Are the rich safe from climate breakdown? Yes, and we should do something about that

Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist, and a climate activist. He’s doing work that’s desperately needed, and deserves our support. That said, I’m not sure whether I agree with how he framed a wildfire in California. The fire destroyed several multimillion dollar mansions near Laguna Beach on May 12th, prompting Kalmus to point out that the rich aren’t safe from Earth breakdown.

This feels like one of those times when something is technically correct – no human is safe from climate breakdown – but maybe less correct from both a practical and a tactical perspective. I admit that this may be a bit of a petty hair to split, but for some reason my brain hasn’t been cooperating today, but it’s happy to provide whatever this post is. I want to say again, because the internet seems to thrive on bullshit controversy, that I’m not “attacking” Peter Kalmus. If you want to categorize this post, you can view it as a well-meaning propagandist musing aloud about his craft. Ok? Ok.

There are three reasons why I think this post may be a little misguided. The first is that in practical terms, the rich are safe from climate breakdown. They’re safe from it in their heads, and their wealth will protect them from it for a long time. I think it’s fair to assume that everyone who owned those mansions had good insurance plans for them. Maybe there are some people with houses like that who would be ruined by the loss, but my impression is that for the most part, people with homes like that tend to have other homes in other locations. They can relocate without much difficulty. They might lose things of sentimental value, and they might even become slightly less wealthy, but that’s not the same as what happens when a normal person’s home burns.

The amount of safety will depend on how obscenely rich they are, but for the people at the top – the ones who could make a real difference on the climate issue if they cared to – it could well be more than a lifetime before their wealth runs out, if we don’t change how the world works, and take it away from them.

My second quibble is with what seems like an appeal to the wealthy. I see the value in trying to get those with power to do something, but I don’t think this accounts for who they really are – they’re people whose lives have demonstrated to them that they really can spend their way out of any problem. They are also people whose power and wealth came from having the means to make the world better, and choosing to enrich themselves instead. My impression of history is that they won’t learn the error of their ways until they are forced to by circumstance. If climate change is that circumstance, then it may be too late for the rest of us by then – it will take time for the wealthy to exhaust their resources.

Remember – these are people who can just buy themselves a state-of-the-art bunker on a whim, and stock it with a decade’s worth of food and water, without even considering where that money’s going to come from. They will try to create a neo-feudal climate hellscape with order enforced by paramilitaries fitted with shock collars, and by the time that fully falls apart on them, everything will be much, much worse. I don’t think they believe that they’re not safe, and I don’t think we can afford to wait for them to find out.

Finally, I worry that appeals like this perpetuate the idea that we have to ask our rulers to save the world. To quote Frederick Douglass, power concedes nothing without a demand, and I think the whole world will be far better off if we get our acts together and make that demand as soon as possible. The alternative is waiting until climate change scours away all of their power, and if that’s the path we take, they’ll use as many of us as human shields as possible to protect themselves. How many people will die by then? How much of our dwindling hope will be gone?

We should proceed as though the wealthy are safe from this global catastrophe, at least in the time frames that really matter right now. They’re safe for the same reason everyone else is not, and that should make us angry. They’re safe from climate change, and as long as that’s the case, humanity itself will continue to be in danger.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Trees and grasslands are great and all, but wetlands are how the cool kids capture carbon!

I’ve made no secret of my belief that our best bet for carbon capture and storage is to use plants. They’ve got an efficient system for pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, and they turn it into cellulose, which can be used or stored in a variety of ways. It’s not that I oppose the more high-tech solutions, just that as it stands, we very much need to be using the tools we already have.

The most popular candidate for plant-based carbon capture tends to be trees, and it’s not hard to see why. With a tree, you can really believe that it’s storing a huge amount of carbon. It’s this big, heavy, solid thing that can sometimes last for centuries. It’s also not hard to believe that something that size would have a lot of mass underground to keep it upright. The runner-up in popularity is grasslands, which store pretty much all of their carbon underground, and seem to actually be a better ecosystem for carbon capture.

Now a new contestant has entered the race. Wetlands – long understood to be vitally important ecosystems, and dangerously under-valued –  appear to be even better for carbon capture than grasslands!

DURHAM, N.C. – Human activities such as marsh draining for agriculture and logging are increasingly eating away at saltwater and freshwater wetlands that cover only 1% of Earth’s surface but store more than 20% of all the climate-warming carbon dioxide absorbed by ecosystems worldwide.

A new study published May 5 in Science by a team of Dutch, American and German scientists shows that it’s not too late to reverse the losses.

The key to success, the paper’s authors say, is using innovative restoration practices — identified in the new paper — that replicate natural landscape-building processes and enhance the restored wetlands’ carbon-storing potential.

And doing it on a large scale.

“About 1 percent of the world’s wetlands are being lost each year to pollution or marsh draining for agriculture, development and other human activities,” said Brian R. Silliman, Rachel Carson Distinguished Professor of Marine Conservation Biology at Duke University, who coauthored the study.

“Once disturbed, these wetlands release enormous amounts of CO2 from their soils, accounting for about 5 percent of global CO2 emissions annually,” Silliman said. “Hundreds, even thousands of years of stored carbon are exposed to air and start to rapidly decompose and release greenhouse gases. The result is an invisible reverse waterfall of CO2  draining into the atmosphere. The wetlands switch from being carbon sinks to sources.”

“The good news is, we now know how to restore these wetlands at a scale that was never before possible and in a way that both stops this release of carbon and re-establishes the wetland’s carbon storing capacity,” he said.

What makes most wetlands so effective at carbon storage is that they are formed and held together by plants that grow close to each other, Silliman explained. Their dense above- and below-ground mats of stems and roots trap nutrient-rich debris and defend the soil against erosion or drying out — all of which helps the plants to grow better and the soil layer to build up, locking in a lot more CO2 in the process.

In the case of raised peat bogs, the process works a little differently, Silliman noted. Layers of living peat moss on the surface act as sponges, holding enormous amounts of rainwater that sustain its own growth and keeps a much thicker layer of dead peat moss below it permanently under water. This prevents the lower layer of peat, which can measure up to 10 meters thick, from drying out, decomposing, and releasing its stored carbon back into the atmosphere. As the living mosses gradually build up, the amount of carbon stored below ground continually grows.

Successful restorations must replicate these processes, he said.

“More than half of all wetland restorations fail because the landscape-forming properties of the plants are insufficiently taken into account,” said study coauthor Tjisse van der Heide of the Royal Institute for Sea Research and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Planting seedlings and plugs in orderly rows equidistant from each other may seem logical, but it’s counter-productive, he said.

“Restoration is much more successful when the plants are placed in large dense clumps, when their landscape-forming properties are mimicked, or simply when very large areas are restored in one go,” van der Heide said.

“Following this guidance will allow us to restore lost wetlands at a much larger scale and increase the odds that they will thrive and continue to store carbon and perform other vital ecosystem services for years to come,” Silliman said. “The plants win, the planet wins, we all win.”

Silliman and van der Heide conducted the new study with scientists from the Netherlands’ Royal Institute for Sea Research, Utrecht University, Radboud University, the University of Groningen, the University of Florida, Duke University, and Greifswald University.

By synthesizing data on carbon capture from recent scientific studies, they found that oceans and forests hold the most CO2 globally, followed by wetlands.

“But when we looked at the amount of CO2 stored per square meter, it turned out that wetlands store about five times more CO2 than forests and as much as 500 times more than oceans,” says Ralph Temmink, a researcher at Utrecht University, who was first author on the study.

Humanity has a complicated relationship with wetlands. They’re not very compatible with how we’ve been doing things recently, and they tend to produce vast amounts of biting insects. Whether or not you think it’s a good thing, filling in wetlands in the United States is part of why cities like Boston and New York City don’t have to struggle with the burdens of endemic malaria (mass insecticide use is probably a bigger reason, especially in the south).

That said, it makes sense that marshes would do well for carbon capture, since water isn’t a limitation on photosynthesis in that kind of environment. As part of reshaping how we interact with the ecosystems around us, I think we would do very well to find a better way to live with wetlands. What’s more, much of the world has access to another “natural tool” for creating wetlands!

When I put up that beaver video the other day, I mentioned on twitter that I think we should form a cooperative relationship with beavers the way we have with dogs. I was mostly joking, but the reality is that they are phenomenal at creating wetland ecosystems, when humans don’t mess with their water supply or kill them. Simply restoring them to their historic range – especially in Eurasia – would probably pay dividends in ecosystem health and carbon capture down the road.

At the same time, we can work with sea level rise to set ourselves up for better carbon capture in the decades to come. Part of re-locating low-lying coastal communities should be de-developing those areas on our way out. Pull out as much as possible in the way of reusable materials, and pollutants, and then look into reshaping the land and planting vegetation to encourage salt marshes to grow as the water rises.

As I keep saying, we have the resources and understanding to actually deal with climate change. That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy, even if we manage to overcome the political obstacles, but the possibilities presented by everything we know are vast. The odds are not in our favor, but I believe that far from settling for bare survival, we can still make a better world.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

A video on part of the ADHD experience

I think it’s pretty common, in any area of activism or advocacy, to get passionate about something before you fully understand it. We look back on things we did years ago, and while we understand our reasoning at the time, we also can see how we’d do that differently today. Writing that sentence out, I think it probably applies to most aspects of life. It’s part of what we are, and it always will be, no matter how much we cringe at some of our memories. I think that kind of reflection is also an important part of who and what we are, and we live in a world that doesn’t often allow us to have time for it.

There are some things in this video that don’t fit my life one to one (I think that’s part of why I haven’t seen more than one or two videos from this channel, but some of this hits hard.

That feeling she describes – like I never get to actually have time off, because I haven’t “earned” it. That’s part of what made my salaried work at TERC so difficult towards the end – it wasn’t that I was doing worse or less work than others necessarily, it’s that the way I did it meant that I never really got time off, and no matter how many different techniques I tried to keep my brain in line, they’d only work for a short time, because they became a sort of hobby in themselves, until they just stopped working.

I’m working on a new novel now, in addition to this blog and my other fiction projects, and it’s going well. I’ve been able to maintain daily posting and work on fiction projects, all without burning out. That didn’t just happen out of nowhere – it happened when I managed to convince myself that time spent writing really, truly counted as “work”. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make ends meet with this. I am incredibly lucky in that I have a couple years in which there are almost no external forces determining my schedule, and while it took me a while to get into it, I’m finally able to write. I finally have the time and the energy to do the work that I want  to do, at my own pace. If I’m honest, the thought of having to go back to the way things were is horrifying. For all the good things in my life, it often didn’t feel like living. It felt like I was waiting to get my shit together, and then my life would start.

It felt that way all through my 20s, and most of the way through my 30s, even when I had a good job, a decent income, and good benefits. I got a brief taste of this life back in Somerville, when I took a little time off after leaving TERC, but I also had the threat of the U.S. healthcare system hovering over me. A big part of why I care so much about building a world where people get free time to themselves by default, is that that seems like the only way that people will ever be able to pursue happiness.


Green spaces are good for your brain.

I like greenery. I like the idea of cities that are covered in plant life, for a whole host of reasons, many of which I’ve gone into before. It’s fair to say that I’m already pretty convinced that this is a good idea, but now another piece of evidence has come along:

Published in the journal JAMA Network Open, the study found that exposure to greenspace around one’s home and surrounding neighborhood could improve processing speed and attention, as well as boost overall cognitive function. The results also showed that lowered depression may help explain the association between greenspace and cognition, bolstering previous research that has linked exposure to parks, community gardens, and other greenery with improved mental health.

“Some of the primary ways that nature may improve health is by helping people recover from psychological stress and by encouraging people to be outside socializing with friends, both of which boost mental health,” says study lead author Marcia Pescador Jimenez, an assistant professor of epidemiology. “This study is among the few to provide evidence that greenspace may benefit cognitive function in older ages. Our findings suggest that greenspace should be investigated as a potential population-level approach to improve cognitive function.”

For the study, Pescador Jimenez and colleagues from SPH, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Rush Medical College estimated residential greenspace with a satellite image-based metric called the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). They measured psychomotor speed, attention, learning, and working memory among 13,594 women aged 61 on average and primarily White, from 2014 to 2016. The women were participants in the Nurses’ Health Study II, the second of three studies that are among the largest investigations into the risk factors for chronic diseases among US women.

Adjusting for age, race, and individual and neighborhood socioeconomic status, the researchers found that greenspace exposure was associated with psychomotor speed and attention, but not learning or working memory.

In addition to depression, the researchers also examined the potential roles of air pollution and physical activity in explaining the association between greenspace and cognitive function, and they were surprised to only find evidence of depression as a mediating factor.

“We theorize that depression might be an important mechanism through which green space may slow down cognitive decline, particularly among women, but our research is ongoing to better understand these mechanisms,” Pescador Jimenez says. “Based on these results, clinicians and public health authorities should consider green space exposure as a potential factor to reduce depression, and thus, boost cognition. Policymakers and urban planners should focus on adding more green space in everyday life to improve cognitive function.”

While the study shows evidence of this association, the greenspace metric that the researchers used to measure greenspace exposure does not differentiate between specific types of vegetation. In a new project funded by The National Institute on Aging, Pescador Jimenez will apply deep learning algorithms to Google Street View images to better understand which specific elements of greenery, such as trees or grass, could be the driving factors for health.

The researchers also hope that their study is replicated among other racial/ethnic populations and assesses associations with cognitive decline over longer periods of time.

“The distribution of green spaces in cities is not uniform,” says Pescador Jimenez. “Increasing everyday access to vegetation across vulnerable groups in urban cities is a crucial next step to achieve health equity.”

That last point is key. Not only is distribution of green spaces not uniform, but there’s also almost always a strong racial element in determining the healthiness of one’s surroundings. If you want more on that, Mano Singham did a good writeup to go with John Oliver’s video on environmental racism in the United States. Unfortunately the racial and economic microcosms we often see in my home country are often replicated at a global scale. This is part of why I focus so much on politics – if we can’t change how humanity is run, then even if we manage to survive climate change, we’re going to keep running ourselves into crisis after needless crisis. Among other things, I think that means improving the quality of life of those at the bottom, and uplifting the rest of us as they catch up, and resources allow. Improving where people live should be a big part of that.

Earth’s farmland is running low on water. Maybe we should do something?

I’m periodically reminded that the internet is full of people who either think climate change isn’t happening, or who think that it is, but that it’s nothing to do with humanity. That latter group always puzzles me – they insist that they don’t deny that the temperature’s rising, and all the rest, they just don’t seem to think we should do anything about it. That’s not just about stuff like ending fossil fuel use, but also stuff like changing how we do agriculture, or how coastal communities are built.

It’s almost like they don’t actually believe anything is happening.

Anyway, all of this is to say that it seems like I’ll be posting stuff like this in perpetuity – a sort of collective Sisyphean task shared by everyone who wants climate action. To the great shock of nobody who’s been paying attention, “agricultural water scarcity is expected to increase in more than 80% of the world’s croplands by 2050“:

The new study examines current and future water requirements for global agriculture and predicts whether the water levels available, either from rainwater or irrigation, will be sufficient to meet those needs under climate change. To do so, the researchers developed a new index to measure and predict water scarcity in agriculture’s two major sources: soil water that comes from rain, called green water, and irrigation from rivers, lakes and groundwater, called blue water. It’s the first study to apply this comprehensive index worldwide and predict global blue and green water scarcity as a result of climate change.

“As the largest user of both blue and green water resources, agricultural production is faced with unprecedented challenges,” said Xingcai Liu, an associate professor at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and lead author of the new study. “This index enables an assessment of agricultural water scarcity in both rainfed and irrigated croplands in a consistent manner.”

In the last 100 years, the demand for water worldwide has grown twice as fast as the human population. Water scarcity is already an issue on every continent with agriculture, presenting a major threat to food security. Despite this, most water scarcity models have failed to take a comprehensive look at both blue and green water.

Green water is the portion of rainwater that is available to plants in the soil. A majority of precipitation ends up as green water, but it is often overlooked because it is invisible in the soil and can’t be extracted for other uses. The amount of green water available for crops depends on the how much rainfall an area receives and how much water is lost due to runoff and evaporation. Farming practices, vegetation covering the area, the type of soil and the slope of the terrain can also have an effect. As temperatures and rainfall patterns shift under climate change, and farming practices intensify to meet the needs of the growing population, the green water available to crops will also likely change.

Mesfin Mekonnen, an assistant professor of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering at the University of Alabama who was not involved in the study, said the work is “very timely in underlining the impact of climate on water availability on crop areas.”

“What makes the paper interesting is developing a water scarcity indicator taking into account both blue water and green water,” he said. “Most studies focus on blue water resources alone, giving little consideration to the green water.”

The researchers find that under climate change, global agricultural water scarcity will worsen in up to 84% of croplands, with a loss of water supplies driving scarcity in about 60% of those croplands.

The press release goes on to recommend agricultural practices like mulching and no-till farming to reduce water loss, as well as changing planting times to coincide better with seasonal rainfall. All of that is great, and I have no problem with it, but I think we need to do more. There’s a limit to how much we can get out of better water conservation, especially with heat waves getting hotter and longer. I do not believe this is a crisis we can escape by making minor adjustments to how we do things. We need to develop new ways to produce food.

Tips for accessing reproductive healthcare in the United States

Whether or not the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade has the exact language as the leaked memo, I think it’s safe to assume that the GOP will continue their relentless effort to make reproductive healthcare inaccessible. That won’t reduce the need for abortion and contraception, but it will make safe reproductive care difficult to access, and impossible for some. In some parts of the U.S., the “right” to an abortion exists only on paper, because of the logistical barriers that have been put in place. When confronted with unjust laws, it is right and just to break those laws, and when it comes to something like health care, I would say it’s our duty to do what we can to help those in need of care, to whatever degree we’re able. To that end, I’m linking some relevant resources. I’ll try to update this as I come across more materials, and I hope you folks will fill in any gaps in the comments. As with everything else, we’re at our strongest when we work together.

I have one more thing to add: The kinds of organizing and networking I periodically talk about are humanity’s original multi-tool for dealing with big problems. Having a network and knowing who in it believes what is a way for people to seek help. If you aren’t likely to need help yourself, it puts you in a position where others know that you might be able to provide it. Also a general reminder – if you’re planning to do something that could get you in trouble, don’t post about it online, and consider who might have access to your modes of communication.

This resource was last updated on the sixth of May, 2022.

There’s more on that thread that’s worth looking at.

Take care of yourselves, and take care of each other.

Working to preserve biodiversity will help us deal with climate change

The current global climate shift and the related global ecological collapse are both incredibly all-consuming problems. No matter where we look, there are more ways in which what’s happening seems to be worse than we thought. There are a lot of reasons for that, but a big one is the degree to which everything on the surface of this planet is interconnected. Dust from one continent is an important source of nutrients on another, all the way across an ocean. Heat absorbed by Caribbean waters makes northern islands like Ireland balmy enough to grow palm trees. Rain in Roke may be drought in Osskil. What we’ve been doing to this planet is a bit like trying to pull just one branch out of a large brush pile. There’s no way to do it without other branches moving.

The upside to that is that as we learn how things work, we can also learn how to help the system stabilize itself, at least a little. This isn’t the kind of thing that will solve any problems by itself, but to me it’s evidence that if we can deal with the ways in which we are causing environmental collapse, we can also guide and even accelerate the recovery process. Taking action to protect biodiversity, it turns out, is also very likely to help the biosphere cope with climate change:

When the global community is expected to meet for the second part of the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China, in autumn, it must also adopt the next generation of UN biodiversity targets. These will then replace the Aichi Targets that were aimed for until 2020 – and have hardly been achieved. 21 “Post-2020 Action Targets for 2030” have already been pre-formulated. While they still have to be finally agreed, they aim to reduce potential threats to biodiversity, improve the well-being of humans, and implement tools and solutions for the conservation of biodiversity.

In a review study for Global Change Biology, the authors assessed to which extent these 21 biodiversity targets can also slow climate change. The bottom line: 14 out of 21 (i.e. two thirds) of all targets are making a positive contribution to climate protection. “It turns out that conservation measures that halt, slow, or reverse the loss of biodiversity can greatly slow human-induced climate change at the same time”, says lead author Dr. Yunne-Jai Shin of the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD). Among others, this applies to the goal of connecting protected areas via corridors or further protected areas on at least 30% of the earth’s surface. “There is growing evidence that the creation of new protected areas and the adequate management of existing ones on land and in the sea help to mitigate climate change through capture and storage of carbon”, says UFZ biodiversity researcher and co-author Prof. Josef Settele. For example, it is estimated that all terrestrial protected areas around the globe currently store 12-16% of the total global carbon stock. And, even though knowledge is still limited, deep-sea ecosystems can also contain important carbon stocks on the seabed (e.g. on remote islands, deep-sea mountains, and Arctic and Antarctic continental shelves). However, the 30% target is still far from being reached. According to current United Nations figures from 2021, the coverage of protected areas on land was 15.7%, and in the sea, 7.7%.

But climate also benefits from some of the other newly formulated global biodiversity goals. For example, one goal is also to restore at least 20% of degraded ecosystems (e.g. tropical and subtropical forests) or coastal habitats (e.g. coral reefs, sea grass beds, and mangrove forests). According to the study, global carbon capture in coastal systems is considerably lower than in terrestrial forests because of their smaller size. However, the amount of carbon captured per unit of coastal vegetation area is considerably higher. Taking biodiversity into account in laws, directives, and spatial planning processes also helps to protect the climate because, inter alia, it prevents the clearing of forests, which are an important CO2 reservoir. Other goals that are positive for both biodiversity and climate protection include the expansion of green and blue infrastructures in cities (e.g. parks, green roofs, and lakes) or better public relations work in order to encourage the general public to deal with waste in a more sustainable way and to consume less.

The authors have compiled 12 case studies in order to illustrate how these biodiversity goals are already being implemented in practice (e.g. in the conservation of African peat lands, the protection of mega-fauna in the Southern Ocean, or the saving of the largest mangrove forests on earth, the Sundarbans, on the border between India and Bangladesh). However, there may also be conflicting goals between the protection of climate and biodiversity. In Central Europe, the preservation of the cultural landscape is an example that shows that not everything can be easily reconciled. On one hand, imitating traditional land use systems instead of intensifying or even abandoning land use has clear advantages for the conservation of biodiversity. “These systems reduce the extinction risk of rare species and varieties that are quite well adapted to an extensive form of agricultural use and promote the preservation of a high diversity of pollinators and natural enemies of pests”, says UFZ researcher Josef Settele. On the other hand, there are conflicts because some of the measures are, in fact, harmful to climate. “Because much of the land is used for agriculture, the proportion of forest is not as high, and less carbon is stored”, he says. In addition, the farming of cattle, sheep, and cows releases methane, which is harmful to the climate. “There is a consensus that we must stop climate change – but this must not be at the expense of nature. We therefore need to find methods to slow climate change and implement adaptation measures without losing biodiversity. This is often possible only through compromises”, says Settele. It would therefore be positive if many of the new global biodiversity targets of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity were implemented. Prof. Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-author and climate researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), adds: “The climate problem is now well understood. However, the issue of biodiversity is treated in complete separation – even when it comes to possible solutions. There is also the risk that nature is discussed as a vehicle for solving the climate problem; this is quite problematic. The capacity of ecosystems to slow climate change is overestimated, and climate change is damaging this capacity”. Humans nevertheless believe that nature is capable of overcoming the climate crisis and enabling us to continue or prolong the use of fossil fuels. “But it is the other way round: only when we succeed in drastically reducing emissions from fossil fuels nature can help us to stabilise the climate”, says Pörtner.

This is the kind of thing I mean when I write about engaging in ecosystem management and support. One very small upside of our destruction of the environment has been that in studying it, we’ve gained a better understanding of how we might help damaged ecosystems recover, or even help new ecosystems develop that are more likely to continue nurturing life as the climate warms.

Nothing is guaranteed – not our success, and not our extinction. When predictions are made about climate change, they are always conditional on a variety of factors. If we stop doing the wrong things, that will buy us time, and save lives. If we start doing the right things, we can transform the world.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

The Democrats are not blameless: Some thoughts about how we got here

It looks like we’re fast approaching an end to abortion rights in the United States, as guaranteed by the 1973 Supreme Court case known as Roe v. Wade. From what I can tell, overturning this case won’t just put reproductive rights in jeopardy, but a number of other civil rights as well. I might write more about that in the future, but there’s no shortage of commentary on the subject right now, and for today I wanted to talk about what it looks like when the people in power actually want to deliver on their promises.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the Democratic Party’s inability to deliver on their progressive promises isn’t just a matter of bumbling incompetence. There’s probably an element of that, but to me it looks like they don’t actually want to deliver, when it comes to left-wing policies. Some individuals within the party probably do, but the leadership? Not so much. They don’t do any of the things I’d expect them to do, were that the case.

The Republican Party are to blame for all of the vicious and harmful things they do, but not only do they represent a minority of the country, everybody knows they represent a minority, and they’re fairly often in the minority in government as well. When they are in government, the GOP seems to be far more effective at accomplishing their goals than their counterparts. I think we would be wise to look at how they do things, and take pointers about what can be done in pursuit of our goals, and on what it looks like when political leaders actually want to deliver on their promises.

Not everything will work as well for the left as it does for the right. Conservatives basically “win” every time they delay or roll back a change. They don’t care about the people being hurt by the status quo, so there’s no real sense of urgency about anything except stopping change. That means that it’s far, far easier for them to play a long game, and build up their political power through state and local politics. Conservatives also tend to push the interests of those in power, which means financial support, and an expectation of gentle treatment by the authorities. After the insurrection attempt on January 6th 2021, I saw some of the more revolution-hungry folks in the online left saying that that’s what we should be doing. The most common rebuttal was that there’s no way law enforcement would have such a gentle response to an insurrection attempt by a left-wing mob. We face different obstacles, so it stands to reason that we’ll need different tools at least some of the time.

That said, the GOP shows us what it looks like when a party actually has goals. I’ve said before that I feel the Democrats – or at least the party leadership – view politics as a sort of game. What seems to matter most to them is that the rules be followed, and that the two sides be as evenly matched as possible. Even if they might like to see some progressive change, it’s not something they’re willing to fight for. The Republicans, on the other hand, actually want a lot of the stuff they say they want, and so they do everything they can to get it. When they followed through on their promised Muslim ban, the GOP didn’t bother waiting for some committee to tell them what the courts would probably say, they just wrote the ban and tried it, knowing it would probably be shot down.

Knowing that there would be no penalty for trying.

It was shot down, they adjusted it to fit what the ruling said and tried again. That was shot down, and they adjusted and tried again. Rather than caring about “doing it right”, or playing by the rules, they have a goal in mind, and try everything they can think of to achieve it. The Democratic party only seems to be able to do that when it comes to things like funding the Pentagon. There’s a degree to which it’s useless to speculate on their “real” motivations, but they certainly don’t act as if any of the progress they promise is a real priority, and they haven’t acted like that at any point in my life.

I don’t know whether we have any shot at getting people like Biden or Pelosi to actually fight for the things they claim to want, but I think this is at minimum a good thing to consider when deciding whether they’re doing a good job. It’s been 49 years since Roe v Wade, and there has been a relentless effort – including terrorism – to end the right to abortion. Everyone knew this was coming, and yet for all the times the Democrats held power, and for all their endless campaigning about being the True Protectors™ of reproductive rights, they never followed through. They never actually made the right to abortion law.

And it sure as hell looks like they never actually tried.

Nobody in the party leadership is going to be directly hurt by this. They’re all rich. They’ll all be able to get abortions and any other reproductive care they need, and getting it isn’t going to cause them any financial or legal hardship. The same was true during the “Obamacare” fight – the people who took single-payer and the public option off of the table before negotiations started were never at risk of losing their access to healthcare. It’s not hard to see what it looks like when politicians actually want to achieve their stated goals, and I see no real evidence that anyone in the leadership of the Democratic party ever wanted anything more than endless fundraising off of the precarity of rights they never really intended to secure. It sure seems like they knew they were the only option for people who care about reproductive rights, and rather than deal with the problem, they chose to hold it over people’s heads for votes and contributions.

Everything about this situation makes me angry.

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Tegan Tuesday: Congrats! You’re poor now!

Every January since 1981, the US Department of Health and Human Services updates the poverty guidelines (aka the poverty line) based on the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U). The poverty guidelines outline the eligibility criteria for a number of US assistance programs such as Medicaid or SNAP. The poverty thresholds were initially created in 1963 by Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration (SSA). To quote from Health and Human Services,

Orshansky used a factor of three because the Agriculture Department’s 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey found that for families of three or more persons, the average dollar value of all food used during a week (both at home and away from home) accounted for about one third of their total money income after taxes.

In May 1965, the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity adopted Orshansky’s poverty thresholds as a working or quasi-official definition of poverty. In August 1969, the U.S. Bureau of the Budget (predecessor of the Office of Management and Budget) designated the poverty thresholds with certain revisions as the federal government’s official statistical definition of poverty.

Because of this metric, it’s assumed by the Powers That Be that approximately one third of household income is spent on rent, one third spent on food, and the remaining third spent elsewhere – that these ratios have remained unchanging for nearly a century. These are the same metrics that influence whether or not you can rent an apartment based on your income – property management often won’t allow you to spend more than a third of income for rent. Obviously there are ways and means around every system, and I mostly dealt with that in my own life by working with small scale landlords and trying to keep my rent spending below half of my income. When I initially became the primary breadwinner of my household, Abe and I were living in the Boston area, and so our rent was close to 75-80% of my income. And yet, we were ineligible for assistance, as the poverty line for a two-person household was $16,460 a year in 2017 — aka, less than our cheap Boston apartment by approximately $400. We could barely make rent, but we weren’t officially poor as the US government defined it. Note: this and all other statistics used in this article are based off of the rates for the contiguous US – Alaska and Hawai’i have higher numbers to account for their much higher living costs.

The CPI-U is based on the record of approximately 80,000 items each month gathered by thousands of data collectors. There are eight major spending categories (food and beverages; housing; apparel; transportation; medical care; recreation; education; other) and rates of increase can be sorted out by category, by region, or a few other divisions. My concerns with it’s value, as it’s currently set up, as a metric for poverty or government assistance programs can be quoted directly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics website:

One limitation is that the CPI-U may not be applicable to all population groups. For example, the CPI-U is designed to measure inflation for the U.S. urban population and thus may not accurately reflect the experience of people living in rural areas. The CPI-U does not produce official estimates for the rate of inflation experienced by subgroups of the population, such as the elderly or the poor. Note that we do produce an experimental index for the elderly population that is available upon request; however, because of the significant limitations of this experimental index, it should be interpreted with caution.

Another limitation is that the CPI-U cannot be used to measure differences in price levels or living costs between one area and another as it measures only time-to-time changes in each area. A higher index for one area does not necessarily mean that prices are higher there than in another area with a lower index. Instead, it means that prices have risen faster in the area with the higher index calculated from the two areas’ common reference period. Additionally, the CPI-U is a conditional cost-of-living measure; it does not attempt to measure everything that affects living standards. Factors such as social and environmental changes and changes in income taxes are beyond the definitional scope of the index and are excluded. [source]

Because these are self-reported spendings from average, (I assume) middle-class Americans, they almost certainly don’t accurately reflect the spending habits and needs of the demographics that would be eligible for assistance! This is frustrating in a number of ways, and while I can certainly spitball reasons for why those demographics aren’t represented, it doesn’t change the fact that this seems to a problem built into the system. The spending habits of the non-poor was one of the reasons why the UK developed the Vimes Boots Index, after all. But unlike the UK system, I see no evidence that the US reports are built around luxury goods. They are just likely to be middle class. Apparently it was only in 2019 that telephone surveys were replaced as the primary means of data collection, so just think about who was likely to answer phone surveys on spending habits in the past decade – that’s who’s spending the index was based around.

As an additional contrast to the UK, I was pleasantly surprised to find that rent was one of the many things that was included as a metric for the CPI-U. According to the BLS, the CPI Housing survey covers approximately 0.11% of all rental properties in the US, with 32,000 units in the survey. I initially felt that was an outrageously small sample size, but a friend with more experience in population-sized datasets assures me that it’s a fairly normal ratio, so long as it is truly a representative sample. I was unable to find any clear details about how the housing survey is spread across the US, so please let me know if you have any ideas or further information! But I will optimistically assume that these rental properties are a true representative sample and are fairly spread across the US.

But rejoice! Look at how much the poverty line has increased this year! This means that more Americans are eligible for benefits and are able to take advantage of this opportunity. The higher the cut-off rate for government assistance, the more households that are eligible.

This image is a graph showing the total increase to the US poverty line, without accounting for inflation, since the year 2003. The increase varies from year to year, with the one from 2021 to 2022 being obviously larger than any other year.

This year’s cut off income for a single person household is $13,590 a year, or $1,132.50 per month. That is still outrageously (and intentionally) low. (Note: I did track the rate of change across multi-person households as well, but they follow roughly the same path as that of a single person, so I have simplified the data for ease viewing.) This surely is reflective of the current state of affairs, as the CPI-U takes into account the recent food hikes and the energy price increases and rents that always, always go up (albeit these are based on four-year old data, as that’s how long it takes to process the CPI-U). This $13.5k must be similar to the poverty rate of previous years. Factoring for inflation, however, actually tells a very different story.

The image is a graph showing the US poverty index from 2002 to 2022, adjusted for March 2022 rates. Since the high point in 2009 at just under 14800, the overall trend has been downward, with a slight recovery in the mid 2010s

This graph shows the income rates for a Single Person Household as given by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation and run through the inflation calculator provided by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. So each number, assigned in January of the given year, has been factored to represent the spending power of the USD in March 2022. And allowing for inflation, fewer and fewer American households are eligible for government assistance. This assistance could be housing aid, cheaper health insurance, or the various programs lumped together as ‘food stamps’. The only saving grace for poor Americans is that wages have also stagnated over the past two decades, so many people who were near the cut-off point might have slipped into eligibility without having to lose a dime.

It’s not a lie that this year’s poverty index has risen more than any other year in the past twenty – the average increase (not accounting for inflation) is 2.17% and this year’s is a 5.51% from 2021. But inflation has completely overrun everything else, making it harder and harder for the average American to stretch their dollar even as far as it did two years ago. I think it should go without saying, but just in case, I don’t think that anyone should be struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

The past decade has involved a great deal of unlearning my own shame and stigma with being labeled ‘poor’. I am poor – I grew up poor, and for most of my adult life, I have been poor. I have known people with less than me, but I have never been so comfortable as to not worry about food insecurity. It’s probably pretty clear from the guest posts I have done here, but ready access to affordable and healthy food is one of my biggest concerns for the planet. While the new poverty line won’t bring help to as many American households as it should, hopefully it will have an impact on more than it did previously. If you or someone you know is eligible for assistance based off of the new numbers, please start the process to apply. It absolutely sucks – US food and housing assistance have some of the worst bureaucratic hurdles to jump over. But for anyone making under $20k a year, every little bit helps. And even those of us who aren’t near the cut-off point – now’s a good time to start investing in household food storage and larger food networks. Exiting the pandemic, we all could use a little social activity. Why not make it a supper club or a regular potluck? This is social and network building, while also not straining any given household’s resources. More and more people are going to be considered ‘poor’ rather than ‘comfortable’ or even simply ‘middle-class’, and the sooner we can build solidarity among the working poor, the sooner we can build enough momentum to change the system.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!