An almost identical version of this post was sent to the editors of The Star Phoenix today, which is why this post is in the "open letters" category, among others. In the process of re-reading, I noticed that many of my recent posts have involved the environment in some way, so I've added "environment" as a category.
The opinion piece by retired TC Energy executive Dennis McConaghy (Star Phoenix, 2 Dec. 2020, p. A8, and here at the Calgary Herald) appears to misunderstand the concept behind Bill C-12 and its stated goal of achieving “net-zero emissions” by the year 2050. Quite possibly it is less a misunderstanding and more an example of industrial misinformation meant to hamper the efforts to deal with climate change until a less responsive government is elected.
McConaghy implies that “net-zero” means, as he puts it, the “elimination of fossil fuels.” Elimination means “the complete removal or destruction of something,” according to my dictionary. That is not what “net-zero emissions” means. “Net” is an adjective that means what is “remaining after the deduction… or other contributions.” “Gross” means the “total” or the “complete” amount. The federal government’s plan is not to reach “gross-zero emissions.”
The plan is to factor in offsets to the burning of fossil fuels, such as the planting of trees, which act as carbon sinks and sequester carbon in forests and, quite often, building materials. No one seriously expects energy-intensive jet airplanes, transport trucks, and construction or farming equipment to work without the raw power of fossil fuels immediately, though that might eventually happen.
Instead, the idea is to limit fossil-fuel use to the essentials, and shift less-essential uses to greener energy. Most of us drive cars or small trucks that can easily be switched to electricity, and we can generate that electricity with solar-power installations, wind power, geothermal energy, even the more hotly debated nuclear energy. Near oceans, wave power is in development too.
People everywhere and in all walks of life, young and old, liberal and conservative, are more and more concerned about climate change. Even energy companies such as Shell are hoping for net-zero by 2050.
The title of McConaghy’s piece demands “justification for [the] PM’s net-zero plan,” as if it were not obvious to anyone reading and watching credible news these days. The justification is climate change or, if you prefer, climate crisis and climate emergency. What McConaghy actually questions, as the piece later makes clear, is the legitimacy of the plan, because he thinks that a net-zero plan should be accepted “only… after a federal election” serving as a “referendum.”
Demanding a referendum is a stalling tactic. Many Canadians are ready for a dramatic shift in energy. That’s one reason why we didn’t elect a government that had no plan for the environment. McConaghy’s piece is potentially deceptive, with the potential result of delaying a shift that must be taken seriously now, not after another federal government gets another term of doing too little.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "'Net-Zero Emissions' and Industrial Misinformation." Publicly Interested, 2 Dec. 2020, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Update 3/2/2020: I have been thinking for a while about missing part of the point in this entry, and today some news helped me to expand my thinking a little. As reported by the CBC, the news was of another mass-mediated attack on Greta Thunberg, this time in the form of a sexually suggestive and aggressive decal from an "energy services company" in Alberta called X-Site Energy Services, a name now loaded with innuendo in the context of the decal's use of sexual imagery.
Here where I live we are in an official State of Emergency because of the biggest single-day blizzard in recorded history. (Another update: In fact, even though it is now weeks after the storm, we have had another, milder one that closed the university again today, March 2nd—a seemingly necessary condition of this blog!) The city has been remarkably quiet, with no traffic allowed while the snow plowing is under way, and with snow banks of two to three meters, even up to four, dampening sound. The power grid also failed for thousands of residents, in some cases for more than a day.
If you have been out and about, with your senses heightened by the quiet and the dark, you will smell woodsmoke. Traditional wood-burning stoves and wood- or even coal-burning fireplaces are still legal here. They definitely seem to be more in use these days. Many of us probably even feel nostalgic when we experience this combination of these scents and the snow, but this feeling is a problem for at least a couple of reasons.
Partly because of burning fuel in our own homes rather than in power stations, my province of Newfoundland and Labrador has the worst energy efficiency of all the provinces. When most of our energy is generated by burning fossil fuels, as it is here so far, it contributes to climate change and climate crisis.
We made a big effort to reduce our fossil-fuel consumption across the power grid by constructing a large hydroelectricity station at Muskrat Falls, but it is widely regarded as a major failure of politics, management, economics, engineering, and ethics. We are likely to become more dependent on oil than ever—at least according to the president of the offshore oil regulator, our former premier Roger Grimes.
Grimes sees oil and gas as the future, whereas anyone calling them “fossil fuels” is implying the opposite. And he has concluded that, because they are the future, he needs to convince his allies to work to change the minds of the young people who will be in charge in the future. Naming the teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg as a risk, Grimes said recently, “Unless the message has been tempered and developed and moderated and everybody understands there can be balance [between fossil fuels and greener energy], then there's a real fear of losing the battle to it [environmental activism].” As a teacher, I would prefer a less warlike and propagandistic approach to educating younger people. (See my previous post, “The Classroom as Prison Cell with Armed Guards.”) It's not a "battle" but a different kind of challenge.
The problem with the generation gap that Grimes sees here is that it assumes that young people and older people have inseparably different interests that have to be harmonized, when in fact the climate crisis caused largely by fossil fuels is an existential threat to all demographics (not equally but more so for poor people in northern and coastal regions). His statement has other problems, too, such as the assumption that the extractive industries are seeking “moderation” or “balance,” when they are seeking to remain dominant. The fact is that greener energy is a small fraction of energy production and consumption in Canada and industrialized countries in the world. A lack of balance is hardly the fault of green energy producers or environmental activists, especially when the extractive industries get somewhere between $7.7 and $15 billion in subsidies. Since 1990, the rate of burning fossil fuels has increased four times more quickly than the rise in greener energy, so we won’t achieve balance unless fossil fuel usage drops dramatically while greener energy surges.
Thunberg does not seem like a radical to me. She is responding to a near-consensus among scientists around the world whose thousands of studies have been condensed into reports by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Thunberg said after meeting our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, that her “message to all the politicians around the world is the same: just listen and act on the current, best available united science.” This appeal to climate science is entirely respectable. Her appeal, and that of the great many activists and concerned citizens who support her and her work, is a gesture that demonstrates how young people can learn to evaluate information and make informed decisions about their future and their future adulthood. It is deeply ironic that Thunberg's elders are infantilizing her.
(Update: Most troubling is how the X-Site corporation has also sexualized her, implying a child-pornographic gaze. The story from CBC News in Edmonton describes the X-Site decal as "a black-and-white drawing of a female figure's bare back with hands pulling on her braided pigtails," pigtails being a feature of Thunberg's style. To be more obvious, the decal also seems to include Thunberg's name as if it were a "tramp stamp." I would add that the point of view of the decal is that of the same person who has hands on her braids, implying that someone is having sex with her, possibly violently. Intended or not, one interpretation of the decal is that the company, with its own sexually "exciting" name, is promoting sexual aggression against Thunberg. This interpretation speaks volumes about the limited recourses of an industry that has strong anti-intellectual elements, given its downplaying, deferral, or denial of climate-change science, and that has difficulty imagining its own future relevance.)
Grimes joins the American president Donald Trump and others in patronizing, condescending to, or insulting Thunberg—in Trump's case, as if name-calling is an argument or explanation. (It is not. It's bullying.) At the Davos economic summit, Thunberg presented counter-arguments to Trump that belie the notion that young people will grow up to fix the future, in the future, with imaginary or nascent technologies. One of the major flaws in this reasoning is that it exempts members of the current establishment of responsibility for a crisis that they have perpetuated. Grimes and Trump style themselves as guardians of the good old days before scientists and young people hurt business by noisily reframing the narratives about how we (but not all of us) came to enjoy prosperity.
The nostalgia here is what Svetlana Boym, in her 2001 book The Future of Nostalgia, calls “restorative nostalgia.” It means that we use the feeling to inspire us to try to recreate or regenerate certain conditions of our happiness, like relying on oil and gas for cheap energy and plastics, even if they are problematic—even if they are threatening for our future. Not to imply that there is no such thing as emotional intelligence, but the feeling overrides our thinking. That’s what Grimes and Trump are doing by hearkening back to the yesteryears of industrial growth and glory.
Although I have a practical solution for one of our local energy efficiency problems that I will try to write about soon in my next entry on this blog, I also have my own message for young people. I won’t tell them not to listen to their elders, but I will say that they should listen to elders who have mainly the future at heart, not the past, unless the past is treated with much more critical reflection.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Greta Thunberg's Young Intellectual Appeal to Climate Science." Publicly Interested, 22 Jan. 2020, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
A brief history of concepts of self-deception would have to include concepts such as false consciousness, bad faith, and cognitive dissonance, but if these sound too complicated, try bullshit. What worries me is that bullshitting has gone viral, in a sense—becoming an diarrheal epidemic that can’t be stopped by any political wall, such as the walls around the right or the left. I’m worried that the bullshit is seeping through. I’m worried about what social work professor Brené Brown calls “the bullshit-incivility cycle,” like when someone spouts total nonsense and, exasperated, we respond with anger if we respond at all.
An alternative that I’ve been discussing lately comes from the poet and novelist Sina Queyras, who once wrote, “I don’t argue any more, I just take up space.” If the right/wrong structure of an argument or debate isn’t appropriate, then you might be able to avoid the argument—not to be evasive but to create a positive alternative.
(I worry sometimes that a blog is an attention-seeker that "take[s] up space" in the sense of squeezing out other voices that should be listened to more than mine is, but this "space" on the internet is theoretically infinite, and I know from the analytics of my modest site traffic that I'm not, at present, at risk of stealing a spotlight.)
Queyras goes on to criticize an us/them binary, and elsewhere Brown criticizes an all guns/no guns binary, and so I have to admit that I’ve started with a binary, right and left, an idea of something divided by a wall—but it’s not how I’ll conclude. I think bullshit damages binaries but has a dangerously totalizing effect nonetheless.
Jeet Heer’s most recent article in The New Republic turns attention back to the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 2005 book, On Bullshit, which Heer uses to understand the American president Donald Trump and the destabilization of truth.
(Brown has been reading Frankfurt’s book, too, which has become an unexpected touchstone for understanding the Trump era. I bought On Bullshit for my dad on his 60th birthday in the year it came out, and we were thinking of the American president George W. Bush, whose misunderstandings seem so quaint now. Heer reports that the fact-checkers at PolitiFact calculate that 70% of Trump’s assertions are false, mostly false, or total “pants on fire” lies.)
I am more interested in thinking about bullshit in the context of the #MeToo and #IBelieve movement, one that has supported women in the difficult work of making an allegation of sexual harassment or assault against men in powerful positions. This work is difficult partly because, in the legal system, very few of the accused men are convicted despite the likelihood and widespread belief that they have committed the alleged act; and because, in the court of public opinion, the backlash has included death threats and public ridicule amounting sometimes to defamation.
Leaning to the right of the false binary that I set up earlier, we have pundit Christie Blatchford cautioning against the over-extension of #MeToo and #IBelieve, though I can’t see how we could (except in rare cases) do too much to resist sexism and patriarchy when both seem so clear and present and problematic. With customary snark directed at bleeding-heart liberals, Blatchford writes: “one of the guiding principles of #MeToo and #IBelieve is that every person who makes such an allegation is a noble truth-teller, and that what matters most is how the self-proclaimed victim feels.” The language here is absolutist: “every person,” “what matters most.” In reality, the nuance “matters” too, but here the language implies or idealizes a simple distinction between truth and falsehood: a binary.
Leaning left, writer Erika Thorkelson objects to Margaret Atwood’s support for the accused (if I may borrow the legal term even though the case is not a criminal one), and she criticizes Atwood’s insistence in using her reputation to shape the discourse around #MeToo: “Really listening requires… you to soften and let go of the fear, the urge to argue, and the instinct to control the narrative. It takes a comfort with silence and a willingness to accept that your turn to talk may never come, that what’s happening might not be about you at all.” In other words, some people have to shut up (Margaret Atwood). But those other words are my words, possibly in the voice of Blatchford, not one I really want to imitate, and Thorkelson's desire for better listeners is one that I share deeply; it's an ideal of teaching and learning.
Still, these examples from the loosely defined right and left share a lack of faith in people with different opinions. Blatchford implies that the “noble truth-teller” may well be a liar, and Thorkelson suggests that others have no “turn,” no valid opinion, no credibility— really, no reason to be believed.
And so, we believe what we want. The Economist, hardly a neutral magazine, nevertheless respects a difference between fact and fiction here: "In 1986 Ronald Reagan insisted that his administration did not trade weapons for hostages with Iran, before having to admit a few months later that: ‘My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.’”
Reagan wasn't bullshitting; he was admitting to a lie but spinning it as a moral lie, a lie told for the right reasons, the reasons in his "heart." Because I’ve been studying the genre of the Western, and because Reagan was “the Cowboy President” (having acted in so many Westerns before he went into politics), I’ve been thinking of how we normally think of the Western as a politically conservative genre, and how the usual plot of a Western culminates in a moment of cathartic violence when the hero makes a snap judgment—supposedly a moment of moral clarity—to confirm that the bad guy is so bad that he should die.
Reagan might have won over some Democrats with his admission about Iran, but Heer claims that “Trump’s bullshitting is integral to his success in fomenting tribalism and polarization." I agree, and I would add that Trump’s twittering is encouraging this “polarization.” I’ve read suggestions that social media today have a conservative bias because short forms such as the tweet encourage snap judgments and discourage reflection.
What if, if we’re all so confident that no one can be right, and if we’re all willing to make the snap judgment and the quick draw of moral assessment, then we’re all on the right?
Although bullshit has, in a way, damaged the binary of right and left, along with the binary of truth and falsehood, in another way it hypes up the binary or wall more and more. Shouting down others, for example, can foment radicalism while, as journalist Neil Macdonald pointed out yesterday, generating celebrity for reprehensible people and their ideas.
But the way we often talk or shout means in theory that the wall between left and right doesn’t even exist; it’s simply snap judgment after snap judgment, because it’s easier and less exhausting, less driving toward burn-out. The challenge we have to meet when dealing with bullshit or a political opponent is always going to be patience (but also determined work), even if it is not fair to ask for patience from people who deserve justice now and 150+ years ago.
Blatchford refers to “the current super-heated temperature of the culture.” Indeed, I want to yell—at least half ironically—like Señor Mister Love Daddy in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing: “Y’all take a chill. You need to cool that shit out”!
There are lots of good reasons to scream, but being the hot shit isn't one of them.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Bullshit, Belief, and Binaries." Publicly Interested, 21 Mar. 2018, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Dear Premier Dwight Ball and Minister Eddie Joyce,
Partly because of China's plan to stop buying recyclables from countries such as Canada by the end of 2017, there is a new and urgent need to stop wasting so much plastic and start banning single-use plastic bags. I am writing to you today to support Municipalities NL, which is calling for a ban on plastic bags because mayors around the province do not believe that a ban is possible without your help. Plastic bags, especially for groceries and other shopping, are harming us, other species, and our environments. If we can't recycle them, we have to ban them.
We have proven that we can't recycle them effectively; 91% of plastic is never recycled. In some places, such as most of Canada, we try to recycle bags by collecting them and often by shipping them to China, but we leave a carbon footprint from the transportation and the energy needed to remake the plastics. This is one of the reasons why we haven't started a recycling program for plastic bags in Newfoundland and Labrador. And so we have to ban them.
Even when we try to divert the bags to a nearby landfill, we fail miserably. Images have been circulating of the "Plastic Bag Forest" near the scenic East Coast Trail and Robin Hood Bay—the trees acting as a filter to catch airborne plastic bags. Whales have been found dead with many plastic bags in their stomachs—in one case, 30 bags. For many species, like up to 90% of sea birds and presumably including people, ingesting plastic has become inevitable; this summer, a new plastic-ridden ocean zone as big as Mexico was discovered in the Pacific. You read that correctly: as big as Mexico. There are several other massive zones of floating plastic in the world's oceans. There is no other explanation except that humans are laying waste to land and sea.
We behave so abhorrently for a lot of reasons, but I refuse to believe that it's simple ignorance or a lack of conscience; I think we do it because it's traditional to a capitalist society to accept the idea of surplus value and thus, maybe illogically, of waste; and, more important, it's convenient. If you do propose a ban, many people will object on this reason alone. When the ban came into effect in California, I saw a man on the news who said that no one had the right to make his shopping more difficult. If we can't convince him to change his behaviour as a consumer, we need to change the behaviour of suppliers, such as grocery stores. We can all learn that it's easy to carry reusable bags and use them for most of their shopping.
Meanwhile, I am so tired of our inaction on plastic. (Bagged! In a previous open letter, I wrote to major airlines to find out why they don't recycle plastic cups on flights into Toronto, Canada's busiest airport.) Yet we have alternatives. I fold up a small recycled-plastic bag and put it in my knapsack for those times when I'm not planning on going to the grocery store but do anyway. We can leave fabric bags in our vehicles and bring them into stores with us. Now, an Australian initiative called Boomerang Bags has come to St. John's (and all over Australia, the United States, and elsewhere), and they leave recycled cotton bags to be borrowed and returned at many different stores, such as Food for Thought downtown.
I would love us to be leaders rather than followers of Australia and innovative cities like Montreal, but there is no shame in gaining confidence from someone else's good idea. With the Green Party starting to find support in the Maritimes, and with several newly elected progressives on the City Council of St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador might someday soon have more politicians who are listening to the many citizens who believe that we are failing future generations—not only people but other animals: whales, sea birds, polar bears, sea turtles, and even a lobster caught last month in New Brunswick with a Pepsi logo nearly fused into its claw.
Don't we care?
We need to act. Please write a new law that will ban plastic bags here too.
Many will gratefully support you.
PS. While we're at it, we should create local industries for recycling what we can't ban, such as glass—an easily reusable and recyclable material. Why can't we do that here?
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “Bagged: It's a Big Job, but Someone Needs to Ban Plastic Bags.” Publicly Interested, 3 Dec. 2017, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
We often talk about how privacy is “shrinking.” Consider these pieces in The New York Times (on tiny office spaces), The Harvard Business Review (on shareable data such as body metrics), and Slate (on the secrets of corporate "people") as examples. We use this metaphor of space, one that can shrink or grow, to conceptualize privacy, but we rarely talk about “growing” it.
How do you grow privacy?
“How do you grow a prairie town?” Robert Kroetsch once asked in a poem. His simplest answer was that “the gopher was the model,” because it could pop up and just as soon vanish. And if privacy is necessarily spatial, like a town, then, yes, I suppose it can come and go quite easily—or you come and go, and it stays wherever it is, sometimes where you might not find it again. If you’re one of the many teenagers who finally get their own room, you might lose it as soon as your parents have another baby. How do you shrink a private space? Easy: grow more people. And because space is finite and we can’t “grow” the space, not exactly (perhaps with the exception of a few built islands), you need to arrange for fewer people or for people who can’t claim it—thus war, colonialism, slavery, and real-estate bubbles or unaffordable housing. To oversimplify.
But is privacy necessarily spatial?
Two recent essays in The Walrus have been prompting me to think about this. One, by my friend Naben Ruthnum, is about thrillers and detective fiction and how these genres “reassure us that secrets are still possible,” even in the age of social media “when we can discover the unedited, intimate contents of millions of lives online” (70). The other, by Jonathan Kay, claims: “While pop culture continues to push the narrative that privacy is disappearing, the reality is very much the opposite: privacy protection has become a huge element of both engineering design and corporate branding in the technology industry” (26). According to Kay, our privacy is much better protected than we think, because multinational corporations such as Facebook and Microsoft are convinced that their businesses will grow faster if they have robust security protocols and privacy policies that let us believe we’re in good hands. For Kay, in the real world our secrets are safe, and only in the world of fiction do we really have to worry about private detectives, spies, and cat burglars rummaging through our underwear. But in both pieces, privacy is not so much a space as a feeling of security (this being the sense of privacy articulated after slavery in Dionne Brand’s answer to One Hundred Years of Solitude, At the Full and Change of the Moon) or a right to secrecy.
While I was reading and re-reading The Walrus, I also happened to be reading the wonderfully bizarre At Swim-Two-Birds, a 1939 novel by Irish author Flann O’Brien that raises some of these questions about privacy. It’s one of the tallest of tales—a whopper you might say—in which an undergraduate writer composes a novel that involves Irish legends mingling into a cowboys-and-Indians narrative that crosses the path of a devil and a fairy. Said writer often escapes from his bullying uncle into his imagination, and his writing—as escapism—is really for him an escape into privacy. This is the opening sentence: “Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.” This line is followed by many other similar “retirements.” I’m fascinated by how physical and temporal it is; he’s chewing, and it’s for “three minutes.” It’s physical, but it’s also beyond “sensual perception,” as if it were meditation, as if he were a yogi. His mind might be a conceptual space (as it is in Phyllis Webb’s metaphor of the “glass castle” or Simonides of Ceos’s “memory palace” and his "method of loci"), but it is also out of space and time. In theory, then, your privacy can be as big as you can imagine it.
Escapism is a management of the intrusions of the social world, the social world that is supposedly the real world in contrast with the world of fiction, illusion, or fantasy—whichever you prefer in this case. I don’t believe in this illusion vs. reality dichotomy. Our “real world” is absolutely full of illusion, fantasy, falsehood, deception, and error, and these make the world go round. Sometimes the only assurance is when you escape it into the mind, as when Descartes says, “I think, therefore I am.” Escapism is actually quite important, maybe more so than ever. It helps us minimize the social world, and it enables us to be a little more conscious and in control of the blend of fantasies in our lives—those of others (e.g., entertainment corporations, political parties, the “echo chambers” of social media) and our own. The social media networks offer privacy only so they can monetize your secrets for themselves. It’s your privacy but their property. Escapism can be a way out of this capitalism—if it’s not through more private property, or publishing, or buying video games or Game of Thrones seasons or any of a million other entertainments, activities, acquisitions, and options in general.
Ruthnum’s essay suggests that fiction alleviates real-world anxieties (such as homophobia surrounding the trial of Oscar Wilde, alleviated by horror stories of his time) (70). It doesn’t only create an anxiety for the reader’s enjoyment of suspense, and then relieve it by resolving the tensions of the plot. It doesn’t only pose a fictional problem and offer the fictional solution. Ruthnum’s most compelling observation is that many thrillers today are in fact “near-techless thrillers” (69). They are set before the Internet, or people don’t have their smartphones, or their equipment is broken. The “tech” is basically a spoiler; it stops a tense plot from developing.
What if that’s the problem with our real world? The inverse of Ruthnum’s observation is that, in our tech-full lives—despite true threats such as cyberbullying—we are usually contending with our own banality. Although plenty of escapism is banal (e.g., most television, even today in its “golden age”), the thrillers that Ruthnum reads are not. The writer’s imagination in At Swim-Two-Birds is not. They are fictional solutions to real problems.
A banal world is a small world, whether real or illusory, social or private. Growing our privacy might be simple: shrink the banality—the sheer boredom, the predictable behaviours, the conformism of body and mind. Set aside the phones and their clocks. Be unplugged and alone more often, but not by shrinking the world of real people. Don't covet your neighbour's house. Sometimes I feel that there is nothing more banal than a mortgage.
Now if I could only stop binging on Game of Thrones...
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “How Do You Grow Privacy?” Publicly Interested, 17 August 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
If you were my downstairs neighbour and I put my stereo speakers on the floor, cones down, and pumped up “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you could call the police and I could get a ticket.
If we were at a restaurant, together in the room but not “together,” and I was wearing too much cologne, there would be no similar recourse that I know of. Why not?
Like music, scents can invade one’s personal space. Although you might not especially want your perfume or cologne to be smelled by everyone, most scents are intensified by synthetic chemicals so that many people can smell them whether or not they are your intimates. Perfume and cologne can expand the wearer’s personal space. They are on clothes, hair, and especially skin, and suddenly the skin can often be detected anywhere in the room. By phenomenological magic, they make the wearer a giant. They are a claim on space. As with a flag planted on a hilltop, a scent says, “You will always be able to notice me.” Unlike the flag, the person wearing the scent doesn’t have to be seen to be noticed. It’s a sign that can point at (seemingly) nothing, so, in the hallways on campus or in office buildings, I can routinely smell fragrances worn by people who are no longer there. Unlike music, a fragrance can trigger asthma attacks, headaches, and dizziness (“Go” par. 7). In my view, or in my nose, it is a bad sign.
Except when used sparingly, perfumes and colognes redefine public space. You can’t look away from them. They replace the discourse of speakers and listeners with nonverbal messages, each one loud, like a cry. In an Althusserian sense, it is a hail that provokes an ideological recognition or compliance. I’m serious; like a person’s fashion and couture, a fragrance has meanings related to peer groups, cultural influences, and identity politics. One way of reading the bad sign as an ideological message is that any space is or was open to colonization (a message we descendants of settlers in the West recognize instantly, if not consciously); even the air can be commodified with a branded fragrance such as “Obsession” or “Chanel no. 5.”
Whatever the nuance of a perfume or cologne, it always says, “smell me.” But it’s very different from the scents in Michael Ondaatje’s poem “The Cinnamon Peeler.” In this poem, the intoxicating and sensual smells evoked are only in the imagination. They are erotic because you can’t touch the body in the poem. In real life, fragrances often over-deliver. I have been turned on by the occasional perfume, if it teases. But fragrances are often just constantly in your face. Even if you can’t touch the body, you can become numb to its attractions, and your other senses can be overwhelmed—especially taste, which relies so much on smell.
Last week, I was in Montreal again, and we splurged to go to my favourite restaurant, P’tit Plateau—but the experience was not what it could have been. It was not because of the food, which was excellent as always. It was not because of the company at our table, because everyone was wonderful even when I became a grump. The problem was with some of the other company at a different table, specifically a guy who came in with his girlfriend and promptly stunk up the place.
My train of thought went like this:
1. If my evil eye could kill, he’d be dead right now.
2. Relax, the scent is already gone—no, it’s back.
3. I can’t taste the celeriac. My wine is not from Cologne.
4. Maybe I could ask the waiter to talk to him.
5. Maybe I could leave with a doggy bag of food.
I stayed, but I quietly complained to my friends. Later, on the street after having chugged some more wine, I was more vocal. My friends, one who is Parisienne—the French being associated with the finest perfumes—and one who loves his cologne, objected. So did my partner. These were their reasons:
1. Your nose is sensitive. We couldn’t smell him much.
2. He might have put on too much without time to clean up.
3. We have to tolerate people’s differences in public.
I’m not certain that I recall #3 exactly, but it was a message of tolerance, and I accept that. Mostly. I do, however, believe we are justified to be intolerant of harmful behaviours. (How intolerant? Possibly more so than I was, given that I stayed and didn't say anything to the waiter or the cologne-wearer.) People who smell a little like the type of food that they eat should be tolerated, because food is necessary and nutritious (other edibles being worthy of disqualification as food, according to Michael Pollan). People who smell like gasoline because they work at a gas station should be tolerated because they need to work for a living. (My grandfather sometimes smelled of engine oil—and the tobacco that he called “snuff.”) I wouldn’t be bothered if they cleaned up before going fine dining, though.
I’ve already suggested how, in theory, wearing a scent can be harmful, but I would like to substantiate it so that I don’t appear to be sticking my nose in other people’s business for no reason. First, let’s consider the potential scope of the harm. When I talk about scents, I mean not only colognes and perfumes but also all the fragrances added to moisturizers, hairspray, aftershave, candles, anti-static sheets, soaps and detergents, deodorant (an ironic term if there ever was one), etc. They are everywhere, and that’s part of the problem.
Other people’s business. Here’s where perfumes, colognes, and other fragrances become really interesting. Yes, I admit that fragrances can be interesting on their own. Michelyn Camen of ÇaFleurBon blogged to lament the “repercussions of ‘anti-perfumism’ on our Art,” and while I hesitate to attribute the term “art” to everything, especially with a capital A, I have no doubt that some people—artisans, maybe even artists—can create remarkable and meaningful effects with fragrance. Mother nature does it too, and we can accentuate nature. I marvel at the complexity of coffee, which can be grown and cultivated to enhance its enjoyable qualities.
So, business. In Canada and the United States, if not elsewhere, fragrance is a big business. It’s pharmaceutical. As with any corporation that uses science to create proprietary formulas, fragrance manufacturers want to keep the secrets of their products. Governments have mainly allowed corporations to continue as is, despite the finding that a “typical fragrances can contain between 100 to 350 ingredients” (“Scents” par. 7). On these long lists are substances such as “carcinogenic ‘hazardous air pollutants’ (1,4-dioxane, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, and methylene chloride), which have no safe exposure level, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency” (Steinemann par. 5). The Canadian Lung Association focuses on diethyl phthalate, which is an allergen and reproductive toxin. Anne Steinemann, contributing an essay to The David Suzuki Foundation, has expressed concern about the lack of regulation (par. 6). Why, if we are concerned about interactions of prescription drugs, are we not worried about fragrances, which are like drugs in that we ingest them through our noses and skin, and they modify our body chemistry (as food does, of course, but not harmfully)?
The situation is reminiscent of the governmental relationship with the tobacco industry before the widespread restriction of smoking in public, with the exception of course that fragrances have not been linked with millions of deaths. Cigarettes are obviously much worse. I remember coming home from the bar (where I was neither a smoker nor much of a drinker, in those days; I was designated driver), and my clothes would stink up the apartment and could transfer smells to the furniture and carpet. Those days are gone, here at least, though several of my older relatives have died or are sick because of their smoking. In our newly healthier environments, Marilee Nelson calls fragrance “the new secondhand smoke.” I would not be surprised if we can one day (if not already) correlate illnesses such as cancer with low dosage interactions between high numbers of chemicals, or simply with the carcinogens already proven to be in many fragrances.
When I expressed some of these concerns to the manager of health and safety at one of the universities where I worked previously, he said that he wouldn’t support a no-scents policy because fragrances don’t bioaccumulate and are therefore not harmful, and because some people like the smell. Yes, and some people like to smoke cigarettes. And, in fact, some chemicals in fragrances do bioaccumulate, according to research in the United States (re-reported by the DSF) that found that 70% of umbilical cords contain synthetic musks (“Go” par. 8) . In other words, we keep the synthetics in our bodies and can transfer them to our fetuses and children. They’re also building up in the Great Lakes and in the fish that live there.
If nature is the ultimate public space, we are marking it with scents as no other animal has ever done.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “'Smell Me': Scents and Public Space.” Publicly Interested. 29 Apr. 2016. Web. [date of access]
In a post several weeks ago, I lamented the lack of onboard recycling on Toronto-based flights, and I called upon airline executives to allow passengers (like me) to volunteer to move recyclable items off planes and into airports where recycling bins exist. A manager wrote to me to respond to my blog and placed the blame at the feet of the Canada Border Services Agency and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, both of which supposedly prohibit recycling on those flights to prevent contagion.
The more I think about it, the more I doubt this claim.
Do recyclables really spread disease? Germs do stick to plastic cups and aluminum cans, but they also stick to tray-tables, armrests, and windows (maybe even fabrics) that are probably not all disinfected between flights.
And can the recyclables possibly be a significant risk compared to, or even in addition to, human beings? We are the ones who spread disease. It's on our skin, our breath, and in our blood and bodily fluids, and we're not going through quarantine every time we pass through Toronto. (If you've heard Toronto described as a sort of quarantine or culture-free zone, it's not; it's a good city.)
The conspiracy theorist in me imagines all too easily how convenient a ban on recycling might be to airlines, the CBSA, and the CFIA. By banning recycling, they can save money on sorting used items and claim to be reducing the risk of pandemics by protecting borders and food supplies.
I'll try to find a study that might have been the basis of this highly questionable policy. In the meantime, I'll be scratching my germ-ridden head.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “P.S., World Leaders at Airlines.” Publicly Interested. 14 Mar. 2016. Web. [date of access]
Update 2/16/2016: Partly in response to this blog, the manager of environmental sustainability in Air Canada's Environmental Affairs Department wrote to me two days ago to claim that, at 8 of 9 airports in Canada, the company does in fact separate and recycle its onboard waste. The exception is Toronto's Pearson International Airport, which follows rules enforced by the Canada Border Services Agency and set by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Preventing the spread of disease is their goal. The manager at Air Canada assures us that the company is trying to agree with the CBSA and the CFIA to expand their recycling, and she asks that we write to the CFIA to express our concerns about a systemic solution to the embarrassing destruction of recyclables. (Further update: Having pondered this awhile, I wrote this postscript.)
Dear World Leaders,
Last week in Paris (mid-December, 2015), leaders from around the world negotiated the first universal agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding catastrophic climate change. Today, I call on you as world leaders too—leaders of a globalizing industry—to let me help you do your part.
Once upon a time, and for a short time, I was in management, where we had the jargon of "the take away." As you know, it's the proposal that one might remember from a presentation or executive summary. I want to suggest that you remember this: airlines must do more to mitigate climate change—and I'll help! I volunteer to take away the recyclables (a sort of double take away) on airplanes on which I travel and actually recycle them, rather than destining them to a future of burial or incineration.
The world is burning up. 2015 will be the hottest year on record, and yet we continue (more literally than with the world) to burn things that contribute to global warming.
The jet fuel we burn while travelling with you has, at present, environmental consequences that are inevitable results of choosing to fly, but there are many that we can avoid. Every day, airlines use cups and cans numbering in the many millions, many of which are incinerated rather than recycled. In Scientific American not long ago, David Farley wrote that “[t]he U.S. airline industry discards enough aluminum cans every year to build nearly 58 Boeing 747s and enough paper to fill a football field–size hole 230 feet deep—that’s 4,250 tons of aluminum and 72,250 tons of paper.”
The Canadian industry is proportionally no better and is in some ways worse, because some major American airlines do recycle some of the stuff on their planes—but Air Canada and WestJet presently do not, at least on my recent flights to and from Toronto. Such enormous waste is unconscionable, and every time I forget my reusable water bottle at home I feel guilty if I need water on board. (I feel guilty about not buying carbon offsets these days too, but that's a slightly different issue.)
Although consumers have little control over jet fuel consumption except their choice not to fly, to fly less, or to fly with less baggage (a lighter load meaning less fuel consumption), we have plenty of choices on the airplane itself. We could boycott in-flight purchases that involve wasted recyclables, but, as we are taught to do when hiking in national parks, we could instead take away our recyclables into the airports, which do have infrastructure for recycling.
Shouldn't your employees be doing that? (And is a plane in the air anything like a national park?) But since they're not, or at least not consistently throughout your business, your customers could do it. Knowing it can start with one, I proposed to volunteer on my December business and pleasure flights to take all recyclables from the airplane to local recycling facilities, but the flight attendants said they had no resources (presumably enough staff and time) to separate the recyclables from garbage and to collect them. This is where we need your help. Flight attendants need their executives and managers to say that they should take time to separate the recyclables. It seems as simple as having one bag for recyclables and one for garbage—many bags of each, of course, and enough people to move them.
The responsibility is not only mine. You as world leaders are in a better position than me to make a systemic improvement, but I'm part of the system. Say the word, and I'll move the recyclables off the plane.
[Unsuccessful attempts were made to reach Klaus Goersch (the Air Canada Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer responsible for efficiency) with this suggestion, prior to my Christmas-related flights in 2015.]
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Open Letter to World Leaders at Airlines." Publicly Interested. 16 Dec. 2015. Web. [date of access]
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.