Stuck in the 90s again

I recently decided to start dedicating time every day to reading, both fiction and nonfiction. Somewhere along the way, I got out of the habit of reading books, and that’s something I’d like to change, for a number of reasons. My parents gave me Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger for Christmas, and I had already been interested in reading it, so that’s what I’m starting with. All of this is to say, there’s a good chance that this won’t be the last blog post in some way inspired or influenced by that book. Towards the end of the introduction, Klein talks about the ways in which, thanks to things like social media, A.I., and the bizarre propaganda of a powerful fascist movement, we are truly in a different world from the one in which we were born. She writes of the surreal nature of our current moment, where nothing seems real in part because so much is not real.

That feeling of disorientation we tell one another about? Of not understanding whom we can trust and what to believe? Of friends and loved ones behaving like strangers? It’s because our world has changed, but, like a collective case of jet lag, most of us are still attuned to the rhythms and habits of the place left behind. It’s past time to find our bearings in this new place.

This resonated with me for three reasons. The most obvious is that I’ve gotten that feeling she describes from interacting with our culture. The second reason is that I’ve been arguing for a while now that we are, in a material and practical sense, on a different planet from the one on which humanity built this civilization. I believe that, as scientists have long been warning, we’ve passed the point at which we’ll be able to stop our planet from warming for generations to come. It is currently shifting towards a new equilibrium, much hotter than anything our species has had to deal with, and while I believe it’s possible to reverse that trend, we’re nowhere close to doing so. We are on a different planet, and yet our society acts as though nothing has changed.

Which brings me to the third reason Klein’s words caught my attention: The fact that our leaders appear to be stuck in the past. Specifically, they seem to be stuck in the 90s.

Growing up, the music I listened to was heavily influenced by my older brother’s tastes, and one group to which he introduced me was the Canadian band Moxy Früvous. They’ve got a lot of good songs, but this one – Stuck in the 90’s – has been echoing in my head for years now, like the discordant soundtrack of a dystopian thriller. The song relates the experience of someone named Clem, who has a fantasy of living in a society freed from the shackles of right-wing politics, before coming back to the grim reality of triumphant neoliberalism:

Clem had a daydream, daydream from heaven
Picked up the headline, his country was made up of singers
And no more right-wingers

He wakes up to “Homeless are stupid, welfare is stupid
Private investment efficiency, cool fiscal plannin'”
Sounds like more Pat Buchanan

Back in his day job this afternoon
Unlikely he’ll move down to Cuba soon

Reluctant to find he’s stuck in the 90’s again

Obviously, I relate to Clem here, but the reason this song has made a permanent home in my brain, is my growing awareness that a number of the people running the United States (though not just the United States), are people for whom the 1990s represent the pinnacle of what society had to offer the world. I’m talking about elderly Democratic Party politicians like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, many of whom were born before World War 2, and whose lives and politics were heavily influenced by the Cold War, and particularly the Reagan era. The ones who, from a progressive liberal perspective, seem to mean well, and say they want progressive policies, but somehow never seem to fight for them.

The 1990s saw the United States victorious in its long and bloody campaign to crush and/or isolate left-wing political movements around the world. That campaign didn’t stop, of course, but with the collapse of the USSR, communism was no longer in any danger of “taking over”, the way capitalists had feared. They believed they had reached, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, the End of History. “That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

To wealthy, neoliberal politicians, this was as close to utopia as it was possible to get. What’s more, I think the massive popularity of Bill Clinton, combined with projected demographic trends in the U.S. population, convinced a lot of Democrats that they were never really going to lose power again. All that remained was to achieve the perfect team of technocrats to recreate the TV show The West Wing in perpetuity. The Republican Party, in this view, basically existed to be a curmudgeonly opposition party, forever doomed to minority status, and existing only to keep things from improving “too fast”. The 2000 presidential election, and everything that followed from it, popped that bubble, and from where I’m sitting, it seems like they’ve never stopped trying to re-inflate it. Part of the reason why they refuse to fight for actually progressive policies is that they honestly believe that the perfect form of human civilization was already achieved, and all we need to do is go back to it.

Writing it out like this, I’ve noticed something else, which may be apparent to you as well, Dear Reader. This sounds an awful lot like I’m outlining the ideology of a fascist movement. “Our People were great once, until we were brought low by our enemy, and now we must go back to the old ways and reclaim our rightful glory.” If that raised alarm bells for you, that’s a good thing, but I don’t think I am describing a fascist ideology here. For one thing, there’s not really an “Our People” element to it. If we give them the benefit of the doubt, they want everyone around the world to have a functioning liberal democracy. Their fantasy isn’t for their ethnic group to reign supreme, and their enemy, insofar as you can use the term, isn’t a racial or ethnic group, but rather the far right, and most of the left – anyone who wants real change. Their utopia isn’t about the supremacy of a people, but of a process. They believe that “true” liberal democracy is the perfect system. They believe that it’s self-correcting, and that it will naturally guide society along a gradual path towards greater rights, freedoms, and prosperity for all. Further, they don’t seem to believe in actually fighting for their utopia, because they believe that their perfect process, having already been put in place, will guide society back to where it needs to be, if only they can keep power for long enough to fix what the Republicans broke.

This is, I should say, a charitable interpretation of things. It assumes that the politicians in question are unaware of the harm their “perfect system” caused around the world in the 1990s, and still causes to this day. It assumes a degree of ignorance and naïveté on behalf of rich and powerful politicians that I honestly find hard to believe. The 90s were good for them, but they came along with abysmal working conditions maintained by brutal violence, and the U.S. federal government is at the core of that global system of oppression. A government in which people like Biden and Pelosi have long been active and powerful participants. It must be noted that the beneficiaries of this system are almost entirely white, and its victims almost entirely non-white. If we assume that these powerful people are cynical rather than naïve, then we should also assume that they’re aware of the racial dynamics built into the “utopia” to which they would have us return. The “Our People” element may not be built into their ideology, but it’s not entirely incompatible, either.

Ultimately, I’m not sure whether their intentions matter a whole lot. At the end of the day, whether benevolent or malevolent, they clearly mean to cling to power until they die, and to drag all of us along on their doomed quest to reclaim the glory days. We’re not stuck in the 90s, we’re stuck in a world where the closest thing our rulers have to a positive vision for the future, is the impossible dream of returning to the 90s, at the same time as fascists are trying to return us to an even worse fictional past.

Maybe none of these people should have power.

Capitalism Teamed Up With Global Warming To Increase Rent

Last week, I talked about what “collapse” looks like in something as complex and dynamic as an ecosystem. A change in one part of the system ripples outward as all the connected parts adjust in response, triggering changes in their connected parts. Rather than the system simply falling like a Jenga tower, it changes shape, shrinking to fill vacuums. As far as I can tell, this is a property of any dynamic systems, and that includes our political, economic, and social systems.

For all of the years that I’ve been writing about climate change, one of the most consistent predictions has been that the worst harm will fall disproportionately on the poorest people. Most of the time the examples given have been poor nations, mostly former colonies, with some focus on poor communities within rich nations, like the minority communities hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This makes perfect sense. Poor people and poor nations have fewer material resources with which to prepare for or recover from disasters, or with which to move away from high-risk areas. This has always been the case, which is why you’ll find people living in so-called “sacrifice zones“, where they are routinely poisoned by industrial waste of various sorts. The status quo, absent climate change, already made life more dangerous for poor people, and climate change just adds to the pile. In fact, climate change can multiply those dangers. Flood waters can carry stored chemicals throughout a region, wildfires can fill the air with poison, and poorly stored materials can poison drinking water.

Today, however, I want to talk about a different way that climate change affects people at the lower end of the income range, at least in the United States: access to housing.

While I still hope to own my own home some day, I have to admit that it feels less attainable every year. Having rented since I left college, I’ve seen rent skyrocket, and have had to move several times just because the landlord decided they wanted to charge more, a pattern that’s likely to continue for the rest of my life. Every time I have to move, it requires another big chunk of money beyond rent, and the new place is likely to be charging as much as the old place before long. The whole process might as well be designed to prevent renters from building up enough wealth to buy their own home, without even touching how big landlords use their wealth to buy more homes, driving up prices.

So what happens when we add in the effects of a rapidly warming planet? What happens when a hurricane hits a city? Buildings are damaged, and some homes are rendered uninhabitable, and in need of repair or rebuilding. And the renter? Well, they’re left to find another place if they can, or to live in a hotel. If they’re lucky, federal disaster relief can cover those costs, but that only goes so far, and in the meantime that damage means that rental stock has gone down, and landlords’ expenses have gone up.

So the rent goes up too.

Dr. Kelsea Best of The Ohio State University and her colleagues analyzed how the frequency and intensity of a hurricane correspond to changes in median rent and rental housing affordability over time. They found that median rents rise in the year following more intense hurricanes due to declines in housing availability. Their results also suggest that the occurrence of a hurricane in any given year (or in the previous year) reduces affordable rental housing. This was especially true for counties with a higher percentage of renters and people of color.

More than one-third of the American population (44 million households) live in rental dwellings. Renters have less access to post-disaster government aid programs and to benefits from federal mitigation programs such as home buyouts. In addition, people of renter status are more likely to be underinsured, with only 57% having insurance policies as of 2022 (Insurance Information Institute). “Most federal post-disaster assistance programs are targeted to homeowners,” says Best. “Our study shows that deliberate attention must be given to renters – especially low-income and minority renters – in recovery efforts immediately following a disaster event and in subsequent years.”

She suggests that future local, state, and federal policies should provide explicit protections and support to renters after disasters. These could include eviction moratoria, limiting late fees on rent payments, increasing access to emergency rental assistance, and freezing rent increases. Additionally, efforts that prioritize affordable and stable housing supply with up-to-date market rent price monitoring could provide a critical reference for policymakers to understand and respond to renters’ struggles, especially during post-disaster periods.

“Without such deliberate consideration of rent and renters, disaster recovery risks exacerbate the affordable housing crisis for some of the most vulnerable populations,” says Best.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. See, hurricanes don’t just hurt infrastructure, they hurt businesses. They close for repairs, or they can’t get customers because of infrastructure damage, and so what do they do? Same thing they did during the pandemic – they cut costs by laying people off. Suddenly, because of a disaster beyond their control, there’s a group of people who no longer have the money to pay rent, and so evictions go up.

Another threat that renters may face following a disaster is eviction due to either loss of income or the lack of effective rental assistance when the housing supply tightens during the recovery phase.
Dr. Qian He of Rowan University and her colleagues investigated how disasters and post-disaster federal aid contribute to renters’ eviction risks. They found that hurricanes corresponded to higher eviction filings and eviction threats by inflating market rent the year of and one year after the hurricane. Counties receiving higher amounts of aggregated federal aid (both post-disaster and hazard mitigation aid) were associated with lower eviction filings and eviction threats two years after the disaster.

Because remember – the point of the housing market, in the US at least, is to make money, not to house people. Coming back to the collapse of dynamic systems, the motives involved matter. In an ecosystem, everybody’s just trying to survive, so the system as a whole changes based on what organisms do in pursuit of survival and reproduction. Our system revolves around the desires of a tiny minority of people, whose ability to think clearly has been severely compromised by their own extreme wealth and power.

This is part of the feedback loop I’ve dubbed the Age of Endless Recovery, in which we’re caught spending more and more money trying to recover for disasters that keep getting worse as the planet warms. Those at the top are insulated from the damage, and those further down in the hierarchy are forced to pay even more of their hard-earned money to people wealthier than themselves, thanks to the way those at the very top have fought to prevent any real climate action.

Rent keeps going up for a lot of reasons, but if you actually trace them, it all comes back to rich people putting their own misguided interests ahead of the entire species. As the study’s authors say, the problems they outline can be addressed with things like better government support for renters, when disaster strikes, but fundamentally, the problem will not go away until the point of our housing system is to house people, rather than making money off of people’s need for housing.

Documenting Collapse, and the Importance of Research Collections

I’ve written a little about evolution in response to climate change, but it’s important to remember that life responds to our other ecological impacts as well. Thanks to habitat destruction, pesticide use, and various other forms of pollution, there has been a well-established decline in insect populations, all around the world, including pollinators. Most of the focus has been on how that will affect human food production, but it’s also a major concern for broader ecological collapse. Given how important insects are to ecosystems, not just as pollinators but also as predators, as prey, as scavengers, and as detritivores, their decline is a problem for the world. The thing about this sort of collapse is that, as with global warming, it’s a dynamic process. It’s not like a Jenga tower, where pieces are removed one at a time until the inevitable downfall – the “pieces” of an ecosystem respond to what’s happening around them.

What happens when there are fewer pollinators? Well those that can, make do without:

Scientists at the CNRS and the University of Montpellier1 have discovered that flowering plants growing in farmland are increasingly doing without insect pollinators. As reproduction becomes more difficult for them in an environment depleted in pollinating insects, the plants are evolving towards self-fertilisation. These findings are published in a paper in the journal New Phytologist dated December 20, 2023.

The first thing to note is that the flowering plant in question is a particular species of pansy, Viola arvensis, which is already known to have the ability to reproduce via self-pollination, or “selfing”. I think that’s important to state clearly, because the completely new development of this ability would, in my view, be a much more dramatic discovery.

In previous posts, there was some question as to whether changes observed were truly “evolution”, as opposed to something smaller. Selfing is already a known trait of V. arvensis, so how do we know this isn’t just the plants taking care of business with the traits at hand? Well, it clearly is that, of course, but in this case, the research team used a version of “resurrection ecology” to test whether the change was actually a genetic shift in the population. They took seeds that had been collected decades ago, between 1992 and 2001, and used them to make a genetic comparison. Not only is there movement towards more selfing, but also towards smaller, less attractive flowers, and less of a reward for pollinators(PDF):

  • We used resurrection ecology methodology to contrast ancestors and contemporary des-
    cendants in four natural populations of the field pansy (Viola arvensis) in the Paris region
    (France), a depauperate pollinator environment. We combine population genetics analysis,
    phenotypic measurements and behavioural tests on a common garden experiment.
  • Population genetics analysis reveals 27% increase in realized selfing rates in the field during
    this period. We documented trait evolution towards smaller and less conspicuous corollas,
    reduced nectar production and reduced attractiveness to bumblebees, with these trait shifts
    convergent across the four studied populations

This makes a great deal of sense. Big, showy flowers take energy to produce and maintain, and the same is true of nectar. If you’re not getting any benefit in exchange for that investment, then most of the flower becomes little more than a liability. Those selfing plants that have smaller flowers will have more resources to invest in seeds than their showier counterparts.

On the surface, this could be seen as a good thing. Yes, we’re messing up ecosystems, but the plants are adapting! They’re finding a way! The problem is that, as the authors mention, this is likely to be one part of a feedback loop. The decline in flower size, attractiveness, and reward will make it that much harder for those pollinators who are still alive to get the food they need, putting further pressure on them. This will exacerbate the pollinator decline, which in turn will maintain the pressure towards smaller flowers, and so on, with effects that resonate throughout the ecosystem.

There is, however, one thing I want to stress beyond the ever-present need for systemic change and further research, and that is the importance of research collections. This study was possible because someone, decades ago, collected seeds and stored them in the right conditions. When science is discussed in the general population, a lot of attention is paid to the results. New discoveries and dramatic news make the best headlines, but all of that stuff is supported by the unsung work of generations who came before. Often, that’s the data collected and the papers written – the official records of research that can be copied, shared, and used. There are also contributions from more “hobbyist” sources, like the journals of birders and botanists who write down when the flowers appear in the spring, or when the birds start migrating in the fall.

And then there’s the physical record. During my brief stint as a working ecologist, we gathered lots of data, including DNA samples, but I don’t think those were preserved. Earlier, when I worked at a natural history museum in college, my main job was to create museum specimens out of dead animals. It was mostly window-killed birds, with a few mammals picked up on the side of the road. I and my fellow student workers skinned them, preserved the skins, and added them to the museum’s research collection. These weren’t made for display, or for any particular research project, but rather to create a databank of sorts, that can be used in the future when new questions and new techniques arise.

The seeds used in the pansy study were part of a similar collection, and I think that’s an aspect of science that should get more attention than it does. It’s also a part of science that, like the hobbyist journals I mentioned earlier, can be done by those of us who are not trained scientists. Even in the midst of ecosystem collapse, it’s important for this archival work to continue, both to understand what’s happening, and to answer questions that – currently – we don’t know enough to ask.

Beyond the actual acquisition of specimens, these collections also require active maintenance. Organisms, as you may be aware, tend to fall apart when they die, and even things as hardy as seeds need to be kept in the right conditions.  That means paying people to do that work, and paying for the materials those people need. Without that investment, neglect is inevitable, and entire collections are put at risk, and these specimens, as biological snapshots from particular moments of time, cannot be replaced.

I can’t help but tie one pattern of neglect to another. Research collections are imperiled for the same reason our biosphere is in peril – the system in which we live does not value investment in our collective future. There is no arrangement whereby shareholders can reap ever-increasing profits from building and maintaining these collections, just as there’s no short-term profit in protecting the world for future generations, and so destruction and neglect seem to be the default. Obviously, I think we need to do systemic change about this, but at a smaller level, if you want to get involved, I suggest getting in touch with local universities and natural history museums. They’re likely to know what sort of help is needed where you are, even if it’s just donating a little to help keep things running.