28 September 2018

You Don’t Know Brett: Ten Lessons from the Kavanaugh Hearings

The Brett Kavanaugh hearings proved to be yet another shameless foray into political theatre - not much more than a spectacle of the utmost proportions. Surrounding one highly credible and candid witness (Blasey Ford), we saw self-serving members of Congress jockeying for future positions with their sometimes ridiculous, sometimes laughable, and sometimes overwrought rhetoric. We saw a very typical entitled rich white man acting as if he had worked hard his whole life and deserved every great fortune he has received. He seemingly had no regrets or mistakes in his past (or present, or future, presumably).

It’s fairly obvious that Kavanaugh cannot be trusted. He has already perjured himself in the past. We didn’t need to hear the Republicans spew their litany of erroneous, misogynist, religious-tinged nonsense. We didn’t need to hear the Democrats attempt to be heroes, however disingenuous they may be. (Ahem – does Juanita Broaddrick ring a bell?) What I think we need to hear are some simple truths about how people and our society generally function, which could put the Kavanaugh hearings in a non-partisan context.

 Here are ten lessons from life in America that we might keep in mind:

  1. People wear many disguises for the many aspects of their lives. In college, I saw nasty, drunken acts by men who turned into choir boys in front of their professors, parents, and priests. (I attended a Catholic school). I used to refer to some of these shape-shifting peers as “Jekyll and Hydes.” People can be a variety of things to a variety of people at a variety of times.
  1. The preponderance of women do not lie about sexual assault. There have been a few notable fictitious claims of abuse in the past, but in the overwhelming majority of the cases, women’s claims of sexual assault are true and their disclosure comes at a tremendous price to the victim.
  1. People of money, power, and privilege are prone to take advantage of others. That’s how they garner their wealth and power, that’s how they maintain it, and that’s often why they aspire to it in the first place. (See the #MeToo movement for evidence.)
  1. People who are lying dodge questions, refrain from answering, change the subject, change their stories, and/or offer more information than is asked.
  1. Narcissistic, entitled people feel slighted to even be questioned about themselves or their character all. They become inflamed that anyone should accuse them of anything.
  1. Wealth and power are not measures of a decent person. In fact, these characteristics probably should always be considered suspect.
  1. Societal success - in a society replete with poverty, homelessness, rampant socioeconomic inequality, and such extreme environmental degradation that it threatens to kill our entire species - probably should not be considered real success at all.
  1. Belief in god is not an indication of morality.
  1. Many people lie under oath, most especially the most powerful and privileged.
  1. People are not necessarily who they appear to be on a resume or in public or with friends (or now, on social media). Unless you have lived with someone for a decent period of time – as a parent, sibling, spouse, child, or roommate of that person – it is likely you do not truly, fully know that person or what he/she is capable of doing. And even then, you still may not know him/her at all …

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the mad-dog general. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com

10 September 2018

Selling Out is Not Sacrifice

The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism. 

You show me a capitalist; I’ll show you a bloodsucker.

Has enough time elapsed that we can finally speak frankly about all of the hoopla over a cynical sneaker endorsement? OK. Then I have to ask: Have we all lost our minds?? Am I to understand that our civilization has “progressed” to the point where supposed social change is aided by the manipulative marketing of overpriced, sweatshop-produced apparel?

Remember sweatshops? Or are they just a faddish social cause from the 90s? Charles Kernaghan of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights calls the conditions created by multinational corporations like Nike, and faced by workers in their factories, "the science of exploitation."  Those who endorse the likes of such corporations stand complicit in their evildoings.

Courtesy: Oxfam Austrailia
Just because the heinous global mistreatment of garment (and other) workers has become little more than fodder for comedians in the current zeitgeist does not mean that we have solved the issue of sweatshop labor or that it is any less atrocious. On the contrary, near-slave wages, child labor, unsafe working conditions, and harassment still run rampant in factory work around the world and in the United States. A new era of slavery in the U.S. now exists in prisons. Unpaid and barely paid laborers - many of whom are black victims of racism, police brutality, and injustice, and untold numbers of whom may be innocent of their alleged crimes - recently struck to protest unjust conditions. But indeed, even outside of prison, poor working conditions and poverty wages abound. Senator Bernie Sanders just introduced the “Stop Bezos Act,” a nod to the horrific labor practices in Jeff Bezos’ Amazon fulfillment centers. The Act seeks to rectify multibillionaire corporations’ exploitation of workers, whose wages remain so low that we taxpayers are forced to make up the difference via public assistance, while the corporate capitalists soak up all of the profits.  

Anti-sweatshop Nike boycott - 1990s
It cannot be emphasized enough that human civilization is currently enveloped in two major catastrophic emergencies. The first is economic and social inequality, to which people of color bear the harshest burdens. The second is massive ecological degration – caused by climate change, toxic contamination, pollution, loss of biodiversity, and unfettered species extinction. Actually, people of color bear the greatest environmental burdens as well. The root causes of both catastrophes lie with corporate capitalism, which exploits people and the environment relentlessly to profit the most craven, exorbitantly wealthy members of society. 

The apparel industry, like all corporate capitalist endeavors, overproduces frivolous and often unnecessary products, contributing to all of the ills described above. In addition to the unbridled inequality resulting from labor exploitation, corporate capitalism is marked by ethical, social, and environmental plunder.

If it isn’t already obvious, this talk about corporate capitalism and garment sweatshops arises from the unveiling of former NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s commercial for Nike. I, like many others, fully supported Kaepernick’s silent, symbolic protest against American racism and policy brutality through his “taking a knee” during the national anthem at football games, I also sympathized with his career sacrifice to stand for his beliefs. Now, I now find myself seemingly stranded on a desert island in my denunciation of his disappointing turn. There is nothing heroic in endorsing a multinational corporation. There is nothing heroic in receiving millions of dollars from an extractive, exploitative company, no matter what good those millions of dollars might be used for. At best, it is a zero sum game.

Even if Kaepernick donates all of his Nike earnings toward ending police brutality and promoting racial justice in the U.S., he would just be calling it even to compensate for the exploitation of other people – mainly people of color – and natural resources stemming from the manufacture and sale of Nike products. This is not helpful towards progress in our global society nor is it helpful toward moving us away from the corporate capitalistic practices that sow the seeds of racism and police brutality in the first place.

Reading the analyses and social media chatter about Kaepernick, not just this past week but over the course of the past two years of his protest, I struggle to find much discussion of the actual causes he protested against. Instead, the right wing reframed his protest as one that trampled upon U.S. patriotism and the U.S. military. Of course, that is a completely phony, dishonest assessment, but nevertheless, very little has been said about the continued slaughtering of innocent black victims by bloodthirsty, racist police officers, and certainly less still has changed with regard to action against these injustices. And while loads of so-called liberals and progressives jump on the bandwagon of support for Kaepernick and sometimes for Nike, no one but Martin Luther King, Jr. appears to understand the connection between the evils of capitalism and the evils of militarism and racism.

As the late great Bill Hicks might have suggested, Nike went after the black solidarity dollar and the white guilt dollar. Marketers turn everything into a dollar sign.

If you think, Kaepernick’s Nike endorsement is, overall, a positive move, you might just want to watch The Corporation. As this documentary so astutely points out, the corporation is a psychopath. Enabling psychopaths is always ill-advised.

Some people defend Kaepernick and Nike with the argument that they are bringing awareness to an important cause. Raising awareness of a cause seems to be an end in and of itself nowadays, and the means by which the awareness is raised, however corrupt, remains neglected. Here are the facts: Nike does not care about black people. It does not care about ethics, or social or environmental causes. It does not care about you or me. It cares about money. If you are responding to the platitudes in Kaepernick’s ad, if the syrupy sentiments are tugging at your heartstrings, you have been manipulated by marketing. People think that Kaepernick’s Nike ad is a sincere political statement rather than a commercial. There was a time when we could discern between the two. People are projecting their own beliefs, insecurities, and rationalities onto this campaign, when in fact, it is nothing more than a contrived and disingenuous sales pitch. If you have bought Nike products to be on the right side of justice, you have been used. These emotional machinations are precisely what advertising is for. Nike’s online sales increased by 31% after it rolled out Kaepernick’s campaign. Mission accomplished.

Awareness is merely the most minuscule beginning of attempting to redress social ills. A clever, cliché-filled advertising campaign never helps anything but the bottom-line of the corporation doing the marketing. Marketing and consumerism are the problem, not the solution. Advertising is not a political act, it is a financial one. Social change never came from marketing or consumerism and it never will.

The ills of society that have been conquered thus far were not overcome by the pragmatists or the centrists who rationalized a bad action for the sake of a good action. Historically, social change resulted from the radicals and the purists, the unheralded masses who worked their asses off, fighting for ethical issues, and willingly forsaking their careers, their reputations, their financial stability, and often even their own lives for the greater good. (See people like Cynthia McKinney, the first black woman to run for President, or the heroes at Black Agenda Report, including Glen Ford, Margaret Kimberley, and Bruce Dixon, for just a few modern examples of true courage.) Justice cannot occur when one substitutes one oppression or injustice for the sake of another.

Remember selling out? Remember when making a great deal of money from a questionable organization or company was considered a bad thing? The notion of selling out seems to have been swept away with the new millennium and perhaps, according to some, with the millennial generation. However, just as sweatshops still exist, so does selling out.

Sacrificing your career for your principles is courageous; acting as a representative to a billion-dollar global corporation is simply selling out. Kaepernick spent two years as a courageous representative of social justice, now he has become a sell-out.

Perhaps we should urge him to reconsider his actions. Perhaps Kaepernick could explore more deeply the consequences of promoting corporate capitalism, which has placed humanity at a precipice both economically and ecologically. Selling out one’s integrity and bravery to that very entity is a move in the exact wrong direction. The fact that Kaepernick has taken such a misguided step is discouraging; the fact that so many support his step demonstrates just how wrongheaded we all are in our approaches to solving the many problems that ail us.

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the mad-dog general. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com

11 August 2018

Dying of Consumption While Guzzling Snake Oil: A Realist’s Perspective on the Environmental Crisis

 Courtesy: National Geographic

We’re an egoistical, delusional lot, us humans. We’re the only species on the planet who despoils its own life support system and who does not live within biological limits. Does that make us the most intelligent or least intelligent species?

Preservation of our environment remains well toward the bottom of our priorities. Personally and collectively, in our daily lives and in the media, we fixate on career, financial accumulation, economic growth, political performance, consumerism, entertainment, social media, and external validation. None of these aspects of our lives mean anything without a livable planet full of basic resources, and every one of these fixations contribute directly or indirectly to our planetary degradation.

Noam Chomsky has even begun to recognize that our precarious environmental predicament – primarily envisioned as the issue of climate change, though it encompasses so much more – is the most crucial existential threat to human life on the planet. Of late, whenever you see Chomsky interviewed or hear him speak, he tends to emphasize that of many injustices and dire risks to the people of the United States, the people oppressed by U.S. empire, and humanity as a whole, all pale in comparison to the our environmental crisis.

In the fall of 2017, a group of world scientists issued a second warning to humanity (the first of which was delivered in 1992): if we do not make significant changes to our way of life immediately, we will no longer be able to ward off the inevitable precipitous decline of our planetary ecosystem as a result of our poor environmental stewardship. Still more scientists cautioned as recently as August 6, 2018 that if we do not undertake a societal transformation, a host of positive feedback mechanisms would be unleashed that could soon render the Earth uninhabitable to many species, including humans. The scientific tendency toward conservatism in predictions of risk, as evidenced by the underestimation of the timing and severity of climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), would imply that time is of the essence. While an individual ecosystem is able to withstand and adapt to deleterious forces for a certain amount of time, if that injurious bombardment continues unabated, the ecosystem will finally reach a threshold, at which point it will collapse. The Earth’s entire biosphere is no different.

And yet charlatan academics who cherry-pick data outside of their fields to support their elitist perspective, like Steven Pinker, as well as ecomodernists, such as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger at the Breakthrough Institute, and tech giants such as Elon Musk, would have you believe that we are living in the greatest era known to man and that our human intelligence and innovation – particularly of the technological sort – will carry us through these perilous ecological times. It’s an optimistic message that everyone likes to hear, but it is hollow at its core. Just read through their proclamations and manifestos. What you will find is wishful-thinking based on flimsy, unsubstantiated premises that we all want to believe so that we in the first world can carry on in our daily lives with little disruption to our usual profligate consumption, and especially, to corporate capitalism. Indeed, fourth-wave environmentalism, which too many of the large environmental non-profit organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund promote, is predicated on corporate-environmental partnerships and technological modernization. It is touted as “win-win” - yet in practice, it is nothing but a loss for the biosphere.

On August 1st 2018 we celebrated “Earth Overshoot Day,” the day when human beings had utilized more resources than the planet would be able to replenish in a year. The Global Footprint Network has been calculating this day since 1970, when it took us, on average, until December to utilize all of the resources that the planet held for us annually. Now, we use our allotted natural resources by August. Regardless of the margin of error in this estimate, it is clear that since all of this yearly overuse is cumulative and compounded over time, we have long overused planetary resources by this point, and we’d need decades for the Earth to compensate for our past and continuing gluttony. Obviously, some of us are more responsible for this conspicuous consumption than others, which the Global Footprint Network breaks down by country; also obviously, the United States sits near the top of the list of planetary abusers.

While the ecological footprint is derived from a variety of factors, a simple axiom provides the truth about our resource use: those people and societies who adhere to their basic needs live more sustainably than those who partake in their wants. The more one lives in excess of one’s needs and more extravagantly in one’s wants, the more responsible one is for the degradation of the planet. Thus, the richest among us, regardless of how “green” they purport to be, are the most destructive to the environment, and it follows that the richest and largest conglomerates and corporations will contribute the most to environmental destruction.

Concurrent with Earth Overshoot Day on August 1st, The New York Times Magazine released (online before print) Nathaniel Rich’s lengthy piece entitled Losing Earth, which sought to chronicle the historical political atmosphere surrounding the climate change debate in America from 1979-1989. Rich’s premise is that during this crucial decade the United States government had a chance to save the planet from the catastrophic global warming that we are currently experiencing throughout the globe, but because of their failure to act, we are left with our current climatic predicament. Immediately after the publication of this piece, critics countered that Rich largely ignored the role of climate change deniers within the Republican Party and from the fossil fuel sector, who engaged in a concerted corporate disinformation campaign about climate change for decades. Instead, they say, Rich’s piece placed too much blame on the collective human “we.”

In a way, Rich and his critics are both right and wrong. We are all to blame for our ecological catastrophe, but our American government - which is now a de facto subsidiary of major corporations - along with the corporations themselves and the rich who benefit most from corporate profits, are far more to blame than the rest of us because they have far more power and ability to enact changes and control societal norms. The poor basically bear no burden because when you are struggling to meet your basic needs, it’s nearly impossible to prioritize anything beyond those simple human requirements.

In any event, both Rich and his critics miss the big picture; resource depletion and climate change are only part of the problem. Even if the U.S. government and the entire planet had tackled climate change – the solutions offered, at this point, mainly concern switching to 100% renewable energy and possibly utilizing questionable geoengineering technofixes with untold unintended consequences – we would still be left with enormous global ecological issues. Our over-consumption, as evidenced by Earth Overshoot Day (and simple observation), stems in a large part from our over-production, which stems from our economic assumption that we must live in a world with incessant economic growth. Furthermore, what we produce and consume most, other than fossil fuels themselves, are synthetic substances - often derived from fossil fuels. Synthetic toxics, the likes of which did not exist for more than 99% of the Earth’s lifespan, pose specific threats to organisms because organisms have had little time to evolve and adapt to them. The excessive production of, consumption of, and resultant pollution from these toxic substances may pose as large of a risk to the planet, if not a larger one, than climate change itself. (Side note: toxics or toxicants are manmade substances that pose health threats to organisms. Toxins, by contrast, are produced by organisms, like the venom of a snake or the poison from a bee sting. This is an important distinction that scientists, doctors, advocates, and journalists should keep in mind, especially when discussing the danger of toxics to human health and the health of entire ecosystems.) Indeed, when asked about the environment, some prominent people, such as controversial biologist Paul Ehrlich, have suggested that “the toxic chemicals that we are distributing from pole to pole may turn out to be a worse problem” than global warming. Even renowned British investment banker Jeremy Grantham surmised, “I think chemicals will turn out to be a hotter button than climate change.” Yet, we continue to produce, consume, and dispose of these toxics unrelentingly.

One of the most major toxic pollutants we boundlessly produce and consume is plastic. As recently as this year, many people first became aware of the enormous problem of plastic pollution. Perhaps largely because of the BBC documentary series Blue Planet II, which took time away from its beautiful, awe-inspiring footage of marine flora and fauna to show the profound problem of macro and micro plastic pollution in our oceans, or because of National Geographic's comprehensive series of reports, some people were finally alerted to a problem that was right before their eyes, but commonly disregarded. In response to the newfound knowledge, several companies and municipalities banned plastic straws and urged a reduction of our consumption of “single use” plastics. Yet these measures will barely begin to curb the plastic problem, considering production of plastic is still on course to soar by 40% in the next decade. Not only is it vital that we try to eliminate the pollution already created, but we must curtail the stream of pollution that rolls of off assembly lines every day if we are to make any progress whatsoever. The only real method to deal with the problem of waste stemming from our over-consumption is cutting it off at its source. That also means we must have the foresight and ethical fortitude to stop creating such unsustainable and toxic substances in the first place, no matter what fortunes we forgo in the process.

Courtesy: The Guardian

Plastic became an issue partially because it became too large and obvious to continue to ignore (see: plastic gyres in seas, plastics ingested into the bellies of birds. sea turtles entwined in plastic debris, for just a small sampling), much like rivers catching on fire or cities filled with smog in the 1970s. Still, there are so many other insidious problems with production and consumption and its attendant waste. In addition to plastics, we have numerous other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) – pesticides, industrial chemicals like PCPs and PFOAs, and pharmaceuticals - lingering throughout the globe and harming the health of organisms and ecosystems in ways we have only begun to recognize.

Many of these pollutants act as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and can potentially cause a host of health effects through their endocrine mimicking ability. One of the major documented effects is the feminization of male animals – which has been consistently found in all vertebrates and most recently in sharks. Males turning into females may not sound like a huge ecological problem on its surface, unless you consider the fact that the loss of a male population could lead to the extinction of a species. Consequently, scientists are now wondering about what effects we may be seeing in humans – effects such as decreased fertility, increased reproductive cancers, even ambiguous gender identity.

Courtesy: Ensia

We also have an epidemic of e-waste from the constant production, consumption, and disposal of our consumer electronics. Our desire for non-essential products of convenience and entertainment, along with our technological gadgetry (computers, tablets, smartphones) has left the third world awash in a toxic stew, as some of our e-waste is shipped overseas to be dismantled for parts and burned for valuable elemental compounds if it is not buried in our own landfills. And much like all of these other troubles linked to over-consumption, the problem of e-waste just continues to grow.

We currently have no true solutions to the waste and pollution from our over-consumption. Unless and until we have the means of dealing with the waste stream of such items, they probably should not be produced or consumed in the first place. Recycling is not the answer, though "green" consumers would like to think it is. It both utilizes tremendous energy and produces toxic byproducts of its own (particularly the recycling of plastic) and it cannot possibly absorb all of the products discarded. Plus, since recycling is just a market industry, and with China’s decision to stop buying waste, most of what we hope to recycle is ending up in landfills, which are completely unsustainable at their core.

For the past century or two, we’ve gone down a slippery slope of permissiveness in terms of environmental responsibility as a civilization, and we may never ascend from the bottom. The only true sustainability is biodegradability - meaning whatever resources we take from the earth are able to be returned to the earth. Ultimately, sustainability means that what we use returns to the earth in a timely manner that does not pollute, causing ill health or irreparable ecological damage. Consequently, almost nothing we call “sustainable” within our corporate industrial civilization truly is. For the most part, we barely even compost the organic, decomposable items that could easily go back to the earth, replenishing the nutrients to and enhancing the quality of the earth’s soil. Instead, these too end up in a landfill.

Most of what we take for granted as benign is not. A lot of what we expect is safe at acceptable levels is not. For example, we spread over one billion pounds of biological poisons on our food supply each year in the U.S., but we call them pesticides. We hype their safety and necessity while we ingest immeasurable amounts of them and while they migrate to our air, water, and ecosystems, all under the guise of progress, even sometimes, sustainability. This is utter insanity. Maybe the alarming increase in mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, is a reflection of a natural and normal attempt to cope in an utterly insane, overwhelming, unsustainable world rather than being reflective of physiological disease or genetic defect, both of which have yet to be found. We are polluting our minds with too much junk content, our bodies with too much junk food, and our planet with just too much junk.

No one field is responsible for the predicament we are in, and no one sector will solve the problem. Every field, every industry in their current form is unsustainable and grossly polluting. This includes the military, finance, fashion, entertainment, information technology (IT), agriculture, medicine, transportation (driving, flying, cruising, boating), engineering, construction, real estate, publishing, art, scientific research, even education. But again, we do not need scientific evidence to notice what is right in front of us. I used to conduct a thought exercise with my students in Environmental Studies. I would ask them to pick any item from anywhere and to perform an informal life cycle analysis of that item: that is, try to find out about all of the resources and energy needed to create that item, used during the life of the item, and emitted as pollution or toxic waste throughout the lifespan of the item through its end of use. Through this exercise, if you work in a hospital setting, you might discover that a chemical utilized in the process of MRI could end up as a toxic pollutant in certain ecosystems. If you work in IT, you might learn that server farms and promising new applications such as Bitcoin require extensive amounts of energy and resources to function. If you do this with any part of any industry, you will not need any special scientific training to discover our sustainability problem.

The fact is, we need to make the environment a priority in every field. Sustainability cannot be a novelty or a footnote; environmental impact must be the foundation of all disciplines. All students should be required to take introductory environmental studies classes. All academic subjects need to have sustainability as the base of their field. We cannot make “green” or “eco-friendly” niches within industries. Rather, we must strive to eliminate any practices and products that are not within our ecological limits and that are not necessary to our survival, because the overwhelming consensus of all scholars suggests that we are, without a doubt, imperiling our own survival if we continue on with business as usual.

We need to deconstruct our lives. We need to take things away and abstain from what cannot be sustainable. We need to create new norms, new stories, and new values. Perhaps the genius is not in the tech billionaire that creates unsustainable technology of questionable merit, but the wise person who could have intellectually created the technology, but who considered the social, psychological, and environmental ramifications, and decided against it.

Years ago I read an anecdote about refugee immigrants from a third world nation who had settled in America. As a welcoming gesture, they were brought to a shopping mall, but rather than being awestruck by the array of products and consumer choices, they were overwhelmed and repulsed by the excess. If we are to survive as a species, we should all learn to feel this way.

At this point, we cannot count on our government officials to offer real solutions – or at least solutions substantial enough to tackle the multitude of issues we face. It’s as if we have a preventable and reversible illness that could be solved through a change of lifestyle. We go to the doctor to be diagnosed. The Republicans react by denying the illness altogether. The Democrats ask for a magic pill, because they do not want to go through the trouble of exercising, eating less, and only ingesting quality, nutritious food. The rest of us, in every sector of society, in every field, need to pick up the slack and make necessary large-scale changes in production and consumption on both the individual and systemic levels. What these changes amount to most of all is living simply, personally and collectively. This is the true #resistance.

We cannot take for granted, as economists and industrialists do, that we will continue to produce and consume more. This premise, which undermines all of our research and policy initiatives pertaining to the environment, has been completely ineffective and must be abandoned.

Americans and other first-world citizens have the notion that their happiness, their desire for comfort, their want of cool gadgetry, their egos, their power, and their careers are more important than life itself. As a result, even the most environmentally-minded middle class people are too tied to their creature comforts (a.k.a., consumer excesses) that they still rank among the biggest consumers and polluters. Americans often deride others for living beyond their means (meaning their financial abilities), but no one ever worries about living beyond our needs, which is perhaps the fundamental cause of our suicidal path as a species.

Anyone who did not grow up rich or even upper middle class knows what it is like to sacrifice, knows what it is like to have to pick and choose - to only buy or use what is needed, rather than what is desired. You know you have to live without. You can’t afford to splurge. This is where we are with life on the planet. We can’t splurge anymore as individuals, but more critically, as industries and as societies. In fact, we couldn’t afford to overindulge decades ago, and we should have never done so in the first place. We don’t need science to understand this, and we don’t need an ecological footprint calculator. We need empathy and a sense of connection with all life on the planet. If we can learn to consume according to our needs rather than our decadent desires, not only might we all live more enjoyable, fulfilling, and healthy lives, but we all might just continue to be able to live.

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the mad-dog general. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com

01 July 2018

Dispatches from the War on Cancer: Detection as Prevention, Chronic Disease as Cure

Ten years ago on June 25, 2008, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. My grandmother passed away the night before. She was just two weeks shy of her 96th birthday. I had planned to spend it with her. Instead, I re-routed the frequent flier miles I was to use for that visit to a plane ticket for my mother, who had now just lost her own mother, to be with me for my immediate surgery. Needless to say, this was one of the worst days of my life as well as my mother’s. Mortality had reached my beloved grandmother, and in nearly the same instant, had come for me.

After finding a tumor in my colon, following a colonoscopy necessitated by several alarming symptoms that had progressed over five years, the results of the toxicology test on my tumor confirmed its malignancy. This shocked my doctor because I had no known risk factors, but I was  not surprised. Though I followed a fairly impeccable vegetarian diet for the preceding 15-20 years full of a plethora of whole food - largely from the influence of my Italian grandmother’s culinary mastery and the stupendous, nutritious peasant cuisine her poor immigrant family grew up eating - I knew that did not necessarily serve as a cancer inoculation. Though I had been a non-smoker my whole life as well as an athlete, I knew that neither of these factors necessarily prevented the diagnosis I ultimately received. Though I had no family history of colon cancer – and scant family history of cancer at all – I still suspected the malignancy. And though every doctor I have seen before or since characterized my cancer as a fluke, I knew it was not.

In the few years preceding my diagnosis, handfuls of friends and acquaintances in my age group had fallen victim to forms of cancer. An old neighbor in her 20s and a dear friend in her 30s had both recently died of the disease. The stories of cancer in friends, coworkers, acquaintances, old classmates and their spouses, and friends of friends accumulated. Anecdotally, I saw cancer incidences rising in lower age groups. I felt that I was noticing more cancer among my peers than in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations before me. As a scientist, I knew my personal observational data was not sufficient for any conclusions, so I waited for possible confirmation. I found it when I learned that melanoma, metastatic breast cancer, and colorectal cancers were all on the rise in young and middle-aged adults. These data fly in the face of the notion that cancer has been increasing mainly because it is an old-age disease and more people in our American population are living longer.

In March of this year, the alarming rise in colorectal cancers in younger populations prompted the American Cancer Society to recommend colon cancer screening start at age 45 instead of 50. As always, the recommendation for protection against colon cancer stresses keeping a healthy lifestyle, which includes plenty of exercise, a wholesome diet, and maintaining a healthy weight. To summarize, our colon cancer prevention plan consists of: 1. The generic “healthy lifestyle” and 2. Regular screenings, which are technically not preventative measures but rather diagnostic measures.

In beautifully crafted public relations rhetoric, the medical establishment has defined diagnostic screenings as secondary prevention, and treatment to manage disease and thwart its exacerbation and recurrence as tertiary prevention. Perhaps two additional levels of disease “prevention” were needed because we are so woefully inadequate at the first. The only real form of prevention – primary prevention in medical jargon – is never contracting the disease.

In truth, the etiology of colon cancer is not well known. Several gene susceptibilities increase risk, but these genes factor into the risk equations for only approximately 5% - 10% of colon cancer diagnoses. That a high fiber diet protects against colon cancer – while a diet rich in meat products does the contrary – is conventional wisdom within the medical community, but scientific support for this premise is actually scarce and inconclusive. Some studies have demonstrated a correlation between exposure to chlorinated byproducts in water, but these too are far from conclusive. New research links exposure to triclosan, an antimicrobial compound found in many household and personal care products, to colon cancer. Triclosan had already been deemed a suspected carcinogen, but this new evidence shows that its mechanism for oncogenesis likely has to do with its disruption of the gut microbiome, reducing necessary and beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. This research then also suggests than any agent, such as an antibiotic or a pesticide, that could affect our intestinal microbiome might, in turn, induce cancer.

But what caused my own cancer?  I will never know. I drank gallons and gallons of highly chlorinated municipal tap water during the decade I lived in D.C. I used liquid soap containing triclosan for several years in the 1990s before I decided than antibacterial soap was overkill, and I wanted to reduce the waste from the plastic containers it came in. It could have been anything I’d unknowingly been exposed to in my food, water, or air. It could have been chemicals I’d been exposed to in laboratories in school. (Stupidly, we tended to flout a lot of precautions in our college chemistry labs.)  It could have been radioactive materials I might have been exposed to in the neighborhood I grew up in, which was in close proximity to a nuclear reactor. (Of note; the proposed National Academy of Sciences study on cancer risks in communities that house nuclear reactors was halted, citing “prohibitive costs,” so I will probably never have any data one way or the other regarding that potential risk.) It is unlikely my cancer could be attributed to one particular cause; more likely, it was the combination and accumulation of a multitude of factors that can never be fully ascertained, as is the case in most cancer patients.

The one factor that did not directly cause my own cancer is an inherited gene because, technically, we do not know of inherited genes that, in and of themselves, directly cause cancer. More importantly, they are implicated in only a minority of cancers overall -  5%-10% of cases. The increasing rates of cancer incidences over the past four decades (the only time period for which we have incidence data) cannot be explained through inheritance. Neither can the increasing rates of cancer in younger populations. If heritable alleles (the different forms of genes) caused terminal diseases like cancer and had no beneficial effects, evolution and natural selection would favor the decrease in these genes in the population. If these genes were initially a huge contributor to cancers, the genes would have been selected against, and cancers would have been declining in humans over time. That has not occurred. Moreover, in terms of the alleles that confer genetic susceptibility to cancer, like BRCA1 and BRCA2 in the case of breast cancer, the relative risk of a woman with these alleles developing cancer has increased over time. That is, women with those gene variations born before 1940 have only about a 24% risk of developing cancer while women born after 1940 have a 67% risk, which means these genes are not the major component of that cancer risk, but the majority of the risk comes from elsewhere – from something interacting with the genes that has changed over time. With colon cancer, for example, the majority of inherited genetic abnormalities linked to colon cancer produce precancerous colon polyps, but it is estimated that even 95% of precancerous polyps will not form cancer. Consequently, it would appear that there may be some other environmental component prodding these precancerous cells into becoming cancerous. Because of the marked focus on heritable “predispositions” to cancer, it appears we might be missing the fact that even these inherited susceptibilities need exogenous environmental factors to eventually result in cancer.

The complexity of cancer itself and of the variety of factors that contribute to it makes direct cancer causation difficult to pinpoint. Statistics from American Association for Cancer Research suggest that tobacco use contributes to between 30-35% of cancers, with obesity a close second, contributing to about 20-25% of cases. But if you examine this and similar statistical charts on relative contributions to cancer incidence, you will see that they include nebulous contributions like diet, inactivity, and obesity, which, in themselves, have no known mechanism to cause cancer, as well as factors like UV radiation, alcohol, and certain pathogens (like viruses) which are known carcinogens. It does not make logical scientific sense to mix known causes of cancer with susceptibility factors in the same general category of this chart, and it puts into question the soundness of the entire analysis. It obfuscates the complexity of cancer causation by comparing causes and risk factors, as if they are the same. It is like constructing a chart about contributors to flu incidence and including the flu virus at 40%, compromised immune system at 25%, lack of hygiene at 15%, poor diet at 15%, and lack of exercise at 5%. The only factor that actually causes the flu is exposure to the flu virus; all of the others might increase risk and susceptibility. The only factors we know of that actually cause cancer are carcinogens, substances that directly or indirectly cause mutations that disrupt the normal cycle of cell division in our body. These include radiation, naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals, and various pathogens.

In any case, even these questionable charts make clear that the vast majority of cancers are highly preventable. The 2010 report of the President's Cancer Panel noted that there are so few data on the hundreds of thousands of chemicals and toxicants in our society, and we have not quantified, and perhaps will not be able to quantify, the cancer burdens from these toxicants. For example, we assume that our regulatory agencies ensure that we are only exposed to carcinogens at low enough levels to keep us generally safe from disease, but we know in practice, this is often not the case. We also know that some types of chemicals that can cause cancer, like endocrine disruptors, do not necessarily have safe levels, because they are actually more harmful at lower than higher concentrations. We also know that some chemicals that are fairly innocuous alone become carcinogenic agents when in particular mixtures. The cancer burden from all possible mixtures of chemicals, which is what humans are regularly exposed to in their lives, is basically unquantifiable and unknowable. And if we cannot quantify the relative contribution of environmental exposures to cancer incidences, then we really cannot truly quantify the relative contribution of other causes either. The panel concluded that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”  Developing nations like China are experiencing surges in cancer rates, which they attribute to exposure to carcinogens from industrial pollution. India, a country with relatively low cancer rates, has seen tremendous increases in places where carcinogenic substances like pesticides abound. In addition, humans are inducing cancer in other wildlife species, largely due to pollution. This evidence lends more support to the conclusion of the President’s Cancer Panel that environmental toxicants may be contributing to far more cases of human cancers than we acknowledge. Furthermore, it lends credence to the fact that most cancers could be preventable if environmental toxicants were removed from the equation.

While overall incidence of cancer has declined a bit in recent years (possibly due to a sharp decrease in tobacco use), and cancer death rates have declined modestly (possibly due to more effective treatments), cancer still affects over 40% of the American population and is the second leading cause of death in the U.S.

Diagnostic tests are a good stopgap measure in the short term to deal with the increasing rates of colon cancer in younger adults; however, given that cancer is largely preventable, our long-term goal should be to implement measures that focus mainly on prevention. Not only do too many people in the United States lack access to affordable medical care, medicine is not without its own contribution to our public health crisis. Certain diagnostic tests themselves, such as X-rays and CT scans, may contribute to excess incidences of cancer. In addition, the enormous environmental resource use in the medical industry, and its waste stream, which includes radioactive chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and plastics, both inevitably contribute to the environmental degradation and pollution that threaten our ecosystems and increase our public health burdens.

Sickness is not the default state of organisms, so we should strive to maintain health and prevent the burden of disease as best we can. Of course we should eat well, exercise, and avoid alcohol and smoking as much as possible. But these measures are not enough. In terms of cancer, prevention should mean focusing on reducing and eliminating the only agents that we know to actually cause cancer – carcinogens. They exist in our food, in our water, in our air, and in our products. Far too many are there merely for profit and convenience, not necessity.

Forty-seven years after President Nixon declared a war on cancer, we still have battles raging all around us. In most cases of cancer, we are no closer to cures. Some doctors are expressly saying that we will never cure cancer, but in the future it will be a chronic, manageable disease. For a supposedly highly advanced society, this solution to cancer falls pathetically short of what should be. For victims of cancer and their friends and family, the thought of living with never-ending cancer treatments along with the anxiety produced by a disease that could always become terminal is horribly unsatisfactory.

We are playing Russian roulette with our lives by not addressing so many of the preventable causes of cancer in our society. The oft repeated metaphor about cancer, “the genes load the gun, the environment pulls the trigger” rings quite false. Our toxic environment is the gun and without that environment, the bullets are useless. We need gun control.

* All statistics about cancer above refer to data in the United States, unless otherwise noted.

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the mad-dog general. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com

17 June 2018

Nerd Culture, Adultolescence, and the Abdication of Social Priorities

For several days now, a small sector of the internet has been ablaze over the allegations of emotional abuse that actress/model Chloe Dykstra accused of her former boyfriend, media personality Chris Hardwick. If you have never heard of Hardwick, he was once a DJ at “world famous KROQ” in Los Angeles and co-host of MTV’s old show Singled Out.  He went on to become a semi-famous podcast and talk show host, creating a company called Nerdist Industries to produce his various pop culture media.

Dykstra's account of Hardwick acting like a controlling, manipulative aggressor in their three-year relationship mimics the stories of countless women who have lived through emotional or physical abuse. Thus, for those who have experienced or witnessed such abuse or who have worked with victims, her tale rings true. Hardwick, for his part, countered her claims, denying “sexual assault” (though not any other behaviors), deflecting her accusations with the inane comment that as a “future father” he does not condone the mistreatment of women, and shifting blame to the victim, labeling her a cheater who desperately wanted to be with him. His response only further supports the veracity of her claims, as it typifies the gaslighting attempts of malignant narcissists.

Many have discussed the above account within the context of our current #MeToo and #TimesUp era. There has also been talk about toxic masculinity. While these are all critical conversations, I think there are a few other lessons here that warrant dialogue when thinking about Chris Hardwick’s rise to power and his attendant “nerd culture”: the ubiquity and inflated significance of entertainment in our lives, the normalization of arrested development in too many adults, and the steep decline of priorities in and on our sharply deteriorating society and planet.

About ten years ago an acquaintance of mine introduced me to the term “adultolescence.” As he was recently divorced, had no children, and was not wanting for anything monetarily, he basked in reliving adolescent tendencies of embracing pop culture, faddish consumerism, and other trivialities as a middle-aged man. In short, he was clinging to the priorities of a teenager instead of adopting the wisdom and social responsibility of adulthood.

To be fair, few of us are above abstaining from entertainment and insignificant diversions; what is troubling is the merit these petty pastimes garner in our personal lives and in our larger society, and particularly among adults who should know better and do better.

Many people within the entertainment industry live in a bubble and grossly overestimate the relative importance of television, film, and popular music. In Los Angeles, a city full of homelessness, poverty, huge economic inequality, racism, environmental degradation, and toxic pollution, these vital issues are often only asides to anything Hollywood-related, anything profit-related, or more to the point, anything related to their personal accumulation of power, money, and fame for people in the entertainment business.

Chris Hardwick seems to be the embodiment of such Hollywood myopia, and this nerd culture that he is (or was) a part of seems to do little more than normalize the adolescent obsession over celebrity culture for adults who should have more meaningful priorities. Chris Hardwick has carved a career out of and become a multimillionaire through merely fixating on a particular slice of popular culture and entertainment trivia.

Conan O’Brien’s old late night show featured a segment with a puppet called Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Triumph would attend events, speak to people, and insult them. In 2002, Triumph spoke to adults camped out in line to purchase movie tickets to the upcoming Star Wars film. He clearly mocked the adults who were spending hours on the sidewalk - many dressed up as their favorite characters and possessing their favorite Star Wars toys - for acting like children. Now, as Comic-Con has morphed into a pop culture juggernaut, cosplay, gaming, toy-collecting, and entertainment fanaticism are accepted forms of adult behavior. Moreover, the internet and its chat rooms, message boards, forums, and social media have enabled the fixation on any subset of pop culture. It has normalized the obsession over any trivial television show, film, musician, performer, athlete, or star anyone could imagine. And this fanatical fandom is not just part of nerd culture; it is part of all culture.

What also comes with nerd culture and all of these other media-driven obsessions and fascinations is rampant consumerism. There is a prioritization of vacuous content over crucial societal issues, but there is also an environmental catastrophe of over-production and consumption of frivolous, useless items and endless technological gadgetry, the life-cycles of which contribute to resource depletion, pollution, environmental deterioration, and tremendous waste at a time when we now clearly recognize the disastrous effects of our throw-away society. It used to be that just Hollywood was so insular and myopic. The entertainment industry had no perspective and few moral values, but now nerd culture (among others) has spread that myopia about entertainment, and that vapidity, consumerism, materialism, and narcissism to everyone.

I’ve recently spent some time teaching elementary-aged children. The books they read, the social studies and science lessons they learn, still try to teach the morals we all learned as children – lessons like: it’s not what you have it’s who you are, be a good person, be kind to others, strive to help others before yourself, do no harm, do not waste, do not pollute, treat all others as you treat yourself, everyone is of equal value, etc. When I was school-aged, lessons like those are why most kids aspired to be firemen, teachers, nurses and doctors. Most of us valued service and professions that, at least in theory, were for the benefit of the common good.

Now too many of our adults are enraptured with themselves and their immediate superficial gratifications. We don’t live up to any of those deeper societal and global values. We’ve lost all perspective. The nerd culture enables this stunted personal and social development. The prioritization of entertainment media, social media, and celebrity is the major component of nerd culture and is far too prevalent throughout society, to the detriment of our social structure, our communities, and our environment. It is perhaps why so many children now aspire to be “youtubers,” why a misogynist former “reality” show personality is now President of the United States, why it may not be surprising that a man such as Chris Hardwick - whose adult life revolves around inane priorities - may not possess a healthy perspective on females or relationships, and why this essay will likely capture a larger audience than anything else I normally write about science, health, social issues, or the environment.

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the mad-dog general. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com

More Wisdom, Less Harm A Commencement Address to the Class of 2018

Cartoon courtesy Tom Toro: http://tomtoro.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/1-tom-toro-yes-the-planet-got-destroyed-but-for-a-beautiful-moment-in-time-we-created-a-lot-of-value-for-sh1.jpg

Good afternoon students, parents, staff, teachers, guests, and of course the amazing class of 2018, arrayed before us here today. Congratulations to you for completing this stage in your lives and your education. Each of you is outstanding in your own right, but I want to commend you as a group. I have watched you throw yourselves, headlong, into every task, be it class discussions, presentations, Socratic seminars, group essays, skits, school plays, choir—anything really. Even if you were exhausted, depleted, overworked, flu-ridden, or otherwise indisposed, you embraced your work with determination and, well, gusto. Therefore, I’d like to thank you for working with me, and with all of us, day in and day out. You brought academic curiosity and a willingness to hone your critical skills to the classroom with you, and there’s little more a teacher can ask from a group of students than that. Thank you.

Because I am so very fond of this class, I can’t stand up here and lie to them about their futures. I can’t pretend that this is just another group of young people, one link in a shining chain adjoined to the anchor of history that we are lowering into the depths of the world to do the kinds of things that people have always done when they reach adulthood. There is a difference now. There is a whole herd of elephants in this room that I’m not supposed to mention—for we live in a civilization that is in severe decline, though we rarely consider this truth. No one person caused it; no one person can fix it.

Since you are entering a future that is deteriorating ecologically, economically, and ethically, the most important thing for you to remember as you enter the world is to be a person of integrity and to strive to do no harm. This may seem like a platitude, but our current way of doing just about everything has degraded our world, so every path you choose can feed more harm into the system. Your career and life choices are vitally important if we are to change course, and changing course means working against every day systems. In short, being a person of integrity and striving to do no harm are radical acts.

These seniors know the truth about the kind of times they are headed for. We have spoken of it now and again. In their junior year, they studied a work by Calvino in my class entitled Invisible Cities. In it, the famed explorer, Marco Polo, describes to Kublai Khan the many cities in the Khan’s crumbling empire. Mostly, the cities are complete fabrications, but the Khan listens anyway, as Polo recounts each one. Calvino writes:

Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed. 
This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.
Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long (75).

The class of 2018 knows they live in Octavia, a place that will surely fall, probably in their lifetimes, resulting in displacement, economic insecurity, and the beginning of unknown times.
That’s the first stretch of the road to being an ethical person: recognize the truth that is all around you. To do otherwise, to turn away or distract yourself, is just stumbling down the path of ignorance and narcissism. It isn’t easy to accept or even see the truth. Knowing and speaking truth is a form of defiance. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, Winston, the protagonist, discovered this when O’Brien interrogated him in the Ministry of Love. O’Brien kept asking him to acknowledge that the four fingers he was holding up added up to five. Winston speaks first:

“How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston…. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane” (250-251).

This passage shows what it’s like to challenge the culture, to try to learn the truth. There will be push-back, and you will be gas-lighted, that is, made to feel like you are the crazy one or the one without reason or authority. It also shows how human beings tend to view the world: we will deny what is clearly true in order to maintain a condition that serves power.

We have created ecological and social decay because our civilization was built on the unstable foundation of fossil fuel consumption, exploitation, endless growth, short-term profits, and rugged individualism. Moving forward in this type of world is disheartening for ethical people, not to mention confusing. If we want to live with integrity, what are we supposed to do? Obviously, going forth into the world as most people before you have done, pursuing careers that make you great sums of money, can’t be all there is to existing anymore. That’s how we got into this mess.

Perhaps a place to start is to stop valuing the things that have contributed to our society’s turmoil. Why not begin with the way we congratulate ourselves and others for their abilities? We value intelligence to a lopsided extent. “Oh, she’s such a smart student; she’ll go to Harvard some day.”

I would feel prouder if someone called me wise. If we are to lighten the effects of our uncertain future, shouldn’t we be speaking and acting in ways that reflect a wise outlook rather than a smart one? Smartness is one’s ability to exploit opportunity. Wisdom is the holistic view that is the basis of so many indigenous cultures; wisdom values all people, not just the individual; wisdom considers the preservation of the environment to be more important than preserving profits for a few.

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck would call this kind of shift in thinking a seed for revolution by moving from “I” to “We.” Steinbeck, here, addresses rich owners as if to warn them. Quote:

…This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—“We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing: “I have a little food” plus “I have none.” If from this problem the sum is “We have a little food,” the thing is on its way, the movement has direction…. If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we” (151-152).

One of the pitfalls in our culture that keeps us in an “I” mindset, instead of the “we,” is the need for external validation. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying “I want to be rich and famous” or “I have to be the best—otherwise, what’s the point?” then you may be trapped in the pit of external validation. If you pursue a discipline, be it history or chemistry, visual arts, what have you, make sure it is because you have a passion for that discipline, not a desire for the rewards that might come with it. The “I” culture of smartness over wisdom tells us that we are nothing unless we are celebrated or have at least 20,000 followers on Instagram. Those kinds of rewards may seem to assuage your insecurity, but they are hollow achievements. If you live ethically by wanting to make things better for everyone, not just yourself, you know you are living a life of integrity, and that, not praise from outside yourself, will validate your existence.

Thoreau believed human beings could pull themselves out of the stupor of blindly following selfish pursuits that separate people. He believed that all we needed was a jolt, some kind of catalyst to start us down the path of wisdom. In one of the earlier chapters in Walden, Thoreau notices a snake in a torpid state, presumably coming out of winter hibernation. Quote:

It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life (26).

What better condition for the “spring of springs” is there if not the deterioration of our civilization to bring about a shift from smartness to wisdom, from “I” to “We”?

Part of living with integrity is to strive to do no further harm. To accomplish that, we must reduce consumerism, with all its resource inputs and waste. Choose careers that tread lightly upon the Earth. If engineering, then design only sustainable creations. If you start a company that makes products, be sure the product is a necessity, and if it is, be responsible for it throughout its lifespan. How can your profession do no harm upon this ailing planet? This is a radical idea because it is a radical change.

My favorite one-paneled cartoon depicts a man sitting on the ground in front of a campfire, wearing a tattered business suit. He is speaking to a group of three dirty children seated opposite, the faint jagged teeth of a ruined metropolis looming in the background. In the caption, the man says to the children:

Yes, the world was destroyed—but for a beautiful moment in time, we created a lot of value for share holders (Tom Toro).

That cartoon haunts me. It reveals our unspoken attitudes behind nearly all our actions: profit over people; profit over planet. It is so easy to put on that business suit and just churn out bucks for share holders. Your work will be what you do for the majority of your life, and it contributes to either the well-being or the further deterioration of our society. There are ethical implications in the work you do.  Your job or the company you work for contributes directly or indirectly to the socio-economic and environmental problems in our world – for good or for ill.

It isn’t always easy to identify the harm our work causes, however. In Orwell’s 1984, we, as readers, with the advantage of living outside Orwell’s world, can not only see the harms of Winston’s work, but we can observe the way in which his career is so compartmentalized in his mind that the harm he causes is completely invisible to him. Orwell writes:

Winston’s greatest pleasure in life was in his work. Most of it was tedious routine, but included in it there were also jobs so difficult and intricate that you could lose yourself in them as in the depths of a mathematical problem—delicate pieces of forgery in which you had nothing to guide you except your knowledge of the principles of Ingsoc and your estimate of what the Party wanted you to say (43).

The “forgery” that Winston performed was to change history for the sake of The Party by dropping all evidence of the past down a memory hole, where is was incinerated, and replacing it with creative lies that were more palatable to his masters.

Like Winston, we use our intelligence to great effect in our workplaces, and we “created a lot of value for shareholders,” but as we do so, our wisdom lies dormant, less than an afterthought—for isn’t it true that today we often see wisdom as an embarrassment? How could we carry on with our lives if we were to question the morality of our daily routines?

To help avoid the truth of what we do, we change the words that refer to it. Here is where Newspeak comes in handy. Newspeak is the language in 1984 whose purpose is to restrict dissent by restricting the vocabulary of dissent. Orwell writes:

…the process will continue long after you and I are dead. Every year, fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason for committing thought-crime (52).

Of course, the thought-crime in our society would be to consider questioning a way of life that we know will, one day not so far from now, end that way of life. This is because our ability to tell truths to one another, which is necessary for dissent, is not only muted, but is no longer in our lexicon. It is Orwell’s Newspeak, but instead of it being forced upon us, we have been invited through consumerist enticements, and as we immerse ourselves into these diversions, we lose the capacity to discuss the herd of elephants in every room. If we create a language that cannot question our materialism or narcissism, leading to inequality, poverty, injustice, and environmental degradation, then we never have to question our complicity in the decay of our civilization.

It reminds me of the Demotivator poster that depicts a placid lake with one beautiful drop of water splashing into it. The caption reads:

No single raindrop believes it is to blame for the flood (despair.com).

Part of our language deficit is caused by how we argue, or fail to argue, in contemporary society. As David Foster Wallace put it in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” another work read by this class, quote:

…we live in an era of terrible preoccupation with presentation and interpretation…. In rhetorical terms, certain long-held distinctions between the Ethical Appeal, Logical Appeal (= an argument’s plausibility or soundness, from logos), and Pathetic Appeal (= an argument’s emotion impact, from pathos) have now pretty much collapsed—or rather the different sorts of Appeals now affect and are affected by one another in ways that make it nearly impossible to advance an argument on “reason” alone (116).

When confronting the truth, it is now necessary to couch it in such a palatable way, that the truth becomes less important than how it is delivered. Our consumer culture has run with this insistence, creating all sorts of venues through which to “acceptably” communicate. Our preoccupation with the online world results in an attenuation of discontent, which is emotionally satisfying, but removes us from reacting to real concerns unless it is through unreal means. In other words, we have willfully muted ourselves, and it is by design, so we will continue consuming and not question or think critically or take brave action.

To move beyond our failed paradigms, you will have to accept that the world is an absurd place, and that you have a choice about how you create meaning within it. You can legally do a lot of harm to people and the environment through every day living. Recognize the harm and veer away from creating it, regardless of what others choose.

The reality of the future doesn’t have to depress you just because it will be hard. The decline is going to happen—it’s happening now. You don’t have to pretend two and two is five or avoid the inevitable through distraction or manipulation of the truth or old broken paradigms.  The way you live through the turbulence can be faced if you act with integrity, if you employ wisdom, if you move from “I” to “We.” These are radical acts because they defy the present course of our society.

This group of young people before us will have to navigate this new world. It’s going to be arduous, but I have watched them throw themselves, headlong, into every task with determination and gusto, so I, for one, know they are brave enough, ethical enough, and wise enough for the challenge.

So, to the courageous class of 2018: stay strong, choose with wisdom, and be radical!

Works Cited
Calvino, Italo. William Weaver, translator. Invisible Cities. Harcourt, 1974.
Orwell, George. 1984. Signet Classics: Penguin, 1950.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin 1939.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Dover, 1995.
Wallace, David Foster. “Authority and American Usage.” Consider the Lobster and other             Essays. Back Bay Books, 2006.

Carl S. Mumm is a fiction writer and an English teacher. He currently teaches both Literature and Theory of Knowledge. He may be reached at: csmumm@gmail.com. He blogs when he can with his wife, Dr. Kristine Mattis, at rebelpleb.blogspot.com.

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