For industries teetering on the edge of irrelevance,the strategy to remain relevant has always been the same – deny their activities have caused a problem, debunk evidence of harm, and claim they are only giving the people what they want, thus shifting blame onto consumers. From the tobacco industry to the fossil fuel extractors and the pesticide and herbicide manufacturers, they all follow the same script as evidence mounts that the products they once touted as a boon to humanity turn out to be poisonous. Poisonous to mind and body. Poisonous to people, to animals, and to the planet.
The Melbourne Global climate strike on Sep. 20, 2019, was attended by over 100,000 people, making it the largest climate protest in Australia to date, and rivaling the anti-war protests in 2003 and the Vietnam Moratorium in 1970. Photo by Flickr user Takver.
Add to the list of peddlers of poison for profit agribusiness and its processed foods, along with animal confinement operations and massive applications of fertilizers that deplete the soil instead of enriching it, ultimately leaching into the water every creature needs for survival. Give the people what they want. In entertainment, give the people gossipy reality television shows in the evening and mean-spirited confrontation programming in the daytime.
Social media companies give people information dressed up as news when it is nothing more than pandering to what they want to hear. If giving the people what they want absolves purveyors of poison from responsibility for their actions as they go about making money, then hardly anyone is responsible for anything. A sociopath is concerned only with what he or she wants, and whether the pursuit of those wants interferes with the rights and needs of others is material only to the extent that those others can obstruct the sociopath in achieving their desired end. That’s the society of imagined meritocracy and capitalism of “looking out for number one” that giving the people what they want instead of what they need has created.
The new Ford F150 Lightning battery-powered pickup truck is a step in the right direction of redressing these hypocritical imbalances in an energy hungry society. The original F150, the gasoline-powered one, has been the best selling vehicle in the United States for over three decades. The gas-powered pickup truck will still be available alongside the battery-powered version, but the investment Ford made in developing the Lightning was not insignificant. They could have developed a different vehicle altogether as their flagship entry into the battery-powered market. Putting that investment into a version of their biggest breadwinner, the F150 truck for the masses, is a big step toward making use of electric vehicles common.
A scene from the 1970 film Little Big Man, directed by Arthur Penn. Chief Dan George played Old Lodge Skins, and Dustin Hoffman portrayed the picaresque title character.
The development of the Lightning could do for electric vehicles what Ford’s innovation with the Model T did for internal combustion engine passenger vehicles over 100 years ago, namely make a new technology accessible to everyday people. Electric vehicle models have until now been popular only in niche markets, whether that’s more well off people with a need for sportiness driving a Tesla, or people whose need for merely getting around town could be met by a Chevy Volt. If the Lightning becomes as popular today as the Model T did in its day, then it could go a long way toward redressing the climate imbalances kicked off in large part by its predecessor.
The latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report lays out a stark timeline for how long we have to reduce our carbon emissions to avoid crossing the threshold of a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperature leading to catastrophic effects for life on Earth. Paraphrasing the report, at present levels of emissions we have until 2030, or 2050 at the very latest. To avoid the worst case scenario, we will need to cut emissions in half by 2030, and cut them entirely by 2050. Given the conservative political and capitalist landscape prevalent today, meeting those targets does not seem likely.
A wedding party crosses a street in 2006 in Oulan-Oudé, Republic of Bouriatia, Siberia, Russia. Photo by Cyrille (Suleiman) Romier.
Since national governmental and business leaders will not take the initiative on this issue because it conflicts with the greed of the status quo, it will be up to local leaders and citizens to address the problem. There will be calls to use technology, such as geoengineering, and wholesale adoption of driverless cars and electric vehicles. Those are attempts at a fix that are best implemented by national organizations on a large scale, and cannot be relied on considering the need for national consensus and funding. Geoengineering may work to a limited degree, though it would certainly be subject to the law of unintended consequences. Tweaking the worldwide car culture would have more limited effects since improving the efficiency of how cars are driven and shifting their emissions from the tailpipe to the smokestack would ultimately amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
A scene in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, directed by John Schlesinger and starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, depicts New York City’s thriving pedestrian culture. Warning: foul language.
What’s needed is a wholesale change in the approach to daily living, particularly among the citizens of the world’s wealthier countries. Start with walking. Every day, everywhere. Build sidewalks. Get cars, driverless, electric, or otherwise, off the roads entirely. Bring back public transportation for trips that are impractical for walking. People will have to demand improvements in public transportation and pedestrian infrastructure through their votes and their dollars, rather than waiting on public officials and corporate executives to make the necessary changes. As a quote popularly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi has it, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” And as he did, walk if you can, for yourself and for change in the world.
This summer, archaeologists from The Public Archaeology Facility of Binghamton University in New York State are digging up the site of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair near Bethel, New York. They hope to uncover an accurate and comprehensive scheme of the place as it was originally laid out for that enormous event nearly 50 years ago, and then turn over their findings to the museum on the site in time for the 50th anniversary in August 2019. Besides broken glass and other relics from the event, the archaeologists dug up numerous pop tops from aluminum beverage cans.
Unlike the stay-tab which replaced it in the late 1970s, the pop top tabs from the late 1960s and early 1970s were meant to be pulled entirely off the top of the can by the consumer. The consumer then had a piece of waste in addition to the waste the can itself would become after emptying, and many consumers simply dropped the pop tops on the ground, where they not only littered the environment but on account of their sharp edges became a safety hazard for anyone in bare or lightly shod feet, as Jimmy Buffett noted in his song “Margaritaville”. Some people dropped the pop tops into the can either while they were drinking from it or afterward, and then some of those people were unfortunate enough to swallow the pop top or otherwise injure themselves when it resurfaced during their drinking.
A litter trap on the Yarra River in the vicinity of Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Biatch3.
When a Reynolds Metals engineer named Daniel F. Cudzik invented the stay-on-tab, or Sta-Tab, in 1975, he solved the littering and safety problems of pop tops. Some inconsiderate people still tossed the cans wherever they liked when they were done with them, and unfortunately it appears a certain percentage of people like that will always be among us, but the problems originating from improperly disposed cans have lessened since the 1960s with the adoption of better designs and recycling programs. Since then, and particularly after bottled water took off in popularity in the 1990s, plastic beverage containers have taken over from aluminum cans as a major littering and safety problem.
Engineers and designers have created biodegradable water bottles in the past several years, but so far the bottled water industry has not embraced their inventions, and may never do so without consumers pushing themselves and the industry in that direction. Part of the reason for delay is the relatively abstract nature of the problem for many consumers. Yes, empty plastic water bottles may litter roadsides, where they are unsightly, but they don’t really pose a physical danger to people, unlike aluminum pop tops and cans with their sometimes sharp edges. The physical danger from plastics all seems to happen to animals, many of them far away and out of sight, such as the ones who live in the oceans, where all that plastic garbage ends up and lingers for decades. It was only recently that scientists discovered we, like our animal cousins, are also ingesting plastics, though in our cases we are more dainty in our discernment in that we choose only to take in micro-plastics, meaning those we cannot see. What goes around, comes around, and there’s no escaping it.
In Mike Nichols’s 1967 film The Graduate, Mr. McGuire, played by Walter Brooke, has some advice for Ben Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman. In a later scene, Hoffman’s character floats on a raft in the pool at his house and sips a beverage from a can which has two v shaped openings in its top, the marks of having been opened with a can opener, or church key, the most common way to open such a can before pop tops became widely available on beverage cans in the mid 1960s.
Most people can be coached to some degree to change their behavior, and once they are understand viscerally that a problem exists because of their past behavior, many of them can become open to change. They have to feel the problem personally, though, because an abstraction doesn’t always get through to them. A minority of others are hardheads, and little can be done to persuade them to change their ways beyond legal sanctions and public shaming. The mounting problem of plastic litter shares this model of personal and public behavior with the looming dangers of a warming climate. For too many people the problems remain abstractions because the effects can be distant, indirect, or slow moving. The rest of us can’t wait for those people to come around, because they may only do so when they are up to their necks in seawater while standing in their front yards, fighting off all the plastic junk bobbing in the water, and obstinately refusing to reconcile their beliefs with what they see and feel around them.
“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” ― Psalm 90:10, from the King James Version of the Bible.
In any discussion of medical science’s ability to increase the human life span, people seldom question the desirability of a longer life. Certainly the doctors and scientists don’t seem to question it. The assumption always is that if people were offered the possibility of living past one hundred in reasonably good health, they would grab at it eagerly. Why?
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings perform “I’ll Fly Away” on Austin City Limits on PBS in 2011.
Increasing life span is a different ethical matter for medical science than improving health for the time we generally have been allotted. Experimenting on poor creatures who likely have no interest in prolonging the lives of their tormentors, scientists are on the brink of breakthroughs that will allow people to live the length of two ordinary life spans. What for?
Speaking of animals, will the new life lengthening wonder drugs be available for pets? More than likely they will be, at the right price, and there will be wealthy people who would like to see their pets live twenty, thirty, or forty years. But who will consult the pets to determine their wishes? Can human beings be absolutely certain they are the only creatures who understand life, and what it means to continue living, and making one’s peace with death, particularly when death might mean a rest from living and possibly a progression on to something else?
A Great Basin bristlecone pine,Pinus longaeva, in snow in the Great Basin National Park, Nevada. These pine trees can live thousands of years. Photo by the National Park Service.
The quest for extending life at whatever cost seems similar to the obsession with staying young at whatever cost. Growing old means more aches and pains, certainly, but at the same time there is relief from some of the urges of youth that overpower reason. Sticking around an extra long time makes sense only if the quality of that longer life is not only bearable, but enjoyable, and if population growth is near zero. There might be fewer grandchildren, but more great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren, and so on. Still, eventually it could get difficult to shake the feeling of staying too long at the party, a guest who doesn’t comprehend the kindness of bowing out gracefully.
Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins, accompanied by Dustin Hoffman as Jack Crabb, attempts to bow out gracefully in this scene from Little Big Man.
Anti-Monsanto stencil “Monsanto – Siembra Muerte” in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2013 reads in English “Monsanto – Seeds of Death”; photo by JanManu. Monsanto’s policies and practices have engendered large scale protests in Argentina, as well as elsewhere around the world. Strangely, in the United States, the land where Freedom of the Press is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, the mainstream media is largely silent about agribusiness misconduct. Test that yourself with an internet search.
Monsanto is not alone among companies in tasking their public relations people with promoting a positive image online in comments sections, forums, and social media. That’s a very good reason for taking such comments with a large grain of salt. It’s akin to what you may hear around the water cooler at work, only in this case one or more of your fellow gossips makes oddly stilted remarks in favor of the company way, as if speaking from a script. When one of those gossips dons a white laboratory coat and purports to speak with scientific authority on the subject at hand, the discussion moves magically from around the water cooler to around the executive conference table. There the discussion is not so much about influencing public opinion as it is about setting the parameters for debate and ultimately public policy.
Robert Morse learns under the tutelage of mail room boss Sammy Smith as they sing “The Company Way” in the 1967 movie of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
However, just because a shill wears a lab coat and has a list of academic degrees behind his or her name does not make that person any less of a shill than the one who makes a few dollars trolling comments sections on behalf of a corporation. The scientific high priest type of shill is morally worse because he or she exploits the respect and gullibility of the general public when hearing pronouncements from them. Not all of the science shills know what they do, of course, because they may be true believers. The others, who know what they do, but go on anyway because of greed and ambition, deserve no leeway from the public or their peers, and more likely deserve condemnation. Jesus knew as much when He denounced the Pharisees.
A scene from the 1970 movie Little Big Man, with Dustin Hoffman and Martin Balsam. Snake Oil Salesmen and their Shills by no means disappeared with the 19th Century.
For whatever topic you care to name that puts at risk the finances of large corporations – tobacco, climate change, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and the herbicides that accompany them – you can find a corporate funded think tank with outreach to a handful of friendly scientists and institutions who scramble to debunk legitimate research and hold back a growing avalanche of negative public opinion. The agribusiness funded Genetic Literacy Project has nothing good to say about U.S. Right to Know, an organization largely funded by the organic food industry. Similarly, U.S. Right to Know dismisses the science of the Genetic Literacy Project. The organic food industry in the United States has about 5% of the market and is steadily growing year after year. Organic foods are by definition non-GMO. You are free to make up your own mind about who to believe, of course, and it’s a good thing then that to help you decide, many sellers of non-GMO foods have begun labeling their products as such. This was after giant agribusinesses successfully lobbied the government to scuttle labeling of products that do contain GMO foods. The big corporations apparently don’t trust you with the facts and with making decisions for yourself based on those facts.
The ongoing dispute that Energy Transfer Partners, in cooperation with the federal government, is having with several Native American tribes over the Dakota Access Pipeline section that crosses the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota brings up questions about water and its importance to everyday existence. Obviously clean water is essential to life, which is apparently why the Army Corps of Engineers moved the original path of the pipeline from north of Bismarck, North Dakota, where it would threaten the integrity of water supplies there should the pipeline fail and leak oil. How is clean water then less essential to life on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation south of Bismarck, because that is where they relocated the pipeline? Besides the issue of trespassing on sacred grounds on the Reservation, there is the elemental matter of maintaining the integrity of clean water for the Reservation’s animal and human inhabitants.
The Sons of the Pioneerswere the first to perform this song written by one of their own, Bob Nolan, in the 1930s, and since then other artists have covered it dozens of times.
The Dakota Access Pipeline stretches from the oil shale fields of northwest North Dakota to an oil tank farm in southern Illinois, crossing much privately owned farmland along the way. The controversial use of eminent domain to gain access for a privately owned corporate partnership is another subject. The issue at hand here is how the elders of Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which technically speaking in the language of treaties with the federal government represent the interests of a sovereign nation within the borders of the United States, can fend off this challenge to their land and their water. Does the federal use of eminent domain apply in their case? The common sense answer would be “no.” History has shown, however, that the “sovereign nation” bit in treaties between the United States and Native American tribes was a mere sop not worth the paper it was written on, and intended only to placate the tribes until such time as we needed their land for one reason or another. All bets were off then, and might made right. That’s what the current controversy comes down to, and after a brief stay from the Obama adminstration in continuing construction of the pipeline across Indian land, the new administration under Supreme Leader has weighed in with a sadly predictable decision.
Since the 1980s, when bottled water first started showing up in quantity in supermarkets in the United States, Americans seem to have taken for granted the rare and precious resource that is clean water. Particularly in the eastern half of the country, where (Flint, Michigan aside) municipal water supplies have been plentiful and largely free of problems, Americans have become deluded by the strange idea that the water coming out of their taps was somehow deficient and that the bottled water they bought from the supermarket was better. At first, due to the aura of prestige surrounding European bottled water brands like Perrier and Evian, people bought and sipped bottled water as a matter of status. Eventually it became just a thing to do. This proved to be a type of madness, particularly after the water in bottles proved to be no better, and in some cases worse, than the water coming out of most people’s taps, at least in the eastern half of the United States. People in the western half of the country often have had to cope with tap water that was unacceptably hard, and have had more reason therefore to turn to bottled water.
The Washita River Massacre portrayed in the 1970 film Little Big Man. Anti-war and anti-government sentiment of the time influenced this film, but its portrayal of Native Americans and their distressing relationship to their conquerors was a welcome corrective after decades of stilted, one-sided inaccuracies in Hollywood movies. The tune is “Garry Owen”, an Irish quickstep adapted as the marching song for Custer’s 7th Cavalry.
In some cases, buying and consuming commercially produced distilled water, even in the United States, the land of mostly wholesome public drinking water compared to much of the rest of the world, is not a bad idea. Other than that, the idea of giving international conglomerates like Nestlé and Coca-Cola more money and control over water supplies, a resource far more precious than oil, is foolish and insane. The Native American protesters and their supporters at Standing Rock have the sane and sagacious idea of protecting the water that courses through the Reservation, and considering the vital importance of that resource the rest of us had best pay attention now because it will flow our way in time.