Omicron, Evolution, and Africa: the predictable result of ignorance and white supremacy

A new variant has arisen, and with it a new wave of anti-vax nonsense, and a new reminder that colonialism (or whatever you want to call its modern incarnation) is a danger to all of us. Because of the international response to the discovery of the Omicron variant, I wanted to dig into several topics that I see converging here.

First, the relatively simple stuff: vaccine misinformation. There’s one line in particular that I think is going to end up sticking around if we’re not careful, and to me it stems from a partial understanding of how evolution works. In particular, it’s an “understanding” I’ve seen in a few different video games and TV shows, probably driven by Herbert Spencer’s twisting of natural selection to mean “survival of the fittest” in a colloquial sense. The idea goes like this – if you want to grow and evolve, you have to put yourself in increasingly difficult situations so that you’ll be forced to become stronger in order to survive. To borrow a hypothetical from Abigail Thorn’s excellent video on Darwin and Marx, if you wanted to create a species of wooly mice, you just take a population of ordinary house mice, and drop them off in the middle of Baffin Island, then wait a few generations. Come back, and you’ve got a new species of mice evolved to deal with extreme cold, right?

Wrong. You’ve probably got a bunch of dead, frozen mice. More likely, you’ve got none of that, because those mice were probably eaten in the first generation or two. To evolve a new trait, you need more than just the pressure to change, you also need to have a population capable of surviving that pressure for enough generations to actually take advantage of any cold-adaptive mutations that might arise. Without that stable population pool to throw new generations against the harsh conditions, even if a mouse were to win the genetic lottery and get a mutation that gave them thicker fur, if there’s not a population of mice to breed with, that one mouse variant will still die out, because it was alone, and a singular organism cannot a new species make.

So. COVID variants. As I said before, there are some people who believe that new variants- and in particular the dreaded vaccine-resistant variant -come about because by introducing vaccines, we are creating a challenge for the virus to overcome, and so we’re “training” it to be vaccine resistant. What this misses, of course, is that in order for the virus to be able to get around vaccines, it needs to have a large un-vaccinated population to keep generating new variants to try. While none of the vaccines seem to give total immunity, they do dramatically reduce both symptom severity (which mean fewer deaths and fewer Long Haul COVID patients), and transmissibility. That last bit is what we care about when it comes to evolution. A virus like COVID has a time limit for each person it infects. Once it gets a foothold in our bodies, it will replicate and spread as much as it can before our immune system fights it off, or before we die.

Let’s imagine we have a single unvaccinated person. That person catches COVID. Regardless of the severity of the disease, that person will expose everyone near them to the virus they’re hosting. If everyone near them is also unvaccinated, most of them will also get sick, with their own time limits, infect other people in turn, and so on. As the virus replicates in each new person, it is also changing, at least a little. The more people have the disease, the more likely it is that one of those people will play host to a new variant. If, on the other hand, the people surrounding our first patient are all vaccinated, whatever variant the infected person has will die when that infection ends. If there’s a breakthrough case, then we have another patient, who is also surrounded by people with a high resistance, and once again, the virus faces a massive barrier to its survival beyond that patient.

To COVID, a population that’s 95% vaccinated is like Baffin Island to our ill-fated population of southern mice. It’s hypothetically possible for those mice to survive, and if they do, it’s possible that they will evolve new traits, but even if they do manage to have two or three generations, the change will be very slow, and it might only take one bad winter to wipe them out and end the experiment.

If you take a less vaccinated population, it’s more like starting your new mouse population in one of the human communities on the island, where they’re more likely to find food and shelter to help them survive. That population is then regularly dispersing new mice into the areas surrounding their “home base”, increasing the odds that one will have the thick fur needed to thrive, and will pass that along to future generations, moving us toward our goal of wooly mice.

Or brought back out of the hypothetical, the unvaccinated become “variant factories”:

Unvaccinated people do more than merely risk their own health. They’re also a risk to everyone if they become infected with coronavirus, infectious disease specialists say.

That’s because the only source of new coronavirus variants is the body of an infected person.

“Unvaccinated people are potential variant factories,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told CNN Friday.

“The more unvaccinated people there are, the more opportunities for the virus to multiply,” Schaffner said. “When it does, it mutates, and it could throw off a variant mutation that is even more serious down the road.”

All viruses mutate, and while the coronavirus is not particularly mutation-prone, it does change and evolve.

Most of the changes mean nothing to the virus, and some can weaken it. But sometimes, a virus develops a random mutation that gives it an advantage — better transmissibility, for instance, or more efficient replication, or an ability to infect a great diversity of hosts.

Viruses with an advantage will outcompete other viruses, and will eventually make up the majority of virus particles infecting someone. If that infected person passes the virus to someone else, they’ll be passing along the mutant version.

If a mutant version is successful enough, it becomes a variant.

But it has to replicate to do that. An unvaccinated person provides that opportunity.

“As mutations come up in viruses, the ones that persist are the ones that make it easier for the virus to spread in the population,” Andrew Pekosz, a microbiologist and immunologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CNN.

“Every time the viruses changes, that gives the virus a different platform to add more mutations. Now we have viruses that spread more efficiently.”
Viruses that don’t spread cannot mutate.

This is not new information. We’ve known all this for a long time, which is why there has been concern from the beginning of this pandemic about the danger presented by vaccine hoarding. For all the U.S. likes to pretend that Trump was a massive outlier in his nationalism, the reality is that all administrations in living memory have taken a largely “America First”-style approach to foreign policy, which has in turn created poverty, violence, and political instability in poor countries around the world. To varying degrees, this is true of all colonial powers – the essential dynamic of extracting wealth from foreign countries never went away, it just changed form. As colonies gained their “independence”, they found themselves deliberately under-developed, and stripped of wealth and natural resources. Most of them, in an attempt to rebuild from centuries of oppression and plundering, agreed to take on loans either from their former colonizers, or from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

These loans generally come with conditions restricting the kinds of development on which that money can be spent. Countries with natural resources were told that because the infrastructure to make goods out of those resources already existed in other countries, it would be a “waste” to build them in the former colonies, so instead those colonies had to ship out their raw or partially processed materials, and then buy back the products made from them.

Some countries have asserted their sovereignty, and insisted that they should be able to profit from building those products themselves, rather than buying back their own natural resources at a markup, have been punished. The 1953 coup in Iran was over oil. The recent coup in Bolivia followed the decision to use Bolivian lithium deposits to make products like batteries, and sell those to the world, rather than simply selling the lithium to foreign corporations.

The continent of Africa was almost certainly the hardest-hit by the brutality of colonialism. The Atlantic slave trade depopulated many areas along Africa’s western coast, and colonies set up by European powers saw generations of slavery, brutal violence, and genocide, as well as deliberate under-development and under-education. The loans offered by colonial powers have not just been used to force Africans to buy foreign products made from their natural resources, they’ve even forced countries like Ghana to choose between loans, and taking care of their own food production:

Africans today live in extreme poverty and hunger while most western corporations continue to flourish based on the control of resources and markets they do not own. Therefore, if Africa wants to count its enemies, there can only be three supposed ones; The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. To further explain the structure and mechanics behind this mass destructive strategy of those three organizations, let us take Ghana as a case study.

Ghana is one of the countries with abundant natural resources. The resources are so much that the whole country could have been catered for without any external help since the country size is fairly small.

Some years back, rice farming towns in the northern part of Ghana were thriving. This was because these communities enjoyed subsidies (such as free subsidies fertilizers) from the Ghana government so as to produce rice on the large scale for the whole nation. Ghana back then witnessed abundant rice production where the people only enjoyed their locally produced rice.

However, the IMF and the World Bank came in and as part of their policies, the institutions would not grant the government of Ghana any more loans unless the subsidies being given to the rice farmers were cut off.

The strategy was to force Ghana into rice importation from the partners of the IMF and the World Bank including the USA. The effect we see is that Ghana now imports almost all the rice eaten in the country at huge prices while the rice farming communities in the country starve to death!

Because of this imposed poverty, and the extreme economic toll of epidemics, most African countries have prioritized their healthcare infrastructure, and many have developed a capacity to detect, assess, and respond to new diseases that far exceeds anything in wealthier nations. That is why it should not be a surprise that Botswana first detected the Omicron COVID variant. It is also why the international stereotype of Africa as poor and “backwards” (which generally ignores the historical factors that led to present conditions) is so harmful. Most people in the United States, and in Europe probably don’t know how far ahead of us many African nations are when it comes to dealing with infectious diseases, in every way that doesn’t require the resources they have been denied. Absent a knowledge of the history and material conditions creating Africa’s poverty, a lot of white people – even well-meaning ones – tend to default to the white supremacist narratives about race that pervade “Western” societies. Those narratives lead people to blame Africans for conditions that have been externally imposed upon the continent, and so to justify responding to disease outbreaks by basically locking up the whole continent, and focusing less on saving African lives, and more on letting the outbreak run its course without leaving Africa.

Which brings us back to the Omicron variant, and the international response to Botswana doing exactly what they were supposed to as responsible members of the world community, who are at the cutting edge of virus detection. Travel bans for Africa, despite the variant being detected in multiple other countries around the world.

I think it’s worth repeating: We don’t know where the Omicron variant came from. It had probably been circulating for at least a couple weeks before it was detected, and it has been spotted in multiple countries. It would be one thing for the US and nations like it to cut off all international travel, as Israel did, but the US (which has maintained its lead as the country with the most confirmed cases, even compared to bigger countries like India and China) chose to cut off travel to seven African nations, but not the UK, the Netherlands, or other countries that had detected the variant.

Further, it’s worth considering the impact of a travel ban. Because of the things I talked about earlier, a lot of African economies rely heavily on tourism from former colonial powers. Cutting off travel means cutting off a large amount of income to countries that are already struggling. Doing that to African nations and not European nations highlights the systemic devaluation of African lives that seems to be the default among colonial powers. This also shows up in the phenomenon of vaccine hoarding, which was a problem that we saw coming long before the vaccines were available. It’s a problem that did not need to exist. Removing intellectual property restrictions would allow African countries to manufacture their own vaccines, dramatically improving their ability to fight the pandemic, saving countless people, and reducing the chances of variants developing there in the future.

But as we’ve seen, profit comes before human life in global capitalism, and that goes double for black lives. It’s pretty clear that in the unlikely event that COVID is brought under control in the rest of the world, Africa will just be sealed off and ignored right up until a new variant leaves the continent, at which point they’ll be blamed for it. Pandemics are, by definition, global problems. They require global solutions. These nationalistic policies and self-serving half-measures are extending the pandemic far beyond what was unavoidable.

As with any other discussion of racism, there’s the problem of people assuming that unless they’re given a signed statement of racist motivation, there’s some “good reason” for a policy that is racist in impact. The reality is that deliberate malice – while it exists – is not required for the creation of bigoted, harmful policies. All that’s needed is a lack of concern for the harm those policies will do to the group in question. You could argue that vaccine hoarding or travel bans are due to an abundance of concern for the wellbeing of the countries doing that, but only if you also assume that the people responsible don’t know the damage their policies will do, and aren’t aware of the inconsistency in which countries are affected. We know that is not the case.

The leadership of wealthy nations and of pharmaceutical corporations all have access to more information than any other leaders at any point in history. They know better, they just don’t want to do better, because in this capitalist hellworld, profit matters more than anything; and white supremacy, as a central part of capitalism from its inception, is built into the global economic infrastructure.

As I keep saying, we need global solidarity if we’re going to survive climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a horrifying “trial run” of how the crises of a warming world will play out under the current power structure. Poor and working people are expendable, and Africa’s only value is in the wealth and entertainment it can generate for the ruling classes of the wealthy nations that manufactured and maintain the poverty of African people.

We are entering a period of unprecedented chaos and upheaval. Our planet is headed for temperatures beyond human experience, and at the same time, pollution and unsustainable resource use are leading us to multiple health, resource, and ecological crises. If we are to adapt to this new world we’re creating, we’re going to need to work together. Returning to the hypothetical of the wooly mouse, we’ve all been put into an alien climate, and we need to take care of our existing population as a species to ensure that we’ll have the time and numbers to survive and thrive.

Fight white supremacy. Fight bigotry. Organize and train to build collective power. Look for opportunities to practice solidarity with both the people around you, and with people on the other side of the world.

Thank you for reading. If you find my work interesting, useful, or entertaining, please share it with others, and please consider joining the group of lovely people who support me at Life costs money, alas, and owing to my immigration status in Ireland, this is likely to be my only form of income for the foreseeable future, so if you are able to help out, I’d greatly appreciate it. The beauty of crowdfunding is that even as little as $1 per month ends up helping a great deal if enough people do it. You’d be supporting both my nonfiction and my science fiction writing, and you’d get early access to the fiction.

Dwindling water supplies highlight the need for systemic change.

Our modern society was born in a period of relative climatic stability. Regional climate change did destroy various civilizations, but most of the planet remained stable enough for the various human populations to thrive.

A crucial product of that stability has been access to fresh water. That’s why our biggest cities grew by lakes and rivers, and in more recent years, why we’ve been able to expand in dry regions by tapping into vast deposits of underground water. We’ve known for some time that our consumption has far outstripped the ability of aquifers to replenish themselves, but it seems that we’ve reached a point at which some will never recover:

Under a best-case scenario where drought years are followed by consecutive wet years with above-average precipitation, the researchers found there is a high probability it would take six to eight years to fully recover overdrafted water, which occurs when more groundwater is pumped out than is supplied through all sources like precipitation, irrigation and runoff.

However, this best-case scenario where California has six to eight consecutive wet years is not likely because of the state’s increasingly hot and dry climate. Under a more likely, drier climate, there is less than a 20% chance of full overdraft recovery over a 20-year period following a drought.

The Central Valley produces about a quarter of the nation’s food and is home to around 6.5 million people. Using too much groundwater during and after droughts could soon push this natural resource beyond the point of recovery unless pumping restrictions are implemented. The study finds recovery times can be halved with modest caps on groundwater pumping in drought and post-drought years.

“This is really threatening,” said Sarfaraz Alam, a hydrologist at Stanford and lead study author. “There are many wells that people draw water from for drinking water. Since [groundwater is] always going down, at some point these wells will go dry and the people won’t have water.”

In ages past, the human populations in California would respond to this by collapsing. Many would die, many would migrate away from whatever had caused the wells to dry up, and some would stay. Those who stayed survived because they were able to adapt their community practices to the new conditions.

There are places that currently have plenty of water, but as the temperature rises, so does water consumption, and there’s no place on the planet that’s “safe” from the warming climate. Migrating will absolutely be part of how we cope with climate change (which is why it’s so important to end our nationalistic obsession with borders) but at the same time we will all be forced to confront the other two options: adapt or die.

The need for us to radically change how we use and dispose of water is almost as important as the need to stop our greenhouse gas emissions. That’s one reason I like the idea of moving food production indoors, where water can be more easily recycled, and temperatures can be controlled. It’s also why I think that the kinds of power generation we use should vary depending on regional and local conditions.

We’ve spent centuries behaving as though we were separate from nature, and many of us are consequently unused to adapting ourselves to the material conditions of our local ecosystem. It’s a thing we need to re-learn, and because I also think we absolutely need to retain the use of technology and science, it’s a thing we need to re-invent. I believe it’s possible to have a high-tech human society that can exist as a conscious part of the global ecosystem, and as stewards of it. I also believe that doing so will require us to let go of expectations about our lives that are rooted in a world that no longer exists because of the societies that gave us those expectations.

Thank you for reading. If you find my work interesting, useful, or entertaining, please share it with others, and please consider joining the group of lovely people who support me at Life costs money, alas, and owing to my immigration status in Ireland, this is likely to be my only form of income for the foreseeable future, so if you are able to help out, I’d greatly appreciate it. The beauty of crowdfunding is that even as little as $1 per month ends up helping a great deal if enough people do it. You’d be supporting both my nonfiction and my science fiction writing, and you’d get early access to the fiction.

A couple thoughts on Thanksgiving, and a video on the holiday’s history from Some More News

There’s a lot to be said about Thanksgiving, what it represents, and what it has been used to obscure. I don’t think I personally have a lot to add on the subject, so for this year, here’s an entertaining breakdown of the holiday’s bleak history, as well as the ways in which colonial abuse and erasure of Indigenous Americans continues today.

As I’ve said before, dealing with climate change and injustice will both require global solidarity, and a central part of that is uplifting and empowering those currently at the bottom of our society’s hierarchy, both within the United States, and around the world. This is not just because it is the just and moral thing to do, and not just because solidarity is a good strategy for building peace and prosperity, but also because despite everything, the Indigenous communities of the Americas and of the world are at the front lines of defending vital ecosystems from destruction, and opposing the continued extraction and use of fossil fuels.

The least we can do is support their fight.

Looking back at history, geography, and climate: Why did colonialism happen in the way that it did?

Thanksgiving is a lot of things to a lot of people. I’ll be talking to my family back in the U.S., which will be nice, but I’ll also be reflecting a bit on the legacy of colonialism. I’ll have a post up tomorrow about Thanksgiving (and a video about it that I think is worth watching), but ahead of that I wanted to share a couple videos from the Youtuber Lonerbox. White supremacy is present in any discussion of colonialism, but it’s sometimes a bit hard to pin down what that term means. This isn’t the whole of it, but modern white supremacy has a couple versions of “might makes right” running through it. The first is the notion that the fact that European nations were able to achieve such violent dominance over so much of the world, is proof that those people deserved their power. The second is a bit more subtle, and it’s the idea that white people are more capable than other races. In a lot of ways, this is just a roundabout way of saying the same thing, but it moves a step back from justifying the violent conquest, to saying “look at all the wonderful things about the world that white people built”, and the flip side of “look at how terrible things are in countries run by non-white people”.

It’s not always spelled out that explicitly, but in both cases, it’s the claim that white people are destined to rule the world, and that “fact” is made manifest by the events of history. And so the question arises – why did things play out in the way they did?

Why, for example, didn’t Africa colonize Europe?

This video leaves some questions unanswered, and it contains a couple factual errors and misconceptions, so Lonerbox ended up putting together a follow-up that I think makes a good companion piece.

When we think about the way the world is today, and how we got here, I think it’s important to realize how much of human history has been shaped by the accidents of geography and climate.

That time a country ran sorta like a corporation, and the US decided to respond with murder

One of the most common “rebuttals” to anyone advocating any form of socialism is to demand evidence of a “successful” socialist country. This is always an annoying argument, not because there’s no answer, but because the answer is so detailed and extensive that it relates to a huge amount of world history over the last century and a half.

When you start digging into the history of neoliberalism – the paradigm under which we all currently live – you will inevitably start hearing about Chile and Augusto Pinochet. There’s a lot we can learn from studying the horrors of that US-backed regime, and the enforcement of Chicago School economic policies, but there’s also a lot we can learn about the government of Salvador Allende. Most of what I’ve heard has been about how Allende came to power (democratically), and how he killed himself after a Pinochet’s coup. What I did not know, until today, was the role played by an early nation-wide computer network that gave the government real-time information on the operation of the Chilean economy, and allowed them to respond to crises are they arose, and to test economic policies with computer models based on the data they were constantly gather.

All decades before the internet.

Now, I’ll admit that some of that – like the never-implemented home happiness dial – seems ripe for abuse, but I have to say that it’s far less invasive than the surveillance to which we’re currently subject, not only by our governments, but also by the various massive corporations that largely control our governments.

I think I’ve been primed, by the culture in which I grew up, to hear how Cybersyn worked, and to become suspicious, but as Tristan says, it’s no different from how any corporation runs today, except that in the case of Allende’s Chile, the focus was on improving life for the Chilean people, rather than on enriching the Waltons (for example).

Centralized power will probably always make me nervous, but I find this story fascinating. I also think it’s telling that the US put so much effort into replacing this successful democratic project with a brutal fascist regime.

I’ll post more about this period of history, because I think there’s a lot we can learn from it, in facing the problems of today. It also lets me do things like work on a post about Operation Condor the campaign of atrocities and repression, and Operation Condor the Jackie Chan movie. You might not think there’s much overlap, but where there is, I’ll find it!

If you want to commit to the superorganism, sharing your mind is not enough.

When the concept of superorganisms come up in science fiction, we tend to focus on the mental aspect of it. The collective consciousness of a hivemind seems to fascinate us, as something alien and uncomfortable. Stories that explore telepathy often dwell on the flood of thoughts and feelings from other people, and the sense of distrust and invasion upon realizing our thoughts and feelings can be seen or heard by others. I now have the opportunity, through the hivemind of the internet, to implant a new concept within your brain.

Come, and open your mind to the concept of a “social stomach”. Let me share with you these findings from – and I’m not joking about this- The Laboratory of Social Fluids, in the Biology Department of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland:

“Individual ants have two stomachs — one for digesting their own food and another one that comes first, a ‘social stomach’ for storing fluids that they share with other ants in their colony. These fluid exchanges allow ants to share food and other important proteins that the ants themselves produce,” says senior author Adria LeBoeuf, Assistant Professor and leader of the Laboratory of Social Fluids at the Department of Biology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

“To help us understand why ants share these fluids, we explored whether the proteins they exchange are linked to an individual’s role in the colony or the colony’s life-cycle,” adds lead author Sanja Hakala, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Fribourg.

The team analysed all of the ant-produced proteins found in the social stomachs of individual ants. They then compared how the proteins varied depending on whether the ant was a forager or a nurse caring for the colony’s young. They also investigated if the proteins varied depending on whether the ants were part of a new colony or a more established one.

I find this honestly fascinating. It immediately makes me think of discoveries about the ties between gut health and mental health, and such delightful treatments as fecal transplants to foster a better gut microbiome. Everyone talks about the dangers of artificial intelligence and The Singularity, but nobody seems to be paying much attention to the fact that we seem to be in the early stages of developing the option of a social intestine.

In a lot of ways, we’re already pretty comfortable with swapping our innards around. Organ transplants have been a fairly common thing for a long time now, and we’re getting better at processes like that. We also have some success with artificial organs like hearts or the “artificial kidneys” used in dialysis, but that’s still very focused on our individuality, and what’s contained within our person.

Perhaps, in my quest for a more harmonious society, I need to pay more attention to the field of social fluids. Humanity has achieved a great deal through division of labor, and maybe we should take a key from our more advanced compatriots, and look into things like the division of metabolic labor, too!

LeBoeuf concludes: “It is hard to measure how metabolic work is shared between cells. Here, the ants pass things around in a way that we can easily access what they are sharing. Having a better understanding of how ants share metabolic labour may help us learn more about the ways that other creatures, like humans, distribute metabolic tasks between different tissues or different cells in their bodies.

The singularity may be coming, but do we really think it’ll stop with a collective cyber-mind?

Thank you for reading. If you find my work interesting, useful, or entertaining, please share it with others, and please consider joining the group of lovely people who support me at Life costs money, alas, and owing to my immigration status in Ireland, this is likely to be my only form of income for the foreseeable future, so if you are able to help out, I’d greatly appreciate it. The beauty of crowdfunding is that even as little as $1 per month ends up helping a great deal if enough people do it. You’d be supporting both my nonfiction and my science fiction writing, and you’d get early access to the fiction.

Getting around the false promise of technological salvation

There’s a degree to which, from my perspective, watching for new developments in power storage feels a bit like watching for new developments in fusion power. There’s a promise, both explicit and implicit, that if we just wait a little longer, we’ll innovate our way out of the environmental crisis.

To start with, I want to address that last bit – even if we dealt with climate change, there would still be problems like the “insect apocalypse” (more on that in the coming days), “forever chemicals”, wasteful water use, and so on. Climate change is the most urgent environmental issue, but it’s not the only one poised to end human life as we know it. Multiple systems are in the middle of collapsing, and all of that spells Bad News. That’s why we need a holistic approach to dealing with how humanity interacts with this planet, so that we take care of the world that we hold in trust for those who come after us.

The most common response I see to the intermittency of wind and solar power is the use of various technologies for grid-level storage. I divide these into four basic categories: kinetic energy, potential energy, fuel, and batteries. Obviously fuel and batteries are both forms of chemical energy storage, but they’re used differently, so it feels right to separate them. Given my lack of expertise in this field, there’s a very good chance that my classification is bad, but I think it works well enough for this article.

Power storage using potential energy comes in a few different forms. One of the most everyday examples is winding up timepieces that run using springs or weights. I’m reasonably certain that placing giant watch springs all over the world would not help much, but all potential energy storage relies on the same basic principle – use power to apply force to something from which it can be released, to set it up for later power generation. The most common method at the grid level is probably pump storage. This generally uses either water or air. In the case of water, it’s pumped uphill to a reservoir of some sort, so that it can be released at need through a hydropower generator. For air, it’s similar, except the air is stored in massive tanks at high pressure.

The other method I’ve seen is to literally to lift heavy objects, so that gravity can be used to generate power at need. My favorite version involves putting train tracks on a slope, and having an electric engine move a heavy train car uphill, so that it can roll back downhill and run a generator.

Kinetic energy storage involves making a large object move, and then using that motion and momentum to generate power. The obvious downside is that for this to be useful, it needs to have very large objects, and they need to be moving very fast, without changing location. Pretty much any time energy is stored this way, it’s using what’s called a “flywheel“. There have been efforts to set up grid-level flywheel power storage, but it seems to be a technology with very, very narrow margins for error. If the flywheel is unbalanced by even a tiny bit, the high rotational speed and high mass of the wheel will cause a wobble that could be catastrophic. Think an unbalanced top-loading washing machine in a spin cycle, but it weighs thousands of pounds. If that starts to wobble, you’re in trouble.

The most straightforward use of fuel for power storage is probably hydrogen. Use electricity to split water molecules, producing hydrogen, which can be used either in fuel cells, or for combustion. The downside is that it’s a volatile gas, which can cause problems for safe  transportation and storage.

And then we have batteries.

Basically batteries store energy in the chemicals used to build them, in such a way that the energy is released as electricity when a circuit is connected.

There are a lot of different chemical combinations that will get this result, some of which can be recharged, and some of which cannot. When it comes to grid-level power storage, rechargeable batteries are all that really matter. There are also two basic approaches to storying power in batteries. I’ve seen interesting proposals for a distributed model using car batteries, combined with a “smart” grid, to allow power to be directed to where it’s needed, based partly on where it’s not. An electric car connected to the grid, for example, could be partly drained (with the owner’s permission) during a period of peak demand, and then re-filled when demand is lower and/or supply higher. Divided between the tens of millions of batteries you’d get from switching to electric cars, and there’s far less need for dedicated grid storage batteries.

Of course, the practicality of such a system may fall off if we shift more towards mass transit (which we should), so there’s still the question of big grid batteries. There’s a lot of worry that the materials for battery production – lithium in particular – could end up replacing oil as the biggest focus of war and exploitation. We’ve seen the beginning of that already.

That, combined with the hope for an easier transition through cheaper materials, has had scientists around the world trying to find alternative battery builds. If you follow this research a little, you’ll see headlines promising that a newly developed battery tech will revolutionize the power grid and make renewable energy the obvious choice. I think the first one that really caught my attention was the “gravel battery” a few years ago:

The only economically viable way of storing large amounts of energy is through pumped hydro – where excess electricity is used to pump water up a hill. The water is held back by a dam until the energy is needed, when it is released down the hill, turning turbines and generating electricity on the way.

Isentopic claims its gravel-based battery would be able to store equivalent amounts of energy but use less space and be cheaper to set up. Its system consists of two silos filled with a pulverised rock such as gravel. Electricity would be used to heat and pressurise argon gas that is then fed into one of the silos. By the time the gas leaves the chamber, it has cooled to ambient temperature but the gravel itself is heated to 500C.

After leaving the silo, the argon is then fed into the second silo, where it expands back to normal atmospheric pressure. This process acts like a giant refrigerator, causing the gas (and rock) temperature inside the second chamber to drop to -160C. The electrical energy generated originally by the wind turbines originally is stored as a temperature difference between the two rock-filled silos. To release the energy, the cycle is reversed, and as the energy passes from hot to cold it powers a generator that makes electricity.

Isentropic claims a round-trip energy efficiency of up to 80% and, because gravel is cheap, the cost of a system per kilowatt-hour of storage would be between $10 and $55.

This is a thermal battery, rather than a “chemical” one, but it sure seemed like a wonderful thing back when I heard about it in 2010. It promised effective large-scale power storage at a low price, and as far as I can tell, it hasn’t really gone anywhere since. The company discussed in that Guardian article is no longer in business.

Research continues, though, and now there’s another one, this time promising to use “iron flow” technology:

Flow batteries, however, look nothing like the battery inside smartphones or electric cars. That’s because the electrolyte needs to be physically moved using pumps as the battery charges or discharges. That makes these batteries large, with ESS’s main product sold inside a shipping container.

What they take up in space, they can make up in cost. Lithium-ion batteries for grid-scale storage can cost as much as $350 per kilowatt-hour. But ESS says its battery could cost $200 per kWh or less by 2025.

Crucially, adding storage capacity to cover longer interruptions at a solar or wind plant may not require purchasing an entirely new battery. Flow batteries require only extra electrolyte, which in ESS’s case can cost as little as $20 per kilowatt hour.

And so we have yet another “game-changing” power storage technology, and it feels like in another 10 years I’ll be wondering whatever happened to that.

This used to confuse and frustrate me, back before I started studying politics and economics. Back then, even Republicans had been admitting the need for climate action, and I kept being told that the only real obstacle to renewable energy was the “inconsistency”, and the lack of affordable power storage.

I’m still frustrated, but I’m less confused. I honestly don’t know how viable any of these technologies are. Various people who are better than me at math have made various claims about this stuff, and I don’t have ability to parse those directly. The one thing that everyone who cares about climate change seems to agree on is that we already have the technology to make the changes needed, what we lack is the political will. For some, that’s about renewable energy, for some it’s about nuclear, and for most, I think, it’s about a combination of the two.

Are these iron-flow batteries enough to make the transition away from fossil fuels easy? No. Because lack of storage technology has never been the primary obstacle to that transition. Would they be useful if we actually went all-in on dealing with climate change? I don’t know, but trying does seem to be the best way to find out. The same is true of the gravel/thermal system, and the distributed car-based system. It’s even an area in which some level of competition could yield good results for humanity, but despite what neoliberals might tell you, that competition is being blocked by capitalists, not by “the government”.

I guess the point of this post is this: We have tools to deal with climate change that we are currently not using. We are also constantly developing new tools that also don’t get used. We need to organize, to train, and to take power out of the hands of oligarchs and their ilk. Only then will we be able to use the collective might of humanity for the benefit and survival of humanity.

All we have is us, but if we work together, that should be plenty.

Thank you for reading. If you find my work interesting, useful, or entertaining, please share it with others, and please consider joining the group of lovely people who support me at Life costs money, alas, and owing to my immigration status in Ireland, this is likely to be my only form of income for the foreseeable future, so if you are able to help out, I’d greatly appreciate it. The beauty of crowdfunding is that even as little as $1 per month ends up helping a great deal if enough people do it. You’d be supporting both my nonfiction and my science fiction writing, and you’d get early access to the fiction.

Solar panels and shade: using “negative space” to increase climate resilience

I’m generally a fan of solar power, both photovoltaic and thermal. As I’ve said for a while now, I think our best bet for a resilient society is to have a diverse set of tools available, so that the strengths of one kind of power generation can help reinforce the weaknesses of another. I like distributed power generation for its potential to make it harder to control people’s access to electricity, which in turn gives more political power to everyday folks, similar to how a solid mutual aid network or strike fund can allow communities to survive unexpected hardship or to win the “siege” of a strike. I also very much like the portability of solar panels. As circumstances like rising sea levels or persistent heat force us to abandon some of the places in which we currently live, the whole process will be much easier if we can bring our power sources with us.

One problem with solar power is that whether you’re using mirrors to concentrate heat, or photovoltaic cells to generate electricity, both depend on a large surface area covered in the relevant material to “catch” enough sunlight to use. While I don’t buy the idea that we can run our entire society with just wind or just solar, scaling up renewable power in general can potentially conflict with the equally important goals of re-wilding parts of the landscape, and growing “carbon crops” for sequestration.

The solution that’s most commonly offered – at least for photovoltaic power – is to mount the panels on places like rooftops or parking lots, where there’s already guaranteed direct sunlight. I like this for a lot of reasons. Part of it is that it provides a failsafe for individuals and communities – if your building generates at least some of the power you use, that’s a huge benefit for surviving the various dangers of the growing climate crisis. At the same time, there are things that require a lot of power in one place, and power is always lost in transmission. That’s one reason why the whole “we could power the whole planet if we just cover a section of the Sahara with solar panels” idea has never actually been seriously considered – even with magically indestructible transmission lines, too much power would be lost getting to to where people live.

Rooftops are nice because they generally have at least some correlation to the amount of power being used; more people consume more power, and more people means more rooftops. On the other hand, I think as the temperature continues to rise, cities are going to need to introduce a lot more plant life if they want to keep outdoor temperatures at survivable levels. It’d be nice if I didn’t feel the need to keep saying it, but we’re at the point where we need to be deliberately engineering our surroundings to account for lethal heat. If we can, it would be wise for us to also take some action to help our ecosystems cope with the chaos we’ve caused. Fortunately, with solar panels, there’s a way to do that while also getting the benefits of centralized solar farms.

While we should be reducing our use of highways for rapid transit lining those that we do have with solar panels, either on the roadside or even covering parts of the highway is one option. Another is covering canals.

California’s water system is one of the largest in the world and brings critical water resources to over 27 million people. Brandi McKuin, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Santa Cruz and lead author of the study, found that that shading the canals would lead to a reduction in evaporation of water, kind of like keeping your glass of water under the shade instead of out in the open on a hot summer day prevents evaporation from stealing sips. Putting up a solar panel using trusses or suspension cables to act as a canal’s umbrella is what makes the double-whammy of a solar canal.

“We could save upwards of 63 billion gallons of water annually,” she says. “That would be comparable to the amount needed to irrigate 50,000 acres of farmland, or meet the residential water needs of over 2 million people.” Water is of especially critical importance to California, a state regularly stricken with drought.

The actual water savings aren’t huge, but there are also benefits to shading the water that go beyond losing less to evaporation:

Aquatic weeds also plague canals and can bring water flow to a standstill, but the researchers found that by adding shade, and decreasing the plant’s sunshine slashes the amount of weed growth. McKuin says preventing weed growth would also lighten the load for sometimes costly mechanical and chemical waterway maintenance.

As usual, the United States is lagging a bit behind on this one. India has been covering canals with solar panels for some time now, and have found that not only does it keep the canals cooler and more functional for human use, but the lower temperatures and limited sunlight reduce algal blooms that can make people sick, and that suck oxygen out of water, making it difficult for organisms like fish to survive.

Not only do we get those benefits, but the evaporation that does occur also helps keep the solar panels cool, improving their efficiency:

And while the water can benefit from the solar panels above, so do the panels from the water below. The running water helps the panels to remain cool, which increases their efficiency by at least 2.5-5%.

As most articles I’ve read on this point out, the up-front cost of solar farms over water tend to be higher than building on dry land, but I hope I don’t need to point out that cost should not be the primary concern when responding to global climate chaos. I’d like to see more research into the effects of things like shading ponds, lakes and rivers, but with those feeling the burn of climate change too, I think it’s worth trying out.

Going forward, I think there’s going to be a lot of austerity propaganda surrounding climate change. Whenever society has a ruling class, those rulers will always talk about the need to show “the resilience and ingenuity of our people”, by making everyone else suffer more, so that those at the top don’t have give up their power.

There are a lot of ways to combat that, but one is to relentlessly insist on framing the conversation about what collective investments will yield the biggest improvements to life for people in general. Reducing algal blooms and creating shaded swimming and boating areas, for example, could make a hotter climate far more bearable, and we’re going to need as much “more bearable” as we can get.

Thank you for reading. If you find my work interesting, useful, or entertaining, please share it with others, and please consider joining the group of lovely people who support me at Life costs money, alas, and owing to my immigration status in Ireland, this is likely to be my only form of income for the foreseeable future, so if you are able to help out, I’d greatly appreciate it. The beauty of crowdfunding is that even as little as $1 per month ends up helping a great deal if enough people do it. You’d be supporting both my nonfiction and my science fiction writing, and you’d get early access to the fiction.

Bigotry, Transphobia, and the BBC: They always tell on themselves

It is not a new insight to say that bigots always tell on themselves. The reasons they give for their bigotry never hold up to scrutiny, either in how they align with measurable reality, or in how they align with the actions of those bigots. For one glaring example, white supremacy in the United States has always leaned heavily on the idea of “protecting white women” from the violence and sexuality of non-white (usually black) men. At the same time, the people who lean so heavily on this narrative regularly deride the concept of rape culture, and are openly hostile toward efforts to hold white rapists accountable for their crimes. Regardless of what they might say, their actions indicate that they care more about non-white men being seen as a threat to white women than they are about the safety or wellbeing of those women. Because that justifies the policies and cultural norms that they want.

A similar pattern emerges when we look at anti-immigrant rhetoric, as is well illustrated in this Lonerbox video about the recent moral panic about “Muslim grooming gangs”:

For those who didn’t watch the video, the prevalence of the problem was grossly, deliberately inflated, and the term “grooming gang” was defined in such a way that it excluded the vast majority of sexual assault committed against children. Once again, the stated concern for the white victims of non-white assailants is not visible in their actions. What’s important to people like Carl Benjamin/Sargon of Akkad is that the group in question be seen as a threat, because that justifies bigoted laws and violence.

When the struggle for gay rights began to attract more attention, gay men were all accused of being pedophiles, and the narrative was that they had to be oppressed to protect the children. Even leaving aside the children being murdered around the world by the U.S. government, this lie was being told at the same time as the Roman Catholic Church was shuffling rapists around to protect and enable them, and other homophobic religious organizations had similar problems.

The goal wasn’t to protect children, it was to maintain bigotry and oppression. The children were just useful rhetorical tools.

It’s a story that repeats over and over again – bigotry against a group is justified with lies about the evils of that group, while the supposed victims are ignored.

And so we come to the BBC’s latest efforts at upholding the UK’s reputation as “TERF Island”.

The overall moral panic about trans people has never been about the supposed harm they do, because that harm doesn’t really exist. The same people who wail and wring their hands over the “danger” of trans women having access to toilets routinely ignore the much greater threats posed by cis men, and in the case of this article, by cis women. In their eagerness to paint trans women as rapists, the BBC chose to use an admitted rapist as a source, who then went on to call for trans people to be murdered.

Because bigots always tell on themselves. They find something “icky” and work backwards from that. They think they should have rights over another group and they work backward from that. The state of oppression, repression, and demographic hierarchy is the goal. It’s the “lifestyle” they want to protect. It’s where they feel safe from people and perspectives that scare them.

That’s not to say they don’t believe their own bullshit. I think most of them do believe it, but debunking a lie doesn’t tend to change anything, because the lie wasn’t the reason for their hatred – it was a justification to prevent you from calling them what they are, and to obstruct efforts at building a more just society.

Trans men are men. Trans women are women. Nonbinary people are valid.

And bigots lie to hide their bigotry.

The past is present: FBI bias against progressive politics continues to undermine the pretense of democracy in the U.S.

In the United States, we’re often taught about our own history in a way that makes it seem as though the people and events in question are all in the distant past. The good things changed us for the better, and the bad things also changed us for the better because we beat them. Because they’re in the past, you see. We just need to “move forward”.

And so people in positions of power commit crimes and atrocities, and the U.S. “moves forward” with rarely so much as a slap on the wrist.

The FBI has been a corrupt institution from the beginning, and while some people like to pretend that things like COINTELPRO are “in the past”, the reality is that with little change in personnel or policy, that intense bias remains intact. I want to be explicit – the government of the United States of America has, for generations now, spent huge amounts of taxpayer money surveilling, entrapping, killing, and undermining left-wing political movements and groups with the explicit goal of preventing the people from putting progressive politicians in office:

The flip side of this kind of political repression campaign is that they’re just fine with people on the far right, and while they do spend some resources on tracking right-wing extremism, there’s little evidence that their bias has gone anywhere. In fact, the FBI knew, well in advance of January 6 2021, that violence was being planned, and they did almost nothing to prevent it, or suggest that maybe Capitol Police shouldn’t be focused primarily on anti-Trump counterprotesters:

The United States has never been a democracy. You could argue that we’re closer than we used to be, but the reality is that the U.S. government remains deeply committed to capitalism over all other considerations, and they continue to use their resources both around the world and at home to destroy efforts at building something better.

The extremist ideology of endless growth and profits over human life needs to be rooted out of all institutions of power if we’re going to survive the warming climate and build a just and democratic society, and unfortunately we must expect them to fight back. The powerful have always used violence as their ultimate tool to maintain power, and as workers continue to organize and stand up for themselves, I’m very much afraid that there will be an effort to destroy what we’re trying to build, along with the people leading that movement. Hell, the FBI was even involved in furthering that goal in Brazil.

Keep your eyes open. It would be bad enough to have to deal with global warming and corporate power alone, but we will also have to deal with government institutions that have always preferred fascism to democracy.

Thank you for reading. If you find my work interesting, useful, or entertaining, please share it with others, and please consider joining the group of lovely people who support me at Life costs money, alas, and owing to my immigration status in Ireland, this is likely to be my only form of income for the foreseeable future, so if you are able to help out, I’d greatly appreciate it. The beauty of crowdfunding is that even as little as $1 per month ends up helping a great deal if enough people do it. You’d be supporting both my nonfiction and my science fiction writing, and you’d get early access to the fiction.