Video: True Facts about the giraffe

As always, Ze Frank gives the most analytical and academic of looks at his video’s subject. What’s unusual about this one is his revelation about the truth behind the Great Giraffe Lie, which simultaneously explains something that the theory of evolution never could, and serves as a warning. If lions have been using tools all along, what else are they capable of? Are we even safe? Could there be a lion behind us right now? We may never know.


War makes climate change more dangerous

This feels like it shouldn’t need to be said, and yet we continue to have an economy that seems to use war as a method of turning raw materials into profit by killing people. War is a high-pollution industry, from the direct emissions of fuel consumption, to the fires created, to habitat destroyed, to poisons left in the land. Unfortunately, it goes beyond that. Unexploded ordinance is a long-known problem, and a constant threat for people who live around current and former war zones.

You may be surprised to hear this, but this scenario doesn’t combine well with wildfires.

Nature will help clean up plastic pollution, we just need top stop adding to the problem

For most of my life, the conventional wisdom has been that because nothing eats plastic, it will last for thousands of years, so we need to clean it all up. I can’t back this up with numbers, but I feel like this approach is why people have been so taken with things like Ocean Cleanup. Rebecca Watson has pointed out the problems with that particular endeavor, and as with most pollution, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Our energy would be far better spent reducing the amount of plastic waste generated in the first place.

But when it comes to cleanup – which I do think we should do – it’s encouraging, and a little concerning to know that Earth’s bacteria have been evolving to take advantage of this strange, calorically dense food we’ve been leaving all over the place:

A study of 29 European lakes has found that some naturally-occurring lake bacteria grow faster and more efficiently on the remains of plastic bags than on natural matter like leaves and twigs.

The bacteria break down the carbon compounds in plastic to use as food for their growth.

The scientists say that enriching waters with particular species of bacteria could be a natural way to remove plastic pollution from the environment.

The effect is pronounced: the rate of bacterial growth more than doubled when plastic pollution raised the overall carbon level in lake water by just 4%.

The results suggest that the plastic pollution in lakes is ‘priming’ the bacteria for rapid growth –  the bacteria are not only breaking down the plastic but are then more able to break down other natural carbon compounds in the lake.

Lake bacteria were found to favour plastic-derived carbon compounds over natural ones. The researchers think this is because the carbon compounds from plastics are easier for the bacteria to break down and use as food.

The scientists caution that this does not condone ongoing plastic pollution. Some of the compounds within plastics can have toxic effects on the environment, particularly at high concentrations.

The findings are published today in the journal Nature Communications.

“It’s almost like the plastic pollution is getting the bacteria’s appetite going. The bacteria use the plastic as food first, because it’s easy to break down, and then they’re more able to break down some of the more difficult food – the natural organic matter in the lake,” said Dr Andrew Tanentzap in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, senior author of the paper.

He added: “This suggests that plastic pollution is stimulating the whole food web in lakes, because more bacteria means more food for the bigger organisms like ducks and fish.”

The effect varied depending on the diversity of bacterial species present in the lake water – lakes with more different species were better at breaking down plastic pollution.

That mention of compounds within plastics is especially important, I think. I expect more and more bacteria to be eating plastic the world over, and from what I can tell that means a couple things for the those more toxic compounds. Some of them may bio-accumulate – becoming more and more concentrated in the bodies of creatures higher on the food chain (like us). Some may end up just mixing with the sediment, or floating around in the water causing trouble. It’s hard to know.

And as with so many other forms of pollution, the scale at which we’re pumping out this stuff far exceeds the biosphere’s ability to handle it. There’s an important role for active cleanup, especially if we want to remove that plastic from the food web, but it will be useless if we don’t stop dumping new plastic faster than we could ever clean it up.

In the meantime, it seems like plastic could take up an increasingly important role in ecosystems around the world.

The new study also found that bacteria removed more plastic pollution in lakes that had fewer unique natural carbon compounds. This is because the bacteria in the lake water had fewer other food sources.

The results will help to prioritise lakes where pollution control is most urgent. If a lake has a lot of plastic pollution, but low bacterial diversity and a lot of different natural organic compounds, then its ecosystem will be more vulnerable to damage.

“Unfortunately, plastics will pollute our environment for decades. On the positive side, our study helps to identify microbes that could be harnessed to help break down plastic waste and better manage environmental pollution,” said Professor David Aldridge in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who was involved in the study.

The study involved sampling 29 lakes across Scandinavia between August and September 2019. To assess a range of conditions, these lakes differed in latitude, depth, area, average surface temperature and diversity of dissolved carbon-based molecules.

The scientists cut up plastic bags from four major UK shopping chains, and shook these in water until their carbon compounds were released.

At each lake, glass bottles were filled with lake water. A small amount of the ‘plastic water’ was added to half of these, to represent the amount of carbon leached from plastics into the environment, and the same amount of distilled water was added to the others. After 72 hours in the dark, bacterial activity was measured in each of the bottles.

The study measured bacterial growth – by increase in mass, and the efficiency of bacterial growth – by the amount of carbon-dioxide released in the process of growing.

In the water with plastic-derived carbon compounds, the bacteria had doubled in mass very efficiently. Around 50% of this carbon was incorporated into the bacteria in 72 hours.

“Our study shows that when carrier bags enter lakes and rivers they can have dramatic and unexpected impacts on the entire ecosystem. Hopefully our results will encourage people to be even more careful about how they dispose of plastic waste,” said Eleanor Sheridan in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, first author of the study who undertook the work as part of a final-year undergraduate project.

This appeals a great deal to the cyberpunk dystopia fan in me, but have to say I’d rather we had just dealt with these environmental problems when discovered them decades ago.

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!

Video: The flawed “study” that says serotonin doesn’t cause depression

I have a problem with anxiety and depression. I think that’s pretty normal for anyone who spends a lot of time thinking about climate change, but a few years back it got to the point where I was worried about my heart. I ended up going on an SSRI(Strategic Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor). I’m not sure which, but I think it was Wellbutrin. The first couple weeks I was on it were great. For whatever reason, my brain suddenly worked! I had been expecting it to take the edge off my anxiety (which it did), but suddenly my problem with procrastination was just gone. It was like there had been a loose wire in my brain for my entire life, and someone had suddenly fixed the connection. That went away pretty quickly, and I was back to having to fight my brain to do just about anything, but my anxiety was under control, and that made a huge difference in my quality of life. Managing that didn’t fix my depression, but it made it a lot easier to handle.

Since then I’ve been taking them off and on. In the U.S. it was because of money. When I got to the UK, it just took my a while to get around to getting a prescription, because as I’ve mentioned, that part of my brain doesn’t seem to work quite right. I’ve been on fluoxetine (generic Prozac) since March of 2020, and while I did get a productivity kick when I went back on it, that faded as before. My own experience has been that SSRIs work.  That’s why it was odd to see headlines saying otherwise. I didn’t bother digging into it much because I’m aware of how inaccurate headlines can be, and I’ve had other things on my mind. I also knew that Rebecca Watson had looked at the issue in the past, and would likely do so again. I was not disappointed.

But before we even get to that, the title should also give away the fact that this was NOT a review to determine whether or not antidepressants work (which, again, they do). This was a review to determine HOW antidepressants work. Because in all fields of science, researchers accept that sometimes we know that something works but we’re not yet sure why, like when James Lind performed a randomized controlled trial that found that citrus fruit cured scurvy in 1753. Vitamin C wasn’t discovered for another 150 years.

The brain is a complicated lump of meat, so it makes sense that how it works remains a big question. In the late 1980s, doctors found that depressed patients could be helped by giving them fluoxetine, more commonly known as Prozac, which is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI. SSRIs, to put it very simply, change the way your brain processes serotonin, causing serotonin to stay for a longer period of time in your synapses.

This led some researchers to think, quite understandably, that maybe people are depressed because they need more serotonin. That hypothesis got popular in the years that followed the introduction of Prozac and it certainly became popular amongst the general public, but serious researchers knew that it was always going to be more complicated than that. They already knew that depression has many causes: yes, there’s an imbalance of chemicals in the brain which might include serotonin, but there’s also depression that comes from bad life events, or from physical ailments. Just because it helps a person when you adjust their serotonin levels, doesn’t mean the problem was the serotonin levels. I’ve heard several doctors recently explain it like this: taking Advil may help your headache but it doesn’t mean that your headache was caused by a lack of Advil in the brain.

I will probably die angry about “reporting” like this. While I think the sigma against people with mental health problems has decreased in my lifetime, it is far from gone, and that means there are a lot of people who still have to fight constantly just to get the people in their lives to treat them with respect. Stuff like this makes that a lot harder. It’s irresponsible reporting, and it can do real harm to people.

Watch the video or go to Skepchick for the transcript and sources, and if you see people saying that SSRIs don’t work, please push back, even if it’s just linking them to Watson’s breakdown.


If you’re near Washington D.C., there’s an action tomorrow that you should try to attend

Now or Never is going to protest the Congressional baseball game at 6pm on July 28th, I’m planning on doing another post about this after the event, but the more people turn up, the better. I don’t know how I didn’t hear about this before today, but now that I know about it, I’ll do what I can to help get the word out.

What is Now or Never? 

We are a new collective, founded because we can no longer accept that our politicians twiddle their thumbs as the world burns. We see this summer as our last chance to pass bold, federal climate legislation. We need our leaders to see that too.

Why are you choosing to engage in direct action?

Because conventional tactics are not enough. Petitions are not enough. Phone calls are not enough. We need a dramatic and confrontational intervention to demonstrate just how serious this is.

We spoke truth to power but power shrugged us off. It’s time to escalate.

Will you still shut down the Congressional Baseball Game if they’ve reached a deal by game time?

If a climate spending bill has passed by then (or if passage is imminent), we will still take action to demand further legislation – this crisis won’t be solved by one bill, no matter how broad. However, we will ensure that our tactics fit the moment we are in. If Congress has passed climate legislation or is on the cusp of doing so, we may use a more conciliatory tactic.

Is this action about Biden, too?

Yes. It is time for him to play hardball.

Will there be a training before the action in which participants can learn how to engage in nonviolent direct action?

Yes. Details about the training will be available soon!

I want to protest the Congressional Baseball Game but cannot risk arrest – can I still come?


Why are you announcing this plan publicly? 

Because we need this to be as big as possible.

This is good.

In case it wasn’t clear by now, I’m in favor of yelling at members of Congress over climate change, and doing it at this baseball game is even better. The Republican Party is committed to Christian fascism, with all the horrors one might expect, and they seem to be perfectly happy to drive our entire species to extinction. The Democratic Party responds to this unprecedented evil by bragging about how good they are at being chummy with the fascists. Their inaction has been unacceptable for decades. This game, whatever you think it may have been in the past, is now about normalizing and humanizing fascist politicians. The fact that the Democrats are going along with it is a clear demonstration of just how little they actually care about dealing with climate change. It’s disgusting.

The collective has a clear plan, both for tomorrow’s action, and for further action in August and September. Join tomorrow if you can, and look for ways to help if you can’t.

Rising temperatures aren’t the only reason the weather’s getting weird

Because their movement is largely founded on greed and lies, anti-environmentalists have a different relationship with the truth than most normal people. They’ll use arguments based on how much traction they get, rather than trivialities such as factual accuracy. Skeptical Science maintains this delightful list of the lies that climate deniers favor, and that represent the one circumstance in which they really seem to care about recycling.  If an argument stops working, they shelve it for a little while, and then start using it again when other arguments stop working. This is something they have in common with all reactionary movements, from what I can tell. Longtime readers of Freethought Blogs are certainly aware of how the various flavors of religious fundamentalist will bring up arguments that were debunked literal centuries ago. Their philosophical framework does not value honesty or factual accuracy, it values dominance of “us”. These days, my favorite quote on this phenomenon is Jean-Paul Sarte’s discussion of anti-Semites:

“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”

I recently objected to a commenter’s view that we should apply humanism as a blanket philosophy, rather than putting in the effort to pick apart the differences in circumstance that occur around the world. This is one area where that approach is useful – when dealing with reactionaries, remember that they don’t “believe in words” or in truth, at least in the way that we do.

All of this is to preface the fact that in the last few weeks I’ve seen people talking about the 20th century scare about atmospheric ozone depletion. For those who need a refresher, a class of chemicals called CFCs, used in refrigeration and various other things, was causing the stratospheric ozone layer to thin, particularly over Antarctica. The ozone layer is our primary protection against solar radiation. The thinner it gets, the faster we burn, and the faster we get cancer. The fact that we were creating a hole in it got a lot of attention, and with a great deal of effort, bans on CFCs were put in place around the world, and by the early 2000s, the ozone layer had moved from depletion to recovery. It’s considered one of the major successes in environmental policy driven by scientific warnings.

And there’s a sizable group of people who believe that because the problem “went away”, that means that it was a false alarm. In 2022, I have seen people sincerely argue that the ozone crisis shows why we don’t need to pay attention to climate scientists. To paraphrase Sartre, never believe that they are completely unaware of the absurdity of their arguments.

Unfortunately, we do need to worry about the ozone layer. The successes made with CFCs made a real difference, and there’s value in taking credit for and celebrating our victories. They also took place in the context of the same global capitalist regime that seems Hell-bent on our extinction, so it should not surprise you to know that ozone depletion is still a problem. Once again, our society’s obsession with declaring problems to be solved has distracted people from the causes of those problems, and the ways in which the solutions are either inadequate or entirely illusory. Tegan reminded me to mention here that this isn’t a universal problem Australia, being pretty close to the Antarctic ozone hole, has done a better job of keeping the issue in the public consciousness.

Know how the weather’s been strange lately? That’s not just because of the rise in temperature:

Whether there is a causal relationship between stratospheric ozone destruction and the observed weather anomalies is a matter of debate in climate research. The polar vortex in the stratosphere, which forms in winter and decays in spring, also plays a role. Scientists who have studied the phenomenon so far have arrived at contradictory results and different conclusions.

New findings are now shedding light on the situation, thanks to doctoral student Marina Friedel and Swiss National Science Foundation Ambizione Fellow Gabriel Chiodo. Both are members of the group headed by Thomas Peter, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at ETH Zurich, and are collaborating with Princeton University and other institutions.
Simulations reveal correlation

To uncover a possible causal relationship, the researchers ran simulations that integrated ozone depletion into two different climate models. Most climate models consider only physical factors, not variations in stratospheric ozone levels, in part because this would require much more computing power.

But the new calculations make it clear: the cause of the weather anomalies observed in the northern hemisphere in 2011 and 2020 is mostly ozone depletion over the Arctic. The simulations the researchers ran with the two models largely coincided with observational data from those two years, as well as eight other such events that were used for comparison purposes. However, when the scientists “turned off” ozone destruction in the models, they could not reproduce those results.

If this research bears out, that’s both concerning, and extremely useful to know. I’ve been aware for a while that the ozone depletion problem didn’t really go away, but I admit that my focus was mostly on the direct harm of increasing our exposure to solar radiation. It hadn’t occurred to me to look into how more radiation reaching the lower atmosphere and the planet’s surface might affect the weather. It also hadn’t occurred to me to remember that more radiation reaching the lower atmosphere means less radiation in the upper atmosphere.

The phenomenon as the researchers have now studied it begins with ozone depletion in the stratosphere. For ozone to be broken down there, temperatures in the Arctic must be very low. “Ozone destruction occurs only when it is cold enough and the polar vortex is strong in the stratosphere, about 30 to 50 kilometres above the ground,” Friedel points out.

Normally, ozone absorbs UV radiation emitted by the sun, thereby warming the stratosphere and helping to break down the polar vortex in spring. But if there is less ozone, the stratosphere cools and the vortex becomes stronger. “A strong polar vortex then produces the effects observed at the Earth’s surface,” Chiodo says. Ozone thus plays a major role in temperature and circulation changes around the North Pole.

Again, this makes sense to me. I also find it interesting because stratospheric cooling driven by ozone depletion comes on top of stratospheric cooling driven by greenhouse gas increases. It’s not just that the planet’s heating, that heat is also being concentrated lower in the atmosphere. In 2020 – one of the years whose weird weather is attributed to Arctic ozone depletion – I posted about how the momentum of global warming means that a hot year matters more than a cold one. I’m now wondering whether we do need to be paying more attention to atmospheric cooling, specifically in the outer layer of the atmosphere. Well, I say “we”, but it’s pretty clear that climate scientists are studying that, and have been all along. The nice thing about humanity as a “collective” is that through specialization of interest and skill, we can be reasonably certain that given the resources, someone’s going to be passionate and knowledgeable about pretty much any problem that affects us. That’s a good thing, and this news is not entirely bad.

The new findings could help climate researchers make more accurate seasonal weather and climate forecasts in future. This allows for better prediction of heat and temperature changes, “which is important for agriculture,” Chiodo says.

Friedel adds, “It will be interesting to observe and model the future evolution of the ozone layer.” This is because ozone depletion continues, even though ozone-​depleting substances such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have been banned since 1989. CFCs are very long-​lived and linger in the atmosphere for 50 to 100 years; their potential to cause ozone destruction lasts for decades after they have been taken out of circulation. “Yet CFC concentrations are steadily declining, and this raises the question of how quickly the ozone layer is recovering and how this will affect the climate system,” she says.

The work that was done on safeguarding our ozone layer was important, and we are all better off because of it. You can still rub that in the faces of any troll who’s spouting obvious bullshit about it, but it’s also worth mentioning that the problem hasn’t gone away, it’s just that in most of the English-speaking world, it has faded from public consciousness. The work that was done was important, but, we’ve got plenty still to do.

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 Renegade Cut takes a look at the enforcement of patriarchy

This is the second video in The Renegade Cut‘s series on the enforcement of hierarchies. If you haven’t seen the introduction, I’ve linked it below. This video looks at what patriarchy is, what it is not, and how it’s enforced. It also delves into the history of the subject, and some of how it intersects with other vectors of oppression. Leon has set a high bar with his past work, and in my opinion this video is no exception.


Here’s the series introduction:

The bigger the global temperature change, the biggest the mass extinction.

Who could possibly have seen this coming? Bigger temperature changes mean more ecological upheaval?

It seems pretty straightforward, but what I find interesting is that the authors frame it as a cause for some hope about our current situation:

“These findings indicate that the bigger the shifts in climate, the larger the mass extinction,” Kaiho said. “They also tell us that any prospective extinction related to human activity will not be of the same proportions when the extinction magnitude changes in conjunction with global surface temperature anomaly.”

Kaiho cites an earlier study, which claimed a 5.2°C temperature increase in average global temperature would result in a mass extinction event comparable to previous ones. Yet, based on this study’s analysis, the temperature will need to change by 9°C, and this will not appear until 2500 in a worst-case scenario.

“Although predicting the extent of future extinctions is difficult because causes will differ from preceding ones, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that any forthcoming extinction will not reach past magnitudes if global surface temperature anomalies and other environmental anomalies correspondingly change,” Kaiho said.

I hate to sound pessimistic, but I think it would be unwise to set your clock by this research. I can’t speak to the quality of the work, but while I find the research and conclusions interesting, it seems to leave out the rate of warming. While past temperature changes have occurred fairly abruptly, I’m not aware of a warming event that happened at this rate, even if the number at which it stops is lower than those worse extinctions.

In addition to only looking at the scale of change, they also only look at temperature. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t account for human habitat destruction, over-fishing, and chemical pollution, all of which have been taking their own toll on the resilience of the biosphere. Maybe I’m missing something about past climate shifts, but I’m reasonably certain that none of them had a mix of factors even resembling the nightmare we’re confronting.

Regular readers will know that I put a fair amount of time and effort into hope and excitement as motivation, rather than fear. I try to make this blog a place that faces the terrifying reality of what’s happening, while also holding on to enough hope and happiness that we can keep working to make things better. I clicked on this research because I was hoping it would give me genuinely good good news to share, but I’m honestly more worried that this will be used to claim that global warming isn’t an urgent issue.

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!

Stray: First impressions (Oh gods, what is that on the walls?)

A while back, Tegan and I became aware of an upcoming video game in which you play as a cat. All I knew about it for sure was that you could knock things over, you could find places to curl up and sleep, and you could interact with other cats. It sounded like a cute, harmless game that might be fun for unwinding. Then, more recently, we saw the launch trailer, and it was very clear that there’s a lot more to this game than just wandering around as a cat.

I’ll try to avoid any spoilers that aren’t in the trailer, but as you can probably tell, all is not well in the world of this game. Early gameplay is a little confusing. It takes you through the basic controls by having you go through the normal life of yourself and your cat family. The game starts when you get separated in a very dramatic moment, and find yourself in a strange underground world full of pipes and fuseboxes, odd lighting, and graffiti.

As the trailer shows, when you encounter “people” – the robots – they’re terrified of you. It seems a little odd, as you’re just a cat with a little backpack, but as you learn about who the robots are, where they came from, and what their lives are like, you learn to share their terror.

This is a horror game, without question, but the moments of fear and revulsion are cushioned by genuinely beautiful artwork, and a very peaceful atmosphere. And then you go deeper, into the sewers where robots dare not tread, and you learn that the robots were more right to be afraid than they knew. The walls are alive, and they’re watching you.

And lest you’ve forgotten, you’re literally just a cat. There’s an achievement for using up your first nine lives – want to know how I found out? In that regard, playing this game can be a little rough, but not as bad as you might fear from what I’ve written so far. The fact that cats are small and agile is central to both the plot and the gameplay, and as in real life, the wise cat gets very good at running away.

I’m not sure how far into the game we are (Tegan’s been watching over my shoulder), but I’m guessing maybe halfway through? The story is fascinating so far, and I already know I’m going to have to play through again because there are a number of things I’ve missed, and can’t go back to complete. I’m also very impressed by the way the people who made this game have been able to convey so much with only little bits of dialogue and exposition here and there. You only get to learn what the other entities around you know, and often they know very little.

This is a game for cat lovers, if a little stressful for them to play. It’s also a great game for people who like stuff like the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I think I might have nightmares…

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!


Video: Biden Burgers and Right-Wing Media

Today was a day off for me, so I’ll leave you all with this video on how right-wing media uses obvious bullshit to obfuscate, and how liberal media tends to enable that. The fact that the bullshit is so obvious is a part of the strategy.

Right-wing news media invents a story about a liberal politician. Mainstream media debunks it. Liberal media uses the invented story to defend the liberal politician from legitimate criticism and from the left. It happened during the Barack Obama administration, and it is happening under the Joe Biden administration already. This is not just about hamburgers.