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The U.S. Postal Service has been in bad shape the last few years, with officials threatening to cut Saturday delivery. Mail volume has dropped by 17% from 2006 to 2009, losing a lot of revenue (D.M. Levine, PopSci). What if the Postal Service became a means of environmental monitoring? The government, private companies, and non-profit organizations could ‘rent’ space on mail cars to attach monitoring devices. They could monitor cell phone coverage to air pollution to harmful biological and chemical agents.
It would provide for regional up-to-date statistics. Of course, what is monitored is up to those who have an interest in gathering regional data and in renting space on mail cars.

The Postal Service relies on a telematics system to track packages, similar to GM’s OnStar navigation program. There are already 218,684 vehicles moving along 232,000 different routes across the country. The system to gather extensive information in various regions is already in place. If the information gathered were available to the public, further transparency could be achieved for the atmospheric condition in places people travel to and from. This system would also be able to determine the background levels of certain pollutants or chemicals. Adams writes, we “need the extra-sensory perception of scientific instruments to accord it to the status of material reality” (197). Otherwise, humans are oblivious to the invisible parts of the environment they live in. As we discussed in class, sometimes it is better to be ignorant to the chemicals you come in contact with to prevent over-thinking and stress about how you will react. Again, it would be up to the individual if they wanted to view the stats near their home or work place. But the important part is that the option is there and that information is being gathered about the everyday ‘normal’ person environment. This could be used to make stricter regulations or to pinpoint sources of leaks. It is an idea that could benefit many parties.

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In class, Sola and Sarah asked the question ‘if tests were cheaper, would you participate to find out what toxins are embedded in your body?’ There were yeses and nos, but all decisions were made under personal opinion. Later we talked about government and industries and how we could get industries to reduce their chemical additives. And in Mutant Ecologies, Masco talks about a new definition of ‘natural’ with respect to background radiation.

I am proposing a combination of these three ideas in order to get the government to initiate action. If the government gave free/low cost/or provided other incentives for a large population to participate in toxic screenings (in which individuals had the choice to view their results or not), the government could use this data to gain an overall view of the numerous substances people consume. This would provide scientists with an average ‘background’ of the substances a random individual is likely to contain. They could then pinpoint specific chemicals that cause more harm or whose presence is more elevated than expected and use this information to set regulations among industries.

Using toxic screenings for a communal purpose rather than individual curiosity would provide the government with true background levels of certain substances, which they could then act upon accordingly. If done concisely, researchers could even obtain data on the quantity of specific chemicals used within an industry in comparison to other industries and correlate it to the ‘natural’ background levels or threshold limit values among society. Then it may be possible to make a clearer link between the direct cause and effect scenario, which gives people trouble in court when trying to get compensation from companies they thought caused an illness. For now it is just a thought with loose details but I believe it could someday be revised and implemented. In Enstad’s article “Toxicity and the Consuming Subject,” Brown “urges us to see commodities themselves as having agency and acting upon people” (60) and through my agenda I think it is possible to improve the human health/commodity relationship.

Running the Numbers is part of a continuing environmental art project by Chris Jordan. In this particular section he focuses on statistics, numbers in the hundreds of thousands and millions, which our minds cannot fully comprehend. He uses various components of our everyday routines, such as millions of dollars spent on the war in Iraq every hour, number of water bottles used in the U.S. every 5 minutes or number of tigers remaining on earth compared to a couple of decades ago, and then uses these numbers to create a digital photo representing an aspect of the variable it is comprised of. For example, below is a picture of 2.4 million pieces of plastic in the form of a furious ocean. This 2.4 million correlates to the estimated number of pounds of plastic pollution that enter the world’s oceans every hour.

This one depicts 200,000 heirloom agricultural plant seeds, equal to the number of farmers in India who have committed suicide since 1997, when Monsanto introduced its genetically modified cottonseeds.

This type of photography and visualization is a creative way to symbolize environmental degradation. It often takes the most extreme photos from either pole (beauty or beast) to invoke even the smallest bit of remorse. Only the most dramatized photos make their way into the media. Photos are often of real life nature and humans, whereas Jordan’s photos are more abstract. I feel they often have more meaning than run of the mill Times and National Geographic’s front pagers. Although it is important to see the truth of the matter through images it is equally important to know the facts behind such photos. These compilations make a new alley in which to present photos with relation to real statistics.

Here is Chris Jordan’s website. I encourage you to visit it and take a look around.

There are two general types of risks that we encounter on a daily basis. These are imposed vs. voluntary risk. The difference between skydiving and cellphone towers built outside your house. “The psychological study of risk perception has found that an imposed risk almost always prompts more worry” (David Ropeik-Scientific American). The two can often be correlated with perceptions of the societal whole or the individual. A cellphone tower is imposed and has individual risks to a specific few in return for better communication (often related to safety) and efficiency for the larger population.

This is an adverse effect of modernization. In the past, risk was more voluntary with respect to the natural world. The consequences of our actions were internal and expected. Now as we have modern technologies and various types of waves flowing through our medium, toxic metals within the tools we use, risk unexpectedly comes from external sources.

In terms of individual risk, what fuels or represses our appetite? Professor David Spiegelhalter at the University of Cambridge just started running ‘the biggest study of risk perception ever undertaken.’ One of his categories of focus is the relationship between the type of person you are and the sort of risks you are prepared to take. Taking risks is healthy in many scenarios. “If you can’t predict with absolute certainty what will happen when you make a choice, you are taking a risk” (Spiegelhalter). Everyday, our irrational mind puts our rational body through stress of risks. From this, we learn and modify our decisions to create less risk in the same or similar scenario in the future. This is how mankind has evolved: through voluntary risks, which test and adapt our means of living.

But at what point does voluntary risk become imposed? I avoid lead based dishes at home but when eating out, I am not necessarily in control. I avoid using the microwave but walk through TSA scanners. More and more, risk is becoming voluntary for those in power, who make the final decisions based on their views, while it is imposed to those in the society who may not agree. In the case of nuclear power plants, it is a small voluntary risk for those who decide to install it and a large imposed risk to those near the site. People are in control of the hand they are dealt but are often dealt cards, which they may or may not know to have drastic consequences in the end. Human beings are the sum of their actions, plus a little white noise.

Here is a clip from a longer video about the relationship of human intelligence to/within evolution and our moral guidance by science and technology.

Skip to minute 4:20 and listen to various responses on the release of the book.

In White Noise, when the local fire station’s air-raid sirens sounded and voices suggesting evacuation roared through bullhorns, Jack remained in a calm passive state, denying any devastating affects from the spill unto his property and family. He uses his rank as a professor at the university and the wealth of the town to rationalize their safety. “Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters… did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street on one of those TV floods” (DeLillo, 114). In a time when there is obvious discomfort among the community and a serious event at hand, Jack questions every piece of potentially toxic information delivered by the radio, Heinrich, and Babette. Is he doing this because he wants to radiate a sense of security and composure to prevent his family from overreacting? Or does he truly believe that because he lives in a quaint town with a small university and educated neighbors, that this region will be magically avoided by the evil touch of random disaster? After all, Jack is a white, middle-aged, male professor.

In contrast, the children and Babette pack clothes, food, blankets, maps, binoculars, while Jack clears the table like any other night. Babette is also in confusion about how to react. The adults do not seem to comprehend the dangers of the situation. Is it because with their years of experience, they have never been involved in such an event or because they have grown up with a sense of false security? The kids are younger; less experienced, have more questions, more to look forward to in life, and hence are more concerned with the black billowing cloud and air-raid sirens.

Babette speaks of preparing for possible risks but does not take initiative to actually do so until it is a family consensus. In the Theories of Risk Perception, Heisse quotes Douglas on the presence of risk, he “portrays risk as undoubtedly real, but sees their selection and meaning as culturally conditioned” (Heisse, 128).

The children are less conditioned than the adults, and in this case often more knowledgeable about the risks associated with the disaster. Is there a correlation between the two or are Jack and Babette familiar enough with their society to filter out the nonsense traveling through radios and rumors? Jack is a professor, yet he stands at the back of a crowd listening to his son inform the public about Nyodene Derivative, making educated guesses as to what may happen next. Although Heinrich appears young to be distributing this type of information, does it show that as a society we should give more voice to our youth, as they are the ones receiving the most updated form of education?