In the mid-1800s, Claude Bernard – the “father of experimental physiology” – began a series of experiments to create carnivorous rabbits.
Don’t worry: Bernard wasn’t cultivating predatory beasts like the angry rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. At first he was simply starving animals until their acidic urine indicated that they’d begun to consume their own flesh as fuel. Deprived of calories, any animal will metabolize its own muscle.
But Bernard went further. As he describes in An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (translated by Henry Copley Greene), Bernard felt that:
“A carnivorous rabbit had to be experimentally produced by feeding it with meat …”
“I had rabbits fed on cold boiled beef (which they eat very nicely when they are given nothing else). My expectation was again verified …”
“To complete my experiment, I made an autopsy on my animals, to see if meat was digested in the same way in rabbits as in carnivora. I found, in fact, all the phenomena of an excellent digestion in their intestinal reactions …”
This was a strange experiment. Claude Bernard did make a novel discovery, but I don’t think the gains were commensurate with the cost.
Bernard, however, was proud of his willingness to inflict pain for the sake of science. He had a reputation for live dissections of unanesthetized dogs; his spouse called him a monster, divorced him, and created France’s first animal welfare organization.
By all outward appearances, Bernard was unperturbed. He told his friends and colleagues that he’d only married that woman for her money, anyway, which he’d needed to build his first laboratory. By the time she left, she was of no further use to him. And he was disinterested in her “fashionable” morality.
In An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, Bernard writes that,
“A physiologist is not a man of fashion, he is a man of science, absorbed by the scientific idea which he pursues: he no longer hears the cry of animals, he no longer sees the blood that flows, he sees only his ideas and perceives only organisms concealing problems which he intends to solve.”
Claude Bernard tortured animals, disdained Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and loathed the introduction of statistics into biological research. Still, the conclusion of Bernard’s rabbit experiment is correct.
Herbivores can digest meat.
And this transition – an herbivore switching to a meat-based diet – is far more common than its opposite. Plants are much more difficult to eat!
Most species that we think of as herbivores will occasionally eat meat. Cows consume chickens, mice, dead rabbits (especially if the cows are mineral deficient, such as the experimental herds intentionally fed a low-phosphorous diet in the 1990s). Squirrels raid nests to eat baby birds. Pandas will eat roadkill if they can’t find enough bamboo.
After all, another animal’s body provides the full compliment of nutrients that an animal needs – it’s much easier to live as a mere meat refurbisher than to create your own animal body from scratch!
“Remarkably, our results suggest that many carnivorous animals alive today may trace this diet through a continuous series of carnivorous ancestors stretching back for >800 million years.”
Their data don’t actually support this claim. Roman-Palaclos, Scholl, and Wiens categorized the diets (herbivorous, carnivorous, or omnivorous) of a wide range of animal species and found that a statistical model in which the first multicellular animals consumed other heterotrophs would be mathematically parsimonious. Historically, it would take fewer genetic changes to produce our world if herbivory had evolved independently many times over.
But evolution tends to be quite rapid when organisms encounter an empty ecological niche, which is why we see sudden increases in diversity during periods following mass extinctions (like the “Cambrian explosion”) and when animals reach new islands. And we know that multicellular life arose multiple times – at the very least, happening independently in both plants and animals.
The earliest multicellular animals were probably simple aggregates of cells that failed to separate after dividing. Even after genes could cause intentional multicellular development, these early animals were probably blobby things that pursued the same diets as their single-celled precursors.
All told, many of the assumptions made by Roman-Palaclos, Scholl, and Wiens seem dubious at best.
And yet. It probably would have been easier for earliest animals to eat other heterotrophs than to eat autotrophs. Single-celled protists already liked to eat the autotrophs, so most autotrophs had defenses. The autotrophs might be toxic; their tasty molecules were hidden behind indigestible cell walls. If the first multicellular animal gobbled these up, it would’ve gotten such a bellyache!
Except, right. The first multicellular animal didn’t have a belly.
It would’ve gotten such a lysosome-ache!!
In more recent evolution, herbivorous mammals often developed pretty major adaptations to accompany their diet. For instance, herbivores typically have more complicated teeth than carnivores – by chewing their food, herbivores can rupture a plant’s cell walls to access the nutrients inside. And instead of stealing a full compliment of essential amino acids and vitamins from another animal, an herbivore has to synthesize these inside its body. Biosynthesis of Vitamin B12 is pretty tricky – my cells certainly can’t do it. Can yours?
A human whose body contained only human cells could barely digest anything, and certainly not plants. Indeed, most human babies begin life this way – as wholly human. Newborns seem to have very few bacteria inside their bodies, and it’s difficult for newborns to digest anything other than milk.
Without the help of the bacteria who build empires inside our bodies, we would be miserable – achy, asthmatic, bloated, and mentally unsound. And also, yes – without their help, we could not eat plants.
How fortunate that we are not alone!
Header image credit: Darryl Leja for the National Human Genome Research Institute’s photostream on flickr.
When I was a child, my parents gave me a toy walrus to sleep with. While cuddling this walrus, I’d twist my fingers through a small looped tag on its back, until one day I knotted the tag so thoroughly that I cut off my circulation. I screamed; my finger turned blue; my parents rushed in and wanted to cut off the tag.
“No!” I apparently screamed. “The soft tag is the best part!”
I continued to refuse their help until they offered a compromise, merely slicing the loop in half so we could save my throbbing finger and prevent any future calamity.
I continued to sleep with that toy walrus until I was midway through high school. As I fell asleep, my parents would sometimes peer inside my bedroom and see me lying there, eyes closed, breath slow, my fingers gently stroking that soft tag.
Yes, kids with autism are sometimes quite particular about sensory stimulation. But I am not alone! Baby monkeys also love soft fabric.
So do their mothers.
After biologist Margaret Livingstone published a research essay, “Triggers for Mother Love,” animal welfare activists and many other scientists were appalled. In the essay, Livingstone casually discusses traumatic ongoing experiments in which hours-old baby monkeys are removed from their mothers. The babies are then raised in environments where they never glimpse anything that resembles a face, either because they’re kept in solitary confinement and fed by masked technicians or because the babies’ eyes are sutured shut.
After the babies are removed from their mothers, Livingstone offers the mothers soft toys. And the mothers appear to bond with these soft toys. When one particular baby was returned to its mother several hours later, Livingstone writes that:
“The mother looked back and forth between the toy she was holding and the wiggling, squeaking infant, and eventually moved to the back of her enclosure with the toy, leaving the lively infant on the shelf.”
Although I dislike this ongoing research, and don’t believe that it should continue, I find Livingstone’s essay to be generally compassionate.
Livingstone discusses parenting advice from the early twentieth century – too much touch or physical affection will make your child weak! – that probably stunted the emotional development of large numbers of children. Livingstone expresses gratitude that the 1950s-era research of Harry Harlow – the first scientist to explore using soft toys to replace a severed maternal bond – revealed how toxic these recommendations really were.
Harlow’s research may have improved the lives of many human children.
Harlow’s research intentionally inflicted severe trauma on research animals.
To show that the aftereffects of trauma can linger throughout an animal’s life, Harlow used devices that he named “The Rape Rack” and “The Pit of Despair” to harm monkeys (whom he did not name).
Harlow did not justify these acts by denigrating the animals. Indeed, in Voracious Science and Vulnerable Animals, research-scientist-turned-animal-activist John Gluck describes working with Harlow as both a student and then professorial collaborator, and believes that Harlow was notable at the time for his respect for monkeys. But this was not enough. Gluck writes that:
“The accepted all-encompassing single ethical principle was simple: if considerations of risk and significant harm blocked the use of human subjects, using animals as experimental surrogates was automatically justified.”
“Harlow showed that monkeys could be emotionally destroyed when opportunities for maternal and peer attachment were withheld. He argued that affectionate relationships in monkeys were worthy of terms like love.”
“In his work on learning in monkeys … [he offered] abundant evidence that monkeys develop and evaluate hypotheses during attempts to develop a solution.”
“Everything that Harlow learned from his research declared that monkeys are self-conscious, emotionally complex, intentional, and capable of substantial levels of suffering.”
For my own scientific research, I purchased cow’s brains from slaughterhouses. I used antibodies that were made in the bodies of rabbits and mice who lived (poorly) inside industrial facilities. For my spouse’s scientific research, she killed male frogs to take their sperm.
We’re both vegan.
I’d like to believe that we’d find alternative ways to address those same research questions if we were to repeat those projects today. But that’s hypothetical – at the time, we used animals.
And I certainly believe that there are other ways for Livingstone to study, for instance, the developmental ramifications of autistic children rarely making eye contact with the people around them – without blinding baby monkeys. I believe that Livingstone could study the physiological cues for bonding without removing mothers’ babies (especially since Harlow’s work, from the better part of a century ago, already showed how damaging this methodology would be).
Personally, I don’t think the potential gains from these experiments are worth their moral costs.
But also I recognize that, as a person living in the modern world, I’ve benefited from Harlow’s research. I’ve benefited from the research using mice, hamsters, and monkeys that led to the Covid-19 vaccines. I’ve benefited from innumerable experiments that caused harm.
Livingstone’s particular research might not result in any benefits – a lot of scientific research doesn’t – but unfortunately we can’t know in advance what knowledge will be useful and won’t won’t.
And if there’s any benefit, then I will benefit from this, too. It’s very hard to avoid being helped by knowledge that’s out there in the world.
To my mind, this means I have to atone – to find ways to compensate for some of the suffering that’s been afflicted on my behalf – but reparations are never perfect. And no one can force you to recognize a moral debt.
You will have to decide what any of this means to you.
Several months ago, someone wrote to me for the first time in a few years. A week passed before I saw the message – they’d written to my old Google-hosted email account, and I’ve mostly switched to using Protonmail. So I wrote back using my current address … then heard nothing.
Encountering sudden bouts of radio silence is a common experience for many people in the modern world (I feel so bad for people using dating apps in major cities!), but this can feel particularly triggering for people with autism. Because my brain doesn’t always register social cues that other people notice, my early years were riddled with times when people whom I thought were friends suddenly (from my perspective!) decided that I was awful. I still approach disrupted communication with wariness, assuming that people are angry with me.
Later, though, a friend informed me that messages I send to him are often shunted to his spam folder – perhaps Google generally distrusts “@protonmail” accounts? So I used my old account to write to that first person and asked whether the same thing had happened to our correspondence.
At the beginning of a four-paragraph message, I included a sentence summarizing why I have a new email address: “I have mixed feelings about internet privacy – I worry that a lot of it abets tax evasion & the like – but I like email enough (and dislike the effect of advertising companies like Google and Facebook on our world enough) that I thought I should pay for it.”
This person decided I must be a conspiracy theorist.
The problem is brevity, of course.
With more words, it’s easy to show the harms caused by Swiss privacy laws (apparently a major selling point for Protonmail, which houses its physical servers in Switzerland). In The Hidden Wealth of Nations, French economist Gabriel Zucman calculated how much wealth is hidden from governments worldwide. As translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, Zucman writes:
The following example shows it in a simple way: let’s imagine a British person who holds in her Swiss bank account a portfolio of American securities — for example, stock in Google.
What information is recorded in each country’s balance sheet? In the United States, a liability: American statisticians see that foreigners hold US equities. In Switzerland, nothing at all, and for a reason: the Swiss statisticians see some Google stock deposited in a Swiss bank, but they see that the stock belongs to a UK resident — and so they are neither assets nor liabilities for Switzerland. In the United Kingdom, nothing is registered, either, but wrongly this time: the Office for National Statistics should record an asset for the United Kingdom, but it can’t, because it has no way of knowing that the British person has Google stock in her Geneva account.
As we can see, an anomaly arises — more liabilities than assets will tend to be recorded on a global level. And, in fact, for as far back as statistics go, there is a “hole”: if we look at the world balance sheet, more financial securities are recorded as liabilities than as assets, as if planet Earth were in part held by Mars. It is this imbalance that serves as the point of departure for my estimate of the amount of wealth held in tax havens globally.
Obviously, including only the final sentiment – It appears as though a large portion of our planet’s wealth is owned by extraterrestrials! – would make Zucman sound absurd. But Zucman’s reasoning is sensible, and it’s awful that approximately 10% of our planet’s wealth – $7.6 trillion in 2013 – is held in secret bank accounts, abetted by various nations’ privacy laws. If that wealth weren’t illegally hidden, fair taxes would let us alleviate a lot of poverty, vaccinate many more people worldwide, build a more just and equitable world.
Brief statements like “Tech companies are siphoning personal data to mind control us!” or “Facebook & YouTube have shut down our functioning government!” would likewise probably sound absurd to someone who hasn’t read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalismor similar reporting. Once upon a time, I liked Facebook – it was a great way to share pictures with friends – but I felt horrified when I learned about Facebook’s role in the election of our 45th president. I haven’t logged in to my account since November 2016.
Honestly, though, it’s my fault for assuming that other people have been following these stories. Just because someone is a left-wing academic type doesn’t mean they’ve seen the same news that I have (the personalized filter bubbles that we get stuck inside are yet another reason why I dislike Facebook & Google).
It felt sad to have someone assume the worst of me, but then my spouse cheered me up by rattling off other things I say that sound an awful lot like conspiracy theories when they’re phrased too briefly, like:
I only eat plants because I’m worried my planet’s getting too hot.
I rub this glop all over my face so starlight won’t mutate my DNA.
I put this plastic in my mouth at night to stop my teeth from wandering when I sleep.
The dishwasher won’t wash the dishes unless you wash the dishes before you put them in the dishwasher.
So, I learned something. If there’s not enough time to explain an idea in full, it might be better to say nothing at all.
Header image from a prior essay about Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and, yes, a Disney conspiracy to misinform children about the natural world.In brief (apparently I still haven’t learned my lesson), the people making Disney’s 1958 documentary White Wilderness wanted to show lemmings leaping off cliffs into the water, but lemmings don’t actually do this. So the film crew instead used a turntable to fling the little critters to their doom and claimed in a voiceover that it was natural footage.
Mythological heroes of yore – and comic book superheroes today – embody our deepest values. This is what a hero would do. Heracles, Arjuna, and Spiderman learn that great powers bestow equivalent responsibility. Prometheus, Odin, and Deadpool accept suffering as the cost of their attachment to the world. Theseus, Samson, and Punisher wreck violence upon their enemies.
These men are all heroes. They battle monsters. They fight and kill to enforce boundaries.
At times, they reveal themselves to be more monstrous than the monsters.
The Greek hero Theseus has a signature style: he follows the Golden Rule. Do unto others as they would do unto you.
Theseus encounters Club Bearer, a villain who murders people by using a big stick to smash them into the earth. Theseus murders Club Bearer by using a big stick to smash him into the earth.
Theseus encounters Pinebender, a villain who murders people by tying their limbs to the bowed trunks of pine trees. Theseus murders Pinebender by tying his limbs to the bowed trunks of pine trees.
Theseus encounters Sciron, a villain who murders people by kicking them off a cliff when they attempt to wash their feet. Theseus murders Sciron by kicking him off a cliff when he attempts to wash his feet.
And so on.
Theseus, the hero, rids the world of monsters by doing unto monsters precisely what they would do to him.
Then Theseus meets the Minotaur.
The Minotaur – a monster with a human body and bovine head – was born because his mother was unsatisfied with her husband and went to great efforts – constructing a wooden cow costume, etc. – to have sex with a bull instead.
Obviously, this myth was concocted by a man. Many men fear that they’re lousy in bed; many men assume that a larger penis would make them IRRESISTIBLE to women; many men tell stories about “wicked women” turning faithless in the face of someone better endowed.
And – also obviously – in a man’s story, the Minotaur’s monstrous genesis had to be a wicked woman’s fault.
The Minotaur is known to be a monster because he eats humans. The Minotaur’s father imprisoned him inside a giant labyrinth. In an annual ritual, the Minotaur’s father also locks defenseless young people inside the labyrinth. Then the Minotaur eats them.
But Theseus seduces the Minotaur’s fully-human sister, convinces her to give him a secret map to navigate the labyrinth, and then smuggles in a sword during the night. After skulking through the labyrinth, Theseus slays the sleeping Minotaur.
The Minotaur – we recognize him as a monster by his big bovine head. But all bovines only eat plants. It’s actually the monster’s human gullet, stomach, & intestines – the monster’s human appetite – that must be feared. The Minotaur has an herbivorous head but is a meat-eating monstrosity beneath the neck.
During his travels, Theseus has often feasted upon bovine flesh. He’s already mirrored the monstrosity of the Minotaur: eating the other’s people. But inside the labyrinth, Theseus does not devour the Minotaur. This is the only time when Theseus does not strictly mirror the behavior of an enemy.
Which might have revealed too much about the boundaries being policed: Only humans may eat the world.
The fundamental horror – what made all of Theseus’s enemies monstrous – was never about what they’d done, but rather who had done it.
In Jess Zimmerman’s essay collection Women and Other Monsters, she describes the ways that myths are used to define the boundaries of acceptable behavior. A human who eats other animals can be a hero; an animal (or animal-headed entity) who eats humans would be a monster.
Zimmerman offers advice: What should we do when we recognize the hypocrisies in our ancestors’ sacred stories?
For women, the boundaries of acceptability are strict, and they are many. We must be seductive but pure, quiet but not aloof, fragile but industrious, and always, always small. We must not be too successful, too ambitious, too independent, too self-centered – and when we can’t manage all the contradictory restrictions, we are turned into grotesques. Women have been monsters, and monsters have been women, in centuries’ worth of stories, because stories are a way to encode these expectations and pass them on.
We’ve built a culture on the backs of these monstrous women, letting them prop up tired morals about safety and normalcy and feminine propriety. But the traits they represent – aspiration, knowledge, strength, desire – are not hideous. In men’s hands, they have always been heroic.
The monsters of myth have been stationed at those borders in order to keep us out; they are intended as warnings about what happens when women aspire beyond what we’re allowed. … They mark areas on a map: Do not enter. Here be monsters.
But if stepping outside the boundaries makes you monstrous, that means monsters are no longer bound. What happens if we charge through the gates and find that living on the other side – in all our Too Muchness, oversized and overweening and overcomplicated as we are – means living fully for the first time? Then the monster story stops being a warning sign, and starts to be a guide.
As a society, we’ve made enormous sacrifices during the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re wearing masks; we’re staying home; children are missing school.
We’re all cooperating to protect the people who are most at risk.
The risk profile for Covid-19 is opposite the risk from climate change. Covid-19 is more dangerous for the old. Climate change is more dangerous for the young, and for generations not yet born.
There’s another way to phrase this – Covid-19 is more dangerous for the wealthy, and climate change is more dangerous for those who currently have little or nothing. This is true both temporally and geographically.
(Wealth obviously protect individuals from Covid-19. Despite all his buffoonish posturing, when Donald Trump was infected, he received higher quality, more expensive medical care than almost anyone else. But on a population level, increased wealth is correlated with increased risk. Wealthy people are privileged to live longer, and in our capitalist society, people often accumulate wealth as they age.)
People with low risk from Covid-19 are making enormous sacrifices to protect others from it. But those with low risk from climate change are, in general, making no efforts to stop it.
Which conveys a clear message:
Younger people, you must solve this problem on your own. Despite your willingness to make sacrifices to protect us, we will not make sacrifices to protect you.
If we knew in March 2020 what we know now, we wouldn’t have closed schools. If you’re interested in some of the reasoning behind this, you should read this February 24, 2021 New York Times editorial from Nicholas Kristof.
We are hurting kids under the guise of protecting older people. But we’re not even succeeding. Schools have such low rates of Covid-19 transmission that we’re hurting kids without accomplishing anything.
People from “my” political party have orchestrated this harm, which makes it feel all the worse.
The New York Times recently printed an editorial from someone at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute chiding us for our totally un-scientific school closures. Members of the Republican party are positioning themselves as the defenders of public education.
The Republican party has been trying to undermine public schools ever since the Supreme Court decided that maybe Black kids deserve an equal chance to learn. And we’re letting them posture as the defenders of education?
During the vaccine roll-out, the New York Times set the stage for a big reveal – younger people were never in huge amounts of danger from Covid-19.
I don’t want to sound cavalier about this – Covid-19 is dangerous to people of all ages. It’s very similar to influenza.
Many people have a misconception that influenza is relatively harmless – sniffles & a runny nose – unless you’re elderly.
That’s not true.
Although the majority of cases of seasonal influenza are mild, it’s a deadly disease. Young healthy people die of influenza every year.
Most influenza deaths are recorded as “pneumonia” during post-mortem reports. To compare the dangers of Covid-19 to influenza, we’d want to measure how many more pneumonia deaths we’ve seen recently.
In a typical year, there are about 130,000 pneumonia deaths in the United States – these might be caused by influenza, coronaviruses, rhinoviruses, etc.
Many if not most of these deaths are caused by influenza – the column of numbers reporting verified influenza deaths is so low because we don’t always test for it, and when we do we typically use a low-quality antigen test.
Last year, though, was much worse – between January 1, 2020 and February 24, 2021, there were 670,000 pneumonia deaths in the United States. During those 14 months, five-fold more people died from this set of symptoms than we’d expect during a normal year.
We’ve also had about five times as many infections. Usually, about 30 million people contract seasonal influenza each year. The CDC estimates that perhaps 100 million people contracted Covid-19 during the ten months from February 2020 to December 2020.
That’s why the CDC’s roughestimates for the “infection fatality ratio” of Covid-19 are about the same as for influenza.
Last year, more people died from Covid-19 than would be expected from a typical year’s burden of seasonal influenza, but that’s because there were many more infections.
Seasonal influenza and Covid-19 are both deadly diseases. And it’s worth comparing them because the pandemic might be declared “over” once Covid-19 deaths fall to influenza-like levels.
That’s what most public health experts said when they were interviewed by Alexis Madrigal for an article in The Atlantic – that a reasonable goal is for Covid-19 “to mirror the typical mortality of influenza in the U.S. over a typical year.”
Which seems like a bit of a cop out. You’re going to call it “over” while people are still dying?
But we have to. Covid-19 will probably be with us forever. Like the coronavirus OC43, which we picked up from cows and which probably killed over a million people during the 1890 pandemic, Covid-19 will continue to make humans sick indefinitely.
Elderly people – especially those who weren’t exposed to Covid-19 as children – will always be particularly susceptible.
Early on during the pandemic – when we already had a good sense that younger people weren’t in much personal danger but also knew that we could only slow the spread of Covid-19 if younger people made sacrifices – we concocted a narrative that healthy young people were at high risk, too.
In March 2020, the New York Times printed an editorial from Fiona Lowenstein, a 26 year old who became tragically ill, saying “Millennials: if you can’t stay at home for others, do it for yourselves.”
In May 2020, the New York Times printed an editorial from Mara Gay, a 33 year old who became tragically ill, saying “I want Americans to understand that this virus is making otherwise young, healthy people very, very sick. I want them to know, this is no flu.”
This year, healthy young people have gotten very sick and even died of Covid-19 – which is tragic, but not unusual. Every year, healthy young people get very sick and die from influenza. This past year, with about five-fold more infections of an equivalently deadly disease, we’ve seen about five-fold more of these tragic young people’s deaths.
Now that a vaccine is available, though, the narrative has shifted.
In the February 28, 2021 New York Times Magazine, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Ethicist” column says that “Health care workers who are in their 20s and don’t have certain medical conditions aren’t at high risk if they contract Covid-19. Perhaps we could save more lives if we left them [to be vaccinated] until later.”
Now that we have a limited supply of vaccines, older, wealthier people benefit if young people are less afraid of Covid-19.
By delaying Covid-19 infection, young people increased their personal risk. Early during the pandemic, the virus was not particularly dangerous for young people. By now, though, there have now been millions of transmission events – millions of opportunities for mutant variants to arise.
And indeed, in February 2021 the New York Timesreports that “it is likely that the [new Covid-19 virus] variant is linked to an increased risk of hospitalization and death.”
Currently, we’re rationing the limited supply of Covid-19 vaccines based on age.
This is hypocritical, and potentially misguided.
When people develop such severe complications from Covid-19 that they require ventilation in order to have a chance of surviving, a younger person is more likely to benefit from the treatment. This holds both in terms of absolute number of lives saved, and is even more dramatic if you consider the years of life saved.
With a limited supply of ventilators, you can accomplish most by reserving them for the young – and we said that would be horrible.
In a March 2020 article for the New York Times, Sheri Fink wrote that the health department’s civil rights office would ensure “that states did not allow medical providers to discriminate on the basis of … age … when deciding who would receive lifesaving medical care.
In April 2020, Joel Zivot wrote for Medpage that “Rationing ventilators by age is wrong.”
Although we declared that it would be unethical to ration healthcare (ventilators) by age, we’re now rationing healthcare (vaccines) by age. The difference is that a different group of people – older, on average wealthier – benefits.
Rationing vaccines by age doesn’t even save the most lives.
Based on the CDC data, if both a 50-year-old and a 70-year-old are infected with Covid-19, the 70-year-old is about ten times more likely to die. That’s scary!
The major benefit of the vaccine is that it reduces the chance of severe illness if you are exposedto Covid-19. But we also know other ways to reduce the odds of exposure – a person can stay home, wear a mask near others, minimize the number of unique individuals they come into contact with.
If the 70-year-old has retired, they should be able to reduce the number of unique individuals they see each week to ten or fewer. But a 50-year-old grocery store clerk might see a thousand or more unique individuals each week, and have to spend time in fairly close proximity to each.
If the 50-year-old is at least ten-fold more likely to be exposed to Covid-19, then you’ll save more lives by giving the vaccine to them instead of to the 70-year-old.
Not only did we declare that rationing healthcare by age was wrong when it benefited younger people, but now we’re doing it even though it doesn’t save the most lives.
The unfairness is even more dramatic if we consider the risk of hospitalization. According to the CDC chart above, if both a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old are infected with Covid-19, the 70-year-old is about five times as likely to be hospitalized. But Medicare will pay the hospital bill. If a 20-year-old is hospitalized, they might face ruinous medical debt.
It’s quite likely that the obligations of most 20-year-olds – going to school, going to work, taking care of family – make them at least five times as likely to be exposed to Covid-19. We could stop lives from being ruined by medical debt if we vaccinated 20-year-olds first.
A friend of mine works in a take-out & delivery pizza restaurant in Chicago. For other people to be able to stay home and order food, he had to go in to work. His risk of exposure to Covid-19 was much higher than other people’s. As a healthy athlete in his late twenties, he wasn’t at high risk, but he was unlucky – when he got sick, he was so ill that he spent weeks in the hospital. He’s still recovering from his ruptured lung. He has no idea how to pay the $200,000 medical bill.
Because we’re rationing care by age, we’re not protecting people like him. Even though his risk – interacting with customers all day – made it possible for others to stay safe.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been awful, but I was pleased that people took fewer plane flights. Our carbon emissions briefly dropped.
Now that older people have received vaccines, though, they’ll resume flying.
For a February 17, 2021 article in the New York Times, Debra Kamin writes that “When the coronavirus hit, Jim and Cheryl Drayer, 69 and 72, canceled all their planned travel and hunkered down in their home in Dallas, Texas. But earlier this month, the Drayers both received the second dose of their Covid-19 vaccinations. And in March, armed with their new antibodies, they are heading to Maui for a long overdue vacation.”
“Americans over 65, who have had priority access to inoculations, are now newly emboldened to travel – often while their children and grandchildren continue to wait for a vaccine.”
Newly protected against Covid-19, they’ll increase their contributions to climate change.
Climate change has the opposite risk profile from Covid-19. Covid-19 is most dangerous for the old; climate change is most dangerous for the young, and for generations not yet born.
In some sense, it’s trivializing to even compare these. The risk from climate change is so much more severe.
If we make our planet inhospitable – if our crops fail due to storms or heat waves – the carrying capacity of Earth could easily fall by half.
We will see billions, not millions, of deaths.
Someone who is elderly today is unlikely to survive long enough to experience the worst effects of climate change – although it’s true that in severe weather events like Chicago’s fluke summer heat waves or Texas’s fluke winter storms, elderly people who live alone are exceptionally vulnerable.
Still, younger adults will have to endure worse calamities. They’ll live through more years of severe weather, crop failures, dangerous heat, lingering smog. And, since society will be forced to spend more money each year to maintain humanity’s precarious place on this planet – rebuilding after fires or floods – younger adults will face an increasingly inhospitable world with less wealth at their disposal.
Today’s children will encounter even worse. They’ll experience every disaster that today’s young adults will survive to see, and then some.
Generations not yet born may inherit a nightmare.
When people who currently have wealth were in danger, we created a narrative that everyone needed to make sacrifices. The largest sacrifices came from those who benefited least.
We’re still keeping children out of school – for almost no benefit in terms of Covid-19 transmission – in order to protect older, wealthier people.
Climate change is and has been caused primarily by those with the most wealth. If you can buy more meat, if you can take more plane flights, if you can purchase a bigger home, then you’re able to cause more climate change.
To stop climate change, we need wealthy people to make sacrifices. Buy less, fly less, eat plants.
But why would they?
Currently wealthy people aren’t in danger.
And – worse – currently wealthy people often became wealthy by treating the world as a competitive place. Now we’re asking them to cooperate? To make sacrifices for the sake of others?
Meat tastes good. Flying to Maui is fun. Doesn’t a person who worked hard deserve an enormous home?
A curious thought about the Gamestop stock trading phenomenon: Many small investors – often younger people – were convinced through emotional arguments to buy a few shares of stock and hold them with “diamond hands.”
Don’t sell, even if the price dips!
There was a strange cooperative / competitive system going on. The cooperative portion would have been illegal had it not been done in public – people were colluding to make the shares hard to get, which forced the hedge fund to pay more in order to cover their short sales.
Short sales: a hedge fund had borrowed many shares of the stock and sold them, hoping the price would fall and that new shares could be purchased more cheaply when it was time to return them. So the hedge fund had basically announced, “On such & such a date, I must have this stock, no matter the price!” If other people all cooperate and say, “On that day, don’t sell it for less than $420.00,” then the hedge fund has to pay $420.00 per share, even if the company that the stock represents is worthless.
But here’s the competitive portion – the company, Gamestop, is probably going out of business eventually. Driving to a strip mall to buy a video game cartridge instead of downloading it? The stock isn’t worth much money. So people wanted to cooperate to hurt the hedge fund, but people were also forced to compete because nobody wanted to be holding the stock at the end of the day.
Everyone would like to sell it for a bunch of money, but not everyone will get to sell it.
Even if more than a hundred percent of shares are short sold, not everyone will get to sell it – the hedge fund can satisfy all their contracts by buying a share, returning it to someone, buying the same share back from that person, returning it to someone else, and so on.
So if you know that everybody else has put in a “sell order” at $420.00, because they think it’s a funny number, you benefit by putting in a sell order at $419. That way you get almost as much money as anyone else, but you’re guaranteed to sell yours, whereas only a fraction of the people with $420 sell orders get to trade their (worthless) stock for money.
But then, if you know that other people are going to plug in a sell order at $419, you benefit from selling yours at $418. Because what if too many people sell their shares at $419?? You might still be left out!
So there was an incentive for savvy investors – wealthy people who might have thousands of dollars on the line – to convince other people to hold onto the stock no matter what … even while selling their own.
Billions of dollars changed hands. Some people “made” a lot of money. And it wouldn’t have happened without cooperation – lots of people colluding against the hedge fund.
But the particular people who benefited were determined by a con. By selling shares while promoting a narrative that “if we all hold with diamond hands, this is going to the moon!”
In some ways, our response to Covid-19 encourages me.
So many people – especially younger people – have shown themselves to be willing to cooperate.
A cloth mask traps your exhalations. Wearing a cloth mask makes your life worse, but it protects other people. Almost everybody in my home town wears a mask. Every young person at school wears a mask.
Young people are willing to make sacrifices to protect older people. But therein lies the con.
We’re not making sacrifices to protect them.
Our carbon emissions are no different from pulling off this face mask and intentionally coughing in a young child’s face. We ought to feel ashamed.
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.
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.
Midway through dinner, I thought I heard a strange sound. A faint bleating, maybe, that seemed to be coming from our backyard. Many musicians studying at the Jacobs School live in the apartment complex behind our house – we can often hear them practicing – but this didn’t sound like a conventional instrument.
I stood up, walked over to the window, and opened it, looking around our yard. It’s currently grackle mating season – watching a male grackle inflate his plumage to double his size is pretty incredible – and they make a variety of noises. So I suspected an ardent bird. I lingered there a moment, looking and listening, trying to determine where the sound had come from.
Those few seconds were too long.
I heard it again, and, with the window open, recognized the distress cry of a young rabbit.
I pulled off my socks, ran outside. Sprinted around our house to the small fenced enclosure where we have our air conditioning unit.
A large rabbit fled from the HVAC enclosure when it saw me. It bolted across the yard and slipped through the back fence.
Yes. Our yard has a lot of fences. We have dogs. The back fence keeps them inside the yard. The fence around the HVAC unit keeps our dogs from crashing into the various wires and tubing and ripping them from the wall (which our younger dog did last year, necessitating expensive repairs).
The distress call had stopped, but now I knew where to look. And there, sprawled on the mulch, was a juvenile rabbit, about as big as my hand. His fur had been ripped from his face, leaving his nose raw and bleeding; he was also bleeding from gaping wounds down his back, and his hind legs were broken. (I’m assuming gender here because I think that’s what triggered the attack – probably a territorial adult male felt that this juvenile was impinging on his territory.)
The mutilated juvenile sat watching me for a moment, then tried to hop away. He couldn’t. His legs kicked back slowly and he toppled.
Prostrate on his side, the wounds looked even worse. He was breathing heavily, watching me.
My children, still inside the house, called through the window to ask what was happening. I shook my head.
“There’s a baby rabbit, and he’s very, very hurt. He’s going to die.”
The kids wanted to come see. I didn’t really want them to – they are only four and six years old – but we all have to learn about death. Our elder child visited her grandfather in hospice while he was dying after a stroke, and she understands that her grandmother died after somebody hurt her. Our younger child is at an age where many of the stories she tells involve death, but I’m not sure she understands the permanence yet.
And the thing I really didn’t want to talk about – but would have to, for them to understand – is the brutality of territorial violence. I hadn’t known that it was so horrific in rabbits. This baby bunny had been murdered by an irate elder.
And the violence that we humans use to claim and protect territory is one of the worst aspects of our species. We are a brilliantly inventive species. Many – perhaps most – of our inventions sprang from the desire to make better weapons.
The world was here before us, but we pound sticks into the ground and say “This part of the world is mine.”
We’re far too fond of building walls.
The kids joined me outside. My spouse came out; as soon as she saw the poor rabbit, she cried. I tried, as gently and non-pedantically as I was able, to explain what had happened.
My younger child clasped her hands in front of her chin. “I’m sad the baby bunny is going to die.”
The rabbit’s breathing was clearly labored. I wonder how well he understood that this was the end.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sad, too.”
The sun was setting, and the air was starting to grow chilly. My spouse went back inside and cut up one of my old socks (I typically wear socks until they disintegrate, and my spouse thinks that any sock missing both the heel and toes is fair game to destroy, so we always have spare fabric on hand) to make a small blanket.
The dying rabbit probably felt scared – I’d asked the kids to keep a respectful distance, but we humans are quite large. Still, I tried to make myself as small as possible as I reached out to cover the rabbit’s torso with the blanket. I left my hand there, gently resting over his chest, for warmth. I could feel his panting breaths rise and fall beneath my palm.
I quietly offered my apologies and said a prayer. The rabbit watched me. I tried to smile with no teeth. I stayed crouching, immobile, until the rabbit’s breathing stopped five minutes later.
Then I went inside and finished eating dinner.
At times, being vegan is a comfort. All of us, in living, impose harms upon the world – that’s the unfortunate nature of existence. To grow food crops, we till the soil. Spray pesticides. And kill all those plants.
Our lives matter, too. If we don’t take care of ourselves, and strive to enjoy our time alive – if we don’t place value on our own lives – then how could we value others?
Still, my family tries to minimize the harm we wreck by being here. We live well, but try to be cognizant of the costs.
I was glad that the meal I returned to was made from only plants.
After I finished eating, I went and sat on our front porch with my children. We spread a blanket over our laps. We watched birds flit between the trees. A chipmunk dashed across the lawn. Two squirrels chased each other through a neighbors yard.
Our elder child clutched me tightly. I hugged her back. We sat silently. I didn’t know what to say.
Then it was time for the kids to go to bed.
It was my spouse’s turn to read the bedtime stories that night, and our dogs wanted to go outside, so I took them to the back yard.
I don’t think our dogs would hurt a rabbit – when my father-in-law died, the dwarf rabbit he’d purchased as a love token for his twenty-year-old ladyfriend came to live with us (they’d broken up a few days before his stroke, which is why she didn’t want to adopt the rabbit), and when our dogs dug up a rabbit’s nest two years ago, they gently carried a newborn bunny around the yard (we returned it to the nest and it survived until it was old enough to hop away).
I didn’t want for the dogs to carry the dead rabbit around our yard, though. Or hide it somewhere for the kids to find.
So I walked over to the HVAC unit, ready to explain to the dogs not to bother it. But the rabbit was gone. The sock blanket was still there, but no corpse.
We don’t live in a particularly rural area – we’re in Bloomington, about half a mile south of the Indiana University campus. Our backyard is shared with a sixty-unit apartment complex. And yet. Even here, the natural world is bustling enough that a dead thing can disappear within twenty minutes. I’ve seen hawks, vultures, crows, raccoons, possums, skunks. Many deer, and a groundhog, although they wouldn’t eat a rabbit. One semi-feral cat. I’ve seen foxes down the street from us, in fields a half mile away, but never in our yard.
And, it’s strange. The dead rabbit lay in our yard for less than twenty minutes. If we had been listening to music over dinner – which we often do – I wouldn’t have heard his cries through the glass windowpane.
Scientists often pride ourselves on our powers of observations. But noticing, this time, only made me sad. If I hadn’t heard that faint sound, I never would have realized that anything untoward had happened in our yard. And I could have remained blissfully ignorant of the ruthless violence that rabbits apparently inflict upon young children.
The natural world is not a peaceful place.
Still. I would rather know. Understanding the pervasive violence that surrounds us helps me to remember how important it is – since we have a choice – to choose to do better.
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.