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I confess that I’ve never been a fan of reality TV, but I can see why a lot of people find it appealing. It represents a fake reality that attempts to put a more realistic slice of everyday life on TV. People feel connected because they see it as the real story of the tangible, ordinary person. One of the recurring themes of reality TV is the concept of swapping. There are shows like “House Swap”, where people obviously swap houses. After that came “Wife Swap” (really, who watches these?!). Then there was a show called “Black.White” in which the participants swapped races (well, not really, but through heavy make-up it gave the outward appearance of swapping races). Even a show like American Idol was essentially swapping – placing ordinary Americans a situation where given enough talent and popularity, the contestant would swap his or her ordinary life to the celebrity lifestyle of a pop singer.

The other day in class as I watched the group presentation of the documentary “Waste Land” I thought, why did nobody do a swapping show the other way round? So instead of getting an ordinary person off the street to join a show like “The Apprentice” with the possibility of swapping their existing job with a ‘dream’ job of working for Donald Trump, we could have a rich magnate taking on the mundane job of an ordinary person. Perhaps we can go one step further and have the rich person work as say… a catadores? A recycler in Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill? I realise this doesn’t make for great entertainment value nor suit the target audience of reality TV. It’s sad though. It’s just that the idea seems really compelling to me. The media forces that be make sure that what doesn’t sell or doesn’t make money doesn’t get on air. Essentially this is censorship of what people need to be aware of. Wastefulness. Creation of waste. Creation of Waste Land. What we do get is advertisements telling us we need to buy this and we need to buy that. Constant bombardment of consumerism in our faces.

It’s interesting to compare the two documentaries “Waste Land” and “Manufactured Landscapes.” The former shows poor people working in a toxic environment but they are proud and upbeat, knowing that they are responsible for recycling and doing as much as they can with the resources at hand to save the of landscape of Brazil. Never mind the injustice of it all – the rich pollute and the poor save the environment, then the rich can continue to enjoy the environment. In the latter documentary though, recyclers appear visibly depressed, which may have to do with the much greater toxicity from the heavy metals and toxic fumes (a much more toxic environment). These two films have completely changed my view of consumption. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We should have a new saying updated for this information age – if it ain’t broke, don’t replace it. At least that’s what I’m going to do from now on.

 

I think people too often discount indigenous traditional knowledge when they really should be commending indigenous people for a job well done. If we sit back for a moment shed away all our biases to look at what they’ve accomplished, the results are pretty remarkable. Indigenous people had no formal academic training in sciences, and yet through generations of trial and error, they made countless discoveries that were way ahead of the curve than discoveries by Western scientists of the day. In some ways they are still ahead.

A well-known example comes to mind – herbal knowledge that the shamans of the Amazonian rainforests shared with Western scientists directly led to the development of many modern medicinal cures and treatments. In a sense the trials and errors were no different from what we think of as the classical scientific experimental process: observation, hypothesis, test the hypothesis, then either accept or reject the hypothesis. Just because human senses are crude instruments, and that indigenous people may not have an atomic understanding of physics, chemistry and biology, does not mean that the indigenous discoveries are any less valid.

Before I lose track and go off on a tangent about how indigenous knowledge of African elephant migration routes are more crucial for conservation than creating more wildlife conservation parks, let me bring this back to the issue of using local knowledge mentioned in Jason Corburn’s book “Street Science.” The author states that ” ‘street science’ does not devalue science, but rather re-values forms of knowledge that professional science has excluded and democratizes the inquiry and decision-making process.” The author goes on to cite the success of indigenous knowledge in environmental work in developing nations and claims that likewise in environmental and public health in the developed world local knowledge would make a difference.

I agree that incorporating local knowledge and including locals in decision-making helps. But what I’ve learned in this class is that as humans make increasingly complex and toxic chemicals, the traditional ways of sensory perception increasingly breaks down. I’m referring not only to the invisibility of toxins (such as radiation poisoning, which manifests as symptoms that could be symptomatic of many other possible illnesses), I’m also referring to the idea in the Adams’ article “Radiated Identities” that toxins have evolved temporally beyond our perceptive abilities; symptoms may manifest many years later. This certainly doesn’t make it any easier for locals to understand and subsequently share local environmental health knowledge with scientists. This is where I see an inherent limitation of local knowledge compared to the indigenous knowledge counterparts. The dynamic interactions of toxins external and internal to the human body in such an environment seems to give some possible answers, but perhaps raise even more questions and uncertainty at the end of the day.

Referring here to an earlier post by Sam on the same topic, I think he got it right when discussing the possibility of having locals trained in sciences and study the toxic local environment. Either that, or the scientists have to live in those neighbourhoods to really understand what’s going on.

I continue the story of e-waste that my group presented in class. We analysed the documentary “Manufactured Landscapes” and explored the manufacturing/consumption cycle: developing nations constantly manufacture products to feed the insatiable appetite of the developed world, only to have all the wastes dumped back on them after consumers were done with the products. Out with the old and in with the new (more on this later). The developing world then, becomes a factory and a landfill for the developed world. At every juncture of the cycle, even in transportation (as Cody showed on Google Earth the miles of abandoned old cargo ships), toxicity leaks out and strikes at those who are already poor and disenfranchised. The damage done to the environment and to public health is grave, and this should be apparent especially if you’ve watched the documentary. Of course, like many people, if you haven’t seen these sobering sights and sounds, all this toxicity and environmental injustice would be invisible – out of sight and out of mind.

What might a responsible, ethical person in a developed country do? One action, as the video clip below from 60-minutes shows, is recycle the e-waste responsibly, send them to high-tech, quality controlled, properly regulated domestic recycling centres. Surely with all the social and legal structures in place to protect workers, compared to the adverse conditions of workers in say, China, we should be directly helping ourselves and indirectly helping the e-waste recyclers in China. Right?

Take a look at this news story and decide for yourself:

One thing 60-minutes mentioned about seven minutes into the news story is 7 out of every 10 children in the town of Guiyu, the most toxic Chinese recycling centre, have too much lead in their blood. Now picture your local neighbourhood having 7 out of every 10 children with the same lead poisoning as these Chinese kids. What do you think the public would say about this? These poor people in developing nations don’t have a voice. The worse part is, this isn’t a problem they brought onto themselves. We, the developed world, exported the problem to their countries. This is our doing. And as the government’s sting operation revealed, about 50 so-called recycling companies are doing the very same thing they are publicly condemning – dump our load on others. The scenario is simple: farmers cannot make a living farming but are financially better off ‘recycling’ and poisoning their kids while trying to put food on the table. We have put them on the spot to choose between poverty or poison. Still not convinced we are part of the problem?

Watch this commercial from BestBuy:

Growing up in Sydney we were taught as kids to stay in the shade and if out in the sun, to slip, slop and slap. Slip on protective clothing, slop on sunscreen, and slap on a hat. As kids, this all made perfect sense – we have a big hole in the sky that exposes us to the good and the bad UV rays alike. Sure, we didn’t fully understand why but we knew that the risk of skin cancer would be high if we didn’t listen to the grown-ups and so we did as we were told. In school hats were required at all times when outdoors. These hats were baseball caps with a flap at the back that came down over the back of the neck. They were the opposite of cool and not very fashionable. Sunscreen was also a requirement, and it would have to be SPF 30+ or above. All of this was part of a long-running campaign for sun protection started in the 1980s: Slip, Slop, Slap!

When we were older we learned about the chemistry of chlorofluorocarbons (of CFCs) and how they systematically destroy the ozone layer. Of course, it wasn’t that people weren’t doing anything about it because there was already an international treaty signed, called the Montreal Protocol. It was just that it takes at least 50 years for CFCs in the atmosphere to disintegrate and industries had been releasing these chemicals since the 1930s until the 1980s, which means the earliest we can expect no more CFCs in the atmosphere is some time in the 2030s. And the science of it all determined that Australia and New Zealand would be most affected by harmful UV rays being let through the hole, due to our close proximity to the Antarctic circle.

Australia and New Zealand have the highest skin cancer rate in the world – more than 430,000 diagnosed patients per year. Despite knowing this, the entrenched beach culture means that most of us young people would still go about our business and pretend that we were somehow impervious to the harmful UV rays. A tan is always desirable because a tan is a sign of being healthy and it makes you more attractive. (This is probably true for many places in the world but somehow I think the hole in the sky changes things for us.) Besides, typically the symptoms appear much later in life and people’s attitude are that by that stage in life skin cancer would just be a small blip in the many health problems they will be confronted with. Other people believe that just by being outdoors a lot skin damage is inevitable over many years. This kind of thinking has led some to tan on the beach with almost no sun protection (using sunscreen below SPF15+, or no sunscreen at all), and in extreme cases, go tanning in the beach and then some more in tanning salons (which emits UV 6 times higher than sunlight). Personally, I put on sunscreen on only when I planned to go to a beach on a particular day, maybe to go surfing. On unplanned trips to the beach I don’t use sunscreen at all since I don’t carry some with me all the time. I try not to leave home without a hat though. Having dark hair means that my hair becomes hot to touch when in the sun for less than a minute on a hot summer day (about 40 degrees Celsius/104 degrees Fahrenheit). My friend, who has blonde hair, doesn’t seem to have this problem even after 10 minutes. I figured if I really had to worry about the sun there’d be scarier things than skin cancer to worry about.

Language and media are powerful tools that are constantly shaping our risk perceptions everyday. In turn, our risk perceptions shape our behavior, affecting each and every person differently based on individually acceptable levels of risk aversion. We can see these linkages in the environmental space, where people commonly react to language and media representations of environmental issues in three ways –

  1. outrage and/or deep sympathy which moves people to act (i.e. environmentalists)
  2. denial of risk in which people dismiss the representation and sometimes act in opposition (i.e. climate change skeptics)
  3. apathy which is followed by inaction (i.e. everyone else)

(this is, of course, an oversimplification because there are actually many who are just undecided or confused)

Why do people acquire most of their environmental information – and so develop their environmental views and risk perceptions – through the language and visual representations of the media? One obvious answer is the abundance of media representations available to the public as compared to scientific information. Scientific information is first obtained by research, then published, then peer-reviewed, before making their way to the public in scientific journals and magazines. This is a relatively lengthy process. On the other hand, media portrayal of environmental issues is immediate, and plays to the urgent need for action based on the particular discourse presented rather than focusing on getting the facts right.

Consider the powerful combination of pairing a celebrity endorsement with a charismatic megafauna (a fancy name for an animal socially deemed cute and adorable, synecdochically representative of its ecosystem). As seen in the magazine cover below, featuring actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Knut, Germany’s favourite polar bear cub, the visual cues are bold, just like the font at the centre of the page. The first thing that grabs a reader’s attention is the two words “GREEN ISSUE” in a bright light green colour. This has an clear association of the colour green to the environmental ‘green’ movement. The next thing these words lead the eye to is a stern-looking DiCaprio (who needs no introduction) with a questioning look right back at the readers, as though he is asking readers “here’s the problem, are you going to do anything about it?”. Last but not least there is an adorable polar bear cub gazing at DiCaprio, in a way almost ‘soliciting’ the help of this larger-than-life celebrity to come to its rescue. The loss of habitat for the polar bears due to global warming is subtly hinted by a placement of a melted puddle of water below DiCaprio’s feet.

This particular issue of Vanity Fair is promoting the documentary The 11th Hour, supposedly grounded in scientific facts. I have yet to see the film and cannot comment on the science. What people will perceive from seeing this magazine cover in the newsstands is that a popular celebrity enlisting help for a noble cause – save the polar bears. The image itself is a carefully constructed representation of what the risk and price of global warming. The scientific facts are not in the picture. The image is meant to evoke emotions and notions of environmental risk, hopefully moving people to act. While I applaud the efforts of celebrities who want to make a different, such media representations often lead me to ask the question “are my risk perceptions too narrowly shaped because the scenario presented is merely a lens to look at the larger issue – such as global warming – therefore limiting my ability to perceive the larger issue appropriately?”

Leo & Knut the Polar Bear Cub