Hot Reads: Cell Phones, Arctic Drilling, Organic but Made in China and More

Can you hear me now?

Cell phones. Every toddler now wants one given our clear emotional dependence on them, but doesn’t it seem a little worrisome that each time we make a call, we’re holding a radiation emitting device to our head? Even more worrisome is that the last time the FCC updated its rules was 1996.  Yes, 1996.  The Macarana was being danced at all the coolest clubs, and people were logging on to AOL with blazing-fast dial-up modems. It’s been 17 years and things have changed. Most notably, the World Health Organization listed cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen, and studies have shown that cell phone radiation can lower men’s sperm count.

Moreover, as landlines fall to the wayside, children have become more frequent users of cell phones. Whether or not this is a postive cultural development is a whole ‘nother story, but kids are especially vulnerable to the effects of radiation, and the current standards are considered too weak to protect them.

This past March, the FCC announced that it was going to reexamine the rule. It’s currently accepting comments from the public and the Environmental Working Group has set up a form that allows you to add your voice to the call for safer phones. Do it now, because this is apparently as infrequent an event as the arrival of the 17-year cicadas. While they contemplate the issue, you can also check out EWG’s tips for what you can do to limit your exposure to cell phone radiation.

Chilling out Greenpeace

The Arctic has an abundant supply of oil and natural gas, and countries with northern latitudes are staking their claims. It’s a bonanza for companies looking to cash out big, and already a number have launched exploratory missions. To monitor the free-for-all, environmental groups have dispatched their own icebreaking vessels, but not without difficulty. Recently, Greenpeace was denied access to the area by the Russian government, who cited a number of bogus concerns about their ship’s seaworthiness.

The Arctic presents a number of concerns for offshore drilling that don’t exist in other regions. The potential for an environmental disaster is heightened due to the inaccessibility of the area and challenges that the ice poses for a clean-up. This is magnified by lax Russian regulations and the fact that one of the places Russia is exploring is a national park. It’s not surprising that the Russian government doesn’t want Greenpeace looking over their shoulder, but its decision to block access is nonetheless an affront to environmental safety as well as international law.

Heavy metal, China-style

China’s industrial boom has supercharged its economy but reaped havoc on the country’s natural resources. Now, with a huge population and ravaged agricultural land, food production has become a concern. China is looking overseas for meat production, most notably in the United States, where a Chinese company bought the Virginia-based pork producer Smithfield Foods. But there’s more to the story.

A shocking one-fifth of China’s land is polluted. Elevated levels of a carcinogenic metal were found in 60 percent of rice samples in southern China. China’s agricultural system is facing a crisis, and the details, as outlined in this story in Mother Jones, are shocking.

Back here at home, environmental regulations are often described as anti-business interests, but China provides a frightening picture of what happens when fast development isn’t tempered by common sense regulations to protect health and the planet. Rena Steinzor, a long-time heroine of mine for her tireless advocacy who earlier this month delivered impassioned testimony about the human costs of delayed regulations in the Senate, also pointed out this week in an op-ed that despite claims of a regulation-crazed expansion of government, the Obama administration is timid in promulgating rules. In fact, fewer rules were issued this past year than at any point during Bush’s eight years in office. There’s a lot of work to be done, with many important rules backlogged at agencies. It’s time to get moving.

For a more personal angle on the China findings, you may want to consider these findings next time you pay more for frozen or other organic foods that are “made in China.” Even if the third party certifiers for places like Whole Foods aren’t fudging the process on the organic standards, as Whole Foods claims, the rules on organics speak to growing methods only, and are simply not set up to apply in highly contaminated places like China, where background levels of pollution are through the roof. The “organic” label does not require any testing, for example, for lead, mercury or other heavy metal contaminants. Organic and local, whenever possible, is safest.

The high costs of cheap fashion

Sometimes the prices seem too good to be true. Twelve dollars for a sweatshirt. Five dollars for a T-shirt. Many big-brand clothing companies now offer low-cost, essentially disposable, fashion. But achieving these low, low prices relies on chasing exploitation around the world, and running their businesses using underpaid workers toiling in vicious, and sometimes deadly, conditions.

This past April, a stunning and tragic 1,129 people died when a factory collapsed in Bangladesh. Following the tragedy, a number of companies signed on to a legally binding agreement that would increase factory safety. Other companies, like Organic by John Patrick, have carved a niche for themselves by selling ethically produced clothes. This recent piece from The Nation details the problems of a system addicted to cheap labor, and the hope that the future will tell a different story.

Optioned

The “opt-out generation” is a term once used to describe successful, career-oriented women who, after childbirth, choose to stay home and raise their kids. The New York Times ran a feature about it ten years ago, and the term then caught on. Fast forward ten years, after a punishing recession has put the salad days behind for much of the middle and working class, and an “option” doesn’t look so optional any more. A look-back this month shows, instead, that the “opt-outs” of 2003, despite ample education and qualifications, struggle to find suitable jobs now their kids are older and they’re want to go back to work.

“Opting out” is presented as a cultural shift, maybe a voluntary throwback to a domestic ideal of eras past. But as is discussed in this accurate but angry, starkly framed op-ed, for many women, opting-out is a necessity rather than an option. The financial burden of having a child begins with your first prenatal trip to the doctor and grows from there. Many women are tens of thousands of dollars in debt before they bring their newborn home from the hospital. Child care costs are rising and are simply unaffordable for many families, the relevant tax breaks are a tragic joke on working families, and many women (and some men) have little real choice but to put their careers on hold to raise their kids.

As a great piece in The Atlantic pointed out in June, the struggle is no longer (if it ever was) just a problem for women:

The Pew Research Center released a study called “Modern Parenthood” in March…. When it comes to work-life conflict, the study found, about half of all working parents say it is difficult to balance career and family responsibilities, with “no significant gap in attitudes between mothers and fathers.”

Yet both women and men temporarily side-lined to raise a family have a lot to give to make our economy go. We simply cannot and should not stand by while they are written off. As I have argued before, we also need far better supports for families, so that fewer parents face these stark and punishing choices.

Getting the lead out

Lead-based paint was banned over three decades ago, but as much as we’d like to think that the problem is over and done with, the regulatory failings of the past still haunt us today. Nicks and scratches can expose old coats of paint on your wall, and unless you use a wet rag when you dust, any lead-tainted particles that are floating around your home will remain there. Lead was also used in water pipes, and some homes still pump water through these toxin-laden tubes.

The effects of lead are especially damaging to children under six, so its critical for parents to ensure that their young ones aren’t unwittingly facing exposure. Take a look at this very clear and helpful list of tips put together by the folks at Healthy Child Healthy World. It’ll help you minimize the chances that lead is endangering your kids. Tests for lead exposure are also a good idea, and the CDC recommends it for all children aged one or two, as well as at-risk children until they turn seven.

Have a great weekend! Coming soon: how to make Dragonbreath Pickles. I bet you can hardly wait.

Other Hot Reads you may like:

The Hollowing, and an Information Democracy

“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…”
— The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot

“A world of made is not a world of born…”
pity this busy monster, manunkind, e.e. cummings

“All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”
— A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

Sometimes trivial events are telling. I went looking for Lincoln Logs for Maya a little while ago, only to find that they are now not logs at all, but instead sad, cardboard-and-plastic affairs, with only the flimsiest relationship to the simple wooden toys of my childhood.

But the truth of what’s happened to the building blocks of our lives is far sadder than that. We make our consumption choices inside the bubble of a globalized, mass culture, on a steroid dose of marketing, with much of the information about how things are made and what they really cost us surgically removed. We can watch a video about “gangnam style” from the other side of the planet, and be exhilarated by vast quantities of information on the Interwebs and our fast life on an information highway, yet, curiously, we have no idea where most of the stuff around us comes from.

In fact, we have been carefully taught to screen out the material of our immediate world, to focus on whatever problem is assigned to us and nothing else. When we go to work, do we ask why the coffee is not organic or fair trade, or where the desks and carpets and chairs came from and what’s in them? Of course we don’t. If we go to some affair by a well-meaning charity, and the hors d’oeuvres are being passed, do we stop someone to inquire where the salmon is from, or whether the waitstaff is unionized? No, of course not. We look past the moment and write a check for social change.

This is no accident, of course. We are afraid of bringing on a confrontation, of making a fuss or asking too much. And the very purpose of the system is to keep us distracted and in the dark. Of course, there are notable and note-worthy exceptions. Students who noticed that they no longer wanted sweatshops making their university garb organized and made real progress in building a fair trade alternative. Organic foods were scarce only a decade ago and now can be found in nearly any real store. There are burgeoning movements about a new ruralism and biodynamic farming, about minimalism in consumption, and a new attention to DIY and upcycling, to slowness and conscientious choice.

These healthier signs notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s mere nostalgia about a more authentic past to suggest that we are living, today, inside an ersatz construction. Inside this simulacrum, we eat food, only to find out that it is mostly from a laboratory, rife with chemicals, gums and cheap substitutions, or from an industrial farm, and loaded with antibiotics, growth hormones, and cruelty to both farmworkers and animals. Even healthy food can now evidently be defined, as in a hotly contested government report, as containing only 50 percent of something recognizable as food (the agribusiness complex argued 50 percent was too high! In food for children!).

We buy furniture made mostly of pressboard and glue from someplace like Office Depot or Ikea, built for obsolescence and destined for a landfill rather than re-use. In fact, as you may have noticed, should some part arrive damaged, the company will ship you a whole new version of the item and won’t even bother to pick the faulty piece up — because while these items are costly, they are without any real value.

Our ‘tweens make “haul” videos of their most newly acquired pile of “fast fashion” clothes, constructed to last one season, and made somewhere else by people working (and sometimes dying) in deplorable, dangerous conditions, by suppliers that pollute the local waterways with toxic dyes and other chemicals. All of our plastics, as well as many of the chemicals and even some food additives, are actually byproducts of the petrochemical industry, thus making us pay them for the privilege of treating our bodies (and oceans) like oil company disposal facilities.

In sum, there has been an unmistakeable and steady hollowing of our lives. While the things around us look, more or less, the same as they did for our parents, with updated styling, there is far less to them in many ways — less wood, less actual food, less intention and care — and far more miles and sleight-of-hand.

The new equation combines the sped-up pace of global capital and the push to find a penny — or a fraction of a penny — from some new process, waste material or lab invention with ready markets ripe for exploitation in parts of the world that lack environmental and labor standards. We are then offered its glittering products, free of worldly taint or complex information. This is what the market wants, we are told. It’s convenient, modern, helpful — even necessary.

But is it really what we want? To be rather numb to the world immediately around us? To have the suffering of strangers quietly but insistently on the edge of our consciousness? To live inside the choices corporations have already made for us without questioning what other world there could have been?

There is, in fact, an alternative, and we already have many of the tools to make it so. We should imagine — and work to bring about — a future of radically unfettered information, and of a particular kind of augmented reality. Think a UPC code on every product, scannable with a smart phone, that brings up the full contents of what a purchase actually means for you and in the world: all of the components, environmental impacts, human health and safety issues, worker safety, life-cycle cradle-to-grave impacts, corporate policies, and even video images of the factory in which something is made, as well as maps of where it came from and how it traveled through space and time to the shelf. Nutritional or other helpful information in context with comparable items (hello, Fooducate), and even the full scoop on what the packaging is made of and its life-cycle.

This would help to foster responsibility all the way down the supply chain, and change the fundamentals of our economy to be both healthier and more sustainable. While many consumers may not care about such details, of course, enough would be impacted by the information to make better choices, and perhaps even to agitate for more accountable corporate and government policies. The agribusiness industry has fought labeling for genetically modified foods and country-of-origin labels tooth and nail for years out of just such a fear: the fear that consumers will care.

And corporations would have to compete in a world of information equality. With supply chains exposed, the quality of their goods and the ways in which they were made would be the distinguishing factors. Governments, which seem so sadly behind the pace of change and the risks, and too often end up being the keepers of corporations’ secrets thanks to outmoded policies on confidential information, could enforce existing rules far easier and dream of responding to new threats in real time.

Despite the fact that we humans have made many of the things now in our lives — we built the buildings, made the appliances, constructed the electronic gizmos and gadgetry — we have no record of what’s in our world. Instead, epidemiologists and allergists and others who study disease go on measuring things like our body burden for toxic chemicals, or the quality and contents of our water or air, and oncologists and other medical specialists go on treating the cancers we get from who-knows-what. To make connections will require rapid advances in both how the body works and what is impacting our health. This is not a medical problem or an environmental problem — it is an information problem.

Neither the government’s systems of protections nor the marketplace can function well when the signals about the differences in choices or products are so muddled. Consumers today — even ones trying to do the right thing — have to effectively get a PhD in multiple sciences, read past labels, ignore misleading greenwashing, and keep up with the latest findings from watchdog groups just to figure out which household cleaner won’t hurt their child. Better companies suffer in this environment, as their sacrifices are lost in the noise, and the engine of consumer choice cannot be harnessed as it could be to drive meaningful change.

In short, the information revolution must make transparent our lives and choices. People working on access to information and the quality of public information should be working together strategically to dismantle the barriers — including current rules about intellectual property and confidential business information, gag orders and secret settlements in court, and labeling omissions that shield hidden or vague ingredients in products and product packaging.

There is a massive agenda here for change, of course. But people working on these issues should knit them powerfully together, in the way that advocates addressing the climate crisis know that they are working on the same issue whether they are combating drilling in the Arctic or local zoning laws.

The changes wrought by open information in the political economy — both within companies and in Washington — could be profound. I humbly submit, as one who’s labored in those trenches, that these types of solutions may prove more potent than some classic “good government” proposals. Publishing more details of the appalling record on corporate lobbying, powerful as it is, often triggers cynicism and resignation among voters. It highlights a government that is remote, making decisions on high and impacted by power in ways that ordinary people cannot compete with. And the best campaign finance reforms have, sadly, been taken off-line by recent Supreme Court decisions that crippled critical aspects of their design.

If corporations are people for political purposes, as the high Court, in its limited wisdom, has prescribed, well, it seems to me a pity that they now know so much about us while we really know so little of them. Equipping consumers with actionable information on corporate accountability speaks to the choices they make every day. If accompanied by thorough reporting to government bodies, enabling them to form a more complete picture, the impact could be substantial, perhaps even transformative.

In the end, what else do we have except for what we do in the world? Making it mean something to us, all the way down, and seeing what it does mean, is a task most worthy of us, our markets, and our public institutions.

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I’ll be writing more on this subject in the coming months. Please send your ideas for posts on corporate secrecy and public access to information and the nexus to public and environmental health.

Some related posts: