Sunday, April 24, 2016

The end of introspection (and why it matters)

A friend of mine who teaches undergraduates provided insight into something I see regularly but don't experience in the thoroughgoing way he does, namely, young people (and some not so young) who appear to be entirely an appendage of their cellphones. One study concluded that "[t]he average college student uses a smartphone for about nine hours each day."

The take on cellphones is that you can customize them to give you exactly what you want. You are in charge. The trouble with this reasoning is that someone else is programming the apps you use; and those apps are programmed to get you to do certain things in certain ways that are generally to the advantage of the companies providing the apps and to advertisers (sometimes one and the same). These apps may be useful to you, but they are certainly not your apps; they are not actually customized. And, they only offer the illusion of control.

Moreover, there is no app I know of designed to get you to stop looking at your cellphone and focus on the world around you or on your inner life. Some people listen to music or podcasts on their cellphones while they exercise, walk, drive, study, read, eat, or do practically anything. I'm all for listening to music and podcasts. But some of the activities listed above are actually great all by themselves.

Then there is the constant texting. Texting is very useful, I find, for telling people I'm running late to a meeting, inviting people to something at the last minute, coordinating family hordes on vacation and so forth. My professor friend tells me that many of his students say they prefer texting to face-to-face encounters. One student went so far as to characterize face-to-face conversation as a form of "aggression." When my friend first told me this, I had the horrifying realization that it's possible that many groups of young people I see texting while standing in a group may actually be texting each other! (Perhaps I'm extrapolating things too far.)

Now, this started me thinking that we are creating a whole generation of people who are ill-adapted to the giant demands of our emerging predicaments related to climate change; energy, soil, fisheries, forestry and water depletion; species extinction; public health threats; and threats from rapidly evolving technologies such as genetic engineering and nanotechnology--just to name a few.

If most people are going to shrink from having a spirited in-person conversation with somebody else about a critical issue, how exactly are we going to move forward on the major challenges of our age? In order to address critical issues, one must do critical thinking. Where is the time for that when all one does is move from music selection, to podcast, to texting, to posting photos, to computer games, to email, back to music selection and so on? There's never a dull moment with your cellphone. But are they really your moments?

So much of our thinking is of necessity shaped by the mass media (especially television and movies), our educational system, our parents' views, and our peers' views. It may be hard to imagine that the little cellphone could really be the main reason for our inability to think our own thoughts.

Perhaps it's not. But it is the attitude the cellphone engenders that presents a major problem, namely, that there should never be a moment when we are disengaged from our electronic communications system, or from the framing of our world that the cellphone and its app-makers have created for us--that there is never a moment when we should be (or even need to be) left entirely alone with our thoughts.

It is true that being left alone only with one's own thoughts can be a frightening experience for many people, an experience some wish to avoid at all costs. For others being alone with their own thoughts merely means boredom. Their thoughts (and the feelings that accompany them) do not sufficiently entertain such people.

But those whose thoughts and feelings trouble them often avoid dwelling on those thoughts and feelings by substituting someone else's agenda for their own.

I would be overgeneralizing to say that this state of affairs characterizes the entire population of young people. There are many dedicated young activists I've met who are perfectly capable of generating their own critical thoughts and formulating actions that flow from them.

Perhaps it has always been true that only a small minority will ever value the inner life even though literature, philosophy and religion extol it as the most important part of our lives. I am reminded of Margaret Mead's famous quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Under ordinary circumstances I would say this is true. But we do not live in ordinary times. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of human culture is at stake. We need all hands on deck (if you'll excuse the nautical metaphor). And instead, we have most hands playing with their cellphones, mistaking the screen for the world and for a pathway to building genuine relationships.

Even people in my admittedly mature cohort find it odd that I almost never look at my cellphone when I'm with them. I never have the ringer on unless I'm expecting a call that will require me to make a decision or provide a response on the spot with no delay. And, that means almost never. When that rare situation arises, however, I always inform the person I'm with ahead of time.

When my friend asked his students to go on an electronic fast for 24 hours, they were horrified. This meant no cellphones, no regular telephones, no computers, no radio, no televisions, no electronic communications of any kind. Most found it extremely difficult and described maladies that can best be characterized as withdrawal symptoms.

The nice thing about withdrawal symptoms is that they go away if you stay away long enough from the thing from which you are withdrawing. Given the ubiquitous nature of electronic communications, it's hard to see any of the cellphone-induced behavior described above doing anything but getting worse. In fact, an article with the ominous title, "10 Ways Marketers Are Making You Addicted to Apps," is actually a general guide for showing developers how to create that addiction, not a warning about how to avoid it.

I'm not sure anything can be done directly about the ever increasing cellphone addiction I see. But there are some indirect things: cultivating an interest and love of the natural world; reading books (okay with me if you read them on an e-reader); going to public talks; playing music (instead of just listening to it); going to the movies (yes, there are some really good movies that stimulate the mind rather than enslave it); laughing with friends (without looking at your cellphone); and walking, biking, or doing exercise of any kind without listening to anything else except the birds and the ambient sounds of the environment. My own experience is that I notice all kinds of new things even when I'm on routes I take frequently. I also get some of my very best ideas when I'm exercising.

If these sorts of activities become your mainstay, the cellphone will find its proper place as a useful communications tool and nothing more. And, it might even be useful in a limited fashion for addressing those critical issues I believe must be our focus.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Why the fight for GMO labeling is (possibly) over

Ever since it became clear that Vermont's law for mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients would actually go into force this summer, the big question has been how many food companies would choose to label their products and how many would choose simply not to sell in Vermont.

There is a third choice which purveyor of canned fruits and vegetables, Del Monte Foods, announced recently. The company will eliminate all genetically engineered ingredients from its foods, obviating the need for special labeling. This won't be too difficult since there are very few genetically engineered fruits and vegetables.

While the Vermont law is huge victory for the proponents of labels, the U.S. Congress could still pre-empt state labeling laws, something it failed to do earlier this year. But as more and more of the public demands to know which products have so-called genetically modified organisms or GMOs in them and as the number of products on grocery shelves with non-GMO verified labels increases, growers and processors may have no choice but to acquiesce. They may be forced by circumstances either to label their products (or automatically be suspected of trying to hide something for not doing so) or to eliminate GMO crops and ingredients for fear of losing customers regardless of what happens in Congress or in other states.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and other books on risk, explains why this is so in a draft chapter of an upcoming book called Skin in the Game. His investigation begins with why nearly every packaged drink in the United States is labeled certified kosher.

The answer is surprisingly simple and leads to counterintuitive conclusions about how certain practices spread far and wide. Even though people adhering to kosher food consumption represent only three-tenths of one percent of the U.S. population, those people are spread throughout the United States rather than being confined to any geographic area. In such a case it is impractical to segregate packaged drinks that are certified kosher from those that are not. It's simply more cost-effective to make them all kosher.

This phenomenon has to do with one obvious and simple truth: Kosher eaters will not eat or drink non-kosher products. But non-kosher eaters have no problem consuming kosher products. One group has a strong and uncompromising preference, and the other group doesn't really care. This, Taleb explains, is how tiny minorities can enforce standards on the rest of the population.

This holds true if the cost differential between two types of the same product are minimal. Where the differential is substantial, as is the case with organic versus nonorganic foods, companies do, in fact, set up two food streams for customers.

Taleb points to the transition from manual-shifting vehicles to automatic shifting vehicles. This didn't occur initially because people preferred automatics. Rather, both those who preferred automatics and those who preferred manual-shifting vehicles could drive automatics. So, the small minority of those wanting automatic transmissions won the day.

As more and more people come to prefer non-GMO food, it will simply become easier to entertain mixed groups by assuring everyone that all the food and drink available is non-GMO. Bloomberg reports that candymaker Hershey recently announced that it is now buying only cane sugar--which means the company no longer uses sugar derived from genetically engineered sugar beets. The company's website lists GMO-free products and promises more to come.

It turns out that a stubborn minority is overcoming a broader majority that is content to eat non-GMO food if that is the preference of the minority.

This is the crux of the problem for companies selling GMO seeds and foods. They can talk all they want about the so-called rejection of science by consumers. In the end, food companies and farmers are obliged to sell people what they want; and where the preference of a minority is very strong, the majority will simply acquiesce.

As Taleb observes:

Big Ag (the large agricultural firms) did not realize that this is the equivalent of entering a game in which one needed to not just to win more points than the adversary, but win ninety-seven percent of the total points just to be safe.

The fight over labeling products containing GMOs has been one of the most potent forces in changing consumer preferences. We will soon find out whether there are now enough stubborn consumers insisting on non-GMO foods to bring the rest of the population with them.

In order to reverse the tide, the GMO industry would have to persuade at least as large a group of stubborn people not merely to tolerate GMO foods, but to insist on eating them. It's hard to see how the industry is going to do that if it continues to oppose labeling and if, as it insists, GMO foods are no different in taste and nutrition than non-GMO foods.

How did the industry end up in this fix? In the early 1990s when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was reviewing the safety of GMO crops, FDA scientists wrote that GMO crops involve unique risks and recommended that the crops be tested for safety in the same way that new drugs are. The cost of doing this would be enormous for each genetically engineered plant variety and would result in long delays before such varieties could be sold and grown.

The industry had another plan. It got the Bush administration to place one of the industry's own lawyers in the FDA and created a position for him that allowed him to stifle the FDA scientists' concerns. The industry lobbied heavily and showered politicians with campaign cash. The FDA abandoned its own scientists' recommendation and ruled that GMO crops are "substantially equivalent" to non-GMO crops. (This makes industry accusations that those who oppose GMOs are anti-science all the more a galling.)

But, by insisting that there is essentially no difference between GMO and non-GMO foods, the industry made what will turn out to be one of the biggest marketing mistakes of all time. For if you insist to consumers for more than two decades that your products are no different from your competitors' products, how can you later come back and say that they are different. And, if you say that they are different, you risk serious regulation of your product by the FDA. So, if there is no difference, then consumers have little basis for preferring GMO foods which the industry admits generally have no advantages* when it comes to taste, nutrition, appearance or shelf life. Otherwise, they would surely be touting these advantages on store shelves and in advertisements.

With the industry insisting for so long that there are no differences between GMO foods and non-GMO foods, it is now stuck in a messaging loop from which it cannot escape. That loop will make it ever more likely that consumers will just go with the flow. And that flow is decidedly in the direction of the stubborn minority who want nothing to do with GMO products.


*The industry does claim that GMO crops reduce the use of pesticides, reduce the need to till the soil for weed control, and can be more profitable for farmers than non-GMO strains. All these may be selling points for farmers, but have little impact on the preferences of consumers. Claims about increased yields have been largely debunked. Almost all of the increase in agricultural yields has come from traditional breeding and better agricultural practices.

Claims about increases in nutrition are usually couched in terms of what crops are in development rather than available today. The one notable exception is so-called Golden Rice which produces beta-carotene, a pre-cursor to Vitamin A, often deficient in Asian diets dependent on rice. A simpler fix would be to encourage a greater variety of crops to include vegetables which are rich in beta-carotene rather than encourage more extensive monocrop farming. Simpler still would be the free or low-cost distribution of cheap and widely available beta-carotene supplements.

Moreover, since GMO crops require no special testing to determine their safety, there is no definitive proof that they are safe. To simply state that foods containing GMO ingredients have been eaten for more than two decades and everything seems to be fine is not the same as long-term feeding studies using control groups done by unbiased, neutral researchers using widely accepted procedures that meet rigorous drug testing standards. Instead, we are all guinea pigs in a worldwide uncontrolled experiment. My main concern about GMO safety, however, is not the possible danger to human health, but rather the potential to create catastrophic failures in the agricultural system via hidden risks.

Still, all of this is beside my point in the piece above. Apparently, the GMO industry does not believe in the free market and consumer choice. Consumers are increasingly telling the industry that they don't want GMO foods. Does the industry wish to legislate that we all be tricked into consuming them without our knowledge and consent? Lack of transparency has been the strategy from the onset, and it doesn't seem to be working anymore.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Corruption, resources, climate and systemic risk

Corruption is a loaded word. One person's corruption is another's sound social policy. Some people believe providing unemployment benefits to laid-off workers corrupts them by making them "lazy." Many others think such benefits are sound social policy in an economic system that is prone to major cyclical ups and downs.

Fewer people agree that bailing out major U.S. banks at taxpayer expense in the aftermath of the 2008 crash was a good use of public money. An alternative would have been for the U.S. government to seize the banks, inject funds to stabilize them, and then resell them to investors, perhaps at a profit.

Was it corruption that led to the bailout instead of a takeover? Or was it an honest difference of opinion about what would work best under emergency circumstances?

We can argue whether these examples of transfers of funds from one group to another are fair. But by themselves they do not constitute a systemic risk to the stability of the entire economic and social system. In fact, some would argue that such transfers enhance that stability. However one evaluates these transfers, I would contend that a much worse corruption is to subject our society knowingly to systemic failures such as severe climate change and widespread crop failures.

To understand this contention, we must review the material basis for our modern society. Despite all the hype about the service economy, the activities which make the service economy even possible are agriculture, fishing, forestry, mining and manufacturing. These sectors create the surplus food and fiber, the surplus energy and minerals, and the surplus goods that allow so many of us to do something other than farm, fish, log, mine or manufacture goods.

By "surplus" I mean that those engaged in the five essential underlying activities of the modern economy provide more food and fiber, extract more energy and other mineral resources, and make more things than they themselves will use. In fact, in so-called developed societies, the people in these occupations create surpluses in their respective areas that are nothing short of astonishing.

In the United States for example, those working in agriculture, fishing and forestry number 2.4 million or about 1.6 percent of the working population of 149 million as of 2015 according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those working in mining including oil and natural gas production (which, after all, is really just another type of mining) number 917,000 or about 0.6 percent of the working population. These two groups provide most of the raw materials for the rest of the economy while constituting just 2.2 percent of the workforce. Some raw materials, notably oil and metal ores, are supplemented with imports. But that is counterbalanced in part by agricultural exports that are about one-third of all crops grown.

Those working in manufacturing number 15.3 million, dwarfing the number who actually provide the feedstocks for that manufacturing. But manufacturing workers still only constitute 10.3 percent of the total U.S. workforce. We also supplement our manufactured goods with imports. But we export high-value goods such as airplanes, pharmaceuticals and advanced machinery.

So, the percentage of the U.S. workforce that provides the actual material basis for the economy amounts to only 12.5 percent.

Even though American agricultural, fishing, forestry, mining and manufacturing systems are exceedingly efficient, this doesn't mean that they are sustainable in the long run. Our agricultural practices by and large erode the soil and undermine its fertility, a process that ultimately will lead to a decline in food and fiber production if unaltered. Our fishing practices empty out fisheries faster than they can regenerate. Our forestry practices may be called sustainable, but removing vast carbon stores from the forest and merely replanting is unlikely to be sustainable in the long run.

When it comes to mining, we already know that mining nonrenewable sources of energy (oil, coal, natural gas) and other raw materials is by definition not sustainable in the long run. For fossil fuels, climate change makes this doubly true. We will ultimately have to find renewable substitutes or go without. Recycling is important, but we cannot recycle oil, coal and natural gas that have already been burned. And, a significant portion of metals that we mine are not recycled but scattered in landfills and in countless other places.

Now I finally return to the idea of corruption. We don't normally think of unsustainable practices as corrupt. Corruption normally implies that the corrupt actor knows that what he or she is doing is ethically wrong or contrary to law. Most unsustainable practices are not contrary to law, and people will argue about whether they are even unsustainable. An act is not normally considered corrupt if the actor is acting in good faith and believes honestly that he or she is behaving ethically and legally. The person might be mistaken. But we don't put people in jail very often for making honest mistakes (as opposed to negligence).

In the absence of definitive answers on sustainability--which we won't have them until it's too late to do anything--we surely face systemic risks. The failure of one or more of these five basic economic sectors to deliver the resources and goods upon which our society depends could be catastrophic--think: worldwide crop failure, decline in available fossil fuels, a shortage of critical metals needed for electronics (which are crucial to the functioning of modern society).

At the very least it is corrupt to subject society knowingly to potential catastrophic failures merely to enrich oneself or one's associates. I am reminded of a cartoon in The New Yorker many years ago depicting a financial presentation for which the caption read:

And so, while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.

While we are being entertained with the exploits of corrupt politicians and businesspeople who hid their money from taxation using dummy corporations concocted by Panamanian lawyers, we should try to remember that, while despicable, this kind of corruption pales in comparison to the kind that threatens to undermine the very material underpinnings of our society.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Vermont calls Big Food's bluff on GMO labels

Large food processors have long claimed that state laws forcing them to label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients would lead to 1) higher prices for consumers who would end up paying the cost of special labeling for one or just a few states and/or 2) fewer food choices as processors simply withdrew some or all of their products from states requiring labeling.

It seems that the state of Vermont has now called their bluff and won.

Neither scenario appears likely when Vermont's labeling law for products containing genetically engineered ingredients goes into effect on July 1. Instead, General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co., ConAgra Food Inc., Mars Inc. and Campbell Soup Company have announced they will use one label that is in accordance with Vermont law for all markets for products containing genetically engineered ingredients and thus avoid the cost and logistical hassle of separate labels and special handling for products bound for Vermont. This was always going to be the simplest way to comply, and Vermont's governor knew it. Expect more companies to follow suit soon.

The fate of Vermont's labeling law for foods containing genetically engineered ingredients--commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms or GMOs--had hung in the balance as a court challenge and federal legislation threatened to overturn it.

But, last year a federal judge decided that Vermont's law was constitutional and refused to issue an injunction to prevent its implementation. This year the U.S. Congress considered a voluntary GMO labeling law that would have pre-empted the Vermont law. But, the federal legislation failed to pass the Senate.

It seems unlikely that the Congress will pass any bill soon enough to prevent the Vermont law from going into effect, making it the de facto GMO labeling standard for the nation. That doesn't mean Congress won't act later.

The industry argues that such labeling implies that there is something wrong with GMO foods when most scientists agree that they're safe. Of course, not all scientists agree, and that's not unusual in any area involving consumer safety.

But the word "safe" has been construed too narrowly in most cases to mean simply whether a GMO plant or animal is safe for human consumption. There are many other issues including the danger of herbicides. The widely used herbicide glyphosate, known by the trade name Roundup, is designed for use with glyphosate-resistant GMO crops including corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, sugar beets, and alfalfa. Glyphosate kills unwanted weeds chemically while leaving the crops themselves unharmed. But glyphosate, which was once thought to biograde rapidly, turns out to be far more persistent in the environment than previously believed. It is now being found in significant quantities in soil, food and water.

The same pesticide is thought to have created superweeds that are now immune to it and have spread throughout areas where glyphosate has been used. The superweeds also affect farms growing conventional non-GMO crops and those growing organic crops.

But perhaps most troubling is the claim by GMO seed companies that they know exactly what they are doing. All of GMO science is based on the notion that one gene produces one protein. If true, GMO seed companies might be correct that they know exactly what traits they are transferring from one species to another. But it has long been known that one gene can produce multiple proteins and that therefore gene expression cannot be so easily predicted.

It is this unpredictability and other factors that make GMO crops a global systemic risk. GMO crops are planted worldwide with little testing meaning any ill effects will be visited on the entire food system. This is the opposite of nature's careful culling of genetic varieties in local areas for fitness over many generations. Novel DNA introduced into the environment can manifest hidden risks that could result in crop failures. And, a worldwide failure of something as central to the current human diet as soybeans would be nothing short of catastrophic.

GMO plants are, of course, self-propagating which means we can't limit their spread. In other words, we can't call them back from the environment if there is a problem. And, their genes contaminate non-GMO species including organic crops which are by definition supposed to be free of GMO genetic material.

All of these factors beyond safety for human consumption are legitimate concerns for consumers. This is an age when consumers want to know not only what is in their food, but how it is produced and by whom. GMO labeling offers them an opportunity to choose based on these broader concerns.

It's quite possible that the Congress will pre-empt mandatory labeling laws in states at some point. But if it doesn't act soon, GMO labeling may become such common practice that any act of Congress will be largely irrelevant.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at