On complexity and seemingly good ideas.

On complexity and seemingly good ideas.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s lovely essay in the New York Review of Books, “Chemical Warfare’s Home Front,” describes Fritz Haber’s contribution to the use of toxic gas in war.

Haber orchestrated the use of chlorine to suffocate all animal life – including soldiers – downwind of his nation’s troops. And his plan succeeded. After unleashing 300,000 pounds of chlorine gas, huge numbers of people died. Soldiers– some of whom suffocated, some whose lungs burned, some who committed suicide when enveloped by the gas – as well as horses, cows, chickens, wildlife.

Chemical warfare is horrible, but Haber’s battlefield “experiment” was considered a success. Military researchers then concocted more dangerous chemical agents, like DNA-crosslinking mustard gas and muscle-clenching Sarin nerve gas.

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Fritz Haber’s other ideas were seemingly more beneficial for humanity. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for making synthetic fertilizer.

Synthetic fertilizer let us grow more crops.

We could feed billions more people!

The global population soared.

If we hadn’t invented synthetic fertilizer, the global population would still be under four billion people.

Climate change would still be a huge problem – the most outrageous polluters haven’t been the most populous nations. Climate change was caused primarily by the United States and other wealthy nations, whereas overpopulation will first devastate equatorial nations.

A seemingly good idea – more fertilizer! – has greatly exacerbated the scale of suffering.

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Kolbert discusses the invention of chlorofluorocarbons, which seemed like great coolants. With CFCs, Frigidaire could build cheaper refrigerators! Regular families could keep their ice cream cold without spending as much on electricity.

Unfortunately, CFCs also dissolve our ozone layer. More dangerous ultraviolet radiation began to reach us from the sun, causing horrible skin cancers.

CFCs seemed like a good idea — they do work great as coolants — but they caused awful problems as part of a bigger system.

Kolbert quotes the chemist F. Sherwood Rowland, who said, in reference to his studies of CFCs, “The work is going very well, but it looks like the end of the world.”

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Anthropologist Joseph Tainter argued civilizations collapse when overwhelmed by complexity.

Like the children’s nursery rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly — then a spider to catch the fly, then a cat to catch the spider — our complicated solutions can create new, perhaps worse, problems.

This is the theme of Jenny Kleeman’s Sex Robots and Vegan Meat. Kleeman investigates several industries that purport to solve our world’s problems – You can eat meat without killing animals! You can make a baby without a mother’s body! – without addressing the fundamental causes of these problems.

Describing her travels, Kleeman writes:

I head back to my hotel as the reassuring cloak of darkness falls on Las Vegas. I’m exhausted. Music is thumping out of huge speakers mounted on the building’s exterior: throbbing, pounding beats that are supposed to entice gamblers into the hotel’s casino. I wipe my key card and flop down on the giant bed.

On the bedside table, there’s a metal dish full of individually wrapped pairs of earplugs: wax ones, foam ones, silicone ones – a profusion of solutions supplied by the management to the noise pollution problem caused by the management.

They could just switch the music off, of course, but they have provided a little piece of technology instead so they don’t have to.

My head is full of Eva, [a prototype interactive sex doll] who has the body of a real woman, but can be beaten without feeling a thing. Rather than dealing with the cause of a problem, we invent something to try to cancel it out.

Perhaps we should eat different foods. Perhaps our attitudes about sex or the importance of a sociable community are making our lives worse. Perhaps if we addressed these issues directly, we wouldn’t need sex robots or vegan meat.

Clean meat is one of many possible futures of food, so long as we continue to eat meat. We will always have the power to not want it anymore, or to want it much less.

That is where the real power lies: in harnessing our desires, rather than in mastering technology. Until we do, we will be even further removed from where our food comes from, and will feel even less responsible for it.

We will be perpetuating the kind of thinking that caused the meat mess in the first place.

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In April 2020, I described two major drawbacks to our efforts to “slow the spread” of Covid-19 instead of providing targeted protection for the people at high risk of severe illness.

1.) Immunity to most coronaviruses lapses within a matter of months. Keeping the virus in circulation longer increases the total number of infections and makes it more difficult to shield people at high risk from eventual exposure.

2.) Each infection encompasses some number of viral replications and thus genetic drift. If a population of 20 people transfers a virus between themselves one by one, rather than all catching it from the same initial carrier, the virus has 20-fold more generations to mutate and better evade our immune systems.

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Admittedly, my April 2020 prediction about the timeline for vaccine development was quite wrong – I thought this might take three to five years. I’m thankful that I was wrong. I’m obviously grateful for the fantastic work done by vaccine developers so far.

For these vaccines to effectively staunch viral transmission, we’ll need to vaccinate large numbers of people – immunity from prior infections won’t necessarily help much because immunity to this particular virus lapses so quickly, and because people’s prior infections were staggered in time. (Indeed, we’ll probably need to vaccinate large numbers of people repeatedly, because some of our data suggests that vaccine-derived immunity to this also lapses on a timescale of months.)

Unfortunately, we live in a country where large numbers of people distrust the medical establishment. Even if we had sufficient doses of the vaccines available today, I don’t know what percentage of our population would choose to get them.

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Masks definitely reduce viral transmission. It was obviously a good idea for everyone to wear masks anywhere that high risk and lower risk people share the same space.

Cooperation definitely makes for a better place to live. In places that enacted mask orders, it’s obviously a good idea to follow them.

It’s worth remembering, though, that any fix – even something as simple as this piece of cloth covering my nose and mouth – can have unintentional consequences. New virus variants – which our current vaccines may be less effective against – are a predictable result of our effort to “slow the spread” with masks.

And yet.

I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people who are incarcerated. We’ve included a sheet of information about Covid-19 with each package recently, helping to explain that Covid-19 is not a hoax, that it’s a dangerous respiratory disease, that masks and social distancing can help people reduce their risk.

I’m currently revising this information sheet – it was put together months ago, when we understood less about this virus – and I’m still recommend that everyone wear masks.

Not just because prisons are places where many low risk and high risk people are confined together — although, they are. Outrageous sentencing practices have led to a large number of elderly people being stuck in prison.

But also, anecdotal evidence suggests that people are more likely to develop severe illness from Covid-19 when they are exposed to a large number of viral particles at once.

Viruses reproduce exponentially – you can get sick if you inhale even one capsid. But you’re more likely to get seriously ill if you inhale a whole bunch of viral particles. If you’re initially exposed to a small number of particles, your body will have more time to fight off the infection before it makes you feel sick.

Research studies from military bases have shown that Covid-19 will continue to spread even when everyone wears masks and tries to stay six feet away from each other. But we haven’t tested – an experiment like this would be totally unethical – whether we’re more likely to see asymptomatic or mild cases when people’s initial exposure is to a small number of viral particles.

It’s quite likely, though.

So, although I think our efforts to “slow the spread” weren’t the best plan last year, I’ll still be recommending masks.