Sunday, February 17, 2019

Non-stick Pans and Sticky Memes

"We have, through accident or design, structured the human ecology into a zero sum game, where a few in lucky positions can succeed by beggaring their many neighbors."

On January 29, 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Water Assistant Administrator David Ross released the following statement:
“Despite what is being reported, EPA has not finalized or publicly issued its PFAS management plan, and any information that speculates what is included in the plan is premature. The agency is committed to following the Safe Drinking Water Act process for evaluating new drinking water standards, which is just one of the many components of the draft plan that is currently undergoing interagency review.”
David Ross was an industry shill suing EPA and state agencies for 14 years before moving into state government in Wyoming and Wisconsin where his main achievements were to roll back state powers to protect water from fracking wells, claiming federal pre-emption, while at the same time suing EPA to prevent enforcement of clean water laws. So, naturally, he was recruited by President Trump and EPA director Scott Pruitt and put in charge of water protection for the whole country.

Since his arrival, EPA has been dithering on whether to protect drinking water from unregulated industrial chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Meanwhile, government scientists have found that the compounds are more widespread in drinking water than thought.

PFAS chemicals are widely used to make nonstick and water-proof products, including foams used to fight fires. Two of the most common forms — perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) — are no longer made in the United States, but in some cases have been replaced by related chemicals and there are plenty of the older pots, pans and spatulas still in circulation. Being plastic, once in the environment they don’t go away. While many communities have been pushing officials to test water supplies in order to document the extent of any contamination, EPA now has a fox watching over the henhouse.

In 2018, a study by career scientists at EPA and the United States Geological Survey described surveys of PFAS contamination in source and treated water from 25 drinking water treatment plants across the United States. When the concentrations in the treated drinking water are compared to the existing EPA water health “advisory” threshold of 70 ng/L for each chemical or their sum, only one facility exceeded the threshold, but all 50 drinking water samples tested positive.

The Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. thinks that 70 ng/L standard is too loose for health protection and estimates that up to 110 million people are served by PFAS-contaminated water supplies, the effect of which is cumulative. According to a report appearing in Science:
The stakes surrounding studies of PFAS prevalence, concentrations, and human health impacts are immense. Stricter standards could force U.S. drinking water suppliers to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to remove the chemicals. And they could require those who used the chemicals — including industrial facilities, firefighters, and the U.S. military — to pay for cleanups and potentially even damages for people who can show their health was harmed by the substances.
Nonstick pans are a wonderful invention, saving cooking oil, preserving essential flavors in ingredients, and easing the chores of dishwashers. It is small wonder that nonstick pans are now 90 percent of the aluminum pan market. But wait a moment. Think about this. The reason that foods don’t stick to nonstick is fluoropolymers. Sure they are convenient, but at the end of the day there is no free lunch. At 500 degrees F (260 degrees C) fluoropolymers split into smaller plastic fragments. The coating begins to break down, and toxic particles and gases, some of them carcinogenic, are released. It is sometimes possible to see when this has happened because the surface degrades, losing its characteristic smoothness and making it more difficult to clean. But even before that happens, the polymers can break down at the molecular level, and you wouldn’t necessarily see the damage.

At slightly higher temperatures — 660 degrees F and above — coatings give off invisible fumes strong enough to cause polymer-fume fever, a flu-like condition indicated by chills, headache, and fever. The best known non-stick plastic is Teflon, found in heat-resistant, low-friction coatings, such as nonstick surfaces for frying pans, plumber’s tape, and water slides. It was discovered during World War II as a secret part of the Manhattan Project’s process to refine uranium for the first atomic bomb. At 680 degrees F (360°C), Teflon releases at least six toxic gases, including two carcinogens.

The popular magazine Good Housekeeping, after commissioning its own study, made these recommendations:
Any food that cooks quickly on low or medium heat and coats most of the pan’s surface (which brings down the pan’s temperature) is unlikely to cause problems; that includes foods such as scrambled eggs, pancakes, or warmed-up leftovers. And many other kinds of cooking are safe as well: In [our] tests, the only food prep that yielded a nonstick pan temperature exceeding 600 degrees F in less than ten minutes was steak in a lightweight pan. But to be cautious, keep these tips in mind:
Never preheat an empty pan. Each of the three empty nonstick pans we heated on high reached temperatures above 500 degrees F in less than five minutes — and the cheapest, most lightweight pan got there in under two minutes. Even pans with oil in them can be problematic; our cheapest pan zoomed to more than 500 degrees F in two and a half minutes.
Don’t cook on high heat. Most nonstick manufacturers, including DuPont, now advise consumers not to go above medium. To play it safe, set your knob to medium or low and don’t place your nonstick cookware over so-called power burners (anything above 12,000 BTUs on a gas stove or 2,400 watts on an electric range); those burners, seen more often in recent years, are intended for tasks such as boiling a large pot of water quickly.
Ventilate your kitchen. When cooking, turn on the exhaust fan to help clear away any fumes.
Don’t broil or sear meats. Those techniques require temperatures above what nonstick can usually handle.
Choose a heavier nonstick pan. Lightweight pans generally heat up fastest, so invest in heavier-weight cookware — it’s worth the extra money.
Avoid chipping or damaging the pan. To prevent scratching, use wooden spoons to stir food, avoid steel wool, and don’t stack these pans. (If you do, put a paper towel liner between them.) How long can you expect your nonstick cookware to last? DuPont’s estimate, based on moderate usage, is three to five years. Some experts advise replacing your nonstick cookware every couple of years. What should you do if the pan does become damaged? A clear answer: Throw it out.
Another danger of nonstick pans comes from the chemical used to manufacture the fluoropolymers, PFOA, which is associated with tumors and developmental problems. After paying $343 million to settle a lawsuit in 2004, DuPont agreed to phase out PFOA, and did by 2015, but many older pans may still have the coating. PFOA is still on the market, however, in microwave-popcorn bags, fast-food packaging, shampoo, carpeting, and clothing. Studies show that most of us have PFOA in our bloodstreams, and babies show trace amounts at birth. Those yoga pants you love may be killing you.

We would like to think that somewhere in government there is a federal agency watching out for our health and protecting us from products like these, but at the moment, that agency seems to have been acquired by hostile takeover, and is now bent upon protecting industry profits, heedless of the public health costs down the road, or the health of all the many non-human creatures now absorbing PFOA from the environment.

We have, through accident or design, structured the human ecology into a zero sum game, where a few in lucky positions can succeed by beggaring their many neighbors. This game has no good ending, as we have learned by playing it over and over for millennia now. We can, by better design, structure human ecology into a win-win-win game, where not only ourselves and our neighbors benefit with each roll of the dice, but so too does the previously ignored architecture of Earth’s biology. We can redesign our losing economic system to benefit all parts, the way Mother Nature does. After all, we invented this thing we call economics (although Hazel Henderson says it’s really just thinly-guised politics masquerading as an academic discipline). We can reinvent civilization, bringing new and better minds to the task. We can replace Pharaonic memes with a distributed ledgers, assigning value grounded in ecological restoration and sustainable development achievements.

A regenerative culture is wise enough to leave in place to later generations a natural world that is more resilient, more capable of meeting the cascading demands of its uncertain future, and better able to repair damage recklessly done. First, let us get rid ourselves of the idiots who shill for polluters, and their Pharoahs, and then let us set about the real work at hand. We can do without the non-stick cancer-causers. This is a sticky meme.


Portions of this essay were drawn from the forthcoming book, Transforming Plastic: From Pollution to Evolution. 

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Sunday, February 10, 2019

Dancing with Ulysses

"While it is yet unknowable if humans have the capacity to actually reverse climate change, a small number of activists have already shifted the conversation."

Last night I was watching a performance by young schoolchildren in the central park of my rural village. They stood in a line and sang as a teacher coached them to remember the words. Most were singing, and some were loud and boisterous while others were muted and shy. One little boy drew my eye because he was just standing still. He had a deer-in-the-headlights look. He was looking out from this stage, arms flat at his sides, staring into a large crowd that included his family and all his neighbors and knowing he was expected to perform but he was just frozen.

Sometimes I feel like that kid. It doesn’t happen to me during public speaking anymore. It comes in quiet times, when I am alone with my thoughts.

I recall one such moment in particular, and the date — October 16, 2007 — because the Eureka revelation came as I was driving to the airport in Houston, Texas to pick up a friend who would be attending the ASPO Peak Oil conference with me. In some of my writings I have called it my Houston moment. I was not struck with a light from a flying saucer, although perhaps thousands of others around the world were at that moment undergoing a similar experience, but rather, in the quiet of that drive, it came to me that humans would soon be extinct, possibly as soon as this century. I felt no fright or dread. No personal sense of blame. Yet, I was convinced there was no escaping it. Perhaps it had been determined before I was born. It was now merely something that would happen. It could be delayed for a bit, but not prevented.

In this world of universal information, all of us, at some point in our lives, may get to have our Houston moment. One of my friends, who sat next to me the following day, committed suicide after his. He had not yet had his revelation when we were together that time in Houston, nor did we discuss mine, because he was not attuned to the climate problem then. His mind burned brightly and when he finally had his moment he unwound fast. He never got to the next phase, accepting and choosing to act with full knowledge. Another friend at that conference was Jan Lundberg, whose own moment had come before my own, and who was for me a model of unalterable activism in the face of impossible odds.
Dear darkening ground,
you’ve endured so patiently the walls we’ve built,
perhaps you’ll give the cities one more hour
and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor — let their work
grip them another five hours, or seven,
before you become forest again, and water, and widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name
from all things.
Just give me a little more time!
I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they’re worthy of you and real.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Dear Darkening Ground, Book of Hours, I 61

The deer-in-the-headlights experience is brief and what happens after that can be more meaningful if you are willing to let it play out. I observe that for those prone to depression (get more sunlight, friends!), the post-moment period lends itself to morose introspection that can be disabling, even fatal. But if, like Professor Guy McPherson, you are blessed with a sense of humor, you can compensate by making fun of the predicament, which is not a bad way to go through life. It is more fun, anyway. After the peak moment you should not enjoy life any less than you did before. Life as a planetary process continues. We shouldn’t take ourselves, the two-legged naked apes, too seriously.
Tennyson said, through the voice of his Ulysses:
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea
Ulysses is an incurable wanderer and seaman. He will drain his vital essence until he reaches the sediment at the bottom, regardless of whether his friends and family like it, or whether his path has become more difficult and dangerous. Bold adventure is his calling.

For ones to whom a life of political or social activism is their calling, you do not retreat to a cave merely because you have glimpsed some storm clouds. You advance “through scudding drifts;” you plunge ahead and work without the prospect of tangible reward or hope for success. The game is the reward.
Looking back on the memory of
The dance we shared beneath the stars above
For a moment all the world was right
How could I have known you’d ever say goodbye
And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d have to miss the dance
Holding you I held everything
For a moment wasn’t I the king
But if I’d only known how the king would fall
Hey who’s to say you know I might have changed it all
And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d of had to miss the dance
Yes my life is better left to chance
I could have missed the pain but I’d of had to miss the dance.
— Tony Arata, The Dance, performed by Garth Brooks

Those of us who have left behind our frozen moment and chosen the path of Ulysses have, over these last few years, changed the conversation in the corridors of power. Regenerative systems designer Daniel Wahl, in his interview for the ecovillage web summit this week, observed that in UN climate summits in Paris, Marrakech and Bonn prior to 2018, the main words being used to describe the way out were still “adaptation and mitigation.” In Katowice in 2018, UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez for the first time adopted the words of Project Drawdown, the International Biochar Initiative, the Commonwealth Secretariat and others, and began speaking of “reversing climate change.” With that shift of language, the studies of negative emissions technologies and natural climate geotherapies (agroforestry, permaculture, biochar, aquaculture, etc.) suddenly moved from offstage to stage center.

While it is yet unknowable if humans have the collective capacity to act quickly enough to actually reverse climate change, what can be said is that a small number of activists in the ecovillage, bioregional, and permaculture worlds have already changed the conversation.

If there will be salvation for our kind, it must pass through that reversing door. We have set a lantern there. Wahl quoted (without attribution to Herman Kahn or Al Gore) the aphorism, “We must do the impossible because the probable is unthinkable.”

This too we know: each and every one of us will have our deer-in-the-headlights moment when we realize we really did blow up the Holocene and it won’t be coming back and that could be all she wrote for homo sapiens. Then arrives, in the echo of that thunderclap, the realization that accumulating property, saving historical mementos, writing books, making films, or building companies or concepts to outlive yourself are all meaningless activities when placed into a context of Near Term Human Extinction. What matters is… What? What matters is what happens next to each and every one of us.

Remembering the sensation that Alan Watts called The Wisdom of Insecurity, or that Arnold Mindell describes in Sitting in the Fire, — living fully in the moment, not knowing, but being content with unknowing — is a better skill to develop than trying to know everything or to be constantly battling boredom while surfing channels on your phone. This complex, living, dynamic system of which we are part and which we co-created with our actions or inactions, is too complex to be predicted and controlled anyway. Indeed the very act of attempting control, such as with AI, changes it enough to make it unpredictable again.

By accepting our own mortality, and the termination of our line, rather than becoming catatonic or despairing, we can continue to function in a positive, healing way. We may even change how the story ends. If enough of us abandon aspirations for self-aggrandizement and join with neighbors to plant trees and grow food, we could, dear friends, reverse climate change. My point is that it may take each of us coming to terms with annihilation for that to happen, and the sooner those moments come, the better for us all.

That little boy on the stage with the deer-in-the-highlights look will get over it. The next time he will be singing as full-throated as anyone, and maybe the little girl next to him will be the one who is frozen. It goes around.

The frozen moment has an inevitability for each of us but is a transient phase. In what comes next resides all hope.

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Sunday, February 3, 2019

Sargon and the Sea Peoples

"For hundreds of years, stories of marauding Sea Peoples were told to frighten children."

  Back in 2250 BCE, Sargon of Akkad found the grain farming good in the broad, flat alluvial valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Being an accomplished bully and not fond of toiling in the heat of the sun himself, he assembled a gang of thugs and enslaved weaker people to work for him. They built vast irrigation systems, knocked down forests and opened up much of the fertile Mesopotamian Plain to oxen and wooden plows. With good soil, good seed and adequate rain, his tribe prospered and applied their surplus to erect a number of market cities that were considered quite grand for the period.

You can’t just knock down forests and dig long irrigation ditches and expect Nature to let you off scot-free, however. The plowing opened the soil to the sun and killed the rich microbial life built by those erstwhile forests. Irrigation made the fields salted and addicted. Major lakes silted. Without the trees and their fungal network, the weather changed. It stopped raining.

After a mere 130 years of prosperity, the Akkadian empire collapsed abruptly in the 22d Century BCE. There was general abandonment of agriculture, dramatic influxes of refugees, and widespread famine. The same calamity befell much of the rest of the region. Poorer tribes flocked to wealthy Akkad seeking help.

Faced with the rising tide of hungry people, Sargon’s successor thought a good solution would be a 112-mile-long wall, roughly the distance by patrol car between Brownsville TX and Rio Grande City, which Akkadians dubbed the “Repeller of the Amorites.” They may even have claimed they were going to get the Amorites to build it, but those clay tablets haven’t been located yet.

Fast forward a few decades and we find Akkadian cities in ruins, the plains desertifying, and smaller sedentary populations farther north around the shores of Lake Van trying to eke out a frugal living eating grasshoppers and frogs. It was a rough come-down from former glory.

Of course, the Akkadians were not entirely to blame. Their changing climate was also influenced by 1 to 2 degree cooler sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic that changed rainfall in the higher elevations. In their haste to develop, they had not left themselves any safety margin.

A few thousand years later another serious drought struck that part of the world — much of it within what is now Syria and Palestine — and by this time the population was much larger than back in Sargon’s day. The first wave of these “Sea Peoples” washed over Egypt in the second year of Ramesses II, 1276 BCE, but rather than build tent cities to house them, the Pharaoh simply trapped and slaughtered some 6000 people arriving in boats with all their goods, and then sent his chariots to drive stragglers back into the sea. A bit of a blowhard, Ramesses claimed a great victory and had the story inscribed in stone and read on ceremonial days.

Ramesses II
The Syrian drought continued, however, and Ramesses son, Merenptah, writes how, in the fifth year of his reign (1209 BCE), Libyans allied with the Sea Peoples to invade Egypt and were repulsed with 6000 casualties. Six thousand seems to be a popular number when you are killing Sea Peoples.

Then Merenptah’s son, Ramesses III, in c. 1200 BCE was informed they were coming again. The populations fleeing drought-stricken Syria had already destroyed the Hittite state and Ramesses III wrote, “they were coming forward toward Egypt.” Ramesses also makes the first recorded mention of the Israelites as one of those groups trying to illegally migrate into Egypt.

“If they would just report to processing centers they could apply for asylum,” Ramesses III might have said. But secretly he set ambushes all along the border and made especially effective use of his archers, positioning them along the shoreline to rain down arrows on approaching ships. Once the ships’ passengers were dead or drowning the vessels were set on fire with flaming arrows so that not even children could escape. Then Ramesses III turned his archers toward any survivors who made it to land. Egyptian records again detail a glorious victory in which many of the Sea Peoples were slain and others taken captive or pressed into the Egyptian army and navy or sold as slaves. For hundreds of years, stories of marauding Sea Peoples were told to frighten children.

Ramesses’s border defenses were so expensive they drained the Royal Treasury. This led to the first labor strike in recorded history. The unpaid workers and government contractors shut down the government, demanding to be paid.

Century-long droughts can be found at many points in the historical record. California experienced a 240-year-long drought that started in 850 CE and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years. Mexico experienced an abrupt climate shift between 800 to 1000 CE that brought dry conditions to the central Yucatan for 200 years, curtailing the era of monumental Mayan architecture. Lowland population densities plunged from 200 persons/km2 at the peak of the Late Classic period to less than half that by 900 CE. City complexes of more than 50,000 people, like Tikal, were abandoned to the rats and weeds.

Houston and Miami take heed.

Challenged by unprecedented environmental stresses, cultures can shift to lower subsistence levels by reducing social complexity, abandoning urban centers, and reorganizing systems of supply and production, as the Maya, Akkadians, Romans, Tiwanaku, Mochica, Athenians and many others have done, but more often — and even in those cases — they failed to recognize what was happening until it was too late to escape unscathed. They waved their arms, followed militant leaders, found convenient scapegoats, increased debt, took to the streets in protest, overtaxed their most vital resources, and kept trying to grow their way out as if growth was the only solution they could imagine.

It never works. Sometimes civilizations go the way of the Easter Islanders. Other times they are conquered and destroyed by an even more desperate and militant neighbor they foolishly made into an enemy.

George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but he was peddling his Harvard theory of cyclic history and really could have done a better job of thinking that through. His actual theory was that both those who do not learn history and those who do learn history are doomed to repeat it.

Samuel Clemens added greater depth to Santayana’s theory, fifty years earlier, when he said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Last year, speaking at Wells College, I concluded by saying, “As a global culture, we can create social norms that would permit us to sustain healthy economies and ecologies into the turbulent climate future we cannot now avoid. There are neither technological nor resource barriers to prevent that outcome.” There are, however, biological limits, including the psychology of sunk investments.

Sad to say, even if the 45th President of the United States had not cheated and bullied his way through his education and actually studied history, it would not have made any difference. We are just in that part of the cycle now where stupidity trumps the obvious. The queues of refugees may not be quite the same as the Sea Peoples, but they rhyme.

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