The Ossington Circle Episode 24: How the World Breaks with Stan Cox and Paul Cox

The Ossington Circle Episode 24: How the World Breaks with Stan Cox and Paul Cox

I talk to Stan Cox and Paul Cox, authors of How the World Breaks: Life in Castastrophe’s Path from the Caribbean to Siberia. We discuss how we think and talk about disasters, the aid industry, and the uses and excuses associated with the concept of ‘resilience’.

El Circulo Ossington Episode 23: El Caso de Parex y la Extraction en Colombia desde Canada

El Circulo Ossington Episode 23: El Caso de Parex y la Extraction en Colombia desde Canada

El primer episodio del Circulo Ossington en castellano. Hable con Manuel Rozental, Oscar Sampayo, y Anna Zalik sobre la compania Parex y sus actividades de fracking en Colombia.

The Ossington Circle Podcast Episode 2 – Syria, Environment, War, and Refugees

The Ossington Circle Podcast Episode 2 – Syria, Environment, War, and Refugees

This episode of the podcast is a lecture given on a panel at York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies on January 28, 2016. The panel was on Environment, War, and Refugees, and the lecture was on Western policy and the war in Syria.

Vaccinations and the war on science: Donald Trump’s championing of the “anti-vaxer” cause takes advantage of scientific illiteracy

Science is a massive, ongoing human undertaking. It is a creative endeavour: the greatest scientific discoveries have involved wild guesses and hypotheses. But it also depends on rigor, self-criticism, and self-correction. The wild guesses must be tested against evidence. Science is the most dynamic of endeavours: the accepted claims of today may be overturned tomorrow. Ambitious scientists dream of changing our understanding of the world.

So how can someone make decisions that rely on science? If science is always changing, if claims are being tested and overturned, if tomorrow’s discovery could change our whole way of looking at things, why should we believe anything scientists say today? How can a creative and dynamic endeavour become a source of legitimate authority to be followed? Most of us are not going to collect and analyze atmospheric data to test whether burning fossil fuels causes climate change, but we have to decide whether to press for reduced emissions based on what scientists are saying.

This decision of the ordinary person to trust scientific authority is made even more difficult because scientific authority can be abused, and has been abused in the past. Take scientific authority in the area of mental illness. The manual of mental illness produced by the American Psychiatric Association is the famous DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. We are currently (as of 2013) on the DSM-V. Prior to a change made in the DSM-II in 1973, ‘homosexuality’ was defined as a mental illness. Before the DSMs, in the 19th century, an American physician defined ‘drapetomania’: a mental illness that caused African-American slaves to try to escape. Diagnoses of ‘hysteria’, ‘frigidity’, and many others were used to control women since the 19th century. Psychologist Bruce Levine has argued that diagnoses of ADHD and ODD are similar tools that “psychopathologize” and “medicate” people who are “natural anti-authoritarians”, “before they achieve political consciousness of society’s most oppressive authorities.”

In this fraught space of mental illness, where scientific authority has been abused and politicized and where scientific understanding is desperately needed, a debate on the causes of autism is taking place in a way that is harmful to public health. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is in the DSM, and diagnoses of autism have been going up and up. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows a prevalence of 6.7 per thousand in 2000 and 14.7 per thousand in 2010. The simplest explanation for this huge increase turns out to be the most likely: that it is the result of changes in the way autism is diagnosed (Science for discussion of the US, Forbes for discussion of a study from Denmark).

Like so much in the field of mental illness, autism is very poorly understood. The diagnosis is based on a checklist of behaviors. Psychologist Enrico Gnaulati wrote sensitively in Salon about a case of “overdiagnosis”, in which a “brainy, introverted” boy was incorrectly diagnosed with autism – something Gnaulati believes is happening all the time.

The solution to the problems caused by trying to treat illnesses we don’t understand is to try to improve our understanding. The discovery of the “overdiagnosis” issue with regards to autism, for example, came from the scientific community. Bruce Levine’s critique of the overdiagnosis of ADHD and ODD is also one grounded in scientific principles. A major recent study has linked antidepressant drugs in pregnancy to increased risk of autism. The way to correct scientific errors, in other words, is to do better science.

But the self-correcting mechanisms of science are slow. While scientists struggle for answers, suffering people have difficulty waiting. They turn to online communities that do not use the methods of science, communities that attack the failures of scientific authority and the limitations of scientific knowledge. A large community has arisen that claims a connection between vaccinations for preventable diseases and autism. The community has grown so large and has convinced enough parents not to vaccinate their kids that public health impacts are beginning to be felt and preventable diseases may be making a comeback. It has seized on a study from the 1990s that found a correlation in a small sample group, a study whose conclusions were later overturned by massive studies of huge sample groups. Unfortunately, the anti-vaccination, or “anti-vaxer” movement, was not placated by scientific self-correction. With celebrity endorsements and a genuine online community, the anti-vaxers have become so numerous that they are being courted by politicians, most famously Donald Trump.

Trump’s rise has been characterized by the willingness to say ever more outrageous things. The Republican debates have seen candidates compete to see who is most willing to diverge from scientific and moral principles, and who is willing to diverge the furthest. With the anti-vaxer claims, Trump is taking advantage of scientific illiteracy.

Scientists are not without blame in all this. Whenever scientists fail to explain science in simple language, whenever scientists rely on authority rather than trusting people to understand scientific argument and evidence, they create space for people like Trump. People need to feel empowered, like science is something that belongs to them, not something that is done to them by alien creatures in mysterious laboratories. In the case of vaccines and many others, popular science, and going further, people’s science, are actually matters of life and death. The only long-term protection against Trump and pseudo-science on the one hand, and illegitimate scientific authority (whether it’s “drapetomania” or diagnosing anti-authoritarians with ODD) on the other, is if ordinary people are able to reach an understanding not just of specific scientific claims, but of how to think scientifically. It’s a huge responsibility for proponents of science. If we’re not up to the task, the Trumps of the world will be waiting.

First published TeleSUR English January 12, 2016

The Power of Crazy Ideas: A review of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’

A review of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein (Simon and Schuster, 2014), 576 pgs.

Review first published at TeleSUR

Sources of misery in the world are difficult to rank, but any short list would have to include inequality, war, and environmental degradation. People who are concerned about inequality and war have historically been called leftists. Those who are concerned about the planet have been called environmentalists. Over the decades, they have distrusted one another, and synthesis has been elusive.

Environmentalists have argued that waiting for “the revolution” in order to try to save species from extinction, or prevent the planet from boiling over because of climate change, is denying the urgency of environmental problems. They have argued that, given the urgency of environmental problems, we have to use whatever mechanisms are available to us, from high-tech solutions to market mechanisms, to rich philanthropists. They point to spectacular environmental failures by the communist governments of China and Russia, as well as to numerous failures by left-leaning social democratic governments. They note how worker’s unions, who try to preserve work and jobs, can campaign to do so at the expense of nature.

On the other side, leftists see environmentalists as willing to displace people from their lands in order to preserve species against human influence and create biological reserves that are, in theory, inaccessible to anyone, but in practice, are usually accessible to elite tourists and scientists. They see environmentalists as willing to accept compromises with elites in ways that ultimately compromise not only left, but also environmental values. They view the concerns of humans as primary, and other species as a much more distant concern, which many environmentalists do not understand.

Some of the views environmentalists and leftists hold about one another are true, others are caricatures, and still others might be true now but could potentially change through dialogue and common action. Such a dialogue is urgent, since the planet, and the people, have the same enemy.

Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything is a step towards such a synthesis. It is interesting that the synthesis came from a writer of the left who spent years studying and working with the environmental movement, and becoming a part of it. Though Klein’s personal journey to meeting and joining the environmental movement, is described in the book, it is fundamentally an analysis and synthesis of the problem of climate change as a problem for social movements (or, in other words, as a problem for leftists).

Klein’s method of writing, which was followed in her previous book, The Shock Doctrine, is to carefully study the words and ideas of those in power, and then to travel the world and see what people are doing, learning from the analyses of movements that are contesting state and private power and combining them, revealing connections that, for those heavily involved in local struggles, can be hard to see. The result, in this book as in The Shock Doctrine, is to reveal a common enemy, to reveal common methods that the enemy uses, and to share methods of resistance that might prove promising.

In The Shock Doctrine, Klein described how the most vicious neoliberal doctrines were thought of as crazy ideas in the decades following WWII. The neoliberals persisted with their crazy ideas, and today we are all living under their heel. In the same spirit, This Changes Everything starts with an analysis of some of the crazy ideas of this moment, presented at right-wing climate-denying conferences which she attended and reports on. The deniers, Klein notes, deny the science of climate change because they don’t like its implications: that in order to prevent environmental catastrophe, societies will have to make massive changes to the economic system, a system that is serving the deniers and their funders very well. Klein argues that in their recognition that deep changes in the direction of equality would be needed to stabilize the climate, the right-wing deniers are not wrong. Indeed, they grasp something that many in the environmental movement fail to grasp: that economic changes deep enough to stabilize the climate are too deep to leave existing inequalities completely intact. In order to tackle climate change, Klein argues, we have to return to many of the social-democratic, Keynesian policies that are so despised by neoliberals: economic planning, regulation, progressive taxation, and redistribution, led by democratic governments playing a major role in the economy, with active movements pressuring them.

To recap: the book observes that the reason for climate denial is not that the political right lacks an understanding of the facts and the science, but instead that they deny the facts because they recognize better than most what the facts actually mean. Building on this observation, This Changes Everything proceeds to try to help readers in the environmental movement discard some bad ideas that have plagued the discussion of solutions to climate change.

The first illusion to discard is that the environment is an issue that unites the wealthy and the poor, an issue that transcends inequality.

“Environmentalists spoke of climate change as a great equalizer, the one issue that affected everyone, rich or poor,” writes Klein on page 52. “Yet all signs are that it is doing precisely the opposite, stratifying us further … divided between those whose wealth offers them a not insignificant measure of protection from ferocious weather … and those left to the mercy of increasingly dysfunctional states.”

But there are many others. Reviewing the record of environmental organizations making alliances with corporations, This Changes Everything finds that compromises beget compromises. The most dramatic example is the story of the extinction of the prairie chicken, whose breeding grounds, after being gifted to the Nature Conservancy, were destroyed by drilling by the Nature Conservancy. This Changes Everything also discards the current fashionable idea that philanthropists can stabilize the climate at the last minute.

The cautionary tale in this section is the story of Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines, who saw the light after watching Al Gore’s powerpoint presentation and proceeded to make grand promises and then to do absolutely nothing of any use for the climate, expanding his highly pollutant industries in the meantime. The brief and completely ineffectual history of cap-and-trade, carbon markets, and other climate market mechanisms that created speculative markets while emissions continued to increase, is also reviewed in the book.

The most terrifying section, however, is a crazy idea that is still sitting on the shelf. However, it’s inclusion in the book is more than merited in order to help inoculate readers before it becomes more prominent, as it likely will: the idea of manipulating the atmosphere directly, spraying toxins into the atmosphere on an ongoing basis to reduce sunlight reaching the earth, instead of trying to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The risks of this lunacy (it would be insulting to call it a strategy) are catastrophic, and the potential benefits would be extremely unequal. The book notes that, when presented with geoengineering-type solutions to climate change, right-wingers who would ordinarily deny climate change are more inclined to believe in it — another piece of evidence that it is the implications that are really being denied, rather than the facts.

Geoengineering is only one of the high-tech bad ideas that are currently on offer to environmentalists. Bioengineering, carbon-capture and storage, ocean “fertilization,” and, of course, nuclear power as an alternative, are all put forward by one or another environmentalist as possible solutions. Because nuclear is an existing technology and perhaps the least crazy of the options, Klein handles it quite gently, advocating a gradual phase out of nuclear power; “prioritizing fossil fuels for cuts because the next decade is so critical,” she writes on page 138, proposing “a moratorium on new nuclear facilities a decommisioning of the oldest plans and then a full nuclear phase-out once renewables had decisively displaced fossil fuels.”

I agree with her conclusions here, but I believe that nuclear advocacy by environmentalists has been another diversion that has lost us precious time, like the others discussed in the middle section of This Changes Everything.

The problem with all of the bad ideas presented in the middle of the book is that they take for granted the world-view criticized in the book’s first section, a world-view that, following anti-mining activists, Klein summarizes as extractivism. In the third and final section of the book, Klein showcases many examples of resistance to extractivism from all over the world, including Canada, Greece, India, Nigeria, and many other places. Those who are fighting against the destruction of ecosystems, the basis of life where they live, are having to do so without institutional support and find themselves having to build their own systems of community and of survival, drawing on old traditions and on new experiments. In Greece, some of these activists used the term Blockadia, which Klein suggests could be seen as the changing, dynamic network of people resisting extractivism anywhere in the world. This section is a breath of fresh air (atmosphere pun intended). Where most environmental books present packages of policies, technologies, or laws, Klein presents the voices of people who are fighting for the lands and communities they live in and love.

The conclusion of the book is in her own voice, and returns to the Shock Doctrine parable of crazy ideas sitting on the shelf.

“Any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect,” she writes on page 460.

After so many decades of neoliberalism, the ideas presented in This Changes Everything are the crazy ones. Read them, and when the opportunity arises, as it will, reach for them, and not for geoengineering, nukes, philanthrocapitalists, and climate markets.

Should we let Delhi go to the dogs?

An architect from Jamia Millia Islamia has figured out how to minimize conflict between species

Justin Podur
March 3, 2013
First Published on Viewpoint Online (Pakistan)

India’s urban dogs are an unfamiliar sight to a visitor. Their behavior is mysterious. Why do we hear them barking at night, and not during the day? What kinds of territorial disputes are going on between them? Why are some so friendly to humans, while others shy away? Which dogs are responsible for aggression against humans, and why? Do India’s cities have a ‘dog problem’?

Every North American city has an infrastructure dedicated to taking dogs off of the street. There is 1 dog for every two humans in North America, compared to 1 dog for every 50 humans in India. Virtually all of the North American dogs are pets. To a North American, this – bringing the dogs into homes as pets – could be the solution to any conflict that might arise between dogs and humans in the city.

But to Rishi Dev, architect and instructor at Jamia Millia Islamia, this is the nightmare scenario to be avoided at all costs. This is not because Rishi Dev dislikes dogs – on the contrary, he is a true dog lover who has spent the last 13 years studying the animals. But the basis of his philosophy is a scientific understanding of dogs as a species adapted to the outdoors, a species that has a special relationship with humans, and a species that “values freedom more than food.”

“Dogs are a keystone species,” Rishi Dev says. “They keep rats away, they exclude other animals. By bringing them into homes as pets and off of the street, you are creating a vacuum.”

That vacuum is filled first by other dogs – feral dogs from outside the city. This was exactly what occurred after the famous Bangalore cull of 2007, in which 3000 dogs were killed in 3 months. Feral dogs came into the city, bringing rabies, which had not been a problem in the urban dog population. Dog haters didn’t benefit, as feral dogs filled the void. “The ones who did benefit were the pharmaceutical companies, who sold more rabies vaccines than ever, after the cull.” If dogs continue to be excluded, other animals take over – cats, and rats, neither of whom have the kind of special affinity for humans that dogs have.

Rishi Dev, a champion of the Indian-evolved street dog, is quick to remind people not only that these dogs are perfectly adapted to the Indian environment, but also that 79% of bites in Delhi are caused primarily by pet dogs, not street dogs. The street dog is misunderstood in other ways as well. The population of street dogs is not limited by food, but by high mortality, so feeding dogs will not cause an increase in their population. Dogs are hardier than humans, can travel much farther on foot, and can survive much longer with very little food and water. And their hardiness makes them more friendly to humans, not less. “Compare dogs and monkeys,” he says. “Urban monkeys are more aggressive than dogs – partly because they are less hardy species.” On the other hand, he writes in his thesis, their hardiness means that “if pushed to extinction, they are capable of taking measures that would prove absolutely fatal to humans.”

His analysis is based on a multi-year study conducted as part of his master’s degree in ekistics from Jamia Millia Islamia. Based on years of field observation and questionnaires, Rishi Dev classified Delhi into zones where the relationship between humans and dogs was desirable, sensitive, or undesirable. In the undesirable zones, humans and dogs met one another with hostility and aggression. In sensitive zones, dogs lacked the ability to freely enter or exit.

Most interesting was the desirable zone, which included areas like around Metro stations or certain residential areas with specific spatial patterns. Here, there were fewer dogs for each human than in other zones, and the relationship works because humans take advantage of the special behaviors of dogs. As social animals, dogs form packs with defined hierarchies. But – and this is unique to dogs – the minute the dogs are fed by humans, the pack is dissolved and the dogs become loyal to the humans that feed them. Feeding is not to be confused with throwing scraps, however. “Feeding creates a relationship with the human feeding the dog, whereas if you throw waste at the dog, they become protective of the food, including from you.”

By feeding them, dogs in the desirable zones were adopted, classified in Rishi’s study as ‘community dogs’, and regularly fed by the humans. These community dogs, with their territorial instincts, drive off dogs from outside the community. “Dogs respect territory, so that two dogs can drive off twenty.” Weaker dogs, dogs without relationships to humans, also defer to the healthier, better fed dogs that are associated with the community, which also enables a small number of community dogs to exclude larger numbers of feral dogs from the outside.

The adoption of community dogs is the first step to a stable, desirable relationship between people and dogs. After the dogs are domesticated, they can be spayed or neutered to control the population. Without domestication, Rishi Dev argues, animal birth control efforts are futile – some dogs will always escape, and dogs are fecund enough to repopulate the streets unless tremendous effort and expense is put into constantly killing them – which, if done, would bring its own problems, including, as mentioned above, species that have no such special liking for humans. Following a similar logic, the Delhi High Court gave an order that dogs could be fed at defined feeding stations in the city, in order to create these desirable zones.

“This approach,” Rishi says, “is in accord with our customs. In Hinduism, in Islam, we keep dogs, but not in the home. But really it’s a completely scientific approach. I am not looking at this as a dog lover, I am just looking at how we can minimize the conflict.”

Rishi’s vision is of a city of community dogs, with a stable, low population, relating to humans as friends, without fear. The biggest threat to this vision is, surprisingly, the pet industry itself. 67% of the population increase of dogs is from abandoned pets, breeds poorly adapted to urban India that have introduced new health problems and more aggression into the street dog population. The pet industry sees a growing market in urban India: “Communities are breaking down, families are breaking down, people in the cities are alienated, and they turn to pets for companionship. But this eventually leads to greater conflict between the species.”

Rishi started on this path through an intraspecies encounter of his own. “In 1994 I got bitten by a dog. This dog used to sit outside my house every day, and one day I accidentally stepped on him. He bit me on the leg, and I was enraged. I called the municipal corporation. They came and caught him, and I remember the way he looked at me, as if he was asking what did I do? So I asked them to let him go. I thought, maybe it wasn’t his fault. The most amazing thing was, after about five days, he came back. He had some apprehension towards me, but he came back, and I realized, despite the danger to him, he would keep coming. He was kind of confident that he could coexist with me. He was cautious, but confident. And I started to think about how this was all about space, and not about the animal, and that we could design spaces to have a better relationship.”

Justin Podur is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada. This winter, he is a Visiting Professor at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi.

It’s the new world water, and every drop counts

A reader sent me this article in the New Scientist. It is about a neglected aspect of the US/Israel war on the Palestinian population: the fact that it is a water war. I don’t have the statistics with me (Vandana Shiva cites a few of them in her book, Water Wars), but Israeli per capita water use is vast compared to Palestinians. Israeli agriculturalists are allowed to dig wells several times deeper than Palestinians. Gaza is always short of drinking water and every time it is besieged the Israelis essentially use the denial of water as a weapon. And, most tellingly, the Apartheid Wall‘s path follows the West Bank aquifer very closely.

The New Scientist article reports on a ‘plan’ for desalination plants to supply the Palestinian territories with water, while the Israelis freely use the Palestinian aquifer for their own water needs, as they are doing now.

This may come as a surprise to readers, but the US and Israeli officials agree that the plan is a good one, while experts, scientists, and Palestinians all agree that it is a bad one — all strictly from a technical point of view, of course. The immorality of a campaign of ethnic cleansing as part of a wholesale water theft (or is the water theft part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing?) doesn’t really come up in the article.

(thanks to the reader who sent me the article. points to any reader who can identify the song and the artist from which the title of this blog entry was taken and email it to me).