Monday, July 17, 2017

Climate Comedies

I caught Al Franken and David Letterman's Funny or Die series on climate change: Boiling the Frog. It's vaguely informative and not particularly funny, but fans of either guy might be willing to check it out. They focus on what their children and grandchildren will have to live with, and how they'll answer when asked what they did about it all, which I think is a fairly relatable tactic. And at about three minutes each, it's easy to watch an episode while you're waiting for the kids to get their shoes on. It's great for a populous with short attention spans, but it's hard to find a funny angle to talk about the dangers we're facing.

One episode referred to the show Years of Living Dangerously, which I hadn't heard about despite being three years old. It's a star-studded series (including Letterman in one episode) exploring climate change with lots of dramatic shots and music, but, based on the premiere only, it's not walking the walk. The very first scene has Harrison Ford excited to be flying a jet to visit with climate scientists. In one of the Boiling the Frog episodes, Franken asked Letterman, couldn't he just read about India's coal problem without travelling there? It's an important question. We have lots and lots of movies about climate change already. I'd put DiCaprio's film at the top of the list for clarity and persuasiveness. So it's been done. We need to stop flying film crews all over the world so Ford can say, ominously, "I'm going there to find out more!". I'm all about this stuff, and it got excellent reviews, but I won't be watching past the dramatic premiere.

The information is all out there in multiple genres and media already. Maybe it's got to move out of the documentary arena and into the HBO dramas for people to start paying attention. We need a risk-taking coming-out show like Ellen had when her character admitted to being gay. It's a similar risk to start talking about environmental destruction on a popular show in that sponsors might pull their ads, but, if it's done well, it could raise ratings enough that sponsors will come back. Then all other shows will scramble for a token environmentalist on their show! Right?

Somehow, of course, even despite religious protests at the time, two women kissing has a bigger draw than people choosing bikes over cars or overtly recycling or refusing to fly anywhere for ethical reasons. And it has a way bigger draw than famous people flying place to place to look at desolate and destroyed areas of the world.

Friday, July 14, 2017

On Hedges' Veganism Claims

Chris Hedges' recent article, "Eating Our Way to Disease," largely just advertises the new doc What the Health:
"Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn—whose documentary Cowspiracy, about the environmental impact of the animal agriculture industry, led me to become a vegan—recently released a new film, What the Health, which looks at how highly processed animal products are largely responsible for the increase of chronic and lethal diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer in the United States and many other countries."
Eating vegan is more ethical from an animal rights point of view. I believe it's healthier for the body to eat way more vegetables than meat and that it's much more efficient for people to eat grains than to feed grains to cattle and then eat the cows. From a moral, nutritional, and environmental perspective, I support the shift to veganism or at least vegetarianism, or, at the very least, reducetarianism. Absolutely.


I wrote about some concerns with Hedges' praise of Cowpiracy before:
"The documentary Cowspiracy claims that 51% of GHG emissions are from agriculture (scrutinized here). Every other report on emissions has much lower numbers, including the IPCC, which puts it at 24%.... It's still up there, and it's definitely something we should act on by eating way less meat, but that 51% number seems to be seriously questionable. Documentaries need fact-checking too....But then Chris Hedges started praising the documentary and citing that number as fact. Yes, even the great Chris Hedges doesn't have time to fact-check everything he sees, and his bullshit meter must have been subdued from all the footage of suffering animals. When facts are reported inaccurately, but they help the cause, it's harder to be motivated to correct them. But it doesn't make them any less inaccurate."
Those last two lines linger.

First of all, we need to acknowledge the three-dimensional nature of all of us, neither demonizing nor glorifying anyone. I tend to think of Hedges as a bit of a hero, and he's clearly intelligent, but it appears that that doesn't stop him from being a little sloppy around some facts. Others have raised concerns around plagiarism, and his response there is perplexing. Well, it's only perplexing if we think of him as better than the rest of us fallible souls.

But secondly, if these shocking claims encourage people to eat less meat, which will have a positive effect on the environment (not quite as much as claimed, though), then should we just let it go? A Lund University study shows that eating a plant-based diet is one of the four most important activities individuals should do to affect climate change. The amount of meat we eat is definitely a problem. Should we let people think meat-eating is as bad as these films suggest? I think not. I fear it runs the risk of a Reefer Madness backlash. Once teens realize that their health teacher's tales of people jumping off a building after one toke from a marijuana cigarette are total bullshit, then they stop believing anything else from them. They need to know the real problems with smoking pot, and there are some, in order to make an informed choice. If Hedges supports claims that are a little bullshitty, then people might stop listening to any of it and continue to eat meat several times a day despite some real problems with that.

And then he boasts that the companion book to the new movie was written by his wife.

Her book's reviews on Amazon are mostly glowing, some reviewers suggesting they're using the book in their high-school classrooms (which feels more like a pitch than a review), but the criticisms there addresses specific concerns, many with solid backing:
"This is nothing but fear mongering at its best. You simply cannot say that processed meats cause as many deaths as tobacco, it's factually impossible! There are 34,000 deaths per year on average (W.H.O estimates) from processed AND red meats. There are over 8,000,000 deaths from tobacco every year. This is no way, shape, or form comparable to processed meats."
Here and elsewhere people are taking to task another claim from the book and film that beef is toxic because pollution gets in the cows when they eat grass, since it's obvious that the same pollution would get into vegetables and grains that we eat. Denise Minger does a thorough take-down of claims from Dr. Garth Davis, one of the experts from the film. And the Skeptical Cardiologist questions some claims from another expert, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, as does Minger.

I don't have any interest in seeing the film or reading the book, but I skimmed the Amazon "look inside" pages, and this bit caught my attention (page 75):
"People who ate 68 grams (about a cup) of broccoli sprouts significantly inhibited the bloodstream levels of an enzyme linked to cancerous tumor development (24), only three hours after eating the sprouts. The broccoli sprout snack was just as effective, or even more so, than the chemotherapy agent specifically concocted to lower that enzyme (25). Broccoli sprouts or chemo? Hard decision." 
Hold the phone - so broccoli can replace chemo?? I linked the studies cited to show the problem with this claim. The second study (25) found that the spouts briefly inhibited the epigenetic markers for cancer. But it makes it very clear that the study was  an attempt to prevent one specific provocation, not a therapy for cancer that exists. The three (three!) participants tested were all perfectly healthy at the time. And, as Wong says elsewhere, genetic markers cause only a small percentages of cancerous tumours anyway. The first study cited (24) explains the idea, but doesn't actually discuss the broccoli sprout study specifically as one would expect given the location of the citation in the passage. If it were a student's essay, I'd call that padding. Regardless, the original study's finding is in its initial stages and, more importantly, doesn't remotely suggest broccoli sprouts could replace chemotherapy in the least. Wong conflated concepts in a very misleading way.

I'm not going to fact check the many claims in the book, but one error of this type and magnitude is enough to throw into question other claims. And this passage is particularly dangerous if people take Wong, a classically trained actor, as a medical expert because the claim is published in a book about health and nutrition. I questioned the qualifications of the publisher and, lo and behold, it's a self-publishing company, Xlibris, so it's possible that nobody's fact-checked the material. Unfortunately, because it's in a paper form, it feels that much more legit. Caveat emptor and all, but this is troubling.

It's more important than ever that people understand how publishing works, what a peer-reviewed journal entails, and what is and is not peer-reviewed. But it's also important that we all understand some basics of the scientific method if we're expected to understand any of these studies. Or, at least, it would be nice if authors of nutritional books and films were able to use a basic scientific knowledge to understand their research more thoroughly. You don't have to have a medical degree to assimilate studies and form a conclusion, but you do have to read past the abstract.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Sooner Than You Think

Yesterday's NYTimes has a lengthy article, "The Uninhabitable Earth," subtitled, "What Climate Change Could Wreak - Sooner Than You Think."

In a nutshell:
"...the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming ... that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand....Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.... we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up....the climate window that has allowed for human life is very narrow, even by the standards of planetary history." 

We'll have issues with death by heat, drought and flood induced food shortages, plagues of insects and bacteria that won't die off, suffocating air, constant war, economic collapse, and poisoned oceans.

Why are we so blind to all of this?
"The dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, especially in novels, which tend to emphasize the journey of an individual conscience rather than the poisonous miasma of social fate."
At least, at the very least, this is major mainstream news now. People are starting to listen. But will it make them more closed in with fear, even more flippant and careless, or actually more motivated to change??

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

On the Year that Kicked My Ass, and That Time My Ass Kicked Back

Well, it's starting to kick back, ever so slowly.

I went on another Wild Women adventure, this time to Georgian Bay to try my hand at kayaking for a change. I was with a whole new group of women, our ages spanning three decades and from a wide variety of professions and backgrounds (and photographic skills - all the pics here are from them). It's always a treat to be on the water surrounded by the giant slabs of rock and tall trees rooted in the tiniest crevices with people concerned for the health and well being of the water, air, and land. We wash on the ground well away from the lake, compost as we go, forgo campfires, and practice no-trace camping. Meetup groups aren't always as environmentally minded. The guides on the trips are exceptional, well practiced in both tripping and diplomacy, and the food is better than anything I typically eat at home.

Wearing the exact same clothes as last time!
On the last trip, I went in order to challenge myself to solo a canoe through the portages so I could travel alone. I've been on my own for almost a decade, and I'll need at least to be able to take the lead if I hope to ever get any of my not-so-canoe-y friends on board. In order to do the things I most enjoy, all by myself became a bit of a mantra.

And then this year of surgeries happened.

Total independence is no longer my goal - can no longer be my goal. I have to work towards working with others in order to get anywhere. This trip came just when I needed it as I teetered precariously on the brink of succumbing to self-pity. My dad, who also left me this year, always saw my quest for independence as a barrier and encouraged me to "let other people shine" by asking for help and sharing the load. I tried to asked for help, and for things forgotten, and for time for a break without feeling sheepish or ashamed of my blunders and inabilities. Interdependence is a hard one for me. And, through it all, I was still pushing myself, able to feel just enough muscle strain at the end of the day.
"Purely physical fatigue, provided it is not excessive, tends if anything to be a cause of happiness; it leads to sound sleep and a good appetite, and gives zest to the pleasures that are possible on holidays." ~ Bertrand Russell

I started the trip terrified about hurting myself with cuts, blisters, bites, and burns to my arm. I already got a paper cut marking final exams, which was a bit like getting the first scratch on a new car. I watched it on tenterhooks as it healed over days. Despite many lymphedema-driven rules to wear gloves to wash dishes so my hands aren't wet for any length of time, no gloves were able to keep my hands dry kayaking. Pre-emptive bandaids to avoid blisters also failed me; next time I'll remember to bring duct tape. Despite repellent, I got a couple mosquito bites. Despite liberal amounts of suntan lotion and a compression sleeve, I burned the fleshy sides of both elbows. But every cut, bite, blister, and burn healed without fanfare.

Knowing I'm still able to heal helps me breathe again. A bit. Studies caution us to increase activity very gradually, and, after just one day of physio with just three pound weights in my left hand, I jumped into the trip. There's absolutely no going easy on one arm in a kayak, and I have no idea how to tell the difference from hardworking muscle pain and problematic lymphedema pain, so I took a break on one of the days as if doing a little less than everyone else would prevent strain. I couldn't figure out any other means of measurement. Then today, for my second visit with the WellFit trainer, I suggested we could probably do the same weights on both sides. I seem no worse for wear.

It appears that I really just can't be as careless or reckless as usual. I'm strikingly clumsy maybe because I have a high tolerance for pain. I'd rather crash through the bush or scramble over rocks oblivious to scrapes and bruises than to watch my footing. It's so boring being careful. One of the guides felt the need to whisper to me, "I need to see your shoes on." I think I take in the world by sense of touch! Now I'm finally forced to heed my mother's warnings and slow down.

I can't say I don't sometimes fall a bit into resentment of the hassle, for instance, every time I have to think about petting my cats with my right hand only in case they suddenly turn to attack, which they are wont to do. But I took Pigliucci's book on Stoicism with me, which helped me remember Epictetus's attitude after his leg was broken in an act of malice: "Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will; and say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens." It is what it is, and there's no point lamenting the past. As Pigliucci explains, "we need to learn how to maintain agency under changing circumstances."

On the first evening, at a beautiful inn we stayed at to prep our gear and work on some basic skills, a guide who was unable to join us on the trip told us about her back problems and a recent arthritis diagnosis that makes sitting excruciatingly painful. An avid kayaker, her passion and livelihood has been pulled out from under her just like that. And here I am, pathetically complaining when I just have to stop bumping into things! We need role models for coping with that level of tragedy. Adversity is a training ground. Challenge accepted!

I'm just beginning to understand my doctor's cavalier attitude and his push for me to live my life normally. I could live in a bubble and still swell up, or I could get a few nicks along the way and be reasonably fine. Fine enough. It's not possible to completely eliminate the risks in life. It's better to avail ourselves of the possibilities rather than cower at the thought of what might be.

No fear of snakes or other creepy-crawlies - yet. 
It's bizarre how many little fears I've developed along the road, how much I've heeded anxieties over tight spaces or dark streets or uncomfortable conversation at the expense of potential pleasure. At that skill-building session, we were made to roll the kayaks. After a decade of swimming only with my head above water since developing a phobia as a curious side-effect of laser eye surgery, this was a frightening prospect. My daughter's been trying to get me to put my head under for years, Sunday after Sunday at the local rec centre. Apparently, it takes just about a dozen sets of eyes on me to overcome my fears enough to just do it already.

These groups are phenomenal for cheerleading one another on, and I considered why that attitude can't follow us everywhere. Why don't we always listen to and support our neighbours and acquaintances much less random strangers wherever we go? I think our competitiveness thwarts attempts at connectedness.
"What people mean by the struggle for life is really the struggle for success. What people fear when they engage in the struggle is not that they will fail to get their breakfast next morning, but that they will fail to outshine their neighbours. It is very singular how little men seem to realise that they are not caught in the grip of a mechanism from which there is no escape, but that the treadmill is one upon which they remain merely because they have not noticed that it fails to take them up to a higher level....The root of the trouble springs from too much emphasis upon competitive success as the main source of happiness." ~ Bertrand Russell

I think part of the ability to override that on trips like this is that the setting and situation dampen competition. When we do everything as a group towards a common goal, there's nothing to gain by being fastest or strongest except an expectation that you'll take on a greater share of the burden. We need each other to get anywhere. Taking too much from an individual in the group is of no advantage if we have to carry a broken soul to the end with us. It's a nice little snapshot of the merits of socialism. Nobody gets left behind.

But I also think our diversity helped. As a teacher, I offer all my curriculum for the taking to anyone who visits my website, but many teachers don't share quite so well. Regardless our common goal of helping students learn, some teachers keep their efforts close to their chest, wary of anyone who might use an incredible lesson plan as their own. Even though the worst teachers rarely get fired, it's a weirdly and unnecessarily competitive field. I've come to understand it as akin to siblings vying for parental attention. We're similar enough to provoke us to search for that little something to make us stand out. But on a trip like this, with a random collection of people from varied professions, we're different enough to comfortably support one another, to lean on one another, and to learn from one another: little tidbits like, 'When the moon is full, it will rise directly across from the setting sun.' Who knew!?! 

Then turn around and...

I'm not remotely sentimental, but at the end of five days, I surprised myself by being a bit of a blubbering mess. Kindness always slays me. In movies, people can die off and hearts can be broken and I'm completely unaffected, but moments of warm sincerity, and I'm a basket case.

Back at the ice-cream stand where we left our cars, there were no qualms about changing out of wet underwear out in the open. There's an abdication of civil self-consciousness that happens if you're outback even for just a short time. It wasn't until after getting a ride into the city with the rocks at the sides of the highway shrinking into the distance and then getting on the rattly GO bus that I was suddenly aware of my days without bathing, and I tried to sit all closed together and away from anyone else so as not to offend.

Back to town, I hoisted up my pack and walked the three km through the park home. I was too stinky for a cab-driver to have to endure, and I hate that we live such sedentary lives that we've crafted an entire industry devoted to provoking us to intentionally move our bodies. It's so much easier when it's a useful effort, when it's to move us forward rather than when it allows us the convenience of staying in place, moving for the sake of moving without any larger purpose informing our actions.

ETA: Just got back from a lymphedema check-up. After measuring my left arm, the nurse was very concerned that the swelling increased in my lower arm by more than a centimetre in just a week. It means the swelling's moving down my arm, which could end up interfering with my ability to use my hand. Then, just to be sure, I suggested she check the other arm as well. Lo and behold, my right forearm was also more than a centimetre larger. It's muscle, not fluid. That's what a week on the water will do for you!!