26 November 2018

Employment, Ecology, Extinction: French Students Take on the System to Save the Species

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. -- Upton Sinclair


On my last day of teaching Environmental Studies, I posed a question to my students. I explained that for some time in my childhood, my father worked in the airline industry. “What does this have to do with the environment?” I asked. Sadly, even after an entire semester, few if any of my students could make the connection. Air transportation is one of the most polluting industries. Depending on the type of car you use and the amount you use it, one to two flights can generate the same amount of carbon emissions as a whole year of driving. From the consumption of fossil fuels, to the toxic substances utilized or emitted such as jet fuel and de-icing fluid, to all of the disposable products and packages within the plane and the airport, to so much more, there is nothing sustainable at all about air travel. Thus, for a part of my childhood, the majority of our family income was derived from a highly polluting industry that has contributed greatly to the dire environmental predicament we are currently facing.

Of course, mine is not the only family whose income is linked to environmental destruction. In fact, one could make the case that nearly all American households, especially the most affluent, have made their money through directly or indirectly exploiting and polluting the environment (and often exploiting people as well). For example, a conference on “Peace Engineering” just concluded, which implored engineers to consider “ethics, social good, the biases and unintended consequences of the technology they build.” Clearly, this implies that engineering does not usually contemplate the deleterious environmental and social effects of its work. My point in bringing this conversation to my students was to help them think about the career paths they were exploring or embarking upon and for them to keep in mind the ecological impact these careers. At this crucial time in history, when thus far we have all but ignored the warnings to drastically reduce our resource consumption, toxic waste, and carbon emissions for the sake of our incomes, it is imperative that this generation of students take bold steps to help make the fields in which they work more sustainable and to help to permanently put to rest unnecessary industries that are not. In fact, a group of French college students are trying to do just that.

This past September, students from the top universities in France unveiled a manifesto entitled “Wake Up Call on the Environment.” They are attempting to utilize their collective power as future employees to compel companies to prioritize environmental concerns over economic bottom lines, with a tacit threat to withhold their labor from workplaces and industries that do not make radical strides toward sustainability. As of this writing, there are over 23,000 signatories to the manifesto, which includes the following insight:

…Does it mean anything to ride a bike when you work for a company whose activities contribute to increasing climate change or draining natural resources? As we get closer to our first job we realize that the system we are part of steers us towards positions that are often incompatible with the result of our reflections. This system traps us in daily contradictions.

For sure, this is not the first time students have acknowledged the detrimental effects of our corporate, capitalist workplaces on environmental and social well-being. There are those in past generations who have attempted to opt-out of environmentally and socially unjust work, but rather than being seen as proactive, concerned citizens, they were often marginalized. Many Baby Boomers who refused to participate in ecologically destructive jobs were deemed “hippies.” Those in Generation X were called “slackers.” Finally, Millennials who tried to resist harmful jobs on ethical principles were largely lost amid the rest of the unemployed and precariously employed. The difference between this French student manifesto and the individual actions of past generations, though, is the power that a collective force - especially a union of people who reside in the upper echelon of their society - brings to effect change.

If nothing else, the student declaration finally draws attention to the fact that our concern about the environment cannot be decoupled from our careers. If we deem ourselves environmentalists, if we declare we are committed to do everything we can about our global ecological crises, we cannot maintain our integrity if we also work (an activity to which we in Western societies devote the majority of our adult lives) in industries that contribute to the very ills we purport to want to remedy. It is not only disingenuous to ignore the inherent contradictions between our work and our ecological knowledge; it is suicidal to continue on this path.

Back when I was a college student, I spent a considerable amount of time volunteering with the homeless. I recall once serving a meal at a soup kitchen when I struck up a conversation with an attendee. He explained to me that he had graduated from Harvard and that he was homeless by choice. Though that may have sounded like a tall tale, I got the impression he was sincere. I was probably only 19 or 20 at the time and had not yet come to fully understand the destructive force of corporate capitalism on society and the natural environment, but I already had enough experience with the privileged elite at my own university to comprehend why someone with a conscience would choose to no longer participate in such a system. Furthermore, it seemed completely logical to me that a person who had attended Harvard would know better than anyone how the sausage was made, and would want neither to help make it nor to eat it.

Making a principled decision to potentially sacrifice income and livelihood for the benefit of the greater good probably will be a hard sell to many Americans. I will never forget arriving at college, meeting the young women in my dorm, and sharing our aspirations for our impending educations. One roommate blithely stated, “I just want to be rich.” Indeed, “follow your dreams” is American gospel, regardless of what repercussions those dreams may have for your fellow citizens or for society, and regardless of how narcissistic or adolescent that credo may be. It is all the more difficult to publicly suggest that environmental sustainability and social justice might entail a modicum of self-reflection when the people who have the strongest voices in our society are precisely the ones who have followed their dreams, regardless of the costs. These people (like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, the Walton family, as well as countless financiers and celebrities, for example) may have wreaked the most havoc to the environment and to our collective socioeconomic well-being, but they have the microphone to amplify and rationalize their vapid messages of personal ambition and their phony, superficial commitments to social good. Their messages then echo in our heads, given our almost constant exposure to mass media and marketing. So, penetrating the platitudes of American society to create environmentally and socially just work will be exceedingly difficult.

Several months ago, at my mother-in-law’s funeral, I spoke to an old friend of hers whose grandson had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin, where coincidentally, I had received my graduate degree. The man suggested that the university had placed some crazy “liberal” notions in his grandson’s mind, but that his grandson - now confronted by the “real” world - abandoned those previous “ridiculous” ideals to take a good solid position in finance (or some similar endeavor).

It is precisely this careerist mindset that may have already cost humanity the ability to persist on the planet. A perilous economic circumstance is without a doubt a harsh reality for a substantial number of young people, not to mention a majority of Americans of all ages, in addition to all of the anonymous forgotten resisters who have already tried to opt-out of corporate capitalism to live a principled, sustainable life amidst a wholly unsustainable system. Nevertheless, succumbing to business as usual only solidifies an ecologically perilous future for us all.

Unfortunately, so many of us still characterize the real world as the economic world we created rather the biological world that bore all of humanity. In the actual “real” world, imperiled by catastrophic climate change, toxic pollution, and the loss of biodiversity, the lack of a high-paying job is no longer the major impediment to a good, long, prosperous life, as it may have been for a miniscule moment in human history. Now it should be clear that the impediment to a good, long, prosperous life is the sustainability of our global ecosystem. As long as the foundational elements of our modern socioeconomic systems – our jobs – do not comply with the realities of our ecological limits, our species will have no choice but to comply with the reality of extinction.

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

28 October 2018

Eco Crises: Doom & Gloom, Truth & Consequences

…We can't save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to change. Everything needs to change and it has to start today….To all the politicians that pretend to take the climate question seriously, to all of you who know but choose to look the other way every day because you seem more frightened of the changes that can prevent the catastrophic climate change than the catastrophic climate change itself… Please treat the crisis as the crisis it is and give us a future.
-- Greta Thunberg, 15 year-old climate activist speaking at the Helsinki climate demonstration, October 20, 2018

When I entered my interdisciplinary environmental graduate program, I already had years of work experience behind me as well as a lifetime of informal environmental education. I recognized the grim ecological picture. Some of my professors, however, were quick to admonish, “We can’t be gloom and doom.” Their other refrain was, “We can’t go back.”  They offered no evidence for those two prescriptions with regard to the climate and ecological crises, yet their commands were common among environmental scholars. More than a decade later, we face far more dismal prospects for the future of humanity, but we are still loath to truly address them.

Doom and Gloom
In 1972, the Club of Rome, a consortium of scientists, economists, politicians, diplomats, and industrialists, produced a lengthy scientific report entitled Limits to Growth. Their work predicted a collapse of the human population due to our unchecked economic growth and resource depletion. While their estimates were condemned as alarmist and overreaching, independent researchers have updated the report for the 50th anniversary of the club’s inception, and have largely found that the conclusions from the original still hold.

Nevertheless, in July of 2017, David Wallace-Wells’ New York magazine article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” about the worst-case scenarios resulting from the climate catastrophe created an uproar. Frenzied scientists and science communicators (positivity adherents one and all) raced to the media to denounce the highly accurate piece as scare-mongering, even as they could not dispute the validity of the information therein.

Then came the most recent report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which, more than any of their other previous papers, finally conveyed the true immediacy and urgency of the climate crisis. It largely validated Wallace-Wells’ assessment of impending large-scale catastrophe to all of humanity if we do not act promptly. For some of the more muted voices who study, work on, or otherwise follow the many environmental crises concurrently embroiling (and broiling) our planet, the IPCC report was surprising, not because of how drastically it portrayed the severity of the predicament we are in, but because of how it no longer pulled any punches about our dire circumstance. While still likely conservative in its forecast, as scientific predictions tend to be, this assessment finally painted the very bleak picture in store for us all if we do not change our way of life radically and immediately.

The staunch belief in the field of science communication, based upon a small number of studies, is that depicting the climate problem as it stands makes it appear too big and overwhelming, which incites hopelessness and inaction. Thus, we must keep the information simple and hopeful in order to effect change.

Indeed, Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update supported these notions in the wake of the IPCC news:

Colin Jost: Scientists basically published an obituary for the earth this week and people were like, “Yeah, but like what does Taylor Swift think about it”….We don’t really worry about climate change because it is too overwhelming and we’re already in too deep.
Michael Che: That story has been stressing me out all week. I just keep asking myself “Why don’t I care about this?” I mean, don’t get me wrong, I 100% believe in climate change yet I am willing to do absolutely nothing about it.

On first glance, it would seem that the science communication scholars are correct: the devastatingly huge nature of the problem leads to despair and inaction. But is that really what we are seeing? Are we seeing despair - or denial? I don’t mean the sort of denial that claims climate change is not occurring at all or that it is a natural phenomenon. I am talking about denial in the form of not willing to admit that you, personally, have a role to play in the problem and in the solution – that in addition to so many changes necessary on large-scale political, economic, industrial, occupational, and social levels, every one of us also needs to change our way of life in innumerable ways, and none more so than the wealthy.

One of the issues with the science communication research that emphasizes carefully crafting optimistic messages about environmental crises so that people will act on solutions is that it tacitly assumes that solutions have been articulated. How can we conclude that people’s despondency results in inaction when very few real actions have been offered? All that we offer are minimal, usually consumer-based alterations to what we buy. As we can see, these small, manageable, incremental changes have done nothing. Perhaps that is where the despair comes from? Al Gore’s conclusion in The Inconvenient Truth gave us recommendations to change our light bulbs and drive hybrid cars. This sort of advice, while Gore himself hypocritically continues to own multiple large homes and travel around the world with the excuse of educating the public about the crisis, rings false because it is false. The truth is that the public has not taken action because no one dares to explain what to do, and no one dares to explain what to do because what to do inevitably involves radical changes to the daily lives of the majority of people in the western world, most especially the richest among us who contribute the most to all of our ecological calamities. But even more importantly, no one with money, power, and influence dares to walk the walk when it comes to personal environmental action. 

Truth and Consequences
The climate crisis, as many other environmental issues, isn’t a scientific problem; it is a social, political, and economic one. As they say, “it isn’t rocket science.” It is greed. A Green New Deal will not cut it because it leaves capitalism, corporatism, imperialism, and consumerism in place. We aren’t going to “science” our way out of these crises. We can’t advertise or market our way out, shop our way out, sing and dance or entertain our way out, fundraise our way out, engineer (and genetically engineer) our way out, protest our way out, text, tweet, snapchat or instagram our way out, pray our way out, or even vote our way out. Our way out is to dramatically alter much of our way of life. It is to prioritize ecological concerns and do our best to conduct every aspect of our lives sustainably, rather than just pay lip service to our belief that climate change is real or that plastic pollution is a problem or that fossil fuel use is unsustainable. In many, if not most ways, we just simply need to stop. Our way of life is incompatible with the continuance of life.

Donald Trump blatantly admitted to prioritizing the multibillion-dollar sale of arms to Saudi Arabia over the life of an assassinated journalist (not to mention the lives of millions of Yemeni people).  While Trump overtly admits placing the importance of economic values over social and environmental ones, the rest of us do much the same every day as we go about our “normal” lives and activities without considering their proximal and distant repercussions.

We know well the myriad problems – global climate change, extinction of species, ecosystem disruption, overuse of natural resources, massive pollution from toxicants and plastic. Scientists have done a wonderful job of documenting the fall ™, but they have not offered many concrete solutions besides ending our use of fossil fuels and placing restrictions on certain toxics and pollutants so that they continue to harm us and our ecosystems chronically rather than acutely.

A far from exhaustive list of some of the things we might try to accomplish, personally and collectively, in order to avert total climate catastrophe (and tackle other environmental issues) is in the appendix to this piece. Suffice it to say, much of what we are used to in our lives is antithetical to sustainable life and probably has to go. Besides reduce, reuse, and recycle, we should add slow down, simplify, and stop.

Our modern technological, consumerist, lifestyle must be massively curbed. We may not be able to curtail environmental disaster completely, but we can at least try to greatly mitigate and adapt to it while also addressing poverty and massive inequality and attempting to reduce the suffering and pain of as many people as possible. Changes that would help the environment and changes that would bring more social justice go hand in hand, because it is precisely the industries, occupations, and lifestyles of the rich that create the enormous environmental, economic, and social crises. Therefore, restraining or removing their enterprises is the ultimate solution to our troubles.

As it is, market forces that enrich the wealthiest not only permit, but demand that food goes wasted rather than to the hungry, that clothing is destroyed rather than worn by those who have need for it, and that homes are left empty rather than housing the millions of homeless and marginally-sheltered around the country. This sort of economic model should be unconscionable because it is not only morally reprehensible but ecologically unsustainable. And we are all complicit in this when we work for these companies and industries that allow for such atrocity.

Along his current book tour, Chris Hedges seems to be repeating a (paraphrased) quotation from Sartre: “I don’t fight fascists because I think I will win; I fight fascists because they are fascists.” Similarly, there are people who live every moment of their lives with environmental sustainability in mind. They might say “I don’t live this way because I will save the world; I live this way because it is the only way to live.” In both cases, while the individual choice is a moral and ethical one, if we all, or at least the majority of us, were to come closer to making those moral and ethical choices, we might have a fighting chance against both fascism and environmental devastation.

Besides which … Are you happy? Polls and surveys suggest that the answer to that question for the vast majority of Americans is a resounding “No.” While the poor struggle to get by day to day, what’s left of the middle class live paycheck to paycheck. And even the upper-middle class and rich are not completely satisfied, probably because they have actual experience that money does not buy happiness in an atomized, unjust, and environmentally degraded world. But they will never admit to this reality and will continue to strive for more wealth and dominance in a futile quest to fill the voids in their lives.

All of those I know who are truly despairing about the environmental situation are the same people who are doing the most about it. Their desperation comes not as much from the overwhelming nature of the problem, but more from the fact that so many around them do not seem to notice or care.

Nearly all of the changes that can potentially help mitigate our environmental crises will also mitigate our social crises and our misery. So exactly why are so many people so reluctant to change? The mega-rich generated their massive fortunes by exploiting the environment and all of us, so clearly they are averse to change. For them to change, the rest of us will have to work together to force their hands. But what is everyone else’s excuse, given that we are all so unhappy and unsatisfied? Why can’t we seem to give up our palliatives (shopping, driving, television, social media, selfies, online gaming, etc.) that wreck our ecosystems as well as our physical and psychological well-being?

Scientists’ best estimates suggest Homo sapiens, the species of modern humans, emerged between 300-200 thousand years ago. While we are an extremely young species in the context of geological time, we have nonetheless exacted a powerful toll on the planet during our relatively short stint here on Earth.  The majority of that toll only occurred in the past few hundred years. Not only have we altered geology, chemistry, and biology across the globe, we have left a wasteland of ecosystem destruction, species decimation, acute and chronic toxic pollution, and of course, global climate change. But these alterations were not inevitable.

For most of our 200K years, Homo sapiens, like the other species living among us, affected local areas in limited ways that were not completely detrimental and irreversible. We didn’t leave traces of persistent organic pollutants at the poles of the globe, having manufactured and used them thousands of miles away. We didn’t leave radioactive vessels at the bottom of the ocean and heaps of radioactive materials in piles that we hope will not be touched for tens and hundreds of thousands of years. We didn’t deforest and desertify swathes of land the size of states and countries. We didn’t drastically reduce the number of insects and pollinators of our food supply. We didn’t kill the majority of species of large mammals. We didn’t leave a supply of chemical and plastic waste in the oceans, the quantity of which will soon outnumber the productive biota of the sea. And we didn’t drastically alter the gaseous concentrations of the atmosphere, thereby transforming the entire planetary climate. Some humans never did.

To be sure, not all humans created this problem. Ironically, it is the ones who have all but been obliterated across the globe – the indigenous - who hold the keys to our salvation. They did not exploit natural resources to the point of collapse; they honored and respected other species and their place in our global ecosystem. They considered more than quarterly earnings; they considered the consequences of their daily actions and looked forward toward the preservation of life for a minimum of seven generations of their people. Rather than revere the psychopathic, narcissistic, members of society who hoard all of the wealth, resources, and power to the detriment of people and planet, many indigenous cultures would shun and ostracize them. This is not an exaltation of the myth of the “noble savage.” Even the current IPCC report advises that indigenous knowledge and wisdom have important roles to play if we are to survive.

It is not inexorable that human activity will obliterate all life on earth. There are subsets of our species who lived, and still live, largely sustainably on the planet. These indigenous cultures are models for different, more viable alternatives. We should be striving to adjust our lives to be more like theirs rather than forcing them to adopt our corruptive, toxic, homicidal, and suicidal paradigms. All evidence suggests that we do, indeed, need to “go back,” or at the very least, massively scale back

Right before I received my doctoral degree, I had to meet with the graduate dean for a sort of exit interview. Seeing my field of study, she commented, “So, you are going to go out there and save us.” No. There are no individuals of any field or discipline who can save us. Likewise, to combat utter ecological devastation, people often say “we need our leaders to step up.” If it is not abundantly clear by now, our leaders have little incentive to do anything, and they have accomplished appallingly less.

The truth is, we must all take the lead. We must eat, sleep, and breathe with our environment in mind. In doing so, we will have to support one another in a battle against the rich and powerful who resist - with more fervor than any other type of resistance - all of the changes necessary that might stand half a chance of making this world more equitable and ecologically sound. We should do so not because we will necessarily save the world, but because as moral, ethical, rational, human beings, how can we not do so?  And we do so because, unless we are mere sociopaths, we are clear about the truth of our situation and the consequences of not doing so.


Some potential goals to help avert environmental calamity:

  • Remember that the economy is a human construct which does not have to exist
  • Prioritize the environment, humans, and ecosystems over economics
  • Drastically reduce all production and consumption
  • Drastically reduce or eliminate extractive industries
  • Localize economies
  • Eliminate new production and consumption of fossil fuels
  • Eliminate production of arms and weapons
  • Drastically reduce or eliminate plastics
  • Eliminate advertising and marketing
  • Reduce offspring to one-two children at most
  • Make housing a human right and eliminate housing as a market commodity
  • Own no more than one (modest-sized) home per person
  • Own no more than one (functional, modest) car per person
  • Drastically reduce all automobile travel, air travel, boat travel
  • Drastically reduce entertainment production and consumption, such as replacing film, television, and video games with more local forms of entertainment, art, and leisure play
  • Drastically reduce the production and consumption of fashion and apparel
  • Produce only long-lasting products of high quality, mainly necessities (food, clothing, shelter)
  • Drastically reduce or eliminate superfluous, excess, unnecessary, disposable, and low-quality products
  • Eliminate industrial agriculture, monocultures, and industrial livestock operations replacing them will small scale, organic multi-crop farms and abundant public and personal food gardens. (i.e., Agroecology)
  • Drastically reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides
  • Drastically reduce the consumption of meat and animal products
  • Compost all organic materials, including human bodies
  • Utilize our engineering expertise for only sustainable production
  • Eliminate waste with cradle to cradle production of goods
  • Utilize reclaimed, refurbished, recycled, and/or biodegradable materials for production and for art
  • Eliminate all unnecessary medical procedures, over-diagnoses, and overmedication
  • Drastically reducing the size of or eliminate multinational, global monopolistic corporations such as Google, Amazon, Wal-Mart, etc.
  • Permanently halt the roll-out of 5G and the Internet of Things
  • Drastically reduce our use of computers, tablets, smart phones, and electronics
  • Overhaul education, prioritizing sustainability in all disciplines at all levels and eliminating unsustainable fields
  • Drastically reduce or eliminate computers and internet from schools
  • Have corporations automatically account for and pay for all detrimental externalities that result from their products
  • Drastically shorten political campaigns, eliminate all private funding for campaigning, and divide public funds equally among all candidates
  • Eliminate useless jobs

Three important means to facilitate these goals:

  • Raise the marginal income tax rate for the rich to 90%, as it used to be
  • Provide a universal basic income (at a level higher than the proposed $12K per person per year)
  • Provide universal, single-payer, government-subsidized medical care for all

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

Employment, Ecology, Extinction: French Students Take on the System to Save the Species

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it . -- Upton Sinclair...