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.

Phthalates

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.
 

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