How is white paint like the defeat of our nation’s (former!) white-supremacist in chief?
They’re pulling us back from the brink. Both ample cause for dancing in the street.
When I woke on Wednesday, November 4th, the news looked grim.
Before the 2016 election, I felt pretty sure that Donald Trump would win. I felt horrible about the prospect, but based on conversations I’d been having with people – and because the man embodies so much of our crass, self-serving, money-hungry national id – it seemed very likely that Trump would be elected.
But I had no prediction this time. I haven’t been talking to people. My family has returned to something vaguely like our regular life – my spouse is teaching, my kids are in school – but the local jail won’t let me inside, and I have far fewer conversations with folks around town. Our voices are muffled, and I can’t see their lips for extra help in parsing words.
I had hoped, obviously, that watching what the man has done to our country would induce people to vote for anyone else.
Nevertheless, almost half the people who voted wanted that man to stay in office.
Sure, Joe Biden clearly won the popular vote – but it wasn’t a landslide. It was something like 51% to 48%. Even ignoring, for a moment, the awfulness of the electoral college – a system that was designed so that some people could enjoy the FREEDOM to abduct, torture, and murder other people – 51% to 48% is quite close.
Almost half our nation’s voters think the president has been doing a dang fine job and should carry on with it.
On Wednesday morning, it looked like the electoral college might proffer another victory to our current president.
I didn’t take to the streets. Nor did I descend into my secret bunker.
I don’t even have a secret bunker. Although I did notice, when I went grocery shopping on Monday before the election, that the shelves were stripped bare of most types of canned beans. I imagine other people were stocking their secret bunkers.
And it’s not clear to me whether I’d be more in need of a secret bunker if Trump had won – four more years of ravage – or if Biden had won decisively, which might induce violence from the most prominent terrorist organizations in our country, the well-armed white supremacists.
I bought some dried beans. Which is silly, I know. With young children in the house, I almost never plan our meals well enough ahead of time to use dried beans instead of canned. And, in the event of TOTAL CHAOS, there’s no guarantee that we’d have running water to cook dried beans with. And also, maybe it’s excessively paranoid to be at the grocery store a day before a U.S. presidential election and feel an overwhelming dread of impending violence.
But maybe it’s not. That’s the thing. Maybe it’s not.
Any Rip Van Winkles who lay down for a nap in 2015 would have thought I was being absurd. But in 2020, other people had gotten to the canned beans before I did.
So, waking up, feeling nauseous at the gaping blood-red wound / chasm confronting me from the New York Times website’s map of the United States on Wednesday, I sat down to send sad emails to a few people I care about. Given that depression is normally a very private affair – too private, most people suffering in silence, alone – it felt almost cathartic to have the opportunity for such shared despair. Perhaps 52% of our nation felt the same hopeless nausea that I did.
During one of these sad emails, I wrote about stocks. I’d hedged my bets – stock in construction equipment like CAT in case Joe Biden wins and actually embarks on our sorely-needed infrastructure project; stock in HVAC (air conditioning) and Canadian agriculture in case Trump won.
And, sure, maybe I shouldn’t unload my Canadian ag stocks yet. If the obstructionists hold the Senate, maybe Biden will be stymied in his efforts to address climate change. But, you know what? At least he’s gonna try.
The other guy was going to keep tweeting that sacred-water-poisoning pipelines and mountain-wrecking coal mining would Make America Uninhabitable Later, and, after an erudite Black man had successfully governed our nation for eight years, lots of folks really wanted to maul something.
But, the dire need for air conditioning?
Well, let’s preface this by saying that air conditioning is going to be a really problematic feedback loop in our efforts to address climate change. The world gets hotter, people feel miserable, people use more air conditioning, air conditioning is a huge energy suck, which makes the world get even hotter. That’s bad. If a chemical company develops a more efficient coolant, it’ll be a huge boon.
Kinda strange for a hippie environmentalist like me to extol the efforts of companies like Dow chemical, but also, I’m a scientist, and, also, this is where we are in the world. Things would be different if we’d made better choices years ago.
No matter. This essay is a happy one, chock full of good news.
The first good news is that, pending a few lawsuits that will (eventually) fizzle in a tangled mess of illogic, Biden has won the U.S. presidency. Of our nation’s approximately 140 million eligible candidates for president, Joe Biden isn’t my number one pick. But, still. I voted for him. He’s good enough.
I’m quite happy he won.
(Given the stakes this year – buying dried beans on Monday, honestly! – that’s an understatement.)
Here’s some more good news: new paint!
Seriously. If you can spare a minute to read Science magazine’s layperson-friendly press release, please, click here!
There’s a charming new research article – published three weeks ago, but unnoticed by me until this morning – that describes how much cooling we could achieve by painting buildings with a fresh coat of this special formulation of white paint.
Sunlight shines down, ready to heat any buildings covered in black shingles or whatever, but sunlight will bounce off this white paint, and be reflected in a lovely spread of wavelengths to fly back harmlessly into outer space.
This is, after all, the usual problem with greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide lets inbound sunlight pass through, but all our stuff down here on Earth absorbs the photons of sunlight and in return ships off a larger number (more entropy, more chaos) of lower energy (so that no energy is created or destroyed) infrared photons, and the greenhouse gases won’t let those new photons fly off into outer space, so our planet heats up.
Joe Biden. And white paint.
Our species is a bit less likely to face extinction in the coming centuries. And that sounds great to me!
I was walking my eldest child toward our local elementary school when my phone rang.
We reached the door, shared a hug, and said goodbye. After I left, I called back – it was a friend of mine from college who now runs a cancer research laboratory and is an assistant professor at a medical school.
“Hey,” I said, “I was just dropping my kid off at school.”
“Whoa,” he said, “that’s brave.”
I was shocked by his remark. For most people under retirement age, a case of Covid-19 is less dangerous than a case of seasonal influenza.
“I’ve never heard of anybody needing a double lung transplant after a case of the flu,” my friend said.
But our ignorance doesn’t constitute safety. During this past flu season, several young, healthy people contracted such severe cases of influenza that they required double lung transplants. Here’s an article about a healthy 30-year-old Wyoming man nearly killed by influenza from December 2019, and another about a healthy 20-year-old Ohio woman from January 2020. And this was a rather mild flu season!
“One of the doctors told me that she’s the poster child for why you get the flu shot because she didn’t get her flu shot,” said [the 20-year-old’s mother].
These stories were reported in local newspapers. Stories like this don’t make national news because we, as a people, think that it’s normal for 40,000 to 80,000 people to die of influenza every year. Every three to five years, we lose as many people as have died from Covid-19. And that’s with vaccination, with pre-existing immunity, with antivirals like Tamiflu.
Again, when I compare Covid-19 to influenza, I’m not trying to minimize the danger of Covid-19. It is dangerous. For elderly people, and for people with underlying health issues, Covid-19 is very dangerous. And, sure, all our available data suggest that Covid-19 is less dangerous than seasonal influenza for people under retirement age, but, guess what? That’s still pretty awful!
You should get a yearly flu shot!
A flu shot might save your life. And your flu shot will help save the lives of your at-risk friends and neighbors.
For a while, I was worried because some of my remarks about Covid-19 sounded superficially similar to things said by the U.S. Republican party. Fox News – a virulent propaganda outlet – was publicizing the work of David Katz – a liberal medical doctor who volunteered in a Brooklyn E.R. during the Covid-19 epidemic and teaches at Yale’s school of public health.
The “problem” is that Katz disagrees with the narrative generally forwarded by the popular press. His reasoning, like mine, is based the relevant research data – he concludes that low-risk people should return to their regular lives.
You can see a nifty chart with his recommendations here. This is the sort of thing we’d be doing if we, as a people, wanted to “follow the science.”
And also, I’m no longer worried that people might mistake me for a right-wing ideologue. Because our president has once again staked claim to a ludicrous set of beliefs.
Here’s a reasonable set of beliefs: we are weeks away from a safe, effective Covid-19 vaccine, so we should do everything we can to slow transmission and get the number of cases as low as possible!
Here’s another reasonable set of beliefs: Covid-19 is highly infectious, and we won’t have a vaccine for a long time. Most people will already be infected at least once before there’s a vaccine, so we should focuson protecting high-risk people while low-risk people return to their regular lives.
If you believe either of those sets of things, then you’re being totally reasonable! If you feel confident that we’ll have a vaccine soon, then, yes, delaying infections is the best strategy! I agree! And if you think that a vaccine will take a while, then, yes, we should end the shutdown! I agree!
There’s no right answer here – it comes down to our predictions about the future.
But there are definitely wrong answers. For instance, our current president claims that a vaccine is weeks away, and that we should return to our regular lives right now.
That’s nonsense. If we could get vaccinated before the election, then it’d make sense to close schools. To wait this out.
If a year or more will pass before people are vaccinated, then our efforts to delay the spread of infection will cause more harm than good. Not only will we be causing harm with the shutdown itself, but we’ll be increasing the death toll from Covid-19.
On October 14th, the New York Times again ran a headline saying “Yes, you can be reinfected with the coronavirus. But it’s extremely unlikely.”
This is incorrect.
When I’ve discussed Covid-19 with my father – a medical doctor specializing in infectious diseases, virology professor, vaccine developer with a background in epidemiology from his masters in public health – he also has often said to me that reinfection is unlikely. I kept explaining that he was wrong until I realized that we were talking about different things.
When my father uses the word “reinfection,” he means clearing the virus, catching it again, and becoming sicker than you were the first time. That’s unlikely (although obviously possible). This sort of reinfection happens often with influenza, but that’s because influenza mutates so rapidly. Covid-19 has a much more stable genome.
When I use the word “reinfection” – and I believe that this is also true when most laypeople use the word – I mean clearing the virus, catching it again, and becoming sick enough to shed the viral particles that will make other people sick.
The more we slow the spread of Covid-19, the more total cases there will be. In and of itself, more cases aren’t a bad thing – most people’s reinfection will be milder than their first exposure. The dangerous aspect is that a person who is reinfected will have another period of viral shedding during which they might expose a high-risk friend or neighbor.
If our goal is to reduce the strain on hospitals and reduce total mortality, we need to avoid exposing high-risk people. Obviously, we should be very careful around nursing home patients. We should provide nursing homes with the resources they need to deal with this, like extra testing, and preferably increased wages for nursing home workers to compensate them for all that extra testing.
It’s also a good idea to wear masks wherever low-risk and high-risk people mingle. The best system for grocery stores would be to hire low-risk shoppers to help deliver food to high-risk people, but, absent that system, the second-best option would be for everyone to wear masks in the grocery store.
Schools are another environment where a small number of high-risk teachers and a small number of students living with high-risk family members intermingle with a large number of low-risk classmates and colleagues.
Schools should be open – regions where schools closed have had the same rates of infection as regions where schools stayed open, and here in the U.S., teachers in districts with remote learning have had the same rates of infection as districts with in-person learning.
Education is essential, and most people in the building have very low risk.
A preponderance of data indicate that schools are safe. These data are readily accessible even for lay audiences – instead of reading research articles, you could read this lovely article in The Atlantic.
Well, I should rephrase.
We should’ve been quarantining international travelers back in December or January. At that time, a shutdown could have helped. By February, we were too late. This virus will become endemic to the human species. We screwed up.
But, given where we are now, students and teachers won’t experience much increased risk from Covid-19 if they attend in person, and schools aren’t likely to make the Covid-19 pandemic worse for the surrounding communities.
That doesn’t mean that schools are safe.
Schools aren’t safe: gun violence is a horrible problem. My spouse is a teacher – during her first year, a student brought weapons including a chainsaw and some pipe bombs to attack the school; during her fourth year, a student had amassed guns in his locker and was planning to attack the school.
Schools aren’t safe: we let kids play football, which is known to cause traumatic brain injury.
Schools aren’t safe: the high stress of grades, college admissions, and even socializing puts some kids at a devastatingly high risk for suicide. We as a nation haven’t always done a great job of prioritizing kids’ mental health.
And the world isn’t safe – as David Katz has written,
“If inclined to panic over anything, let it be climate change … Not the most wildly pessimistic assessment of the COVID pandemic places it even remotely in the same apocalyptic ballpark.”
At the end of “Just Use Your Thinking Pump!”, a lovely essay that discusses the evolution (and perhaps undue elevation) of a particular set of practices now known as the scientific method, Jessica Riskin writes:
Covid-19 has presented the world with a couple of powerful ultimatums that are also strikingly relevant to our subject here. The virus has said, essentially, Halt your economies, reconnect science to a whole understanding of yourself and the world, or die.
With much economic activity slowed or stopped to save lives, let us hope governments find means to sustain their people through the crisis.
Meanwhile, with the din of “innovation” partially silenced, perhaps we can also use the time to think our way past science’s branding, to see science once again as integral to a whole, evolving understanding of ourselves and the world.
True, the world has presented us with an ultimatum. We must halt our economies, reconnect science to a whole understanding of ourselves and our world, or die.
Riskin is a professor at Stanford. Her skies are blackened with soot. In the words of Greta Thunberg, “Our house is on fire.”
For many years, we’ve measured the success of our economy in terms of growth. The idea that we can maintain perpetual growth is a delusion. It’s simple mathematics. If the amount of stuff we manufacture – telephones, televisions, air conditioners – rises by 3% each and every year, we’ll eventually reach stratospheric, absurd levels.
In the game “Universal Paperclips,” you’re put in control of a capitalist system that seeks perpetual growth. If you succeed, you’ll make a lot of paperclips! And you will destroy the planet.
Here in the real world, our reckless pursuit of growth has (as yet) wrought less harm, but we’ve driven many species to extinction, destroyed ancient forests, and are teetering at the precipice of cataclysmic climate change. All while producing rampant inequality with its attendant abundance of human misery.
We must reconnect science to a whole understanding of ourselves and the world, or die.
We are in danger. But Covid-19 isn’t the major threat we’re facing.
I consider myself to be more cautious than average – I would never ride a bicycle without a helmet – and I’m especially cautious as regards global pandemic. Antibiotic resistance is about to be a horrific problem for us. Zoogenic diseases like Covid-19 will become much more common due to climate change and increased human population.
I’m flabbergasted that these impending calamities haven’t caused more people to choose to be vegan. It seems trivial – it’s just food – but a vegan diet is one of our best hopes for staving off antibiotic resistant plagues.
A vegan diet would have prevented Covid-19. Not that eating plants will somehow turbocharge your immune system – it won’t – but this pandemic originated from a meat market.
And a vegan diet will mitigate your contribution to climate change, which has the potential to cause the full extinction of the human race.
Make our planet uninhabitable? We all die. Make our planet even a little less habitable, which leads to violent unrest, culminating in warring nations that decide to use nukes? Yup, that’s another situation where we all die.
By way of contrast, if we had made no changes in our lives during the Covid-19 pandemic – no shutdown, no masks, no social distancing, no PCR tests, no contact tracing, no quarantines – 99.8% of our population would have survived.
Indeed, we often discuss the Covid-19 crisis in a very imprecise way. We say that Covid-19 is causing disruptions to learning, that it’s causing domestic violence or evictions. On the front page of Sunday’s New York Times business section, the headline reads, “The Other Way that Covid Kills: Hunger.”
Covid-19 is a serious disease. We need to do our best to avoid exposing high-risk people to this virus, and we should feel ashamed that we didn’t prioritize the development of coronavirus vaccines years ago.
But there’s a clear distinction between the harms caused by Covid-19 (hallucinogenic fevers, cardiac inflammation, lungs filling up with liquid until a person drowns, death) and the harms caused by our response to Covid-19 (domestic violence, educational disruption, starvation, reduced vaccination, delayed hospital visits, death).
Indeed, if the harms caused by our response to Covid-19 are worse than the harms caused by Covid-19 itself, we’re doing the wrong thing.
In that New York Timesbusiness article, Satbir Singh Jatain, a third-generation farmer in northern India, is quoted: “The lockdowns have destroyed farmers. Now, we have no money to buy seeds or pay for fuel. …. soon they will come for my land. There is nothing left for us.”
Covid-19 is awful. It’s a nasty disease. I’m fairly confident that I contracted it in February (before PCR tests were available in the United States), and my spouse says it’s the sickest she’s ever seen me.
Yes, I’d done something foolish – I was feeling a little ill but still ran a kilometer repeat workout with the high school varsity track team that I volunteer with. High intensity workouts are known to cause temporary immunosuppression, usually lasting from 3 to 72 hours.
My whole family got sick, but I fared far worse than the others.
It was horrible. I could barely breathe. Having been through that, it’s easy to understand how Covid-19 could kill so many people. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone.
And I have very low risk. I don’t smoke. I don’t have diabetes. I’m thirty-seven.
I wish it were possible to protect people from this.
Obviously, we should have quarantined all international travelers beginning in December 2019. Actually, ten days probably would have been enough. We needed to diecitine all international travelers.
By February, we had probably allowed Covid-19 to spread too much to stop it.
By February, there were probably enough cases that there will always be a reservoir of this virus among the human species. 80% of people with Covid-19 feel totally fine and don’t realize they might be spreading it. By talking and breathing, they put viral particles into the air.
By the end of March, we were much, much too late. If you look at the numbers from New York City, it’s pretty clear that the preventative measures, once enacted, did little. Given that the case fatality rate is around 0.4%, there were probably about 6 million cases in New York City – most of the population.
Yes, it’s possible that New York City had a somewhat higher case fatality rate. The case fatality rate depends on population demographics and standard of care – the state of New York had an idiotic policy of shunting Covid-19 patients into nursing homes, while banning nursing homes from using Covid-19 PCR tests for these patients, and many New York doctors were prescribing hydroxychloroquine during these months, which increases mortality – but even if the case fatality rate in New York City was as high as 0.6%, a majority of residents have already cleared the virus by now.
The belated public health measures probably didn’t help. And these health measures have caused harm – kids’ schooling was disrupted. Wealthy people got to work from home; poor people lost their jobs. Or were deemed “essential” and had to work anyway, which is why the toll of Covid-19 has been so heavily concentrated among poor communities.
The pandemic won’t end until about half of all people have immunity, but a shutdown in which rich people get to isolate themselves while poor people go to work is a pretty shitty way to select which half of the population bears the burden of disease.
I am very liberal. And it’s painful to see that “my” political party has been advocating for policies that hurt poor people and children during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Because we did not act soon enough, Covid-19 won’t end until an appreciable portion of the population has immunity – at the same time.
As predicted, immunity to Covid-19 lasts for a few months. Because our public health measures have caused the pandemic to last longer than individual immunity, there will be more infections than if we’d done nothing.
The shutdowns, in addition to causing harm on their own, will increase the total death toll of Covid-19.
Unless – yes, there is a small glimmer of hope here – unless we soon have a safe, effective vaccine that most people choose to get.
Yes, there are clear positive externalities to vaccination, but I think this sounds like a terrible idea. Ethically, it’s grim – the Covid-19 vaccines being tested now are a novel type, so they’re inherently more risky than other vaccines. By paying people to get vaccinated, we shift this burden of uncertainty onto poor communities.
We already do this, of course. Drug trials use paid “volunteers.” Especially phase 1 trials – in which drugs are given to people with no chance of medical benefit, only to see how severe the side effects are – the only enrollees are people so poor that the piddling amounts of money offered seem reasonable in exchange for scarfing an unknown, possibly poisonous medication.
Just because we already do an awful thing doesn’t mean we should make the problem worse.
And, as a practical matter, paying people to do the right thing often backfires.
To illustrate, consider the recent introduction, in many Indian states, of schemes of cash incentives to curb sex-selective abortion. The schemes typically involve cash rewards for the registered birth of a girl child, and further rewards if the girl is vaccinated, sent to school, and so on, as she gets older.
These schemes can undoubtedly tilt economic incentives in favor of girl children. But a cash reward for the birth of a girl could also reinforce people’s tendency to think about family planning in economic terms, and also their perception, in the economic calculus of family planning, that girls are a burden (for which cash rewards are supposed to compensate).
Further, cash rewards are likely to affect people’s non-economic motives. For instance, they could reduce the social stigma attached to sex-selective abortion, by making it look like some sort of ‘fair deal’ — no girl, no cash.
What happens if it takes a few years before there are sufficient doses of an effective vaccine that people trust enough to actually get?
Well, by then the pandemic will have run its course anyway. Masks reduce viral transmission, but they don’t cut transmission to zero. Even in places where everyone wears masks, Covid-19 is spreading, just slower.
I’ve been wearing one – I always liked the Mortal Kombat aesthetic. But I’ve been wearing one with the unfortunate knowledge that masks, by prolonging the pandemic, are increasing the death toll of Covid-19. Which is crummy. I’ve chosen to behave in a way that makes people feel better, even though the science doesn’t support it.
We, as a people, are in an awful situation right now. Many of us are confronting the risk of death in ways that we have not previously.
More than 37 percent of deaths in 1900 were caused by infectious diseases, but by 1955, this had declined to less than 5 percent and to only 2 percent by 2009.
Of course, this trend will still hold true in 2020. In the United States, there have been about 200,000 Covid-19 deaths so far, out of 2,000,000 deaths total this year. Even during this pandemic, less than 1% of deaths are caused by Covid-19.
And I’m afraid. Poverty is a major risk factor for death of all causes in this country. Low educational attainment is another risk factor.
My kids am lucky to live in a school district that has mostly re-opened. But many children are not so fortunate. If we shutter schools, we will cause many more deaths – not this year, but down the road – than we could possibly prevent from Covid-19.
Indeed, school closures, by prolonging the pandemic (allowing people to be infected twice and spread the infection further), will increase the death toll from Covid-19.
School closures wouldn’t just cause harm for no benefit. School closures would increase the harm caused by Covid-19 and by everything else.
The world is complicated. There’s so much information out there, so much to know. And our brains are not made well for knowing much of it.
I can understand numbers like a dozen, a hundred. I can make a guess at the meaning of a thousand. Show me a big gumball machine and ask me to guess how many gumballs are in it, maybe I’ll guess a thousand, a few thousand.
But numbers like a million? A billion? A trillion? These numbers are important, I know. These numbers might be the population of cities, or of planets, or of solar systems. These numbers might be the ages of species or planets. These numbers might be how many stars are in the sky, or how many stars in the sky might harbor life.
These numbers don’t mean much to me.
I don’t think the problem is just my brain. I’m fairly good with numbers, relative to the average human. It’s been years since I’ve sat in a math class, but I can still do basic integrals and derivatives in my head.
Yet I can’t understand those big numbers. They don’t feel like anything to me.
So we make graphs. Charts. We try to represent information in ways that our meager human brains can grasp.
A good chart can be a revelation. Something that seemed senseless before is now made clear.
An apocalypse is a revelation. The word “apocalypse” means lifting the veil – apo, off; kalyptein, conceal. To whisk away the cover and experience a sudden insight.
An illustration that depicts information well allows numbers to be felt.
Often, though, we illustrate information and we do it poorly.
The scientific method is gorgeous. Through guesswork, repetition, and analysis, we can learn about our world.
But science is never neutral. We impart our values by the questions we choose to ask, by the ways we choose to interpret the world’s ever-oblique answers.
Geological time is often depicted as a clock. A huge quantity of time, compressed down into a 24-hour day. Often, this is done with the ostensible goal of showing the relative unimportance of humans.
Our planet has been here for a day, and humans appear only during the final two minutes!
Unfortunately, this way of depicting time actually overemphasizes the present. Why, after all, should the present moment in time seem so special that it resides at midnight on our clock?
The present feels special to us because we’re living in it. From a geological perspective, it’s just another moment.
Geologic textbooks invariably point out (almost gleefully) that if the 4.5-billion-year story of the Earth is scaled to a 24-hour day, all of human history would transpire in the last fraction of a second before midnight.
But this is a wrongheaded, and even irresponsible, way to understand our place in Time. For one thing, it suggests a degree of insignificance and disempowerment that not only is psychologically alienating but also allows us to ignore the magnitude of our effects on the planet in that quarter second.
And it denies our deep roots and permanent entanglement with Earth’s history; our specific clan may not have shown up until just before the clock struck 12:00, but our extended family of living organisms has been around since at least 6 a.m.
Finally, the analogy implies, apocalyptically, that there is no future – what happens after midnight?
Timefulness is a lovely book, but Bjornerud does not present a corrected clock.
And so I lay in bed, thinking. How could these numbers be shown in a way that helped me to understand our moment in time?
I wanted to fix the clock.
The first midnight is easy – the birth of our sun. A swirling cloud of gas condenses, heating as gravity tugs the molecules into more and more collisions. Nuclear fusion begins.
Gravity tugs molecules inward, nuclear explosions push them outward. When these are balanced, our sun exists. Twelve o’clock.
Two minutes later, our planet is born. Metal and water and dust become a big rock that keeps swirling, turning, as it orbits the sun. It’s warmed, weakly, by light from the sun – our star shone dimly then, but shines brighter and brighter every day.
Our sun earns low interest – 0.9% each hundred million years, hotter, brighter. But wait long enough, and a low interest is enough.
Someday, shortly before it runs out of fuel, our sun will be blinding.
By 12:18 a.m., there is life on Earth. We’ve found fossils that many billions of years old.
And at 7:26 p.m., there will be no more life. Our sun will have become so bright that its blinding light evaporates all the oceans. The water will boil so hot that it will be flung into space. The Earth will be a rocky desert, coated perhaps in thick clouds of noxious gas.
Currently, it’s 10:58 a.m.
The dinosaurs appeared 35 minutes ago. 9.5 minutes ago, all of them died (except the ancestors of our birds).
Humans appeared 1 minute ago.
So, we have 3.5 billion years remaining – another 8.5 hours on our clock – before we have to migrate to the stars.
Humans certainly can’t persist forever. Empty space is stretching. Eventually, the whole universe will be dark and cold, which each speck of matter impossibly far from every other.
But our kind could endure for a good, long while. Scaled to the 24-hour day representing the lifespan of our sun, we still have another 300 years before the universe goes dark.
So many stories could fit into that span of time.
It’s 10:58 a.m., and life on Earth has until 7:26 p.m.
Humans crept down from trees, harnessed fire, invented writing, and built rockets all within a single minute. Life moves fast.
Quite likely, life from Earth will reach the stars.
But it needn’t be us.
The dinosaurs were cool. They didn’t make it.
We naked apes are pretty cool, too. I love our cave drawings, art museums, psychedelic street art. Our libraries. But we’ve also made prodigious mounds of trash. We’re pouring plumes of exhaust into the sky as we ship giant flatscreen televisions from place to place.
We burn a lot of fuel for the servers that host our websites.
We humans aren’t the first organisms to risk our own demise by pumping exhaust into the atmosphere. The industrial revolution was fueled by ancient plants – our engines burn old sunlight. But many microbes are happy to eat old sunlight, too. These microbes also pump carbon dioxide into the air. They’ve warmed our planet many times before – each time the permafrost thawed, microbes went to town, eating ancient carbon that had been locked up in the ice.
Foolish microbes. They made the Earth too hot and cooked themselves.
Then again, the microbes may have more modest goals than us humans. We’ve found no fossils suggesting that the microbes tried to build spaceships.
For our endeavors, we’ve benefited from a few thousand years of extremely stable, mild climate.
We still have 8.5 hours left to build some spaceships, but a thirty second hot squall at 10:59 a.m. would doom the entire project.
So much time stretches out in front of us. We could have a great day. We, in continuation of the minute of humans who preceded us, and continued by the seconds or minutes or hours of humans who will be born next.
We shouldn’t let our myopic focus on present growth fuck up the entire day.
Honestly? My children are four and six. I’d be so disappointed if I took them for a hike and they guzzled all their water, devoured all their snacks, within the first minute after we left our house.
Recently, a local science teacher sent me an essay written by a climate change skeptic.
Well, okay. I figured that I could skim the essay, look over the data, and briefly explain what the author’s errors were. After all, it’s really important to help teachers understand this topic, because they’re training our next generation of citizens.
And I thought to myself, how hard can this be? After all, I’m a scientist. I felt unconcerned that I’ve never read research papers about climate science before, and that it’s been years since I’ve worked through the sort of differential equations you need for even basic fluid mechanics calculations, and that I’ve never run any simulations on oceanic heat transfer or glacier melting.
Since then, I’ve read a fair bit about climate science. I’ll be honest: I didn’t go through the math. All I did was read the papers and look over the processed data.
This is lazy, I know. I’m sorry. But my kids are at home. At the moment, this is the best I’ve got.
Prominent climate change skeptic Richard Lindzen, an emeritus professor of meteorology, recently delivered a lecture to the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I wholeheartedly agreed with Lindzen when he stressed that the science behind climate change is really, really complicated.
Former senator and Secretary of State John F. Kerry is typical when he stated, with reference to greenhouse warming, ‘I know sometimes I can remember from when I was in high school and college, some aspects of chemistry or physics can be tough. But this is not tough. This is simple. Kids at the earliest age can understand this.’
As you have seen, the greenhouse effect is not all that simple. Only remarkably brilliant kids would understand it. Given Kerry’s subsequent description of climate and its underlying physics, it was clear that he was not up to the task.
Climate science is tricky. In a moment, I’ll try to explain why it’s so tricky.
When people make predictions about what’s going to happen if the average global temperature rises by half a degree – or one degree, or two – their predictions are probably incorrect.
My assumption that I could skim through somebody’s essay and breezily explain away the errors was incredibly arrogant. I was a fool, I tell you! A fool!
But my arrogance pales in comparison to the hubris of climate change skeptics. Once I started learning about climate science, I realized how maddeningly difficult it is.
Lindzen, who should know better, has instead made brash claims:
So there you have it. An implausible conjecture backed by false evidence and repeated incessantly has become politically correct ‘knowledge,’ and is used to promote the overturn of industrial civilization. What we will be leaving our grandchildren is not a planet damaged by industrial progress, but a record of unfathomable silliness as well as a landscape degraded by rusting wind farms and decaying solar panel arrays.
There is at least one positive aspect to the present situation. None of the proposed policies will have much impact on greenhouse gases. Thus we will continue to benefit from the one thing that can be clearly attributed to elevated carbon dioxide: namely, its effective role as a plant fertilizer, and reducer of the drought vulnerability of plants.
Meanwhile, the IPCC is claiming that we need to prevent another 0.5ºC of warming, although the 1ºC that has occurred so far has been accompanied by the greatest increase in human welfare in history.
So. What aspects of climate science can we understand, and what’s too hard?
Let’s start with the easy stuff. Our planet gets energy from the sun. The sun is a giant ball of thermonuclear fire, spewing electromagnetic radiation. When these photons reach Earth, they’re relatively high energy – with wavelengths mostly in the visible spectrum – and they’re all traveling in the same direction.
What we do – “we” here referring to all the inhabitants of our planet, including the rocks and plants and other animals and us – is absorb a small number of well-organized, high-energy photons, and then release a larger number of ill-organized, low-energy photons. This is favorable according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. We’re making chaos.
And here’s the greenhouse effect: if the high-energy photons from the sun can pass through our atmosphere, but then the low-energy photons that we release get absorbed, we (as a planet) will retain more of the sun’s energy. Our planet heats up.
And, in defense of former senator John Kerry, this is something that a kid can understand. My children are four and six, and this summer we’re going to build a solar oven out of a pane of glass and a cardboard box. (After all, we need stuff to do while all the camps are closed.)
If we fill our air with more carbon dioxide, which lets the sun’s high-energy photons in but then won’t let our low-energy photons out, the planet should heat up, right? What’s the hard part?
Well, the problem – the reason why climate science is too difficult for humans to predict, even with the most powerful computers at our command – is that there are many feedback loops involved.
Some of these are “negative feedback loops” – although atmospheric carbon dioxide causes us to absorb more energy from the sun, various mechanisms can buffer us from a rise in temperature. For example, warm air can hold more water vapor, leading to more cloud formation, which will reflect more sunlight back into space. If the sun’s high-energy photons can’t reach us, the warming stops.
And some are “positive feedback loops” – as we absorb extra energy from the sun, which causes the planet to heat up a little, various mechanisms can cause us to absorb even more energy in the future, and then the planet will heat up a lot. This may be what happened on Venus. The planet Venus may have been habitable, a long long time ago, but then runaway climate change led to the formation of a thick layer of smog, and now it’s broiling, with sulfuric acid drizzling from the sky.
On Earth, an example of a positive feedback loop would be the melting of polar ice caps. As polar ice melts, it reflects less light, so our planet absorbs more of the sun’s energy. Heat made the ice melt in the first place, but then, once the ice has melted, we heat up even more.
And it turns out that there are a huge number of different positive and negative feedback loops. After all, our planet is really big!
For instance, the essay I was sent included graphs of ice core data suggesting that, in the ancient past, changes in average global temperatures may have preceded changes in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
But this is just another feedback loop. In the past, there was no mechanism for carbon dioxide to pour into our atmosphere before temperatures rose – dinosaurs didn’t invent internal combustion engines. This is the first time on Earth when carbon dioxide levels could rise before temperatures, and we don’t know yet what the effect will be.
Extra carbon dioxide will probably cause an increase in temperature, but a planet’s climate is really complicated. We have huge quantities of poorly mixed water (otherwise known as oceans). Our topography is jagged, interspersed with valleys and mountains. There are huge forests (only some of which are on fire). The air is turbulent.
We might find that temperatures are buffered more than we thought. The ocean might act like a giant heat sink.
Or then again, the ocean might warm up, accelerate polar ice loss by lapping at the undersides of glaciers, and magnify the changes.
The mathematics underlying fluid mechanics and heat transfer within an enormous, inhomogeneous system are so complex that it’s almost impossible to say. Nobody knows how much detail you’d need to put into a simulation to get accurate results – all we know for sure is that we can’t simulate the world with as much detail as actually exists. All our models are approximations. Some of them contradict each other.
With my admittedly limited understanding, I don’t think anybody knows enough to assert with confidence whether our climate will exhibit either buffered or switch-like behavior. Maybe we can muck about without hurting much. Or we might bring about our own doom with a tiny mistake.
Our planet’s climate is so complex that you could make a similar argument – we really don’t know whether we’re going to be buffered from future changes, or whether we’re at the precipice of doom – no matter what evidence we obtain.
Maybe sea levels start rising – well, perhaps that will somehow reduce the further heating of our planet. Maybe we get more horrible tropical storms – well, perhaps they’re linked to a greater density of sunlight-reflecting clouds.
Maybe things seem to be changing fast for a little while, but then we enter another stable state.
Or, insidiously, maybe it will seem like we’re in a well-buffered system – pumping large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere without seeing much harm – until, suddenly, we tip over the edge. We often see that sort of behavior from positive feedback loops. Nothing seems to happen, for a while, then everything changes at once. That’s how cooperative binding of oxygen to hemoglobin works in your body.
Another problem is that climate change will probably happen on a very different rhythm from our lives. Weather happens on timescales that we can understand. A decade of droughts. Two years of tropical storms. A few hard winters, or hot summers. But climate happens over hundreds or thousands of years. Most of the time, it changes more slowly than we’d notice.
A two degree shift in average global temperatures, spread out over a few decades? That’s bad, but it’s boring. Which was the main focus of Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are the Weather.
History not only makes a good story in retrospect; good stories become history. With regard to the fate of our planet – which is also the fate of our species – that is a profound problem. As the marine biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson put it, “Climate is quite possibly the most boring subject the science world has ever had to present to the public.”
Climate science doesn’t fit our culture. Especially not now, when the pressures of surveillance capitalism have forced even the New York Times to run like an advertising company. They earn more from news that gets clicks. Stories need to be sensational. Yes, they run stories about climate change. For these, the polar bears need to be dying, now, and there needs to be an evil villain like Exon lurking in the shadows.
Nobody wants to click on a story explaining that we, collectively, have made and are making a whole lot of small shabby decisions that will cause grizzly bears and polar bears to re-mix and de-speciate.
I got bored even typing that sentence.
Life is incredibly robust.
Our planet has swung through many extremes of temperature. At times, it’s been much hotter than it is now. At times, it was much colder. And life has marched on.
The human species is much less robust than life itself, though. Our kind has flourished for only a brief twinkling of time, during which our climate has been quite stable and mild. A small change could drive us to extinction. An even smaller change could cause our nations to collapse.
Disrupt our food supply – which could happen with just a few years of bad weather, let alone climate change – and there will be war.
So. I tried to learn about climate change, focusing on the work of skeptics. And in the end, I partly agreed with the skeptics:
I agree that climate science is too complicated for anyone to understand.
I appreciate that people are trying. I had fun learning about ice cores, atmospheric modeling, energy absorption, and the like. Well, sometimes I was having fun. I also gave myself several headaches along the way. But also, my kids were being wild. They’ve been home from school for three months now! I was probably on the precipice of headaches before I even began.
Here’s where I disagree with the skeptics, though: given that climate science is too complicated for us to understand – and given that we know that small changes in average temperature can make the world a much worse place to live – why would be blithely continue to perturb our climate in an unprecedented way?
Maybe things will be fine. Yay buffers! Or maybe we’ll reduce the carrying capacity of the planet Earth from a few billion humans to a few million, dooming most of our kind.
I know, I know – eventually our universe will dwindle into heat death, so our species is terminal anyway. We will go extinct. It’s guaranteed.
I still think it would be neat if our great-great-grandchilden were out there among the stars. At least for a little while.
Or even, if they stay here on Earth, it’s nice to imagine them living on a comfortable planet with lots of beautiful trees, and interesting animals to see.
Also, I’m biased.
After all, what are the things that you’re supposed to do if you want to reduce your carbon emissions?
Eat fewer animal products. Live in a smaller home. Drive less. Fly less. Buy less stuff.
Those are all things that I’d recommend to most Americans, for ethical and philosophical reasons, even if we weren’t concerned about climate change. So for me, personally, I don’t need to see much proof that we’ll ruin our climate unless we do these things. I think we should be doing them anyway.
Instead, I think the burden of proof should fall to the people hawking Big Macs. I’d want them to show that a world full of CAFO-raised cows won’t cause climate change, won’t propagate antibiotic resistant bacteria, won’t condemn billions of conscious beings to a torturous existence.
I should preface these remarks by stating that my political views qualify as “extremely liberal” in the United States.
I’m a well-trained economist – I completed all but the residency requirement for a masters at Northwestern – but I don’t give two shits about the “damage we’re doing to our economy,” except insofar as financial insecurity causes psychological harm to people in poverty. Our economy should be slower, to combat climate change and inequality.
One of my big fears during this epidemic is that our current president will accidentally do something correctly and bolster his chances of reelection. The damage that his first term has already caused to our environment and our judiciary will take generations to undo – imagine the harm he could cause with two.
And yet, in arguing that our response to the Covid-19 epidemic is misguided, I seem to be in agreement with our nation’s far right.
As far as I can tell, the far right opposes the shutdown because they’re motivated by philosophies that increase inequality. Many of them adore Ayn Rand’s “Who will stop me?” breed of capitalism, as though they should be free to go outside and cough on whomever they want. They dislike the shutdown because they think our lives are less important than the stock market.
By way of contrast, I care about fairness. I care about the well-being of children. I care about our species’ future on this planet. It’s fine by me if the stock market tanks! But I’ve written previously about the lack of scientific justification for this shutdown, and I’m worried that this shutdown is, in and of itself, an unfair response.
Quarantine could have prevented this epidemic from spreading. If we had acted in December, this coronavirus could have been contained. But we did nothing until several months after the Covid-19 epidemic began in the United States.
Then schools were closed: first for two weeks, then a month, then the entire year.
Stay-at-home orders were issued: first for two weeks, then extended to a month. No data supports the efficacy of these orders – haphazard, partial attempts at social distancing, from which certain people, like my buddy doing construction for a new Amazon facility, have been exempted. And no metrics were announced that might trigger an end to the shutdown.
Currently, the stay-at-home orders last until the end of April. But, as we approach that date, what do people expect will be different? In the United States, we still can’t conduct enough PCR tests – and even these tests yield sketchy data, because they might have false negative rates as high as 30%, and they’re only effective during the brief window of time — perhaps as short as one week — before a healthy patient clears the virus and becomes invisible to testing.
Based on research with other coronaviruses, we expect that people will be immune to reinfection for about a year, but we don’t know how many will have detectable levels of antibody in their blood. As of this writing, there’s still no serum test.
The Italian government is considering the dystopian policy of drawing people’s blood to determine if they’ll be eligible for a permit to leave their homes. If you were worried about the injustice that the virus itself imposed on people who are elderly or immunocompromised, this is worse!
We know, clearly, that the shutdown has been causing grievous harm. Domestic violence is on the rise. This is particularly horrible for women and children in poverty, trapped in close quarters with abusers. The shutdown is creating conditions that increase the risk of drug addiction, suicide, and the murder of intimate partners.
We don’t know whether the shutdown is even helping us stop the Covid-19 epidemic. And we still don’t know whether Covid-19 is scary enough to merit this response. As of this writing, our data suggest that it isn’t.
Covid-19 is a rare breed, though: a communicable disease where increased wealth correlates with increased risk.
And so we’re taking extreme measures to benefit the most privileged generation to ever walk the face of this Earth, at the cost of great harm to vulnerable populations. This is why I feel dismayed.
Hopefully I can present some numbers simply enough to explain.
Many diseases are more likely to kill you if you’re poor.
Malaria kills between 400,000 and one million people every year. The vast majority are extremely poor, and many are children – the World Health Organization estimates that a child dies of malaria every thirty seconds.
Wealth protects against malaria in two ways. Wealthy people are less likely to live in parts of the world with a high prevalence of malaria (most of the deaths each year occur in Africa and India), and wealthy people can buy effective anti-malarial medications.
I took prophylactic Malarone when I visited Ecuador and India. Lo and behold, I did not get sick.
I believe Malarone costs about a dollar per day. I am very privileged.
HIV kills between 700,000 and one million people every year. Again, the vast majority are poor. HIV is primarily transmitted through intimate contact – exposure to blood, needle sharing, or sex – so this virus rarely spreads across social boundaries in stratified communities.
In the United States, HIV risk is concentrated among people living in our dying small towns, people without homes in inner cities, and people trapped inside the criminal justice system.
It seems that these people are all easy to ignore.
Wealth will protect you even if you do contract HIV. We’ve developed effective anti-retroviral therapies. If you (or your government) can pay for these pills, you can still have a long, full life while HIV positive. About 60% of the people dying of HIV happen to have been born in Africa, though, and cannot afford anti-retrovirals.
The second-highest cause of death among people in low-income countries is diarrhea. Diarrhea kills between one million and two million people each year, including about 500,000 children under five years old.
These deaths would be easy to treat and even easier to prevent.
Seriously, you can save these people’s lives with Gatorade! (Among medical doctors, this is known as “oral rehydration therapy.”) Or you could prevent them from getting sick in the first place by providing clean water to drink.
We could provide clean water to everyone – worldwide, every single person – for somewhere between ten billion and one hundred billion dollars. Which might sound like a lot of money, but that is only one percent of the amount we’re spending on the Covid-19 stimulus bill in the United States.
We could do it. We could save those millions of lives. But we’re choosing to let those people die.
Because, you see, wealthy people rarely die of diarrhea. Clean water is piped straight into our homes. And if we do get sick – I have, when I’ve traveled – we can afford a few bottles of Gatorade.
Instead, wealthy people die of heart disease. Stroke. Alzheimer’s. Cancer.
If you’re lucky enough to live past retirement age, your body will undergo immunosenescence. This is unfortunate but unavoidable. In old age, our immune systems stop protecting us from disease.
Age-related immunosenescence explains the high prevalence of cancer among elderly people. All of our bodies develop cancerous cells all the time. Usually, our immune systems kill these mutants before they have the chance to grow into tumors.
Age-related immunosenescence also explains why elderly people die from the adenoviruses and coronaviruses that cause common colds in children and pre-retirement-age adults. Somebody with a functional immune system will get the sniffles, but if these viruses are set loose in a nursing home, they can cause systemic organ failure and death.
I haven’t seen this data presented yet – due to HIPAA protections, it can’t easily be collected – but Covid-19, on average, seems to kill wealthier people than influenza.
But on a population level, wealth is correlated with increased risk.
Part of this wealth gap is due to age. Currently we don’t have enough data to know exactly where the risk curves for seasonal influenza and Covid-19 intersect, but it seems to be around retirement age. If you’re younger than retirement age, seasonal influenza is more deadly. If you’re older than retirement age, Covid-19 is more deadly.
And in the United States, if you’re older than retirement age, you’re more likely to be wealthy.
Because these people were receiving expensive medical care, they were able to survive despite their other diseases. Imagine what would have happened if these people had chanced to be born in low-income countries: they would already be dead.
This is a tragedy: all over the world, millions of people die from preventable causes, just because they had the bad luck of being born in a low-income country rather than a rich one.
We don’t have data on this yet, but it’s likely that Covid-19 will have a much smaller impact in Africa than in Europe or the United States.
When my father was doing rounds in a hospital in Malawi, his students would sometimes say, “We admitted an elderly patient with …” And then my father would go into the room. The patient would be 50 years old.
Covid-19 is particularly dangerous for people in their 80s and 90s. Great privilege has allowed so many people in Europe and the United States to live until they reached these high-risk ages.
Our efforts to “flatten the curve,” in addition to increasing many people’s risk of death (from domestic violence, suicide, and the lifelong health repercussions of even a few months of sedentary living), will save relatively few lives, even among our country’s at-risk population.
The benefit of this shutdown is simply the difference between how many people would die if we did nothing, compared to how many people will die if we “flatten the curve.”
Assuming that our efforts to flatten the curve succeed – and neglecting all the other risks of this strategy – we’ll be able to provide ventilation to everyone. But there will still be a lot of deaths. The shutdown will not have helped those people. The shutdown is only beneficial for the small number who would be treated in one scenario, would not be treated in another, and who actually benefit from the treatment.
Their lives matter, too. Many of us have a friend or relative whose life was cut short by this. But something that we have to accept is that we all die. Our world would be horrible if people could live forever. Due to immunosenescence, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep people alive after they reach their late 70s and 80s.
And the priorities of elderly people are different from mine. I care deeply about the well-being of children and our planet’s future. That’s why I write a column for our local newspaper discussing ways to ameliorate our personal contribution to climate change. That’s why my family lives the way we do.
These priorities may be quite different from what’s in the short-term best interests of an 80-year-old.
Schools are closed. Children are suffering. Domestic violence is on the rise. All to protect people who have experienced such exceptional privilege that they are now at high risk of dying from Covid-19.
Our national response to Covid-19 is being directed by a 79-year-old doctor. I haven’t gotten to vote in the presidential primary yet, but if I get to vote at all, I’ll be allowed to choose whomever I prefer from a selection of a 77-year-old white man or a 78-year-old white man. Then comes the presidential election, where there’ll be an additional 73-year-old white man to choose from.
It makes me wonder, what would our national response be like if we were facing a crisis as risky as Covid-19, but where elderly people were safe and children were most at risk?
And then I stop wondering. Because we are facing a crisis like that.
I have yet to master the art of pillow talk. The other night, after my spouse and I turned off our bedside reading lights — at a time when a more reasonable soul might murmur a sultry something or whisper sweet dreams — I said:
“The Golden Record was a terrible idea!”
Apropos of nothing! Seriously, what is wrong with my brain?
Luckily, instead of sighing, or pretending to be asleep (as a normal person might have done), my spouse continued the conversation.
“What, Carl Sagan’s?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s terrible.”
“Well, nobody’s going to find it, but that’s not really the point.”
My spouse was alluding to the fact that our universe is really, really big. We launched the Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1972, and it has traveled something like 13 billion miles since then.
13 billion miles sounds pretty impressive! But miles are not very practical units for describing outer space. 13 billion miles is the same distance as 0.002 light years. Our galaxy is a flat disc of stars, approximately 1,000 light years thick and 100,000 light years across. Compared to those distances, the Golden Record may as well still be here on Earth.
And it’s not as though finding the Golden Record would be the easiest way for an extraterrestrial intelligence to learn of our existence. The Golden Record is traveling slowly and is trapped inside a small spacecraft. Our television and radio broadcasts move much faster, and they’ve been radiating in a ever-growing sphere for decades.
Still, I argued.
“They probably won’t find it, but isn’t it a bad idea to send a message that you are hoping won’t be found? Either no one sees it, and so it’s a waste, or else they do find it, and that’s worse, because then we’re doomed … “
“Right? I mean, maybe it’s silly to extrapolate from human history to predict what an alien species might do. But in human history … in prehistory, even … it seems like every time a voyaging people found a stationary culture, it ended in disaster for the people who weren’t traveling.”
“Homo sapiens traveled north and found the Neanderthal. The Neanderthal died. We traveled east and found the Denisovians. Denisovians died. Chinese people displaced the native Taiwanese, Europeans wrecked havoc all through North and South America.”
Given that it was bedtime, and all our lights were off, I definitely shouldn’t have been raising my voice.
“About the only example I can think of where the voyagers were eventually driven away was the Vikings in Greenland. Inuits lived there before, during, and after some twenty generations of Viking occupation. But, really, the Inuits won through luck. The Vikings pretty much refused to eat fish. Hmm, we’re big strong Vikings, we eat sheep! Well, Greenland’s not for grazing, so the sheep all died, and then the Vikings starved. Not that they had to. They could’ve switched to eating fish, just like their neighbors. But they were too proud. And then dead.”
My bedtime tirade wasn’t an accurate description of the Inuit diet – a lot of their calories came from seals and whales, which are generally considered less palatable than fish, and also rather more difficult to catch.
In recent years, some archaeologists have begun to argue that it wasn’t the Vikings’ fault that they all died. I’m sure it’s sheer coincidence that many of these contemporary Viking apologists are of vaguely Norse descent. Their theory is the Greenland Vikings had a stable civilization but were doomed by climate change. A huge volcano erupted half the world away — the whole planet cooled. Life was miserable for everyone. Greenland’s Vikings were abandoned by the mainland, which meant they lost their major trading partner.
These archaeologists claim that small farmers switched their diet early on, and that only the wealthiest of Greenland’s Vikings continued to raise cows and sheep until the end.
In any case, the Vikings died. Their conquest failed. But other times, voyagers brought devastation to stationary cultures.
The movie Independence Day had it wrong. The encounter wouldn’t have ended with Homo sapiens celebrating. If an extraterrestrial species was so technologically advanced that they could reach our planet, they would simply extract whatever resources they needed before moving along to harvest yet another insufficiently advanced world.
We should expect extraterrestrials to show the same forbearance toward us that a chimpanzee shows toward ants – chimpanzees are more clever than ants, and chimps use sticks to dig up anthills for food. Homo sapiens are more clever than chimpanzees, and we’ve harried chimps to extinction, cutting down their forests because we wanted wood.
An extraterrestrial species that was able to travel to our planet within a single individual’s lifetime would be more clever than us, and if they needed to extract something from our world, we’d be powerless to stop them.
“But the Golden Record was never really about aliens,” my spouse said. “It was about us. Whether we would change, if we knew we might have guests.”
That makes sense – given that my spouse and I are always exhausted, our home fluctuates between live-ably messy and an absolute disaster depending on how long it’s been since we’ve had grown-up friends over.
“If the goal is togetherness, though,” I said, “aren’t there better ways? Especially since a lot of people don’t even know about the Golden Record.”
“I still teach about it!”
“Yeah, but I mentioned the Golden Record in jail, and nobody knew what I was talking about. And, even then, is that the best we can do? The tiny chance of visitors sometime in the next few billion years? I mean, shouldn’t we be working on climate change, a global wealth tax, guaranteed basic income, wealth transfers to preserve natural wonders like the Serengeti or the Amazon Rain Forest?”
“Sure, I like having the Rain Forest.”
“So we should pay for it! But, right, I think those plans would do more than launching a recording of laughter. And none of those plans has the risk that we’d lure the cause of our own extinction.”
My spouse sighed. “Don’t we have a rule about not talking about human extinction at bedtime?”
“Do we? I thought it was just that I couldn’t talk about thermodynamic heat death of the universe.”
“No, it was more than that. No collapse of civilization as we know it, no heat death, nothing about the lifespan of our star. Not right when I’m trying to fall asleep.”
“It’s okay. I still love you. I just wish you hadn’t said all that at bedtime.”
“Well, I wish they hadn’t launched the Golden Record.”
It’s true that the risk is low. But why risk the Earth’s destruction at all when there are better plans available?
That’s what I was thinking while I fell asleep. As it happens, I wound up answering my own question. One virtue of the Golden Record is that it invites us to imagine Earth being destroyed – marauding aliens could learn our address and then come to stamp us out.
That’s a sad thought. So perhaps we should do what we can to protect the Earth. And not just from those unlikely marauders – maybe we should protect Earth from ourselves.
Otherwise we, as an entire species, will seem far more foolish than Greenland’s Vikings. Hmm, we’re big strong Americans, we eat sheep! We fly airplane, we buy new big screen TV, we stream video from satellite!
What can you say about a people who refuse to change their culture in the face of absolute calamity?
This is a riff on an essay from several years ago.
In 1974, evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander gave a lecture describing the conditions that might spawn eusocial vertebrates.
Alexander was a bug guy – “eusocial” refers to extremely cooperative animals like bees, ants, and termites. Individuals sacrifice themselves for others. Non-breeders help with childcare. The colony seems more intelligent than its members.
Alexander proposed that a eusocial mammal could evolve if the animals were small compared to their food sources, and if they lived in underground burrows that could be expanded easily and defended by a small percentage of the colony.
After the lecture, an audience member mentioned that this “hypothetical eusocial mammal” sounded a lot like the naked mole-rat. Alexander was introduced to Jennifer Jarvis, who had studied individual naked mole-rats but not their social lives. Alexander and Jarvis collaborated to write The Biology of the Naked Mole-Rat.
Eliot Weinberger condensed this 500-page textbook into his 3-page essay, “Naked Mole-Rats.”
Like us, naked mole-rats are both good and bad. They are cooperative. They are affectionate. They are always touching. When they meet strangers, they fight to the death. When a breeding female dies, many other females regain fertility and the colony erupts into civil war.
Weinberger wrote that naked mole-rats “are continually cruel in small ways.” But they are outdone by naked apes.
For a research paper published in 2008, Thomas Park and colleagues found that being pinched by tweezers causes naked mole-rats pain, but injection with caustic acid does not.
“We tested naked mole-rats in standard behavioral models of acute pain including tests for mechanical, thermal, and chemical pain. We found that after noxious pinch or heat, the mole-rats responded similarly to mice.”
“In contrast to the results using mechanical and thermal stimuli, there was a striking difference in responses to strong chemical irritants. Two chemicals were used – capsaicin from hot peppers and hydrochloric acid – which normally evoke very intense pain in humans and other animals. Injection of either rapidly evoked intense licking and guarding behaviors in mice.”
“In contrast, naked mole-rats showed virtually no response.”
Perhaps you worry that acid-resistant naked mole-rats could conquer the world. Fear not. A form of kryptonite exists. Injection of an 11-amino-acid signaling peptide allows acid to hurt naked mole-rats just as much as it hurts mice. Or us.
Half a dozen animals were subjected to each treatment.
Naked mole-rats don’t die from cancer.
They should. Their cells, like ours, are copied from copies of copies. Errors compound.
Some errors are particularly deadly. Our cells are supposed to stop growing when they touch. They are supposed to commit suicide when old. But the instructions telling a cell when and how to kill itself can be lost, just like any other information.
This is cancer.
In cancer, a single cell proliferates at the expense of others. A cancer cell claims more than its fair share of space. It commandeers nutrients. This cell, and its progeny, and its progeny’s progeny, will flourish.
Then the scaffolding creature dies. Then the cancer cells die, too.
But every cell that isn’t an egg or sperm is terminal anyway. In the colony of our body, most cells are non-breeding members. From a cancer cell’s perspective, it has nothing to lose.
We develop cancer often. With each passing day, we produce about 100 billion new cells. Each time we produce a new cell, all 3 billion letters of our genome must be copied.
The enzymes that copy our genome make one mistake every billion letters. Each cell division: three new mutations. Each day: three hundred billion new mutations.
Some mutants are trouble.
Our bodies kill cancer. Your immune system – the same mess of mucous, inflammation, and goo that goes haywire during the flu – seeks and destroys renegade cells. Your body is a fascist enterprise; white blood cells, its militarized police.
Chemotherapy does not kill cancer. Chemotherapy means flooding the body with poisons that stop all cells from reproducing. With luck, if the spread of cancer is slowed, your immune system can kill it before it kills you.
In naked mole-rats, cancers always grow as slowly as if the rodents were receiving chemo, allowing their immune systems to squelch cancers at a leisurely pace. Their cancers are slowed by a heavy sugar called “hyaluronan,” which is packed so tightly into the space between cells that there is no room to grow.
In 2013, biologist Xiao Tian and colleagues wrote that “naked mole-rats may have evolved a higher concentration of hyaluronan to provide the skin elasticity needed for life in underground tunnels. This trait may have then been co-opted to provide cancer resistance and longevity.”
They became impervious to cancer almost by mistake.
The record lifespan for a naked mole-rat in captivity is 28 years, 4 months. The record-holder was nicknamed James Bond. He was senior consort to his queen and continued rutting – and siring pups – up until the day he died.
Bond was dissected. His cells showed extensive oxidative damage in their lipids, proteins, and DNA. Bond should have been hobbled by age. But time did not slow him down.
Science writer David Stipp described him as “a little buck-toothed burrower who ages like a demigod.”
Humans typically cease breeding long before we die. From an evolutionary perspective, as soon as we stop having children, our fitness drops to zero.
And yet, we have long lifespans. The dominant theory is an offshoot of “the grandmother hypothesis” – because we often care for grandchildren, there may have been evolutionary pressure to maintain good health until our grandchildren also reach reproductive age.
With twenty-year generations, there’d be an incentive to survive until our sixties.
After that, perhaps our ancestors were no longer helpful. And so we’ve inherited a propensity to decay. Expensive medical interventions can preserve us longer, but once we pass our natural lifespans, brains and bodies weaken.
When scientists starve animals in the lab, it’s called “caloric restriction.” This protocol extends lifespan in a wide variety of species. Monkeys, mice, flies, and worms. Ten-fold increases in lifespan have been observed.
Caloric restriction should extend the lives of humans, too.
There are unpleasant side effects. Caloric-restricted mice spend their time staring at empty food bowls. They are listless: barely moving, barely sleeping. They live longer, but worse – and if they are fed slightly less, they die of malnutrition.
Frequent starvation in the wild may have caused naked mole-rats to evolve their prodigious longevity.
Naked mole-rats expand their colonies outward, searching for edible roots. When they find a good root, they gnaw it carefully, attempting to keep the plant alive as long as possible. But a colony of naked mole-rats eats faster than any plant can grow. When the plant dies, the colony plunges into famine.
Most eusocial animals carefully ventilate their homes. Termites build giant pylons in the desert. Although temperatures outside careen from 35 degrees at night to over 100 during the day, the interior of the mound remains a constant 87 degrees. And the termites do not asphyxiate. Their exhalations are swept away by circulating air.
Naked mole-rats burrow with less care. They sleep in piles, hundreds of bodies lumped together underground. Those near the center soon run out of oxygen.
We would die.
Most animals, deprived of oxygen, can’t fuel their brains. Thoughts are expensive. Even at rest, our brains demand a constant influx of energy or else the neurons “depolarize” – we fall apart.
Since the death penalty was reintroduced in the United States in 1976, we have killed eleven prisoners in gas chambers. During the 1983 execution of Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi, officials cleared the observation room after eight minutes. Gray was still alive, gasping for breath. His attorney said, “Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while reporters counted his moans.”
Gas chambers are pumped full of cyanide gas, carbon monoxide, or carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is cheapest.
With each breath, we inhale oxygen, burn sugar, and exhale carbon dioxide. When we drive, our cars intake oxygen, burn gasoline, and exhaust carbon dioxide.
In small amounts, carbon dioxide is beneficial. Carbon dioxide allows plants to grow. But when you put too much inside a chamber, somebody dies. Put too much in the air worldwide and we all die.
The planet Venus was habitable, once. Humans could have lived there. Venus had a deep ocean and mild weather.
Through some fluke, Venus experienced a temporary bump in the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Carbon dioxide traps heat, which caused water to evaporate. Clouds formed, which trapped more heat. The cycle continued.
Venus is now a fiery inferno. The ground is bare rock. Sulfuric acid rains from the sky.
Lab mice die in gas chambers. Sometimes one mouse is set inside the plexiglass box; sometimes several mice inside a Chinese-food takeout container are gassed together. A valve for carbon dioxide is opened; the mice lose consciousness; they shit; they die.
A naked mole-rat would live. Unless a very determined researcher left the gas flowing for half an hour. Or so found Thomas Park and colleagues – the same team that discovered that naked mole-rats dislike being pinched. As they reported in 2017:
Human brains drink sugar. We are like hummingbirds that way. And our brains are very fussy eaters. We are fueled exclusively by glucose.
Naked mole-rats are less particular. Their minds slurp fructose to keep from dying.
Naked mole-rats are the most cooperative of mammals. They are resistant to cancer. Unperturbed by acid. They age with the libidinous gracelessness of Hugh Hefner.
They are able to withstand the horrors of a gas chamber.
And yet, for all these talents, naked mole-rats are easily tormented by human scientists.
The choices we’re making might cause everyone to die.
kind of sad. I like being alive, and I
like the thought that other humans might be alive even after I am gone.
Some people – the original Millennials, for instance – prefer to imagine that the world would end when their world ends. But for those of us who feel that helping others adds to the meaning of our lives, it’s more satisfying to imagine humanity’s continued existence. Each good deed is like a wave, rippling outward, causing people to be a little kinder to others in turn.
These waves of kindness can’t last forever – our universe began with a finite quantity of order, which we use up in order to live – but they could persist for a very long time. Humans could have many billions of years with which to colonize the stars.
Unless we go extinct sooner. Which we might. We’re destabilizing the climate of the only habitable planet we know.
Venus used to be habitable. We humans could’ve flown there and set up a colony. But a blip of excess greenhouse gas triggered runaway climate change. Now Venus has no liquid water. Instead, the planet is covered in thick smog. Sulfuric acid rains from the sky.
rather we not doom Earth to the same fate.
There are things you can do to help. In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer lists the (abundant!) evidence that animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change.
should still turn off the lights when you leave a room. If you can walk to the park instead of
driving, do it! Every effort you make to
waste less energy is worthwhile!
But it helps to take stock of the numbers. If everyone with a conventional automobile could suddenly exchange it for a hybrid vehicle, we’d still be emitting 96% as much greenhouse gas. If everyone decided to eliminate animal products from their diet, we’d be emitting 50% as much.
to hybrid vehicles wouldn’t save us.
Deciding to eat plant-based foods would.
it’s hard to make this switch.
Not least because the peril we’ve placed ourselves in doesn’t feel
compelling. It’s like the difference
between venus flytraps and pitcher plants.
With a venus flytrap, you can see the exact moment that a bug is
doomed. Those spikey mandibles close and
that’s the end! When a bug lands on a
pitcher plant, though, its fate is sealed well before the moment when it
finally topples into the digestive water.
The lip of a pitcher plant is sloped and slippery; the actual boundary
between life and death is unnoticeable.
climate change will be exacerbated by so many feedback loops, by the time we
see the precipice it’ll be too late.
In Foer’s words,
The chief threat to human life – the overlapping emergencies of ever-stronger superstorms and rising seas, more severe droughts and declining water supplies, increasingly large ocean dead zones, massive noxious-insect outbreaks, and the daily disappearance of forests and species – is, for most people, not a good story.
planetary crisis matters to us at all, it has the quality of a war being fought
over there. We are aware of the
existential stakes and the urgency, but even when we know that a war for our
survival is raging, we don’t feel immersed in it. That distance between awareness and feeling
can make it very difficult for even thoughtful and politically engaged people –
people who want to act – to act.
not only makes a good story in retrospect; good stories become
history. With regard to the fate of our
planet – which is also the fate of our species – that is a profound
problem. As the marine biologist and
filmmaker Randy Olson put it, “Climate is quite possibly the most boring
subject the science world has ever had to present to the public.”
that Foer tries to wring empathy from this dull story. He writes about his personal struggles to be
good. If it were necessary to blow hot
air from a hairdryer into a small child’s face each time we bought a
cheeseburger, few people would buy them.
But it’s more difficult to restrain ourselves when we instead know
vaguely – rationally, unemotionally – that each cheeseburger we buy will
exacerbate the hot air – and floods, and droughts, and malaria – that children
will one day have to bear.
brains are good at understanding cause and effect when they are closely linked in
time and space. Push a button, hear a
sound! Even babies understand how to
work a toy piano. Even my ill behaved
dogs know better than to misbehave in front of me (chew the pillow, get shut in
My dogs struggle when an effect comes long after the initial cause. Furtively chew a pillow, get shut in bathroom several days later, once the human finally discovers evidence? That’s not compelling for my dogs. The punishment is too long delayed to dissuade them from mastication.
Buy a cheeseburger today – make our children’s children’s children go hungry from global crop failure. That’s not compelling. Our brains can’t easily process that story.
understand it, but we can’t feel it.
that’s the message of Foer’s book. How
can we – collaboratively – create a world in which it’s easy to do the right
thing? How can we make cheeseburgers feel
An intellectual understanding – cheeseburgers requires farms with cows, cows emit methane, cows take space, farmers destroy forests to make space, cheeseburgers cause climate change – isn’t enough to create that feeling. Climate change is too dull a story.
worse, climate change isn’t even the most boring story to tell about our
extinction. In We Are the Weather
– an entire book in which Foer castigates himself for contributing to harms
that will befall his descendants some 100 to 200 years in the future (because
that’s when climate change will get really bad) – Foer doesn’t even
mention that he’s also causing harms that will befall his descendants 30 to 60
years in the future.
change is dull. Antibiotic resistance is
even more dull.
pretty bad when something is more boring than talking about the weather.
Most farmed animals are constantly given low doses of antibiotics. As it happens, this is exactly the protocol you’d use for a directed evolution experiment if you were trying to make antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
There’s an old story about a king, Mithridates, whose father was assassinated with poison. Mithridates trained his body with exposure to low doses of poison so that he would be able to survive higher doses.
It was a
clever strategy. We’re helping bacteria
do the same thing.
world will be nightmarishly different once antibiotics stop working. My own children are three and five years
old. They’ve gotten infections that we
needed to treat with antibiotics about a dozen times. Two weeks of taking the pink stuff and my
kids got better.
world with antibiotic resistant bacteria – which we are creating through
animal agriculture – any of those dozen infections could have killed my kids.
You should watch the New York Times video about antibiotic resistance. By 2050, it’s likely that more people will die from antibiotic resistant bacterial infections than from cancer.
Huge quantities of money are being spent to develop new anti-cancer drugs – new ways for elderly people to stave off time. Meanwhile, it’s not just that we spend so little developing antibiotics. We are actively making these drugs worse.
resistance isn’t a compelling story, though.
To feel a connection between a cheeseburger and your someday
grandkid dying in bed, feverish and septic, you’d have to understand the
biochemistry of lateral gene transfer, DNA replication, mutation, drug
metabolism. You’d need to be able to see
in your mind’s eye the conditions that farmed animals are raised in.
honestly? People who can vividly picture
a concentrated animal feeding operation or slaughterhouse probably aren’t the
ones buying cheeseburgers.
But if the world doesn’t change, their grandkids will die too.
assume that you, personally, have never clear-cut and burned a patch of the
Amazon rain forest. Neither have I. The number of people who have done the actual
cutting is vanishingly small compared to the world’s population.
I also assume that you enjoy living in a world where the Amazon rain forest exists — certainly more than you’d enjoy living in a world where it had all been slashed and burned. If we lose the Amazon rain forest, climate change might spiral out of control, flooding coastal cities worldwide and causing desertification in much of the interior United States. If we lose the Amazon rain forest, huge numbers of species will go extinct, including a wide variety of medicinal plants that we’ve only begun to investigate.
the rain forest is beautiful. Future
generations would feel an ache of want – likely compounded with a mix of
jealousy and anger – if they saw photographs of the Amazon rain forest after it
I was in elementary school, my third grade class sponsored a patch of the
Amazon rain forest. In retrospect, I’m
not sure what this entailed. We raised
money and sent it off in an envelope. I
don’t remember whether we ever saw photographs of “our” forest, whether the
arrangement was supposedly akin to a rental or purchase of those trees.
have no idea who received our sponsorship money, but the general idea that
money should be sent from the U.S. to Brazil is actually correct. Many of the world’s problems would be easier
to address if we used a global wealth tax to fund a guaranteed basic income for
everyone. At the very least, if there
are natural resources that benefit all of humanity, then countries that are
currently wealthy because they ravaged their environments should pay to encourage
other nations not to accrue wealth through extractive industries.
Some people in Brazil would be wealthier if the Amazon rain forest were destroyed. Everyone in the world would suffer as a result. If we – everyone outside Brazil – would prefer that the rain forest not be destroyed, we should compensate Brazilians for the foregone short-term economic benefits.
you are fantastically wealthy, you personally will be unable to enact this
policy on your own. If I decided to
split my family’s entire annual income among the people of Brazil, each would
get 2% of a penny … and my family would be left with nothing.
guaranteed basic income is the right policy, but it’s not something that I can
accomplish as an individual.
In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses how each one of us can help preserve the Amazon rain forest today. We as a people should strive for political solutions to the world’s problems, but we as individuals shouldn’t make choices that exacerbate those very problems. It would seem hypocritical to lobby for fines against littering if we continued to blithely toss candy bar wrappers onto the ground.
describes how painful it feels to recognize this hypocrisy in himself. This sensation grows more intense as he
watches his children grow in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous.
what kind of father prioritizes feeling good over doing good?”
knows that he could choose to help. Each
day, he could act in a way that makes his children’s world safer.
is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that
parades as acceptance. Those of us who
know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the
anger. We should be terrified of
ourselves. We are the ones we have to
defy. … I am the person
endangering my children.”
if the meat or cheese you eat was not imported from Brazil, by choosing to eat
it, you are reinforcing the social norm that is causing the Amazon rain forest
to be destroyed.
Eating meat is pleasurable. A good cheese pizza can be divine. Humans evolved as omnivores, and the tastes of meat and cheese are particularly delicious. Choosing not to eat these foods would be a sacrifice.
Foer has tried to be a vegetarian for decades. He has previously written about the animal welfare arguments against eating meat; now he’s written about the environmental arguments. He knows that eating meat is immoral – the cow suffered to produce it, and Foer’s own children will suffer a worse climate as a consequence.
this knowledge isn’t enough. He still
surreptitiously buys cheeseburgers.
why hasn’t vegetarianism become any easier after thirty years? Why has it become harder? I crave meat more now than I have at any
point since I became a vegetarian.”
wishes that there were a social norm to eat only foods made from plants.
meat is pleasurable. Eating cheese is
heroin is pleasurable too. Driving a car
while drunk is pleasurable. Heck, even
cruising down the road while everybody else pulls aside for the ambulance
behind you would be pleasurable.
In our culture, there’s a social norm to pull aside for ambulances. Even though it would be more pleasurable to keep driving, most people don’t.
and cheeses are responsible for somewhere between 20% and 50% of all
(There’s a wide range in that estimate because, although it’s incontestable that it takes more land to produce meats and cheeses than it does to make equivalent foods from plants, it’s debatable what would be done with all that extra land if people changed their diets. If the extra space would be used to restore forests, then animal agriculture is responsible for 50% of climate change. If the extra space would be kept as grass – setting aside the curious question of why – then animal agriculture causes only 20% of climate change. Only 20%. By way of comparison, all the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes together cause less than 15% of climate change. You can look at the appendix to We Are the Weather for an explanation of these numbers, or even glance at Donald Trump’s EPA website for some pie charts with identical information.)
If every gasoline-powered car was replaced with a hybrid vehicle – instantly, world-wide – greenhouse gas emissions would be about 96% of what they are currently. If that was the only change we made, our planet would be toast.
we all followed a social norm to eat food made from plants, greenhouse gas
emissions could be 50% of what they are currently. With no other changes, humanity would
survive. Our planet would remain
habitable for our children, and our grandchildren.
matters. I’m an atheist, and I’m well
aware that the eventual heat death of the universe means humanity will
go extinct eventually. I don’t believe
you can make a viable philosophical argument for existence based on helpfulness
or social connections alone – your life needs to be pleasurable, too.
life can be pleasurable without meat or cheese.
I support responsible hedonism.
Good food is a joy, but you can eat well while making only choices that
protect our planet. Most people think
that sex is great fun, but we have a social norm that you should enjoy your
sexuality only with other consenting adults.
Groping a beautiful stranger might be more fun than eating cheese – in
our culture, a social norm restrains us.
wishes that we, as a people, could choose better. He’s been struggling to eat food made from
plants. But he doesn’t struggle to
restrain himself from murder, or theft, or groping his students. In those instances, our social norms make it
easy to do the right thing.
And you can still be a hedonist while eating plants! If you’re ever in Chicago, you should stop by my dear friend Auntie Ferret’s vegan deep-dish pizza restaurant, or use Happy Cow to find a decadent plant-based restaurant near you.