Tag Archives: environment/nature

Animal Abuse, Oil Leaks, and the Freedom of the Press

Cross-posted at PolicyMic and The Huffington Post.

2We all-too-often take for granted that photographs like this one, revealing the impact of an oil pipeline leak on Mayflower, Arkansas, will be able to inform us about the state of the world. In fact, such images are taken by actual human photojournalists whose rights of access are protected by the First Amendment establishing the freedom of the press.

This is a real thorn in the side of both corporations and governments that might prefer to control media’s access to embarrassing or illegal activities.  So, often they try to strong arm journalists, co-opt local officials, or pass (likely illegal) legislation designed to protect them from the free press’ gaze.  Here are two current examples.

First, Mother Jones reports that Exxon officials are making efforts to limit reporter access to the oil pipeline leak in Mayflower, Arkansas.  This is happening in at least two ways.  First, Exxon representatives and local law enforcement are blocking journalists from accessing the spill site, threatening  “arrest for criminal trespass.”  Second, BoingBoing reports that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has instituted a temporary “no-fly zone” in the area of the spill.  Here’s a screenshot from the FAA’s website:

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Second, in the last two years Americans have shuddered in response to the release of undercover video revealing the abuse of animals on industrial farms and the torture of Tennessee Walking horses.  These have resulted in convictions, but they’ve also raised the hackles of the agricultural industry.  The New York Times reports that, in an effort to limit their risk, they’ve sponsored bills (proposed or enacted in about a dozen state legislatures) making it illegal to videotape animals on their property without their permission and requiring all prospective employees to reveal associations with animal rights groups.

These examples remind us how important it is that journalists have the freedom to do their job.  They also remind us that we must vigilantly protect that freedom.  Corporations, and governments too, have an incentive to limit the freedom of the press.  These are powerful entities, often in cahoots, that can and will ignore the First Amendment when they can get away with it.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Austerity Agenda and Public Employment

While some austerity advocates really fear (although incorrectly) the consequences of deficit spending, the strongest proponents are actually only concerned with slashing government programs or the use of public employees to provide them.  In other words their aim is to weaken public programs and/or convert them into opportunities for private profit. One measure of their success has been the steady decline in public employment.  Floyd Norris, writing in the New York Times notes:

For jobs, the past four years have been a wash.

The December jobs figures out today indicate that there were 725,000 more jobs in the private sector than at the end of 2008 — and 697,000 fewer government jobs. That works into a private-sector gain of 0.6 percent, and a government sector decline of 3.1 percent.

In total, the number of people with jobs is up by 28,000, or 0.02 percent.

How does that compare? It is by far the largest four-year decline in government employment since the 1944-48 term. That decline was caused by the end of World War II; this one was caused largely by budget limitations.

The chart below, taken from the same post, also reveals just how weak private sector job creation has been over the past 12 years (compare the top three rows — the presidencies of Obama and Bush — w job changes This graphic from the New York Times highlights just how significant the decline in public employment has been in this business cycle compared with past ones.  Each line shows the percentage change in public sector employment for specified months after the start of a recession.  Our recent recession began December 2007 and ended June 2009.   As you can see, what is happening now is far from usual.

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It is also worth noting that despite claims that most Americans want to see cuts in major federal government programs, the survey data show the opposite.  For example, see the following graphic from Catherine Rampell’s blog post. economix-22pewwhattocut-blog480 As Rampell explains:

In every category except for “aid to world’s needy,” more than half of the respondents wanted either to keep spending levels the same or to increase them. In the “aid to world’s needy” category, less than half wanted to cut spending.

Not surprisingly, this assault on government spending and employment will have real consequences for the economy and job creation. All of this takes us back to the starting point — we are talking policy here.  Whose interests are served by these trends?

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Purity and Danger: Partisan Politics and Persuasion

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

You’re not going to persuade a conservative by appealing to liberal moral principles.  Tell a Tea Party type that industrial waste harms the environment and should be regulated, you won’t get very far.  But if you appeal to conservative moral principles, the story goes, you might have more luck.

I’ve been skeptical about Jonathan Haidt’s conservative moral principles — group loyalty, purity, and authority — mostly because they are used to justify practices I find wrong or immoral.  Things like anti-gay legislation, torture, assassination, terrorism, etc.

But a recent experimental study by UC Berkeley’s Robb Willer shows that the right kind of persuasion can make conservatives a bit more leftist on the environment.  In his study, participants read a pro-environmental message that was based either on “Harm/Care” (liberal logic) or on “Purity/Sanctity”(conservative logic) along with photos that matched the appeal.

  • Harm/Care: A destroyed forest of tree stumps, a barren coral reef, and cracked land suffering from drought.
  • Purity/Sanctity: A cloud of pollution looming over a city, a person drinking contaminated water, and a forest covered in garbage.

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There was also a Neutral condition: “an apolitical message on the history of neckties.” (Willer has a fine sense of humor.)

Participants were then asked questions to determine their support for pro-environmental legislation.

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For people who identified themselves as liberal, the type of material they saw — Harm, Purity, or Necktie — made no difference in their environmental position.  Conservatives, as expected, were generally cooler to environmental legislation, but only in the Neutral and Harm conditions.  Once they were shown the Purity materials, conservatives were as pro-environment as the liberals.

Other aspects of the conservative mind-set seem to go along with this emphasis on purity:  simplicity rather than complexity and a lower tolerance of ambiguity.  It’s a view that sees the need for clearly marked and rigidly enforced boundaries — the boundaries of the nation, the boundaries of the individual, the boundaries of cognitive categories.

Ultimately, the findings suggest that common ground between liberals and conservatives may not be as impossible to find as it may seem.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Greenwashing Water Use in Vegas

Greenwashing refers to efforts to present products or practices as environmentally friendly while making only minimal efforts to really reduce negative environmental impacts.

I saw a great example of this last weekend at a shopping center here in Vegas. As I was walking by a pond and water fountain, I noticed this sign:

It has several elements of classic greenwashing. The organization “cares about the environment and the community” — a vague, general claim that commits them to nothing specific. And their supposedly eco-friendly behavior is dubious and hard to evaluate. With Lake Mead (Vegas’s main drinking water source) depleted from a decade of drought, certainly any efforts to reduce demands on it are welcome.

But that seems like a rather superficial definition of what it means to care about the environment. The imported water comes from somewhere — an aquifer? another water shed? thousands of bottles of Perrier? — and it seems it would require energy to get it from there to here. The focus on not using a local water source sidesteps the larger question of whether it is environmentally responsible to build ponds and fountains (and grass-based lawns, for that matter) in the desert, regardless of where the water originates.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Reconnecting with Waste through Social Media

Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

Humans produce waste. A lot of waste—much of which comes from our very bodies. Indeed, the average American produces 7 pounds of organic waste per day, largely made up of feces and urine. Cities have to somehow manage this waste, manage these now expelled parts of human bodies, manage that which we produce, drop, leave, and conscientiously ignore. Such management is typically engaged by an underclass of workers, the sanitation department, waste management employees, septic cleaners. When all goes well, waste remains invisible. Unsmelled. Unseen. Silently moved through underground systems and channeled out in ambiguous ways. This is a process to which most producers of bodily waste remain blissfully ignorant.

Sometimes, however, this waste management becomes a problem, and when it does, our expelled and forgotten matter spills back up into human view, reconnecting humans with the ways in which their own bodies must be managed through external structures; reminding humans of the dirty reality of organic embodiment. Such is the case in the New York City sewer system. High water levels, coupled with high waste levels, can lead to sewer overflows, flushing raw human waste into the city’s waterways — including the East River and the Hudson. Nothing reminds humans of their own embodiment like literal consumption of expelled matter. Nothing reconnects humans to an otherwise hidden process than their own shit floating down the river.

A recent solution to this problem of waste re-emergence comes from an unlikely place: social media. Leif Percifield recently introduced a social media tool called DontFlushMe, which allows New Yorkers to keep track of water levels and make waste management decisions accordingly — that is, decisions about whether or not to flush. The system works through sensors within the sewers, which notify users of high water levels via text message, Twitter, a call-in number, or by a website. When water levels get too high, users will ostensibly “let it mellow,” reducing the influx of waste into the sewer systems, and preserving the waterways.

The role of social media here is particularly interesting. Here we have a social tool, a communication medium necessarily removed from the body and physicality, working to reconnect the user to hir body, and reconnect the body to the architectures and structures in which it dwells. This form of mediated communication thins the mediating line between personal actions and public good, between expelling and consuming, between individuals and infrastructures. This tool makes invisible processes visible, and turns everyone into stewards of the shared land.

Such reconnection — between humans and their bodies; between individuals and infrastructures — is facilitated by a tool so often accused of causing disembodiment and disconnection. Social media republicizes and disseminates responsibility for that which was previously relegated out of sight, smell, and mind. This “new” technology, ironically, brings us back to an earlier time of chamber pots and smelly streets, in which bodily awareness was a communal necessity.

*Special thanks to James Chouinard for bringing this social media tool to my attention, and for sharing his vast knowledge on the Sociology of Dirt.

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Jenny Davis is a postdoctoral researcher in the social psychology lab at Texas A&M University. Follow Jenny on twitter @Jup83.

Gender Ideology by Geico

In her classic article, Teddy Bear Patriarchy, Donna Haraway examined the arrangement of the taxidermied animals in the American Museum of Natural History mammal hall in the first half of the 1900s.  She observed that the dioramas consistently featured nuclear families with strong fathers alert for dangers and nurturing mothers attending to their children.

This was a lie, of course. As we well know, the nuclear family is the exception, not the rule among mammals.  Instead of science, it was our own beliefs about men, women, and gender roles that informed the curators of the exhibits… and left viewers with a sense that these arrangements were more natural and universal than they are.

I’m an animal lover and have a broad appreciation for science, so I particularly enjoy exposing this type of projection.  Bee Movie was a particularly egregious case and we’ve written posts on nature documentaries that do this (on hyenas and flatworms).  The latest case is a Geico commercial.  See if you can catch it:

So, if you know anything about lions, you know that it’s unlikely that “Karl” is doing the hunting.  Among lions, it is the females who specialize in hunting (and they usually do so in groups, for what it’s worth).

See, no manes:

The commercial certainly coincides nicely with what many of us believe to be true about the natural role of human men, but it doesn’t reflect the reality of lion life at all.

Perhaps the people at Geico thought that a female huntress would confuse or distract the reader from their joke.  Or perhaps everyone involved in the project didn’t know this fact about lions; their gender ideology would have masked their ignorance, such that it never occurred to them to look it up.  Either way, contemporary ideas about gender shaped this “diorama” and it potentially reinforces similar beliefs among viewers.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Is the Sky Blue?

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.

A recent episode of Radiolab centered on questions about colors.  It profiled a British man who, in the 1800s, noticed that neither The Odyssey nor The Iliad included any references to the color blue.  In fact, it turns out that, as languages evolve words for color, blue is always last.  Red is always first.  This is the case in every language ever studied.

Scholars theorize that this is because red is very common in nature, but blue is extremely rare.  The flowers we think of as blue, for example, are usually more violet than blue; very few foods are blue.  Most of the blue we see today is part of artificial colors produced by humans through manufacturing processes.  So, blue is the last color to be noticed and named.

An exception to the rarity of blue in nature, of course — one that might undermine this theory — is the sky.  The sky is blue, right?

Well, it turns out that seeing blue when we look up is dependent on already knowing that the sky is blue.  To illustrate, the hosts of Radiolab interviewed a linguist named Guy Deutscher who did a little experiment on his daughter, Alma.  Deutscher taught her all the colors, including blue, in the typical way: pointing to objects and asking what color they were.  In the typical way, Alma mastered her colors quite easily.

But Deutscher and his wife avoided ever telling Alma that the sky was blue.  Then, one day, he pointed to a clear sky and asked her, “What color is that?”

Alma, at first, was puzzled.  To Alma, the sky was a void, not an object with properties like color.  It was nothing. There simply wasn’t a “that” there at all.  She had no answer.  The idea that the sky is a thing at all, then, is not immediately obvious.

Deutscher kept asking on “sky blue” days and one day she answered: the sky was white.  White was her answer for some time and she only later suggested that maybe it was blue.  Then blue and white took turns for a while, and she finally settled on blue.

The story is a wonderful example of the role of culture in shaping perception.  Even things that seem objectively true may only seem so if we’ve been given a framework with which to see it; even the idea that a thing is a thing at all, in fact, is partly a cultural construction.  There are other examples of this phenomenon.  What we call “red onions” in the U.S., for another example, are seen as blue in parts of Germany.  Likewise, optical illusions that consistently trick people in some cultures — such as the Müller-Lyer illusion — don’t often trick people in others.

So, next time you look into the sky, ask yourself what you might see if you didn’t see blue.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Fish Farming No Solution to Over-Fishing

Fish farming, the raising of fish in captivity, is often seen as a more sustainable way to feed the increasingly global hunger for seafood.  At least, the story goes, it doesn’t contribute to the over-fishing of our oceans.

Right?

The answer turns out to be: not necessarily.  Carnivorous species of farmed fish still need to be fed, so there is  an entire secondary industry: fishing for fish food.  Just about anything that can be caught will do; the mix of sea animals is simply ground up and made into pellets.  So, the fisherman typically catch absolutely everything that they can, sterilizing a small piece of the ocean.  They don’t distinguish between large and small fish (the large they can sell as human food, the small they sell as fish food) or adults and juveniles. By taking the larger fish, they’re taking out populations before they have a chance to reproduce.  You can see how this is a system with a devastating expiration date.

This 9-minute clip from Grinding Nemo covers the environmental impact of this practice, as well as the inhumane working conditions of some of the men hired to work in this industry:

Via Sociology in Focus.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.