Air pollution from plants is getting worse (and we should do universal healthcare about it)

If I had to pick my top two topics of the last year, they would probably be air pollution, and covering our cities with plants. With that as context, please understand that todays post is difficult for me, because it’s time I came clean about something. It’s not just us – plants also cause air pollution. The reality is that this little biosphere of ours is a messy place, and was messy well before we started getting clever with things like fire and pressure. I think it’s pretty clear that air pollution from traffic and industry is a bigger problem than air pollution from plants, but that doesn’t mean that plants are just nature’s perfect air filtering machines. It’s not just pollen either – plants emit all sorts of interesting stuff:

All plants produce chemicals called biogenic volatile organic compounds, or BVOCs. “The smell of a just-mowed lawn, or the sweetness of a ripe strawberry, those are BVOCs. Plants are constantly emitting them,” Gomez said.

On their own, BVOCs are benign. However, once they react with oxygen, they produce organic aerosols. As they’re inhaled, these aerosols can cause infant mortality and childhood asthma, as well as heart disease and lung cancer in adults.

Put in stark terms like that, it can be pretty alarming, and as I said, I absolutely think that we should be accounting for this stuff. It also doesn’t remove the various benefits to having plants around that I’ve discussed in the past, it just complicates the story a little. Unfortunately, as with the air pollution we humans make, air pollution from plants is getting worse, not just from the rising temperature, but also from the rising CO2 levels:

There are two reasons plants increase BVOC production: increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and increases in temperatures. Both of these factors are projected to continue increasing.

To be clear, growing plants is a net positive for the environment. They reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which helps control global warming. BVOCs from small gardens will not harm people.

“Your lawn, for example, won’t produce enough BVOCs to make you sick,” Gomez explained. “It’s the large-scale increase in carbon dioxide that contributes to the biosphere increasing BVOCs, and then organic aerosols.”

See, increasing plant life as we decrease our own pollution will not only make our lives better, it will also create something of a feedback loop. By reducing CO2 levels, we will also be reducing both of the things causing air pollution from plants to get worse. Even so, the temperature’s going to keep rising for a while to come, so it’s good to be aware of this aspect of that problem.

The other thing this paper mentions is dust. I talked the other day about the danger of toxic dust from the drying Great Salt Lake, but these researchers were taking more of a global perspective, and at that scale, it’s the Sahara that has them worried:

The second-largest contributor to future air pollution is likely to be dust from the Saharan desert. “In our models, an increase in winds is projected to loft more dust into the atmosphere,” said Robert Allen, associate professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UCR and co-author of the study.

As the climate warms, increased Saharan dust is likely to get blown around the globe, with higher levels of dust in Africa, the eastern U.S., and the Caribbean. Dust over Northern Africa, including the Sahel and the Sahara, is likely to increase due to more intense West African monsoons.

Both organic aerosols and dust, as well as sea salt, black carbon, and sulfate, fall into a category of airborne pollutants known as PM2.5, because they have a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less. The increase in naturally sourced PM2.5 pollution increased, in this study, in direct proportion to CO2 levels.

“The more we increase CO2, the more PM2.5 we see being put into the atmosphere, and the inverse is also true. The more we reduce, the better the air quality gets,” Gomez said.

For example, if the climate warms only 2 degrees Celsius, the study found only a 7% increase in PM2.5. All of these results only apply to changes found in air quality over land, as the study is focused on human health impacts.

The researchers hope the potential to improve air quality will inspire swift and decisive action to decrease CO2 emissions. Without it, temperatures may increase 4 degrees C by the end of this century, though it’s possible for the increase to happen sooner.

Gomez warns that CO2 emissions will have to decrease sharply to have a positive effect on future air quality.

“The results of this experiment may even be a bit conservative because we did not include climate-dependent changes in wildfire emissions as a factor,” Gomez said. “In the future, make sure you get an air purifier.”

 Though be careful about what kind of purifier you get, since the good ol’ profit motive has done anything but clear the air on what makes for a good product.

I think I should mention – the particles we’re discussing here are not just the ultrafine particles I’ve discussed in the past. A lot of them are much bigger, which means that masks are going to be much more effective than they would be for freeway and airport pollution. That said, none of us are getting out of this life alive, and air pollution has played a role in that throughout our species’ existence.

That’s why it’s so important to have universal healthcare as part of our response to global warming.

The grim reality is that as temperatures continue to rise, the world will become more dangerous in a number of ways, and under a private healthcare system (or a public one that has been deliberately under-funded to discredit it), that will inevitably translate to shorter lives, with more suffering and disease. As much as I enjoy cyberpunk as a genre, I’m not thrilled about the part of it where all of us cyberserfs are constantly ill because of pollution and poverty. Kinda seems like the workers of the world oughta unite…

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Some musings and a John Oliver video on AI technology

I think I’m probably not alone in having mixed feelings about current “AI” tech. It clearly has a lot of great potential, but I think everyone can see the dangers presented by things like the ability to convincingly fake a high-resolution video of pretty much anyone. That one thing, by itself, is a frighteningly powerful tool for social control, both for its ability to let the powerful attack dissidents of all kinds, and for the way it will let politicians and their ilk claim that any video evidence against them is fake.

I honestly don’t know how that will affect things in the near future, but it sure seems like it’s gonna be bad.

But I don’t know that. I have a reflexive distrust of the technology, I think, that largely stems from how I’ve seen technology used to make life worse over the last few decades, and from looking at recent history. Consider how much the police rely on getting confessions from people, and how much they lie about evidence to do that. Do we really think they’ll stop short of using AI to help with that? Of course not. They’ve been using and abusing AI tech all through its development.

Malcolm X’s family is suing over government involvement in his assassination. The government famously tried to get MLK Jr. to commit suicide, and there’s certainly suspicion around his assassination. We’ve seen over, and over, and over again how the powerful will tell any lie, and go to any lengths to keep their power, so of course they’re going to do the same shit with this.

But maybe that abuse will lead to people relying more on direct personal connection and knowledge. Maybe this will somehow turn out to be a powerful weapon for a revolution that brings about real equality, autonomy, and self-governance. Maybe it will lead to advances in research that solve problems like climate change and chemical pollution.


But for now, it worries me a great deal.

As usual, I like John Oliver’s video on the subject.

Edit: I should say – Oliver goes into more depth about the ways in which bias can develop in unexpected ways based on inputs, AI hiring tech, and other stuff like that – the video isn’t particularly about the same stuff as my blog post.


Solidarity Sunday: HarperCollins Union Victory

HarperCollins is a multibillion dollar publishing company – the second largest in the United States – owned by none other than Rupert Murdoch. As my main source for this post puts it, you have read books from this publisher. As one might expect from such a large and profitable corporation, with such an infamous owner, they haven’t been treating their workers especially well, so at the end of 2022, they went on strike.

Stephanie Guerdan started working in the children’s book department of HarperCollins Publishers six years ago. It was a dream job – just not a dream paycheck. The $33,500-a-year (£28,750) salary was well below a livable wage in New York City, but Guerdan didn’t ask for more. “I was terrified that I was not going to get that job if I negotiated,” they said. “Publishing is very much an industry where they tell you, ‘If you don’t want this, there are 500 people in line behind you who do.’”

Publishing has for decades has been known for its low pay and overwhelmingly white staff. But workers at HarperCollins, the only member of the “big four” publishing houses to have a union, have had enough and authorized an indefinite strike. Work stopped at the downtown Manhattan offices on the sunny morning of 10 November. Employees like Guerdan, who is a shop steward at the union, spilled on to the streets to picket.

“We want to create a workplace that is more financially sustainable for employees and accessible to people from a variety of backgrounds,” said Olga Brudastova, president of Local 2110 United Auto Workers, the union that HarperCollins workers are part of.

More than 250 HarperCollins employees are unionized, including workers in the editorial, sales, publicity, design, legal and marketing departments. The strike was authorized by a vote of 95.1% last month. It comes after 11 months of negotiations with HarperCollins management over a new contract, and a one-day strike that occurred on 20 July.

According to the union, the average salary at the company is $55,000 annually, and the majority of employees are women. HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, reported record profits in 2021.

“We’re willing to stay out as long as it takes,” Guerdan said. “After about a week, the company is really going to feel the loss of all our essential labor. I’ve talked to friends who are not in the union, and their assessment of it has been, ‘I don’t think the company knows what’s going to hit them.’”

It’s easy to look at the history of workers’ rights over the last half century, and become cynical. Even discounting Biden’s decision to deny rail workers their right to strike, we’ve seen plenty of attempted labor actions end in disappointment. This is not one of those cases. Guerdan, it turns out, was right. The company may have started to hurt after about a week, but the union workers held the strike for three months, and they wore down the greedy fuckers at the top. The new contract, while far from the worker ownership I’d personally like to see, is a big upgrade, and proof that collective action works:

  • Minimum wage increase, immediately to $47,500 with a ramp-up to $50,000 by 2025.
  • A $1,500 bonus for all union members, presumably to partially offset the costs of being left without a paycheck by their company since November
  • Guaranteed annual raises for all marked satisfactory or above
  • Union letter and membership card included in new-hire packets
  • Joint Labor/Management committee to meet monthly
  • Time on aforementioned committee and/or all company-sponsored DEI activities will be seen as and paid as work time (as opposed to the free labor junior employees were expected to contribute previously)
  • Juneteenth and Presidents’ Day added as permanent paid holidays (as opposed to, you know, a one-time publicity stunt a la June 2020)
  • Return-to-office not mandated for union employees until July 1 (currently, Harper expects employees to live and work in NYC)

The above are just the guaranteed, contractually mandated changes that will be implemented at Harper. This does not include the ripple effects that have already begun in the rest of the industry.

Collective action works.

Note that second bullet point. I’ve described strikes as sieges before, and I mean that very literally. The way our society is set up, if you don’t have money, the government will use force to prevent you from having the means to survive, because those means “belong” to someone else, like a landlord, or a grocery store that throws out large amounts of food every day. The default is that you don’t have a right to life or liberty, and a right to “pursuit of happiness” only really exists if you define that as spending the majority of your waking life further enriching the worst people in the world.

How many of you, dear readers, could go without a paycheck for three months? It’s my understanding is that for most people in the U.S., that would be a rough time. That’s part of why the pathetic government response to the mass joblessness caused by the pandemic was so unconscionable. The main point of society is that through working together, we can guarantee a minimum standard of living, and some basic degree of safety. The primary project of neoliberalism has been to remove all of that, and to leave us all at the whims of capitalists. The last few years have given us a good look at how well that “works”.

In many ways, a union is an effort to re-form that part of society that capitalism destroyed in its creation. Because we lost the commons, and with them the option to survive outside of the capitalist system, we’ve been forced to accept the terms of capitalists, and encouraged to compete with each other for the scraps they give. Working together to survive and thrive has always been at the core of the human experience, and it feels as though we’ve been living through an effort to cut out that reflexive solidarity. Unions bring that back, and give us a way to re-contextualize our struggle for survival, and actually make progress, rather than simply hoping that we’re one of the lucky ones uplifted by our rulers.

That’s why they hate unions so much.

When I was younger, I often encountered what I think of as “The Henry Ford Argument”. You’ve probably heard this myth – Henry Ford, benevolent business genius that he was, knew that if he paid his workers well, they would, in turn, have enough to buy his cars, and the net effect would be beneficial to everyone. In this story, that’s the origin of the good jobs in the auto industry that were a centerpiece of mid-20th century U.S. life. In reality, Ford was a fascist who ended up caving to United Auto Workers, and as with so many other “leaders”, his story was re-written to make him look better from a modern perspective:

Seventy-five years ago today, in 1941, workers at the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan, launched a successful strike for union recognition. The Rouge was the largest industrial complex in the world, created as an impregnable anti-union fortress. The company’s Service Department spied on and committed violent acts against workers and trade union advocates who approached the factory gates.

The Rouge gates were the site of two of the most notorious anti-union episodes in U.S. labor history. In the 1932 Ford Hunger March, Ford service members and Dearborn police opened fire on unemployed demonstrators, killing four immediately. In the 1937 Battle of the Overpass, Ford service members beat UAW officials Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen and a dozen union supporters, mostly women, seeking to pass out flyers.

The company’s violent proclivities were made especially dangerous by the media-savvy popularity of the company’s founder and principal owner, Henry Ford.  The iconic billionaire was the recipient of millions of dollars of free publicity for his advocacy of a high-wage, high-productivity, high-consumption society. His philosophy also included opposition to unions, to the New Deal, and to women working outside the home. Most disturbing was his publication and distribution of the anti-Semitic forgery, The International Jew, and his acceptance of a medal in 1938 from the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler.

Ford was one of the most well-known individuals in the world in 1941. Opposed by unionists, liberals, and leftists, he nevertheless was viewed by many as a “friend of labor.” The majority of Ford workers at the Rouge complex thought otherwise. They overcame not only violence and the Ford media halo but also the company’s attempt to break their strike by dividing them along racial lines and charging their strike was a Communist plot.

In the capitalist fairy tale, we live in a world full of win-win exchanges, where the best option is always naturally chosen by “market forces”. In that world, it’s only natural for capitalists to want their workers to be happy and healthy, so they’ll enjoy their lives, and not cause problems. It’s one of those things that works in theory, but ignores the reality of who has always been empowered by capitalism. When they see workers enjoying life, they get jealous, and angry that all that money and time isn’t going to them. They can’t help themselves – they have to take more. That’s why, in the words of one of my favorite labor songs, a strong and healthy working class is the thing that they most fear. People who are physically weak, sick, and desperate are far, far less likely to be able to last through a siege. They do most of their work ahead of time by trying to ensure that their enemy – the workers who enrich them – are already under a sort of minor siege, just from day to day life. I’m talking about capitalists in pretty absolutist and unsympathetic terms, but as the Ford example shows, this is always how it goes. This is what capitalism does.

The HarperCollins union is continuing the noble human tradition of working together for the common good. As mentioned earlier, this win will ripple out through the industry, as some companies raise wages to prevent unionization in their workforce, as other companies see their own strikes, and a new industry standard wage is set. That’s a huge change, especially when you remember that it came from less than 300 people, plus however many supported them through the strike.

When you look at a labor win like this, you can see, very faintly, the foundations of a new kind of society. Ford used the same playbook that modern capitalists use, and in a way, they’re not wrong about strikes being a “communist plot”. Leaving aside the natural prevalence of socialists and communists in unions, that kind of organization makes it very clear that rulers are rarely needed, if ever. Bosses usually cave to a well-organized strike, because they know that the alternative – trying to impose more authoritarian rule over the workers – could lead to them losing everything.

That’s the thing about organizing that inspires and uplifts me. It shows a way that we can start building a different world whether or not our current rulers want us to. That’s not to say that victory is guaranteed, or that the way forward is safe. I fully expect that if we start actually threatening the power of the aristocracy, they will try to crush us, and they will not balk at using lethal force. The effort to use poverty to keep us in line is already lethal to countless people, and they absolutely use violence to enforce that poverty.

But the problem with a harsh crackdown is that it tends to drive recruitment for the underdogs. It rubs people’s faces in the reality of their situation, and inspires those who want something better to actually do something. The capitalist class has vast, terrifying power, and they wield it without mercy all over the world, every day. It’s right to be afraid of them, but it’s also important to notice that they are afraid of us. We are not powerless. We have the same ancient might that made humanity what it is today, and we can access that power by working together.

If you want me to be able to afford to live, and you’ve got some spare change lying around, you can toss it in my cup over at My patrons don’t get a lot of bonuses, beyond my undying gratitude, but I’ll be working to change that at least a little in the coming months. As it stands, if you sign up for $5 per month, you can work with me to name a character in the novel I’m working on, should you want to insert yourself, a family member, or some other character into the background of a subversive fantasy epic. If you sign up for more, you can get a bigger character (within the boundaries of the story).

Millions threatened by toxic dust from drying Great Salt Lake

Fresh water is a resource that’s likely to become increasingly scarce in the coming years, even without corporations buying up water supplies. The Great Salt Lake of Utah was already on track to dry up before global warming really got going, simply because of how much water is taken from the rivers that feed into the lake. Add in warmer temperatures, and you have a body of water that’s evaporating much faster than it’s being replenished.

The big danger here is not that people will run out of water, though. It’s worse than that. See, the reason the Great Salt Lake is so salty is that, unlike the Great Lakes further east, it doesn’t drain into the sea. That means that all the minerals carried into it by its tributary rivers just stay there, concentrating as water evaporates, and new minerals arrive. The problem is that sodium chloride isn’t the only mineral that’s been concentrating there over the last 16,000 years or so. There’s also arsenic in the mix, and other toxic chemicals.

In the areas where the lake has already dried, the lakebed is protected from the wind by a crusty layer of salt, but that layer is pretty thin, and once it’s gone, northern Utah starts getting toxic dust storms.

The terror comes from toxins laced in the vast exposed lake bed, such as arsenic, mercury and lead, being picked up by the wind to form poisonous clouds of dust that would swamp the lungs of people in nearby Salt Lake City, where air pollution is often already worse than that of Los Angeles, potentially provoking a myriad of respiratory and cancer-related problems.

This looming scenario, according to Ben Abbott, an ecologist at Brigham Young University, risks “one of the worst environmental disasters in modern US history”, surpassing the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania in 1979 and acting like a sort of “perpetual Deepwater Horizon blowout”.

Salt Lakers are set to be assailed by a “thick fog of this stuff that’s blowing through, it would be gritty. It would dim the light, it would literally go from day to night and it could absolutely be regular all summer,” said Abbott, who headed a sobering recent study with several dozen other scientists on the “unprecedented danger” posed by lake’s disintegration.

“We could expect to see thousands of excess deaths annually from the increase in air pollution and the collapse of the largest wetland oasis in the intermountain west,” he added.

There is evidence that plumes of toxic dust are already stirring as the exposed salt crust on the lake, which has lost three-quarters of its water and has shriveled by nearly two-thirds in size since the Mormon wagon train first arrived here in the mid-19th century, breaks apart from erosion. Abbott now regularly fields fretful phone calls from people asking if Salt Lake City is safe to live in still, or if their offspring should steer clear of the University of Utah.

“People have seen and realized it’s not hypothetical and that there is a real threat to our entire way of life,” Abbott said. “We are seeing this freight train coming as the lake shrinks. We’re just seeing the front end of it now.” About 2.4 million people, or about 80% of Utah’s population, lives “within a stone’s throw of the lake”, Abbott said. “I mean, they are directly down wind from this. As some people have said, it’s an environmental nuclear bomb.”

I feel like we need metaphors other than nuclear disaster for this sort of thing. I get that radioactive fallout is the go-to way to describe this kind of long-lasting damage to the environment, but I think it’s a bad comparison. The long-term health effects might be similar, but this isn’t an event with lasting effects – it’s just… lasting effects. This is also a problem that is both foreseeable (obviously), and preventable, at least in the short term. Water conservation and finding a water source other than the rivers feeding the lake would allow it to start growing again, and water seems to be an effective “seal” on the nasty stuff. This is a make-or-break moment when it comes to ecosystem services – the water draining into that lake is literally protecting people from taking in poison with every breath.

The Great Salt Lake’s predicament is often compared to that of the dried-up Owens Lake in California, one of the worst sources of dust pollution in the US since the water feeding it was rerouted to Los Angeles more than a century ago. But the sheer heft of the Great Salt Lake, sometimes called ‘America’s Dead Sea’ but in fact four times larger than its counterpart that straddles Israel and Jordan, presages a loss on the scale of the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake but strangled to death by Soviet irrigation projects.

The demise of the Aral Sea was dumfounding to many Soviets, who thought it virtually impossible to doom a lake so large just by watering some nearby cotton. “But these systems are actually very, very delicate,” said Abbott, and they can quickly spiral away. The Great Salt Lake, its equilibrium upended by the voracious diversion of water to nourish crops, flush toilets and water lawns and zapped by global heating, could vanish in just five years, a timeline Abbott admits seems “absurd”.

“History won’t have to judge us, not even our kids will have to judge us – we will judge ourselves in short order,” said Erin Mendenhall, the mayor of Salt Lake City, who is now regularly bombarded with questions about the toxic dust cloud from mayors of other cities. “The prognosis isn’t good unless there’s massive action. But we have to start within one year, we have have to take the action now.”

With the climate warming, I have to say I’m worried that letting the rivers flow might not be enough, but there’s no question that it should be done. That, in turn, should be part of a national conversation about water policy. It may be that areas with an over-abundance of water can help to supply those with less (though not for a profit), or it may be that places like Salt Lake City need to be abandoned altogether. Climate change is just one part of it, but we’re rapidly approaching a point where places we’re used to inhabiting will no longer support human life, and I don’t think we’re doing enough to prepare for that.

Video: Rebecca Watson on mask science (they work!)

Both Tegan and I decided to start masking early on in the pandemic, well before anyone was requiring it. Sometimes, it was something close to useless like a bandanna, but since Tegan had a customer service job in Glasgow, she made herself a couple multi-layer masks, and I eventually bought a neck gaiter with disposable filter inserts. I’ve always viewed the mask question from something of a gamer’s perspective on odds. Back when I was an avid World of Warcraft player, I had to pay close attention to cumulative percentages. Any one piece of gear, while helpful, wasn’t as useful as all of it together, whether it came to your chance of landing a critical strike, or your chance of blocking or dodging an enemy’s attack.

I don’t expect the vaccine to protect me entirely, just to improve my odds. Masks are the same – they might only stop a small percent of particles I’d otherwise inhale, but that still improves my odds of staying healthy. I wouldn’t expect my masks to do anything to stop the fine particulate air pollution I’ve mentioned in the past, but yeah – they provide one very imperfect physical barrier between myself in the world. How could it not be better than nothing? After the last couple years, it just feels like common courtesy to mask.

Still, some people adamantly oppose masking, and will insist that the science shows no clear benefit. Obviously I disagree, but I think it’s fair to be doubtful, especially with so many contradictory messages out there. Rebecca Watson takes on that uncertainty, and a recent report on the efficacy of masks. The TL:DR is that masks do help with COVID, at least a little, but also that the people who put the report together did so in such a way as to give the impression that they don’t.

As always, you can find the video’s transcript and sources on Skepchick, but I just wanted to highlight one thing:

“But wait,” you may be saying, “my MAGA uncle says that Cochrane Review says masks don’t work. What’s going on?”


The review is titled “Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses,” and it is available in full online and as always I link to all my sources in the transcript which you can find linked below or at This review did conclude that “Wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of influenza-like illness/COVID-19 like illness compared to not wearing masks.”

Immediately, you might note that this is about “respiratory viruses,” and not specifically COVID-19. That’s important, because they lumped in a few studies on the effectiveness of masks versus COVID along with a whole bunch of studies on non-epidemic influenza, which is way less contagious and rarer to contract, meaning that of course you’re going to need way more data to show any result, compared to looking at masks in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz decided to remove the data for influenza to see what would happen, and sure enough, the random controlled trials for masking DURING A PANDEMIC showed a clear, modest benefit. He points out that the review is perfectly fine otherwise, but personally I think it’s a pretty big deal that Cochrane released this during a pandemic, knowing that people would assume that the conclusion would be applied during a pandemic. It’s like releasing a review concluding there’s no benefit to wearing a seat belt, without mentioning that most of the data I examined was from a survey of people sitting in parked cars in the grocery store parking lot. It turns out that context is very important!

This frustrates me. Scientists ought to know how important context is, and I find it hard to believe that they don’t know how much confusion there is on this particular topic. I suppose I’ll never know for sure whether the way they structured their report was deliberate, but I feel like the responsible thing to do would have been to write a paper that wouldn’t create this kind of confusion. Still, it’s nice to have a bit more support for my position. As I said before, I think masking in indoor public spaces is just a matter of courtesy.

Now, I’m not always the most courteous guy – sometimes I forget a mask when I go out, or I don’t have one that’s clean. I also eat at restaurants on rare occasions, and if you’re in some form of eatery, wearing a mask seems a bit like spitting in the wind. I’m also aware that my opinion on “common” courtesy isn’t particularly common – the vast majority of folks in Dublin don’t wear masks anymore, and based on the consistently low COVID numbers, that doesn’t seem to be doing a whole lot of harm. It helps that we’ve got a pretty high vaccination rate. The Kraken may have originated here, but it didn’t turn out to be much of a monster.

Masks work, in that they improve your odds. That’s a limited and uncertain benefit, but the reality is that we are beset by uncertainties at every moment in our lives. Accepting that is – or ought to be – a natural process of growing up and maturing, but obviously it’s not a comfortable process, and most people are trained, to some degree, to reject uncertainty. The distressing truth is that this world is messy and complicated, and sometimes when you’re dealing with a mess, it’s better to just wear a mask.

Research suggests we’re under-estimating global warming feedbacks

For at least as long as I’ve been actively paying attention to the climate issue, activists and scientists have both expressed frustration at the way the IPCC has failed to adequately account for amplifying feedback loops. For those who need a refresher, these “loops” are various effects of warming, that go on to cause more warming all by themselves. The examples that first come to mind for me are the release of CO2 and methane from melting and rotting permafrost, the lowered albedo (decreased reflectivity) of the planet due to melting ice, and a decrease in CO2 uptake, and increase in CO2 emissions from wildfires and other climate-driven ecosystem destruction. One of the feedback loops that had worried me the most in the past was the proposed danger of warming oceans causing a destabilization of sea-floor methane deposits called clathrates, which could in turn release vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Fortunately, data from oil and natural gas spills indicate that while that destabilization may still happen, the gas will be almost entirely absorbed by the ocean before it can reach the surface. I felt like it was good to put in that bit of good news (though I’d like to see follow-up research), because the main focus of today’s post is research led by Oregon State University that says even scientists may be under-estimating feedback loops:

Ripple, Wolf and co-authors from the University of Exeter, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the Woodwell Climate Research Center and Terrestrial Ecosystems Research Associates considered both biological and physical feedbacks. Biological feedbacks include forest dieback, soil carbon loss and wildfire; physical feedbacks involve changes such as reduced snow cover, increased Antarctic rainfall and shrinking arctic sea ice.

Even comparatively modest warming is expected to heighten the likelihood that the Earth will cross various tipping points, the researchers say, causing big changes in the planet’s climate system and potentially strengthening the amplifying feedbacks.

“Climate models may be underestimating the acceleration in global temperature change because they aren’t fully considering this large and related set of amplifying feedback loops,” Wolf said. “The accuracy of climate models is crucial as they help guide mitigation efforts by telling policymakers about the expected effects of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. While recent climate models do a much better job of incorporating diverse feedback loops, more progress is needed.”

Emissions have risen substantially over the last century, the researchers note, despite several decades of warnings that they should be significantly curbed. The scientists say interactions among feedback loops could cause a permanent shift away from the Earth’s current climate state to one that threatens the survival of many humans and other life forms.

“In the worst case, if amplifying feedbacks are strong enough, the result is likely tragic climate change that’s moved beyond anything humans can control,” Ripple said. “We need a rapid transition toward integrated Earth system science because the climate can only be fully understood by considering the functioning and state of all Earth systems together. This will require large-scale collaboration, and the result would provide better information for policymakers.”

In addition to the 27 amplifying climate feedbacks the scientists studied were seven that are characterized as dampening – they act to stabilize the climate system. An example is carbon dioxide fertilization, where rising concentrations of atmospheric CO2 lead to increasing carbon uptake by vegetation.

The effects of the remaining seven feedbacks, including increased atmospheric dust and reduced ocean stability, are not yet known.

I know the phrase “further study is needed” is pretty standard in the conclusion of a research article, but in this case, further study is needed. I mean, I suppose if we continue down the path favored by capitalists, then I suppose “need” is the wrong word – we can do that in ignorance just fine. For those of us hoping to slow the change and prepare for that which we can no longer prevent, however,  understanding how fast things are moving is crucial. In the event that we ever take climate change seriously, as a species, it’ll be good to know this stuff. The researchers do more than digging into the science though. They also have a message for policy makers. Can you guess what it is?

OSU College of Forestry postdoctoral scholar Christopher Wolf and distinguished professor William Ripple led the study, which in all looked at 41 climate change feedbacks.

“Many of the feedback loops we examined significantly increase warming because of their connection to greenhouse gas emissions,” Wolf said. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the most extensive list available of climate feedback loops, and not all of them are fully considered in climate models. What’s urgently needed is more research and modeling and an accelerated cutback of emissions.”

The paper makes two calls to action for “immediate and massive” emissions reductions:

  • Minimize short-term warming given that “climate disasters” in the form of wildfires, coastal flooding, permafrost thaw, intense storms and other extreme weather are already occurring.
  • Mitigate the possible major threats looming from climate tipping points that are drawing ever-closer due to the prevalence of the many amplifying feedback loops. A tipping point is a threshold after which a change in a component of the climate system becomes self-perpetuating.

“Transformative, socially just changes in global energy and transportation, short-lived air pollution, food production, nature preservation and the international economy, together with population policies based on education and equality, are needed to meet these challenges in both the short and long term,” Ripple said. “It’s too late to fully prevent the pain of climate change, but if we take meaningful steps soon while prioritizing human basic needs and social justice, it could still be possible to limit the harm.”

Do more, and do it quickly, while we still can.

I know, it’s a message that this little community has never heard before. In all seriousness, though, it comes back to this – we have the resources, through nuclear power, “renewable” power, mass transit, and ending overproduction, to make a huge dent in human contribution to the problem, in a way that would measurably improve normal people’s standard of living. Likewise, we can and should invest heavily in changing how we grow food, and in ending most animal agriculture. We could even do this, in theory, while leaving our current ruling class with so much wealth that they’d never need to work in their lives. Unfortunately, they seem to be psychologically incapable of contemplating anything that might diminish their status relative to the peasantry, and they’re too addicted to wielding power to ever give it up. If they ever decide to be useful, I’ll welcome their resources (especially since they never had a moral right to them in the first place), but while we wait for that particular pig to fly, I suggest we explore ways to to make those changes without their help.

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Good news from Spain!

I cover a lot of fairly grim topics on this blog, not least of which is a rise in fascism that seems to be happening all over the globe sometimes. I believe it’s important to talk about problems, as one part of trying to fix them, but that can get a bit grim from time to time. The good news is that the aforementioned fascism is, in many ways, part of a reactionary backlash against real progress that has been made in the area of civil rights. Even as some people are trying to roll back advances, others are pushing ahead, fighting for more advances, and winning.

In particular, Spain has just passed a couple laws that I think are worth celebrating. First, they’ve made it radically easier for people to change their gender on their national identity card:

The law, which passed by 191 votes in favour, 60 against with 91 abstentions, makes Spain one of the few nations to allow people to change their gender on their national identity card with a simple declaration.

In Europe, Denmark was the first country to grant such a right in 2014.

Thursday’s vote was the last hurdle for legislation that has caused a major rift within Spain’s fractious left-wing coalition, as the country gears up for a general election later this year.

The legislation is a flagship project of the equality ministry, which is held by Podemos, the radical left-wing junior partner in the Socialist-led coalition.

“This is one of the most important laws of this legislature… we have taken a giant step forward,” Equality Minister Irene Montero told lawmakers ahead of the vote.

“This law recognises the right of trans people to self-determine their gender identity, it depathologises trans people. Trans people are not sick people, they are just people.”

Until now, adults in Spain could only request the change with a medical report attesting to gender dysphoria and proof of hormone treatment for two years. Minors needed judicial authorisation.

The new law drops all such requirements, with those aged 14 and 15 allowed to apply if their parents or legal guardians agree.

Those aged 12 and 13 will also require a judge’s permission to make the move.

‘We are not ill’

The vote was hailed by campaigners who said Spain was setting an example that would encourage others to follow suit.

“We’re celebrating the fact this law has passed after eight years of tireless work to obtain rights for the trans community,” Uge Sangil, head of FELGBTI+, Spain’s largest LGBTQ organisation, told AFP outside parliament.

“We’re winning human rights with the free determination of gender… From today, our lives will change because we are not ill.”

This is a clear win. The article notes, as I’ve done in the past, the ways in which trans rights are under assault, as well as the way England’s right-wing government overrode Scotland’s decision to enact a similar law. I’ve honestly not paid much attention Spain, but this is not the first time I’ve felt I should change that.

The other change that I think is worth celebrating is the decision to provide paid menstrual leave, with a doctor’s note, covered by the public healthcare system. Periods can be debilitating. For some people they’re not much of a problem, but at the other end of the spectrum you get cramps, migraines, vomiting, stiffness, and probably other problems I’m forgetting. It is not reasonable to demand that people just work through that, especially since, as I keep saying, there’s no actual scarcity to justify depriving people. As a USian, the requirement of a doctor’s note gave me pause, but in a good public healthcare system, that’s far less of a burden than it would be in the States.

The bill approved by Parliament on Thursday is part of a broader package on sexual and reproductive rights that includes allowing anyone 16 and over to get an abortion or freely change the gender on their ID card.

The law gives the right to a three-day “menstrual” leave of absence – with the possibility of extending it to five days – for those with disabling periods, which can cause severe cramps, nausea, dizziness and even vomiting.

The leave requires a doctor’s note, and the public social security system will foot the bill.

The law states that the new policy will help combat the stereotypes and myths that still surround periods and hinder women’s lives.

Equality Minister Irene Montero, an outspoken feminist in the leftwing government, hailed “a historic day of progress for feminist rights”.

“There will be resistance to its application, just as there has been and there will be resistance to the application of all feminist laws,” she told parliament.

“So we have to work (…) to guarantee that when this law enters into force, it will be enforced”.

“The days of (women) going to work in pain are over,” Montero said last year when she unveiled her government’s proposal.

But the road to Spain’s menstrual leave has been rocky. Politicians – including those within the ruling coalition – and trade unions have been divided over the policy, which some fear could backfire and stigmatise women in the workplace.

Worldwide, menstrual leave is currently offered only in a small number of countries including Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea and Zambia.

I get why there’s a fear of stigma there, but I think that’s a problem with a capitalist society that demands work (for the interests of capital) to justify dignity or survival. I prefer a societal norm that accepts humans as we are, and doesn’t make unreasonable demands of people, especially for them to have basic rights. This kind of law is only really a problem when you’re forcing people to compete with each other for a “good” life.

I’m hopeful that this will be a step not only towards a more just world, but also towards destigmatizing disability in general, whatever the cause. We’ve got a long way to go, still, but we have made progress, as a species, and that’s worth celebrating. The activists who made these laws a reality have my full respect and appreciation, and I look forward to other countries following this example.

Video: John Oliver on Psychedelics

Boy, that headline sounds a lot more entertaining than what this actually is. I do love the ambiguity of the English language sometimes.

When we talk about systems of power and domination like white supremacy or patriarchy, some people object by pointing to the ways in which those systems often hurt the people they supposedly privilege. This isn’t a bug, but rather a feature. White supremacy was developed not as a way to elevate the newly-invented “white race”, but as a way to control the majority of that race, to get their help in atrocious colonial projects, and to get them to defend a hierarchy that often hurts them more than it helps. To quote Lyndon Johnson:

If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.

This approach had many benefits for the white aristocracy – it got the consent of white people to murder and enslave countless Indigenous people in Africa and the Americas, and it often got those same white people to fight hard to defend the hierarchy because while they weren’t at the top, they could see every day that they weren’t at the bottom either. It created a pretty one-sided, cross-class solidarity based on sadism and bigotry, that continues to be central to maintaining capitalism to this day. While open hatred has gained popularity with the recent fascist backlash, there was a brief period in which the power of liberatory social movements made bigoted people look for ways to hide their bigotry, while still upholding systemic white supremacy. A good quote on this comes from Lee Atwater, another miserable bigot:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****, n*****, n*****.” By 1968 you can’t say “n*****”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****, n*****.”

Again, we have the same theme – from people in or close to the ruling class who support white supremacy – that while black people are hurt more by systemic racism, a lot of white people get hurt by it as well. There are pretty easy examples – police violence, while mainly aimed at black and brown people, it also hurts white people all the time. That fits pretty well, since both white supremacy and police are all about keeping normal folks in line, but the pattern echoes throughout society. When the law no longer allowed black people to be explicitly excluded from government assistance and other public services, white society decided that if it couldn’t be for whites alone, it couldn’t exist at all. They were so obsessed with keeping black people down that they were willing to hurt poor white folks along with them.

And a similar thing happened with the drug war. To quote another horrible person who worked to uphold capitalism and white supremacy:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Once again, I think it’s important to note that while these people were absolutely vicious bigots, they also used and perpetuated bigotry as a tool to attain, hold, or increase their power. And the harm? Well, the so-called War on Drugs has been almost universally regarded as a total failure, except with regard to its utility in justifying a massive expansion in the government’s power to destroy lives.

It goes beyond that, though. Most of the attention is quite rightly focused on the abuse, exploitation, and enslavement of black people in the U.S., but one of the ways in which it hurts everyone has been through a lack of access to, and understanding of a variety of drugs. It’s not just about fun, though I think we should have a right to that. Many of these are drugs that can measurably improve people’s wellbeing, and help us work through things ranging from trauma to the inevitable approach of death. I think I’ve mentioned in the past that during my last couple years in the U.S., I had a license to use medical cannabis to help manage stress and anxiety. I never touched the stuff until I was in my 30s, but for the couple years in which I had legal access, it made a huge difference in my life. I haven’t tried anything “stronger” though, partly because I haven’t felt a need, and partly because of criminalization.

I’d prefer not to get on the wrong side of the law, and when it comes to things that come in pill form, there seems to be an increasing problem with contamination (consider getting fentanyl test strips and narcan – they save lives). There may be inherent risks in the use of any given drug – just as there are with things like caffeine or alcohol – but the real danger comes from criminalization. The danger of violence comes from the police, and from the danger presented by the police. The danger of contamination comes, in most part, from the necessity of “underground” production. The danger of the drugs themselves comes from ignorance of the effects, and the danger (also from cops) inherent in seeking treatment or advice.

Decriminalizing makes it easier for researchers to study drugs and their effects, makes the trade safer, since there would be no need to hide from or defend against law enforcement, makes it easier to know what’s in a given drug, and makes it easier to get help if something goes wrong. In general, the standard should be informed consent – make sure people know the facts, and respect their right to make their own decisions.

Still, while we seem to be a ways off from me getting my way, there has been research into things like psychedelics over the years, and slow progress is being made on legalization for medicinal purposes, which is great. The more I hear, the more I want to have some of these things as an option when I reach my final days. Cannabis wasn’t a “gateway” that made me start using other drugs, but it did give me a little perspective on the lies told about them.

You know what does make me interested in other drugs? Videos like this, which break down the lies, and lay out what we know about how certain drugs have helped people:

You’re not alone: Labor Action Tracker shows strikes across the United States

In recent years, there has been a rise in labor organizing and labor action in the United States. As I’ve said before, watching that happen has been extremely encouraging. While the aristocracy and the government (which mostly serves the aristocracy) have been working hard to crush labor power, the reality is that organizing and strikes work. Mass layoffs, and policy designed to make people poor and desperate absolutely cause real harm, and destroy lives, but they take such drastic steps because they are terrified that their workers will realize – and use – the power that comes from collective action.

The thing is, though, collective action only works if you’re not alone. With corporate media often being outright hostile to labor organizing, and two capitalist parties that regularly side with the bosses, it’s probably not hard for people to feel like the fight is simply too big to take on. It creates a sort of Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which workers have trouble knowing if it’s safer to stand together and fight, or keep their heads down and just try to survive as best they can. That’s why it’s important to normalize talking about this stuff, and why it brings me great pleasure to introduce you to the Cornell-ILR Labor Action Tracker.

Welcome to the Cornell-ILR Labor Action Tracker. The goal of our project is to provide a comprehensive database of strike and labor protest activity across the United States in order to better inform and support labor movement activists, policymakers, and scholars. We would like to especially thank and acknowledge the ILR School for generous funding to support our project. We also thank the staff at China Labour Bulletin for inspiring and encouraging us to develop the labor action tracker.

We began documenting strikes in late-2020 and labor protests in early-2021. Our database of strikes is most accurate as of 2021. We have a relatively high degree of confidence in our ability to comprehensively capture strike activity. Due to the high number of labor protests across the United States, we aim to provide a general understanding of labor protest activity rather than achieve a complete count. Please note that our map generates the total number of strike and/or labor protest locations, which is more than the total number of individual strikes and/or protests (e.g. a single strike at five locations will appear five times on our map). Information we gather is from public sources and manually inputted into our tracker. Please see our methodology document for a more detailed description of our definitions, protocols, and variables. Follow us on twitter @ILRLaborAction to keep up to date with our project!

The tracker covers strikes and lockouts throughout the United States and its territories, with an interactive map that lets you find each action, as well as details about what’s happening and why:

This image is a map of labor actions in the contiguous United States, and in Puerto Rico. There are color-coded dots showing the number of actions in each region. Blue for less than 10, yellow for 10-99, and red for more than 100. On the tracker’s website you can zoom in to see more details, or use their search and sorting function if you need to stick with a text-based format.

Zooming in brings you details about where the action is, when it is, what company it’s aimed at, how many workers are involved, and what they’re asking for. This tracker has been up for a couple years, so it’s taken me a while to hear about it, or at least to notice it enough to investigate. That said, better late than never, and if I’m just hearing about this now, there are probably others in the same boat.

I like to talk about how humans are at our strongest when we work together, and a key part of that is being able to communicate and coordinate with each other. If you’re looking to start organizing your workplace, then finding local actions and turning out to support them could be a great way to make connections and get advice or help. If you just want to be supportive in general, this could be a way to find groups near you that might need help paying bills or getting food while they face off with their bosses.

Usually when it comes to politics in the United States, red is a color to avoid, but in this case, I want to see big, red markers all over the map.