess of its products of value. And because it follows the corporate capitalist model that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton support full throttle,  it also exacerbates economic inequality and environmental devastation.

As fitting at the Golden Globes, where the awards are given by the Hollywood Foreign Press, Streep underscored the obligation of a vibrant fourth estate, saying, "We need the principled press to hold power to account." Actors like Meryl echoed the same sentiments during the George W. Bush administration, but why did we not hear those sentiments from them when Nobel peace prize-winning Obama started dropping bombs in seven foreign countries, when he escalated drone warfare - killing untold numbers of innocent civilians, when he deported more immigrants than any other president in U.S. history, when he rubber-stamped the surveillance state, when just a couple of weeks ago he  passed a law that amounts to enacting an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, when he and Clinton pushed for the TPP, when he and Clinton supported fracking, when he and Clinton derided and jailed whistleblowers like Snowden and Manning? If we are to hold one power to account, we should hold ALL powers to account, Meryl.

Furthermore, Streep called for support for the Committee to Protect Journalists, perhaps forgetting that the Obama administration has sentenced more whistleblowers than all other previous presidents combined. These whistleblowers committed the grave act of leaking to the press, and thus to the public, the immoral and nefarious deeds of our government. You know, holding power to account. Obama will now pass on his legacy of attacking and imprisoning journalists and their sources to the unhinged Trump.

One could claim that the burden of the failure of American democracy is partially at the hands of the entertainment industry. Arguably, the man who was the progenitor of the modern systemic decline of America was none other than Ronald Reagan, a product of Hollywood whose political rise was enabled by his star power. Similarly, Donald Trump only became a household name because of his stint on the Apprentice. His nationwide name recognition "bigly" aided his campaign - and, to be sure, he conducted his campaign not unlike the Hollywood campaigns at this time of year for the much-coveted Oscars.  Everyone in New York business circles already knew what a misogynist, racist, con-artist the Donald was. No doubt, everyone in Hollywood soon learned the same when Trump embarked upon his reality show. But no one dared speak out when Trump was a cash cow for their respective industries.

Meanwhile, one of very few principled "mainstream" presidential candidates in my lifetime emerged with great fortitude in the 2016 race. Bernie Sanders could very well have been elected President and we could all be ushering in a whole new promising era of equity, inclusion, and justice not seen for scores and scores of years. His primary loss could be blamed partly on an archaic election process in which voters are disenfranchised through ridiculous rules, including registering months ahead of elections and closed primaries, not to mention voter suppression due to erroneous purging of registry lists, and many other undemocratic practices. But mostly, Bernie lost due to the concerted effort, through unethical and illegal tactics of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Rodham Clinton, to provide Clinton the Democratic nomination at all costs, the will of the people be damned.

It is likely that we can thank the very unpopular Hillary Clinton, who, like most Democrats of the modern era, promulgated neoliberal, corporatist, Republican policies (militarism, privatization, deregulation, and austerity - to name but a few) for the election of Trump. Soon too, we may be able to thank the Democrats for sending us all to nuclear annihilation, as their unverifiable, evidence-free blaming of Russia for Trump's election may send us into a wholly preventable nuclear war. (At which point, we will always then be left wondering why the Democrats did not fight to eliminate the electoral college after Gore won the popular vote in 2000.) Yet Streep has held fast to propping up Clinton and these very same Democrats, who have laid the foundation for this unfettered plutocratic regime, hiding its support structure behind their dignified, yet duplicitous faces.

Meryl, while I appreciate the gravity of this moment in U.S. history and your calling attention to it, I cannot refrain from questioning your collaboration with and support of the very people and systems that laid the groundwork for this doom. Like them, your superficial examination of the issues we are facing only perpetuates the phony political partisanship under which the nation and the world are being utterly destroyed. Perhaps the best thing that you and your comrades could do, instead of making speeches that fall far from the mark, is to cancel all of your extravagant and wasteful ceremonies of the season and join the hoi polloi in the community and in the streets to fight against the plutocracy. At this crucial moment in time, we need less superficiality and more substance, especially from Hollywood.

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She examines science, health, and environmental communication within the context of social and environmental justice. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com Twitter: @kristinemattis

25 November 2016

Embracing A New Normal (Not of the Trump variety)

Photo courtesy: White Wold Pack http://www.whitewolfpack.com/2016/09/standing-rock-protest-grows-with.html

I attended a Catholic university, and during my time in college, I embarked on several school-sponsored retreats. While semi-religious, these days-long outings in the wilderness really more resembled self-help or mindfulness groups than zealous theological preaching sessions. In one very popular retreat, we broke into small subsets and discussed our fears, woes, past issues, and current predicaments. We shared our feelings, our meals, and our hearts. We opened up to people at whom we would have never batted an eye back on campus. It was all very kumbaya, with ample servings of respect, understanding, and helpfulness. Narcissism, competitiveness, back-stabbing, and ladder-climbing were left at the cabin door.

Upon returning to school, our larger retreat cadre reassembled at a future date. I was asked to represent my smaller group and give a talk about what I gleaned from the outing. Though I do not recall the details, I vividly remember my main point: I asked, why can we not live the same life we lived on the retreat, every day? Why do we have to come back to campus and return to the unethical, corrupt, and unjust "normal"? Suffice it to say, I don't think many people were pleased with this notion - not the least from whom I sensed unease, were the priests who ran the retreat.

In 2011, I participated in the massive, unprecedented, yet eventually, unfruitful protests against the anti-union and corporate capitalistic policies of the then newly appointed Walker administration in Wisconsin. For weeks, citizens occupied the state house in Madison, living cooperatively, sharing resources and assets, providing each other with basic needs and necessities. Ultimately, we were forced from the capital building, foolishly abdicating the fight in favor of the contemptible political process. We retreated back to our comfortable - or, for a large constituency, not so comfortable - lives, and far too many people were more than pleased to return to "normal."

Occupy Wall Street and other such occupy encampments, much like in Madison, demonstrated on a small scale how easily social-democratic and social-anarchist communities can work to mutually benefit everyone. They provided alternative paradigms to the morally bankrupt, ethically corrupt, environmentally destructive, socially deplorable, vacuous lives that we are all complicit in living each day. But alas, acknowledgement that such cooperative societal endeavors are possible, and may be even preferable to the majority of the downtrodden and exploited citizenry, is not considered polite conversation or acceptable media discourse.

Much like my college retreat, these extended protests and others like them provided a moment to step away from the mindless treadmill we continually trample and offered a different, and likely, better path for humanity. Now, we witness a similar circumstance with the Standing Rock encampment of water protectors fighting against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Only this time, the people at the forefront of the struggle are the very people who have suffered perhaps the most oppression of any single faction of citizens on the North American continent, and who, in their traditions, may present the clearest course toward combating the mutual scourges of environmental degradation and social injustice. As one water protector explained to Ann Wright (in her November 8 article),"I am now living as my ancestors lived...in nature all day, everyday, in community living, working and praying together.  I have been waiting for this gathering all my life.” Perhaps we should all be working toward such a permanent global gathering.

Our only real chance of contending with climate change and inequality is through a sustainable way of life - which means wholly altered social, political, and economic systems that value biology over business, ecology over economics. More equitable and sustainable ways of living have been illustrated during protests in recent years, but for them to matter, they need to be maintained after these short-term gatherings and adopted as "normal." The cultural values that indigenous communities hold embody a critical route toward sustainability and justice. Our greater societal embrace of their values may be our last best hope to save our species. 

Kristine Mattis holds a PhD in Environment and Resources. Contact: k_mattis@outlook.com. Follow: @kristinemattis

22 October 2016

The Time for Ambitious Environmental Goals is Now: Why It Doesn't Matter Whether Clinton or Trump Mention Climate Change


I meant no harm. I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.
I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads …
I went right on biggering… selling more Thneeds
And I biggered my money, which everyone needs.

From The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

Some ado has been made of the fact that the major presidential candidates have barely spoken about the environment. Hillary Clinton acknowledges that climate change is a real phenomenon and should be addressed. Donald Trump has said it was a hoax and a money-making industry. (Which begs the question: Why didn’t he get in on that huge business opportunity?). Of course, Trump equivocates, then denies his global warming denial. Truth is, he really couldn’t give a shit. It has no bearing on his pursuit of fame and fortune. But does it matter whether or not he believes it, or whether or not Clinton believes it, for that matter? Does it really matter that topics of environmental importance such as climate change, water pollution, air pollution, industrial farming, endocrine disrupting chemicals, and toxic waste are neglected, given the paucity and inadequacy of the solutions proposed?

Ten years ago, An Inconvenient Truth spread the word about global warming to much of the public. Those who knew about, studied, and/or worked at tackling climate change were thrilled that this documentary finally painted a clear picture of the dire issue for so many who had not heard of it up until that time. And then came the dénouement of the film. We can fix this! All we have to do is change our light bulbs and purchase hybrid cars! That’s precisely when we should have known that we were doomed.

It is one thing to reveal an inconvenient truth. It is another thing entirely to prescribe a whole new, seemingly less convenient way of life.

The fact is that despite all the people who recognize the threat of global warming, few (save the indigenous peoples of the world) are willing to face the radical restructuring of our society and economy that is necessary to fully address climate change along with the myriad environmental catastrophes we are already experiencing.

Ecological modernization can be described as the idea of “win-win” solutions. We can have it all -  we can have corporate capitalism, expand markets, increase growth, AND save the environment. Along with the belief that we can have all things is the belief that science and technology will save us, and we can engineer our way into sustainability. The Breakthrough Institute serves as a the premier think tank for the movement. Adherence to the theory of ecological modernization dominates academic institutions, even if many professors do not subscribe to it. Many of the leading environmental non-profit organizations advocate ecological modernization tacitly, if not overtly. Who would not want to believe that we can continue our way of life, almost unabated, as well as tackle the most pressing environmental issues of our time? The problem is, there is absolutely no evidence to support this supposition.

Maintaining a sustainable, habitable environment for humanity entails far more than transitioning from fossil fuels and buying new “green” products. We have the problem of climate change coupled with the problem of pollution. Many times, the very technologies that we promote to reduce carbon dioxide emissions increase toxic contamination somewhere in their life cycle (i.e., production, use, or waste); often, they do not actually reduce carbon emissions when their entire life cycle is scrutinized.

Returning to Al Gore’s sustainability suggestions, those long-lasting eco-friendly light bulbs that were touted to save immense amounts of energy are replete with mercury, a poisonous heavy metal. Most people are unaware of the danger in breaking these bulbs, releasing gaseous mercury into their environments, nor are they aware that these bulbs are considered hazardous waste and require special disposal (which often comes with a fee in most municipalities). As for electric and hybrid automobiles? While they may not emit carbon in their usage, they, like all cars, require vast amounts of carbon energy in manufacturing. Furthermore, electric cars that are plugged into electrical outlets fueled by coal are going to emit nearly as much carbon in the long run, albeit indirectly, as gasoline powered vehicles. Both climate change solutions are problematic and far from truly sustainable.

Just a fraction of the reality of our current environmental predicament …

  • Five garbage patches of floating plastic waste are destroying marine life and threatening the entire ocean ecosystem planet-wide. Located within the five ocean gyres, the garbage patches are the size of some large U.S. states. Marine birds and mammals are dying of starvation in response to filling their guts will plastic ocean debris that mimics their normal, nutrient-filled food supply. They are also choking on plastic wastes and slowly becoming sickened by feeding on tiny plastic particles that accumulate in their bodies.

  • Microplastics, including plastic microbeads and plastic fibers from fleece, acrylic, nylon, and polyester, and other plastic materials physically broken into miniscule pieces are littering fresh and marine water bodies all over the planet. These particles are absorbing other toxic chemicals, then being ingested by organisms, accumulating in the food web, and ultimately being consumed by humans.

  • Landfills of buried waste spoil our countryside. Toxic leachate from these landfills is already seeping into our land and waterways. These buried mounds are also ready to emit more potent greenhouse gases (methane) when they are inevitably unearthed at some point in future generations.

  • The majority of livestock are raised in inhumane, torturous concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which wreak havoc to the environment and public health in nearby communities via extensive air and water pollution as a result of the unsanitary, unlivable conditions. Right now, these animals themselves, in the tens or hundreds of thousands, lie dead in rivers and streams throughout North Carolina, drowned as a result of Hurricane Matthew’s destruction.

  • Toxic dumps of electronic waste pollute third-world countries and are directly responsible for the illness and deaths of countless humans, particularly children, who are forced to attempt the risky task of “recycling” the valuable parts of this waste.

  • Endocrine disrupting, and other chemicals in our products, food, water, and air, are ravaging all systems of our bodies, resulting in cancer, as well as neurodegenerative, neuromuscular, immune, and a host of other syndromes for which we have no clear etiology and no known cure. These chemicals have been shown to cause feminization of male frogs, reptiles, and fishes, (bringing to mind the question of what they are doing to human sexual and reproductive organs).  Moreover, these chemicals - in combinations that we could not possibly regulate nor account for - are causing the collapse of vital bee pollinators.

As the critics of ecological modernization know, the only clear, long-term solution that could even attempt to preserve the human species is de-growth – a reduction of production and consumption.

 A few examples of what true sustainable solutions would look like:

  • All organic matter would be composted. This means that all vegetation, food waste, all plants and animals (including humans) and their waste would go through the natural decomposition process to return constituent elements to the soil from where they originated.

  • All synthetic materials would cease to exist unless they could be decomposed into safe chemical constituents. A moratorium on plastic production would be enacted.

  • All synthetic toxic substances would be eliminated. Hazardous substances already exist on earth without our help. There is a level of insanity in creating more substances that harm our own health and that of the planet and persist for millennia.

  • All products would be returned to manufacturers to be broken down into their constituent parts – i.e., cradle-to-cradle technology. Parts would either have to be recycled, reused, or decomposed. If not, that product could not exist. Unless and until we can produce goods that are fully reusable, recyclable, and/or biodegradable – we should stop producing and consuming them.

  • All agriculture would be small scale polycultures requiring no use of synthetic pesticides.

  • All exercise would be human-powered, requiring no need for energy consuming machinery.

  • All homes would be south-facing, utilizing passive solar energy and convection techniques for climate control and energy.

  • All communities would be localized, with walking or other human-powered vehicles as the main form of transport.

The dreams and traditions advanced over the past few centuries in “civilized” cultures – big business, big technology, big cars, big jobs, big incomes, big weddings, big homes, big families – i.e., production, consumption, more production, and more consumption – have no place in a sustainable world.

It may appear that we could never live in such a manner, but the only humans who knew anything about living sustainably – indigenous peoples -  were (and some still are) able to do so for thousands and thousands of years. Moreover, every other species on the planet, save for humans, lives sustainably.

True sustainability requires zero waste. True sustainability requires an end to all unnecessary manufactured toxics. True sustainability requires an end to excess production and consumption. True sustainability requires an end to equating wants with needs. All of this is antithetical to our current way of life. All of this is antithetical to industrial growth. Most of all, all of this is antithetical to capitalism.

Republicans want to deny that our environmental problems exist. Democrats want to engineer our way out of global catastrophe, when it is engineering itself that led us down this path.

The solutions proposed by policymakers are too incremental and reductionist in nature. They  suggest a lack of comprehension of the enormity and interconnectedness of our environmental predicament. Sustainability is incompatible with job growth (as currently conceived), one of the primary issues of discussion in the current election. Of course, the typical solutions proposed are, first and foremost, in service to the preservation of capitalism.

Many people care about the environment, are concerned about climate change, and try to live as sustainably as possible. They build green homes, bike to work, adopt vegetarianism, grow gardens, buy organic food, compost their waste, bring reusable bags to the grocery store, etc. These are all good, moral lifestyle choices, but unless structurally adopted, do little to alter the trajectory of ecological collapse. Systemic, life-altering changes in industry, economics, and culture are called for - immediately.

Small advances, such as the gradual shift of energy production from fossil fuels to renewable – which seems to be one of the only proposals offered by politicians – may assist in slowing down the progression of climate change, but will not halt the inevitable collapse.

So, it seems that no matter which party dominates our political landscape, unless we start facing the reality of our environmental dilemma, we are all getting on board a train to the same final destination. The only question is, do you want to take the light rail or the bullet train?

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She examines science, health, and environmental communication within the context of social and environmental justice. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com Twitter: @kristinemattis

30 September 2016

"Unjust Targeting of African-Americans Not a New Phenomenon"

Kristine Mattis interview  October 3, 2016:

Two weeks ago, the police shooting of an African American man named Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte enraged thousands of African Americans. The killing, believed to be driven by racist attitudes, triggered protests.
Mattis tells the Tehran Times that “the protests that are going on in Charlotte, the ones that have occurred in numerous cities throughout the country following the murders of black people by police, the silent protests against the Star-Spangled Banner - these are all righteous, justified expressions of decades and decades of pent-up emotion, and they should be acknowledged.”
Following is the transcription of the interview.
Q: What's your view on the police shooting of the black man and the following protests in Charlotte?
A: It is just another in a growing list of unwarranted antagonism, aggression, and violence against people of color in America. The unjust targeting and killing of African-Americans is not a new phenomenon. We obviously know about the history of black oppression and murder during slavery, reconstruction, and throughout the civil rights era, but the commonplace executions of black men and women have been hidden from view for several decades until recently. Black people in America are rightfully angry about their brothers and sisters (OUR brothers and sisters) being murdered by the police, and about innumerable other racial injustices that have occurred and continue to occur since the inception of the United States of America.
When I was in my early twenties, I worked at a bookstore, and there was a group of four of us who became good friends. One of our friends was a black male. During our time in the bookstore, he faced many instances of covert racism – in language and attitude and lack of respect – from our bosses. I recall one particular time being a witness to this and fuming. I gave him a look and he basically looked back at me in a way that said, “Just leave it alone.” (This was not the first time a black male friend of mine responded to me in that way after I was angered by the racism shown to him.) I don’t remember if he told me this outright or if it was just insinuated, but the long and short of it was that he has to face this kind of B.S. all day, every day. He just couldn’t always get mad or fight it because not only would he lose his job, but he simply would not even be able to get through the day if that were the case. (It probably also accounted for his great wit and humor; he was one of the funniest people I knew.) So, imagine this subjugation happening to every black man, every black woman, and most people of color – be they Latino, Muslim, Native American, or African-American – all the time. After a while, you just can’t expect people to repress their anger and hurt and betrayal forever.
The protests that are going on in Charlotte, the ones that have occurred in numerous cities throughout the country following the murders of black people by police, the silent protests against the Star-Spangled Banner - these are all righteous, justified expressions of decades and decades of pent up emotion, and they should be acknowledged. If you listen to many of the protesters, they express profound, important perspectives, ideas, and stories that we do not normally hear in the corporate media.
Q: How do you see the Black Lives Matter and its impact in the recent years?
A: They are a phenomenal group who do not rely on any allegiance to either of the corrupted political parties in America. Any white person who doesn’t understand why Black Lives Matter is important - and why All Lives Matter is ridiculous - probably harbors tremendous white privilege if not racism. You cannot look at the history of the U.S. or the world and not realize that injustice runs rampant and fairness is an illusion. Black Lives Matter has illuminated the truth that certain people have more obstacles, fewer opportunities, less money, less power - in short, black people have always been left behind in America. Everyone should read the BLM guiding principles. You can see that they are seeking to create a better, more just world for the traditionally oppressed (i.e., black folks), and consequently, for all of us. As much as I think the mainstream media and the corporate elite are trying to marginalize BLM. I think BLM is having an impact in mobilizing people, and I think they will have more of an effect in years to come. Unfortunately, things are bound to get worse given that our country will be ruled by either the narcissistic, infantile ignoramus Trump or the neoliberal, corrupt, corporate Clinton, neither of whom will do anything to help people of color.
Q: Do you think that reports by the mainstream media imply that protesters are violent?
A: In a word, yes. The media and government officials – even our African-American president - use more loaded words and rhetoric to describe black folks who protest. More often than not, black protesters are described as “rioters” and “looters.” When people organized rallies against the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, President Obama cautioned that people should “keep the protests peaceful.” Would he – or anyone, for that matter – feel the need to admonish groups of white protesters like that? (Perhaps environmental protesters …) Did we hear that kind of reprimand when all of the white Tea-Partiers gathered? Did the media ever treat the Tea-Partiers as troublesome, potentially violent mobs? It’s a fairly obvious double-standard if you are at all sensitive to the language and framing that the media employ in their reports.
Q: What role can the police play in such incidents?
A: The police have a motto: “To protect and serve.”  We assume that they are supposed to be around to protect and serve all citizens, but in reality, the police force in the U.S. was established to serve and protect the elite. The police may not even be aware of that role all the time because they are rule-followers, and the laws are written by and for the privileged powers that be – the corporatists, the capitalists, the one-percent.
Instead of being authoritarian, and now, militarized, the police could be the peace-keepers they were supposed to be. According to the First Amendment, all Americans are supposed to have the constitutional right to free speech and peaceable assembly. Black protesters shouldn’t be met with police armed like soldiers, with riot gear and even tanks. The police should actually be protecting the protesters.
Furthermore, we see how differently black protesters are treated compared to white protesters. As I said before, the rhetoric in the media is different, but the treatment by law enforcement is also different. In recent years, some Tea Party groups assembled at Obama speeches with loaded guns in hand. The police didn’t come out in full military regalia to deal with them and certainly didn’t shoot them. In January of this year, armed white militants took illegal occupation of the office of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. They, like other white, right-wing groups were treated with kid gloves compared to how black protesters are treated. And since the announcement that the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police union, has endorsed Donald Trump for president – which means Trump garnered a 2/3 majority of the union voters – it seems clear that there exists a definite current of racism flowing through the American law-enforcement system.
Police are acting like we live in a war zone rather than a so-called democracy. They perpetuate the violence rather than prevent it. The police should be our allies, not our enemies. In other countries in Europe, police do not even carry guns. We need a re-envisioning of the purpose of a police force in America, because if we truly lived in a democracy, the police would be protecting the 99%, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable among us, while arresting the 1% who perpetrate the majority of crimes against humanity and against the planet.
Q: What do you regard as the root of racism in the United States?
A: Racism has been around in this country since its inception and has never left. Overt racism has been somewhat squelched since the civil rights era, but places like Fox News and people like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump have brought racism back to the fore. The election of Barack Obama angered the racists in the country who had been somewhat hiding in plain sight. They could not believe a person of color was their president. But it was what coincided with his election – the rhetoric of the commentators on Fox News and right-wing radio and the emergence of truly moronic, incompetent, and prejudiced politicians such as Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, who made racist remarks and actions acceptable again to a certain segment of the population. These people have empowered the bigots.
But, the other reason racism is coming out again is because of the increase in income inequality in the U.S. Not only do people want to find some boogeyman to blame for their misfortunes, they want to find some “other” to declare as worse than themselves, so they can feel better about their own unfortunate circumstance. And let’s be clear, the circumstances of too many people in America are absolutely reprehensible in a country of such plenty and such wealth. It doesn’t help that here in America we perpetuate the bogus myth of the self-made man and pretend that anyone who is not financially “successful” only has himself to blame. We have a whole psychological and self-help industry that makes people believe that their economic circumstance is wholly a product of their own hard-work, rather than a product of nepotism, privilege, corruption, and often, criminality. This way, we ignore the myriad systemic problems that have caused the increase in homelessness, poverty, and economic inequality (and environmental degradation). And this way we have white people railing against people of color rather than against the one-percent and the corporate criminals who have plundered the country and the world.
Q: What could you say about the recent African-American Museum? Do you think it distracts people from the recent incident?
A: I do not know a whole lot about the museum, but from what I have read, it is as superficial as most anything else in America. It puts a pretty face on a deeply important and still-evolving history. It sounds like a bit of whitewashing to me, which is the same complaint I have heard about the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in D.C.
I would not say that the African-American Museum is a distraction exactly, but it certainly appeases white people. Too many white people claim to care about the plight of black people in America, but are not willing to sacrifice their comfort for the sake of all of their black brothers and sisters who are suffering. The African-American Museum should definitely exist, but it is not the be-all, end-all that is needed to help race relations or to improve the conditions of black people in the U.S. That’s where a movement like Black Lives Matter comes in and why it is crucial. Hopefully, BLM welcomes all of the white brothers and sisters who stand in solidarity to support their cause. As a white woman, I can never begin to fully understand or empathize with the plight of African-Americans due to the very real privilege of my skin color, but I can be willing to stand with them and fight with them and for them. The willingness to fight for justice is what is needed much more than a museum to appease the elite masses.
Martin Luther King Jr. put it best in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963). His words ring as true today as they did then, so I will leave you with some of them:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She examines science, health, and environmental communication within the context of social and environmental justice. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com Twitter: @kristinemattis

Ending Education Inequality and Saving Public Schools

From the Sacramento Coalition to Save Public Education: savesacramentopublicschools.org

While the neoliberal war-monger and the fascist buffoon were duking it out on Long Island, further up the Hudson River in Hillary’s adopted hometown, an ongoing eruption was spewing concerning a pedophile teacher at Horace Greeley, the prestigious public high school in Chappaqua, New York. Christopher Schraufnage, a former drama teacher at the school, reached a plea deal with the town on charges of sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child. He is now facing federal criminal charges and civil suits from at least half a dozen victims of his criminal sexual exploitations. Understandably, the parents in town are out for blood. Consequently, many are determined to see the school superintendent, the school board members, and other administrators face repercussions for not preventing this horrendous abuse under their watch. Any mother or father can empathize with the bloodlust these Chappaqua parents are feeling, yet not all have the power and the money to do something about it.

I bring this incident up because I grew up in a town not far from Chappaqua – a decidedly less affluent northern Westchester County suburb. I have been hearing about this story from my mother, who often relays the local news. From what I can gather, there is a feeling of “this doesn’t happen here” and “this is not the kind of school where these things occur.” It’s not surprising. You hear this all the time from residents who are interviewed by the news media after an otherwise “unheard of” crime occurs in their wealthy enclave. And at Horace Greeley, things are different. This school is known as a sort of private-public school, always ranked as one of the best public high schools in the nation. It sends its students to all of the top-tier universities, and its students go on to successful careers. It is not at all coincidental that Chappaqua households are listed among the highest-income in the country as well.

A school’s success is inextricably tied to wealth for a number of reasons. In public schools, the major source of revenue is derived from property taxes. Obviously, an abundance of multi-million dollar properties will generate higher returns for a school district than the cheap real estate of the poor and middle-class. But above that, whether students in rich neighborhoods attend public or private schools, whatever their schools may lack, their parents can make up for in donations. We can all help fund our children’s schools, but while poor households may not even be able to spare pennies, and middle-class households might be able to spare $10 or perhaps as much as $100 dollars, rich households could “sacrifice” $10K, $100K, or for some, even millions of dollars without blinking an eye. That is how much wealth disparity exists; it is truly incomprehensible.

Unequal funding in schools results in inequitable educational opportunities. Schools with more money have greater resources. And greater resources does not mean technology, because there is no evidence that technology enhances education (it merely benefits the tech industry). It means smaller class sizes, ample books and supplies, access to music, art, and physical education, availability of field trips, clean classrooms, and well-paid teachers who are not overburdened with untenable conditions and who are not struggling themselves to make ends meet. There is a reason that the students in Beverly Hills were performing better, on average, than the students I once taught in East Los Angeles – and it had nothing to do with the students’ abilities. Instead, it had everything to do with the superior resources available to both students and teachers in richer school districts (along with the horrendous hunger, poverty, and homelessness rampant in schools in lower socio-economic neighborhoods).

A recent episode of “This American Life” explained how school integration was a monumental success in increasing student performance and narrowing the achievement gap for people of color, not because of racial intermingling, but because black students were able to access the same education opportunities as white students. It follows that desegregation of schools should be implemented not just on the level of race but on the level of economic status. If we really want to fix our public school system, students of all races and all socio-economic strata need to co-exist at all public schools, and there needs to be an end to all private and charter schools.

Charter schools have done little to aid in providing a better quality education to all – mainly because that is not what they were established for. Charters do not have the same mandates as public schools, so they do not have to follow all of the same onerous, bureaucratic regulations. These directives were put in place by the capitalist governing class who purposefully constructed them to undermine public education. With the failure of public education, the capitalist class could make way for a new open market in education. With charter schools, the taxpayers could pay for the market and all of the profits could be had by industry. That is not to say that all charter schools were created by corporate profiteers (though that is true in an alarming number of cases). Many charter schools were established by good educators with the best of intentions for students. I know of a number of them and worked at one over a decade ago. That is also not to say that some students do not benefit from a charter school education, whether socially or academically (though research shows that, overall, this is not the case). But these exceptions are akin to a handful of people sharing a winning lottery ticket while everyone else remains left behind. They amount to educational fortune, but not educational justice.

Imagine if all of the nation’s rich folks were forced to send their children to plain-old public schools, along with students of middle-incomes and students of low- or no incomes. First, any crowded classrooms, unclean conditions, problems with teachers, or lack of resources would be nipped in the bud, because the rich parents would pour their money, their time, and their lawyers into improving the conditions for their children (and thus, all of the children). Second, the rich children would learn a great deal from their less wealthy peers about people who do not have access to the wealth and privileges that they do, hopefully, making they more sympathetic and empathetic to the conditions of others. Third, the wealthy parents might not feel comfortable having their children mingle with the non-wealthy hoi-polloi, so they may actually learn empathy as well. They may think more closely about socio-political issues and they might learn about the reality of other people’s lives, about the plight of others from the actual struggles of their childrens’ peers, rather than from the propaganda and hearsay they gather from their perch on high. They might, in turn, use their fortunes to help to improve the quality of life for their childrens’ peers and maybe, for the rest of the 99% of the country.

While there is no doubt that the eradication of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and gross income inequality overall would drastically improve the educational success of all students, it also seems that the preservation of what could be and should be an exceptional public school system in America is imminently achievable. But, it cannot be done with the useless reforms and technological tools that are currently being pushed on the public. The solution to educational equality relies on the total integration of all American students into diverse yet equivalent, well-financed public schools.

Now, exactly what kids are being trained for in school – to be corporate technocrats and to perpetuate society’s plunge into planetary ecocide and species suicide … That’s a whole other issue …

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She examines science, health, and environmental communication within the context of social and environmental justice. Before returning to graduate school, Kristine worked as a medical researcher, as a science reporter for the congressional record in the U.S. House of Representatives, and as a teacher.

Contact: k_mattis@outlook.com and @kristinemattis.

Persnickety Publishing Pet-Peeves

For better or for worse, warranted or unwarranted, when I encounter certain terms, phrases, and misappropriations in an article, the irrational, impatient side of me wants to discard the piece altogether. Granted, I try to use my better judgment and gauge what I read on its analytic integrity and substance rather than on its style, so I try to push on despite my fastidious aggravation. Lord knows I make plenty of errors in my own writing. Nevertheless, here are a few examples of what irks me the most:

Ubiquitous and Overused Words


As long as people continually use the term surreal for every action and event, the term will be rendered meaningless.


No. Just No. Only narcissists need this word in their vocabulary.

A pivot used to be something I did when I was a dancer and gymnast as a child. It is not something that everyone everywhere is doing now. Here are some alternatives for what you really mean:

Also, why on earth do writers and reporters feel the need to use the exact same language as every other writer and reporter? Is it showing that you possess the insider lexicon or is it just the juvenile high school need to feel like one belongs? Whatever the case, it is annoying – and it lends itself to satire when the Daily Show or Last Week Tonight put together a video reel of every broadcast reporter and their mother repeating the same exact term or phrase. Really, do you want to be one of those guys?

Mistaken and Wrong Usage

Try and …

As in, “Next week, I will try and write a more substantive article than this one.” “Try and…” might be okay when spoken. We all speak in colloquialisms that we would not put on paper, but the written word is different. Neither formal nor informal writing allows for the grammatical use of “try and …” as a substitute for “try to...”

Contrary to popular opinion, nonplussed does not mean “unfazed” or “unaffected.” Yes, nonplussed really does sound like it should mean something like nonchalant – but it doesn’t. Our esteemed and “brilliant” president even used the word incorrectly when describing his daughter's reaction to his presidency. Regardless of what Obama may think, nonplussed actually means perplexed, bewildered, or fazed.

Toxin (n)

This one is near and dear to me, as the focus and interest of my scholarship lies in this realm. Somehow, probably because of the new-agey, faddish wellness movement in which people of extravagant wealth pay excessive amounts for “cleanses” as they strive to clear their bodies of “toxins,” toxin has come to mean a synthetic chemical or man-made pollutant.

Famous, successful writers, scientists, physicians, and even Ivy-League educated folk (I know, can you imagine?) use this term incorrectly. In doing so, it likens one to those who believe that rocks and crystals and expensive potions can instantaneously cure one of all ills.

Technically, a toxin is poisonous substance derived from an organism. Last month, I had a spider bite that produced a large, red, scaly, itchy rash on my back. It has only now finally receded. The venom from that spider was a toxin. The harmful synthetic substances, about which many people are rightfully concerned, are known as toxics or toxicants or pollutants or contaminants – not toxins.

The Intercept recently published a piece about Teflon, labeling it a “toxin.” When I received a link to the article from a listserv to which I belong, the moderator soft-corrected the article title and instead called it “The Teflon Toxic …” A man (or woman) after my own heart!

Reports, articles, analyses, and essays by radical, unconventional, iconoclastic, and moral voices are marginalized enough by the purveyors of conventional wisdom, It might do us all some good to pay careful attention to grammatical errors, misapplications, and overused terms that the corporate, capitalistic, elite class could use to dismiss writings that run counter to their precious status quo. We don’t need to provide them any more ammunition to discount important voices.

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She examines science, health, and environmental communication within the context of social and environmental justice. Before returning to graduate school, Kristine worked as a medical researcher, as a science reporter for the congressional record in the U.S. House of Representatives, and as a teacher.
Contact: k_mattis@outlook.com and @kristinemattis.

03 June 2016

Toxic Curve Ball: Why Outdated Assumptions to Determine “Safe Levels” of Toxicants Forfeit the Game


By now, a large number of consumers are aware of the hazards of the synthetic compound bisphenol-A (BPA). Effective May 11, 2016, under California state law Proposition 65, products containing BPA must possess a warning label indicating that exposure could result in female reproductive impairment. Independent research on the endocrine disrupting effects of the chemical, commonly used in plastic bottles, the lining of metal cans, and customer receipts, among other applications, has consistently demonstrated toxic effects at low dose exposures. Two recent robust studies from Denmark concur, finding deleterious effects in rats exposed to BPA at doses lower than those considered safe for human ingestion, yet not at several higher doses. Nevertheless, regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) conclude that BPA is safe at the levels at which it is currently in use.

Clearly, disagreement exists among academic researchers and regulators about safe levels of BPA, as well as of innumerable other chemicals. The discrepancy stems both from how data are derived to determine safe levels of exposure to known toxicants, and from whether safe levels are even derivable under traditional standards of appraisal.

When citizens inquire about the toxicity of their products, they are usually met with guarantees that hazardous substances within these items exist at levels that are too low to produce harm from routine exposures. Likewise, after accidental releases of hazardous substances into our environment there is a time, either at the outset or when concentrations of the pollutant subside, that levels of the contaminant are deemed low enough to be safe for human exposure. When evidence of contamination in the municipal water system in Flint, Michigan first emerged, officials initially declared the water safe to drink. When radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster crossed the Pacific and reached the West Coast of the United States, the public was met with assurances that the level of radiation was too low to do harm. “Safe levels” is a common refrain to assuage fears of chemical toxicants. Yet accumulating research, like that on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) such as BPA, reveals that the foundational principle of safe levels of chemicals at low-enough concentrations is a flimsily constructed one.

Current chemical risk assessment operates under the assumption that we can determine a lowest dose at which a compound produces negligible or no harm to human health – the Lowest Observable Adverse Effect Level (LOAEL). The presumption is that at increasingly higher doses, the substance will be increasingly harmful; at lower doses, harm will be insignificant or nonexistent. (Only a select few substances are regarded as harmful at any dose.)

Our regulatory toxicological tests are based on this supposition of positive monotonic dose-response. Monotonic refers to the slope of the dose-response curve consistently progressing in one direction and never changing sign along the way. These positive monotonic dose-response curves are commonly linear, exponential, or sigmoid (Fig. 1). But, this expectation of monotonicity upon which we base regulation has been strongly challenged not just by the newest papers on BPA, but by an accumulating consensus. Indeed, the dose makes the poison, but in unanticipated and unpredictable ways.

(Figure 1. Some examples of monotonic, positive dose-response curves: linear, exponential, sigmoid)

 Numerous substances act in non-monotonic dose-response (NMDR) manners (Fig, 2), in which the sign (positive or negative) of the response can change throughout the measurement of the dosages. Many essential vitamins and minerals serve as examples. At too-low doses they are insufficient at providing the necessary nutritional molecules needed for functioning. At too-high doses, many can be poisonous. The desirable level of vitamin intake falls at a crucial range in the middle. Their dose-response curves, in which the response examined is nutritional benefit, would resemble an inverted U-shape. Indeed, countless nutrients possess U- or inverted U- shaped NMDR curves.

(Figure 2. Some examples of NMDR curves. Source: epa.gov)

According to Dr. Pete Myers, founder and chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, “NMDR curves are the default expectation for endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs).” As co-author, with the late Dr. Theo Colborn and Dianne Dumanoski, of Our Stolen Future, Dr. Myers wrote the seminal book on EDCs. EDCs are hormone mimics and as such, operate in several complex ways to trigger or suppress normal hormonal regulatory mechanisms. Consequently, they can produce negative effects at different doses, often at the very high and very low levels, rather than in-between. They act in a mode that contradicts the assumptions of low dose safety.

Dr. Myers estimates that at least 1000 EDCs are currently in use commercially, but because most chemicals in commerce have not been sufficiently tested for EDC activity, that number may be much higher. Besides BPA (and its replacement, BPS), other common EDCs of concern include: phthalates found in plastics, cosmetics, and fragrances; PCBs formerly used (and still found) in industrial applications as coolants, lubricants, and insulators; brominated flame retardant chemicals (PBDEs) in furniture and electronics; and the ubiquitous pesticides glyphosate and atrazine. Dr. Tyrone Hayes of the University of California Berkeley has conducted numerous studies on atrazine demonstrating the endocrine disrupting effects on various frog species. Perhaps the most alarming of all his findings may be the hermaphroditism and feminization of male frogs after exposure to atrazine at environmentally relevant doses – doses at or below those found routinely in rivers and streams in the United States.

While synthetic endocrine disruptors are the most commonly discussed examples of chemicals that exhibit NMDR patterns of toxicity, they are not the only substances that do. Heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, selenium, arsenic, and manganese show NMDR patterns as well. In fact, even though the presumption of monotonicity pervades all of risk assessment, it is unclear whether even the majority of compounds actually do act in that simplistic manner. What is clear, as Pete Myers states, is that “by ignoring NMDR curves, risk assessment as currently practiced is deeply flawed and unquestionably allows people to be exposed to harmful chemicals at dangerous doses.”

One of the major flaws lies in the methods of chemical toxicity testing. Most toxicity tests utilize a maximum of three doses as reference points. As we know from basic algebra, plotting three points cannot possibly lead to an accurate estimation of any curve. In order to determine the level at which negative health effects might emerge, says Myers, “You need to have tested an extraordinarily wide range of doses and have, preferably, at least five doses across that range." He adds, "You can't say anything about the absence of (NMDR) with just three doses.”  Thus, with such a small set of reference points, many substances could appear to follow monotonic dose-response with the attendant fall-back assumption of safety a very low levels of exposure. But, untested low doses could actually be the most harmful.

Further complicating determinations of safe levels of chemicals, dose-response curves are specific to precise endpoints. Endpoints are the biological outcomes – such as cancer, reproductive toxicity, or neurological impairment for which toxicologists test. Even if all of the possible endpoints could be or were tested for each chemical (which they are not), each chemical may follow a different curve for each endpoint assessed. For example, arsenic acts monotonically for cancer risk, but inflammatory markers in the umbilical cord of pregnant women are lowest at intermediate levels of arsenic exposure, demonstrating a NMDR curve for that endpoint. Hence, the same chemical may be both safe and unsafe at the same exact level of exposure, depending upon which health effect one examines.

Another issue with establishing safe levels of any single chemical through traditional toxicity measurements stems from the fact that cumulative exposures are not accounted for, nor are aggregate exposures. Chemicals in combination may act synergistically. Roundup herbicide, for instance, causes cell cycle dysfunction (which can lead to cancer) and apoptosis (programmed cell death) in certain product formulations which contain different “inert” (yet toxic) ingredients. These toxic effects are either not produced or produced to a much lesser degree from glyphosate (the “active” ingredient) alone.

Additionally, the time of exposure within the lifetime of an organism can determine whether or not the chemical produces toxic effects and at what dose. Early development and puberty/adolescence are critical stages of life (“windows of vulnerability”) at which exposure to toxic substances may generate greater harm than at other life stages. Lead exposure in children, particularly during embryonic, fetal, and postnatal periods, produces neurological deficits that do not occur in equivalent adult exposures. By overlooking additional complexities such as these in deriving safe levels, chemical testing protocols as they stand are greatly in need of repair to adequately reduce health risks. 

In the face of such evidence that our notion of “safe levels” of toxicants is outdated, why are such antiquated modes of risk analysis still utilized to determine regulations? “Because too much money is at stake” says Dr. Myers. “Using procedures capable of detecting NMDR curves would be likely to require lowering a large number of reference doses so much that the chemical would be required to be removed from the market.” The removal of so many chemicals would more reliably ensure safety, but would impede commercial and industrial profits.

Given the inadequacy of the current risk assessment paradigm, changes are warranted to better protect public health. Tony Tweedale, founder of RISK (Rebutting Industry Science with Knowledge) Consultancy, suggests that studies must “test for the effects of real world doses” and “test the whole dose response curve,” rather than simply a few high dose points. He also advises drawing from the thousands of peer-reviewed academic studies for policy decision-making, because “tens of thousands more experimental and supporting etiologic and epidemiologic papers (are) being tragically ignored.”

Chemical regulations based on current unsound testing practices cannot possibly be considered adequate. In fact, in 2014, the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) offered updates to the EPA's traditional risk analysis methods to better address NMDR and other deficiencies in chemical risk assessment. Among their proposals is augmentation of risk evaluations to include “statistical considerations, uncertainty analysis, life stage or susceptibility issues, and modes of action.” The EPA has yet to act on these recommendations.
Because of the faulty paradigm under which current risk assessment and regulation proceed, one cannot confidently dismiss the contribution of the innumerable commercially utilized chemicals toward human diseases and negative health outcomes. As such, assertions by the FDA and EFSA about the safety of BPA or other toxicants at current levels should be taken with a note of skepticism. Cautions such as those now abundant in California should be heeded.

A society that values human health and safety over commercial growth would acknowledge the tremendous defects and scientific uncertainty implicit in our current paradigm of assessing chemical toxicity. We cannot even begin to approach a valid judgment of “safe levels” within the context of the more than 85,000 chemicals currently in commerce (of which only a small percentage have been tested for safety even under current protocols). Chemical regulation based upon the precautionary principle would not only be relevant under such conditions of uncertainty, it would be the most prudent option for the benefit of public health.

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com.