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Obama, the Protagonist

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Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Like so many others, I first watched him speak on the night of the 2004 Democratic convention, the year John Kerry became the nominee. He was still a state senator then, his face unlined, his head full of dark-brown hair. He humbly told the audience that his presence there was “pretty unlikely.” His Kenyan father had grown up herding goats; his paternal grandfather cooked for a British soldier. In a Baptist cadence, he quoted from the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s words are stirring on their own, but when a certain kind of orator gets hold of them, the effect can feel like thunder, or the Spirit. The country had tumbled into a new century after a contested election and the start of a war in Iraq. Barack Obama spun a convincing vision of the nation as “one people,” in which our ethnic, religious, and ideological differences mattered little.When I think about what Obama meant to me at the time, my eyes pool with water. I was fresh out of college, taken by the force of his intellect and the way his ideas seemed to cohere and hum. His ear for language was evident in his oratory and in his prose. Dreams From My Father, his first memoir, drew from a humanist tradition of American autobiography laid down by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin. Toni Morrison’s eulogy of Baldwin in 1987 seemed to foreshadow what many would feel about Obama in 2008: “You made American English honest … You exposed its secrets and reshaped it until it was truly modern dialogic, representative, humane.”And yet, it wasn’t enough; the reverie wouldn’t, couldn’t last. In Great Expectations, Vinson Cunningham’s debut novel, the New Yorker writer and critic assesses the hope and disillusionment of the Obama years in a thinly veiled political satire-cum-bildungsroman featuring an Obama-like junior senator as “the candidate,” as well as a multifarious cast of supporting characters who employ their savvy, money, and connections to get him elected as president. Cunningham takes the reader back to a time when many thought Obama had an answer for every American ailment: He would usher the country into a post-race era, offering white people grace and absolution while assuring Black people that they would hereafter get a fair shake.The novel is a keen look back at the failed promise of those early years, during which the country’s lofty expectations left little room for the candidate’s human fallibility—and obscured the reality of American politics. In this country, progress has usually happened in complicated, nonlinear ways: Hard-won advances are generally followed by forceful backlash and heartbreaking setbacks. Advances in civil rights, economic equality, health-care access, or environmental policy have often triggered reactionary codas; since at least the end of Reconstruction, momentum toward multiracial democracy has inflamed particularly vitriolic responses. Ultimately, Cunningham’s novel reminds the reader that simple solutions—the passage of one just law, the election of a single great leader—are seldom a match for American problems.[Read: The political novel gets very, very specific]The narrator—based on the author himself, who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign and in his White House—is David Hammond, a 22-year-old single father from uptown Manhattan. Floundering after dropping out of college, he joins the campaign as a fundraising assistant on the recommendation of the well-heeled mother of a teen boy he tutors. As the novel roves from Manhattan to Manchester, New Hampshire; from Los Angeles to Chicago, David, whose true ambition is to be a writer, uses his new role to sharpen his ear and eye. He’s middling at the minutiae of the job but great at interacting with people. He makes friends with his co-workers and stumbles into a tender love affair with another staffer named Regina. Along the way, he loses slivers of his innocence as he sees what lies beneath the campaign’s shimmering exterior: the candidate’s aloofness when he is offstage, the financial improprieties of a few wealthy patrons. Eventually, the blind allegiance of the candidate’s supporters—their belief that the campaign is a “move of God”—begins to feel foreboding.David often invokes the ecstatic mysticism of religious devotion as a metaphor for the candidate’s hold on his supporters. The senator “reminded me of my pastor,” David says early on, his regal posture bringing to mind a “talismanic maneuver meant to send forth subliminal messages about confidence and power.” One night, on the trail in New Hampshire, David tells Regina about a magic trick he’d witnessed as a teenager: While waiting outside of church with his friends, he’d watched as a magician performed a standard sleight of hand, then levitated a few inches off the city pavement. “Everybody screamed. It was mayhem,” David remembers. “Black people love magic,” Regina rejoins, through laughter. It is a detour in a novel of detours and roundabouts, and also a parable that smartly explains how the candidate’s fervent admirers could be so awed by his charisma that they missed the signs of trouble to come.Sometimes David allows himself to get carried away like everyone else. He thinks about how the candidate and his family had begun to embody some kind of national fantasy of a Black Camelot. “Maybe there was the hope that black, that portentous designation, could finally be subsumed into the mainstream in the way that Kennedy had helped Irish to be. That some long passage of travel was almost done,” he thinks at one point. In that same stream of thought, David suggests that the public’s belief in the candidate’s ability to dismantle the racial hierarchy is largely thanks to his symbolic appeal: It was, he observes, “mostly the look” of the candidate and his glamorous family—an elegant wife and two small daughters—that made supporters believe he could overcome racism. Who wouldn’t want to accept them?[Read: Our new postracial myth]Privy to the campaign’s disappointments and its weaknesses, David is clear-eyed where others are credulous. With the benefit of hindsight, the reader knows his skepticism would eventually be validated. In the years since Obama’s election, America has seen the birtherism movement, the rise of the Tea Party, Trump’s presidency, and the dismantling of cornerstone civil-rights victories, including key portions of the Voting Rights Act. Then, of course, there were Obama’s own shortcomings during his presidency, namely his capitulation to forces opposed to his most idealistic visions. He would pass a new health-care bill, but fall short of the goal of universal coverage he campaigned on. He would withdraw troops from Afghanistan but begin a series of what the political scientist Michael J. Boyle called “shadow wars,” which were “fought by Special Forces, proxy armies, drones, and other covert means.” According to the Council on Foreign Relations, drone strikes authorized by President Obama led to the deaths of nearly 4,000 people in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; more than 300 of them were civilians.When Cunningham’s novel closes on that fateful night in November, the night of the candidate’s victory, it’s an ending for David, a graduation, even. The book implies that he will go on to work for the new president, but unlike everyone else in that ecstatic moment, he looks to the coming years soberly, acknowledging that the campaign had spoken “a language of signs,” wherein the symbolism of the moment overwhelmed all else. Already, he seems to know that the country will see no grand, lasting transformation. For many Americans, who felt on a similar, actual night, that the world seemed on the precipice of change, the lessons would take much longer to learn.

Vinson Cunningham’s new novel takes the reader back to a time when many thought the nation’s first Black president had an answer for every American ailment.

Like so many others, I first watched him speak on the night of the 2004 Democratic convention, the year John Kerry became the nominee. He was still a state senator then, his face unlined, his head full of dark-brown hair. He humbly told the audience that his presence there was “pretty unlikely.” His Kenyan father had grown up herding goats; his paternal grandfather cooked for a British soldier. In a Baptist cadence, he quoted from the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s words are stirring on their own, but when a certain kind of orator gets hold of them, the effect can feel like thunder, or the Spirit. The country had tumbled into a new century after a contested election and the start of a war in Iraq. Barack Obama spun a convincing vision of the nation as “one people,” in which our ethnic, religious, and ideological differences mattered little.

When I think about what Obama meant to me at the time, my eyes pool with water. I was fresh out of college, taken by the force of his intellect and the way his ideas seemed to cohere and hum. His ear for language was evident in his oratory and in his prose. Dreams From My Father, his first memoir, drew from a humanist tradition of American autobiography laid down by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin. Toni Morrison’s eulogy of Baldwin in 1987 seemed to foreshadow what many would feel about Obama in 2008: “You made American English honest … You exposed its secrets and reshaped it until it was truly modern dialogic, representative, humane.”

And yet, it wasn’t enough; the reverie wouldn’t, couldn’t last. In Great Expectations, Vinson Cunningham’s debut novel, the New Yorker writer and critic assesses the hope and disillusionment of the Obama years in a thinly veiled political satire-cum-bildungsroman featuring an Obama-like junior senator as “the candidate,” as well as a multifarious cast of supporting characters who employ their savvy, money, and connections to get him elected as president. Cunningham takes the reader back to a time when many thought Obama had an answer for every American ailment: He would usher the country into a post-race era, offering white people grace and absolution while assuring Black people that they would hereafter get a fair shake.

The novel is a keen look back at the failed promise of those early years, during which the country’s lofty expectations left little room for the candidate’s human fallibility—and obscured the reality of American politics. In this country, progress has usually happened in complicated, nonlinear ways: Hard-won advances are generally followed by forceful backlash and heartbreaking setbacks. Advances in civil rights, economic equality, health-care access, or environmental policy have often triggered reactionary codas; since at least the end of Reconstruction, momentum toward multiracial democracy has inflamed particularly vitriolic responses. Ultimately, Cunningham’s novel reminds the reader that simple solutions—the passage of one just law, the election of a single great leader—are seldom a match for American problems.

[Read: The political novel gets very, very specific]

The narrator—based on the author himself, who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign and in his White House—is David Hammond, a 22-year-old single father from uptown Manhattan. Floundering after dropping out of college, he joins the campaign as a fundraising assistant on the recommendation of the well-heeled mother of a teen boy he tutors. As the novel roves from Manhattan to Manchester, New Hampshire; from Los Angeles to Chicago, David, whose true ambition is to be a writer, uses his new role to sharpen his ear and eye. He’s middling at the minutiae of the job but great at interacting with people. He makes friends with his co-workers and stumbles into a tender love affair with another staffer named Regina. Along the way, he loses slivers of his innocence as he sees what lies beneath the campaign’s shimmering exterior: the candidate’s aloofness when he is offstage, the financial improprieties of a few wealthy patrons. Eventually, the blind allegiance of the candidate’s supporters—their belief that the campaign is a “move of God”—begins to feel foreboding.

David often invokes the ecstatic mysticism of religious devotion as a metaphor for the candidate’s hold on his supporters. The senator “reminded me of my pastor,” David says early on, his regal posture bringing to mind a “talismanic maneuver meant to send forth subliminal messages about confidence and power.” One night, on the trail in New Hampshire, David tells Regina about a magic trick he’d witnessed as a teenager: While waiting outside of church with his friends, he’d watched as a magician performed a standard sleight of hand, then levitated a few inches off the city pavement. “Everybody screamed. It was mayhem,” David remembers. “Black people love magic,” Regina rejoins, through laughter. It is a detour in a novel of detours and roundabouts, and also a parable that smartly explains how the candidate’s fervent admirers could be so awed by his charisma that they missed the signs of trouble to come.

Sometimes David allows himself to get carried away like everyone else. He thinks about how the candidate and his family had begun to embody some kind of national fantasy of a Black Camelot. “Maybe there was the hope that black, that portentous designation, could finally be subsumed into the mainstream in the way that Kennedy had helped Irish to be. That some long passage of travel was almost done,” he thinks at one point. In that same stream of thought, David suggests that the public’s belief in the candidate’s ability to dismantle the racial hierarchy is largely thanks to his symbolic appeal: It was, he observes, “mostly the look” of the candidate and his glamorous family—an elegant wife and two small daughters—that made supporters believe he could overcome racism. Who wouldn’t want to accept them?

[Read: Our new postracial myth]

Privy to the campaign’s disappointments and its weaknesses, David is clear-eyed where others are credulous. With the benefit of hindsight, the reader knows his skepticism would eventually be validated. In the years since Obama’s election, America has seen the birtherism movement, the rise of the Tea Party, Trump’s presidency, and the dismantling of cornerstone civil-rights victories, including key portions of the Voting Rights Act. Then, of course, there were Obama’s own shortcomings during his presidency, namely his capitulation to forces opposed to his most idealistic visions. He would pass a new health-care bill, but fall short of the goal of universal coverage he campaigned on. He would withdraw troops from Afghanistan but begin a series of what the political scientist Michael J. Boyle called “shadow wars,” which were “fought by Special Forces, proxy armies, drones, and other covert means.” According to the Council on Foreign Relations, drone strikes authorized by President Obama led to the deaths of nearly 4,000 people in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; more than 300 of them were civilians.

When Cunningham’s novel closes on that fateful night in November, the night of the candidate’s victory, it’s an ending for David, a graduation, even. The book implies that he will go on to work for the new president, but unlike everyone else in that ecstatic moment, he looks to the coming years soberly, acknowledging that the campaign had spoken “a language of signs,” wherein the symbolism of the moment overwhelmed all else. Already, he seems to know that the country will see no grand, lasting transformation. For many Americans, who felt on a similar, actual night, that the world seemed on the precipice of change, the lessons would take much longer to learn.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

Silence of the natural world signals a biodiversity crisis

Studies reveal that natural soundscapes are diminishing due to loss of species and ecosystem degradation.Phoebe Weston reports for The Guardian.In short: Ecoacoustics research indicates a global reduction in the natural sounds of ecosystems due to declining species diversity and abundance.Declines in the diversity and intensity of natural sounds have been documented across North America and Europe over the past 25 years.Experts emphasize that sounds like bird calls and insect hums are vanishing, warning of "acoustic fossils" if protective measures are not taken.Key quote: "The changes are profound. And they are happening everywhere." — Bernie Krause, U.S. soundscape recordistWhy this matters: The disappearance of natural sounds not only signifies a loss of biodiversity but also marks a concerning trend in environmental health, affecting global ecosystems and human wellbeing. Read more: The health of wildlife is inseparable from our own.

Studies reveal that natural soundscapes are diminishing due to loss of species and ecosystem degradation.Phoebe Weston reports for The Guardian.In short: Ecoacoustics research indicates a global reduction in the natural sounds of ecosystems due to declining species diversity and abundance.Declines in the diversity and intensity of natural sounds have been documented across North America and Europe over the past 25 years.Experts emphasize that sounds like bird calls and insect hums are vanishing, warning of "acoustic fossils" if protective measures are not taken.Key quote: "The changes are profound. And they are happening everywhere." — Bernie Krause, U.S. soundscape recordistWhy this matters: The disappearance of natural sounds not only signifies a loss of biodiversity but also marks a concerning trend in environmental health, affecting global ecosystems and human wellbeing. Read more: The health of wildlife is inseparable from our own.

We found unhealthy pesticide levels in 20% of US produce – here’s what you need to know

Consumer Reports recently conducted its most comprehensive review of pesticides in 59 US fruits and vegetables. Here the organization shares what it foundWhat’s safe to eat? Here is the pesticide risk level for each fruit and vegetableWhen it comes to healthy eating, fruits and vegetables reign supreme. But along with all their vitamins, minerals and other nutrients can come something else: an unhealthy dose of dangerous pesticides.Though using chemicals to control bugs, fungi and weeds helps farmers grow the food we need, it’s been clear since at least the 1960s that some chemicals also carry unacceptable health risks. And although certain notorious pesticides, such as DDT, have been banned in the US, government regulators have been slow to act on others. Even when a dangerous chemical is removed from the market, chemical companies and growers sometimes just start using other options that may be as dangerous. Continue reading...

When it comes to healthy eating, fruits and vegetables reign supreme. But along with all their vitamins, minerals and other nutrients can come something else: an unhealthy dose of dangerous pesticides.Though using chemicals to control bugs, fungi and weeds helps farmers grow the food we need, it’s been clear since at least the 1960s that some chemicals also carry unacceptable health risks. And although certain notorious pesticides, such as DDT, have been banned in the US, government regulators have been slow to act on others. Even when a dangerous chemical is removed from the market, chemical companies and growers sometimes just start using other options that may be as dangerous.Consumer Reports, which has tracked the use of pesticides on produce for decades, has seen this pattern repeat itself over and over. “It’s two steps forward and one step back – and sometimes even two steps back,” says James E Rogers, who oversees food safety at Consumer Reports.To get a sense of the current situation, Consumer Reports recently conducted our most comprehensive review ever of pesticides in food. To do it, we analyzed seven years of data from the US Department of Agriculture, which each year tests a selection of conventional and organic produce grown in or imported to the US for pesticide residues. We looked at 59 common fruits and vegetables, including, in some cases, not just fresh versions but also canned, dried or frozen ones.Our new results continue to raise red flags.Pesticides posed significant risks in 20% of the foods we examined, including popular choices such as bell peppers, blueberries, green beans, potatoes and strawberries. One food, green beans, had residues of a pesticide that hasn’t been allowed to be used on the vegetable in the US for over a decade. And imported produce, especially some from Mexico, was particularly likely to carry risky levels of pesticide residues.But there was good news, too. Pesticides presented little to worry about in nearly two-thirds of the foods, including nearly all of the organic ones. Also encouraging: the largest risks are caused by just a few pesticides, concentrated in a handful of foods, grown on a small fraction of US farmland. “That makes it easier to identify the problems and develop targeted solutions,” Rogers says – though he acknowledges that it will take time and effort to get the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates the use of pesticides on crops, to make the necessary changes.The way the EPA assesses pesticide risk doesn’t reflect cutting-edge scienceConsumer Reports senior scientist Michael HansenIn the meantime, our analysis offers insights into simple steps you can take to limit exposure to harmful pesticides, such as using our ratings to identify which fruits and vegetables to focus on in your diet, and when buying organic produce can make the most sense.What’s safer, what’s risky, and whySixteen of the 25 fruits and 21 of the 34 vegetables in our analysis had low levels of pesticide risk. Even children and pregnant people can safely eat more than three servings a day of those foods, Consumer Reports’ food safety experts say. Ten foods were of moderate risk; up to three servings a day of them are OK.The flip side: 12 foods presented bigger concerns. Children and pregnant people should consume less than a serving a day of high-risk fruits and vegetables, and less than half a serving a day of very high-risk ones. Everyone else should limit consumption of those foods, too. Illustration: Sarah Anne Ward/The GuardianTo come up with that advice, we analyzed the USDA’s test results for 29,643 individual food samples. We rated the risk of each fruit or vegetable by factoring in how many pesticides showed up in the food, how often they were found, the amount of each pesticide detected and each chemical’s toxicity.The Alliance for Food and Farming, a farming industry organization, pointed out to Consumer Reports that more than 99% of foods tested by the USDA contained pesticide residues below the Environmental Protection Agency’s legal limits (referred to as tolerances).But Consumer Reports’ scientists think many EPA tolerances are set too high. That’s why we use lower limits for pesticides that can harm the body’s neurological system or are suspected endocrine disruptors (meaning they may mimic or interfere with the body’s hormones). Consumer Reports’ approach also accounts for the possibility that other health risks may emerge as we learn more about these chemicals.“The way the EPA assesses pesticide risk doesn’t reflect cutting-edge science and can’t account for all the ways the chemicals might affect people’s health, especially given that people are often exposed to multiple pesticides at a time,” says Consumer Reports senior scientist Michael Hansen. “So we take a precautionary approach, to make sure we don’t underestimate risks.”In our analysis, a fruit or vegetable can contain several pesticides but still be considered low-risk if the combination of the number, concentration and toxicity of them is low. For example, broccoli fared well not because it had no pesticide residues but because higher-risk chemicals were at low levels and on just a few samples.Some of the most problematic foods, on the other hand, had relatively few residues but worrisome levels of some high-risk pesticides.Case in point: watermelon. It’s very high-risk mainly because of a pesticide called oxamyl. Only 11 of 331 conventional, domestic watermelon samples tested positive for oxamyl. But it’s among those that Consumer Reports’ experts believe require extra caution because of their potential for serious health risks.Green beans are another example. They qualify as high-risk primarily because of a pesticide called acephate or one of its breakdown products, methamidophos. Only 4% of conventional, domestic green bean samples were positive for one or both – but their pesticide levels were often alarmingly high. In one sample from 2022 (the most recent year for which data was available), methamidophos levels were more than 100 times the level Consumer Reports’ scientists consider safe; in another, acephate levels were seven times higher. And in some 2021 samples, levels were higher still.You can eat a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables without stressing too much about pesticide riskRegistered dietitian Amy KeatingThis is especially troubling because neither chemical should be on green beans at all: growers in the US have been prohibited from applying acephate to green beans since 2011, and methamidophos to all food since 2009.“When you grab a handful of green beans at the supermarket or pick out a watermelon, your chance of getting one with risky pesticide levels may be relatively low,” Rogers says. “But if you do, you could get a much higher dose than you should, and if you eat the food often, the chances increase.”In some cases a food qualifies as high-risk because of several factors, such as high levels of a moderately dangerous pesticide on many samples. Example: chlorpropham on potatoes. It’s not the most toxic pesticide – but it was on more than 90% of tested potatoes.How pesticides can harm youPesticides are one of the only categories of chemicals we manufacture “specifically to kill organisms”, says Chensheng (Alex) Lu, an affiliate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who researches the health effects of pesticide exposure. So it’s no surprise, he says, that pesticides used to manage insects, fungi and weeds may harm people, too.While there are still open questions about exactly how and to what extent chronic exposure to pesticides can harm our health, scientists are piecing together a compelling case that some can, drawing on a mix of laboratory, animal and human research.One type of evidence comes from population studies looking at health outcomes in people who eat foods with relatively high pesticide levels. A recent review in the journal Environmental Health, which looked at six such studies, found evidence linking pesticides to increased risks of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.Stronger evidence of pesticides’ dangers comes from research looking at people who may be particularly vulnerable to pesticides, including farmworkers and their families. In addition to the thousands of workers who become ill from pesticide poisonings every year, studies have linked on-the-job use of a variety of pesticides with a higher risk of Parkinson’s disease, breast cancer, diabetes and many more health problems.Other research found that exposure during pregnancy to a common class of pesticides called organophosphates was associated with poorer intellectual development and reduced lung function in the children of farmworkers.Pregnancy and childhood are times of particular vulnerability to pesticides, in part because certain pesticides can be endocrine disruptors. Those are chemicals that interfere with hormones responsible for the development of a variety of the body’s systems, especially reproductive systems, says Tracey Woodruff, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.Another concern is that long-term exposure to even small amounts of pesticides may be especially harmful to people with chronic health problems, those who live in areas where they are exposed to many other toxins and people who face other social or economic health stresses, says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Illustration: Sarah Anne Ward/The GuardianThat’s one of the reasons, she says, regulators should employ extra safety margins when setting pesticide limits – to account for all the uncertainty in how pesticides might harm us.How to stop eating pesticidesWhile our analysis of USDA pesticide data found that some foods still have worrisome levels of certain dangerous pesticides, it also offers insights into how you can limit your pesticide exposure now, and what government regulators should do to fix the problem in the long term.Eat lots of low-risk produce. A quick scan of this chart makes one thing clear: there are lots of good options to choose from.“That’s great,” says Amy Keating, a registered dietitian at Consumer Reports. “You can eat a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables without stressing too much about pesticide risk, provided you take some simple steps at home.” (See Can you wash pesticides off your food? A guide to eating fewer toxic chemicals.)Your best bet is to choose produce rated low-risk or very low-risk in our analysis and, when possible, opt for organic instead of riskier foods you enjoy. Or swap in lower-risk alternatives for riskier ones. For example, try snap peas instead of green beans, cantaloupe in place of watermelon, cabbage or dark green lettuces for kale, and the occasional sweet potato instead of a white one.But you don’t need to eliminate higher-risk foods from your diet. Eating them occasionally is fine.“The harm, even from the most problematic produce, comes from exposure during vulnerable times such as pregnancy or early childhood, or from repeated exposure over years,” Rogers says.Switch to organic when possible. A proven way to reduce pesticide exposure is to eat organic fruits and vegetables, especially for the highest-risk foods. We had information about organically grown versions for 45 of the 59 foods in our analysis. Nearly all had low or very low pesticide risk, and only two domestically grown varieties – fresh spinach and potatoes – posed even a moderate risk.Organic foods’ low-risk ratings indicate that the USDA’s organic certification program, for the most part, is working.It’s always worth considering organic produce, [though] it’s most important for the fruits and vegetables that pose the greatest riskJames E Rogers, head of food safety at Consumer ReportsPesticides aren’t totally prohibited on organic farms, but they are sharply restricted. Organic growers may use pesticides only if other practices – such as crop rotation – can’t fully address a pest problem. Even then, farmers can apply only low-risk pesticides derived from natural mineral or biological sources that have been approved by the USDA’s National Organic Program.Less pesticide on food means less in our bodies: multiple studies have shown that switching to an organic diet quickly reduces dietary exposure. Organic farming protects health in other ways, too, especially of farmworkers and rural residents, because pesticides are less likely to drift into the areas where they live or to contaminate drinking water.And organic farming protects other living organisms, many of which are even more vulnerable to pesticides than we are. For example, organic growers can’t use a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, a group of chemicals that may cause developmental problems in young children – and is clearly hazardous to aquatic life, birds and important pollinators including honeybees, wild bees and butterflies.The rub, of course, is price: organic food tends to cost more – sometimes much more.“That’s why, while we think it’s always worth considering organic produce, it’s most important for the handful of fruits and vegetables that pose the greatest pesticide risk,” Rogers says. He also says that opting for organic is most crucial for young children and during pregnancy, when people are extra vulnerable to the potential harms of the chemicals.Watch out for some imports. Overall, imported fruits and vegetables and those grown domestically are pretty comparable, with roughly an equal number of them posing a moderate or worse pesticide risk. But imports, particularly from Mexico, can be especially risky.Seven imported foods in our analysis pose a very high risk, compared with just four domestic ones. And of the 100 individual fruit or vegetable samples in our analysis with the highest pesticide risk levels, 65 were imported. Most of those – 52 – came from Mexico, and the majority involved strawberries (usually frozen) or green beans (nearly all contaminated with acephate, the pesticide that’s prohibited for use on green beans headed to the US).A spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration told Consumer Reports that the agency is aware of the problem of acephate contamination on green beans from Mexico. Between 2017 and 2024, the agency has issued import alerts on 14 Mexican companies because of acephate found on green beans. These alerts allow the FDA to detain the firms’ food shipments until they can prove the foods are not contaminated with the illegal pesticide residues in question.The Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, which represents many major importers of fruits and vegetables from Mexico, did not respond to a request for comment.Rogers, at Consumer Reports, says: “Clearly, the safeguards aren’t working as they are supposed to.” As a result, “consumers are being exposed to much higher levels of very dangerous pesticides than they should.” Because of those risks, he suggests checking packaging on green beans and strawberries for the country of origin, and consider other sources, including organic.How to solve the pesticide problemPerhaps the most reassuring, and powerful, part of Consumer Reports’ analysis is that it demonstrates that the risks of pesticides are concentrated in just a handful of foods and pesticides.Of the nearly 30,000 total fruit and vegetable samples Consumer Reports looked at, just 2,400, or about 8%, qualified as high-risk or very high-risk. And among those samples, just two broad classes of chemicals, organophosphates and a similar type of pesticide called carbamates, were responsible for most of the risk.“That not only means that most of the produce Americans consume has low levels of pesticide risk, but it makes trying to solve the problem much more manageable, by letting regulators and growers know exactly what they need to concentrate on,” says Brian Ronholm, head of food policy at Consumer Reports. Illustration: Sarah Anne Ward/The GuardianOrganophosphates and carbamates became popular after DDT and related pesticides were phased out in the 1970s and 1980s. But concerns about these pesticides soon followed. While the EPA has removed a handful of them from the market and lowered limits on some foods for a few others, many organophosphates and carbamates are still used on fruits and vegetables.Take, for instance, phosmet, an organophosphate that is the main culprit behind blueberries’ poor score. Until recently, phosmet rarely appeared among the most concerning samples of pesticide-contaminated food. But in recent years, it’s become a main contributor of pesticide risk in some fruits and vegetables, according to our analysis.“That’s happened in part because when a high-risk pesticide is banned or pushed off the market, some farmers switch to a similar one still on the market that too often ends up posing comparable or even greater harm,” says Charles Benbrook, an independent expert on pesticide use and regulation, who consulted with Consumer Reports on our pesticide analysis.We just don’t need [pesticides]. And the foods American consumers eat every day would be much, much safer without themBrian Ronholm, head of food policy at Consumer ReportsConsumer Reports’ food safety experts say our current analysis has identified several ways the EPA, FDA and USDA could better protect consumers.That includes doing a more effective job of working with agricultural agencies in other countries and inspecting imported food, especially from Mexico, and conducting and supporting research to more fully elucidate the risks of pesticides. In addition, the government should provide more support to organic farmers and invest more federal dollars to expand the supply of organic food – which would, in turn, lower prices for consumers.But one of the most effective, and simple, steps the EPA could take to reduce overall pesticide risk would be to ban the use of any organophosphate or carbamate on food crops.The EPA told Consumer Reports that “each chemical is individually evaluated based on its toxicity and exposure profile”, and that the agency has required extra safety measures for several organophosphates.But Consumer Reports’ Ronholm says that approach is insufficient. “We’ve seen time and again that doesn’t work. Industry and farmers simply hop over to another related chemical that may pose similar risks.”Canceling two whole classes of pesticides may sound extreme. “But the vast majority of fruits and vegetables eaten in the US are already grown without hazardous pesticides,” Ronholm says. “We just don’t need them. And the foods American consumers eat every day would be much, much safer without them.”Read more from this pesticide investigation:Find out more about pesticides at Consumer Reports

Feathers, Fire, the Strong Force and Fairness

Reducing noise improves health, JWST’s galaxies change astronomy, and there’s new hope for people with prostate cancer

Feathers, Fire, the Strong Force and FairnessReducing noise improves health, JWST’s galaxies change astronomy, and there’s new hope for people with prostate cancerBy Laura HelmuthScientific American, May 2024Have you ever picked up a feather and felt how smooth, sleek, firm or fluffy it is? (The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits possession of most bird feathers, but if you find a feather and stick it in your cap or pack, nobody here at Scientific American will turn you in.) Feathers are marvels of evolutionary engineering that have been studied for centuries, but in the past few years, as paleontologist Michael B. Habib details, scientists have made some big discoveries about their evolution, structure and function. We hope the story will help you appreciate the specializations of hummingbirds, hawks, penguins, owls, and more.The “strong force” that pulls together protons, neutrons and atomic nuclei is, as its name suggests, the strongest force we know of in the universe. It’s also the least understood. But recently physicists have made real progress in measuring the strong force. Among other things, they’ve discovered that it becomes constant at a certain distance between particles. Stanley J. Brodsky, Alexandre Deur and Craig D. Roberts recount how their independent lines of research merged to uncover new properties of the force that binds together most of the matter in the universe.Children want to be fair, and they acquire a sense of justice at a very young age: they quickly learn that hurting other people is wrong and that sharing is right. But this developing sense of morality can conflict with their developing sense of belonging. Children readily pick up on us-versus-them group identities based on factors such as race and gender. Psychologist Melanie Killen describes what she and her colleagues have learned about morality and prejudice in children. Based on their research, they created a training program that successfully teaches kids to be more inclusive and empathetic.On supporting science journalismIf you're enjoying this article, consider supporting our award-winning journalism by subscribing. By purchasing a subscription you are helping to ensure the future of impactful stories about the discoveries and ideas shaping our world today.We are living in the age of fire—the Pyrocene, a term coined by environmental historian Stephen Pyne. As he writes, humans tamed fire and changed the world. He breaks our relationship with fire into three waves and chronicles how fire has changed human bodies and civilization and is now changing all life on the planet. Enjoy the dramatic, fire-breathing photo-essay by Kevin Cooley that accompanies the article.Prostate cancer is one of the most common types of malignancies, but thanks to advances in detection, evaluation and treatment, it has become increasingly manageable. Marc B. Garnick, a leading expert on prostate cancer, explains how the disease starts and grows. He also provides an overview of the methods that can now be used to monitor and stop it, adding years to patients’ lives.Some of the first images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope a few years ago were shocking: they revealed overgrown galaxies in the early universe—galaxies that, according to cosmological theory, shouldn’t have existed. As science writer Jonathan O’Callaghan shows, astronomers are coming up with new theories to explain these unexpected galaxies and improve our understanding of their formation.One of the things I appreciate most about walks in nature (the kinds of walks where you might find a feather and where the loudest sound is a screaming cicada) is how peaceful they are. If you’ve ever tensed up in irritation at leaf blowers, shouty bars, obnoxious car horns, or other noise pollution, health correspondent Joanne Silberner’s story may feel like vindication. A growing body of research documents how and why noise can cause a range of health problems and how you can reduce your exposure to improve your health. And our Science of Health columnist Lydia Denworth explores the importance of nature and well-being. May you be surrounded by pleasant and welcome sounds as you delve into this month’s issue.

Guilt-Tripping for the Public Good Often Achieves Its Intended Result

The emerging science of laying guilt through public messaging can help safeguard the planet and improve health behaviors

In 2016 Merck launched an advertising campaign for its HPV vaccine that aroused a storm of protest and headlines. The Washington Post published an article entitled “Do the new Merck HPV ads guilt-trip parents or tell hard truths? Both.” One of Merck’s TV ads showed an adult woman diagnosed with cervical cancer and flashed back to her as a child, asking, “Did you know [there was a vaccine for HPV]—Mom, Dad?”“I thought, ‘This is the thing that's going to make parents say I would feel horrible if my kid got cervical cancer later, and I could have vaccinated them,’” says Monique Turner, a communication scientist at Michigan State University (MSU). ”So, from a research perspective, I was like, ‘Thumbs-up, Merck.’ But they took a lot of heat for it.”Guilt is a powerful tool. Research has shown that, wielded effectively, it can persuade people to do the right thing. In a recent analysis of 26 studies of guilt appeals, Washington State University communication scientist Wei Peng found that guilt works—if people hearing the pitch are not made to feel responsible for a bad situation. Picture asking them to help with an environmental catastrophe.On supporting science journalismIf you're enjoying this article, consider supporting our award-winning journalism by subscribing. By purchasing a subscription you are helping to ensure the future of impactful stories about the discoveries and ideas shaping our world today.The most straightforward pitches involve what researchers call “existential guilt,” Peng says. They rely on our internal moral code that, as a human being, we have an obligation to relieve the suffering of others if we can. “What I found is that people feel guilty about people’s suffering even if they don’t have a direct personal relationship,” Peng says, “even if they are on the other side of the world.”It’s hard for most people to see photographs of starving children. Doing so hurts. Taking action to help them offers some relief. That’s what advocates are counting on when they ask you for donations to feed orphans or build shelters for earthquake survivors. Knowing guilt’s potential for good, social scientists are seeking the optimal formula to craft pitches for everything from promoting health behaviors and road safety to safeguarding the planet.But getting the formula right is tricky. “We have a hardwired negativity bias to instantly pay attention to anything that arouses a negative emotion,” says Pennsylvania State University media psychologist Jessica Myrick. That’s why inflicting guilt often works. But the downside of arousing this intensely uncomfortable feeling is that people can employ a battery of defenses against it: getting angry, rationalizing or distancing from the issue.That is the important takeaway from Peng’s research: guilt works when it doesn’t trigger resistance. In other words, don’t make listeners feel they’ve done something bad. “If you say we need to do something different versus you,” says persuasion scholar Robin Nabi of the University of California, Santa Barbara, “now you’re not the bad guy. We all have responsibility.”There are many ways to get this wrong. For example, if messengers arouse shame rather than guilt, MSU’s Turner found, people resist more. In her research, participants were asked to read an ad urging testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that evoked either guilt or shame and then to give their reactions. A headline in the guilt and shame appeals respectively asked what or who would give one’s partner an STD,” followed by multiple-choice answers. In both, the correct answer—“all of the above”—was circled at the bottom. The second-to-last option seen by both groups was objective: it referred to a person who hadn’t been tested for an STD The other multiple-choice answers were designed to evoke either guilt or shame. Those in the guilt appeal group were presented with choices such as, “someone with uninformed behavior”and “someone with forgetful behavior.” The group reading the shame appeal saw choices such as, “a selfish person” and “an irresponsible person.” Subjects in the latter group were likelier to feel angry and manipulated.As Turner explains, pointing out problematic behavior induces guilt, but focusing on someone’s inherent character traits—selfishness, for example—can induce shame. In most contexts, making people feel ashamed is not a good persuader.The key to making a guilt pitch succeed is to offer people relief from the guilt they’re feeling. In humanitarian appeals, people are usually offered easy-to-accomplish solutions: save the puppies from being euthanized by donating or volunteering, for instance. For health or safety messages, taking action may be harder, making messaging more challenging.If you’re asking parents to shield their kids from asthma risk from secondhand smoke, for example, saying, “Just quit” may be too hard for them. It is more effective, Nabi says, if you give people options: “Just smoke outside or not around your kids” or “Cut down how much you smoke.” “The idea is that when you evoke this emotion and then you give people a sense of efficacy,” she says, “it’s actually hope evoking.”That’s what scientists are finding in the lab. Adding a feel-good emotion to a guilt appeal—hope or pride, for example—works better. For one thing, it reduces people’s defensiveness, and that’s the first step: make sure they don’t shut you out. One recent study tested the effect of building hope into guilt appeals in a campaign to reduce texting while driving, which is an urgent safety issue because laws and enforcement have done little to reduce crashes tied to texting.In the online experiment, about 400 people were randomly placed in four groups. The first two groups viewed identical posters except that one added a hopeful message. The headline in both read, “You are never alone on the road.”The posters acknowledged how tempting it was to answer a text but noted that texting while driving was a factor in 20 percent of crashes. The “hope” message added recommendations to “turn on drive mode or silence your phone” and noted that doing so “can save lives.” In two other groups, people read what were essentially the same guilt-invoking or hopeful messages except that the language was more intense. The top headline, for example, read, “What you don’t see is a long and lovely life.” Adding the hopeful message reduced targets’ defensive responses in both language intensity groups. It also increased their stated intentions to avoid texting while driving.One new preprint study on guilt messaging tested the effect of inducing empathy alongside guilt in a hypothetical public-service campaign to reduce plastic bag pollution in oceans. In this online experiment, 257 college students were randomly assigned to read one of four messages from a fictional Facebook page, “Save the Marine Animals Foundation,” asking them to reduce their plastic bag use. In half the groups the undergraduates were asked to take the perspective of an animal suffering from ingesting a plastic bag. Researchers found that adopting the animals’ viewpoint created empathy. More empathy was associated with more guilt, which was, in turn, correlated with an increase in participants’ intentions to cut down on plastic bag use.In some appeals to protect the environment, inducing pride along with guilt proves to be the winning recipe for persuading people to change their behavior. In a meta-analysis of 30 years of research, data scientist Nathan Shipley, then at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, zeroed in on campaigns that induce people to imagine they’ll feel guilty or proud of themselves depending on their future behavior. He found that both emotions correlated with subjects’ intended and reported pro-environmental behavior, but the pride relationship was stronger.The success of these efforts depends at least partly on how well a message is tailored to a specific audience. Undergraduates in these studies, for example, are typically more environmentally conscious than their parents. The results in a new study showed that for Generation Z restaurant diners, both anticipated guilt for eating less environmentally sustainable food and an anticipated pride for eating more environmentally friendly, plant-based foods influenced their intentions to eat at chain restaurants that offered nonmeat options.Another study tested whether mothers of young children were more susceptible than others to guilt appeals to switch to buying organic food. The researchers found that they were. That’s not surprising, says Myrick, who is a mother of three kids under the age of five. Myrick is bombarded with guilt appeals. She’s had to triage the things she feels guilty about, such as using disposable diapers and paper plates, because, she says, “I’d feel even more guilty if I didn’t feed my kids something even when I don’t have time to prepare food.”Another study measured neither pride nor guilt, but both may have been implicitly invoked, says Elizabeth Hewitt, a social scientist at Stony Brook University and lead author of the paper. Over 12 weeks in two next-door apartment buildings in New York City, experimenters posted signs in the trash rooms every week announcing how well each building had done in recycling efforts. The sign in one building compared the amount of much of plastic, metal and glass its residents had recycled during the previous week with how much they had recycled the week before. The sign in the other building compared the amount its residents recycled in the previous week with how much their neighbors recycled during the same period. Both buildings increased their recycling by bag weight, but the feedback that compared residents with their neighbors resulted in more recycled material. Although the mechanism operated through peer pressure, guilt can play a role if a person feels they are not doing as much as they should, Hewitt says. Surpassing your neighbors can trigger pride.This swell of research is both timely and necessary, scientists say. Left to our own devices, we are not always our best selves—or our own best friends. Persuasive public service messaging will need to be crafted for new generations. Take the campaigns for the HPV vaccine. Over 20 years, they were a factor in reducing HPV infections in teenage girls by 88 percent and in young adult women by 81 percent. Yet vaccination rates in the U.S. remain lower than in other countries, and rates are uneven across the U.S., leaving many vulnerable to preventable cancers. To address such problems, it remains urgent to find effective tools of persuasion. Guilt, massaged in the right ways, can be a powerful tool.

Could a CA bill on tortillas improve maternal health?

California is struggling to provide maternal health for its residents. But as one proposal aims to prevent birth defects, another has received hateful pushback that’s been condemned by both political parties. As CalMatters health reporter Ana B. Ibarra writes, Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula has introduced a bill that would require corn masa flour makers to add […]

A premature baby in incubator. Photo via iStock California is struggling to provide maternal health for its residents. But as one proposal aims to prevent birth defects, another has received hateful pushback that’s been condemned by both political parties. As CalMatters health reporter Ana B. Ibarra writes, Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula has introduced a bill that would require corn masa flour makers to add 0.7 milligrams of folic acid per pound of flour. Though federal law requires other grain products, such as cereals, breads and pasta, be fortified with folic acid, corn masa flour is not included. The corn flour is a key ingredient used in many classic Latino foods. Arambula, a Fresno Democrat and physician, to CalMatters: “Food is the best way that we can get folic acid into our communities before they’re pregnant. Oftentimes the prenatal vitamins that we give to pregnant people are too late.”  Research has shown that folic acid, which can be found in prenatal and women’s multi-vitamins, promotes healthy cell growth, and can prevent birth defects when taken before and during the early weeks of pregnancy. Since 1998, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration handed down the requirement, the proportion of babies born with neural tube defects dropped by 35%. But between 2017 and 2019, only about 28% of Latinas reported taking folic acid the month before becoming pregnant, compared to 46% of white women. Women on Medi-Cal, the state’s health insurance program for low-income families, are also less likely to take folic acid before pregnancy compared to women on private insurance.  To learn more about the proposal, read Ana’s story. Another bill related to maternal health, Assembly Bill 2319, was the subject of a racist letter sent to members of the Health Committee, according to lawmakers. The measure would require healthcare providers to undergo training for implicit bias, and for the training to include “recognition of intersecting identities.”  The bill’s co-author, Assemblymember Lori Wilson, said the letter was “vile and hateful.” Assembly Republicans also said the letter had no place in legislative debate: “While we may not always agree on policy, we are united to strongly condemn racism and the evil ideology behind this letter.” Wilson, a Suisun City Democrat who is chairperson of the Legislative Black Caucus, vowed to carry on with the measure. The proposals by Arumbula and Wilson follow state data showing that in 2020 California saw a ten-year high of pregnancy-related deaths. Black expectant mothers are particularly vulnerable: They are three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than others. It’s a point raised by former state Senate leader Toni Atkins in a social media post last week. Meanwhile, maternity wards across the state are closing, creating “maternity care deserts,” and California midwives treating Medi-Cal patients struggle to keep their businesses afloat. A February report from the state auditor also found that state health departments failed to track the effectiveness of a perinatal care program for Medi-Cal patients. Digital Democracy: CalMatters has launched Digital Democracy, a project using the latest technologies to help Californians understand their state government and create more accountability for politicians. The website introduces each of the state’s 120 legislators and explains this year’s policy agenda. In our unprecedented database, you can instantly find any word uttered in a public hearing, every vote cast, every bill introduced and every dollar donated. For more details, see our about and methodology pages and read more from our engagement team. Other Stories You Should Know Builders can challenge impact fees New housing construction in a neighbourhood in Elk Grove on July 8, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters From CalMatters housing reporter Ben Christopher:It’s about to get more difficult for local governments to slap construction projects with certain fees — and a bit easier for developers to sue governments when they do.  That’s thanks to a unanimous ruling the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Friday. As many court watchers expected, the justices sided with George Sheetz, a septuagenarian retiree who sued El Dorado County over a $23,420 building fee. Sheetz’s lawyers argued that the county should have had to prove that this five-digit fee matched the cost that his manufactured home actually would inflict on local roads and highways. That requirement was established in a four-decade-old court ruling also out of California. El Dorado County, with the backing of both the Gov. Gavin Newsom and President Joe Biden administrations, countered that such a high bar is only required of one-off fees levied by regulators, not fees scheduled for all developments and established by elected bodies, like the county board of supervisors. In its 9-0 ruling, the Supreme Court said that “there is no basis for affording property rights less protection in the hands of legislators than administrators.” A few possible consequences of the ruling: Cities and counties now have to show that impact fees are connected to and “roughly proportionate” to the fiscal impact of a given development. That could have the unintended consequence of slowing down permitting.  Developers may now have a powerful new legal tool to challenge fees that they think are too high. And they are high here. As of 2015, the average impact fee on a single family home in California was more than four times the national average. But it’s too soon to say exactly how all of this will shake out. That’s because the court stopped short of saying exactly how far governments have to go to justify their fees — or whether El Dorado County already cleared that hurdle in this case. Those questions were left to lower courts. State cracks down on water Armona’s new $9 million well and treatment facility to remove arsenic in its water supply. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local The State Water Resources Control Board is poised to penalize Kings County groundwater agencies for failing to manage overpumping in the region’s water supply — a move that would set a new precedent. As CalMatters water reporter Rachel Becker explains, the board on Tuesday is expected to decide whether to put county agencies on probation for unsuccessfully restricting farmers’ overdrafting of the water supply from the Tulare Lake underground basin. If the board decides to crack down, it will be the first time the state imposes penalties under a landmark 2014 law that requires agencies to achieve groundwater sustainability by 2040.The board’s decision could also signal how the state will approach five other overpumped San Joaquin Valley basins that may face probation as well. Overpumping in Kings County has caused household and community water wells to dry up and land to sink, which endangers canals, aqueducts and flood-controlling levees. And because wells must reach deeper into the ground to extract water, contaminants such as arsenic are released and cause water contamination levels to rise. Putting Kings County agencies on probation could mean imposing state fees totaling as much as $10 million a year, according to a CalMatters analysis. It could also lead to state regulators eventually managing the region’s groundwater. This has small farmers in the region concerned that they’ll be forced out of business due to the state’s steep fees. The basin provides drinking and irrigation water for 146,000 residents and supports a multibillion-dollar agricultural industry. For more on this issue, read Rachel’s story. California’s water crisis, explained: CalMatters has a detailed look at how California might increase its water supply, and a dashboard tracking the state’s water situation. CalMatters Commentary Ideas festival: CalMatters is hosting its first one, in Sacramento on June 5-6. It will include a discussion on broadband access and a session with Zócalo Public Square on California’s next big idea. Featured speakers include Julián Castro, CEO of the Latino Community Foundation, and Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney and MSNBC legal analyst. Find out more from our engagement team and buy tickets here. Other things worth your time: Some stories may require a subscription to read. CA granted federal disaster relief for historic February storms // Los Angeles Times  Ballot measure for America’s highest wage could be victim of past wins // Politico Prop. 22 gains liberal support as case heads to state high court // San Francisco Chronicle PG&E customers were billed for a TV promo campaign // The Sacramento Bee Google blocks some CA news as fight over online journalism bill escalates // Politico Bill to mandate ‘science of reading’ in CA classrooms dies // EdSource CA abortions increased after Roe vs. Wade was overturned // Los Angeles Times The first high-speed rail trains are closer to coming to CA // San Francisco Chronicle Environmental concerns raised by rocket flights // The San Diego Union-Tribune SF jails lock down after alleged assaults on staff // Los Angeles Times SF background check startup Checkr cutting 260 jobs // San Francisco Examiner SF $2B Central Subway has lots of leaks, few riders // The San Francisco Standard Kern County activist faces 18 felony counts over alleged threats // Los Angeles Times Former Windsor mayor’s accusers speak out on no charges // San Francisco Chronicle

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