I’ve had a really busy summer, and there is no sign of work slowing down in September, so this is a brief post highlighting some of the my favorite things that I read and listened in July + August 2019.
Yup – I’m recommending an entire website. Like, I LOVE literally everything Polly writes. If you haven’t heard of her, Polly is – in her words – “here to break down the big, overwhelming ideas of zero waste and living sustainably into smaller, more actionable pieces.” She is thoughtful, always focuses on the big picture, and is such an awesome educator all around.
From her, I’ve learned about the intersectionality between environmentalism and racism, oppression and inequalities, and why I should care; I’ve learned that it IS possible to have nuance on social media; and I’ve learned the importance of actually getting out in the community instead of shouting in our little Internet bubbles.
If you are on Instagram, go follow her, right now – she is currently running a fantastic series called “20 Days of Everyday Activism” leading up to the Sept 20 global climate strikes.
On the Media: Whose streets? (podcast)
Speaking of intersectionality, here is an excellent example of the link between public transit and systematic racism, disability rights, and why the heartwarming “walking-to-work” news stories are missing the point.
Vox: I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle
And speaking of “focusing on the big picture”, THIS.
Grist: For 7 hours, Democratic presidential candidates talked climate crisis — and it was great
Climate policy finally got the air time it deserves on the US presidential debate stage! Ok, it wasn’t really a debate debate – but regardless, major brownie points to CNN for interviewing the democratic presidential candidates for its Climate Crisis Town Hall. If you did not watch the full 7 (!) hours of it, this Grist piece is a great recap, so is this 20 minute podcast episode on Today Explained.
Lab Muffin: Is your sunscreen killing coral reefs?
Oh how I wish I’d discovered Michelle’s blog earlier! This is a great example of the informative and evidence-backed posts and videos you’ll find on Lab Muffin. Even though Michelle has a PhD in chemistry, her writing’s got none of the jargons, paragraph-long sentences, and nonsensical methods you find in peer-reviewed journals. If you are curious about the your beauty products, the environmental impacts, what’s worth buying/not – all explained simply and scientifically – Michelle is your gal!
Scientific American: Blooms away, the real price of flowers
An oldie but a goodie. Until fairly recently, I had no idea just how ugly the cut flower industry is: the unthinkable amount of pesticides, fertilizers, and water, the abuses and suffering forced upon the workers, and the huge environmental footprint from refrigerating, driving and flying flowers across the globe…just so we could display them for a week before tossing them in the trash!
If you want to learn more about the environmental impact of this industry, this article is a great start. But if you are on Instagram, I’m posting tips this week all about how to become a more responsible flower lover.
Planet Money: A mob boss, a garbage boat and why we recycle (podcast)
Are you sick of me talking about recycling yet? I hope not – because here are two more great podcasts on recycling from NPR’s Planet Money team. I’ll just tease you by saying: America sort of owes recycling to a mob boss. (This is a two-part series, part 2 is here).
The Wrong Kind of Green: The manufacturing of Greta Thunberg
This is a fascinating (and long) read. Or “reads” I should say, since this is one of a deeply investigated five-part series. Though I disagree with much of the conclusion drawn from this series, I do very much appreciate the work being done at the Wrong Kind of Green – a group aiming to keep prominent environmental organizations (or what they call the “non-profit industrial complex”) accountable.
(Site note: not convinced that non-profits and charitable foundations can do harm? The second season of Future Perfect is all about the ways that philanthropy can be a bad thing.)
Melanie Joy: Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows, an introduction to carnism
Real talk: it took me an entire month to get through this short book. Even as someone who was well aware of the abuses in the animal agriculture industry, this book hit me pretty hard; however, it’s also made me think about eating animals in ways I never have before. If you are someone who regularly consumes meat out of choice, I encourage you to take on this book even though it’ll likely be a challenging read.
I’m currently reading The Devil in the White City and The Lady in the Lake, but as soon as I finish those, I’m hoping to get to two action-oriented books on lowering one’s carbon footprint: Being the Change and Cooler, Smarter. If you have a book recommendation, please let me know!
This list is good enough to last a month, Yue! I’m particularly intrigued by The Wrong Kind of Green article you’ve listed here.
Yeah it’s LONG but I’d be curious to hear what you think. Greta has since then publicly clarified her relationship with some of the organizations mentioned in the article, but still I appreciated their interest in keeping non profits accountable.
I shall comment as soon as I finish reading it 🙂
Well, this article highlights the dark side of sustainability. I agree that what is being fashioned today is, in fact, green capitalism (which sounds dubious). Essentially, the concept boils down to creating technology that pollutes the air, and then creating technology that cleans the air; both sold in the market and a value derived from it.
The way in which this is being pursued by this company is quite ingenious, and very ambitious. The advantage for this company is that it is not an early mover; it is building on the work of organizations like the World Bank and United Nations.
Whether this is right or wrong is a different question. Truth be told, there is no viable alternative to capitalism at the moment and “green capitalism” has begun to fly with the world’s elite. It seems unlikely that any drastically new alternative can gain precedence over this momentum now.
With regards to Greta, I always found her to be naively regurgitating the climate catchphrases of the day (see her appearance on The Daily Show, for example) that is too simplified to capture the nuances of climate change. If she is being victimized unknowingly, then I feel for her.
Finally, how exactly do you keep non-profits accountable? Greenpeace and even WWF have well-known critics around the world for their propositions. How can you steer their activities in the right direction? What IS the right direction?
Hey! Thanks so much for taking the time to write me your thoughts, and I agree with your assessment about “green capitalism.” In writing a response to you, I realized that I can’t actually verbalize what capitalism even is (hmm…wow?), so I quickly looked up a definition on Google: “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”
It struck me that nothing in that definition is particularly dubious. In fact, I feel that it’s even more problematic when trade and industries are controlled by the state (I should know, since I am from China 😛 ) Tobacco is a fascinating example, where the Chinese government has a really tough time balancing revenue (since the industry is state-owned) and public health interests.
To me, we can significantly improve the current system by 1) thinking hard about what industries we allow to be private 2) reflecting the negative externalities in the prices of goods and services 3) distributing the wealth from economic development more evenly and fairly 4) increasing public investments of innovation but disallow private companies to profit off publicly-funded R&D (I work in health policy, and allowing pharmaceutical companies to profit off government-funded science research is MASSIVELY frustrating to me).
Re. keeping non-profits accountable, I think we keep them accountable by giving them the same level of skepticism and scrutiny that we do with for-profits. I haven’t given enough thought to the particulars, but it is always frustrating to me that many people assume that non-profits are inherently good and for-profits are inherently bad.
These are some interesting points you have raised. I strongly believe externalities need to be considered now because the topic of a safe environment is a matter of social justice (which forms the fabric of modern democracy). The same goes for privatization of industries (I am familiar with the China model, and also the American extreme. Neither have particularly been beneficial for the common people).
However, where the private is heavily involved, or where the government has vested interest, I don’t believe there can ever be even distribution of wealth. It has never happened in human history EXCEPT in an extremely decentralized mode of living (think hunter-gatherers). Even there, there were some social divisions based on the function one performed, and one kind of people invariably dominated over the other.
I also don’t see a way out from private companies benefiting of public research. What the public bodies do is for…the public. Which includes the private players, right?
What are your thoughts?
Great points. I’m enjoying this discussion. You are right that “even” (meaning “equal” in the strictest definition) distribution would be impossible, and defining what is fair will always be fraught. Because I think that requires us to put a value on various job functions, and an executive is always going to argue that he/she provides more value to the company perhaps than the average worker. I guess I meant that wealth could be distributed MORE evenly than it currently is (in the US at least), and that wealth doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of wages. Better healthcare, family leave policy, etc, policies that could be mandated by the government and in fact do benefit the employers (from a happiness and productivity standpoint). Employers of course already contribute to the funding of these things, but I think there should be more, particularly among mega firms where the inequality between workers and executives/shareholders is frankly shameful (in the US at least).
Re. your second point, I have no problem at all from the private sector benefiting from public research. You were right, that research IS for everyone! What I take issues with it is when it comes to unjustified levels of profitability (again, I recognize defining this could be fraught).
For example, GPS is a US military technology that has benefited all (military, civil, and commercial users) enormously. The government created the system, maintains it, and makes it freely accessible to anyone with a GPS receiver. I can freely use it on Google Maps, though Google makes money off me through advertising etc, I see it as a fair trade off since I get to access their user-friendly map interface. And if I don’t like Google, I can go to another map provider.
Now a different example: the US government funds bench research, and a pharmaceutical company then go on to do applied research to make a drug out of it (definitely no small feat). Did the company contribute to the innovation? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean we should allow pharmaceutical companies to take all the credits here and reward them by allowing them to charge whatever they want on this drug. In this example, I also have no choice but to buy the drug from this one company because of patent protection.
Perhaps this gets into the definition of “public goods” (which the environment certainly is) and how we should think about regulating them.
Does that make sense?
I am enjoying this discussion too!
Re. your first point. I think your idea of “wealth” to encompass access to healthcare, education and nature is a very promising proposition. I think this could solve the obvious issue of relative “salaries” given to employees in the economy. However, I am not sure how such access can be funded and assured, since this is the prerogative of the governments (who are already facing huge fiscal deficits). Employers go so far as to ensure only some benefits, like health insurance and leaves. Can this spectrum be widened, in your view? I have read of innovative and forward-thinking organizations who have widened this spectrum using flexible hours, day-care centers, etc., but these are outliers.
Re. your second point. Yes, the examples you have mentioned introduces the debate of what is a public good, and to what extent can people “profit” out of it (the definition of profit would be up for intense debate here). In your example, Google is profiting out of the GPS service it provides using the US military’s GPS service, although they are profiting indirectly, and the “charge” is working at economies of scale. This is very different from the way pharma companies use the products of public research, and hence the greater resistance to what they are doing. The ethical angles are also present here.
To what extent could these practices be regulated in “public interest”? I believe Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are focusing on these issues in their manifesto?
Sorry about the late response! I’ve been thinking about the good points you brought up here. Yes, I think the spectrum of employer benefits can be widened, but I’m not sure it should. In the US for example, health care benefits are tied to your job (largely an artifact of the post-WWII job market – employers using health benefits to compete for workers). A friend who had just finished rounds of surgery and chemo for breast cancer was commenting on the fact that she was so lucky to have great healthcare benefits because she happened to work for a hospital. How crazy is that all the generous coverage could have gone away if she had simply switched jobs a few months ago?! So maybe I’m massively contradicting myself here, but I’m now thinking that sharing wealth through broad worker benefits is theoretically a good idea and problematic in reality. The problems are at least four fold: 1) workers feel stuck on the job because they don’t want to lose the terrific benefits they currently have; this is likely bad for productivity and mobility. 2) more benefits, more wage stagnation…? Would it be better if we simply passed through benefits in the forms of wages and let the workers themselves determine what they need? 3) does this form of employer competition (offering greater benefits) have externalities? Probably. I was just reading an article in my local newspaper that lots of tech companies downtown are reluctant to pull their free parking benefits (which encourages driving and causes huge congestion issues) because it’s a huge selling point to potential workers. 4) if one only gets generous benefits through work, this exacerbates inequality.
Ok now we are back to our original question: how do we ensure more fair distribution of wealth when governments are running huge deficits, and the private sector doesn’t have the right incentive structure? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (I don’t have any smart answer to offer! 🙂 )
p.s. Yes, the more progressive presidential candidates are definitely shedding light on the inequality issues here in the US. But the left is stuck on the old “electibility” debate (“Are these candidates too radical? Should we go with a safer choice so as to not alienate the moderates?”). So we’ll see who we end up with!