a traffic jam of spineless mush; wrangling swans
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
I’d like to think that access to fresh water and community support makes the world turn, but it actually might be shame that does this.
A couple weeks ago, Judd Legum wrote about (one of the) latest astonishing pieces of legislation enacted in Florida. It’s called the STOP Woke Act, which would be funny if it wasn’t so horrible.
“The STOP Woke Act amends Florida’s Civil Rights Act "to make it unlawful for Florida employers to require employees to undergo training or experience instruction that includes any of eight forbidden 'concepts' regarding race, sex, religion, or national origin."
There has been a lot of freaky inversion of the terminology and discourse around “rights,” lately, most notably around the right to life, which seems to follow different rules if you are a person with a uterus, and also around ~cancel culture~.
If you haven’t been following the latter closely, here’s the argument: people and movements (the right, men in power, JK Rowling) who are afraid to be called out on unacceptable shit blame ~cancel culture~ and say that it’s threatening our right to speak freely.
The NY Times backed this up in a really unhinged opinion piece recently, that Popular Information linked to. The Times editorial board referred to the “depluralizing of America” and a threat to people’s “right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.”
As Judd aptly points out, no right exists to do anything without “fear of being shamed or stunned.”
This brings to mind both the “guilt-free” marketing of alcoholic seltzer and the fallacy of ‘green consumption,’ the ‘no trees were harmed in the making of this cup’ emphasis present in so many transactions.
When corporations tell us we’re buying better plastic bottles, or the green light goes on in your hybrid, or your athleisure tag says it’s made from post-consumer recycled materials, they are handing us the illusion of being off the hook. I once had the pleasure of ranting to Business Insider about how there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism; this is true, and it’s basically impossible to not consume anything under capitalism. So, it’s cool when we can buy things that are less destructive, but that doesn’t make the broader system of extraction and production of consumer goods at scale okay.
The other, arguably worse byproduct of greenwashing is that policymakers buy it, and we end up with weak climate policy that treats natural gas as a bridge fuel (it’s not) and blue hydrogen as the future of energy (if it is, we’re screwed). As evidenced by recent movement on the Inflation Reduction Act, sometimes we can actually get legislation through the traffic jam of spineless mush that occupies the halls of power. But the IRA, while loaded with cool stuff like investment in renewables and the good jobs that make them possible, also got its teeth removed beforehand: no tax hike for hedge funds, and more handouts for the fossil fuel industry.
Which brings us back to the STOP Woke Act, a clear instance of how the right is tapping into collective fear of shame in an effective and dangerous way. Pushes against ‘critical race theory’ and gender/sexuality/sex education are successful because of this. When I read about the STOP Woke Act, it rang clear: men and white people don’t want to feel shamed for the horrific actions of men and white people in the past. People, especially swimming in the waters of white supremacy culture, become defensive when they feel called out for holding the same identities as those who have and are currently perpetrating harm.
This fear of shame, while unimpressive in the grand scheme of brave people who have plowed ahead anyway (from survivors of sexual assault, to fighters for racial and climate justice, to workers demanding dignified conditions, and beyond), makes sense. We are generally afraid of being told that we are wrong, that we are bad, that we made mistakes.
But everyone who has ever dissented from the dominant narrative of society has navigated the shaming that follows. This is challenging, and part of the struggle of struggling; shame keeps us in our place, and navigating shame means forging a new path in which shame and fear are not the things that maintain social structures.
Cultural and social skills for navigating this kind of shame are the best-kept secrets of movements for change. Self-actualization and confidence through community-based support makes it possible to move through shame with grace and without too much fear. I’ve had this experience, and maybe you have too; shame cuts deep, but being able to push it aside in an effort towards justice heals much deeper.
I know a lot of really great men who are emotionally available, ask for and receive feedback, and have invested in being good people. This is a lot of work when we live in a society in which it is permissible and encouraged to be a shit. I also know a lot of white people who fight for justice and learn from their mistakes, even though dominant culture encourages white people to not tread lightly. This is a responsibility that white people have, that men have, that anyone who lives in a system designed for them, has.
But being brave enough to do that work requires willingness to dance with shame. People easily preyed on by the rhetoric of the right are afraid of this, and are quick to rally behind a defense of being who you are, unapologetically—even though white people, men, bastions of the heteropatriarchy, etc, actually have a lot to apologize for, and repair.
Both the STOP Woke Act and the greenwashing that waters down climate policy are political strategies deployed by corporate and conservative entities that tap into our fear of shame, and being wrong based on who we are, that lead to greater consolidation of power and limitation of the right to dissent.
If we remain afraid of shame, we will never have the power to challenge the discourse, and the structures and systems it shores up, that perpetuates oppression. So, on second thought: maybe community support networks that erode our fear and make us brave enough to do this work do make the world turn.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
As I go about my PhD research into postwar Irish agricultural pollution, one of my favorite resources to explore is the archives of Ireland’s national broadcaster RTÉ. I love the grainy feel of 1980s television reporting, the starched collars of reporters and the fuzziness of analog microphones. I strongly believe that history is an essential tool in uncovering a just and survivable future, but the warm fuzziness of archives can easily distract us from the crimes of the present, especially when it comes to environmental disaster.
When you search for videos pertaining to pollution in the RTÉ archives you’re confronted with a very specific historical crisis: a series of reports ranging from 1985 to 1990 concerning a series of fish kills on Ireland’s lakes and rivers caused largely by agricultural pollution – effluent from fermenting grass feed and manure slurry as well as some industrial pollution from milk creameries. There are some other assorted reports, like this 1965 footage I love of workers wrangling swans from being poisoned in the River Dodder, but the large majority of the archive focuses on those five years.
It's easy to see why this was such a big story. Images of salmon lying belly-up in prime former fishing spots, footage of fish hauling themselves out of the water to try to breathe, and endless shots of grimy effluent; trailing down fields, being pumped into tanks, and gushing out of sewage pipes. The signs of environmental degradation are there and they are visually striking. It’s tempting to scroll through these videos and see the issue of Irish water pollution as a thing of the past, something that happened between ‘85 and ‘90 and has since been resolved. My initial reaction to the warm fuzziness with which the past is depicted is to be thankful that major fish kills like this aren’t happening now.
But unfortunately that isn’t the way industry and its environmental issues work. Yes, agricultural pollution is less visible today than in 1987, but it is happening nonetheless. Some folks living near the River Feale in County Kerry still can’t drink water from their taps, just like RTÉ reported in 1987. A primary reason there haven’t been as many fish kills as 35 years ago is that the rivers and lakes just haven’t been able to recover enough to support fish populations. But if it isn’t as visible as in the past, it must not be there—at least that’s the way polluters would hope we think about things.
The goal of industrial innovation and regulation up until this point has never been to decrease pollution, but rather to decrease the visibility of and their direct connection with pollution. Even the focus on silage effluent and creamery pollution in RTÉ’s reporting masks the underlying trends at the root of the issue: intensification of agriculture spurred on by economic pressures for overproduction and an abundance of fertilizer. If the pollution is perceived as a result of effluent, then pollution becomes the fault of the inept farmer, not the fertilizer manufacturers for upsetting the nitrogen cycle, or European Economic Community pressure to increase production. Today, agricultural pollution is even less visible: excess fertilizer is a “non-point source” pollutant, a simple molecule that can’t be tracked to any one farm and only makes itself known when it concentrates in estuaries and watercourses, far from where it was introduced.
The same is true of all polluting industries. Electric cars are only “green” if the electricity is manufactured with renewables, but it isn’t easy to see the source of the charging station you may have pulled up to. The same is even more true of the hydrogen fuels that have gotten so much press as of late. An energy company can easily promise “green” hydrogen infrastructure only to turn around and switch to fossil-fueled methane production once the investment has been settled, with most consumers being none the wiser. History is an important tool, but we can’t allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking the Cuyahoga River fire and the ozone hole are behind us. As evidenced by the glyphosate and PFAS crises, these same companies haven’t stopped polluting, they just found a sneakier way to do it. It is important that we learn from history to find a better future, but we must recognize that history is only a tool—one that industry also knows to use.