“American collapse is 'hypercollapse,' made of bots and ‘fake news’ and hacked elections, not just demagogues and speeches, which are radicalizing people already left ignorant by failing education institutions and civic norms” (1)A group of concerned climate scientists said in a recent wide-ranging peer-reviewed article: “In our view, the evidence from tipping points alone suggests that we are in a state of planetary emergency: both the risk and urgency of the situation are acute” (2) . Despite this, the deep, decades-old, and frequently voiced concerns of the scientific community have been generally ignored (3-7). The warnings recently have been accompanied by the confusion and unnecessary deaths in the covid pandemic, the increases in authoritarian rule threatening democracy in the United States and other countries, and the refusal of world leaders to deal with escalating climate disruption or with the presence of vast nuclear arsenals. The latter is now highlighted by Putin’s possibly civilization-ending invasion of Ukraine for which he threatens to trigger a holocaust. All these events show something in common. They have jointly made crystal clear the utter failure of the educational system in the United States and most other rich countries to prepare people for the existential environmental threats that are consequences of the great acceleration – the recent surge in growth and technological capacity of the global human enterprise (8). As a single current example, how many “educated” people understand that the United States has been sinking vast amounts of money into “modernizing” its “nuclear triad” – its weaponry for fighting a nuclear war – thus increasing the odds of such a war, which would cause a terminal environmental collapse (9)?A half century ago, when Joan Diamond was studying education, one of the core questions in the graduate curriculum was whether educational institutions should be designed to reflect the current society or should be vehicles for social change. In the face of ecological overshoot, increasing inequity, threats to democracy and civil rights (as evidenced by the Supreme Court ending Roe v Wade) and signs, we believe, of having lost our moral compass, it seems clear that in too many leading universities the former looks to be what is prevalent now.It appears that most people don’t believe that a principal role of education should be to encourage social evolution to meet changing circumstances. To move schooling into that role there first needs to be discourse to determine what a healthy, sustainable society really needs, discourse that today is rare at best and that needs to be coupled with a clear vision of a compelling future, given the realities of the current human predicament.Culture gapOne main reason for the lack of that discourse may be that the culture gap – the chasm between what each individual knows and the collective information possessed by society as a whole (10-12) – has never been larger and never more dangerous. In the forager societies that were characteristic of the vast majority of human history, almost all adults understood how nearly everything “worked.” When PRE lived with the Inuit in 1952, every adult Inuit knew how komatiks (sleds) and igloos were constructed and seals were hunted, as well as the rest of their culture. Today in western culture none of us come remotely close to straddling the gap. Could you describe the electronics that make a cellphone work or how an automobile is constructed from raw materials? Could most educated people even briefly describe crucial elements whose knowledge might put them on the survival side of the gap? Could they at least have some grasp of ecosystem services, the second law of thermodynamics, exponential growth, how the Nazis took over Germany, nuclear weapons and nuclear winter, or (in the U.S.) how the South “won” the Civil War? Would they be familiar with the biology of race and gender or the debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists? Does any aspect of today’s educational system have the goal of seeing that everyone ends up learning about and pursuing throughout life the aspects of culture that would make them understand the foundations of sustainability?It’s important to remember that public education was originally established as an agent of change. It was part of the institutionalization of western societies along with population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and separation of home from workplace. Public education was designed to provide the wage laborers the capitalist system demanded, workers who would be punctual and who could read and calculate for the increasingly industrialized world. It still fills that need. “Schools too often are carefully designed to prepare people for adult work roles, by socializing people to function well (and without complaint) in the hierarchical structure of the modern corporation or public office” (13). Public schooling was not designed originally to produce “educated” people per se (14, 15) or as a way of somewhat reducing the already growing culture gap. It was a benefit for the rich rentier capitalists who employed wage earners, whose own children were educated privately, often in religious schools. That pattern of education-for-employment has changed too little today (16), as documented by even most of the wealthy. Flagship institutionsA major reason for that is that flagship educational institutions, colleges and universities pay relatively little attention to newly critical educational needs created by the acceleration. They don’t focus a major part of their efforts or influence on pre-college learning on what adults need to know to function positively in an increasingly complex endangered civilization. This failure is reflected down the school apparatus, which mostly does not begin to prepare children to deal even with those two changing systems in our society of prime personal interest: the legal and medical systems. Nor are most Americans given enough information to understand the nature and impacts of the hierarchical and inequitable structures of modern society and the current trend of steepening the hierarchy (17-20). It is difficult to learn in school how possibly to soften the impacts of inequity in the face of a storm of disinformation concerning those impacts, some both quite subtle and persistent such as the myth that different human groups possess importantly different genetic capabilities (21). The task is made more difficult in some American jurisdictions in 36 states where there are government-imposed legal barriers to passing on pertinent information about race and racism to children (https://bit.ly/3xyo8RN).The process of education itself has become a silo in western civilizations, within which curriculum design and implementation appear to be more important to specialists than content (22, 23). The content element in that silo generally reflects an Aristotelian approach to learning, which originally focused on the teaching of subjects that were thought to improve the intellectual and moral development of individuals (and, with industrialization, prepare them to be obedient wage slaves). It divides what is to be learned into separate “subjects” and at the college level into separate “departments” through which funds, faculty promotions and perks flow.Following AristotleStudents at all pre-college levels are generally expected to be educated, again following Aristotle, in age groups, apparently on the implicit assumption that all 10-year-olds have similar interests and capacities. That can be seen implicitly in education today, which lacking a clear involvement in the social dangers of the great acceleration, diverges from Aristotle and tends to view learning as something that ends with a certification at a certain age: high school diploma, bachelor’s or master’s degree, doctorate, or perhaps some post-doctoral training. A doctorate in biology earned in 1957 (as Paul Ehrlich's was) would be close to useless to society today unless continually updated with learning. Most of today’s biological knowledge would be incomprehensible to Aristotle, should he suddenly reappear. Formal retraining throughout a career does occur in some areas (for instance, aviation, partially in medicine) but currency in a rapidly evolving world depends largely on individual initiative, ability to depart from past topics, and well-developed bullshit detectors (24).The dramatic increase in the potential sources of education in the great acceleration – movies, radio, TV, the web, have been recognized by educators, as has been the need for passing on more kinds of “literacy” (25, 26). Leave it to the flexible Finns to recognize the serious consequences of the rigid “learn your subjects” approach to teaching. Finland is formalizing a new system of teaching: “In Phenomenon Based Learning" (PhenoBL) and teaching, holistic real-world phenomena provide the starting point for learning. The phenomena are studied as complete entities, in their real context, and the information and skills related to them are studied by crossing the boundaries between subjects” (27, 28). There have been forays into this style of curriculum in the United States, but, none, to our knowledge, that have been adopted by school districts and states as the formal curriculum. There is observational evidence that we have moved in the opposite direction—one designed for standardized testing.Learning falls behindStarting with the need for literacy and numeracy for industrialization, the environmental demand for specific kinds of education has paralleled the great acceleration. But despite heroic efforts in a few areas such as the development of textbooks by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (29, 30), and a long interest in education in mathematics and its history (31) learning has fallen far behind need. There are small colleges and departments that directly tackle these issues but they are not mainstream and are often marginalized. Just think, for instance, of the clear widespread ignorance of simple exponential growth illustrated by discussions of the Covid-19 pandemic and of demography in general.Basic questions like what is education, what should be its purpose, and how should it be supported, should be major topics of concern, in colleges and universities as well as elementary and high schools.But we can only touch on the basics here because of the immediate need for help from educational institutions both to close critical parts of the culture gap and to help mobilize civil society to deal with immediate existential threats to civilization. Educators need to provide leadership in explaining those threats in general, and right now because of Vladimir Putin, specifically to educate people to the world-ending possibilities of nuclear war. Indeed one of the most critical parts of the culture gap is the large number of people who, since 1945, remain ignorant of the potential impact of such a war and believe that wars fought with nuclear weapons are “winnable.” This ignorance is partly explicable because of a general failure of schools and public education to inform citizens of the risks leaders have taken, the near misses that civilization has lived through by pure luck, and the now increasing odds of total disaster. But can we attribute the absence today, in the face of much more serious consequences, of the protests and teach-ins that rocked universities during the Vietnam war to that failure of education, or purely to the lack of a draft?Able Archer 83It’s sometimes said that considering nuclear wars is thinking about the unthinkable, but many specialists have spent lots of time doing just that. For instance, military planning for a “protracted” nuclear war in which the U.S. “prevailed” and for which the American nuclear triad should be upgraded was much discussed during the Reagan administration (32, 33) and as a result of the “Able Archer 83” incident.Able Archer 83 was what some consider to have been a “near miss” in 1983 when Russians suspecting the regular NATO Able Archer maneuvers were a cover up for a sneak “first strike” nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Soviet forces began readying for a nuclear response, but the issue never reached Leonid Brezhnev before the Russians determined there was no coming attack. He, like many in the American military hierarchy and unlike some of his subordinates, persisted in the view that a nuclear war would be insane – and impossible to win. If nothing else the Able Archer 83 incident underlines now how the fate of civilization rests precariously on personalities, ideologies, intelligence accuracy, misunderstandings, and many other features of human behavior and human cultures that make the very existence of weapons of mass destruction, nation states, and war itself increasingly problematic (11, 34, 35). But whether a “limited” nuclear war is possible is still discussed, even after the “Proud Prophet” war games long ago showed how unlikely it was to avoid escalation from use of “battlefield” weapons to complete strategic disaster (36-38).After a period of relative quiet on the issue, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine has rekindled the debate, with at least on the political side, apparent great ignorance of the issues. The latest Pentagon budget, in which huge amounts of money are transferred to corporate oligarchs for that modernization of the useless and dangerous U.S. triad (9) suggests that such attitudes are alive and well at the higher levels of government in the United States. Vladimir Putin’s statements make it clear they are thriving among some in the Russian leadership as well.Existential threatsEducation systems around the world should be pressing to get people to understand what’s at stake with the existence of thousands of nuclear weapons, and not just because Putin threatens to use them. For example it seems certain that even today there are powerful people in the governments of India and Pakistan who believe nuclear weapon use is at least riskable and perhaps winnable (39), Should India and Pakistan have a nuclear exchange, it also seems likely civilization would perish (40). And behind the now immediate nuclear threat is an array of other existential threats (41), including other weapons of mass destruction, knowledge of which lies on the far side of the culture gap and are not explained even to everyone enrolled in research universities.One can learn important things from the state of those universities. Many of them, for instance, have business schools “places that teach people how to get money out of the pockets of ordinary people and keep it for themselves” (42). Money issues control virtually everything at universities as they do in most “modern” societies. Stanford University’s academic senate gave a great lesson in the need to change the financing of higher education by refusing to divest from the fossil fuel industry because some senators were getting research support from them. The best short summary of what’s wrong with universities we have seen is that they are “too busy oiling the wheels to worry about where the engine is going.” More or less the same is said here in a more amusing form.There are of course many efforts out there to transform education—especially the work of pioneering individual faculty who would like to change the world even if their institutions remain mired in the 19th century. Stanford led there by establishing its Human Biology Program in 1971 and the Center for Conservation Biology in the Biology Department in 1984. There have been established other well-meaning programs to foster “social transformation” (including efforts to develop “social innovation curricula” in business schools), and some initiatives designed to deal with the fundamentals of the existential threats. But a glance at the literature (e.g., (43-45) suggests changes in higher education even in rich countries are unlikely to be spearheaded by academics. Too many teachers themselves have little grasp of the nature or magnitude of the problems of growth mania, revealed by our species’ history (11). They don’t recognize how short is the time available to have a reasonable chance of solving the problems, or how early in school and public education dramatic changes to teach about them would be necessary. This is unsurprising since the teachers are, obviously, products of the broken system.Prominent buzzwordsMeanwhile mainstream higher education persists in making things worse. Stanford ironically recently created an example of how not to catch up with Finnish middle schools educationally. Recognizing that climate disruption was a major concern and that “sustainability” was becoming a prominent buzzword, a move developed, especially among engineers and geologists, to establish a new School of Sustainability –originally labelled the School of Sustainability and Climate. The idea was, of course, basically to raise money. Academically it was silly from the start, simply because it retained or added more departmental and other anti-intellectual organization to the university, rather than re-examining the institution’s entire structure, its role in a dissolving civilization, and the consequences of its means of support. It’s worth a glimpse at the new school’s current structure which shows both its siloing and the near absence of understanding of the basic issues of sustainability.For instance, the sine qua non of sustainability is humanely and equitably reducing the scale of the human enterprise, both the numbers of people and the average consumption per capita (46-48). As you can see there is not a hint of this in the new school’s structure and there are many hints of ignorance in its announcement. For instance the announcement says the school will “address the planet’s sustainability,” but Earth’s sustainability has never been thought to be even slightly in jeopardy (at least for the next few billion years). The social sciences division of the school will “discover the causes of sustainability challenges, innovate new solutions to these challenges.” Of course the causes are already extremely well known – maybe the school could “innovate an old solution” and get the business school closed down (or at least it could hire writers who know English.) We could go on about things like how much more important humanities (absent from the school) are to sustainability than geophysics, but we’ll spare you. The Doerr school is a monument to what’s wrong with universities as civilization circles the drain, and analyzing its structure would be a valuable learning experience for freshmen wishing to understand how close we are to going down that drain.Civil societyOn the other hand, obviously many non-pedants in civil society are deeply concerned and understand the need to shrink the scale of the human enterprise. Many couples globally are choosing to stop at one child or go childless, steps in rich countries that are are major personal contributions to sustainability (49). And there are many organizations in civil society that “get it” – from ZPG in the old days to Growthbusters, the Post-Carbon Institute, Population Media Center, Global Conservation, and the Global Footprint Network today. And of course there’s the MAHB that probably does more than those other fine NGOs to engage broad civil society. It doesn’t just serve those who already understand the existential threats, but also those who wish to understand them better and develop ways to counter them. The challenge is that scaling up these efforts, understanding the barriers, and converting their message into policy in the face of near boundless ignorance and organized denial, is not easy. But there is a lot of good stuff happening. Not at necessary scale. Too quiet. Sometimes too afraid. But sometimes not.Despite the manifest flaws in education that will need to be corrected if there ever is to be a Civilization 2.0, there are things universities could do now if they ever are awakened from their slumber. Where is the modern day equivalent of the teach-ins of the 70s —now needed on nuclear weapons history and potential impacts of other doomsday weapons, on climate disruption, on the scale of the human enterprise and population imperatives, on the genetic disinformation on race and gender, on the need to modernize the constitution, on extinction and and loss of ecosystem services, on the demographic and biodiversity elements of pandemics, on the financialization of value and the requirement for wealth redistribution, on the ethics of borders and sharing the burdens of refugees, on the roots of human dominance in the evolution of empathy, and on dozens of other topics about which most “educated” Americans are clueless? Where are the classes being canceled or suspended to make time for the development of new education attuned to the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced? Where are the university presidents to give intellectual leadership in the worst time of human history, a time when the potential ultimate war is being fought in Europe and for the first time a global civilization is teetering on the brink of collapse? Why are universities not loudly criticizing the media’s “news” focus on political maneuvering, crime, celebrity doings, sporting events, gasoline prices (without mentioning the need to get them higher), and keeping the economic cancer growing while virtually ignoring the existential threats? Where are the students demonstrating as their futures are being mortgaged further each day by unsustainable population growth and over-consumption (48)? How many economics students organize protests over departments not teaching the obvious – that economists who think that population growth can continue indefinitely along with escalating universal wealth and consumption are daydream believers? One answer according to famed anthropologist Marshall Sahlins is that the overall cultural background in which the universities are embedded is inimical to leadership actions (50). In 2009 Sahlins suggested a part of the problem was the popularity of business courses. Could part of today’s more desperate problem be the overwhelming popularity of computer science?Our current education system –right up to the university—is trapped in reflecting society and missing the imperative to change human culture. As such it drives rather than solves the problems facing us, especially as it is so largely financed by politicians, and worse yet corporations and rentier capitalists, and their own sadly mis-educated products (think again economics departments and business schools and add in law schools). And as you can see, this system of support is loaded with pitfalls and contradictions. But we think universities should still speak from the lens of progressive human values and ecological well-being—to try to create the educational base for a strong, sustainable society with more equity, laws that evolve with the acceleration and do not overweight originalism), and near-universal well-being as goals. It is clear to us that getting key parts of the culture gap closed is an essential task for civil society if it aspires to those goals, and thus for a modernized educational apparatus led by universities and perhaps a vastly scaled up MAHB-type civil society to nurture it..References1. Haque U (2018) (Why) American collapse is extraordinary: Or, why America’s melting down faster than anyone believed. Eudaimonia.2. Lenton TM, et al. (2019) Climate tipping points—too risky to bet against. (Nature Publishing Group).3. Union of Concerned Scientists (1993) World Scientists' Warning to Humanity (Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, MA).4. 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Intelligence in the Cold War: What Difference did it Make?, (Routledge), pp 15-33.36. Pauly RB (2018) Would US Leaders Push the Button? Wargames and the Sources of Nuclear Restraint. International Security 43(2):151-192.37. Bracken P (2012) The second nuclear age: Strategy, danger, and the new power politics (Macmillan).38. Davis PK & Bennett BW (2022) Nuclear-Use Cases For Contemplating Crisis And Conflict On The Korean Peninsula. Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament:1-26.39. Jayaprakash N (2002) Winnable Nuclear War? Rhetoric and Reality. Economic and Political Weekly:196-198.40. Toon OB, et al. (2019) Rapidly expanding nuclear arsenals in Pakistan and India portend regional and global catastrophe. Science Advances 5(10):eaay5478.41. Bradshaw CJ, et al. (2021) Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future. Frontiers in Conservation Science 1:61549:9.42. Parker M (2018) Shut Down the Business School (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL).43. 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Dasgupta P, Dasgupta A, & Barrett S (2021) Population, Ecological Footprint and the Sustainable Development Goals. Environmental and Resource Economics:1-17.49. Wynes S & Nicholas KA (2017) The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environ Res Lett 12(7):074024.50. Sahlins M (2009) The Teach‐ins: Anti‐war protest in the Old Stoned Age. Anthropology Today 25(1):3-5.Paul Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies Emeritus and president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University.Joan Diamond is the Executive Director of Stanford University’s Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) and of the Crans Foresight Analysis Nexus (FAN).Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.
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Senior Agents of Change fellow Michelle Gin speaks with Michael Xiong of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency about the dangers of skin lightening products that contain mercury.They discuss Xiong’s work on this issue in Minnesota, what on-the-ground intervention strategies look like, and why we all need to love our skin.The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.Listen below to our discussion with Xiong, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.Agents of Change in Environmental Justice · The dangers of skin lightening productsTranscriptMichelle GinHello, my name is Michelle Gin, and I am here today with my friend and colleague, Michael Xiong. He is with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and he's an environmental health specialist. Today we're gonna be talking about skin lightening products, specifically mercury in skin lightening products. So hi, Michael. So glad you can join us today. How are you doing?Michael Xiong Good. How are you doing, Michelle? Glad to be here. It's nice to be here with you. And it's been a while.Michelle Gin Yeah, so glad you're here. So tell me about your role at Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.Michael Xiong Yeah, so my role at the MPCA, which is what we call Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for short, revolves mainly around education on mercury in consumer products. Such products would be mercury thermostats, mercury switches, jewelry, toys, and even cosmetic products. how I go about what I do at MPCA is that I usually get products or suggestions of products that could possibly contain mercury, and I'll send them out to be tested. If a product comes back with any levels of concern, we'll work with businesses, shop vendors, whether it be online or in-person vendors, about removing the product or changing some sort of compound formula. And I should probably note that I'm not enforcement, and I'm on the education outreach side. So I don't send any fines or punishments to people, so people shouldn't target me for those things. Kind of an example of what I've been doing a lot lately, is that all my focus has been on skin lightening products. You know, they are cosmetic products that, you know, do make your skin lighter. And of course, the main ingredient for almost every one of these products is mercury, as has been known to be very effective. I've been working with nonprofits, local governments, online vendors, such as like Amazon, eBay, and so forth, and local vendors to kind of educate them about the dangers of using these products, as well as getting them off the shelves. And then of course, our main focus at the MPCA is to get them properly disposed, such as taking them to the household hazardous waste partners that we have.Michelle Gin Thank you. So tell me, why is this important to human and environmental health?Michael Xiong Yeah, so here at the MPCA, one of our main slogan is to include human health, because usually, a lot of times people think, "Oh, they're just worried about their environment." They think we might be tree huggers only –we are, but we also worry about human health as well. And a lot of times these mercury vapors, which is what we do find a lot of times when people open some of these products or get them exposed in the homes, is that it gets people sick. So it gets, it disrupts their endocrine systems. And of course, it gets caught in landfills. And of course, once people burn the landfills or whether it be in the factories, or wherever it might be, it gets in the air, and of course it ends up falling back down to their lakes and waters, and then people do eat the fishes [living in those bodies of water] and then that's how they can kind of contribute to mercury in fishes as well. And then people get sick from that as well. So it's like a real cycling revolving door where one thing kind of affects another. So it's not just people here in Minnesota we're worried about, but it's people around the world. So it's a combination of things that can affect human health and environmental health, kind of both at the same time.Michelle Gin Tell me about the communities that are most impacted by mercury in skin lightening products.Michael Xiong Yeah, so it's interesting that we do find a lot of the communities who are most in effect of skin lightening products to be people of color. What I mean by color is that there is not a distinct –To be honest, there is not a distinct that people want to be white – as in to be Caucasian is what I'm trying to say. They want to be seen lighter in a way that they seem to qualify as beauty. For example, I am Asian, so people who want to be... who use skin lightening products, they tend to have a darker complexion, and they want to be lighter, to be seen as noble or someone who doesn't go out and work on the fields, someone who has a high society status as well. And that rings true in other people of color as well. Like I work a lot with people in our Somali communities here in Minnesota. And they can tend to feel the same way where they want to be seen as fair and beautiful and not seen Dark as and they work out in the fields or, you know, have a higher chance to get a spouse partner as well. And those are kind of the communities that I've been working with. And those are the communities that are most impacted as people of color. But I'm not going to say it's only people of color, but they get the most impact. But we do get a lot of people who are white or Caucasians, I would say, that do use skin lightening products as well. And it might not be for the exact same reasons, but they do use it, whether it be for health benefits or color pigmentation that they might have on their skin. So it's not just people of color, but they're doing it for different varieties of ways. And same with people of color: They're using it, but they're doing it for different reasons. But the main reason that we found is beauty and the way that that want to be viewed asMichelle Gin that's so powerful. I mean, this is definitely this is environmental justice and beauty justice. So tell me, why does this work is important to you?Michael Xiong So as I stated, I am Asian. So in particular, I am Hmong, here in Minnesota. And one of the biggest sellers of skin lightening products that is found in Minnesota is from Hmong pending shops. In particular, we have a couple of flea markets that were areas of targets to have search and seizures, where thousands of these products were found, and more so than people did get sick from some of these places. And so it has greatly impacted my community in terms of not just the products that are being sold. But in terms of like the marketability, in terms of like, it's on the news, and people are like, "oh my goodness, look at this place, they're selling sketchy stuff." And I don't want them to view at our community as a community that sells sketchy stuff, because it kind of hurts me in that way as well. But I do want to get the address that hey, you can work with us. And we can find proper ways to love our skin. And of course, not just for Asians, but I care a lot about our Somali population as well, because I've got a chance to really know a lot of great people, and I'm looking out for them as well as people in our state, now that I work for the state, so everyone has been one after another. So it's, I'm trying my best to work for everyone. And this was something that was new to me. So I'm not gonna say… I've always worked on this product or the situation [not only] recently, I've been working on this since college. As, you know, I had an awesome opportunity which I was in public health as my major and we had a senior seminar and we worked with the Department of Health, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to kind of kick off this whole scaling program that we have here at MPCA called the "Love your skin" campaign. And so that has really brought light to my eyes and saying, "Hey, this is a serious situation that's happening in our state, happening in your community, which is my community, and we should do something about it, because it's affecting a lot of people." And I don't want anyone to have any kind of issues if I can prevent it. Or if I can do some way to help businesses to kind of not be harbor of bad stuff. I am willing to put myself out there to help anyone that I can and be open to help everyone if I could.Michelle Gin That's such an important role, that education piece. And my god, like you fit in so well because so many people, like you said, didn't always know about this issue when you first started. I mean, thinking about these communities, my own community, this is coming from a place where maybe in one's home country, this was a normal thing to be sold in the markets. But the laws are different here in the US in the regulation and being able to take that educational approach is such a good way to better gain trust in a community rather than going straight for like enforcement as a you had mentioned earlier.Michael Xiong Yeah, it's true because I think a lot of times we go out and buy our products. We don't tend to think what's in it. We just want to tend to what it's for. Kind of like when girls go out and buy lipsticks and lotions and stuff that we're not look in the bag of ingredient going "what's in this before I buy it?" you know, we're like, "oh, I need a red one, or I need a dry skin one" or whatever it might be. And we're not so sure to look at what's inside. So I don't blame people for not knowing because the message isn't out there quite as broad. But it's getting there. And it's getting and that's our intent.Michelle Gin So I heard you talking a little bit about... So we're talking about mercury you've mentioned, you also mentioned fish in mercury. And it's important to note like the difference of inorganic mercury, found in skin lightening products and organic mercury found in fish. Could you just elaborate a little bit more for the audience?Michael Xiong Yeah, that's a great question. So mercury in fish, is usually what we would call organic mercury. So organic is usually, as kind of how it sounds, kind of like you get organic foods or organic bananas, it's untouched, it's naturally grown. And that's what organic mercury is. And so it's naturally-made mercury from the environment. Because obviously, Mercury is an element in our periodic table is something that happens wrong Mother Nature that is produced naturally. So inorganic, would be the exact opposite where it's man-made, or, you know, machine-made, or however you want to call it. So it is made by not nature, so people are making inorganic mercury. So that's usually a big compound that is found in the skin lightening products. People are making mercury because they can make mercury because it's very easy to make it. And I did mention early, it is very effective in terms of, you know, whitening the skin. And so in that two-compound, that two mixture of a) being cheap to make, and b) being very effective to do, makes these products to have a lot of mercury, because hey –why should I spend so much money on research to make your skin lighter when the product is right there, and I can do it really cheaply, and really quickly, and make your skin lighter? It sounds like a win-win bonus for a lot of these companies and for a lot of these folks that they're not looking at what's the pot with mercury that's in there. They're looking at the results, and they're like, "Wow, my skin got super light. And that's how I wanted it to be." And so that's been a deadly combination, in terms of getting mercury out– is that it's very cheaply made, and it can be done very quickly.Michelle Gin Yeah, that's hard because a lot of people don't know about the health impacts that come with using, having mercury in these products, and how it's actually really detrimental to one's health. Can you talk a little bit more about that?Michael Xiong Yeah, so it also, you know, it's very detrimental to your skin, obviously, because you're applying it to your skin. So a lot of effects could be future skin cancer or you're obviously giving yourself room to be in heavy infection because obviously your skin is a layer to block any kind of infection you would get. So if you're kind of peeling your skin back – which is what mercury, which is used to block the melanin in your skin, or melanin in your body–. And then of course, another compound that is used in skin lightening products is hydrocodone and different steroids. So what hydrocodone does is it's a steroid, It's a bigger steroid. And what it does is, it's kind of like a paint thinner. So usually kind of when you paint your house, you have like little paint in order to kind of remove the paint. And that's kind of what hydrocodone does on top of the mercury. So if you get like one of those compounds that have hydrocodone and mercury, it's it's a deadly combination where the mercury blocks the melanin from detecting the sunlight. And then hydroquinone, which kind of blocks, removes the skin. So you're moving layers of skin off your body. And of course, you can also be led to having different health issues kind of like kidney disease, you can also have skin cancer and so forth. And you can have different discoloration on your body. We do see people who once they use skin lightening product, they have what would be like almost like a purple look kind of their skin, it's almost like you're getting bruising, as well as redness. And so you can kind of tell on their face and going like "wow, something looks off" or maybe it's like a skin scarring or tissue kind of coming around.Michelle Gin Oh, yeah, that's scary. All the different types of toxic chemicals in these products. It definitely makes sense why they are... one found needing to go to household hazardous waste. So I know in your position you do home visits after you've been notified when someone has had an elevated urine mercury level. Could you walk us, walk me through what does that look like for a home visit? Like how you're notified of that? What does it look like and what type of follow up is there with our community?Michael Xiong Yeah, so we work in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Health in the MN FEET program, and then who does all the exposures and we're working with communities, clinical communities around around our local Twin Cities here. And they're working around the state as well as at this point. So they are detecting people in urine. So mercury, organically, is found in the blood. But inorganic is found in the urine. So usually they have kids or pregnant woman, they've been doing a test where they would be tested for mercury in urine. And once they have a high detection, they would contact the Department of Health and say, "Hey, we found, we have a patient here who might have been exposed to mercury." And then of course, there's some follow-up questions that they would do [like] do you use skin lightening products, and so forth. And if they agree to Yes, Department of Health will contact us at the PCA and say, "hey, they would like a home visit, can you come out to wherever the location is, and kind of detect their homes for levels of mercury?" And the reason why we do the home visit before I jump into it is that when someone opens a can of mercury in a skin lightening product, they're literally exposing your house from the mercury vapors. So if you put it in your house, you're exposing the air into your home. So you're not just using and applying it as dangerous, but you're also smelling it and breathing it. And mercury is kind of tricky, because it doesn't have a smell, and you can't visually see it. And so as soon as they open it, they don't know that they're exposing their home, their whole house to mercury vapor. So when we go out to these homes, you know, I'll go out and, you know, I'll go around their living room, their kitchen, using the Lumex, which is a mercury vapor analyzer. And I'll check every cooks and cranny of their homes if they wish me. And if there's some areas they don't want me to go to, I won't go into those areas for privacy. And I'll test any kind of products that they have on hand that they would like me to test. So I would just kind of go around the homes and look for any kind of signs of levels. And there's no home visits are ever the same, that I've been a part of. Everything's been a little different, you know, we would find a washer machine that has like high levels of mercury. Or we would have like one corner of the bedroom that has high levels of mercury and everything else is clean. And then there's different tactics that I would use to try to help the family out whether it be to open the windows and open the sliding doors to kind of get air circulated to the mercury to get out of the home. Or, or in the case of the washing machine. Get some mercury decontaminant to kind of run through the cycles. And hopefully that'll pick up the mercury that are stuck inside the washing machine and go from there. But every home visits been really different. But the washing machine has been one of my most challenging case, because I didn't know what to do. Because at that point where I was like, if this washing machine doesn't work, I don't know how this family is going to do laundry. And they didn't have money for a new washer as well. And that was something I had brought back to my boss and say, "hey, if they don't have a washing machine, and I can't get this to work out, do we have some sort of funding we can help this family and, you know, can we get them a new washer if that's possible?" and so that was an obstacle that I had to find. And luckily, we didn't get to resort to that situation. But we did get some money pulled aside in case that were to happen to help this family in a washer if it didn't work out. So we ended up going back a couple times making sure it was well before they can use that washer again. And it worked out really well for the family and that we were able to get rid of the mercury in the washer.Michelle Gin I am so glad to know that we have individuals like yourself, who are going, who are working with our communities, our multigenerational homes, that are also very much impacted from this issue. There's a lot of our immigrant refugee communities where this is a common practice and that you are there and thinking about this and the equity of what does it cost if you can't have a washing machine, what are those implications, and raising that up. So thank you, Michael.Michael Xiong It's important too because not everyone has the funding to go out and buy a new washing machine. I just recently bought one myself and I have to say it took me an arm and a leg just to get one. I couldn't imagine what their family would have gone through if that would happen. But you know, we had the backend, or my bosses and so forth. So we were able to pull out some money aside in case –which was awfully nice of the state to do as well. So but there's a big prop to the people that are behind me to help support us and support these communities as well. So it's not just a one-man team. We've got the whole state to back up as well. So a lot big, big thanks to them as well.Michelle Gin Absolutely. So we're talking about during your home visits, you're going in and detecting mercury. And I know it's the device is called a Lumex. Can you describe like, what is a Lumex? What does this look like? What would it be if you were to be coming into someone's home looking for mercury vapors?Michael Xiong Yeah, so the Lumex machine, it's a so that's kind of the brand name, Mercury RA 915. So that's the actual model. It's interesting, because every time I carry it with me, I get looks wherever I go, even here at the MPCA. The best way to describe it is that it's a blue box. Usually I have it in like a case box, almost as if I'm like a... A messenger bag. It's actually pretty heavy. It's about 20 to 25 pounds, somewhere between there. And it looks like a Ghostbuster machine. It's not a backpack, so I don't get it carried in my backpack, like a Ghostbuster. But it's, it's along to my side, and it's got a hose that comes out. So it almost looks like I'm walking around like a Ghostbuster. And that's something that people have been saying, "oh, yeah, you're gonna go out and do some Ghostbuster work, right? "And like, Yep, I sure am. And so that's the best way to describe how the Lumex looks like and how I look like when I'm out in public with this set. I look like I'm Ghostbusting out there. And whether it be when I go to the shops to bring it, or whether bring it to the agency or people's homes, I do get looks. And it does get turned from carrying after a while because it is about 20 to 25 pounds. And it makes a humming noise, but it doesn't emit any kind of mercury out there, or anything, it just kind of sucks it in to kind of just get a reading. So there's really no dangers or no harmful [inaudible]. Try to use the product it does make that humming noise but otherwise it's strictly safe. And it is a very expensive machine. So I try not to drop it because it is $50,000. And so I don't want to drop that. So I always have that wrapped on my shoulder. And I always carry it as, on my side, just with my hands just to make sure it doesn't drop. So it is a very expensive machine. And it's very sensitive. And it can get to detect people who might have amalgams. And so if you're not sure what amalgams are, it's silver fillings in your teeth, and so can detect that sensitive level as well. So it could even go even small, the tinniest faint of mercury, it'll detect that; as well as something... but the maximum I can get is 50,000 nanograms per cubic meter, which has been maxed out a couple of times. So you know, when that happens, it's usually pretty dangerous.Michelle Gin Wow, thank you, Michael. So I heard you earlier, mentioning, one of the key messages in the work of the state of Minnesota is love your skin. So we've been talking about the health impacts and environmental impacts from mercury in the skin lightening products. But that's only one approach to how do we make changes in businesses of choosing to sell such products, as well as changes in individuals to even want to purchase these products. So could you tell me more about the message of love your skin and its meaning to you.Michael Xiong And to the message "love your skin" is a big part of... it's a big part of me, because obviously a big part of love your skin is contributed from me and my class. So it's something that I will always take away from my college experiences as well as my professional experience. So luckily, I was able to hop right into it from my college career. Love your skin derives from our... well what we did, we did focus groups in college to kind of conduct on message and how to approach you know, reducing the use of mercury. And you know, the best, most impactful way is to stop the demand. And so usually when there's demand, people are gonna make the product. So if there's less demand, they're not going to make the product. So we figured out, hey, you know, let's, let's make sure people love their skin, so the demand of wanting to use these products is lower. And so that's kind of how the love your skin campaign come about is to love your skin, and to not want to look a certain way to kind of appreciate how God has made you whether you believe in God or whoever it may be. It's that you know, appreciate who you are and how you're born and kind of really enjoy yourself instead of be so focused on trying to change yourself and make yourself miserable, just be okay with who you are. And it means a lot to me because it was something that my class and I made one for one whole semester. I mean, it was very draining. It was a lot of hard work. We developed a lot of outreach messages, a lot of campaign a lot of analyzing focus groups on messages, and so forth. It really seemed to excel well here at the state where they were able to translate into multiple different languages. So when I go out to these home visits, whether they are Spanish speaking and they are Somali speaking, Hmong speaking, I have fliers that I can say, hey, love your skin, these are direct messages, this is how to dispose of the product. This is how, what kind of health issues you can be aware of, pass this information along. And a lot of times they have been very respect receptive of this message and are willing to pass out to their loved ones or their family members or their friends. And so the message being sent around that, "Hey, you didn't know that this was a danger. But now I know, I'm going to tell everyone," and this was a great campaign and a great message from the state to adopt. And we that was something that when we did in college, we weren't sure if the state was going to want to accept this and the fact that they accepted that work that made it seem like "wow, we are making an impact." And we're trying to one step at a time. We're one home or one person at a time. And we're hoping this will trickle from one person tell another and tell another and by the time you know what everyone knows, love to love your skin.Michelle Gin Absolutely. Having been with those people on the Minnesota Department of Health team at that time, it was very exciting to see a group of bright, excited students developing that key message and now it's been translated and the educational handouts that you and other folks uses in eight languages. That's so exciting.Michael Xiong It is it is. And I think they're hoping to get more as we get more translators and more different languages that come into the state that we're going to be putting them in different languages.Michelle Gin It is an exciting time. And yeah, that work. I mean, that was years ago. And it's continued to grow. And hopefully this work and awareness will continue to be raised about mercury and skin lightening products and multi-prong approach of let's talk about the health impacts as well as loving your skin so we can slow down that demand and slow down the supply. So Michael, thank you so much for sharing your work today. Is there anything else that you'd like to share with those listening?Michael Xiong Yeah, one last thing that I would love to share with everyone is that you know, even though I'm here working for the state, off the "love your skin" campaign in college, you know, I'm here for everyone in the state, you know, I want everyone to be safe. So I'm always out there looking for products that might contain mercury, whether it be light bulbs, or thermometers or skin lighting products that we're going to do our best to get them off the markets, to get them properly disposed so they don't get in our air, So they can't go into our lakes to get into fishes that people love to eat, especially in my community, the Hmong community, we love to fish, but you know, I'm out here working our best and we're going to do our best to make sure they're out the markets and make sure people are safe. And whether it be in their homes, you know, we are going to do our best to make sure everyone is safe from mercury in some fashion. And if people are always wanting to know more, they're always welcome to visit the MPCA's website or the Department of Health's website about skin lightening products or even mercury in general. But if they're always wanting to reach out, they're more than willing to reach out to me as well do my email michael.Xiong@state.mn.us You know, I'd be willing to talk to people if they want to talk or if they want to know more information. You know, they're always welcome to reach out as I've got an open door for anyone who wants to talk about this as well.Michelle Gin Thank you, Michael, thank you again for your time. It's always a pleasure to chat with you.Michael Xiong Awesome. Thank you so much, Michelle.
Ashley James joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss reframing how we think about children’s health, and what organizers and regulators can learn from each other.James, an ORISE Fellow in the U.S. EPA Office of Children's Environmental Protection and former reporting intern at EHN.org, also talks about community organizing, and her work educating folks on beauty justice.The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.Listen below to our discussion with James, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher. Agents of Change in Environmental Justice · Ashley James on protecting children from environmental exposuresTranscriptBrian BienkowskiAshley, how are you doing?Ashley James I am doing well. How are you?Brian Bienkowski I'm doing excellent today. And where are you today?Ashley James I am in Maryland, just slightly outside of Washington, DC.Brian Bienkowski Washington, DC. Excellent. So let's talk about place a little bit. I have had the good chance of working with you the opportunity to work with you. But I actually don't know. Where did you grow up and didn't have any impact on your interest in environmental health injustice?Ashley James Yeah, that's a good question. So I was born in Brooklyn, New York. But I spent a good amount of my youth – so middle school and high school – in Chester, Virginia, which is just south of Richmond. And I'm not sure if that impacted my interest in environmental health consciously but I did live just three miles from Hopewell, Virginia, which as you know, my most recent Environmental Health News story is about and I did notice that Hopewell was overburdened with a lot of pollution and I remember hating seeing the smoke, the stacks of smoke, I hated the smells coming from that direction. So maybe subconsciously it did impact my interest.Brian Bienkowski Totally and for listeners, we are recording this the day that Ashley's new feature came out about a proposed BlueZone in Hopewell, Virginia. So if you go to ehn.org You can check that out. So you went to the University of Richmond and then eventually got your Master's of Public Health at Emory University. What was it about public health that grabbed you?Ashley James Yeah, so I actually started off as an undergraduate, my initial interest was in Marine Biology and Environmental ecology. I worked in a sponge lab and I had really great experiences doing research in the Florida Keys. And then I went to study abroad in Bocas del Toro, Panama, which is one of the sites for the School for Field Studies, which is like a – basically what it sounds like: a field study abroad program. And I went there thinking that I would go even deeper into, you know, the marine biology world, which I did, but I also got exposed to social science. And that's really where my passion for environmental health and justice started. So I'll go a little further into that. When I was abroad, I interacted with a lot of indigenous communities. And I had the opportunity to even live with an Indigenous family for one week during a homestay. And I learned that there definitely a population that was, you know, experienced marginalization, discrimination, had their land and their natural resources threatened constantly, you know, didn't have great access to education and employment opportunities, you know, those social determinants of health, and I definitely observed health impacts as well. And then when I did a research project that ultimately ended up being a social science project, where I interviewed community members about waste management on the islands, because basically, they didn't have the infrastructure to properly manage all the wast, and there was tons of trash everywhere. So I was kind of trying to investigate that. And I distinctly remember interviewing a particular woman in this Indigenous community, and she was telling me, they don't have the money to afford formal trash collection, so they dump it in the ocean or the immediate environment or burn it, and she was telling me about outbreaks of rashes, and dengue fever, and just all of these, you know, illnesses. And I remember writing down in my journal while I was talking to her public health circling it. And ever since then, that's pretty much been... my interest has always lived in the intersection of environment, justice and health. And I realized I care. I started off caring about how people are impacting the environment, like, "Oh, what are we doing to the planet?" and then I left also caring about how that environment's impacting people.Brian Bienkowski That's a really nice way to put it. And I've talked on this podcast before about in my journalism career, I went through the same flip where I was very interested in the natural world, and water and biodiversity and creatures and wildlife –and I still am to a large extent– but then I started realizing how all these things act upon us, and I believe it was Shakespeare that said, we are nature too. So it's all kind of it's all kind of the same, the same thing when you get down to it. What is a sponge lab? I don't know what a sponge lab is?Ashley James Oh, yes. Okay. So we I say sponge lab, because that was like the organism or the animal that we focused our research on. So, you know, like marine and freshwater sponges basically, is what we work. Okay.Brian Bienkowski Very cool. Very cool. So you just, you just outlined what sounded like a very pivotal moment in your life. So maybe it was maybe that was the moment or experience. But my next question was, what was a defining moment? Or event in your life so far that shaped your identity?Ashley James Yeah, that's a great question. I think I've had a few defining moments. But one of the earliest that I can remember, is in third grade, in third grade. So as I mentioned, I was born in Brooklyn, and for elementary school, I went to PS 38, in Park Slope. And I remember my teacher telling us to write a poem for an Earth Day writing competition. So I wrote a poem about a tree, it rhymed. And I won the competition. And I was so excited, I got to plant a tree with Marty Markowitz, who was the borough president of Brooklyn at the time, and I got my picture in the newspaper. And I consider this a defining moment, because it really is the first time I can remember my two loves, which are writing and the environment, colliding, you know. And third grade was also... I was always a pretty ambitious child, I guess, or I guess I've always been an ambitious person. And by third grade, I had already declared I wanted to be an environmental scientist, and was planning out my colleges that I wanted to go to. So overall, yeah, third grade.Brian Bienkowski Talk about differences in maturity. I believe I was 18. And still like "I don't even where where should I go to college? Someone just kind of tell me tell me what I should do" Have you been back to Brooklyn to see if your tree has grown?Ashley James Oh, my goodness, no, I don't even think I would know the tree if I saw it.Brian Bienkowski That'd be a cool pilgrimage to go to try to find your your third grade tree and see if it's, see if it's grown up. So speaking of speaking of New York, so kind of following your career trajectory here. I want to talk a little bit about your time at WEACT for Environmental Justice. So you were part of the environmental health and justice leadership training, I think most of our listeners are familiar with WEACT, it's a kind of one of the preeminent environmental justice organizations. So what did it look like and entail educating hundreds of folks about environmental justice organizing, and did you see any of the training take hold in communities and if so, what did that what did that look like?Ashley James Yeah, so the EH JLT that's the acronym for it was a major part of my role when I worked at WEACT, I helped to revise the entire curriculum, which had over 20 lessons on various topics. And we... while I was there, it was still, you know, middle of the pandemic, so we had all of our lessons virtually. And we would have different cohorts with a theme. So say the theme was climate, then I might teach a lesson, introducing climate justice, and then one on clean air and one on energy and one on green solutions maybe. And in terms of seeing it taking hold, I think something that I got to witness in real time was, at first, even though I taught mostly adults, my class was always very quiet in the beginning. But then when it came time to relate what we were talking about to their personal experiences, that's when I saw people like really start to open up and make those connections. And I can see that passion developing in real time. So that was always, that was always nice.Brian Bienkowski That's excellent. It does help to connect things to people's personal experiences. Otherwise, it can seem a little abstract for folks. So I think that's a... that's definitely true when it comes to teaching. And you've also worked on a subject we've talked on this podcast quite a bit and our founder, Dr. Ami. Zota, is one of the foremost researchers on this, but you worked on beauty justice. And we have talked about this. But I was wondering if you can just kind of outline what beauty justice means and how you all try to educate folks about it.Ashley James Yeah, thank you so much for asking this. I think beauty justice was one of the most interesting things that I learned about and got to work on while I was at WEACT. And for me, I would define it, I would define beauty justice, as recognizing that beauty and personal care products often contain toxic ingredients, and that women of color are disproportionately exposed to these products for various reasons. And the ultimate goal is for the products to be marketed to women of color for those products to be free of harmful ingredients, clearly labeled, affordable and accessible, and also to hold responsible parties accountable. And in terms of what we worked on, we had a lot of different initiatives, one that comes first to mind is The Beauty Inside Out. Initiative, which raised awareness about beauty justice in northern Manhattan. So they launched surveys to understand personal care product use, essentially, and to educate community members and work with local realtors, also, to you know, sell safer products. And then we also partnered with Mike Schade from Toxic Free Future. And they have something called the retail report card, which assesses retailer actions to eliminate toxic products. And we partnered with them to add criteria, specifically on products marketed to women of color. And I also got to co-lead a session in a conference that we held last year, around this time, actually, in November, last year, and that was on beauty justice as well. So that was a way that we were able to kind of keep the conversation going between various different stakeholders. That time last year, Johnson & Johnson was also in the news because they were being you know, sued for their baby powder, which had talc in it, which can be contaminated with asbestos, which causes cancer. And so I made a lot of infographics kind of talking about talc, and you know, how to limit exposure. I feel like something that ,a recent example that really highlights what beauty justice is all about, actually came from something that was recently trending on Twitter. So growing up as a Black girl, specifically, –I have this seared into my memory and it's a common, you know, thing for a lot of Black girls–, you go to CVS or the local beauty supply store, and you see these boxes of DIY hair relaxers promoted to children or young girls. And it's always these cute little girls with bone straight hair and it makes you... it's marketed to children and you know, seeing that you want to ask your parents for a relaxer. And so someone tweeted a tweet that went viral and said like "Oh, I wonder where all these hair relaxer box girls are today." And so a lot of the girls were like, "oh, here I am. I was on In one of those boxes," and it came out that a lot of them are either natural now, or they never had a relaxer in the first place, like, the people would just straighten their hair with a hot comb or a flat iron, and take the photo. And so the girls actually never relaxed. They never used the product that was being marketed. And it was all you know, fun and jokes and everything on Twitter. But that really made me think about how a lot of, you know, beauty and personal care companies have predatory advertising and marketing and also false advertising and marketing. And There have been studies connecting the chemicals in hair relaxers to uterine fibroids, a study recently came out connecting hair relaxers to uterine cancer and Black women are diagnosed and die more often with uterine cancer than other racial groups. So thinking about that compounded on top of the fact that this is exposure to children, and I'm sure we'll talk about, you know, how children are even more vulnerable to chemical exposures. Yeah, I just think that's a great example of the issue at hand and why so many parties need to be held accountable, but in particular, the companies that are making the products.Brian Bienkowski Yeah, that's a great current example. And I hadn't seen that on Twitter. I'm wondering when you started doing this work, was it, was was it a surprise when you would talk to say friends or your aunts and other women in your life to hear that that products that they may have been using were toxic in some way?Ashley James Yeah, I think so. I think a lot of people were surprised because some of these products – like I think about the baby powder, it's so... it's just an integral part of your, you know, personal care routine. And so, and there's no, there was no warning or knowledge about the fact that it had any harmful ingredients. So I think it's just kind of shocked because there was no awareness about it.Brian Bienkowski And the other part of this that you mentioned, as a girl, seeing those boxes in the drugstore is just the notion of what we find that what media is telling us is the ideal, right or is beautiful, or what people should strive to be. And for the longest time, that was straight hair, and maybe it was rail thin, or whatever these misguided notions of what people should strive to be, were plastered on all of our media. So I hope some of that's changing to what we consider healthy and beautiful and what kids should strive for, from all races. Really, I mean, to not feel like they have to look like the woman on the box in the store. You know what I mean?Ashley James Yeah, absolutely. And I do think it is. Like, I remember in middle school, literally begging my mom to give me a relaxer because I wanted, you know, to look like that I wanted to have straight hair. But now there's a lot more promotion of just embracing your hair, your skin, whatever, in its natural state. And I think there's a lot more positive images for girls growing up.Brian Bienkowski Good. I mean, it's hard enough to be a kid. I remember. I remember being embarrassed because I couldn't afford at the time, I believe it was like bomb equipment, or polo or these brands that the cool rich kids were wearing. I can't imagine on top of that, wanting to change my hair and my appearance. It's hard enough to be a kid. So I hope I hope you're right. And that's a nice transition and thinking about children and how they intersect with environmental issues and exposures. So you are now in ORISE fellow at the EPA is Office of Children's Environmental Health Protection. So what is something people might not know about children's exposure to toxics that you've you've learned there at your job?Ashley James Yeah, it's funny, you ask that. So my mother has worked in maternal and child health for the majority of her career. And so through observing her and learning about her work, I have known for a long time that you know, the prenatal period as well as childhood, especially early childhood, is the most critical developmental period when it comes to exposure, whether that be environmental exposures, like, you know, toxic chemicals, or social exposures like traumatic experiences. And I also learned that you know, children's behavior patterns and their biology, like underdeveloped immune systems or organs in general, make them more vulnerable. And this might be because I'm in the field, but I do think a lot of people know that or You know, recognize that. However, something I learned when I started at my current office at the EPA is something that kind of helped to change my perspective. And that is thinking of children, not necessarily as a special subgroup or special population, but as a life stage that everyone experiences. And so, for example, me, I'm not a child, I don't have children. But children's health is still relevant to me, because at one point I was a child, and whatever I was exposed to then does impact my health, you know, today and will moving forward. And so even though that's essentially saying the same thing, I think having that perspective of that this is a life stage that everyone goes through, is good to better understand children's health and to make people realize that it truly is important to everyone. So yeah, I hope if you're listening to this, and you think," Oh, well, children's health really isn't relevant to me" that that changes your mind. And since you asked specifically about toxic exposures, I'll say, we live in an extremely toxic world. And I believe that if we can protect our most vulnerable people, for example, children, we can protect everyone.Brian Bienkowski So I often think of organizers and community organizing, and the federal government often may be at odds with one another one pushing the other to do more and the other, moving slowly. So can you talk about since you've, you've been in organizing, and now you're working for the EPA as a fellow, can you talk about that contrast? And perhaps some areas that you see where federal researchers and organizers could intercept to better people's health?Ashley James Yeah, definitely, I think, you know, the fundamental difference between that organizing work and work at the federal level, is scale. And what I mean by that is, when you're in organizing, and you're working with the actual community, you're a lot closer to them, you have your boots on the ground, whereas federal level is more big picture. I do think a lot of people in the federal agency, or in the federal government working in these different agencies recognize that disconnect, and are thinking a lot harder, especially with the new administration's focus on environmental justice. So for example, a lot of researchers of the EPA are doing a lot more EJ related research, and it will be important to consult with communities, and to partner with them for that research.Brian Bienkowski So because you don't have enough going on in your life, you are also a reporting intern at Environmental Health News and full disclosure, when I was looking at applications for our internship, I was thinking, How is this woman going to juggle everything she has going on? And still work for us. But not only did you do it, you did it very well. And it was just so awesome to work with you. So I was curious, just as a researcher, that's been most of your work. What interested you about environmental reporting? And what surprised you about being in a newsroom?Ashley James Yeah, that's a great question. So one thing that interests me about environmental reporting is being able to reach a different audience than who would be reading dense academic literature. But also I mentioned when I started this interview that one of my first loves has been writing. And I was trained in creative writing for high school when I attended the Appomattox regional Governor's School for Arts. And one of the things I learned that I distinctly remember my teachers telling me is that people won't necessarily care about overarching statistics, but they will care about, for example, a story about an individual person. And having that creative writing background, I'm a strong believer that pairing narrative and storytelling with the science and the data and the statistics is a powerful way to get people to care. And I think ultimately, that's always been my goal, whether I'm doing education, whether I'm doing research, whether I'm writing, is to get people to care because I think when people care, then they're willing to you know, get involved in issues and help to create change. And in terms of what surprised me, this might be because I watched too much TV but I really thought a newsroom would be just like a extremely stressful environment like I'm thinking – everyone's, you know, going crazy with deadlines and you you do so much is what I noticed or realize that Environmental Health News are doing so much work. But you still have time for jokes and laughs and to share personal tidbits about your life. So I don't know if that's unique to Environmental Health News. But I did find that surprising.Brian Bienkowski Well, it's very good to hear, I can't say on most exit interviews, the first thing I hear from interns, when I asked about our culture is "chill", is usually the right word. And maybe, maybe the function of having a former hippie as an editor myself, has something to do with that. But that's good to hear. And I just, on a personal, my personal thought is any work environment you're in, whether it's a newsroom or a research lab or whatever, you have to take time to smile and get to know people. And also nowadays, you have to recognize the mental rigors of what we're, what we're not only what we're dealing with on a day to day basis, which is heavy stuff in the environmental field, but I don't know about you, but just staring at a screen and being on a screen for so many hours. I think it's just really important to take mental breaks. So that's, I'll get off my soapbox now. But I do I'm just a big fan of workplaces where people are comfortable and happy and not feeling stressed off. So I'm glad you experienced that.Ashley James Yeah, it really does help. It does.Brian Bienkowski So we've talked a lot about the environment and people but let's talk about the wildlife and the trees and the in the creatures and stuff because that was my first love. And I happen to know that you love the outdoors and hiking and being outside. So when did that become part of your life? When I think of Brooklyn, I don't necessarily think of hiking. And so where did that come in your life? And what does being in nature mean to you?Ashley James Yeah, thank you for asking that. So in my early childhood in Brooklyn, that is where I fell in love with nature, I would say. I distinctly remember my mom bringing me to Prospect Park often, but I thought that it was the forest. So I was just asked. I just asked like, "Oh, Mom, can you take me to the forest?" and that was our little thing. didn't know it was Prospect Park, but you know. But as I got older, and I started to have more social awareness, I didn't really do outdoorsy things. Like in general, my family wasn't the family to go hiking or camping. And like many other people of color, I viewed those activities, I associated those activities with whiteness. And that's a whole nother you know, soapbox. But it wasn't until college, and I was forced to like I said, doing my sponge research, I was forced to go kayaking and snorkel. And then I was forced to go hiking in the rain forest to collect my bug chaps and leaves when I was abroad. But that was still doing it for work, not really for fun. And then, after graduating college, in 2018, I served AmeriCorps for a year in Baltimore. And I, I worked on a nature preserve with a nonprofit, and I taught environmental education to youth of Baltimore, primarily Black and brown children. And part of my job was getting them on the Nature Preserve and exposing them to nature. And that's when I started to think more critically about, you know, the benefits of the outdoors and who has access to it and who feels included in those activities. And I started to think, why is it that I don't see many people personally, that look like me that are, you know, the poster people for these activities? And I asked a friend who I knew was an avid hiker, if I could go with her and ever since then, I've been hooked. I love it so much. And I have an Instagram page called AJ for adventure, where I feature my own adventures as well as other people of color just to change the narrative, you know, about who belongs outdoors and to promote the visibly, you know, showing that the outdoors are for everyone.Brian Bienkowski That's excellent. And this is another space anecdotally that I feel like I've seen movement in the last few years. And maybe it's just paying more attention to social media accounts like your own and there are there are others out there. And I encourage any listeners to check out our past podcast with Dr. Jennifer Roberts, who's in Maryland who talks extensively about this very issue and how she's trying to change that. It was one of my very favorite podcasts to do so check that out. And so you've been – Whether it's hiking or researching or organizing, communicating, you've been on many different angles of the environmental movement. What makes you optimistic? What are you hopeful about?Ashley James That is a great question. I do find it hard sometimes to stay optimistic in this field. But right now, I am really optimistic. And that has a lot to do with all the momentum around environmental justice right now. The Biden administration has made it clear that environmental justice is a priority. There's billions of dollars of funding going into environmental justice. In academia, I've noticed a lot more researchers talking about how important it is to do community-engaged research that's not extractive and that's respecting the expertise of the community. And, you know, working in partnership – true partnership – with their community members, I've seen a lot of conversation and progress around that. And even you know, in media and communications, I've seen a lot more stories and you know, other types of media, about environmental justice. So I think that's a good sign. And I just hope the momentum keeps going and doesn't, you know, fizzle out.Brian Bienkowski And I don't remember if I learned this from your application, when you became an intern, or from just looking researching you online before we brought you aboard EHN. But I know you play guitar. And we've talked about this, I play guitar as well. What songs are you working on right now? And I'm also curious, do you play in front of people? Or is this just for yourself?Ashley James Yeah, thank you for asking. Yes, I have a beautiful oak colored Martin acoustic electric that I love. And I recently learned how to play dreams by Fleetwood Mac, as well as Redemption Song by Bob Marley. So those are my two most recent songs. And I mostly play for myself, every now and then I might do a coffee house or an open mic, but it's kind of just, you know, a way to have my own music therapy and, you know, use another part of my brain, the creative part. So, yeah.Brian Bienkowski I always say the same thing. I will just take breaks during the day and play an instrument for a little bit. Because it does, it hits that other side of the brain, I always say the same, the exact same thing. So that's very cool. So actually, we are nearing the end here. And I like to have rapid fire questions. We're just a couple of them here, three of them, where you can just answer with one word or one phrase, and then we can move on. So the first one is: the best piece of advice I've ever been given isAshley James To cherish the present because you can't change the past and you can't control the future.Brian Bienkowski When I wake up, the first thing I do is,Ashley James I hate to say it, but I hit snooze. Not a morning person.Brian Bienkowski The first concert I ever went to wasAshley James I think the first concert I ever went to was Jay Cole. He's a rapper.Brian Bienkowski And last question, what is the last book you read for fun?Ashley James Oh, I recently read this novel called Transcendent Kingdom by Yan Jossey. Beautiful, beautiful book highly recommended.Brian Bienkowski Tell me a little bit about it.Ashley James Ah, so it's a story that covers so many topics like science, religion, addiction, mental health, race, love. And it basically is about this scientist, this researcher, who is studying psychology and trying to understand addiction, like what is it that makes people addicted to drugs, and it's basically because her brother was a heroin addict in high school, and ended up passing away. And that's kind of the basis of the story, but it really brings you on such a beautiful and emotional journey. So, it was really good.Brian Bienkowski Excellent. Well, Ashley, thank you so much for taking time today. You're one of those people that I'm just so glad to have met doing this work. And thank you so much for being here today.Ashley James Of course. Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed thisBrian Bienkowski All right, that is all for this week, folks.
It was a mixed night for the fight against climate change on Tuesday. Voters in two of the country’s largest states, California and New York, considered climate-related ballot measures that would have freed up billions in funding to protect the environment and electrify the economy. New York resoundingly passed its measure. California did not. First […]
It’s almost Election Day, and everything is on fire.…which is, frankly, normal. Particularly since 2016, every Election Day feels a little more urgent these days than it used to.But not all fires are created equal. Federal elections are your ordinary, throw-a-match-on-something-soaked-in-gasoline fires: straightforward, each a little different but fundamentally operating under the same set of rules and norms. State-level elections, however, are coal-seam fires burning deep underground: more difficult to see and keep track of but with the power to fundamentally change how ordinary humans live their lives for many years to come.State legislatures have an outsized impact on Americans’ lives; if there’s an issue you care about, your state house member has passed a law impacting it—education, traffic, environmental protections, gun safety, health care, the economy, voting rights, reproductive freedom—well, you get it. While legislation often takes months or even years to make its way through Congress, any given state’s legislature passes anywhere from dozens to hundreds of laws each year. Further, the aftermath of the 2020 election revealed the extent to which some lawmakers are willing to go to usurp the will of their states’ voters in service of installing the candidate of their own choosing. Dozens of legislators across the country participated either in attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results or the January 6 riot. Hundreds more of these election deniers are on the ballot this year, and they’re certain to be a threat to free and equal elections in 2024. Fittingly, the home of the most disastrous coal-seam fire in our nation’s history is also one of the top priorities in the state legislative landscape this year: Pennsylvania.The Keystone State is one of the few swing states where Democrats have non-GOP gerrymandered legislative maps for the first time in decades, though the road to the majority in both the state House and Senate remains pretty steeply uphill; flipping these chambers from Republican to Democratic control is likely to be a two-cycle endeavor.Specifically, Democrats need to flip 12 seats (of 203) in the House to win majority control of that chamber. The Pennsylvania Senate has staggered terms, and half of the upper chamber’s 50 seats are on the ballot in November; Democrats need to flip four of them to win a majority.Speaking of states with freshly un-gerrymandered maps, Michigan is another where Democrats are positioned to make significant gains this year. Thanks to a successful 2018 citizen-initiated ballot measure that created an independent redistricting commission, Democrats have a solid shot at flipping at least one chamber—and possibly even both!—of the GOP-controlled Michigan legislature for the first time in a decade.Democrats need to flip just two House seats (of 110) to take control of that chamber, and flipping four state Senate seats (of 38) would give Dems a majority there.Arizona is another state where Democrats appear poised to flip one or both legislative chambers, but here, looks are somewhat deceiving. Dems need to flip just two seats (of 60) in the state House to take majority control there, and flipping just one seat in the Senate would break the Republican majority and tie the chamber 15-15.The path to majority control of either chamber is narrower than it appears, however; just a few of the districts on the state’s new legislative maps are considered competitive, and since districts in Arizona are nested (two House seats and one Senate seat within each), two or three competitive districts comes out to four to six competitive House seats and two to three competitive Senate seats. Democrats absolutely have a path to a majority in both chambers, but it’s narrower than it appears.Minnesota is a state attracting almost no national attention this year in terms of federal or statewide races, but for folks who work in and around statehouse elections, the North Star State is a top priority. As one of the few states with a divided legislature—Democrats control the House, Republicans control the Senate—both parties have a lot to gain from both protecting and flipping a chamber. If Democrats hold on to the governorship and the state House, they have a chance to pick up a governing trifecta here by flipping the State Senate.Netting two State Senate seats (out of 67) would give Democrats control of that chamber and a shot at full control of state government. The 134-member House chamber is currently split 69 D/63 R (plus one independent and one vacancy). Republicans need a net gain of at least four seats to win majority control.The final state of the top five is Nevada, where national politicos are in a full-on frenzy over federal and statewide contests—Republicans smell blood in the water, and Democrats are the chum. Democrats currently have full trifecta control of government in the Silver State (governorship, State Assembly, State Senate) and Republicans are itching to blow it up. The Nevada Senate is especially vulnerable, since Republicans only need to flip two of the 11 seats on the ballot this November (terms here are staggered—the other 10 members are up in 2024). The battle for chamber control is a tougher one for the GOP in the Assembly, as they’ll need to flip five of those 42 seats to win the majority.Now, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Minnesota, and Nevada aren’t the only states with watch-worthy legislative races, but the possibility of shifts in majority control elevates them to the top of any smart list. If you’re really looking to expand your horizons, however, Maine, Colorado, Wisconsin, and North Carolina should absolutely be on your radar. But when everything’s on fire, it’s only natural to conserve one’s water—er, attention. No matter where you live or what you care about, a lot of elections are happening at every level of the ballot that will have tangible impacts on your life.It’s easy to keep an eye on the big, bright, smoky fires. And arguably, they’re easier to douse—or, for reign in this tortured conceit, easier to hold these officeholders accountable and even flip these seats in two, four, or six years. The coal-seam fire of statehouse races, however, is coming straight off of a round of redistricting that has likely cemented legislative chamber control for one party or the other (more for Republicans than Democrats) for the next decade. This list isn’t short out of any desire for brevity; it’s simply where we are now in terms of legislative chamber competitiveness. General lack of attention and resources (from Democrats, especially) is likely to keep this list short over the next several election cycles. But maybe, just maybe, more folks will start to notice this dangerous fire of GOP statehouse hegemony burning beneath our feet.
Canary Media’s Climate Meets Culture column explores the intersection of energy, climate and culture at large. So you want to work in climatetech? Good! We need you. As someone who has worked in the space for close to a decade (though it was called cleantech or greentech back when I got started), I can attest to…
Associate Professor Otto Cordero is looking for the fundamental constraints that shape microbial ecosystems.
During his first few years in the country, Efrain, who has asked that we not use his last name for fear of retaliation from immigration authorities, never felt completely safe or secure in his job. That changed in 2018 when his current employer, a medium-sized Vermont dairy, joined Milk with Dignity, a program that sets […] The post Absent Federal Oversight of Animal Agriculture Safety, States and Others Step Up for Change appeared first on Civil Eats.
This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. On a hot morning in early August, a group of college- and high-school-aged climate activists decided to hold a funeral. They were drinking hot cocoa on a camping trip to Antelope Island, an island in Utah’s Great Salt Lake […]
President Biden’s latest moves on gas prices come as recent price fluctuations push the issue back in the spotlight. Meanwhile, the Interior Department is advancing new offshore oil and gas leasing, and many more electric vehicle chargers are needed to meet federal sustainability goals. This is Overnight Energy & Environment, your source for the latest...
Washing the dishes, cooking a meal, catching a flight, doing some banking, at a glance, the tasks and routines of our everyday life can appear as a collection of mundane and uninspiring experiences. However, there are brands working to avoid that appearance, and make these routines more meaningful in a variety of ways. Our Place turns a single kitchen pan into a stylish statement against unnecessary waste and carbon neutrality. Blueland uses dish soap and body wash to address plastic waste, and a more efficient supply chain, while Pinterest finds unexpected and inclusive ways to add more joy and utility to the daily scroll. Here are the brands elevating our everyday: Alaska Airlines Since its founding, Alaska Airlines has been defined by its West Coast roots—and routes. In its nascent days, it provided bush planes for isolated communities in its namesake state, and still crisscrosses California and the Pacific Northwest, where wildfires and water scarcity are big issues. “Growing up in those places instilled in us an ethos of real consciousness around place,” says Diana Birkett Rakow, the company’s SVP of public affairs and sustainability. That awareness has inspired a sustainability focus; its five-point plan to reach net-zero by 2040 includes a switch to sustainable aviation fuel, proposed electric-propulsion jets by the end of decade, and carbon offsets. With the clock ticking on other goals, like getting from 1% to 10% sustainable fuel by 2030, the airline is bolstering its efforts with both internal and external support. From the CEO down, 10% of every employee’s bonus opportunity is based on the airline’s performance in meeting its goals. Alaska has also found partners for its efforts initiatives, which include replacing plastic water bottles with Boxed Water cartons in flight, investing in manufacturer ZeroAvia to develop a hydroelectric power train, and even starting a venture fund to identify promising environmental startups. “We can’t change the system on our own,” Birkett Rakow says. “But we can bring partners together and take actions that help create a positive flywheel.” —Talib Visram Avocado Green Brands The bulk of discourse around mattresses in recent years has been whether it came from a store or a box, but Avocado has made its name as one of the first Climate Neutral-certified brands, offsetting more than the sum of its scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions, and advocating for legislation that will help fight the climate crisis through its partnership with CERES and the American Sustainable Business Network. The brand in 2021 produced an eight-part podcast called A Little Green, that follows one of its execs, Christina Thompson, as she explores her impact on the environment, and how we can challenge the status quo and become climate leaders in our own communities. Sleep on that. Cloud Paper The bamboo-based toilet paper and paper towel brand is taking aim at global deforestation one wipe at a time. Backed by an impressive list of backers, including Marc Benioff, Mark Cuban, Ashton Kutcher, Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Oseary, Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, NFL star Russell Wilson, and Ciara, the brand celebrated Earth Day 2021 with a fake campaign for a brand called Flush that told you which old growth forest you were wiping with. Dawn The P&G-owned brand has worked to design products to help people use less water and energy, but also be more accessible. Its Powerwash Dish Spray was designed to work on contact, without running the tap to create suds, helping households save up to 120 gallons of water per week, while the brand’s EZ-Squeeze bottle—one of Dawn’s most researched and tested products ever—is designed to dispense dishwashing liquid accurately with only one hand. Dawn also this year committed to help protect and care for a million birds and marine mammals by 2030 through its partnerships with International Bird Rescue and the Marine Mammal Center. Greenwood When Greenwood launched in 2020, it drew attention for being the first digital bank with all Black founders—Ryan Glover, civil rights icon and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, and rapper Killer Mike. Since then, the bank has focused on addressing racial inequities in the financial system. Greenwood acquired the Gathering Spot, which operates Black-focused networking and work space clubs in three cities. Glover says it has made Greenwood the country’s largest combined fintech and community platform for Black and minority consumers, reaching one million people. Greenwood is also building a content arm with digital shows, podcasts, and even name, image, and likeness deals. Indeed More than a job board, Indeed has made itself into a complete platform to better serve both job seekers and employers. Over the past year, the brand has launched Interview Days: Restaurant Jobs with OpenTable, a U.S. hiring initiative aimed to accelerate the recovery of the food and beverage industry by providing free hiring tools to help businesses and restaurateurs source, screen and host interviews. The Indeed Hiring Platform launched in 2022, and allows employers to manage and accelerate the hiring process—from posting through interview—directly on Indeed, with no additional software, all aiming to enable faster, more efficient access to a diverse pool of job seekers looking for the perfect fit. Kahoot Learning should be fun, and education platform Kahoot does just that with 40 million monthly participants, with a combination of content partners like Disney, NASA, and the World Health Organization. Last December, over 3,500 students participated in the European Interschool Kahoot, learning about the refugee and migrant experience and fostering inclusivity. And in April, Indiana-based teacher Stephen Auslander hosted the Kahoot! Cup, with more than 3,200 students from over 50 countries playing with the overall message, “We’re more alike than we’re different.” Lifewtr The brand wrapped its bottles in culture for its 2021 Life Unseen campaign, which worked with actor, writer and producer Issa Rae, who invited 20 diverse filmmakers, musicians, artists, and fashion designers to showcase their work on Lifwtr’s bottle labels. As part of the campaign, the brand also published an interactive tool that reveals the representation gaps that exist across the creative industry for women, the LGBTQ community, people of color, and people with disabilities. Mastercard The act of paying for something can be incredibly simple, but Mastercard has worked to expand that this past year with its new Touch Card for blind and partially sighted people, setting a new global standard for payment card design that enables people to tell, with a touch, which card they are holding. That inclusive product design builds on its work with True Name (to ensure the name on a person’s Mastercard reﬂects their true identity) which was also expanded globally to 30 European markets. Our Place While traditional kitchenware brands and stores feature hundreds of products, Our Place focuses on fewer, well-made products to minimize waste. Its Always Pan, for example, is designed to replace eight pieces of cookware. The immigrant- and female-founded brand reached full carbon neutrality this year. Pinterest In an effort to become a more inclusive platform, Pinterest spent the past year expanding its search capabilities in the beauty space for users with textured hair, and reining in ad content that could be harmful to users’ body image. Last August, Pinterest’s visual search team added a search mechanism to filter hair inspiration images based on pattern—including curly and coiled—and protective styles, like twists and braids. Similar to the skin tone search feature that the company released in 2018, this new AI-powered search tool can pinpoint and recognize hair patterns and surface the appropriate Pins. In the little more than a year since the feature launched, Pinterest has seen a significant increase in texture-specific search requests, including “naturally wavy hair cuts with layers” and “protective hairstyles braids.” Pinterest also expanded its body neutrality initiative, amending its ad policy in July 2021 to ban all mentions of body mass index and weight loss, building on an earlier ban on ads for diet products, or featuring before-and-after imagery. One year later, the company self-reported a 20% decrease in “weight loss” searches and a trend away from activity related to diets. —Rachel Kim Raczka Plantega Bodegas are a way of life in New York City, and Plantega is a brand bringing plant-based food options to a much broader audience through the city’s network of shops. In 2021, it launched in 14 locations across four NYC boroughs, from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, to Jamaica, Queens, with a goal to bridge the gap between plant-based food manufacturers and independent corner stores, while helping spark a shift toward more sustainable eating. Vital Farms This is a brand that prides itself on the cruelty-free treatment of its hens to the sustainability of its supply chain, but also manages to turn those ideals into fun, compelling content. Its traceability initiative allows you to see a 360-degree video of the farm and the hens that laid your eggs, and in 2021, they took it a step further. Vital Farms built a custom, hen-friendly camera into a pasture where hens that lay the company’s eggs wander, to get a firsthand look at their daily life. The camera features a pressure-sensor platform that, when pecked or stepped on by a hen, sets off the shutter, producing black-and-white images of the hens’ surroundings, including vast pastures, their flock, and the family farmers who care for them. The photos were then featured in a national billboard campaign, as well as online and in a limited-edition coffee-table book. This article is part of Fast Company’s 2022 Brands That Matter awards. Explore the full list of brands whose success has come from embodying their purpose in a way that resonates with their customers.
MIT Energy Initiative Annual Research Conference highlights both opportunities and obstacles in the race to a net-zero future.
By Matt Simmons (Local Journalism Initiative Reporter) Klabona Keepers weaves together footage of Tahltan Elders, community members and supporters in the fight to protect the Sacred Headwaters, the birthplace of three major salmon rivers
$25 billion. That’s the estimated deficit Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers will confront when crafting a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal advisor announced Wednesday. The projection marks a stunning reversal from back-to-back years of unprecedented prosperity: The budget for California’s current fiscal year clocked in at a whopping $308 […]
Democrats Mark Kelly and Catherine Cortez Masto fought for drought funding. They may both lose their seats.
Gov. Gavin Newsom hadn’t even finished dispensing with all of the bills on his desk ahead of Friday’s midnight deadline before he issued a call for new legislation. “We’re not going to stand by while greedy oil companies fleece Californians,” the governor said in a stern Twitter video, citing a lopsided surge in gas prices […]
Two new lawsuits want to hold federal and state leaders accountable for failing to protect the iconic predators. The post The Fight to Stop Republicans From Killing Wolves and Grizzlies appeared first on The Intercept.
Now Playing | Too much stormwater can be a big problem! This educational stop-motion animation series illustrates the causes of - and solutions to - dirty stormwater runoff. Join the Drain Ranger team, including Engineer Betsy, Juniper, Sophia and Ben as they discover ways we can all help keep our lakes, rivers and streams clean. This is Video 4 of the four-part series, and is titled: Dirty Stormwater Runoff: Advanced Engineering Solutions
Voting on election day is job one, but the planet needs your civic commitment every other day of the year, too. The post 30 Ways Environmentalists Can Participate in Democracy appeared first on The Revelator.
Most companies undertake corporate social responsibility efforts, and a growing number are focusing on ESG (environmental, social, and governance) and diversity and inclusion initiatives. But only a select number are able to make it look like a natural fit with their existing ethos when they adopt practices that take their local and global communities into account. Among the 75 companies on the 2022 Brands That Matter list, 18 stood out specifically for the unique ways they are taking their consumers, their immediate communities, and the health of the planet into account. Whether that’s Ally Financial helping underbanked communities, Icebreaker committing to entirely eschew synthetic fiber from its performance apparel by next year, or GoodRx using its role in people’s lives to become a medical information resource, the work these brands have done to be upstanding corporate citizens outpaces many of their competitors. Allagash Brewing As a Maine-based brewery, Allagash has made supporting the state’s grain farmers a centerpiece of its strategy, making good last December on its 2016 pledge to use one million pounds of Maine-grown grain per year to make its beer. Beyond helping local farmers plan their resources, it helps the B Corporation brewery reduce the carbon emissions from shipping its grain. Allagash has also built itself into a recycling resource for community members and businesses, encouraging beer-related recycling drop-offs from customers and building a 20-member recycling co-op with local companies that has recycled 120 tons of materials since 2020. Ally Financial Following its move to eliminate overdraft fees—which are disproportionately levied on more vulnerable communities of color—starting in summer 2021, Ally spent the ensuing year focused on partnering with organizations that are committed to bringing parity to various industries. The company turned its sponsorship of the National Women’s Soccer League into a sponsorship of the NWSL Players Association as it pursued a collective bargaining agreement, and worked with GLAAD on the Ally Changemakers campaign, which awarded Black LGBTQ entrepreneurs $10 million and featured them in a brand video. Ally also helped DC’s Milestone Media imprint recruit and mentor diverse talent, and sponsored NASCAR’s car No. 48—papering it with Milestone’s Black superheroes. Atlantic Sea Farms Even if people haven’t heard the name Atlantic Sea Farms, if they’ve eaten seaweed recently, odds are good it was grown by the Bangor, Maine-based aquaculture company, which grew 87% of the domesticated seaweed consumed by Americans in 2021. The company did so by working with 27 farms while also helping 14 more launch kelp farming businesses. As Atlantic Sea Farms moved into a new facility that houses the Western Hemisphere’s largest kelp nursery, it also managed to capture carbon simply by growing kelp. With its 2021 harvest, the company pulled an estimated 90,000 pounds of carbon (the emissions equivalent to burning 10.1 million gallons of gas) and 7,250 pounds of nitrogen from local waters. Blueland Blueland was “truly a mission before it was a set of products,” says Sarah Paiji Yoo, cofounder and CEO of the eco-friendly cleaning products company. That mission is to help consumers move past single-use plastics. Blueland turns liquid-based products such as hand soap and household cleaners (which are typically 90% water) into a dry powder packaged in compostable paper. Customers empty the powder into a reusable container and add water themselves—reducing the emissions (and cost) associated with shipping the product. Last year, Blueland moved into the personal care category with a bodywash that goes from powder to gel, an innovation Yoo says took more than three years to crack. Sure, people could switch to bar soap, but they haven’t so far—Statista pegs bar soap sales at one-third those of liquid body wash, and by one estimate, more than one billion plastic bodywash bottles are tossed annually. Blueland meets people where they are. “If we want to really maximize our impact,” Yoo says, “we need to deliver our products in a format, at a price point, and at a level of efficacy that people will adopt.” —Kristen Touissant Hello Bello In the four years since it was founded by Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard, Hello Bello has grown into the only independent diaper maker in the U.S. that owns its factory. Thanks to a retail partnership with Walmart and a new Texas facility powered by renewables, the company is using its scale to make high-quality baby products more accessible to families across the country. Hello Bello also sells personal care goods, some of which have been vetted by the Environmental Working Group for harmful chemicals; most items cost less than $8, on par with brands like Aquaphor and Johnson’s baby products. A pack of Hello Bello diapers costs $8, while Huggies and Pampers cost $10. In late 2021, Hello Bello launched a Diaper Registry Fund, allowing customers to donate money to give diapers to families in the U.S. and around the world. When Russia invaded Ukraine last winter, the company supplied 200,000 diapers, wipes, and more items to displaced families. “Accessibility is our North Star,” says CEO Erica Buxton. “We now have more control over cost and quality than ever.” Footprint As a company developing plant-based fiber packaging for food, beverages, and other consumer packaged goods, Footprint last year went from a relatively unknown player to being the namesake of the Phoenix Suns home, Footprint Arena. Rather than just being a name adorning the exterior, Footprint’s contract with Suns Legacy Partners also means turning the stadium—also home to Phoenix’s WNBA, NHL, and Indoor Football League teams—into the nation’s first plastic-free arena. The company’s trays, cups, and utensils are in use at the stadium, which is being used to assess customer response to Footprint’s technology. GoodRx To roughly 20 million people who use its price-comparison tool every month, GoodRx is a household name that saves them money on prescription drugs. But over the course of the past year, it has built itself into a resource for health information beyond drug costs. Throughout the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, GoodRx had a vaccine guide and antiviral pill tracker ready to help direct users to needed resources. It also debuted GoodRx Health, offering health information from a team of 50 doctors, pharmacists, and healthcare experts to answer common questions, and guide patients who need to see a physician to telehealth service GoodRx Care. Icebreaker As a growing number of apparel companies begin to outline strategies to make their products from synthetic fibers—and, ultimately, the emissions and pollution that are up- and downstream—there are ambitious plans, and then there’s Icebreaker. The performance apparel company, whose flagship jacket is already entirely plastic-free, is on track to manufacture its products with 100% merino wool or plant-based materials by 2023. The last hurdle to overcome: nylon, which is being replaced in T-shirts, socks, and underwear with Tencel’s plant-based stretchy material Lyocell. Icebreaker’s goal has been accompanied by an ad campaign, “Still Wearing Plastic?” that encourages people to reconsider their apparel. Kami Kami made a big bet two years ago, giving away access to its education platform to teachers for free. But over the course of the past year, most free users became paying customers, and the New Zealand-based company now has 32 million users and is in 90% of U.S. K-12 schools. Beyond focusing on making resources customizable for teachers, Kami has focused on technical support for its users, as well as community-building via a 16,000-teacher Facebook group and a virtual conference that drew 10,000 attendees this year. Lowe’s To celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2021, home improvement retailer Lowe’s kicked off 100 Hometowns, a nationwide push to restore public spaces that involved volunteer work from Lowe’s employees and local organizations. It also led to a $100-million fund through which Lowe’s will support 1,700 local renovations over five years. Lowe’s also supported disaster relief and skilled trade development to the tune of $124 million last year. The company has been equally busy in its core business, creating an opportunity for entrepreneurs to sell their products through Lowe’s with its Making IT…With Lowe’s—a Shark Tank-esque YouTube series hosted by Daymond John. Monday.com When thinking about disaster relief, one might not immediately think of Monday.com or its project management platform Work OS. But within a week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Monday.com’s nonprofit Digital Lift had a team at the Poland-Ukraine border, helping nongovernmental organizations operating refugee camps register and track refugees, communicate with each other, and track volunteer drivers in real time to monitor their safety. The work in Ukraine is just part of Monday.com’s partnerships with more than 3,400 NGOs worldwide through Digital Lift, which launched last year. Polestar Polestar, the luxury EV brand that spun out of Volvo, has a uniquely ambitious goal: By the end of the decade, it plans to make a truly climate-neutral car by eliminating emissions from each stage of the car’s life cycle—from steel made without fossil fuels to new ways to make EV batteries. “So many companies are offsetting in different ways,” says Åsa Borg, Polestar’s chief marketing officer. “But when we say zero, we mean zero.” Though still tiny in comparison to Tesla—last year, Polestar sold around 21,000 cars, while Tesla sold more than 936,000—the company is growing quickly, with more than double the number of sales in the first half of 2022 than the same period last year. Hertz, the rental car company, will add as many as 65,000 of Polestar’s EVs to its fleet over the next five years. The company’s ambition shows up in how it positions the brand. Its 2022 Super Bowl ad took aim at competitors and the broader industry (“No dieselgate. No shortcuts. No dirty secrets…No conquering Mars. No settling. No greenwashing.”) It also released a detailed life-cycle analysis of its cars, including how it calculated its impact/carbon footprint—something other companies typically don’t do. Borg says the hope is to push other automakers to be more ambitious in reducing their environmental impact. “I think there’s a big responsibility to talk about this, and to do it in a way that can inspire others.” —Adele Peters Salesforce.org Even with more than 40,000 nonprofits and schools using Salesforce’s tools at a discount through Salesforce.org, the organization is not content to stop there. Salesforce.org employees volunteer their time via its Impact Lab to create new tools. Among the company’s projects last year was a partnership with a group of 15 organizations that included nonprofits, K-12 schools, and historically Black colleges and universities to create a chatbot designed to help students navigate the Free Application for Student Aid. The company also launched a podcast last year, Force Multiplier, in which host Baratunde Thurston talks to business and nonprofit leaders about tackling global issues. Sia Scotch Whisky As one of the first Hispanic women to found a scotch whiskey brand, Sia’s Carin Luna-Ostaseski knows how hard it can be for founders of color to get their businesses off the ground—she herself used Kickstarter to launch her endeavor 10 years ago. So she partnered with small business platform Hello Alice and actor Wilmer Valderrama to launch the Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund, which gave $10,000 to 25 multicultural founders and offered mentorship with Luna-Ostaseski to build out their businesses—from authentic harissa and hot-pot starter kits to bike parking solutions and flower arrangements. Square Square has become indispensable to small businesses across the country, and that status was on full display in 2021 when the point-of-sale and payments company facilitated $680 million in PPP loans to more than 72,000 businesses—most of which had fewer than five employees. Over the past year, the company has also expanded its banking products for businesses in underbanked communities while growing its content efforts to include Black Owned, a three-part film series about the history of Black entrepreneurship, and Career Day, about Gen Z businesses. Sunrise Banks From its headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, Sunrise Banks is helping underbanked workers and using an array of lending approaches to replace payday loans and other predatory practices, helping people, largely in low- to moderate-income census tracts, build credit. Last year, more than 262,000 people took out a Self Credit Builder Loan, designed to help establish an individual’s payment history. Sunrise also worked with local nonprofit Prepare + Prosper to create a checking, savings, and credit builder account bundle, reaching 116 customers—84% of whom were unbanked or underbanked. T-Mobile T-Mobile marked a big milestone at the end of 2021 in its ongoing effort called Project 10 Million. Launched in 2020, the $10.7 billion push to bring internet access to students across the country at no cost had reached 3.2 million students across 1,500 school districts by then. The program offers families free Internet up to 100 GB per year via free wireless hotspots to families who qualify for the National School Lunch Program. Elsewhere, as T-Mobile’s 5G coverage brings Internet to more rural communities, it is investing $25 million over five years to renovation projects in small towns. WSP That most people don’t know WSP exists or even what it does might preclude it from inclusion on this list, but the impact that the engineering consultancy has brought to infrastructure projects in more than 500 cities—and its work to encourage project leaders to keep climate change in mind—easily overcomes the lack of name recognition. The company, which draws more than half of its revenue from companies with positive environmental impacts in line with the UN Social Development Goals, unveiled New York’s Moynihan Train Hall, built hurricane-resistant power in Liberia, and helped Amsterdam harness its canal water to move away from fossil fuels in 2021, all while restoring 10,000 acres of animal habitat and providing $3 billion in response, recovery, and rebuilding related to natural disasters and conflict. This article is part of Fast Company’s 2022 Brands That Matter awards. Explore the full list of brands whose success has come from embodying their purpose in a way that resonates with their customers.
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