Sunday, January 13, 2019

I think I just stopped being a feminist

Clemson’s Justyn Ross makes a one-handed catch in front of Alabama’s Josh Jobe during the second half of the NCAA college football playoff championship. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Over the past two years I have been writing off and on about social cohesion, inspired in large measure by Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging and to a lesser extent by Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet.

I actually began writing about this subject many years ago, but back then it was more about cognitive science and why we as a species are so easily lured to deny peak oil, climate change, and ubiquitous ponzinomics.

When I wrote about synthetic fabrics in fashion a couple weeks ago, I fell back into a familiar analogy, probably stolen from Nate Hagens a decade or more back, of wildebeest crossing a river full of crocodiles. Not all the wildebeest make it, but most do. It is herd strategy, the same one we adopted as primates before we came down from the trees, if not earlier. 

The herd strategy is defensive and hard-wired. It pairs well with the MORT gene I described here after reading Anit Varki and Danny Brower’s paper in Nature in 2009, “Human uniqueness and the denial of death.”

Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind The history of science abounds with momentous theories that disrupted conventional wisdom and yet were eventually...

In Irmageddon, I wrote:
For reasons that have been well articulated now by cognitive scientists, human denial — a DNA-level defense mechanism — goes into overdrive when our survival is placed into jeopardy. Denial and existential climate threat are a stable pair.
In Rescuing Los Angeles, I wrote:
We continuously signal to others in our herd that we are with them. We are part. We are in this tribe. We seek tribe approval, acceptance, respect. We may do this the way birds do, with colorful plumage, or the way horses do, with speed and agility. A necktie or a pants suit are forms of that signaling. A sports car is another.
I have come to the conclusion that virtually all aspects of our existential predicament, if not all human problems, stem from these two unfortunate genes, tribe and denial. Separately, we might be able to cope with the consequences of either. Together, they are fatal to our kind, not to mention the collateral damage caused to the web of life as we ungracefully exit this brief experiment with human-level existence.

It is easily seen in political factions. Caitlin Johnstone observes:
Trump supporters are acting like he’s a swamp-draining, war-ending peacenik, his enemies are acting like he’s feeding a bunch of Kurds on conveyor belts into Turkish meat grinders to be made into sausages for Vladimir Putin’s breakfast, when in reality nothing has changed and may not change at all.
This battle of narratives, reinforced by normative and cognitive biases, is really no different than what happened in Buenos Aires in the run-up to the soccer game between arch-rivals Boca Junior and River Plate or can be seen in any US football stadium or Commonwealth rugby pitch on game day. It is not just the teams that are squaring off, it is the intensely loyal fans.

You can say team spirit is a good thing, and I gave an example when I wrote about my proto-ecovillage, The Farm, in The Ragweed Tribe. You can watch the Netflix series “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” based on the children's books by Daniel Handler, and have great sympathy and admiration for three orphan children who cling together through cascading miusfortune, but as my permaculture mentor Adam Turtle once said to me, “Family ain’t no account.” And he is right. Your family is just the luck of the draw. You could as easily be born to crackheads as Oxford scholars. What loyalty do you owe and what good or evil might that accomplish?

As much as I like to lionize the wisdom of indigenous peoples, I will be the first to acknowledge that a lot of cruel and horrid practices rippled through Native American societies for generations, entirely out of unchallenged and unchallengeable familial loyalty.

Last fall a friendly argument with a Cuban history professor in Havana grew heated when I asked what his thinking was on Che Guevara’s inability to resist the temptation to torture former torturers, including members of Batista’s Buró de Represión de Actividades Comunistas, that he held captive in the Forteleza La Cabaña. The professor vehemently denied Che would do such a thing, and gave me examples of extreme clemency, although I still find the testimony of survivors compelling. Tribal loyalty in Cuba runs very high and can cast even otherwise cautious scholars adrift on popular waves of myth and fable.
“Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become … ” 

Cuban poet and later Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Armando Valladares, described what going to La Cabaña meant:
For me, it meant 8,000 days of hunger, of systematic beatings, of hard labor, of solitary confinement and solitude, 8,000 days of struggling to prove that I was a human being, 8,000 days of proving that my spirit could triumph over exhaustion and pain, 8,000 days of testing my religious convictions, my faith, of fighting the hate my atheist jailers were trying to instill in me with each bayonet thrust, fighting so that hate would not flourish in my heart, 8,000 days of struggling so that I would not become like them.

“Like them” to Valladares meant the torturers who forced him to eat his own excrement because the Revolution did not approve of his poetry. To his tormenters the “they” were the counter-revolutionary intelligentsia that opposed communism on principle and would never see reason. Guevara, cleaving to the lineage of Cuban patron saints Martí, Bolivar, Humboldt and Hatuay, saw the enemy as anyone who would accept dictatorship by wealthy elites on the false promise they could aspire to become materially wealthy themselves. Both sides of this debate are profoundly wedded to ethical rectitude.

Nafeez Ahmed, pondering how humans managed to get themselves to such an existential precipice, writes:
If we take a moral or ethical value to be indicative of a particular mode or pattern of behaviour, we can conclude from our current civilisational predicament that the predominant value-system premised on self-maximisation through endless material accumulation is fundamentally flawed, out of sync with reality, and objectively counterproductive. Conversely, values we might associate with more collaborative and cooperative behaviours appearing to recognise living beings as interconnected, such as love, generosity and compassion (entailing behavioural patterns in which self-maximisation and concern for the whole are seen as complementary rather than conflictual), would appear to have an objective evolutionary function for the human species.
Sounds pretty communistic to me. If Ahmed were a Cuban under Batista he might be hunted down and shot. After La Revolución he might have become an Ambassador, or targeted by the CIA. Perhaps he is.

Ethical perches seem to me very fuzzy. If by feminism one means seeking to establish educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to those for men or opposing harassment, domestic violence, genital mutilation and rape, then I am still down with that. But if by feminism one means taking into account only black or white, middle class, Christian and college-educated perspectives, while wishing to impose a dualistic view of gender (personally, I lean towards 12 human sexes, about a third as many as our evolutionary relatives, the basidiomycetes and ascomycetes), then count me out.

I would have liked to see Alabama beat Clemson (I am a big fan of fellow Hawai’ian Tua Tagovialoa and his Maori-style facepaint), but I can stand up and cheer with the Clemson crowd when I see Justyn Ross make an amazing one-handed catch. 

While I love my children and other relatives and hope they will care for me if or when I have need, I do hereby renounce any special obligation beyond garden-variety human compassion. I just wish it was not left, by evil design and an anti-socialist tribal narrative, to poor families to care for their elderly and infirm. That wicked policy defaults to discriminate against any of us who may not, by luck of that original draw or later events, have supportive families, and where is the compassion there?

Color me neither capitalist nor socialist, revolutionary nor reactionary, spiritual nor heretical (present essay notwithstanding), Angloamerican nor Irish, hippy nor square. I think the royal houses of Europe had it right when then undertook to intermarry, quixotically attempting to avert the horrors of whatever last war they just experienced. I find the multilateralism of the United Nations laudable and those who seek to undermine it despicable. Color me the universal human, whose only outward, or inward, symbol of membership in any tribe is my belly button.

From where the sun now stands I will tribe no more forever.

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

Becoming Plastic

"We can just equip these new monkeys with some silicon AI and have done with the slow and random variety of evolution."

‘Sometimes weird things hit a tipping point. For a combination of reasons, including a viral video showing a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, companies waged war on straws this year. Marriott, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Burger King, and the city of Seattle, among others, all banned or are phasing out straws. It was a very small part of a larger conversation about “single-use plastics,” most notably plastic bags, which IKEA and Taiwan are banning as well.’ 

In 2018, researchers studying the life cycle of mosquitoes uncovered a weird factoid. Microplastics can be transferred ontogenically (between life stages with distinct morphologies and requiring distinct environments) from a feeding (larval, aquatic) life stage into a non-feeding (pupal, edge-dwelling) life stage and subsequently into the flying (adult, airborne) life stage. The researchers were concerned that “any organism that feeds on terrestrial life phases of freshwater insects could be impacted by [microplastic] found in aquatic ecosystems.”

The mosquitoes also transmit those microplastics to hosts when they feed, meaning that if you have been exposed to mosquitoes, they may have left microplastics in your blood and organs.
Of course, that is not the only source of microplastics in your body. It is nearly impossible to take a prescription, or even use an over-the-counter vitamin, without encountering time-release coatings on capsules, plastic lids on plastic pill bottles, and even a (synthetic) cellophane wrap for tamper-proofing. Scientists tested 21 table salts and found plastic in all of them, most commonly polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the material used to make plastic bottles. 100 percent of wild mussels sampled in supermarkets were found to contain microplastics. It is the same story for most seafood. 

National Institutes of Health scientist Antonia Calafat has done everything she can to raise the alarm. Her studies now show that microplastics in the blood of pregnant women cross the placental barrier and directly result in embryonic developmental disorders, gestational diabetes, decreased birth weight, allergic asthma and other respiratory problems in newborns. Worse, microplastics can be transmitted through mother’s milk, meaning that infants who may already be adversely impacted receive an even higher dose at a most critical period in their development.

A century of plastic design improvements now let us keep our foods fresher for longer periods, provide us timed-release pharmaceuticals and non-degrading biomedical implants, and can prevent electronics and other household items from starting or spreading fires. But for each of these benefits, there are counter-weighing human health risks related to exposure. We now know that some of the same chemicals used in plastics to provide beneficial qualities also act as endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) that lead to problems in human and other populations.

In men, environmental or occupational exposures to EDCs can lead to declined reproductive capacity or possibly increased risk of testicular or prostate cancer. In women, exposure may give an increased risk for endometriosis, reproductive and other endocrine-related cancers, or impaired oocyte competence, ovarian function or menstrual cycling. Effects of early life exposures may lead to altered sex differentiation, effects on neurological and reproductive development and increased risk of reproductive problems or cancer later in life. Testicular dysgenesis syndrome can afflict males in utero or in infancy, later showing up as disturbed gonadal development, including cryptorchidism, hypospadias and smaller reproductive organs, reduction in semen quality and infertility, and as an increased risk for testicular cancer.


The diesters of 1,2-benzenedicarboxylic acid (phthalic acid), commonly known as phthalates, are a group of man-made chemicals widely used in industrial applications. High-molecular-weight phthalates are used as plasticizers in flexible vinyl which, in turn, is used in consumer products like credit cards, window frames, flooring and wall coverings, food containers and medical implants. Low-molecular-weight phthalates are in personal-care products (perfumes, lotions, and cosmetics) and in solvents, lacquers, varnishes and coatings. They are also used to provide timed releases in some oral and subdermal pharmaceuticals.

As a result of all these consumer products, human exposure is widespread. Skin contact is enough. For those identifying as men, it might come from cologne or after-shave. For those identifying as women, it might be from skin lotion or lipstick. For infants and children, mouthing fingers after handling plastic toys or food packaging can lead to higher phthalate exposures. So does breast milk, infant formula, and cow’s milk, according to studies. Opting for coconut, almond, or rice milk won’t save your child if that cardboard carton has a plastic liner or cap.

In newborns, the amount of phthalates in umbilical cord blood directly correlates to a risk of premature birth. Among girls, phthalate concentration correlates with premature breast development and early-onset puberty. Other developmental effects: allergies, rhinitis, asthmatic reactions and direct toxicity. In one case-control study from Sweden, phthalate concentrations in indoor dust in 198 children ages 3–8 years showed a strong association with allergic asthma and eczema in a dose-dependent manner. Another study in Bulgarian children produced similar results, where increased plastic in house dust proportionally related to wheezing and rhinitis. A study of pre-term infants provided polyvinyl chloride (PVC) respiratory tubing showed higher rates of hyaline membrane disease, likely from the phthalate exposure.

Significant associations have also been reported between urinary phthalate concentrations and increased insulin resistance and waist circumference. These findings provide preliminary evidence of a potential contributing role for phthalates in insulin resistance, obesity and related clinical conditions.

Bisphenol A

BPA is in the epoxy resins used to line food cans, older plastic baby bottles, some dental sealants and fillings, adhesives, protective coatings, flame retardants, water storage tanks and supply pipes. It starts out as part of a polymer, but with normal heat over time, it degrades into its small-chain monomeric form. In that form, BPA can leach from its source into adjacent materials such as water (in the case of bottles, pipes or tanks) or food products (such as from the lining of a can). There is widespread BPA lingering in body fluids, bones and organs of people. It can be found in over 90% of the US population, where 96% of pregnant women test positive for BPA in their urine. It is now in US women’s follicular fluid, amniotic fluid, umbilical cord blood, and breast milk.

BPA’s hormone-changing properties were known as early as 1936, and evidence for other biological activity such as effects on thyroid function soon followed. In one epidemiological study, serum BPA levels were reported to be associated with recurrent miscarriage. Investigators also reported higher rates of polycystic ovary syndrome. Multiple studies have associated BPA exposure with weight gain and linked it to insulin resistance, heart disease, diabetes, neurological disorders, thyroid dysfunction, cancer, genital malformations and more. However, most studies to date have only addressed single chemicals or classes of chemicals, and there are limited data on the interactions between chemicals within a class or across classes. Chemicals may interact additively, multiplicatively or antagonistically in what is commonly referred to as the “cocktail effect.”

The health effects of ingested plastics are not just limited to phthalates and BPA. We know of ill effects from esters of aromatic mono-, di-, and tricarboxylic acids, aromatic diacids, and di-, tri-, or polyalcohols, and many other additives and composite materials. The exploration of these medical effects is still in its infancy, and few governments have shown any willingness to disturb the marketplace until it is more clear which does what to whom.

You can tell the checkout clerk at the grocery store you won’t need a plastic bag because you brought your own reusable cloth bag, but you may find it difficult to avoid having skin contact with the plastic handle on the shopping cart or basket, the laminate on the checkout counter, the credit card in your wallet, or the shock-resistant cover on your mobile phone. You will likely be unable to do anything to prevent yourself from inhaling the hairspray the clerk used that morning, absorbing some of the tap water you use to rinse and prepare your fresh vegetables, or eating the microplastic particles contained in the food that got there from the air, soil, water or chemicals the plants were in contact with as they grew.

Of course, there is a solution to all this, one that science fiction writers have mused about for most of a century now. We could just sit back and let it happen.

We are plasticizing, metamorphosing into something more enduring than flesh and bone. Wasn't that the whole point about plastics to begin with — durability? With climate change destroying our food supply, water contaminated with radionuclides, lead and estrogen, and temperatures soon to pass tolerable thresholds for higher mammalian life, we can just equip these new monkeys with some silicon AI and have done with the slow and random variety of evolution. We can take charge of all that, right?

This essay is adapted from my new book due out this year, Transforming Plastic: From Pollution to Evolution (Book Publishing Company, 2019). You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, December 30, 2018


"Evolution dropped a dual-hemi into the drivetrain of a fecund nomad, injected Nitro and walked away."

JUST ABOUT 72 years ago my mother was taxied from our home on Aukai Street to the Kapiolani Gynecological Hospital so that doctors and nurses there could help bring me into the world. On New Year’s Day 1947, the ward was a pretty busy scene with 13 of us new islanders choosing that day to be born. Babies ready? … Boom! This is me in the upper left corner of Sunday’s Honolulu Advertiser, obviously not all that happy to be being photographed.

Honolulu Advertiser, January 5, 1947
The other big news that day was the weather. Hawaii had been pounded all week by a storm that drove 40-foot waves against the coast and sent tide waters sweeping 1000 yards inland. Maui Harbor was wrecked and parts of Hilo had to be evacuated. In Alaska, the 135-mph gale was the unprecedented third blast of that winter for Nome. On the mainland, a cold front invaded the South into Florida and extended clear all the way over to the valleys of California.

On page 7 of the Advertiser, John Wayne is shown boarding the first Hawaii Airlines passenger flight from Los Angeles to Hilo. A transpacific route to Kwajalein, Guam and Tokyo was being surveyed. In Washington, Republicans were flooding Congressional hoppers with anti-strike bills to keep unions from recovering their pre-war bargaining power. In other news, Bernard Baruch was resigning his chairmanship of the Atomic Energy Commission, having devised a plan to place peaceful atomic energy under international control. Under the Baruch plan, soon to be adopted by the United Nations, the world would disarm its nuclear arsenal and all nations would agree never to build any more. A strict inspection regime would guarantee the peaceful atom would be forever safely caged.

Having acquired 7 decades of hindsight, it is easy to look back at some of these pronouncements with grim humor.

Selection could have favored other quadrupeds with hands, such as raccoons or geckos, but the spinning wheel landed on apes. Evolution could have, and perhaps did, supply more powerful brain engines to marine mammals, but it dropped a dual-hemi into the drivetrain of a fecund nomad, injected Nitro and walked away.

That bicameral brain evaporated the track in a parsec but see that smoke coming from under the hood? We need to eject. Except someone forgot to put that feature in.

That’s the thing about our neurobiology. It has a problem with looking very far into the future. We could, but we avert our eyes. Instead we discount future against present. Nate Hagens, who has thought long about the larger evolutionary patterns, writes:
To change people’s minds about behavior you have to either make the case really scary, or the time-to-impact really short because of people’s evolved tendency to focus on the present (and cultures impact on causing discount rates to be even steeper). For most Americans, ‘the future’ is this weekend. Climate change is real (as are myriad other environmental externalities), but if people are losing jobs and have to worry about feeding their kids, concern about the natural world will take a back seat to more mundane realities.
Nature abhors a gradient. Life requires one. Possessing gradients, and throttling them to create islands of low entropy while global entropy rises, is the very essence of life. Those organisms that are most effective in accessing and degrading energy have had evolutionary advantage. This includes human societies. For us to voluntarily give up or reduce access to the highest quality fuels goes against our evolutionary grain for ‘more’ or ‘progress.’ Reducing consumption via top-down authority is possible (think Tokugawa Japan) but extremely unlikely. Our modern history is one of doing everything in our power to keep continued global access to high EROI fuels possible.
Declining energy productivity (lower aggregate EROI), instead of causing a belt-tightening in the 1970s, caused us to go to debt to continue high levels of consumption. That led to lower and lower debt productivity (less and less GDP per additional $ of debt), to the point that central banks had to take over the model. In the US, our economy, ex-government, stopped growing in 2005. China, Russia, Brazil, etc are following the exact same model (plummeting debt-to-productivity). So we added government debt to offset declining private growth. Once debt productivity goes below zero (as it is currently in the US and probably in many European countries), we are simply transmuting wealth into income–and the timeline of being able to continue that strategy becomes very short, irrespective of oil prices.
In recent weeks oil prices fell to their lowest since mid-2017 with London futures closing at $53.82 and New York at $45.59. The Peak Oil Review says:
Some observers are calling the situation a “bloodbath” for shale oil producers noting that at $45 a barrel or lower, nearly all the independent shale oil producers are losing a substantial amount on nearly every barrel they produce.

Exxon Mobil has become the biggest fracker in West Texas. TPOR reports:
The company says its shale wells can make double-digit returns with oil at just $35 a barrel. Nearly all of the companies concentrating on shale oil drilling seem to be losing money at $45 a barrel. While Exxon can hide any losses in shale oil among its massive production of conventional oil, it will be interesting to see if it will be so efficient that it will make money where others have failed. Exxon is coming late to shale oil, and many of the best locations have already been drilled. Moreover, Exxon is subject to the same problems of moving oil to markets and shortages of workers and other infrastructure in the region. Exxon’s CEO Darren Woods, however, expects strong growth through 2025 when he’s expecting to produce much as 800,000 b/d from the Permian and the Bakken Basins.
This contrasts with California’s recent announcement that it will be winding down oil production in that state owing to heightened awareness of climate change. It is losing entire towns to uncontrollable fires. That tends to get people’s attention.

The neurobiological discount rate for climate change may be working for Californians but apparently not for Texans. Nor does it seem to work for most USAnians when it comes to understanding national debt, GDP, Fed interest rates, or the hole being dug so deep into the balance sheet that Congress is cashing in National Parks to fund another continuing resolution.

California Governor Jerry Brown steps down next week at age 80 after four terms in office. Earlier this month he told the Seymour Tribune:
“The threat of nuclear annihilation and climate change on a permanent basis looms, and therefore it is time for new leaders to rise up and make the case and mobilize the people for what needs to be done. What needs to be done is unprecedented, and therein lies the dilemma.”
For me, at 72, near-term human extinction is a foregone conclusion. I will likely be out of here before the worst parts of that fate beset us. I just pity the children arriving this New Year to the maternity wing at Kapiolani.


You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. Please help if you can.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Fabrics of Society

"Yoga pants are destroying the Earth"

Reet Aus
We know to avoid plastics because they are made of non-renewable fossil fuels, they are not biodegradable, and they leach hormones and toxic chemicals. What many of us are unaware of is that plastics make up the fabric of our everyday life. Look down at your shoes, socks, and pants. Do you know what the fabric composition of your clothes is? Look at your rug, your couch, your bed, and the sheets on it. Do you know what they’re made out of? Chances are they’re plastic, or at least part plastic.

Synthetic clothing, including polyester, polyamide, nylon, and acrylic, is very cheap to make and very bad for you and other living things. Because of its low price tag, it is tempting to buy, and retailers and manufacturers may even make it hard for you to choose otherwise. They hide plastic microfibers in budget-friendly fabrics called ‘blends.’

Synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester shed thousands of microscopic fibers with each wash cycle. After scientists started showing how these fibers end up on your dinner plate after passing through little fish to bigger fish, newspapers ran articles with headlines such as “Yoga pants are destroying the Earth.” Seizing the moment, eco-conscious brands began selling a washing-machine pellet, claimed to catch “some” of the plastic sloughing off clothing (Patagonia calls theirs ‘Guppyfriend’). Stephen Buranyi, writing for The Guardian, lamented,
“It slips through our fingers and our water filters and sloshes into rivers and oceans like effluent from a sinister industrial factory. It is no longer embodied by a Big Mac container on the side of the road. It has come to seem more like a previously unnoticed chemical listed halfway down the small print on a hairspray bottle, ready to mutate fish or punch a hole in the ozone layer.”
One-third of fish caught in the North Atlantic are contaminated with microplastic. It is even found in benthic animals living thousands of meters below the sea surface. Eighty-three percent of drinking water samples from around the world are contaminated with plastic fibers. While not all of it, quite a lot of this contamination of fresh and saltwater comes when synthetic fiber-based clothing is worn and washed.

It won’t help you if you decide that rather than throw your clothes in the washing machine you will take them all to be dry cleaned. The most common dry cleaning solvent is PCE (perchloroethylene), As Camille Scheidt reveals, “there are no perks to perc.”
“Once the solvent vaporizes, it is easily inhaled. Because of this, both dry cleaning employees and customers are directly at risk of breathing in the chemical. The dangers of perc are not isolated to the dry cleaning facility. Perc can follow you home. The chemical remains in dry-cleaned clothing long after it leaves the cleaner and the levels of perc in the garment will accumulate with each cleaning process. But, as you just learned, the perc doesn’t just stay in your clothing, it off-gases. A study found that if you were to put four freshly dry-cleaned sweaters in your car and step into the grocery store for an hour on a warm day, you would return to a car that was well exceeding the safe limit of perc exposure….
“But perc pollution reaches much further than your home and car. The contaminant has been detected in groundwater and both public and private wells. It’s also found in soil. Perc can become airborne from soil and water, and once in the air can be inhaled. The effect of perc on our bodies is severe. Short-term exposure at low levels can cause inebriation, dizziness, and irritation in the eyes, nose, mouth, throat, and respiratory tract. Short-term exposure to perc at high levels can cause fluid buildup in lungs, difficulty speaking and walking, headaches, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, and irritation of skin and the respiratory system. If a person’s exposure to perc is at a high level, even for a short time, the chemical can cause unconsciousness and death.
“Prolonged exposure to perc can result in damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver. It is recognized as a probable human carcinogen and linked to cases of cervical cancer, bladder cancer, esophageal cancer, kidney cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In 2007, it was estimated that 1 in 10 wells in California were contaminated with perc.”
Fashion, unlike many other aspects of the plastic problem, is something consumers can change both thoroughly and rapidly. Besides producing and buying fabrics that last longer and can be recycled, they can purchase clothing made from organically-produced materials that naturally biodegrade, such as cotton, silk, linen, and wool. They can wash only when the clothes, especially outerwear, absolutely require it. They also have to be aware, when they are buying, not to purchase blends. Many fabrics can be recycled, even acrylics, but if it requires the entire structure be disassembled, thread by thread, remanufacturers may shy away.

Petroplastic fabrics are something we can, and must, refuse. Surely we can replace these with safer, healthier bio-based and biodegradable natural analogs? Finland’s bioeconomy has expanded on the strength of its forests. New developments in the fabric industry there will extend the value chain of forest-biomass to cellulose-based non-woven textiles, estimated to reach 47.7 billion euros in 2020.
“Cellulose fibers can be utilized in all textiles that can replace cotton and viscose which both have sustainability issues related to their production. Government strategy in Finland aims to double the current bioeconomy turnover from 60 billion euros to 100 billion euros before 2025,” says Tuula Savola, Program Manager of Business Finland’s BioNets program.

On the horizon in the rest of the world are new fabrics that provide a better experience and range of qualities than synthetics and blends. These include sustainably-harvested cork fabric as an alternative to leather; fish skin; mushroom “skin” (the capskin from Phellinus ellipsoideus, native to subtropical forests); pellemela, sustainably sourced from discarded apple peels and core waste from juiced apples; Piñatex® from pineapple processing waste; Orange Fiber yarn and silks; TENCEL® from beech and eucalyptus; and UV, mold and mildew resistant, naturally antimicrobial, absorbent and durable hemp.

Confronting Plastic Culture

Plastic culture is another matter. At the end of 2018, the Club of Rome issued this warning:
“The prevailing mantra that all economic growth is good defies the reality of life on a finite planet with finite resources. There is an urgent need for new economic thinking and new indicators that value quality as well as quantity in our economic metrics.”
Since most of the qualities we seek in plastic products can be found in biodegradable bioplastics, all we need to do is to change the economic metrics — how value is assigned. In many ways that realignment dovetails neatly with what is required to arrest and reverse climate change. Here are portions of the roadmap proposed by the Club of Rome, which I have amended slightly to include plastics:
  • Introduce realistic pricing and taxation to reflect the actual cost of fossil fuel use and embedded carbon;
  • Introduce carbon (or non-green plastic) floor prices;
  • Tax embedded carbon (or non-green plastic) through targeted sales taxes;
  • Fund research, development, and innovation;
  • Converge carbon (and green plastic) markets and instruments into a worldwide structure;
  • Replace GDP growth as the primary objective for societal progress;
  • Adopt new indicators — such as the Genuine Progress Indicator — that accurately measure human development, welfare and wellbeing, rather than production growth;
  • Establish explicit funding and re-training programmes for displaced workers and communities;
  • Provide government assistance to enable older industries to diversify to lower carbon (and green plastic) production;
  • Reframe business models and roles for declining industries such as oil, gas, and coal;
  • Create an international convention, applying to nations and non-state actors alike, with legally enforceable rules and mechanisms for policing the global commons;
  • Support citizen action and litigation against countries and actors exceeding legal limits;
  • Require that market prices reflect the real costs of production, integrating social, environmental and ecosystem values into pricing;
  • Ensure greater materials efficiency and circularity by 2025;
  • Actively support efforts to restore degraded lands and water through methods such as open ocean plastics recovery and Ecosystem Regeneration Camps;
  • Recognize that the degree of social change needed to make a successful transformation to a sustainable future will extend throughout society, requiring fundamental shifts in behavior and rethinking of national and community support and care systems.
For more than a quarter-century, world leaders, scientists, and expert advisers have been meeting to try to do something about climate change and the other tragedies of the commons, first chronicled in the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study in 1972. After all these conferences and meetings we have international treaties like the conventions on Biodiversity, Deforestation and Desertification, and The Paris Agreement on climate change. But what has not changed is the trajectory of the crisis or the common understanding of interconnection and reciprocity. Rather than preserving biodiversity and forests, we are well into a Sixth Great Extinction event, losing forest cover, and desertifying faster than ever before. Rather than moving towards carbon neutrality, greenhouse gases are still growing, and the rate of yearly emissions even accelerated from 2016 to 2018.

Our problem seems to be the inertia of bad decisions made in the past. But humans can and do change their patterns of living, and that can most readily be seen in the world of fashion.

A few years ago I was teaching a Permaculture Design Course in Estonia when one of my students asked if fashion had a role in permaculture. She was fashion designer Reet Aus. Most mass-production manufacturers send about 18% of pre-consumer textiles as scrap to landfill or incinerator. Her Ph.D. dissertation was “Trash to Trend: Using Upcycling in Fashion Design” which opened up new possibilities within the fashion industry. Since 2002, Aus has been upcycling — turning unwanted materials into new, mass-produced garments. Her Bangladeshi partners source floor cuttings from Tommy Hilfiger, Bershka, Calvin Klein and Zara to add into her latest designs.

Her collection, including a treasured shirt of mine, is entirely from post-production leftovers. She keeps proving that clever design can salvage mountains of wasted textiles and the labor and natural resources spent to produce them, usually inside the same factory. Each garment in her line will save on average 75% in water and 88% in energy. She also improves the working conditions of the shops she helps in Bangladesh.

“In my opinion, we should keep oil-based fabrics in the loop as long as possible,” she told me recently. “Clothing in this area not the biggest problem but we can just stop making fabric from oil. We have a lot of good alternatives from algae to cellulose.”

Aus has tapped into an element of human nature that has led to our present predicament but could also point to the way out. It is not science or technology that confounds us from rejoining Earth’s ecology; it is social behavior.

As can be seen in zebras or wildebeest crossing a river full of crocodiles, herding is a rational defense strategy. Bunching herds protect their majority from predators, although a few will be lost to the needs of the river dwellers. Millions of years ago, our ape ancestors adopted herd strategy over lone individualism and it has served us well. Our fads and fashions are not optional — they are hard-wired to our genetic code. When we choose to wear a necktie and blazer, or a pants suit with jewelry and heels, we are signaling membership in a particular band. The cars we drive, the places we live, the foods we eat — all signals of belonging to one specific tribe.

Tribal instincts towards personal sacrifice are ennobling, unifying, heroic. In his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger writes:
“The human conscience evolved in the middle to late Pleistocene as the result of the hunting of large game. This required cooperative, band level sharing of meat. Because tribal foragers are highly mobile and can quickly shift between different communities, authority is almost impossible to impose on the unwilling. And even without that option, males who try to take control of the group or the food supply are often countered by coalitions of other males.
“This is clearly an ancient and adaptive behavior that tends to keep groups together and equitably cared for.”
Fashion is how we signal not merely tribal allegiance but the values we share. When we choose to go plastic-free, whether in our clothing or the packaging and transportation of the things we exchange, we signal membership in the next order of humans on Earth: Homo regenesis.

This essay is adapted from my new book due out next year, Protecting our Future: Plastics (Book Publishing Company, 2019). You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Decapitalism by Yellow Vest

"And so this is the anger of the mass of people, saying we’re not going to be put off, we’re not going to play parliamentary games, we’re not even going to work with the regular parties."

A funny thing happened on the way to the UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland. They started rioting in Paris. At first the two events seemed unrelated. The Yellow Vest protests (Mouvement des Gilets Jaunes) were started by a petition and a Facebook event posting calling to protest a new fuel tax in Paris because, the protesters claimed, it was really just paying for tax cuts for the 1%. The protests snowballed into riots when President Emmanuel Macron said the goal of the administration’s economic reform program is to increase France’s competitiveness in the global economy, and that the fuel tax is intended to discourage fossil-fuel use. He later agreed to roll back the tax, but it was too late. The vests were out of the trunks.

Katowice is host, in the heart of Polish coal country, to the UN’s annual effort to fly 20,000 people to some city to make it look like something is being done about climate change. Eighty percent of the heat and power for the Polish conference was supplied by coal.

As the Yellow Vest riots grew larger and pulled in more of the French and Belgian population, delegates in Katowice started wondering if maybe events happening in the two places were connected. What if this is what it looks like when a government tries to curb greenhouse emissions by raising the price of fossil fuels?

15-year-old savant and minor star of this year’s COP Greta Thunberg explained in a press conference that raising fuel prices is a dumb move, if fighting climate change is what French President Macron was doing it for, because it hurts those on the bottom rungs of the ladder more, and people with money would be able to buy what they needed at any price. 

Gilets Jaunes is organized in a leaderless, horizontal, Occupy fashion. Informal leaders can emerge but only in the moment. The movement is not associated with a specific political party or trade union and is spread almost entirely by social media. Three weeks ago, President Macron did not give the protest much credence and dispatched riot police who were no match for 300,000 citizens in yellow vests. Protesters have now gone beyond the retraction of fuel taxes and demanded the reintroduction of the solidarity tax on wealth, a raise in the minimum wage, and the resignation of Macron. At this writing it looks like he could actually be forced to resign. Other world leaders are watching closely.
In a televised address Monday, Macron said he bore partial responsibility for what he said was an insufficient response to souring public sentiment.
“At first it was anger against tax and the prime minister responded by cancelling and removing all rises planned for the start of the new year. But this anger is deeper. I feel it is fair in many ways,” he said. “I may have given you the impression that I didn’t care, that I had other priorities. I know I may have upset some of you with my words.”
“Macron’s sweeteners are coming at a cost,” Berenberg Economists Kallum Pickering and Florian Hense said in a research note Tuesday. France’s debt-to-GDP will likely rise beyond 100 percent as a result of the concessions. EU rules limit spending deficits of member countries to 2% of GDP in any single year.
“They add up to 10 billion euros or slightly more, equivalent to 0.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). On top of the already announced 4 billion to cancel the fuel tax hike, this could push the 2019 deficit from 2.8 percent to 3.4 percent of GDP unless offset by savings, which will be difficult to find.” 
At a press conference called by COP24 President Micha Kurtkya on December 10, Laurent Fabius, the president of the COP21 three years earlier in Paris (the one that delivered the landmark Paris Agreement), added fuel to the speculation that Parisians are rioting in response to “drastic measures” to keep to 2-degrees global warming rather than the 5 degrees now anticipated this century, as Macron had said.

“Now on the events that are taking place in France we have seen the comments of some people saying ‘Well you know there is a difficulty in France and it means that all that stuff about carbon pricing and more generally about fighting climate change is a figment of the imagination and is not necessary.’ No, I do not share at all this viewpoint.
“French events do not mean that the necessity of ecological and just transition must be abandoned. Not at all. I was a few minutes ago in a meeting about just transition with Nicolas Stern, a certain number of friends and specialists and we discussed just transition, and I reminded them that in the preamble of the Paris Agreement we have put a paragraph about just transition…. 
“At that time it was more in line with the shift in employment because obviously you come from a fossil fuel economy to a low carbon economy and new green growth, this new paradigm has a series of consequences on employment and you have both to prepare new jobs and to [compensate for] jobs which are destroyed. And unions in particular have insisted to us on this idea, which is a very fundamental idea, and it happens in all the countries and it happens in Poland too.
“But there is another element in the just transition, which is that the means you choose to fight against climate change must not bring unfairness, and unjust situations. It doesn’t mean that the transition is not necessary. It is necessary….
“Look what has been done in Denmark, Sweden and the UK. They have taken decisions about carbon pricing and it was worthwhile and it is going in the right direction. Obviously in France there are special characteristics due to the high level of taxes, due to this and that.”
The “this and that” was dissected by Democracy at Work professor Richard Wolff who, in a December 7 vlog chat, supplied a more nuanced take on the Yellow Vest movement. Wolff said it could be traced back to the stock market/real estate crisis of 2008, and the billion-dollar gifts government made to companies like Wells Fargo, Citibank and General Motors, most of it going into the pockets of senior management, who spent public tax money buying more mansions and yachts.
“The capitalist system hasn’t learned in its entire 300 year history how to prevent this kind of instability, how to prevent these crashes. Downturns of capitalism happen every 4 to 7 years. The only difference is that some of them are short and shallow and some of them are long and deep. But everything has been tried to prevent them and everything has failed, and that’s a condemnation of this system’s intrinsic instability.
“You know in my classes I reach across the podium when I teach this and I look at my students and I say to them, ‘If you lived with a roommate as unstable as capitalism, you would have moved out long ago….
“The governments who had spent a fortune to bailing out these companies announced to the mass of people in their society, we now have to have austerity. … Whoa! The richest people got the bailout and all the rest of us got austerity. And I think the mass of people in the world they understand they’ve been taken for a real big ride. They suffered a system that whacked them with a crash, then they watched the people who brought the crash get the big bailouts from the government and then they were told the same government that just delivered bailouts to the rich now have to deliver austerity to you. It is too much. They have been kicked one time too many.
“And I think what you are seeing is, first, people began to vote for socialists because the socialists said, we’ll fight against it. The socialists got elected, they didn’t do crap. They didn’t fight the austerity they administered it. You saw this in Greece with Syriza, you saw this in France with Hollande, so then they went the other way. So you on the left didn’t deliver, we are going to vote for the right. And they did that with Trump. And they did that with Brexit and Macron and the Italian government a few months ago. But guess what? The right wing is no better able to deal with this problem than the left wing….
“And so this is the anger of the mass of people, saying we’re not going to be put off, we’re not going to play parliamentary games, we’re not even going to work with the regular parties. We’re going to go into the street and we’re going to tell the people who run this society, ‘You either change or nothing is going to happen here — there is not going to be any truck in the road, there is not going to be any gas in your tank, it’s over Jackson,’ because in the end the people have the power. They always did, but they weren’t ready to make the fight. And as has happened now several times: the country that leads the way is the French…. The polling indicates that between 70 and 80 percent of the French people support these street actions.”
Seventy or more percent of the population of France may have favored cutting off the heads of the aristocracy at the end of the 18th Century, too, but that didn’t really solve the cyclical problem Wolff is referring to, and nor will it solve the climate problem.

The flaw in the capitalist ointment is its sine-qua-non need for growth. Most economists haven’t seemed to think through what a degrowth future will look like, as the reversal of climate change requires. As I wrote 15 years ago in The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook, some things can continue to grow exponentially, such as quality of life, music, literature, surfing and healthy food. Anything that eats up non-renewable resources, puts carbon into the atmosphere, or sets up class divisions, financial depressions and war is dead. If the only way to capitalize an enterprise is to insist on some higher than invested rate of return that has to come from money conjured into existence, that system is going to kill us all and needs to be put out to pasture. 
When the Paris Agreement speaks of just transition, let us hope a degrowth decapitalism is what those words will come to mean, even if the framers didn’t intend for it to mean that at the time. The real change, as Greta Thunberg told the first plenary session, comes from the bottom.
Some people say that I should be in school instead. Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can ”solve the climate crisis”. But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions.
And why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?
Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground.

So we can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed.
So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again.
We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge. And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. Please help if you can.




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