Invest in Mass Transit. Electric Cars Still Pollute Air, Water, and Food.

I saw a tweet today from author/influencer Hank Green, asking for arguments against electric cars, and decided I’d put in my oar. In a lot of ways, electric cars are the most obvious “fix” for the problem of transit emissions. Combined with renewable and nuclear energy, they could make a huge dent in overall CO2 emissions, which would only grow as manufacturing is also switched over to low/no-carbon power. There’s good reason to look at electric cars as “the solution”, especially because it’s not hard to imagine keeping things as they are, but with electric instead of gas-powered cars. They could absolutely be a part of a climate-friendly society, in terms of carbon emissions. That said, I have a few reasons why I do not think we should take that route.

The first is that “keeping everything else the same” is not acceptable to me. It would mean that hundreds of millions of people around the world continue to deal with needless poverty and oppression, all to feed the insatiable greed of capitalists. It means injustice, and mass murder, and billions knowingly poisoned in the name of profit. It means virtually every battery in our electronics was partly build with brutal slave labor. I’m not here to fight for things to stay the same as they have been, minus the climate crisis, I’m here to fight for things to get better.

Second is that the climate crisis is not the only environmental crisis we’re facing. As I wrote a couple years back, chemical pollution is a serious global threat to both human health and biodiversity. There are many causes for that chemical pollution, but overproduction driven by the profit motive is a big factor. On its face, a certain amount of overproduction is probably a good thing. If we produce more than we need, we can store up resources against hard times, and invest in things like big infrastructure projects, space exploration, and so on. We’re in this to build a world where everyone has everything they need, and the only way to ensure that is to produce an excess. Unfortunately, the excesses we produce under capitalism have nothing to do with meeting people’s needs – they’re about profit for the owning class. That means that while we grow enough edible biomass to feed billions more people than currently exist, a huge portion of that is grown as feed for livestock, or to make ethanol as a gasoline additive, and a big portion of what is grown for human consumption is thrown away, because that’s better for the bottom line than simply giving unwanted food to people who need it.

It also means that products are deliberately designed to break or wear out sooner than is necessary, so that the product’s owner is forced to either pay for repairs, or buy a new product. We call this planned obsolescence, and while these days we may associate it more with smartphone charging cables, it was pioneered by the auto industry, and spread from there like a plague. I think that even in my utopian society, there would be electric cars. For all their flaws, cars are extremely useful machines, and can fill needs that mass transit cannot. That said, I think they should be more of a community resource, and the incentive structure surrounding their construction should be about durability and function, not simply turning raw materials and human labor into profit.

And third, switching to electric cars would continue the problem of air pollution from traffic. Popular media tends to focus on exhaust from tailpipes when depicting and discussing traffic pollution, but the reality is that these days the overwhelming majority of dangerous traffic pollution comes from the tires of the cars, not their tailpipes. The friction of tire against road rubs off ultra-fine particles that float around, and can work their way through our lungs and into our bloodstream, where they contribute to heart problems, strokes, brain problems, and more. In fact, as I was refreshing my memory for this post, I came across a piece of recent research that’s quite relevant. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it turns out that the traffic pollution that’s infiltrating our bodies, is getting into our food as well, not just from the air, but also from the half-treated sewage often used as fertilizer, and the water used for irrigation:

The presence of drug residues in commercially sold fruit and vegetables has already been scientifically investigated many times. However, chemical substances from tire wear, so-called additives, also find their way into the food chain. This has now been shown in a new study by an international research team led by Thilo Hofmann at the Center for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science at the University of Vienna (CeMESS) in collaboration with a team the Hebrew University of Jerusalem led by Benny Chefetz. Vegetables from Switzerland and Israel were examined. Some of these substances and their transformation products can potentially pose ecological and toxicological risks.

Car tires consist of a complex mixture of materials that improve their performance and durability. These include 5-15% chemical additives, which comprise hundreds of substances, for example antioxidants, antiozonants, vulcanizing agents, anti-aging agents and many more, to enable the hig-tech performance of a modern tire. “The toxicity of tire and road wear particles is related to their organic additives and associated transformation products,” explains Anya Sherman, PhD student at CeMESS and first author of the recently published study.

The compounds extracted from car tires find their way into agriculture through atmospheric deposition, irrigation with treated wastewater and the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer. “There they can be taken-up by plants and thus also reach humans,” adds Thilo Hofmann, head of the research group.

Residues of tire wear in leafy vegetables from the supermarket and field

Finally, the researchers extrapolated the measured values from the vegetables to the intake of these substances in the diet. “We calculated the intake per day based on what people in Switzerland and Israel eat,” says Sherman. The concentrations of the tire additives in leafy vegetables are low overall and are, for example, 238 ng/kg for benzothiazole (BTZ), or 0.4 ng/kg for 6PPD, a substance whose transformation product 6PPD quinone is known to be highly toxic for aquatic species like coho salmon. Depending on the diet, this leads to a daily intake per person of 12 to 1,296 ng for BTZ, or 0.06 to 2.6 ng for 6PPD. This is comparable in magnitude to drug residues, which also enter the food chain. According to Thilo Hofmann, the study shows clear results: “While the concentrations and daily intake are fortunately relatively low, additives from car tires are still found in food. That’s not where they belong.” According to Hofmann, the next steps should now be to investigate the environmental and human health aspects.

From the street, to the plant, into the body

As early as 2023, the scientists were able to show that additives from car tires can in principle be absorbed by plants. “However, the question was whether this only happens in our mechanistic laboratory study or also in the field,” explains first author Anya Sherman. In the current study, the Viennese and Israeli environmental scientists therefore analyzed whether lettuce plants absorb the chemicals released by car tires under natural growing conditions. “We examined real samples from supermarkets in Switzerland and field vegetables from Israel,” says Thilo Hofmann, explaining the background to the study published last week.

The international team of researchers used high-resolution mass spectrometry to analyze the samples for a total of sixteen tire-associated compounds. The countries of origin of the leafy vegetables in the Swiss samples from the supermarket were Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. In the Israeli samples, field vegetables from Israel directly after harvest.

The bit about sewage and treated water makes me worry that this is becoming something of an amplifying feedback loop, where our wasteful farming practices combine with wasteful transportation practices to gradually increase the concentration of tire chemicals in our diet. We don’t know yet what the full implications of this may be, but add it to the news about “forever chemicals” in our blood and tissues, and it’s hard to feel optimistic about it. So, my argument against electric cars is quite similar to my argument against gas-powered cars. Cars, as they are used today, are a problem no matter what is fueling them. Instead of investing in electric car companies and their profits, we should be investing in better mass transit, and redesigning our societies to minimize car dependence.

Now, I’m going to end with a slight topic shift. As I said at near the beginning, I find the global status quo unacceptable. There are a myriad of gross and utterly needless injustices going on around the world, both in the name of profit, and in the name of maintaining a particular order. Despite the propaganda you may have heard since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that order is not “rules-based”. American composer Frank Wilhoit once said “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds, but does not protect.” We can see that philosophy in action in conservative countries like the United States, but also in the world at large, led by the United States. There is no more glaring example of that, right at this moment, than the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, being carried out by Israel, with the full material and rhetorical support of the U.S. government.

I’m writing a longer post on this, which has had to undergo a number of changes, as events have unfolded more quickly than I’ve been able to work on it, but I felt I had to say something here because this research comes, in part, from an Israeli university. I could claim that this work is unrelated to the policies of the Israeli government, but the reality is that the whole country, as it has been conceived thus far, is an inherently violent and unjust project. Rather than actually grapple with the horrors of European and American antisemitism, the decision was made to invest in creating the nation of Israel, encouraging Jews to leave Europe, and forcing the people already living in Palestine to endure generations of oppression and ethnic cleansing. The Israeli project needs to end, as do all ethno-nationalist projects. The only path to a lasting, just peace in the region is one democratic nation, with equal rights for all, with an international peacekeeping force to aid what will unquestionably be a difficult and dangerous transitional period. I support the BDS movement, and the call for colleges and universities to cut ties with Israeli institutions, and any war profiteers working with Israel until the apartheid is ended, and Palestine is free.

The Collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Now Seems Inevitable.

I struggled a bit in thinking about what to post today. I’ve been working on a Gaza post for a little while now, but it keeps not feeling done, and then new things keep happening. I hope I’ll have it out very soon, but that’ll depend a bit on how well I can wrangle my brain this week. Then I was thinking about a post that can be summarized by paraphrasing Forrest Gump: “Cops are like a box of chocolates. They’ll kill your dog.” I may still write that one, but that felt a bit too grim, and hit a little too close to home. I have guests in town, and I didn’t want  to be putting myself in a bad mood while playing host. I considered a couple other topics, but eventually I turned to my standby, climate science headlines, and boy do they disappoint! Specifically, I always hope for good news, and am very often disappointed, so I’ve got bad news today! It’s exciting!

As you are all no doubt aware, this little planet of ours currently has two ice caps – one on top of the island of Greenland, and one on top of the continent of Antarctica. These are such massive sheets of ice that they generate a gravitational pull on the ocean surrounding their respective landmasses, pulling the water toward them in the same way that mountains do. I know it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of ice in those ice sheets, but it bears repeating, because those ice sheets are melting, and the hotter this planet gets, the faster they melt. I think it would be helpful, for today’s discussion, to think of the ice sheets that make up those ice caps as big lakes, and glaciers as the rivers flowing from them.

For a while now, the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica has been dubbed “The Doomsday Glacier”, which sounds like a disaster movie so over the top and campy it would put The Day After Tomorrow to shame. It’s called that because that glacier is all that’s keeping the west Antarctic ice sheet from sliding into the ocean. There has long been a worry that the combination of rising sea levels and warming water would lift the glacier above it’s current “grounding line”- the spot on the sea floor that’s currently slowing it down. If the bottom melts enough, and the glacier floats up enough, then it loses that friction, and can just flow out into the ocean, soon followed by the ice sheet. The final result of that would be 3-4 meters of sea level rise, or roughly 10-13 feet. The sea level rise in that time frame would considerably more than that, given contributions from the rest of Antarctica, from Greenland, from mountain glaciers, and from thermal expansion as the temperature continues to rise.

And so I regret to inform you that we have yet more bad news from the Thwaites glacier:

A team of glaciologists led by researchers at the University of California, Irvine used high-resolution satellite radar data to find evidence of the intrusion of warm, high-pressure seawater many kilometers beneath the grounded ice of West Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier.

In a study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the UC Irvine-led team said that widespread contact between ocean water and the glacier – a process that is replicated throughout Antarctica and in Greenland – causes “vigorous melting” and may require a reassessment of global sea level rise projections.

The glaciologists relied on data gathered from March to June of 2023 by Finland’s ICEYE commercial satellite mission. The ICEYE satellites form a “constellation” in polar orbit around the planet, using InSAR – interferometer synthetic aperture radar – to persistently monitor changes on the Earth’s surface. Many passes by a spacecraft over a small, defined area render smooth data results. In the case of this study, it showed the rise, fall and bending of Thwaites Glacier.

“These ICEYE data provided a long-time series of daily observations closely conforming to tidal cycles,” said lead author Eric Rignot, UC Irvine professor of Earth system science. “In the past, we had some sporadically available data, and with just those few observations it was hard to figure out what was happening. When we have a continuous time series and compare that with the tidal cycle, we see the seawater coming in at high tide and receding and sometimes going farther up underneath the glacier and getting trapped. Thanks to ICEYE, we’re beginning to witness this tidal dynamic for the first time.”

ICEYE Director of Analytics Michael Wollersheim, co-author, said, “Until now, some of the most dynamic processes in nature have been impossible to observe with sufficient detail or frequency to allow us to understand and model them. Observing these processes from space and using radar satellite images, which provide centimeter-level precision InSAR measurements at daily frequency, marks a significant leap forward.”

Rignot said the project helped him and his colleagues develop a better understanding of the behavior of seawater on undersides of Thwaites Glacier. He said that seawater coming in at the base of the ice sheet, combined with freshwater generated by geothermal flux and friction, builds up and “has to flow somewhere.” Water is distributed through natural conduits or collects in cavities, creating enough pressure to elevate the ice sheet.

“There are places where the water is almost at the pressure of the overlying ice, so just a little more pressure is needed to push up the ice,” Rignot said. “The water is then squeezed enough to jack up a column of more than half a mile of ice.”

Just to be clear, half a mile is just under the height of the tallest building in the world, we’re talking a solid sheet of ice, not a hollow building. I know the scale is probably familiar to everyone reading this blog, but I still find it a bit mind-boggling how much weight is being lifted by this slowly intruding water. Maybe it’s just that this is a small enough “big” part of what’s happening to the planet as a whole that I can just about wrap my brain around it. Unfortunately, this is exactly what scientists have long been fearing, because that layer of water isn’t just lifting the ice, it’s acting as lubrication, letting it slide faster, and worse, it’s speeding the melting from the underside:

And it’s not just any seawater. For decades, Rignot and his colleagues have been gathering evidence of the impact of climate change on ocean currents, which push warmer seawater to the shores of Antarctica and other polar ice regions. Circumpolar deep water is salty and has a lower freezing point. While freshwater freezes at zero degrees Celsius, saltwater freezes at minus two degrees, and that small difference is enough to contribute to the “vigorous melting” of basal ice as found in the study.

Climate scientists have been warning the world about the dangers of climate change since at least the 1950s, and all along the way, their projections have proven to be either accurate, or too optimistic. They’ve been ignored and dismissed by the rich and powerful, and contrary to the fantasies of climate science deniers, the scientists are not actually getting the support they need.

Co-author Christine Dow, professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, said, “Thwaites is the most unstable place in the Antarctic and contains the equivalent of 60 centimeters of sea level rise. The worry is that we are underestimating the speed that the glacier is changing, which would be devastating for coastal communities around the world.”

Rignot said that he hopes and expects the results of this project to spur further research on the conditions beneath Antarctic glaciers, exhibitions involving autonomous robots and more satellite observations.

“There is a lot of enthusiasm from the scientific community to go to these remote, polar regions to gather data and build our understanding of what’s happening, but the funding is lagging,” he said. “We operate at the same budget in 2024 in real dollars that we were in the 1990s. We need to grow the community of glaciologists and physical oceanographers to address these observation issues sooner rather than later, but right now we’re still climbing Mount Everest in tennis shoes.”

They’ll keep on climbing in those tennis shoes, but It feels like it would be a good idea to get them proper funding. The whole world is changing, and for all I called this a “little planet”, that’s a lot of area to cover, in studying how global warming is changing things. It’s nice to have a warning about what looks to be the unavoidable collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet, but the less we fund climate science, the more likely are to get a nasty surprise.

The good news is that this process will not happen all at once. We do still have time to slow the warming, and to prepare for the rising sea. Even with the rapid acceleration, it will take many, many years for the ice sheet to flow into the ocean. This is not a meltwater pulse. That said, it will result in more rapid sea level rise throughout this century. As always, the degree to which this is a disaster will depend on what we do, as a species, to prepare for it, and to mitigate change. We’ve been warned with time to respond. The only question is whether we will heed that warning.

How Not To Do Renewable Energy: A Case for Systemic Change

I am in favor of using renewable energy as one way to replace fossil fuels as a  power source. I don’t write about that on this blog as much as I used to, because I came to realize that simply writing about solutions is insufficient. Between nuclear energy, renewable energy, and an abundance of ways to decrease energy consumption, we’ve had the tools to solve the climate crisis for decades. The problem is not a lack of solutions, or even a lack of popular desire for change. The problem is that the US government serves neither the will, nor the interests of the people.  It serves the interests of capitalists – those who own for a living, rather than selling their labor. That makes sense, right? In a capitalist society, the government serves capitalists. There are exceptions to that, of course, but the vast majority of those rights and guarantees came as grudging concessions in the face of mass uprisings and disaster. Further, once rights are won, like a fair wage or the right to abortion (one of the times we arguably gained rights without a mass movement), they are under constant attack, and can be lost again.

I’ve talked before about how climate change is not the only environmental crisis facing us, though it’s unquestionably the biggest. Chemical pollution, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss are also taking an increasing toll on the ecosystems that make our world habitable, and all of those problems are amplified by the rising temperature. It’s possible that, as climate chaos causes crop failures and escalating disasters, we’ll see the capitalists looking to cash in on the energy transition win out over fossil fuels and the would-be post-apocalyptic warlords. What that would not do is stop the chemical pollution and habitat destruction, or end the brutal exploitation and disregard for human life that still fuels the engines of capitalism. This was on my mind today, because I was recently reminded of a good example of why I don’t think we can leave it all to the current system.

One of the big problems with solar energy is at it requires a lot of surface area, and there’s not really any way to get around that. In my opinion, the way we ought to be rolling out photovoltaic power is by putting solar panels on roofs, and over things like parking lots, wherever we can. There is a lot of existing surface area that’s exposed to the sun, and that could be used to generate electricity or heat water, without claiming more land. Without doing something like destroying a delicate desert ecosystem to put up a solar farm. From May of last year:

Over the last few years, this swathe of desert has been steadily carpeted with one of the world’s largest concentrations of solar power plants, forming a sprawling photovoltaic sea. On the ground, the scale is almost incomprehensible. The Riverside East Solar Energy Zone – the ground zero of California’s solar energy boom – stretches for 150,000 acres, making it 10 times the size of Manhattan.


“When people look across the desert, they just see scrubby little plants that look dead half the time,” says Robin Kobaly, a botanist who worked at the BLM for over 20 years as a wildlife biologist before founding the Summertree Institute, an environmental education non-profit. “But they are missing 90% of the story – which is underground.”

Her book, The Desert Underground, features illustrated cross-sections that reveal the hidden universe of roots extended up to 150ft below the surface, supported by branching networks of fungal mycelium. “This is how we need to look at the desert,” she says, turning a diagram from her book upside-down. “It’s an underground forest – just as majestic and important as a giant redwood forest, but we can’t see it.”

The reason this root network is so valuable, she argues, because it operates as an enormous “carbon sink” where plants breathe in carbon dioxide at the surface and out underground, forming layers of sedimentary rock known as caliche. “If left undisturbed, the carbon can remain stored for thousands of years,’” she says.

Desert plants are some of the oldest carbon-capturers around: Mojave yuccas can be up to 2,500 years old, while the humble creosote bush can live for over 10,000 years. These plants also sequester carbon in the form of glomalin, a protein secreted around the fungal threads connected to the plants’ roots, thought to store a third of the world’s soil carbon. “By digging these plants up,” says Kobaly, “we are removing the most efficient carbon sequestration units on the planet – and releasing millennia of stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the solar panels we are replacing them with have a lifespan of around 25 years.”

See, when a corporation sets up solar panels, under our current system, they’re not doing so for the benefit of the environment. They’re doing it for money, because that’s how things work in this system. That means that they have the exact same incentives as every other corporation that destroys habitat in the name of profits and “progress”. I want more solar energy, but if we’re doing it like this, because it’s more profitable than tackling the more complex process of using existing spaces like rooftops and parking lots, then we’re better off spending that money on nuclear power.

How the transition is done will make a big difference when it comes to the resilience of the planet’s ecosystems, and capitalism does not value things like biodiversity, despite all the effort that’s gone into framing its value in dollars. We can see this in the destruction discussed above, or with the ill-considered placement of wind turbines leading to landslides in Scotland and Northern Ireland. And so, “climate action” must encompass systemic change. The political and economic structures that govern our lives must be replaced, or we will be forever stuck dealing with half-measures and habitat destruction, on top of the burdens imposed by our unstable climate.

Driven to Distraction by Howling Death Machines

There are valid concerns about renewable energy sources, particularly as they are being implemented today. Corporations and governments have been pursuing their lackluster energy transition with the same destructive recklessness as they pursue fossil fuels, threatening or destroying habitats around the world to put up turbines or solar farms, rather than using existing spaces like parking lots and rooftops, or actually taking the time to consider environmental impacts. Wind turbines also do kill birds and bats, albeit fewer than are killed by fossil fuels, and the wind industry seems to have no interest in voluntarily adopting different turbine designs to avoid that. Why would they? They’re capitalist organizations, just like all the rest.

None of this, however, negates the need for renewable and nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels, and so in addition to considering those valid concerns, I’ve also learned about a great many concerns that have no validity whatsoever, and perhaps the pinnacle of those has been the so-called “Wind Turbine Syndrome“. In a nutshell, organizations in the employ of the fossil fuel industry spread the false notion that the mere presence of a wind turbine was destructive to the health of local communities. The primary lie was that the turbines generated “infrasound” that acted like some kind of sonic weapon to cause all sorts of health problems. This has been debunked many times over, but it turns out that by spreading this panic among targeted populations, they created a “nocebo effect”, which generated psychosomatic symptoms. People literally worried themselves sick over the sound of wind turbines.

I thought of this today, because as I was pondering topics for this post, I came across an interesting bit of research about an actual public health problem caused by sound. What’s more, if we were to eliminate the source of this problem, it would actually help the fight against global warming!

The bad news is that doing so means reigning in the military-industrial complex that has become one of the biggest businesses in the United States, which is no mean feat. The US armed forces, in addition to being the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the world, are a noisy bunch, and have little regard for the people living around them. Normally when we’re talking about the harm done by the Pentagon, we’re talking about chemical pollution, and the devastating human, social, and political impacts of the United States’ constant warmongering. This may not be as big of a problem as those two, but noise pollution is also a big problem, and it’s not just an annoyance. You may have heard of the US Navy’s sonar messing with whales, and now it turns out that the US Navy’s “growler” jet is so loud that it’s actually harming the health of people as it flies over.

Bob Wilbur thought he’d found a retirement home that would be a place of peace. Nestled against Admiralty Bay on the western edge of Whidbey Island, the three-story house is surrounded by trees and shoreline. It offers the kind of quiet that only an island can provide. Except when the Growlers fly. 

As often as four days a week, Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft based at the nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey Island fly loops overhead as pilots practice touch-and-go landings. The noise is immense, around the level of a loud rock concert. “It interrupts your day,” Wilbur said. “You’re unable to have a pleasant evening at home. You can’t communicate. You constantly try to organize your day around being gone when the jets are flying.” 

New research from the University of Washington shows that the noise isn’t just disruptive — it presents a substantial risk to public health. Published May 9 in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, an analysis of the Navy’s own acoustic monitoring data found that more than 74,000 people are exposed to noise levels associated with adverse health effects 

“Military aircraft noise is substantially more intense and disturbing than commercial jet noise,” said lead author Giordano Jacuzzi, a graduate student in the UW College of the Environment. “Noise exposure has many downstream effects beyond just annoyance and stress — high levels of sleep disturbance, hearing impairment, increased risk of cardiovascular disease — these have real impacts on human health and quality of life. We also found that several schools in the area are exposed to levels that have been shown to put children at risk of delayed learning.”

Maybe this sort of thing doesn’t capture the imagination of the world’s conspiracy theorists the way an undetectable “infrasound” does, but the main way sound can harm us is by being too loud. I think it’s often easy for us to dismiss annoyances. We learn to live with minor discomforts, because that’s just what’s required to get through life. As we age, we acquire new and often worse discomforts, and we learn to cope with those too, but this stuff wears on us. The health impacts of stress, and sleeplessness are well known, and there are some conditions to which humans cannot adapt. We can try, and we can live with them for a time, but they wear us down as surely as exposure to a chronic poison.

In total, an estimated 74,316 people were exposed to average noise levels that posed a risk of annoyance, 41,089 of whom were exposed to nighttime noise levels associated with adverse effects on sleep. Another 8,059 people — most of whom lived within fairly close proximity to aircraft landing strips – were exposed to noise levels that can pose a risk of hearing impairment over time. 

“Our bodies produce a lot of stress hormone response to noise in general, it doesn’t matter what kind of noise it is. But particularly if it’s this repeated acute noise, you might expect that stress hormone response to be exacerbated,” said co-author Edmund Seto, a UW professor of environmental and occupational health sciences. “What was really interesting was that we’re reaching noise exposure levels that are actually harmful for hearing. Usually I only think of hearing in the context of working in factories or other really, really loud occupational settings. But here, we’re reaching those levels for the community.  

Taken as a whole, the potential harms can be quite serious, Seto said. “Imagine people trying to sleep, or children in school trying to understand their teachers and you’ve got these jets flying.” 

Every monitoring station on Whidbey Island measured noise events in excess of 100 decibels when jets were flying. In some instances, noise levels were “off the charts” — exceeding the limits of models used to predict the health effects of noise exposure around the world.  

“We found it striking that Growler noise exceeds the scientific community’s current understanding of the potential health outcomes,” said co-author Julian Olden, a UW professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. “For this reason, our estimates of health impacts are conservative.” 

As I said before, this is very far down on the list of reasons why the US imperial armed forces need to be dismantled for the good of humanity (not JUST the US, to be clear – it’s just the worst offender). The endless war, the genocides the US keeps supporting, of which the ongoing massacre of the Palestinian people is just one, the rampant pollution of land, sea, and air; a little noise seems like nothing next to all of that. Which is why I decided to write this post. When the world is filled with vicious savagery, hatred, and destruction, it’s easy to overlook those problems that don’t cause human bodies to be torn apart or filled with cancer, but the suffering of those subjected to the maddening noise of constant military fly-overs also merits our concern.

We live in a vast and tangled web of interconnected systems, many of which are extremely harmful for the vast majority of humanity. Stafford Beer popularized the notion that the purpose of a system is what it does, and what the Pentagon does, is destroy lives in so many ways that we may never quantify all of them. It destabilizes our world in pretty much every way one could imagine, all to provide the illusion of stability that comes from the same group of people being in charge, decade after decade. Taking on the US military, even at the funding end rather than the killing end, is one of the most daunting tasks there is, but it has also always been a part of the fight for a stable climate. It remains a tall order, but as Ursula Le Guin once said:

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.

Two Dead Whistleblowers: History’s Lessons on Capitalist Violence

I’ve been listening to arguments in favor of capitalism for at least a couple decades now, since long before I started wanting a different system. Most often, people will point to the “failures” of 20th-century efforts to create something else, but if you take the time to drill down past the examples, and the factors that led to those failures, the conversation often ends up in some form of naturalization. Capitalism is the best we can hope for, because it’s the natural state of things, and/or because human nature is inherently selfish, and so we should have a system that acknowledges and uses that fact.

Personally, I think if you believe that about humans, then capitalism makes even less sense than left-wing systems. History has been pretty clear about what happens when you give the most wealth and power to those most obsessed with increasing their personal wealth and power. Those people are pretty much always going to use what they have to change the system to give themselves even more wealth and power, no matter the cost to the rest of us. After all, that’s what they’ve been doing for their whole lives, and they’re celebrated for it.

This also calls into question another common argument I see, that our society has “advanced”, and learned from past mistakes, so the militancy of labor movements past is no longer necessary or helpful. That opinion seems to be in decline, as the abuses of the owning class become more blatant, but I still run into it from time to time. If human nature is unchanging, then surely modern capitalists would be just as willing to use violence as the robber barons of old, right?

Capitalist corporations, and the people they serve, have always demonstrated indifference to human life, and intense disdain for human happiness. This can be seen in their constant fight to get more hours from their workers, for less pay, their hatred of safety and environmental regulations, and their apparent scorn for the wellbeing of their customers. This is true whether it’s Johnson and Johnson knowingly selling asbestos to be used on babies, or Boeing knowingly selling unsafe airplanes. Why, then, would we expect them to suddenly value the lives of their workers, when those workers are standing in their way?

Personally, I don’t buy that narrative about human nature. Humans are complex, and shaped by the world around us, including those parts of the world that we ourselves create. What I do believe is that our system is designed to empower and reward the same kind of thinking and behavior as it did back when bosses were hiring thugs to fire machine guns at striking workers. Similar incentives tend to yield similar results.

Readers of this blog probably saw the headlines when John Barnett, a whistleblower who was testifying in a case against Boeing, was found dead, killed by a supposedly self-inflicted gunshot wound back in March. Suicide is a complicated phenomenon, and sometimes it can take those left behind by surprise. That said, those who knew the man seem convinced that he did not take his own life, including a claim that he had explicitly stated that any declaration of his suicide should not be believed.  We may never know for certain, but it sure was suspicious.

And then, just a couple days ago, a second whistleblower died, this time from a sudden respiratory illness, at age 45. His name was Joshua Dean.

It was a stunning turn of events for Dean and his family. Green says he was very healthy — someone who went to the gym, ran nearly every day and was very careful about his diet.

“This was his first time ever in a hospital,” she said. “He didn’t even have a doctor because he never was sick.”

But within days, Dean’s kidneys gave out and he was relying on an ECMO life support machine to do the work of his heart and lungs. The night before Dean died, Green said, the medical staff in Oklahoma did a bronchoscopy on his lungs.

“The doctor said he’d never seen anything like it before in his life. His lungs were just totally … gummed up, and like a mesh over them.”

Green says she has asked for an autopsy to determine exactly what killed her son. Results will likely take months, she said.

“We’re not sure what he died of,” she said. “We know that he had a bunch of viruses. But you know, we don’t know if somebody did something to him, or did he just get real sick.”

Now, just as suicide is a thing that happens, so is sudden, lethal illness at 45. That said, the timing is odd, isn’t it? And as we’ve already established, the giant corporation that makes military aircraft and sells unsafe planes to increase their profits does not value human life the way you or I do, and neither do the people running that corporation.

We may never know for for certain, but it sure was suspicious.

So what’s my point here? Is it just to ensure that my suspicion is shared by my readers? Well, partly, but it’s more than that. I also think that those of us who want to build a better world would be well advised to acknowledge that we are up against people who have the means, motive, and I would say inclination to kill those who threaten their wealth and power. Depending on your perspective, Dear Reader, this may sound like I’m understating the case, or like I’m paranoid, but I absolutely believe that most capitalists would purchase the death of an opponent and not lose a wink of sleep, if they thought they could get away with it.

Therefor, I believe it is necessary for workers to cooperate, and have each others’ backs, and to build the kind of organized, collective power that cannot be stopped just by killing leaders or whistleblowers. I don’t know whether either of these men would have wanted a union security detail, for example, but it seems like something that should be available. The one bit of good news – insofar as any of this mess can be called “good” – is that the entirely coincidental and innocent deaths of John Barnett and Joshua Dean have led ten more whistleblowers to step forward. That’s the kind of solidarity that can make a movement unstoppable – cut off two heads, ten more take their place.

It seems like we’re entering an era in which, to quote Dennis the Peasant, we are seeing the violence inherent in the system. Capitalists are over-reaching, and the results of their greed are eating away at the foundations of society, leaving it as unstable as infrastructure in the United States. Whether it’s by firing organizers, brutalizing activists, or assassinating whistleblowers, those at the top will use violence to keep their place above us. Thankfully, history doesn’t just teach us about the viciousness of the powerful, it also teaches us that together, we are stronger. Individuals and leaders can be shut down or shot down, but the movement carries on.

The Saber-toothed Salmon: When Fact Is Goofier Than Fiction

When I was growing up, my parents had a subscription to the Boston Globe. As a child, what mattered to me was the comics section, which I read daily, including the political cartoons that mostly went over my head. My family also had a number of comic books around, so by my teens, I had read pretty much every Doonesbury strip that had been published, along with the original Addams Family, The Far Side, and a century’s worth of New Yorker cartoons.

And somewhere in all of that, there’s a hazy memory of one cartoon in particular, that I simply cannot find on the internet. It was a sketchy one-panel job, that feels most like some of Gary Larson’s doodles, that depicted a bunch of “saber-toothed” prehistoric animals. Sure, we’ve got the tigers, but what about saber-toothed rabbits, or cows, or squirrels? As a joke, it’s worth a slight puff of air from the nostrils, at least. But hey, that’s just fun imagining, right? Plenty of extinct critters had odd teeth, but that doesn’t mean there’s a  saber-toothed version of everything, right? Well, maybe, but it turns out that one thing we did have in the past is a saber-toothed salmon!

The species was first described in the 1970s, and its former name, Smilodonicthys rastrosus, tells us exactly what paleontologists thought this fish looked like – a giant salmon with large, dagger-like fangs at the tip of its snout. For those who don’t know, Smilodon is the genus that contains all of the saber-toothed cats. It turns out that that image was about 90% right – the fish had the fangs, but they didn’t point down, they pointed sideways. It’s less saber-toothed tiger, and more warthog:

This picture is a compilation of four images, labeled A, B, C, and D. "A" is in the top left corner, and it's a scan of the fossilized head of the extinct salmon, with the "saber-tooth" highlighted and drawn over in green and yellow, pointing downward in the "saber-tooth" position that had been originally proposed. B is on the bottom left, showing a view of the fossilized skull from the front, showing the "saber-teeth" pointing sideways, rather than down. "C" is on the top right, and shows an artist's recreation of the newly proposed tooth position, pointing sideways, in a manner clearly not designed for hunting. Image "D" is the bottom right, and shows the artist's reconstruction of the whole fish, with the same sideways-pointing "fangs".

This picture is a compilation of four images, labeled A, B, C, and D. “A” is in the top left corner, and it’s a scan of the fossilized head of the extinct salmon, with the “saber-tooth” highlighted and drawn over in green and yellow, pointing downward in the “saber-tooth” position that had been originally proposed. B is on the bottom left, showing a view of the fossilized skull from the front, showing the “saber-teeth” pointing sideways, rather than down. “C” is on the top right, and shows an artist’s recreation of the newly proposed tooth position, pointing sideways, in a manner clearly not designed for hunting. Image “D” is the bottom right, and shows the artist’s reconstruction of the whole fish, with the same sideways-pointing “fangs”.

O. rastrosus, first described in the 1970s, has been estimated to reach up to 2.7 meters (8.9 feet) long, making it the largest member of the Salmonidae family ever discovered. Initially, researchers thought its oversized front teeth pointed backward into the mouth like fangs, in large part because fossils of the teeth were found apart from the rest of the skull. This led to the common name “saber-toothed salmon.” But through new CT scans and analysis of various Oncorhynchus rastrosus fossils collected over the years, researchers have now been able to confirm that the teeth actually pointed sideways out of the fish’s mouth, similar to a warthog. As a result, the authors say, the species should be renamed the “spike-toothed salmon.”

While it’s unclear exactly what these teeth may have been used for, the researchers believe they were likely used for fighting — either against other spiked-toothed salmon or as a defense against predators — or as a tool for digging out nests. It’s also possible the teeth were used for multiple purposes, the authors note. But the teeth likely weren’t used for catching prey, since Oncorhynchus rastrosus is believed to have been a filter-feeder that dined on plankton.

I love that. The fearsome saber-toothed salmon revealed to be a filter feeder. It reminds me of creatures like basking sharks or sturgeons, that can look fearsome at a glance, but that pose no threat to humans who leave them alone. Over the centuries, as we’ve learned more about the history of life on this planet, we’ve often looked at the bones of a deceased creature, and seen something to fear. Elephant skulls become proof of the giant, man-eating cyclops, the Iguanodon’s thumbs were assumed to be draconic horns, and a filter-feeding fish with some odd sideways teeth became the saber-toothed salmon.

Our imaginations often build the world around us into something that is harsh and terrifying by nature, when the reality is often just strange, with the real danger being our imaginations and the fear that so often drives them. For all its horrors, the so-called Natural World is indifferent to us, and those horrors come hand-in-hand with a whole lot of beauty, and some of the goofiest shit you’ve ever seen.

FtB Podish-Sortacast on Israel and Palestine (and a life update from me)

Hey everybody, sorry about the long silence! I’m applying to a creative writing master’s program, so I’ve been pushing ahead on my novel in order to submit the first chapter as part of the application. Because of the way I currently write, getting the first chapter just right has required me to be pretty clear about aspects of the worldbuilding, and aspects of the story that don’t take place until a couple books later in the series. It feels as though every thousand words of the novel, I need about five to ten thousand words that either come far later, or that will never make it into the story. It’s going well, but it hasn’t left me with much energy for the blog. Once the current flurry of activity is done, I intend to return for more regular posts once more.

Partly to get my brain back into the groove as I finish up this application, and partly because it’s an important topic, I’ll be participating in today’s FtB podcast-thing on Israel and Palestine. I probably should have done a blog post on it before now, I’ve just found it difficult to think of anything to say that’s not woefully inadequate in the face of such horror and hatred. That said, this and my last half-assed post on the subject are even less adequate, so I’ll give it thought. In the meantime, stop by for our discussion if you’ve got time this evening. Sorry for the short notice!


Fascism’s Amoeba of Hate

3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause
The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.

This is the third of Lawrence Britt’s 14 characteristics of fascism (not to be confused with Eco’s 14 features of fascism), and a common warning given to those who might be sympathetic or apathetic towards a rising fascist movement. They’re going after trans people now, but once they feel they’ve won that battle, they’ll turn to someone else. First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. This may actually be the most famous warning about fascists – that they are so utterly dependent on scapegoating as a unifying force and a way to maintain the pretense of might, that they will find and oppress a scapegoat, even if they have to create a group of people that never existed in order to do it. Working with them will not protect you from them.

When we hear about this, we generally think of cultural and political persecution. What’s being done to the trans community right now is the first genocidal project of a fascist movement, and if they are allowed to succeed, their focus will turn to other groups. I think it’s absolutely correct for that to be the first thing that comes to mind, but I have one complaint about it, and that is the implication that fascists are disciplined enough to go about this in a methodical, systematic manner, and to hide their hand until the time comes to switch groups.

There’s a sequence of focus, maybe, but the actual practice is utter chaos. Rather than inching forward in a line, like a Nazi worm, they move like a Nazi amoeba. They move in every direction at once, and then shift towards whichever pseudopod finds good fodder for their hatred. The predictability in the path they end up taking has everything to do with the environment in which the fascist movement develops – where their hatred can latch on and motivate people. As has been remarked many times, there are similarities between the United States and Weimar Germany, and those similarities play a big role in the way this fascist movement seems to mirror that one. Transphobia was already present and powerful, and so the trans community proved to be a good early scapegoat then, as now.

But it’s not like they’re hiding their racism, or their antisemitism, or their hatred of communists, and the myth of fascist efficiency and competence remains just that – a myth. This is where the amoeba analogy breaks down, because when an amoeba finds a piece of food, it will generally concentrate on that until it’s dealt with before resuming its pseudopodous journey. It is also a single organism, at relative peace with itself. Not so, fascists.

Maybe it’s something about the kinds of people who’re drawn to fascism, or maybe it’s the result of an ideology obsessed with domination and competition, but they also fight each other, constantly. Attacking is their only response to failure, or the perception of weakness. If they fail, the blame must always be put onto someone else, because they are Strong, and the Strong do not fail.

The current example, which sent me down this particular line of thought, is the way the right wing of the Republican Party is blaming its own chaos and incompetence on a succession of Republican leaders. Kevin McCarthy was the big recent example, but since getting rid of him didn’t solve anything, they’ve aimed some blame at McCarthy’s replacement, Mike Johnson, but also at Mitch McConnell. They don’t always get their way – their attacks on Johnson haven’t really gone anywhere, and McConnell seems committed to clinging to power until he rots – but they don’t need to always get their way. All they need is for one attack to work, one pseudopod to find something tasty, and that becomes their new way to show off their power, even if they still can’t get anything done.

It’s possible that this is level of chaos is unique to modern fascism, but I suspect that as with the Autobahn myth, this appearance of competence and efficiency came from a combination of this amoebic approach, the Nazis’ unceasing proclamations of their own superiority, and the degree to which their devout belief in white supremacy was also embraced by the Western societies that opposed them. I’m no scholar of the rise of fascism, but from what little I do know, paranoia, infighting, and a sort of chronic chaos seem to play a big role in fascist movements throughout history.

More that that, however, it highlights the degree to which there should be no excuse, at this stage, for anyone being ignorant of the fact that they will keep coming for different groups for as long as they have the power to do so. They’re making no secret of it, or of their desperate need to blame others for everything they do, all while preaching personal responsibility as a feeble disguise. Any time a new problem arises, they will immediately seek out a new scapegoat, even if it’s someone, like Mitch McConnell, who has dedicated their life to creating that very fascist movement. We don’t actually need to learn from past fascist movements to know where this one is headed – they’re making it perfectly clear with everything they say and do.

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.