Archive for the ‘rants’ Category

Unpacking the idea ‘safe’

Are things either safe or unsafe?

It’s a common demand from the public to scientists: prove to us something is safe before unleashing your monster on the world. And on one hand, it’s a totally fair, reasonable request to not be treated as lab rats. I get that. I hate the idea of having big chemical corporations profiting off their creations that create long term problems for ordinary people and the environment. On the other, whether you’re talking about GMOs or synthetic chemicals, it’s a problematic request for a couple of key reasons:

  • It assumes a binary between safe and unsafe without regard to exposure level or other circumstances. Just about everything can be harmful under the right (or perhaps I should say wrong?) conditions. Take water, for example. Tons of evidence that it’s generally safe to drink. However, it’s still possible to die from drinking too much water. Even small quantities of water, if inhaled, can be deadly. It’s called drowning. Microbes also love water, which is important to know if you’re into DIY personal products.  Does that mean water (and do check out the dihydrogen monoxide website, if you haven’t seen it) is unsafe? Yes — if you define safe to mean that any level of risk from contact with water is unacceptable. Of course, dehydration’s not a lot of fun, either. Water is a simple example, but virtually any substance you can think of has benefits and drawbacks, conditions in which it has no harmful effects, conditions in which it does. That goes for everything from fluoride to Botox.
  • It doesn’t define safe in a way that science can address. Science is good at testing for one thing at a time, under controlled and specific circumstances. Safety is not a trait that can be directly tested for. We can’t run a chemical through a gas spectrometer and have that tell us whether something is safe or not; we infer safety from the absence of observable harmful effects in a fairly wide range of applications, test subjects, and experiments. To get meaningful answers, we need to ask meaningful questions. Instead of asking, “Is BPA safe?” we need to be asking things more like, “Do low doses of endocrine disrupting substances like BPA produce harmful effects on developing human fetuses?” That’s a reasonable request for information, and it’s something scientists could design experiments around to answer.
  • Scientists don’t know what they don’t know. You’ve probably heard of prescription drugs that were withdrawn when they eventually proved to have major, unexpected health impacts. It’s not that tests were necessarily done improperly; it’s that scientists didn’t know enough to ask the right questions before the issues became apparent. It’s impossible to test for lack of harmful effect for everything, at every level, in every remotely plausible circumstance. And although we mostly hear about the failures, when scientists haven’t anticipated and tested for a particular problem, there are many prescription drugs and chemicals that have gone on to establish very solid safety records and saved lives.

Science is limited in the answers it’s able to offer us. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. Sometimes the answers are inconclusive and pending further research. The scientific method can also be a bit clunky with its one variable model when it comes to looking at multiple factors and multiple exposures, which are inevitable in real life scenarios — one of the reasons we’re having such a hard time pinpointing causes for things like cancer and autism. And no, the media totally doesn’t get this. No one’s going to read a headline about inconclusive test results. It doesn’t make for an exciting story.

Instead of asking whether something is safe, I’ve begun to try (try!) to look at things on a spectrum of lower risk to higher risk and think about decisions as risk evaluations.  At the lower risk end, I would include things that have 1) solid, evidence-based records of few or no harmful effects, 2) relatively few/unusual circumstances in which it produces harmful effects, and 3) statistics favoring my likelihood of emerging unscathed.

Here are some things I would consider lower risk  within the parameters of my life:

  • Eating spinach. Yes, spinach contains oxalic acid, which is linked to kidney stones. But as a healthy person, I’d have to eat massive amounts of it all the time to develop significant health issues, and the nutritional benefits associated with eating moderate amounts outweigh the risks.
  • The preservative in my contact lens solution. Used in small quantities, well-tested, and far lower risk than putting something with microbial or fungal growth in my eyes. Definitely less risky than driving in my 10 year old glasses (time to get those replaced!).
  • Cleaning Brie’s litter box. Yes, she’s had toxoplasmosis. That’s why she’s blind. (I sometimes refer to her as Toxokitty. No brownie points for sensitivity there.)  No, she’s not shedding parasite eggs anymore, and no, I’m not pregnant.
  • Sunblock. Something I put on only when I anticipate needing it and can’t avoid peak sun hours or don a hat. In the quantities I use it, it’s not going to have an appreciable effect on my life. The dose makes the poison.
  • Taking allergy medicine. I used to pop an antihistamine daily in the month of May for allergies that otherwise left me a fatigued, sniffly, nosebleedy mess. Now I just go somewhere else on vacation. When I need an antihistamine, I still take it. There are side effects; they make my eyes dry and sometimes affect my energy levels. But I’m willing to accept that risk.
  • Baking in silicone. I bought silicone muffin cup liners a few years ago when I thought they might be greener than the paper I had been using. I’ve wavered in that belief (they take ridiculous amounts of water to clean, won’t biodegrade, and involve fossil fuels), but I still use them every now and then when they make more sense than paper. I’ve read the available studies, and I use them maybe five times a year, at relatively low temperatures.

Higher risk (somewhat likely to result in grievous bodily harm, more proof of harm, or harmful under more circumstances):

  • Driving or riding in a car. Hands down the most statistically dangerous thing I do on a regular basis. Car fatalities are down somewhat in recent years, but there were 32,885 in 2010. That doesn’t include injuries.
  • Drinking alcohol. I seem to be mildly allergic to alcohol and don’t drink, but if you look at the chemical properties of alcohol, it fits many of the criteria we use for calling other substances poisons. There are well-established acute and long term risks associated with drinking, yet we’re much more likely to get excited about the potential toxicity of a synthetic or newer chemical.
  • Eating unidentified wild mushrooms. Most mushrooms are not fatally toxic, but there are a handful that will really do a number on your liver. The chances of randomly picking an amanita to sample may not be that high, but the potential fatality is a deal breaker. For me, anyway. Maybe I’ll do a post later on how to identify an amanita mushroom.
  • Breathing in silica dust. There’s a reason why silicosis is known as ‘potter’s rot.’ Silicosis is not reversible or treatable, and some of the older potters I work with tell me that their lungs, x-rayed, look somewhat like smokers’ lungs. You’d think this would get me to wear a mask, especially when I’m carving clay. Not yet. I’m being stupid like that.
  • Cutting Brie’s claws. Almost inevitably ends in blood loss (mine). ‘Nuff said.

I’m surprised at how reluctant I am to put pottery on that list. A small voice in the back of my brain is protesting, “But I like pottery,” as if that influenced risk level in any way whatsoever. It also wants to add, “But clay is a natural substance,” which it is, and which also doesn’t influence risk level in any way whatsoever. Do you ever want to call your own brain a troglodyte? I do.

I haven’t done the research yet to be able to put other things I do (eat raw cookie dough, for example — I’m pretty sure my current salmonella-schmalmonella attitude is not appropriate) on the spectrum, and frankly, I still fall for naturalistic fallacy all the time. But I still want to point out that headlines don’t present information in perspective with the actual amount of risk something presents. It’s the other, ordinary stuff that’s really likely to get us: poor eating habits, lack of exercise, driving, and I think it’s helpful to keep that in mind when reading alarming headlines or studies. After all, life is one of those things in which no one gets out alive.

Do you classify things as safe or unsafe? What would persuade you that something was safe?

Photo credits:, ell brown

Is your green blog bad for the planet?

Warning: snarkiness ahead.

My basic line is that there are lots of ways to be green — that is, to consciously try to reduce your impact on the planet, use resources more wisely, think about the effects of your actions, or care about the earth and its future. I respect that some people choose very different paths than I do in promoting sustainability, and I have tons of respect for the people who get out there more than I do and canvass, call, write, agitate, and activate (or whatever the verb is for what activists do). Plenty of people have smaller footprints than I do, try harder, and do more. Plenty don’t, are but are working hard to get there.

I really try to be fair, patient, and tolerant, but I fail more often than I let on. And although I don’t rant much on here, I have to say that certain types of ‘green’ behavior or ‘green’ blogs drive me quietly but absolutely crazy. (Note the Quotes of Scorn.) Regular programming will continue after I’ve gotten the snark out of my system.

Let’s talk about green blogs. I have one. If you’re reading this, you might have one, too. Everything we do has an impact, including blogging, and including green blogging. Does the amount of planet-saving mojo we create balance out the impact? Or are our green blogs quietly wrecking the planet along with everything else we do as first world citizens? 

Here, for your pleasure and enlightenment, is a totally unscientific and unapologetically snarky quiz to find out what kind of impact your green blog has on the earth. 

1. How much time do you spend on your blog, promoting your blog, or schmoozing with other bloggers so they’ll become your faithful readers?
a) 0-2 hours a week. I blog when I remember to.
b) 2-5 hours a week. I put some time and effort into promoting my blog.
c) 5-10 hours a week. I might be slightly obsessed in getting my page rank up.
d) 10+ hours a week. Whatever it takes to get companies to contact me for reviews.

2. Where does the electricity that powers your computer come from?
a) 100% renewable energy. I live off the grid and rigged my laptop to run on solar panels.
b) 50-99% renewable energy. I tried hooking my computer to a turbine, but it didn’t work out.
c) Less than 50% renewable energy (but my energy provider gets a little juice from solar or wind).
d) I have no idea, and don’t really care.

3. How many product reviews do you do each month?
a) 0-1. But mostly 0.
b) 2-3 on an average month (less than 1 per week).
c) 4-5 (at least 1 per week).
d) 5+ or as many as I’m given the opportunity to do. I heart stuff!

4. How many of them are for products you genuinely need and can’t find a local, lower impact solution for?
a) All of them (or n/a, since I don’t do any product reviews).
b) Most of them, with the occasional fun, green-ish one thrown in.
c) A few. But I’d review an eco-cupcake holder made from recycled plastic if I were given the chance.
d) I’ve never thought about the products I review that way.

5. Would you get green blogger business cards and/or stationery?
a) No way. Think about all the dead trees that went into those things.
b) They’re cute, but I don’t think they’re necessary.
c) I have the sweetest blogger cards printed in soy ink on 100% recycled paper.
d) Have you seen my laminated glitter business cards?

6) How do you feel about green blogger conventions?
a) The whole phrase is an oxymoron. Flying out to promote my blog and have ‘green’ products sold to me is not low impact.
b) I wouldn’t go to one unless it were in my town or within a short drive.
c) They’re OK. I picked up some great swag at the last one.
d) If a company sponsors me to go, I’m there. If it has green in the title, it must be eco-friendly, right?

Mostly As: you officially have a low impact green blog. You might also be just a little on the self-righteous and curmudgeonly side. Oh well — sustainability first!

Mostly Bs: your blog is pretty low impact, although you don’t have a do-or-die approach when it comes to reducing your footprint. Depending on how many people read your blog and take something away from it, it’s possible that the beneficial impact of your blog outweighs its use of resources.

Mostly Cs: You’re heading into the territory of the quotation marks, as in the ‘green’ blogger. You may have other motives for blogging, such as generating income or getting cool free stuff. You still think you can achieve greenness through buying stuff.

Mostly Ds: You think green is a nice color. But your blog is not low impact by any stretch of the imagination.

How’d you do? I’m mostly As and Bs with the occasional C. (By the way, if you’re not sure what percentage of your power comes from renewable energy, it’s easy to find out through a quick web search. My provider gets about 30% from renewable sources.)

It’s completely impossible to quantify how much good my blog does in educating or reaching out, but it is easy to see what kind of resources go into it. Is it worth it? I have no idea. But I do think that a green revolution starts with consciousness, conversation, and real, meaningful change, and our blogs are one place to begin.

Do you think about the impact of your green blog? What are some ways to improve it?

Are you a ‘true’ environmentalist / vegan / feminist?

Well, looks like I’m not a ‘true’ environmentalist. I still have a car, I still don’t buy 100% organic, I haven’t eaten the carbon-intensive blind cat, I’m still on the grid, and yep, there’s even still a roll of paper towels (recycled) in my kitchen — mostly for said cat’s occasional hairball.

I have a bone to pick with the word ‘true.’ I’ve seen it slapped on a bunch of different labels recently, and a certain pattern is emerging. I’m not a ‘true’ feminist because I have reservations about Slut Walk as an expression of equality and a demand for respect. Bill Clinton, who chooses not to eat animal products for health reasons, is not a ‘true’ vegan. Hell, I’m not even a ‘true’ vegetarian because I have clam chowder once or twice a year.

Let’s decode this. Can I suggest that, in each of these cases, by ‘true’ the speaker simply means conforming to beliefs s/he personally holds, things that s/he already does? By implication, anyone we don’t consider a ‘true’ [insert label here] is, well, lame. I won’t deny that there are different levels of commitment. There are. But using ‘true’ to describe difference isn’t about one’s own commitment to a set of values. It’s about stepping on other people in order to feel superior and exclusive.

Worst of all, it doesn’t help anything.  Instead of encouraging the people who are most receptive to learning and perhaps committing more to a cause, it alienates. Making people defensive is a terrible way to promote your cause. Instead of reaching out, it closes off. And worst of all, people are more likely to judge an entire cause as being preachy, intolerant, and close-minded after even a few bad encounters.

I’ve been on both sides of this problem. I used to scoff at buying organic because most of the people I knew who did so were self-righteous Whole Foods shoppers. After an unpleasant encounter with vegans on my college campus, I chowed down on a hamburger. At the same time, I’m pretty darn judgmental myself.  I judge the people in my condo who don’t recycle their plastic water bottles, people with lots of kids in tow, people who accept a plastic bag when buying a single item, people who still think they can somehow shop their way into sustainability.  Not judging, not labeling — now that’s hard. But shouldn’t we try?

Labels are convenient, but they present the appearance of unity without acknowledging that one person’s idea of being an environmentalist or vegan or whatever will not totally coincide with anyone else’s. (And that’s good, because adopting a label does not give you the right to stop thinking for yourself.)  Deeming a ‘true’ anything is completely subjective and particularly unhelpful. Let’s cut it out already.

Have you ever used ‘true’ with a label you identified with? What did you really mean by it?

Being childfree: not an excuse for green smugness


Voluntary Human Extinction Movement

Being a happily childfree person does not mean that I agree with all childfree attitudes, and there’s one that’s been cropping up recently that I don’t like at all. It goes something like this: “By not having kids, I’m already reducing my footprint so much that I don’t have to do anything else to be green.”

Wow. That annoys me, and I don’t even have kids.

Here’s the thing. If you chose not to have kids mostly or even solely for the sake of the environment, that would be one thing — a true sacrifice if you were someone who always wanted kids. But I don’t know any childfree people who chose to be biological dead ends for primarily environmental reasons. Instead, most childfree people are childfree because they don’t want kids or the responsibilities that go with them. Full stop. The environmental benefit is a nice little bonus and might strengthen our resolve, but even if having kids were the best thing I could do for the environment, I wouldn’t do it.

The environmental impact of having children is hard to deny. My grandmother had seven children, who went on to produce 13 grandchildren and I don’t even know how many great grandchildren (we’re just reaching our mid twenties and thirties), many of whom live in the US or Taiwan and lead fairly typical and cushy lives as consumers. Although my entire paternal side of the family is deeply dysfunctional, the family tree isn’t going to end with the great grand children. In relatively few generations, my grandmother will have been partially responsible for a hundred or more new people, most of whom will still be alive. And that’s just one family. I look at family reunion photos and am amazed at how two people created so many more. How many fewer people would there be if she’d stopped at two? How much lower would the total impact of this family be? (I wouldn’t exist, but that’s OK — it’s not like I’m going to find the cure for cancer or anything.)

If you want the stats, Oregon State researchers conclude,

[T]he carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important than some of the other environmentally sensitive practices people might employ their entire lives – things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.

Not bad, huh? I totally think talking about population and making sure every fertile person in the world has easy access to reliable contraception and sterilization options is a huge and often overlooked piece of the climate change puzzle. I love the way the childfree movement is gaining momentum and population is starting to creep into more mainstream discussions. But.

Not doing something you weren’t going to do anyway does not give you mad brownie greenie points. To me, saying that being childfree means you’ve done enough is like saying that not flying a private jet to work every day reduces your impact so much that you’re totally off the hook. I try not to impose my version of what it means to be green — to think about all my choices in terms of total impact, to strive to make both small everyday changes as well as effect bigger ones — but I can’t help but think that you may be missing the point if you think being childfree is a get out of jail free card for everything else you do. 

I don’t think there’s ever a point at which we can sit back with a satisfied smile and say, “Great! My life is now totally sustainable!” I’m a vegetarian, I cook from scratch, I’m childfree, I heart reusable everythings…and there’s still so much more I could be doing. And there always will be, because this is one big, messy, all-encompassing problem, and compromise is inevitable.

Childfree anything is controversial. What are your thoughts on the intersection between being childfree and being green? 

P.S. You can read more of my childfree entries here.

How to sabotage your cause

I overheard an older couple in the grocery store the other day. The woman picked up a bottle of organic V8, to which the man grumbled, “If it’s organic, I don’t want it.” Clearly the word ‘organic’ meant something different to him than what it means to me — grown without synthetic pesticides with [hopefully] more sustainable farming practices. At a guess, ‘organic’ meant to him what it used to mean to me: something that only snooty, yoga-practicing, more-sustainable-than-thou, upper middleclass white women bought.

We can blame some of this bad rap on mainstream media. They’re a wonderfully convenient scapegoat for both left and right. However, I think we also need to take responsibility for our own PR problems. They’re not unique to us; every movement has them. Inevitably, passion and enthusiasm lead us to do things that impact how we are perceived and effectively limit our ability to promote our cause.

Well, hell. Might as well make a guide out of it. Here’s the slightly tongue-in-cheek Not Easy to Be Green guide to sabotaging your own cause. Go on, fill the people around you with a murderous rage to take your cause and stamp on it.

OK. Start with a generous heaping of intolerance. Intolerance for people who don’t share your cause, who don’t see how obvious it is that you’re right and they’re wrong, who even think there could be any room for uncertainty or doubt. Call them stupid, selfish, ignorant, or brainwashed. Exclude anyone who doesn’t share 100% of your views on the subject.

Next, stir in a few fistfuls of impatience. Disregard the fact that people respond to different things at different rates. Jump on friends for continuing to buy factory farmed chicken, for exploiting bees, or for not switching to a composting toilet already. Even if they’ve made some strides to support your cause, belittle their efforts as meaningless and ineffectual in the face of what they should be doing.

Now toss in some self-righteousness, because nothing wins people over to your cause so quickly as being told how much better you are and how much you do for your cause. Judge everyone who doesn’t come up to your standards (slackers). Ignore everyone who goes further than you (overachievers). 

Finally, pick a fight with other people who, for all intents and purposes, also support your cause. Nothing shows how wonderfully mindful, compassionate, and admirable your cause is like a whole lot of petty in-fighting. Come to blows over whether CFLs or LEDs are better choices. Quarrel over who is harming fewer animals. Quibble over motivation. And best all of, form divisions within your cause. Because that whole ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ thing? It’s insignificant rubbish compared to your cause to eradicate the evils of toilet paper on the Earth.

Include all four elements in every conversation you strike up, and you will no doubt end up having a net negative impact on your cause. Note: I am not liable if you get punched, ostracised, or otherwise negatively impacted by following this guide.

Did I miss any? Do you see this happening in the causes you support? Do you ever find yourself doing any of these? (Obviously, I am susceptible to the intolerance part. Sigh.)

What we’re up against

Whenever I feel a little too comfortable in my treehugger social bubble, I need only look as far as my condo complex to give myself a good slap in the face. There are recyclables in the trash…pretty much every time. There is trash in the recycle bin…pretty much every time. The dryers are going full blast when it’s 95 degrees outside, and my downstairs neighbors regularly take 20 minute showers as if the Californian drought were pure fantasy. But today — wow, today was a whole new level of clueless, American entitlement at work.

I’m so astounded by what I observed today that I drew you a picture.

Here’s the explanation. This family lives on a ground unit with a door that opens out on their covered parking spot, where they keep a big gray truck. To do laundry, they put it in the truck, drive it less than 50 feet down to the laundry room, double park, and leave their engine running while they go put their laundry in. Then they back up to their spot and double park it again. A little later, they drive up again to retrieve the washed and dried laundry. They are neither disabled nor old.

(Feel free to interject “WTF??!” at any point here.)

Kevin had to point out what they were doing because it would never, ever have occurred to me that even the most clueless American would do something so phenomenally…I don’ t even know how to describe it. Lazy? Thoughtless? Self-absorbed? Unsustainable? American?

Unfortunately, I strongly suspect they’re a lot closer to the standard American family than Kevin and I are. It’s not just them; it’s an attitude problem that most of America has. It’s the attitude that I’m free to do whatever is easiest, cheapest, and best for me regardless of the costs to other people, species, and ecosystems. That the long term viability of our resources doesn’t matter in the face of present abundance. That I deserve to be able to do my laundry like a bastard because I can. 

This is what the environmental movement is really up against. Be afraid.

Why you shouldn’t tell an environmentalist to ‘choose life’

Over the weekend, I saw two things that really pissed me off:


Hi. I’m one of those nutty left wing liberals you fear hate. And I’d like to remind you of a couple things. You’re telling us to choose life, yet most of us (death choosers?) are passionately against the death sentence. Most of us are anti-war, especially unnecessary wars that have cost us obscene amounts of life, energy, and money. Plenty of us are vegetarians or vegans because we don’t limit the definition or value of life to humans. I’d say that pretty much all of us are interested in preserving life where it has connections and quality, even when that means prioritizing the lives of adult women over a small cluster of fertilized cells.

From an environmental perspective, we’re not talking about a couple of babies versus a couple of trees. Environmentalism is about choosing life over increasing ocean acifidication, loss of habitat, fresh water shortages, and massive extinctions of both plants and animals. (And hey — we’re on the food chain, too. Being at the top just means being the last to starve.) We choose to preserve the life of our planet because our own species, as well as every other species, depends wholly upon it.

For us, choosing life means caring about things beyond our immedate lives and species. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that a growing human population is not going to be compatible with a future world that we want to live in, maybe even a future world we can all live in. Contraception and education, and to a lesser extent the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, are necessary components to our long term ability to live sustainably and thrive on this planet.

Treehuggers choose life all the time, every day, in everything we do to lead greener and lower impact lives. We just do it on a larger, longer, and perhaps less anthropocentric scale than you do. (And what do you do to choose life, other than take away reproductive rights from women?)

Tell us to choose life? I don’t think it means what you think it means.

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