On the study of naked mole-rats.

On the study of naked mole-rats.

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.”

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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. 

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Featured image from Wikimedia Commons.

On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘We Are the Weather.’

On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘We Are the Weather.’

The choices we’re making might cause everyone to die.

That’s 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.

I would 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.

You 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.

Switching to hybrid vehicles wouldn’t save us.  Deciding to eat plant-based foods would.

Unfortunately, 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.

Because 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. 

When the 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.

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.”

I like 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.

Our 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 bathroom).

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.

We can understand it, but we can’t feel it.

And 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 bad?

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.

Even 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.

Even though these nearer term harms are equally calamitous.  Even though these nearer term harms are just as definitively known to be caused by cheeseburgers.

Climate change is dull.  Antibiotic resistance is even more dull.

It’s 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.

Our 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.

In a 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.

Click the image to head to the NYT movie — well worth it.

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.

Antibiotic 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.

And, 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.

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Featured image: Everglades National Park by B. Call.

On social norms.

On social norms.

I 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.

And 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 were gone.

When 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. 

I 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.

Unless 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.

A 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.

Foer 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.

But what kind of father prioritizes feeling good over doing good?

Foer knows that he could choose to help.  Each day, he could act in a way that makes his children’s world safer.

He often doesn’t.

There 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.

As you read this, the Amazon rain forest is being destroyed.  Why?  To clear space for cows to graze.

Photo by Joelle Hernandez on Flickr, whose caption from this 2007 photograph reads, “On a few occasions Brazilians told me that ‘People thousands of miles away are contributing to our deforestation.'”

Even 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.

But this knowledge isn’t enough.  He still surreptitiously buys cheeseburgers.

So 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.

Foer wishes that there were a social norm to eat only foods made from plants. 

Eating meat is pleasurable.  Eating cheese is pleasurable. 

Injecting 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.

Meats and cheeses are responsible for somewhere between 20% and 50% of all climate-change-causing emissions. 

(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.)

The current administration has gutted the EPA, and compelled their staff scientists to restate their findings in the weakest ways possible … and these are the numbers still posted on their website.

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.

If 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.

Pleasure 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.

Your 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. 

Well, most of us.

Foer 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.

Deep dish pizza, mac and cheese, nachos and more — all vegan at Kitchen 17.

Feature image by Neil Palmer / CIFOR on Flickr.

On national borders and the disappearance of our universe’s only known habitable planet.

On national borders and the disappearance of our universe’s only known habitable planet.

When our eldest child was two years old, a friend of ours built a caterpillar home from some window screens we found in the dumpster.  Our neighbor gave us milkweed, and we raised some monarchs.

In recent decades, increased use of pesticides and the decreased abundance of milkweed along monarch migratory routes have caused butterfly populations to plummet.  And so many suburban homeowners began to cultivate milkweek in their yards.  Exceptionally dedicated butterfly conservationists began to raise caterpillars inside, keeping them safe from predation, and checking to make sure that the butterflies were free of parasitic protozoans before release.

The hope is that, with enough concerned citizens pitching in to help, monarch populations might rebound.  Within the span of a single lifetime, insect populations around the world have fallen precipitously, in many regions by 90% or more, a travesty described eloquently in Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm:

It had been the most powerful of all the manifestations of abundance, this blizzard of insects in the headlights of cars, this curious side effect of technology, this revelatory view of the natural world which was only made possible with the invention of the motor vehicle.  It was extraordinary; yet even more extraordinary was the fact that it had ceased to exist.  Its disappearance spoke unchallengeably of a completely unregarded but catastrophic crash in Britain of the invertebrate life which is at the basis of so much else. 

South Korea may have destroyed Saemangeum, and China may have destroyed its dolphin, but my own country has wrecked a destruction which is just as egregious; in my lifetime, in a process that began in the year I was born, in this great and merciless thinning, it has obliterated half its living things, even though the national consciousness does not register it yet. 

That has been my fate as a baby boomer: not just to belong to the most privileged generation which ever walked the earth, but, as we can at last see now, to have my life parallel the destruction of the wondrous abundance of nature that still persisted in my childhood, the abundance which sang like nothing else of the force and energy of life and could be witnessed in so many ways, but most strikingly of all in the astonishing summer night display in the headlight beams, which is no more.

Our kid loved watching the butterflies hatch.  Metamorphosis is an incredible process, especially for a little human undergoing her own transition out of a helpless pupal stage.  Ensuring that our yard is a safe stopover for the monarchs’ journey helps the species survive.

But the monarchs overwinter at a select few sites, such as the mountains of Michoacan.  This state has been ravaged by the drug war.  A huge percentage of the population is mired in poverty, which abets illegal foresting, including cutting down many of the evergreens that the visiting monarchs roost on.  Worse, a large mining company hopes to begin extraction in the butterflies’ overwintering site.  If this project is approved, the monarchs will die, no matter how much milkweed Midwestern homeowners plant in their backyards. 

The people of Michoacan should not be expected to cheerfully endure poverty so that others can look at butterflies.  A major argument in favor of a global wealth tax used to fund a guaranteed basic income is that it would alleviate some of the incentive to destroy our shared environment for private gains.

We all inhabit a single planet – as far as we’ve determined, the only habitable world in the known universe.  And, although our world is very large, we’ve learned recently that individual decisions can have a hugely destructive impact on us all.

In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells spends two hundred pages describing what life might be like for our children if we allow our planet to warm by two degrees. 

The emergent portrait of suffering is, I hope, horrifying.  It is also, entirely, elective.  If we allow global warming to proceed, and to punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will be because we have chosen that punishment – collectively walking down a path of suicide.  If we avert it, it will be because we have chosen to walk a different path, and endure.

After all, we know what’s happening.  We know why it’s happening.  And we know what we, as individuals, can do to help.  Even comic books published by DC Comics in the 1980s were offering kids advice on what to do:

The solution to our problems is obvious – but I am writing as a wealthy, well-loved, well-educated individual.  I own a home where milkweed can be planted.  My days are happy enough that I don’t feel the need to buy as much stuff as other people.

The world has treated me pretty well.

But why should somebody who has been treated like garbage feel compelled to pitch in? 

In Brazil, under-served people voted Jair Bolsonaro into the presidency.  Bolsonaro hopes to extract value from the country now, which means destroying the Amazon rain forest.  Which means – because this expanse of forest acts akin to a set of lungs for our whole planet – destroying the world.

An interesting comeuppance – as a citizen of the United States, usually it’s the autocratic decrees of my own president that send the world teetering toward destruction.  Indeed, even though 45 has less influence over our planet’s climate than Bolsonaro, he too has been promoting environmental devastation for the sake of extractive industries.

The economics of extraction are interesting.  Because the things we pull from the Earth are all limited resources, their value will presumably rise over time.  People who have money now, like citizens of the U.S., should choose to wait.  Even if we wanted to burn every last bit of the world’s oil and release all that carbon into the atmosphere, we in the U.S. would be better off waiting to pull up our own oil, buying it cheaply from other people now, and then selling ours at a massive profit later on once it’s more scarce.

Instead, oil companies have been operating under an addiction model.  They continue to increase production even when prices are low, as though fearful that an unsteady supply would lead people to kick the habit.  Their future revenue stream would dry up.

Renewable energy has been getting cheaper, so maybe they’re right.  In the meantime, global consumption has been rising every year, even though we know it’s killing us.  Both because our own homes will become less habitable, and because the world will descend into chaotic violence.  From Molly Crabapple’s “Where Else Can They Go,”

the world has come no closer to ensuring the rights of a human without a country.  Mostly, governments propose quarantine.  Internment camps grow in Tornillo, Texas, in Lesbos, in Zaatari, and in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.  It won’t work.  Each year, the world grows warmer.  The oceans rise.  Wars are fought for ever-scarcer resources.  If the wealthy West worries about one million Syrians, what will it do with millions of climate refugees?

Wealthy nations pillaged the world in the past.  Huge amounts of capital were accrued in the meantime, because human productivity was supercharged by the stored fuel of hundreds of thousands of years of extra energy, all that sunlight captured by ancient plants and compressed into oil.

And now, if other nations repeat that process, the world will be destroyed.

The solutions aren’t so hard to come by.  A global wealth tax.  Guaranteed basic income.  These would ameliorate a lot of the world’s problems.  But they require the people who are in power now to willingly accept less.  And the little voice whispering in our ears has quite a bit of practice chanting more.

More.  More.  MORE.

Header image by Marco Verch on Flickr.

On perspective.

On perspective.

In fantasy novels, trees walk upon their roots and battle with their limbs.  That makes sense to me.  If I think about two trees interacting, I consider the branches; the taller tree shades the other, limiting its competitor’s growth.

But my perspective is upside down.  Trees are standing on the sky, reaching for one another through the earth.  They listen underground.  They communicate down there, passing messages to one another, or even meals.

Picture from “The Wood Wide Web” on New Zealand Geographic.

Perhaps their branches grope for sunlight in the unconscious way that my kids’s feet seek warmth like homing missiles while they sleep.  I try to roll over only to find somebody’s toes wedged under my back.

Year by year, trees inch their feet toward the sun.  And their engaging social lives are hidden from me, buried underground.  My reflexive perspective gives me an inverted image of a tree’s world.

I’m surely not alone in this misunderstanding. 

We humans hold our heads high as we walk across the ground.  A major source of tension in human evolution was arranging our skeletons in such a way that we could walk upright without too many women dying in childbirth – our posture constrains the shape of the pelvis.

Although some species do exhibit dramatically different body morphs between males and females, it’s more common for evolutionary changes in one sex to diffusely alter the other.  Club-winged manakins have bones that are more dense than other birds, which makes them worse at flyingAll club-winged manakins fly poorly, male and female, even though only the males use their dense bones to produce mate-luring music.  Or consider the orgasms and nipples of Homo sapiens, which fulfill important biological purposes in one sex, and serve as a vestigial source of fun for the other.

In prehistoric times, men and women probably hunted together.  The evidence is especially compelling for human populations like the Neanderthal in southern Europe, who lived in such small groups that they would be unable to kill large prey without help from everyone in the group.  But even if prehistoric men had hunted alone, their upright stance and endurance running would have introduced an evolutionary pressure constricting the width of a human pelvis.

Our ancestors first descended from the trees to scavenge meat from lions’ kills.  Eventually, they began to hunt.  Their strategy was to exhaust and bewilder their prey, hoping to use the local geography to assist in each kill.  Mammoths were more likely to fall to their deaths than be slain by hurled spears; mounds of butchered bones accumulated at the base of particularly useful cliffs.

The high caloric density of cooked meat allowed our brains to expand … but the embrace of hunting also caused more women to die in childbirth.

And, less tragically, our upright posture distorts our understanding of the trees that once harbored our communities.  After all, we live in our heads.  It seemed sensible to us that the most interesting life of a tree would transpire in its loftiest branches.

Our biology doesn’t force us to view the world a certain way, but it dictates which perspectives are easiest to take.

Because our brains are story-generating organs, human cultures invariably see time as flowing uniformly in a single direction.  But for subatomic particles, time appears to be symmetrical; the Feynman diagram of an interaction would appear perfectly plausible progressing either forward or backward.

Only our universe’s progression toward greater entropy, i.e. randomness, seems to introduce a directionality for time’s arrow.  But there’s no a priori reason to expect a world to progress toward higher entropy.  This directionality seems to exist only because our particular universe happened to be in an unstable, low entropy state shortly after the Big Bang.

Image from ESA/Hubble.

Or so say most physicists.  From my perspective, I’m content assuming that the past is fixed but the future is mutable.  If I didn’t believe in that asymmetry – whether it’s real or not – I’d probably lapse into despair.

But, again, even if we accept that time is flowing, our perspective alters how we feel about that change.

Is the flow of time progress or decline?

Are a tree’s branches its hands or its feet?

In Indian mythology, time is cyclical, but within each cycle it flows toward corruption.  Time passes and the world grows worse.  Currently we are trapped within a Kali Age, the worst possible world, knowing that all the great heroes have passed.  We are just biding our time before the world can be destroyed and made good again.

After the sunder, time will once again cause that new world’s gleam to fade.  Nothing can stave off the encroach of rot.

In Judaism, the ancient sages lived longer than we do, and knew more, too.  At one point in time, a pair of humans were good: before long, we disobeyed the whims of God and were exiled from paradise.

In The Book of Shem, David Kishik writes that

To be original means to linger by the origin and insist on it.  The task is to avoid the progression toward a future or an end, and to stop the narrative before it develops any further.  In this sense, and in this sense only, the origin is a worthwhile goal.  Hence in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum), just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).

Many humans want to reclaim the imagined glories of the past.

To make America great again, perhaps.

I personally think that many recent technological developments in our world are bad.  We’ve designed distracting, addicting telephones, and we’re putting them into the hands of children.  Our brains evolved to be extremely plastic, which let our species adapt to a wide variety of circumstances … but this neural plasticity allows exposure to fabulous, drug-like devices to dramatically alter our brains, probably for the worse.

And we’ve designed distracting, addicting advertising platforms – these siphon huge amounts of money away from productive industries, and the perverse economic incentives we’ve constructed allow these companies, alongside equally-unhelpful investment banks, to lure many of the most clever college graduates to their ranks.

But I’m certainly no Luddite, pining for a purer past.  The world was a terrible place for so many people.  Although I appreciate the thesis that Yuval Noah Harari presents in Sapiens – that the invention of agriculture made people’s lives worse than when all humans were hunters and gatherers – I see those grim millennia as akin to the hump in a chemical reaction, a transition that must be traversed in order to reach the desired products.

For generations, most people scraped out a miserable existence by subsistence farming.  Their lives were worse than their ancestors’.  But we, now, can feed so many people so easily that we could make our world into a paradise.

We’re not doing it, but we could.

At least we’re making baby steps toward a society in which people aren’t punished for their genetic background, or gender, or religious beliefs.  I mean, even in the United States we still treat women shabbily; across the country, racist police departments beleaguer Black citizens; atheists and Muslims are eyed with distrust.

But it used to be worse.

And, sure, even if we were the best of stewards, our planet would eventually be doomed.  Even if we don’t exhaust the resources here on Earth, the sun will run out of energy and bloat to engulf our world in a ball of fire.  Maybe that’s fine.  Death is a part of my life; perhaps I should look upon extinction as a natural part of humanity’s journey through time.

But it’s so cool to image people someday spreading amongst the stars.  I dream about the future.  And hope against hope – despite overpopulation, climate change, and all – that my children will find a better world than the one I’ve been living in.

Image by D Mitriy.

From my perspective, time will let us make the world better. 

Although it surely won’t happen on its own.  We will have to work to make it better.  The work might not be that hard.  Just live the way you would if the world were already the place it ought to be.

On suboptimal optimization.

On suboptimal optimization.

I’ve been helping a friend learn the math behind optimization so that she can pass a graduation-requirement course in linear algebra. 

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool.  Biochemists love it – progression toward an energy minimum directs protein folding, among other physical phenomena.  Economists love it – whenever you’re trying to make money, you’re solving for a constrained maximum.  Philosophers love it – how can we provide the most happiness for a population?  Computer scientists love it – self-taught translation algorithms use this same methodology (I still believe that you could mostly replace Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations with this New York Times Magazine article on machine learning and a primer on principal component analysis).

But, even though optimization problems are useful, the math behind them can be tricky.  I’m skeptical that this mathematical technique is essential for everyone who wants a B.A. to grasp – my friend, for example, is a wonderful preschool teacher who hopes to finally finish a degree in child psychology.  She would have graduated two years ago except that she’s failed this math class three times.

I could understand if the university wanted her to take statistics, as that would help her understand psychology research papers … and the science underlying contemporary political debates … and value-added models for education … and more.  A basic understanding of statistics might make people better citizens.

Whereas … linear algebra?  This is a beautiful but counterintuitive field of mathematics.  If you’re interested in certain subjects – if you want to become a physicist, for example – you really should learn this math.  A deep understanding of linear algebra can enliven your study of quantum mechanics.

The summary of quantum mechanics: animation by Templaton.

Then again, Werner Heisenberg, who was a brilliant physicist, had a limited grasp on linear algebra.  He made huge contributions to our understanding of quantum mechanics, but his lack of mathematical expertise occasionally held him back.  He never quite understood the implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and he failed to provide Adolph Hitler with an atomic bomb.

In retrospect, maybe it’s good that Heisenberg didn’t know more linear algebra.

While I doubt that Heisenberg would have made a great preschool teacher, I don’t think that deficits in linear algebra were deterring him from that profession.  After each evening that I spend working with my friend, I do feel that she understands matrices a little better … but her ability to nurture children isn’t improving.

And yet.  Somebody in an office decided that all university students here need to pass this class.  I don’t think this rule optimizes the educational outcomes for their students, but perhaps they are maximizing something else, like the registration fees that can be extracted.

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool, but it’s easy to misuse.  Numbers will always do what they’re supposed to, but each such problem begins with a choice.  What exactly do you hope to optimize?

Choose the wrong thing and you’ll make the world worse.

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Figure 1 from Eykholt et al., 2018.

Most automobile companies are researching self-driving cars.  They’re the way of the future!  In a previous essay, I included links to studies showing that unremarkable-looking graffiti could confound self-driving cars … but the issue I want to discuss today is both more mundane and more perfidious.

After all, using graffiti to make a self-driving car interpret a stop sign as “Speed Limit 45” is a design flaw.  A car that accelerates instead of braking in that situation is not operating as intended.

But passenger-less self-driving cars that roam the city all day, intentionally creating as many traffic jams as possible?  That’s a feature.  That’s what self-driving cars are designed to do.

A machine designed to create traffic jams?

Despite my wariness about automation and algorithms run amok, I hadn’t considered this problem until I read Adam Millard-Ball’s recent research paper, “The Autonomous Vehicle Parking Problem.” Millard-Ball begins with a simple assumption: what if a self-driving car is designed to maximize utility for its owner?

This assumption seems reasonable.  After all, the AI piloting a self-driving car must include an explicit response to the trolley problem.  Should the car intentionally crash and kill its passenger in order to save the lives of a group of pedestrians?  This ethical quandary is notoriously tricky to answer … but a computer scientist designing a self-driving car will probably answer, “no.” 

Otherwise, the manufacturers won’t sell cars.  Would you ride in a vehicle that was programmed to sacrifice you?

Luckily, the AI will not have to make that sort of life and death decision often.  But here’s a question that will arise daily: if you commute in a self-driving car, what should the car do while you’re working?

If the car was designed to maximize public utility, perhaps it would spend those hours serving as a low-cost taxi.  If demand for transportation happened to be lower than the quantity of available, unoccupied self-driving cars, it might use its elaborate array of sensors to squeeze into as small a space as possible inside a parking garage.

But what if the car is designed to benefit its owner?

Perhaps the owner would still want for the car to work as a taxi, just as an extra source of income.  But some people – especially the people wealthy enough to afford to purchase the first wave of self-driving cars – don’t like the idea of strangers mucking around in their vehicles.  Some self-driving cars would spend those hours unoccupied.

But they won’t park.  In most cities, parking costs between $2 and $10 per hour, depending on whether it’s street or garage parking, whether you purchase a long-term contract, etc. 

The cost to just keep driving is generally going to be lower than $2 per hour.  Worse, this cost is a function of the car’s speed.  If the car is idling at a dead stop, it will use approximately 0.1 gallon per hour, costing 25 cents per hour at today’s prices.  If the car is traveling at 30 mph without breaks, it will use approximately 1 gallon per hour, costing $2.50 per hour.

To save money, the car wants to stay on the road … but it wants for traffic to be as close to a standstill as possible.

Luckily for the car, this is an easy optimization problem.  It can consult its onboard GPS to find nearby areas where traffic is slow, then drive over there.  As more and more self-driving cars converge on the same jammed streets, they’ll slow traffic more and more, allowing them to consume the workday with as little motion as possible.

Photo by walidhassanein on Flickr.

Pity the person sitting behind the wheel of an occupied car on those streets.  All the self-driving cars will be having a great time stuck in that traffic jam: we’re saving money!, they get to think.  Meanwhile the human is stuck swearing at empty shells, cursing a bevy of computer programmers who made their choices months or years ago.

And all those idling engines exhale carbon dioxide.  But it doesn’t cost money to pollute, because one political party’s worth of politicians willfully ignore the fact that capitalism, by philosophical design, requires we set prices for scarce resources … like clean air, or habitable planets.

On two degrees and the worst year (yet) to be alive.

On two degrees and the worst year (yet) to be alive.

The United States is pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we were last year.

The amount of heat-trapping gas in our atmosphere is already too high – ideally, our net emissions should be negative.  Which is entirely feasible.  When we cultivate forests, trees pull carbon from the air.  But each tree can do only so much.  We also need to reduce the amount of energy we consume.

We don’t need to be less happy, though.  As the economy improved, people began flying more … but many flights aren’t producing happiness.  Most people look harried and sullen in airports.  If we all switched to taking trains, the cultural expectations for the rhythm of our lives would shift – instead of short bursts of misery, our travels could be pleasant spells of intermediate time. 

And the giant server farms needed to run websites like Facebook gobble energy.  Facebook, just like any other advertising company, profits by making people less happy.  Many people would be happier in a world where these servers used less energy.

We have a compelling reason to change our behaviors.  If we don’t, the global climate will rise by two degrees Celsius or more.  (Of course, any individual location could become much warmer or colder – a nearby warm ocean current keeps Europe’s climate mild, but if melting polar ice redirects this current, countries like England could become quite frigid.)

How different might life be if global temperatures changed by two degrees?

In the year 536, global temperatures were about two degrees lower than they are today.  (Which does prove, obviously, that the global climate can change for reasons that are not humanity’s fault.  But the current changes are caused by us.)

Historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick believes that this two degree change in temperature made our planet an utterly miserable place to live. A volcanic eruption had darkened the sky, preventing incoming sunlight from warming Earth.  “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” says McCormick. Snow fell in summertime; crops failed; people starved.

And now we, in all our wisdom, are about to tug the needle just as far (if not farther!) in the other direction.

The Dark Ages were literally dark.  Ashen clouds lurked overhead.  Beset by such nightmarish conditions, people feared that God had forsaken them.  Europeans abandoned science and literacy partly as penance, hoping to appease the source of wrath that was killing them and their children.

Plants have evolved on Earth for many millions of years.  Many plant species will find a way to endure even if we change our planet’s climate.  But human food crops are quite young, in evolutionary terms, and exist in precarious swaths of monoculture. A two degree increase in global temperatures will cause these plants to die.  Famine will ensue.  Global violence and warfare will increase as hungry people fight to survive. 

A two degree change in temperature is totally sufficient to usher in a new worst year to be alive.

Sadly, nobody will be eating any Doritos made from these drought-scorched corn plants.

If we change the global climate by two degrees, there’s also no assurance that our planet won’t keep warming.  Weather is dictated by complex feedback loops that we don’t yet understand.  Our oceans soak up heat, which is changing their chemistry; warmer water takes up more space, flooding the coasts, and will melt the polar ice caps from underneath, which further accelerates warming because ice reflects sunlight, but bare ground or water absorbs it.

Venus may have been habitable, once. But climate change spiraled out of control after the atmosphere filled with too much heat-trapping carbon dioxide.  The oceans evaporated.  Now, searing sulfuric acid falls as rain from the sky.

If we tip over the precipice, every living creature on earth will be doomed.  No one understands enough about the feedback loops that dictate a planet’s climate to know how close to the precipice we are.

Although, really, a two degree change would be awful enough.

Which is worth reiterating … especially because the cohort of humans that has contributed most to climate change, and currently holds the wealth and political power needed to prevent catastrophe, is of an age that perhaps they want the world to be a little warmer.  Wealthy Americans in their fifties to seventies have long migrated south in pursuit of warmer climate.

The current generation of 50- to 70-year-olds was given the most of the Earth’s plenitude.  The world of their youth was very different from the world in which my children were born. While that generation was alive, insect populations plummeted by 90% or more.  The fecundity of other wildlife diminished in turn.  Forests were clearcut, and the environment – including the very air we breathe – was devastated to produce the world’s current wealth.

Perhaps some of the people in power now do want a warmer planet.  But it is not theirs.  As phrased by Wendell Berry,

the world is not given by [our parents], but borrowed from [our] children.”

We should feel horrifically embarrassed to return this world in worse condition than when we were lent it.

Featured image: Night Landscape with Ruined Monastery by Lluís Rigalt (1814 – 1894).