EARTH DAY 2021 – DIRE WARNINGS WITH A DEGREE OF HOPE
BY Allan Maynard, MSc, April 2021
“How is it possible that that most intelligent creature to ever walk the planet Earth is destroying its only home” – Jane Goodall
Last April 21st was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. In my blog of that date, I stated – “By many measures our planet’s environment is having one of its best earth days in decades. The tragic pandemic that is causing so much human misery is also giving Planet Earth a rest – a much needed breather”.
This year unfortunately, the pandemic is still with us. But Planet Earth is not getting the same degree of relief. In fact, carbon dioxide emissions are forecast to jump this year by the second biggest annual rise in history, as “global economies pour stimulus cash into fossil fuels in the recovery from the Covid-19 recession. The leap will be second only to the massive rebound 10 years ago after the financial crisis and will put climate hopes out of reach unless governments act quickly”, the International Energy Agency has warned.
However, there is a sense, especially after the US led April 22, 2021 climate summit, that business as usual is no longer an option in recovering from the economic consequences resulting from the pandemic.
There is no longer a legitimate debate about the reality of global warming leading to climate change disasters. What was once a warning 50 years ago is now a part of everyday life around the world. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen from 280 PPM in 1970 to over 420 PPM in 2020. The temperature in the arctic is over 5 degrees warmer thereby shrinking sea ice by over 2.6 million square km and greatly affecting ocean currents.
In 2020 alone we witnessed deadly floods in SE Asia and Bangladesh, bushfires in Australia, wildfires in California and Siberia, both drought and record rainfall in China, and extreme storms from the Philippines to Nicaragua. The extremely active 2020 Atlantic hurricane season concluded with a record-breaking 30 named storms and 12 landfalling storms in the continental United States. Drought conditions now cover 85 per cent of Mexico. Lakes and reservoirs are simply drying up, including the country’s second-largest body of fresh water with millions of Mexicans now experiencing water shortages.
Floods in Indonesia – from USA Today
There are many more stark examples. The main point – we are seeing dramatic levels of damage and health consequences due to environmental degradation and it’s getting worse each year.
The majority of environmental scientists are warning that many parts of planet earth are now experiencing ecocide – defined by the United Nations as “criminalized human activity that violates the principles of environmental justice, as by substantially damaging or destroying ecosystems or by harming the health and well-being of a species. Others claim that we are entering a 6th mass extinction. Consider 3 examples — 1) 60% of the worlds invertebrate population has vanished since the 1950s, 2) 90% of the ocean’s fish stocks have now been exploited, 3) 40% of the earth’s land area is now used for agriculture.
A growing climate emergency means ever greater threats to water and food security, along with destabilised ecosystems. As climate change takes its toll on Earth’s physical planet, it will also cause social, economic, and political chaos as refugees flee areas that can no longer sustain them. By many measures, this is already happening.
On Earth Day 2021 (April 22nd), one hundred and one Nobel laureates, including the Dalai Lama, released an open letter directing governments around the world to sign up to a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty to help tackle the climate crisis. In this letter they state “Climate change is threatening hundreds of millions of lives, livelihoods across every continent and is putting thousands of species at risk. The burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas – is by far the major contributor.”
There is no question – we MUST confront the possibility that the threat from climate change may indeed be existential.
RAYS OF HOPE
Despite the dramatic consequences of and dire warnings about climate change and environmental destruction, there are some rays of hope. Here are 3 examples.
Decoupling economic growth from CO2 emissions — Christiana Figueres is the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (2010-2016). In a recent Op-Ed she writes “History will remember this decade as the climate turning point, the moment we finally woke up to the fact that despite (and because of) shocks like Covid-19, decarbonization — the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions — is now inevitable. The only question is how fast we will achieve it.” Thankfully, there is increasing evidence that the world is on a positive track to decouple CO2 emissions and economic growth breaking a long-established concept that economic growth requires more fossil fuel consumption. Since 2005, 32 countries (including the US and the UK but not Canada), each with a population of at least one million people, have decoupled (in absolute terms) emissions from economic growth, both for terrestrial emissions (those within national borders) and consumption emissions (emissions embodied in the goods consumed in a country). These countries prove that positive economic outcomes can be achieved in the transition to clean energy.
Making Climate Change the Cornerstone of Recovery – Spurred by alarming science based evidence, growing public outcry, massively increased insurance costs and human migrations, — governments, industrial leaders and civil society leaders are finally waking up to the notion that climate is at the center of everything(health, food production, national security, equality, crime prevention and more). Europe has already allocated hundreds of billions of Euros to put climate front and center. As well, trillions in investments around the world are now going towards energy transition.
May 3rd issue of Time Magazine
And now – importantly, the US is back at the table with a progressive ambitious plan along the lines of Europe’s. The US and Europe together represent 40% of the world’s economy so it is unquestioned that other countries will need to catch up or face possible trade sanctions.
China’s latest five-year plan unveiled last month, disappointed many by failing to include a tougher target. However, at the recent US led summit this month, president Xi Jinping said China’s coal consumption would peak in 2025, which would take the country – and the world – a long way towards the cuts needed. Time will tell on this one but clearly the US and Europe will be paying very close attention.
Much Cheaper Renewable Energy – The International Energy Agency now confirms that solar is providing the cheapest energy the world has ever seen. In a quirk of history, what had begun as an American drive to wean itself off oil (started by the Carter administration and dropped by the Reagan administration) was eventually taken up by China, making solar power dirt cheap in the process. In the past decade, renewable prices have plummeted: onshore wind down 70%, solar by 89%. Both are now cheaper that coal. With the rapid growth of renewable electricity, the case for electrifying transportation systems around the world becomes more and more obvious.
PUSH BACK IS EXPECTED
Of course, there will be the usual push back against progressive plans from the fossil fuel industries along with the politicians, think-tanks, and media they support. From past observations, the loudest cries will center around government overreach and attempts to link the plans to socialism. It is important to remember however the important role government has played in all economic transformations. Consider for example the recoveries after World War II. Moreover, government lead initiatives in Canada and the US made possible the rail lines that opened our frontiers, electric grids in rural communities, highway systems everywhere, the invention and coomercialization of nuclear power and the space age (with accompanying satellite technology). Even the internet (originally called ARPANET) was developed as a complex collaboration of universities, government agencies and industry – and funded by the US Dept. Of Defense.
IN SUMMARY – In my view, the extent of the dual crises (CoVid 19 and environmental collapse) requires extensive government involvement as we invest in a sustainable future. There is hope that the tides are turning. Most scientists and economists re-iterate the need for big, bold, and progressive initiatives and at least some leaders are listening.
This was part of my breakfast a few mornings ago. And yes – it’s in a Teflon frying pan. It’s so easy – a tiny (well maybe not too tiny) dollop of butter, crack the egg in, flip after partial frying and out slides the perfect over medium fried egg. But – is Teflon safe? Because I am an environmental chemist, I must have determined that Teflon is safe. However, it is not that simple.
WHAT IS TEFLON? – OK – (eye roll) – a short chemistry lesson. Carbon is an amazing element. Because of the great variety of ways that the carbon atom can bond with itself and other elements, there are more than nine million known organic compounds including hydrocarbon fuels, proteins, fats, sugars, cellulose, pesticides, dyes and more. Some carbon compounds are simple. Carbon with four hydrogens (CH4) is methane (natural gas). Carbon with one other carbon, six hydrogens and one oxygen forms ethyl alcohol (C2H6O).
Many organic molecules are not overly stable. But when carbon combines with chlorine atoms for example, the resulting molecules can be very stable with some highly detrimental to the environment. One notorious example, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane or C14H9Cl5) was developed as the first of the modern synthetic insecticides in the 1940s.
When carbon binds with fluorine atoms many of the resulting compounds are even more stable with most now called “forever chemicals”. Hundreds of everyday products are made with fluorinated chemicals called PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). These compounds can build up in our bodies and never break down in the environment. Very small doses of PFAS have been linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, and other diseases. Teflon is a PFAS.
And that is the end of the chemistry lesson with a lot of big names to remember (or not).
WHY IS TEFLON CONTROVERSIAL YET SO WIDELY USED? – This is where the Teflon story begins. It is a type of PFAS – more specifically by its chemical name – polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). It was discovered by DuPont in 1938, branded under the name Teflon, and initially manufactured by a spin-off company called Chemours. Because of its stability, it doesn’t react with other chemicals and can provide an almost frictionless surface. Thus – it is widely used as a coating in cooking pots and pans, but is also used in many other products, such as fabric protectors.
A 1950s ad for Teflon pans.
It’s the process of manufacturing Teflon that has been the main source of controversy. Another man-made chemical is used as a precursor. That chemical is called Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8. It is burned off during the process of making Teflon itself and is thus likely not present in significant amounts in the final products. However, PFOA (or C8) has created severe environmental damage in locations near plants manufacturing Teflon.
Starting in 1998, multiple lawsuits were filed in US courts against DuPont in relation to C8 used to produce Teflon. Local farmers, residents and company workers claimed to have suffered illnesses and livestock mortalities linked to pollution from DuPont’sParkersburg plant in West Virginia. In one class action lawsuit settled in 2005, DuPont agreed to provide up to 235 million dollars for medical monitoring of over 70,000 people. These monitoring studies found that residents who drank water from wells near the plant, had a median level of 38 parts per billion of C8 (or PFOA) in their blood — 7.6 times more than the average American. In 2012, a science panel concluded (from these studies) a “probable link” existed between C8 and six diseases: kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol. Since then, there have been numerous individual lawsuits from victims of PFOA-related diseases. In February 2017, DuPont settled over 3,550 lawsuits for 671 million dollars.
Of interest – the legal case against Dupont is accurately covered in the drama “Dark Waters’ starring Mark Ruffalo playing the role of Robert Billott, the Cincinnati, Ohio attorney that was the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. Here’s a review
Rather than having a major battle in developing regulations for the use of these chemicals, the US – EPA and the 8 US manufacturers who used C8 agreed, in 2006, to a “stewardship program.” The goal was for the companies to eliminate C8 from emissions and product contents by the end of 2015. Now, C8 and some closely related chemicals are no longer used in the US. However, they are still used in a number of other countries and could potentially reach consumers in certain types of products.
SO NOW THE QUESTION – IS IT SAFE TO FRY AN EGG IN A TELFON PAN? – It would seem that the use of Teflon pans, especially new ones is safe. This is a quote from the American Cancer Institute. “Other than the possible risk of flu-like symptoms from breathing in fumes from an overheated Teflon-coated pan, there are no proven risks to humans from using cookware coated with Teflon (or other non-stick surfaces). While PFOA was used in the past in the US in making Teflon, it is not present (or is present in extremely small amounts) in Teflon-coated products”.
Notice the caveats in this statement — ‘there are no proven risks.’ It is clear to me that it’s almost impossible to prove risks of this sort. It is also difficult to carefully monitor potential exposure over the long term which is likely why there’s the addition in brackets “or is present in extremely small amounts”. Moreover, the American Cancer Institute report does acknowledge the off-gases from heating Teflon. That would be mostly PTFE and other related chemicals and should not be C8 (PFOA) if the pans are newer than 2015. Even so, that is of concern. A recent study (2017) reported in Environmental Science and Pollution regarding the breakdown of Teflon with heat concluded that “Only few studies describe the toxicity of PTFE but without solid conclusions. The toxicity and fate of ingested PTFE coatings are also not understood”.
From my assessments I take precautions. I only have one Teflon pan. It’s of high quality (not a Costco special) and I know it was manufactured recently in the US (thus C8 was likely was not used). I only use it on low heat to cook eggs and fish. I don’t use any metal utensils when cooking with my Teflon pan. I wash it with warm water and soap. It does not go in the dishwasher. For higher temperature cooking I use a cast iron frying pan. I have tossed all of my older Teflon pans especially when I could see scratches. I would also not recommend using Teflon baking pans which would be heated to higher temperatures and for longer times.
THE BIGGER QUESTION – FOREVER CHEMICALS – For years, scientists and environmental advocates have been concerned about persistent “forever chemicals,” which break down very slowly and can contaminate groundwater and end up in rivers and oceans. It is likely that there are about 4,700 varieties of PFAS chemicals in use. They make carpets and upholstery stain-resistant and help firefighters douse burning oil and gas. Some PFAS versions keep your burger from sticking to its fast-food wrapper, your salad from turning its fiber-based bowl into a soggy mess, and your popcorn bag from bursting into flames in the microwave. They are also used as fire retardants in furniture. Virtually all of us have detectable levels of PFAS (and even C8) in our blood.
As with the case of Teflon – how necessary is it that these chemicals are in such widespread use? How can governments better regulate their use to lower community exposure? And – how can individuals limit their own exposure?
OK – I have now committed myself to an article about this. Coming soon.
Kenya’s Elephant Baby Boom – – In 2019, I traveled with my daughter’s family to Kenya – a trip that was magical in all meanings of the word. The safari experiences were many. It filled our hearts with joy and optimism. Optimism because we experienced first hand the dedication of the many people preserving and enhancing Kenya’s land and wildlife. One positive outcome is that Kenya’s elephant population has more than doubled over the past 3 decades. My daughter Jill wrote of elephants – “They are strength, curiosity, tenderness and stories untold’. We can have reason to hope.
There’s no doubt that 2020 was a discouraging year on many fronts. Daily news of a global pandemic and the consequences of environmental degradation are not the sunniest of subjects. Nonetheless, some positive news emerged: species were brought back from the edge of extinction; interest in renewable energy surged; environmental monitoring technology improved; new protected areas were created; and indigenous women leaders got some long-overdue credit and recognition. Perhaps, most important of all, well-informed young people such as Greta Thunberg, Delany Reynolds, Xiuhtezcati Martinez have been turning the climate crisis into humanity’s most unifying ethical moment.
POLITICS – Environmental advocates and leaders around the world celebrated the end of a U.S. administration that had taken the country 180 degrees in the wrong direction on all environmental issues – from toxics control, to land use, energy policy, and international cooperation on greenhouse gas emissions. President Biden has now chosen a knowledgeable team that is charged with making clean energy jobs and environmental protection a cornerstone of his economic plans. In recognition of the importance of indigenous leadership, this team includes Deb Haaland of New Mexico, for Interior Secretary, who is a member of the Laguna Pueblo people.
The new administration’s initiatives are of global significance sending a critical message to the global economy. Importantly, the US will re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement, the global pact forged five years ago among nearly 200 nations to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
ONE HEALTH – The idea that the health of the planet and health of people are inextricably linked is not a new one, but this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, brought about by a zoonotic disease, threw that connection into stark relief. This year, more people began to connect the dots between environmental destruction, agriculture, livestock, wildlife trade and human disease.
TRUST IN SCIENCE – Due to the seriousness of the global pandemic the general public began paying closer attention to scientific information such as news about testing and vaccine development. Moreover the public witnessed, first hand, the deadly consequences of science denial by political leaders. As a result, researchers have found that trust in science has increased to an all-time high. As well, scepticism of science has decreased well below pre-pandemic levels. This change in attitude will hopefully help leaders gain societal support for climate change initiatives.
FINANCE – 2020 is on track to be a record year for fossil fuel divestment announcements, led by major institutional investors such BlackRock. More than 1,300 institutions controlling 14.5 trillion dollars have divested in some way from fossil fuels, according to a tally by environmental group 350.org. One major divestment is especially symbolic – that is the 5 billion dollar Rockefeller Foundation. This endowment was largely built from the proceeds of Standard Oil a company that, at its peak, controlled more than 90% of petroleum products in the United States. Equally encouraging, the divestment movement has been in tandem with the rise of ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing.
COST OF RENEWABLES PLUMMETING – In the past decade, renewable prices have plummeted: onshore wind down 70%, solar by 89%. The main reason for this is that renewable costs are all about the cost of the technology – costs that come down fast as we use more of them. Further learning-by-doing from renewable use will drive down costs for low- and middle-income countries consuming more energy in the years ahead. As with vaccines, so with renewables: they are invented somewhere but can help everywhere.
GROWTH OF ELECTRIC VEHICLES (EVs) – Since their first introduction to the consumer market barely a decade ago, electric vehicleshave rapidly grown in popularity. In 2010, there were only about 17,000 electric cars on roads around the world. By 2019, there were 7.2 million — that’s a 42,000% increase in electric vehicles in use. The number of EVs is still a small percentage of the total but the trend is clear. A significant number of car manufacturers have announced definitive dates for discontinuing the production of fossil fuel vehicles – including GM as stated in a press release for the Super Bowl – “GM is on its way to an all–electric future, with a commitment to 30 new global electricvehicles by 2025. We are aggressively going after every aspect of what it takes to put everyone in an EV because we need millions of EVs on the road to make a meaningful impact toward building a zero-emissions future.”
A GLIMPSE OF WHAT CAN BE – The tragic pandemic has through most of 2020 caused so much human misery. But it also, for a time, gave Planet Earth a rest – a much-needed “breather”. Air pollution levels, as confirmed around the world, were reduced drastically. Of special note was the reduction of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) along with fine particulate matter. In Beijing, residents were, for a time, able to see the stars at night, an impossibility the year before. Planet Earth experienced a reprieve in the early half of 2020.
As global economies started to recover, some (or even most) of these gains are reversing. But having this reprieve gave us a glimpse of what the world could look like when global emissions are greatly reduced as per the objectives of the Paris Accord. The trends in advocacy, leadership, financial investments and overall awareness can be encouraging. Of course, there’s much to be done. Moreover, there are complexities that need to be addressed. Jobs in traditional sectors will be impacted over time. Green energy also has environmental impacts. However, there is no choice but to move forward to a sustainable future.
“Post-truth is pre-fascism.” Historian Timothy Snyder in his 2017 book, On Tyranny.
“If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’—well, it never happened. If he says that ‘two and two are five’—well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs …” George Orwell – the essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War” (1943)
There has been a proliferation of publications on false news over the past 4 years – books, articles in journals and of course the media. Both of these were published in 2017.
On January 6, 2021, the world watched in disbelief as the US Capitol Building was stormed by an angry mob of Trump supporters. Many were armed, some chanted ‘Hang Pence’, some carried confederate flags, and some carried ‘Jesus Saves’ signs. These despicable events marked the culmination of 4 years of an administration steeped in misinformation and disinformation (see definitions below). That the president lied on a daily basis never seemed to bother his supporters or members of his own party. In fact – 126 Republicans joined a frivolous Texas lawsuit that sought to overturn the results of the election in four states. It’s little wonder that most (or all?) in that angry mob truly believed the great lie that the November presidential election was rigged.
Being a strong adherent to evidence-based decision-making, I have, for the past 4 years, been dismayed at the appalling degree of acute dishonesty of the Trump administration. The consequences of such dishonesty and denialisim became ever so clear as we witnessed the epic and totally tragic failures of the administration’s response to the CoVid pandemic (see my April blog – in references). Recommended viewing on this matter – “Totally Under Control” now available in Prime.
And then came January 6 – with an assault on American democracy.
How did it come to this? Why is lying tolerated? Why does it seem to work politically? Why are some of the wackiest of conspiracy theories so widely believed? We know lying and obfuscation are prevalent in countries without a free press. But it should not be so pervasive in democratic nations.
I understand that millions feel left behind in the new global economy. This can lead to bitterness about people’s prospects and even lead to ‘tribes’ pitted against each other. Perhaps many are grasping for any kind of messaging that may provide simple solutions to highly complex problems that are so very difficult to fully grasp. Lies just might fill that need.
I am not a historian, a political scientist or a psychologist, but I have certainly been curious about how information disorder can be used as a political tool. It’s amazing how much information is available on this topic and how it has proliferated since 2016. I have done my best to summarize what I have learned.
THE NOMENCLATURE OF DISHONESTY
We all grow up with many harmless untruths – from tooth fairy to common myths such as believing we could drown if we go in swimming less than one hour after eating. To help understand the current information disorder it is helpful to identify certain terms.
Common misconceptions (longstanding myths) – these are common myths that can be promulgated over and over without any kind of danger – examples – humans only use 10% of their brains/shaving makes hair grow back faster and thicker/we need to drink 8 glasses of water each day to stay hydrated/bulls get angry when they see red. Reference below.
Urban myths (or urban legends) – can be told with conviction — such as the disappearing hitchhiker / theHookman, a mass murderer with a hook in place of a hand.
Categorizing lies– white / blue / black. Some psychologists (Scientific American – How the Science of Blue Lies May Explain Trump’s Support) categorize lies as ‘white lies’ that are generous (I like your shirt even if you don’t), ‘blue lies’—a psychologist’s term for falsehoods, told on behalf of a group, that can actually strengthen bonds among the members of that group, and ‘black lies’ which are selfish and only benefit the lying individual. The researchers suggest that politicians enabling Trump did not call out his lies because they saw those lies as useful weapons in a tribal us-against-them competition.
Misinformation vs. disinformation – The most common way of categorizing untruths is well presented in a paper by Clare Wardle in Scientific American entitled “Misinformation Has Created A New World Disorder” The following schematic is from this article.
Denialism – is defined as the psychology of human behaviour to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth. When someone is told they have cancer, the initial response can be denial. That can be dangerous for that individual if treatment is delayed. It is much more serious for society if denial is on a grander scale as was the deadly and tragic case for many countries in responding to the CoVid pandemic. Also dangerous is when denial is weaponized such as the cases of industry spending vast sums to combat scientific findings that affect their economic futures. Well-documented examples of organized and well-funded denial — the health risks from smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change.
Cherry picking – is suppressing evidence, or the fallacy of using incomplete data to falsely confirm a particular position, while at the same time ignoring a significant portion of related and similar cases or data that may contradict that position. This approach of only using selected data is widely used by those attempting to deny inconvenient science such as climate change. This is well covered in the book “Merchants of Doubt” – see references.
Conspiracy theories – are dangerous. In fact some of the most horrific events in history (the Holocaust, The Rwanda massacre to name only two) were grounded on conspiracy theories. The dictionary definition – ‘a conspiracy is a secret plot or agreement between two or more parties for an illegal or dishonest purpose’. Many conspiracy theories are eye rolling and generally ignored or easily disproved. An example was the claim that the current pandemic is really caused by the rollout of 5G (high speed -5th Generation Cellular) networks around the world. More dangerous is the rhetoric linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that Trump is fighting a secret war against a powerful network of elite pedophiles. Even more dangerous is the anti-vaccination movement based on a fundamentally flawed study that claimed vaccines cause autism. And – it would take a full text-book to describe the myriad of conspiracy theories about the CoVid pandemic. See – My Blog – May 2018 – in references.
DOES SCIENCE HELP UNDERSTAND LYING?
There are many studies within academia that can help us understand more about lying – why it’s done and how it can be successful politically. Below is a summary of only a few of these studies.
1. A 2016 study published in the journal ‘Nature Neuroscience’, showed how dishonesty alters people’s brains, making it easier to tell lies in the future. Not only that, but when people faced no consequences for the dishonesty or, even better, are rewarded somehow, their falsehoods tended to get more sensational. The conclusion – the more people lie and get away with it – the more they will continue to lie.
2. Fake news spreads 7 times more widely (and faster) than true news, according to a study examining 126,000 news items circulated among 3 million twitter users. Untrue ‘news’ is as old as gossip, but its proliferation has become particularly troubling in the era of social media. False stories are amplified on Facebook and Twitter. The false post that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump’s candidacy for the US presidency was shared over 1 million times.
3. The Big Lie – Joseph Goebbels – minister of propaganda for the Nazi German government of the Third Reich, understood the power of repeating falsehoods. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” This phenomenon, pervasive in contemporary politics, advertising, and social media, is known in cognitive psychology as the “illusory truth effect” Studies have confirmed that lies repeated over and over will eventually be believed. The facts don’t actually matter. In my view – this is how Donald Trump managed to convince millions of voters that the election was stolen.
SOCIAL MEDIA – FALSEHOODS SPREAD RAPIDLY
Computer processing power has increased a staggering 1 trillion times between the early 80s and now. The companies at the core of the social media revolution — Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like — have used the vast amounts of data they harvest about our preferences and behaviours to create an emotional environment that tends to pull us apart and make us dumber. These companies get more eyeballs on their sites and clicks on their links — and so generate more revenue — by creating an addictive information environment of constant cognitive and emotional stimulus, and among the emotions that work best are outrage and (social) anxiety. With powerful algorithms, the social media platforms can totally control what we see – and also what we will not see based on users’ profiles. Our attention is mined like an extractable resource. Democracy is now for sale.
To obtain a clear understanding of the universe of the proliferation of false information, I highly recommend the Netflix show – “Social Dilemma”.
Bots, which are automated programs that masquerade as people, tend to be particularly good for spreading massive numbers of highly emotional messages with little informational content. Think here of a message with the image of Hillary Clinton behind bars and the words “Lock Her Up!” That kind of message will spread rapidly within the echo chambers populated by those who already agree with the basic sentiment. Bots have considerable power to inflame people who are already like-minded, though they can be easier to detect and block than trolls. The US Justice Department concluded that bots were widely employed by Russia during the 2016 election campaign. (see link to report in References).
By contrast, trolls are typically real people who spread provocative stories and memes. Trolls can be better at persuading people who are less convinced and want more information. Troll information can nonetheless spread just as widely as bots.
In both cases – social media has become a reliable tool of persuasion. This can be good thing when used, for example, to persuade people to do their part in controlling a pandemic. It can be a bad thing when millions are lead to believe the 2020 election was rigged.
WE NEED A SHARED VISION OF REALITY
It is clear to me that the current state of information disorder is a significant threat to science, progress and to democracy itself. Some strong, bipartisan measures are needed to start rectifying this.
Firstly – Social Media companies must step up their game and get better at flagging misinformation and disinformation. It would seem this is starting to occur but more needs to be done. Social media companies have the technology, but granted it’s a tightrope initiative in that free speech also needs to be protected.
Secondly, politicians need to lead and call out lies and not fear how their so-called base (left or right leaning) would react. Voters need to hear the truth even if it’s not favourable to their ideologies and world-views.
Thirdly – young people, who are the biggest users of social media, need to receive more education on the dangers of false information, how to assess fact from fiction and how to recognize proper journalism.
Finally – we need to become more responsible in what we decide to read and especially share via email, Facebook, twitter and other ways of communicating. We need to refuse to let Facebook, Google and other platforms be in charge of our newsfeed. With the Internet there are many options that each reader can explore to get world news and a variety of opinions. It is not difficult to venture away from news bubbles. Good journalism is more vital than ever. See reference below –“What is good journalism?”
Fact checking sites are useful. Of course it is fair to question the reliability of fact check articles. I find however, that these articles contain sources and references with links to official sites – such as NOAA. Also – fact check sites must be truthful to maintain their integrity. In the references section there are 2 articles on fact checking sites – including MBFC (Media Bias Fact Check) – a site that reports on the bias of fact-checking websites like Snopes and PolitiFact and also publishes a daily source bias check. Factors that they consider include sourcing, biased wording, story choices, and political affiliation.
Society is facing many highly complex issues and even existential threats. Millions feel let down or even totally neglected within the global economy. These problems can only be tackled by cooperation and a fact based starting point but also acknowledging differences in worldview visions. Wilful ignorance is not an option. We need to start from a shared vision of reality.
REFERENCES – I have provided some links if people are interested. I can’t guarantee they will take readers directly to the article. It may require a Google search using the title.
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century – By Timothy Snyder, 2017
Home efforts are a good start. However – to solve the complex and overwhelming issue of plastic pollution, there is a dire need for solutions based on technology, for more regulation of the plastic and packaging industries and, in the long term, a comprehensive evaluation of how we evaluate economic success (linear vs. circular economy).
HOME EFFORTS – When my wife Margrit and I finished university in 1971, we spent a year travelling around Europe and Morocco. We would do 2 to 4 week trips followed by a return to Margrit’s birth-place and our declared ‘home base’ of Bassersdorf, Switzerland (near Zurich). After weeks of camping we were grateful to enjoy home cooked dinners and sleep in real beds. We stayed with Margrit’s aunts – Aunt Lydia and Aunt Martha.
Having lived through the scarcities during the Great Depression and World War II, these two ladies seemingly never threw anything away. They would wash and save even the smallest pieces of aluminum foil and plastic wrap. Plastic bags were rare and seen as a gift for storing food. They would be used and reused until they were worn out. They had a small refrigerator and thus shopped frequently, walking to the village bakery and to other stores dedicated to certain products. Nothing was packed in plastic. No food was ever wasted. These 2 rosy-cheeked ladies provided one of the best examples I have seen of the 3 Rs of minimizing household waste – REDUCE, RECYCLE, REUSE.
Learning from Aunt Martha and Aunt Lydia – Certainly, most of society want to do more to combat plastic waste. There’s a general sense of frustration that recycling as it exists today, is not the solution it was marketed to be. Because of enhanced societal awareness, there is now a plethora of web sites dedicated to providing advice for reducing plastics use in our homes. The 3 Rs – noted above is now expanded to 4 Rs – Reduce, Reject (or refuse), Reuse, and Recycle.
It is relatively easy for most households to reduce plastic waste with some basic steps – here are but a few tips:
IS TECHNOLOGY THE ANSWER? – The short answer – unlikely but it’s complicated. Technology initiatives are centered around 3 considerations – 1) Making plastic that is biodegradable, 2) Making plastic that can be more successfully recycled and 3) Making recycling more successful than it is today. A brief summary of these:
1. Biodegradable Plastic – Biodegradable plastics can in theory, be broken down by microbes. Biodegradable plastics or bio-plastics are made from plant materials (starch or cellulose), rather than fossil fuels. There are a number of possibilities on the market and under research.
The big question though – even with these products – what does biodegradable really mean? It does not mean they can go to backyard compost boxes or to to landfills under the expectation they will degrade. What’s required rather, is an industrial scale composting system. Such systems are becoming more and more prominent in dealing with food waste. From coffee cups to sandwich packaging to takeaway containers, putting food in compostable plastics means that – in an ideal world, the plastic and any food waste still stuck to it can be composted together. It’s a triple win: reducing the amount of regular plastic being sent to landfill, preventing recycling from being contaminated with food, and at the same time making sure food waste is returned to the soil, rather than being left to rot in landfill where it will release methane.
The main issue though is that food waste pickup and subsequent industrial composting, while quite widespread in Europe (and some provinces in Canada), is not as prevalent as it could be in North America and in many developing countries.
New plastics that can be continuously recycled – A previous article outlined how few of the plastics in use are recycled. Moreover, the recycled plastic material is of lower quality. Even PET – the most recycled form of plastic (used in beverage bottles) is only recycled at a rate of about 30%.
Now research is underway to produce plastics that can be recycled over and over without a resulting loss of quality. For example, the creation of a new material, called polydiketoenamine, or PDK, was reported in the journal ‘Nature Chemistry’. This formulation along with other research is showing considerable promise but it’s too early to assess commercial viability.
Improving recycling – Today, recycling centers rely largely on mechanical processes, which consist of crushing the plastic into flakes, which are then processed and transformed into plastic granules. These granules are then, in theory, mixed with virgin plastics. It should be possible to manufacture new beverage bottles composed of at least 50 to 70 percent recycled plastic. The difficulty is that there are simply too many types of plastic on the market. Thus, sorting prior to recycling is the main limiting aspect of all recycling programs.
Better sorting – In Europe an initiative called “Project Holy Grail’ is working on much better systems for sorting waste. Postage stamp sized watermarks on packaging—which are not visible to the naked eye—make it possible to effectively sort the material into specific waste streams. With this new technology, it becomes possible to separate materials more accurately. The waste plastic can then be more effectively recycled based on the chemistry of that specific material. Again – this is in a development phase and not yet commercialized.
Waste needs to be sorted before recycling.
Chemical technology – Some in the industry suggest that chemical recycling may also provide an answer. This is very much at the research or pilot stage. The process would involve pyrolysis, which consists of heating the plastic to a high temperature to obtain a hydrocarbon product, followed by material separations into separate chemical components, followed then by re-polymerization.
GOVERNMENT NEEDS TO STEP IN – it has become clear to me that individual action on the home front along with developing technologies that are still at the research stage, will not provide all the solutions needed to deal with plastic pollution. It is my view that governments around the world need to exert more control. There is broad societal support for doing so.
Plastics impose a massive untaxed externality upon society, estimated by the Carbon Tracker and other sources at about $1,000 per tonne ($350bn a year) from resulting air pollution, health costs, collection costs, and ocean pollution. Policymakers, especially in Europe, are implementing much more stringent regulatory regimes using five key tools — taxation, design rules, bans, targets, and infrastructure. However, there is a huge and undoubtedly expected push back from industry on these initiatives. According to the Carbon Tracker report, there is a stark contrast between the plans of the petrochemical industry and the threat of imposed restrictions leading to lower growth. “The petrochemical industry already faces huge overcapacity, but is planning to spend a further $400bn for new capacity. Unless stopped, this will result in continued low prices and significant stranded assets”. (Carbon Tracker)
Fortunately – At least 127 countries have now imposed some sort of ban on single use plastic, even though there as been a relaxation of enforcement during the CoVid crisis. Most European countries now ban such products. Canada will ban the use of all single use plastic by the end of 2021. A few US states also have bans but it’s far from nation-wide. Kenya likely has the strictest regulations of all where citizens can face jail time for breaking the single use plastic laws.
In addition to bans – there are now proposals to force the plastic industry to take more responsibility for the waste their products produce. The most effective plans would require industry to pay for the disposal of plastic waste that cannot be recycled. For example – the European Union plans tax of about $1,000 US per tonne of product The plan also includes rules obliging all plastic packaging to be recyclable, and to set targets for the share of recyclates in packaging.
A CIRCULAR ECONOMY – The issue of plastic pollution in our environment is a clear example of the need to completely re-think global economies and how we measure success that is sustainable. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is the standard used around the world but it does not provide information about the overall wellbeing of a country since activities that are detrimental (like waste, deforestation, strip mining, over-fishing, prison populations) actually (and strangely) increase today’s GDP. In my opinion, it is vital that we move towards a circular economy as an alternative to a traditional GDP based lineareconomy (make, use, dispose).
This applies very clearly for plastics in that we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life. Yoni Shiran, lead author of ‘Breaking the Plastic Wave’ claims “There are huge benefits in the change from the current linear system to a more circular one. You can have all the functionality of plastics but at half the capital cost, half the amount of feedstock, 700,000 additional jobs and 80% less plastic pollution.” I believe this claim is possible to achieve.
Can we break our addiction to plastic – Financial Times – October 30, 2019
Closed loop recycling of plastics enabled by dynamic covalent diketoenamine bonds. Nature Chemistry. April 22, 2019
The future is not in plastics. Carbon Tracker, Sept 4, 2020
Holy grail 2.0 is launched – Recycling Magazine 08/09/2020
Good information about recycling
Excellent resource on all aspects of the plastics issue and about a circular economy
One example web site that promotes eco-friendly products. There are many such web sites for those interested and I am not able to verify how good some of these items are. It just shows that a number of enterprises are working on resolutions.
FINALLY – FOR LITTLE COMIC RELIEF – Some photos of ridiculous packaging that should be easy to avoid. Maybe not so funny!!!