Friday, March 6, 2015

It's The Color You Want It To Be

Somewhat inexplicably, last week my Facebook wall, along with much of the western press, was hijacked by a dress. Seems no one could agree what color it was; some saw white and gold while others adamantly insisted it was blue and black. Now, I haven't clicked on a single headline nor have I expanded any of the pictures, yet I somehow know that there's a controversy without knowing, let alone understanding, the details. I'm sure a quick search would turn up a plethora of divergent rationales and explanations by commentators, scientists, fashionistas and probably even politicians. This got me thinking about the more general state of affairs in today's world as it seems a perfect illustration of the lack of agreement there seems to be about anything.

The zeitgeist seems to be to trust no one, except of course the source you trust. This seems reasonable given the state of the world and the way our supposed leaders have been acting. Perpetual economic, environmental and social crises, a permanent state of war, and a drastic reduction in our civil liberties, democratic rights and future prospects have left many, um, shall we say, sceptical about the motives of those in positions of power and influence. Who can we trust in a world where everything is done out of a desire for self-agrandizement, as a result of ignorance, or, more often that not, plain old-fashioned greed? In short, this is thanks to the present neoliberal form of capitalism which creates perverse incentives that poison everything, and yes, I mean everything, from your drinking water to humanity's faith in progress.

Sure, politicians have always lied, but never before has it been so blatant. Ditto bankers and their ilk, but, seriously, there's no market they haven't rigged nor do they feel any scruples helping anyone who can pay to evade taxes or launder loot. Our athletic heroes turn out to be frauds or wife beaters and now we can't even trust little league games. Beloved entertainers turn out to be sexual predators or worse. The media is ever more transparently biased, little more than cheerleaders for those who pay the bills and grant the interviews and sometimes they just make shit up. We won't even get into religious leaders, but things have become just as bad for the modern world's clergy: scientists. Just as we'd once evoke a god to claim the moral high ground, the tendency today is to point to our preferred peer-reviewed study to prove our point. Yet, scientists are not immune to the disease. While science may be neutral in itself and has given us much that is good it can also be twisted and forged into a weapon to enforce orthodoxy and serve the interests of the wicked.

Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people             - (possibly, depending on who you ask) Henry Kissinger
Sometimes it's blatant but the more dangerous variety comes in a more subtle shade. The latest Et-tu? moment, courtesy of National Geographic magazine, was of this latter treacherous variety. Millions have flipped through its pages for stunning photos and in-depth coverage of issues concerning our world and many have developed a fond attachment bordering on hoarding as they collect issues spanning decades, becoming a part of their fuzzy, feel good childhood memories. So when a venerated institution asks why so many people doubt science by conflating the evils of genetically modified foods with denying climate change, evolution, the moon landing and asserting a link between vaccines and autisms, it is unthinkingly accepted by a huge swath of folks. Here's the offending cover:


What at first glance may seem innocuous is in fact a clear attempt to wield the weapon of scientific knowledge to advance an agenda. First and foremost, what is that word evil even doing there? Shouldn't it be about safety? Even substituting objective for subjective language leaves the readers' brains grappling to compare four near-incontrovertibly proven issues with a fifth for which there's a near 50/50 split in opinion. What's up with that? Well, to nose out a whiff of the current system's poisonous incentives, all one needs to do is notice that most of the studies demonstrating GMO safety have been financed and conducted by biotechnology companies responsible for commercializing the very GM plants they're studying. Gadzooks! Maybe the National Geographic article was really planted as a lesson on why so many people don't trust science. It's not science per se they don't trust, it's industry, corporate-sponsored science they don't trust, whether it's pharmaceutical companies paying for vaccine studies or oil companies financing research to sow the seeds of confusion about climate change.

The article itself really isn't too bad, focusing as it does on confirmation bias while barely touching upon GMOs except for one throw away paragraph. Of course even there, Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach proudly unfurls his freak flag by mendaciously claiming that 'experts' have assured us GMOs are safe while conjuring an image of tinfoil hat wearers when discussing those who question the far from decided science. Worse, it's not even the safety of the plants themselves that concerns the most; it's the fact that so much of the modification goes into increasing pesticide/herbicide resistance, thereby allowing for increases in the amount of products such as Round-up used in farming. What is a safe amount? We don't know, or, well, the only safe threshold we or the FDA know is what Monsanto et al tell them. GMOs are a mass experiment being conducted on the public at large with no consent and no controls beyond what the corporate paymasters decide.

Even if we were to dismiss concerns about the products themselves, once again so-called progress is nothing but a neoliberal ploy to externalize the economic and environmental costs onto the rest of us by the Monsantos, Syngentas and Dows of the world. No, we need not worry that eating GM food will turn us into three-eyed fish, it's the costs that comes with handing over our food security to profit-seeking corporate control. The chemical producers' oligopoly on patented seeds threatens the entire agricultural industry while the diminished genetic diversity such seeds engender imperils our food supply by making it less robust against some unknown future blight, fungus, insect or plague which may evolve to be particularly good at infecting the crop grown from the seed that 90% of farmers use.

Round-up ready crops actually produce Round-up resistant super weeds and bugs meaning more and stronger herbicides will perpetually be needed to attain the same effectevess as before. There are also poorly understood unintended consequences such as these chemicals inadvertently sterilizing the soil of necessary funguses and worms that plants needs to grow which may result in a drop in productivity. Glyphosate has wiped out the vast majority of milkweed plants, the food source for migrating monarch butterflies, both beautiful and useful as pollinators. Speaking of which, what role does it have in the colony collapse disorder killing off our bees, responsible for 80% of the world's pollination. Oh, and that growing deadzone in the Gulf of Mexico, yeah, a result of run-off of fertilizer and all that pesticide.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it - Upton Sinclair
So, when we look to slap the evil label somewhere on this mess, would you put it on the forces doing all this damage while litigating small farmers out of business for patent infringement caused by a breeze, or those who question the sanity of such a system? Seems National Geographic would like society to put tinfoil hats on the latter in the same way they do on those who would have us believe Jesus rode a dinosaur or throw snowballs in Congress to disprove climate change. Clearly, we're expected to ignore the brazenly obvious conflicts of interest that arise from the revolving door between regulator and regulated. Otherwise one might question whether it's science or the promise of a cushy position in the future that determines policies on safety regarding food, drugs, fracking or banking.

Forget that what was once deemed safe has often turned out to be dangerous or you know, deadly. Don't question industry written provisions slipped into seemingly innocuous spending bills laws that bar federal courts from being able to halt the sale or planting of GMO seeds, regardless of any health issues that may arise in the future. Ignore the fact that cartoon babies and teachers can get scientific papers published, easily done I suppose when papers that largely consist of the words "Get me off your fucking mailing list" repeated 863 times have been accepted by a journal that claims to be peer reviewed. Of course, it's no sweat to shrug that off considering the publishing peer review scam plaguing scientific journals involving fake reviews and even authors reviewing their own papers. Gaming the system has become a business with outfits charging a fee to arrange authorship in peer-reviewed outlets. Uncomfortable questions would inevitably lead to the uncomfortable answer that the neoliberal economic model has poisoned both academia and science. Who would have guessed that pressuring professors and scientists to publish would have such an effect?

Fortunately there's a couple of solutions on the horizon to deal with the problem of competing points of view. The US House of Representatives will most likely soon pass the Secret Science Reform Act and the Science Advisory Board Reform Act which would require the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to only consider publicly available data when making policy recommendations. Yes, the US Congress is actually attempting to make it nearly impossible for real scientists, as opposed to paid Energy Industry shills posing as scientists, to testify before their committees! For the rest of us mortals, Google is working on a way to change their search ranking from incoming-link based to groupthink based. Yes, to ease our cognitive burden, Google will tap into their 'Knowledge Vault' to determine how many false facts sites contain and bump up those they consider trustworthy. What better way to ensure we don't have to endure the unpleasantness of being exposed to contradictory views.

Seeing as simply questioning GMOs is dabbling in conspiracy theory, why not go a step further? I'd be willing to wager that we'll be seeing more articles like the Nat Geo story or the New Yorker hit piece about anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva in the near future. Despite producing 1.5 times enough food to feed the population, scarcity is all about inequality and the resultant maldistribution, I'll guarantee we'll be seeing more ginned up scare stories of the coming famine and the need for GM food to feed the world. See, the US Congress should soon be introducing a bill to grant fast track authority to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (the TPP). Approval would neuter any debate or amendments to the agreement, the biggest free trade agreement in history involving countries stretching from Chile to Japan, representing 792 million people and about 40% of the world economy. Knowledge engenders debate, while surreptitiousness sanctions silence.

If you haven't heard of it, that's the way they, along with the corporate world, want it to be. All we know comes courtesy of Wikileaks as the deal has been negotiated entirely in back rooms, but what we do know ain't pretty (really, look up investor-state dispute settlement wording and tell me we don't live in a corporatocracy). As far as GMOs are concerned, the deal would ban GMO labelling, an unsurprising gift to the industry considering that the chief US negotiator on agriculture just happens to be Islam Siddique, a former lobbyist for ... Monsanto. You might have guessed had you read the Wikileaks cables which revealed that the US State Department acts as Monsanto's foreign marketing arm. Let's not even talk about how the World Bank and IMF recently forced Ukraine to agree to open their farming system to GMOs, that's a topic for another day.

Turning this corporate/government axis into three-headed Cerebrus is Bill Gates. Yes, although his billions have helped rehabilitate his image, transforming the former monopolist into a philanthropist, the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation turns out to be every bit as evil as Microsoft. It makes sense when we consider Gates billions weren't earned through technology so much as his skill in developing the software EULA, or end-user license agreement. Not only are they at the forefront of the neoliberal assault on education, they've also jumped into the GMO debate with both feet and a stack of cash. In addition to (not so) quietly snapping up over half a million Monsanto shares, they also awarded a grant to Cornell University to "depolarize" the debate over GM foods. Despite their efforts, 'polarization' can be found by reading an open letter plea from the Alliance For Food Sovereignty in Africa to the foundation to stop funding the so-called GM 'super banana'. Having seen what the GMO industry did to India, Africa is begging for mercy knowing that it may not be possible to endlessly 'patch' the genetic 'bugs' that are revealed after the product is rushed to market without the proper testing.

It somehow seems fitting to wrap up this rant on the oft-times richest man in the world. After all, he earned his billions on the back of the present perverse neoliberal capitalist model that rewards mediocrity and pretend progress over human well-being. Not only does it externalize costs but it somehow does the same for blame. We can't hold corporations culpable for their destruction when they're simply doing what they are legally mandated to do: increase shareholder value. Neither can we condemn Joel Achenbach for writing such a piece as a person who wants to continue working for a mainstream media company (or think tank, university, government...) must toe the line in order to put food on the family's plate. However, we must be vigilant and call out those who would conflate such issues. Climate change exists. Evolution is happening. The moon landing was real. Vaccinations don't cause autism. Genetically modified foods aren't evil and in fact may have a role in putting food on all our plates in the coming climate change dystopia, but the corporate agenda and neoliberal system is most definitely evil.

21 comments:

Steve Hayes said...

Concerning "the dress". I saw pictures of it on Facebook. Well, actually, what I saw was pixels on my monitor. That was what the dispute was about, not the colour of a dress.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece! I've stumbled upon your blog again after a few years away: glad to see you're still at it and still hitting them out of the park!

(There's a tired but thoroughly American metaphor for you!)

-cft

Shane said...

Exactly Steve, it's not about what color it is ,but what we see through our distorting lenses, be they computer screen pixels or personal biases.

Good to have you back cft, truth be told I was a bit AWOL on the blog, only managing my NFL preseason and Super Bowl posts last year. Trying to find the time lately to get back in the rhythm, so it's great to hear that there are people reading, thanks. Baseball spring training must be in, um, full swing Stateside these days, thanks for the reminder.

Ricky Johnson said...
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Ricky Johnson said...
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Anonymous said...

Great to see you're back in the saddle (just to keep the metaphors going).
One of my favourite commentators on the careering train wreck that is neoliberalism.
Charlie

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Tala Ofm said...

Very interesting article. I love how you connected the idea to the dress :)

Jimmy Hazard said...
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Ricky Johnson said...
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Jimmy Hazard said...


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Ricky Johnson said...




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Ricky Johnson said...


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Ricky Johnson said...






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Ricky Johnson said...



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