Thursday, November 19, 2015

Living Anywhere, Really: Thoughts on Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber

“Benefit of the doubt goes to the children, not to chemicals.” (P 118--in reference to parts of Canada banning pesticide use for cosmetic reasons)

Sandra Steingraber’s book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, weaves a personal journey—that of a cancer survivor—with the rise and distribution of environmental contaminants and how science, policy, and society respond to the risks inherent in (especially) purposeful release of contaminants into the environment.  As a form of science communication—and by a scientist—Steingraber’s book does a beautiful job of creating an engaging story grounded in science and why different societies come to different solutions in regulating their contaminants.  I find this story interesting on a personal front because Tazwell County, Illinois is where my mother’s family is from and where most of them still live—not only for this reason, but this is also a book that I think some of them might be interested in reading (perhaps the very first of them in the seminar this semester) because of its readable prose and because contaminant exposure is something they must think about living amid the corn.  So, of course, now I’m extra worried about myself and my family, pondering the contaminant load that we may all carry.  But, of course, Tazwell County is not an exceptional county—it is nearly Any County.  And Steingraber is not an outlier (although we could argue that she is exceptional in her talents)—she is Every Woman.  We all bare the risks of a nation and world that is profligate in its contaminant use.

Living Downstream makes a number of very good points:  that it is difficult to link clusters of cancer to local environments for a number of reasons including having a good control group, the problem of being spatially confounded, the lack of a federal cancer registry that tracks people and place throughout a lifetime, and the latency between exposure and effect which may span decades.  When contamination was listed a potential cause for amphibian population declines, a research area that I was focusing on, it was clear that even if contamination did contribute to declines, the link between declines and contaminants was going to be challenging to make because (1) thousands of contaminants are purposefully released into the environment and any one of them could be the cause or any combination of them may be necessary to elicit the effect; (2) effects of environmental contaminants typically do not cause direct mortality, but they can have more subtle effects that could be missed, such as death during overwintering or increasing susceptibility to disease or reproductive impacts that decrease fertility; (3) measuring contaminant loads in the field and in organisms is typically cost prohibitive on a large scale especially if you do not know which contaminant you are targeting; (4) timing of exposure can be important in determining the effect it has, for instance exposure early in life may have profound effects, while exposure at later life stages does not; and (5) exposure may have occurred, but it may not be detectable since many pesticides are relatively short-lived.  All of this plays to the advantage of industry and chemical manufacturers when the regulatory system assumes a chemical is “innocent” unless other, often unfunded independent researchers, can demonstrate that there is ample evidence of harm. 

So, it is particularly interesting to read that parts of Canada have banned pesticide use for cosmetic reasons—no chemical lawn care (which should be a low hanging fruit solution)!  The European Union member states revised their policy because it failed to protect people and the environment and their new policy is one of precaution that gives the government “a freer hand to restrict chemicals and compels substitutions of toxic chemicals with safer ones.”  (They have for instance, banned the herbicide atrazine based on the available evidence, something that the US regulatory agency seems unlikely to do in any reasonable time frame.)  In contrast, industry plays a large role in the regulatory process in the US, which may explain why few chemicals in recent times have been banned, despite indications that they can cause harm not only to natural systems, but humans as well. 

A childhood friend just shared this morning that she has metastasized breast cancer.  We have all, undoubtedly, lost people we love and care about to cancer—or if we are lucky, we have watched friends and family survive cancer but have seen the toll that is paid to be a survivor.  Some of us will get cancer—any living life form is at risk.  When we do the cost-benefit analysis, how do you put a price on human suffering not to mention the ecological changes that result?  There are certainly times when pesticides are needed (or contaminant release may be necessary), but because of the inherent risks, the bar should be reasonably high.  Instead, the bar is set woefully low. It’s why Silent Spring remains relevant over 50 years after its publication, although *most* of the biocides she refers to have been banned or are more limited in use.  Sandra Steingraber makes a compelling argument in the 21st century, and demonstrates that scientists can relay the data in meaningful and beautiful ways.  I am cheering for her (despite my disposition against cheering in general)…on multiple fronts.  

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Bill McKibben’s Oil and Honey: Bee Identity Crisis

“We weren’t, obviously, going to outspend them [Exxon-Mobil, the Koch brothers, and Peabody Energy]. We would need to find other currencies to work in—passion, spirit, creativity. We’d probably have to put our bodies on the line.  But what we lacked in cash, we could make up in numbers—that’s what organizing was about. If enough bees could fill a fifty-gallon drum with honey, it was worth a try.” P. 204

Oil and Honey offers an interesting perspective on how a movement is built to address a societal need when current policies and government fail on their own. The Climate Movement has used civil disobedience to garner wider awareness for the problems at hand and our failure to sort it out. has been creative and relentless in their activities and protests, and through this effort of many, they have had significant impacts.  If they were bees, they would have been filling the supers (if that’s the right name for bit of the hive needed to collect more honey).  I have great admiration for the way they have created this movement—and I applaud their efforts.

But…and this is part of the little tete-a-tete I’ve been having with myself while reading and admiring the Climate Change effort, as I feel McKibben beckoning us all to join the march…what if you are more of a carpenter bee than a honey bee (honey bees are after all non-native in the Americas...oh wait, I'm not native either!).  Carpenter bees are solitary, creating their homes in wood, pollinating and nectar collecting—ecologically, valuable.  McKibben himself would perhaps argue he too is more of a carpenter bee, but there he is riding around in buses for days on end with other worker bees—and he suggests that if he can, we all can, because this is a mission we all must be on board with to ultimately win the war against fossil fuels.  Maybe McKibben has overcome his species’ limitations…or maybe he really is a honey bee after all (even queen bee!), but no matter what you do, most carpenter bees will not make honey. 

One thing we know from ecology is that ecosystem function is dependent upon many parts of the system. We can each play a role in the system’s function and our roles may be quite different.  Or, as Paul wrote to the people of Corinth, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (The biblical folks figured out this dilemma long ago.) Maybe we are doing science, maybe we are writing letters, maybe we are living off the land like Kirk the bee guy, or contemplating other ways that we can be a part of the solution.  Some of us are not going to be good cheering (the best I can do is roll my eyes) or marching in a protest—even while seeing that those efforts are important and can have the needed impact.

What I feel as I read Oil and Honey is very thankful that the movement has Bill McKibben sometimes acting as a queen bee and sometimes as a worker bee.  Because he is following his heart on this mission and because we can all support him in various ways, it means that perhaps we can follow our own hearts more fully, which may mean we can hole up in our solitary nest for some of the time while greeting each other warmly as we go about our daily pollination.  Or, maybe, this just means I’m ecologically lazy and not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to pick up the hive and start marching.  I do not know the answer, but I think this book asks us to figure out a role we can play and the cost we can pay in the fight against fossil fuels to preserve biodiversity.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

What’s a Scientists to Do When Activism is Called For: Thoughts on McKibben’s Oil and Honey

“You might think it’s a waste to preach to the choir, but the truth is, you need to get the choir fired up, singing loudly, all out of the same hymnal.  The choir is always there, but most of the time it’s just humming in the background, or singing so many different tunes that no distinct harmony emerges.”

          When you work as a natural scientist in the field of conservation biology, there is a bit of schizophrenia between the need for scientific objectivism and the desire to take or inspire action to stem the biodiversity crisis.  Although I would maintain that there is a need to stay in good-scientist mode in the area of our own expertise to maintain your credibility, it does seem like there is room to be advocates for biodiversity and for policy to minimize the impact of climate change.  None of us in the graduate seminar are climate scientists, but we do understand the process of science and can understand and interpret the scientific literature outside our immediate disciplines.  Most of us, however, are by our nature a little more reserved and conservative in the lines we are willing to cross when the data are not fully in—we are a little less prone to revolution.  The data on climate change though is compelling and certainly makes a strong case for reducing carbon emissions ASAP. The book by Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything) and now Bill McKibben’s Oil and Honey, sing to the choir.  They have me humming “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?” and thinking about what our role as scientists and citizens should be in helping turn the tide on political inaction of climate change. 
           McKibben’s Oil and Honey leads us on his journey to activism and it is, as it is meant to be, rather inspiring.  He is the queen bee, as he says, of, while acknowledging that even queens are replaceable (though he would not be easily replaceable with his mix of powerful speech and thoughtful approach to the issues). He has been busy pollinating as he travels across the country and world to sing to the choir, to rally the troops in both civil obedience through writing letters to politicians and civil disobedience in asking the choir to be willing to risk arrest to raise global awareness of climate change.
            After reading Freedom Summer by Bruce Watson two years ago, which was Miami U’s freshman summer read, about the attempt to get African Americans registered to vote in Mississippi in the 1960s, I have wondered about the level of complacence I may have had if I had been alive at the time.  I do not come from a people who willingly seek out danger. Climate Change is the issue of our time, and I am rather complacent.  As McKibben points out, changing our light bulbs is not enough. How much are we who have so much willing to sacrifice to inspire change?  How much should the scientific community be doing—is it really enough that we are collecting data and doing experiments?  It is easy to think that we each have our own role to play, which is true enough, but does that give us a pass on the most important issue arguably in the history of human life on earth?
          McKibben’s approach to the revolution is fascinating. Maybe he is the Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. of climate change.  He takes the high road—he takes the words that Obama has said and embraces them saying that they will hold him to it.  The demonstrations are peaceful and creative, making the point in ways that tap into a possibility that didn’t seem possible.  And I wonder, what will this book inspire in all of us, conservative scientists that we are?