Miraculous Mushrooms Mitigate Mercury Menace

I never hear people proposing policies for cleaning up chemical pollution. I don’t know whether that’s because the ways to do it are less widely known, or because the issue is just less urgent and less in-vogue than climate change, or a secret third thing. Regardless, it’s an issue that I think is important, and (to the great shock of nobody), a problem that I think is best addressed using the abilities of organisms like plants, fungi, and bacteria.

That’s why I was happy to see this research, showing that not only can a particular fungus clean up mercury, in soil and in water, but we can apparently enhance its ability to do so:

“This project, led by Dr. Fang, found that Metarhizium stops plants from taking up mercury,” said St. Leger. “Despite being planted in polluted soil, the plant grows normally and is edible. What’s more, the fungus alone can quickly clear mercury from both fresh and saltwater.”

Metarhizium is a nearly ubiquitous fungi, and previous work by the St. Leger laboratory had shown that it colonizes plant roots and protects them from herbivorous insects. Scientists have known that Metarhizium is often one of the only living things found in soils from toxic sites like mercury mines. But no one had previously determined how the fungus survived in mercury polluted soils, or if that had implications for the plants the fungus normally lives with.

St. Leger and other colleagues had previously sequenced the genome of Metarhizium, and Fang noticed that it contains two genes that are very similar to genes present in a bacterium known to detoxify, or bioremediate, mercury.

For the current study, the researchers ran a variety of laboratory experiments and found that corn infected with Metarhizium grew just as well whether it was planted in clean soil or mercury-laden soil. What’s more, no mercury was found in the plant tissues of corn grown in polluted soil.

The researchers then genetically modified the fungi, removing the two genes that were similar to those in mercury remediating bacteria. When they replicated their experiments, modified Metarhizium no longer protected corn plants from mercury-laden soil, and the corn died.

To verify that the genes were providing the detoxifying qualities, the researchers inserted them into another fungus that does not normally protect corn from mercury. The newly modified fungus performed like the Metarhizium, protecting the plants from mercury-laden soil.

Microbiological analyses revealed that the genes in question expressed enzymes that break down highly toxic organic forms of mercury into less toxic, inorganic mercury molecules. Lastly, the researchers genetically engineered Metarhizium to express more of the detoxifying genes and increase its production of the detoxifying enzymes.

In their final experiment, the researchers found they could clear mercury from both fresh and salt water in 48 hours by mixing in Metarhizium.

The next step will be to conduct experiments in the field in China to see if Metarhizium can turn toxic environments into productive fields for growing corn and other crops. Current methods of remediating polluted soils require toxins to be removed or neutralized from entire fields before anything can be planted. That can be very expensive and take a long time. But Metarhizium simply detoxifies the soil immediately surrounding the plant roots and prevents the plants from taking up the toxin.

“Allowing plants to grow in mercury-rich environments is one of the ways this fungus protects its plant home,” St. Leger explained. “It’s the only microbe we know of with the potential to be used like this, because the bacteria with the same genetic capabilities to detoxify mercury don’t grow on plants. But you can imagine simply dipping seeds in Metarhizium, and planting crops that are now protected from mercury-rich soils.”

In addition to its potential as a cost-effective tool for reclaiming polluted lands for agriculture, Metarhizium may help clear mercury from wetlands and polluted waterways that are increasingly threatened by mercury pollution as climate change and melting permafrost accelerates the release of the toxic metal into soils and oceans.

This seems like great news! What’s more, if the claims made here are born out in future research, then it means that with the right preparation, even toxic soil could grow food that’s safe to eat. I honestly never would have thought of that, and the implications are fascinating, both as an activist, and as a science fiction writer. This is one of those times where I feel like I could see really amazing biotech innovations in my lifetime, that could help in pretty unambiguous ways, like rendering pollution harmless.

 

Advances in avian culinary technology open new front in The Toad Wars

One of my favorite “tropes” in modern environmentalism is the idea of solving human problems by improving, amplifying, or adjusting ecosystem services. This covers all sorts of things, but I think the first example I ever heard of was using predatory insects – ladybugs – to control agricultural pests. That was my first example, but not my favorite. My favorite, as I mentioned recently, is the story of cane toads in Australia. It’s an example of an almost-clever idea that has had horrible, and sometimes hilarious results. If nothing else, it has given us this gem of a nature documentary, which you can watch with your family while you eat Thanksgiving dinner!

That’s high art, if ever there was such a thing. Truly a masterpiece of cinema.

Now, why do I bring this up, other than the fact that it lets me write about something easy while my mind is elsewhere? Well, a new front has been opened in the Cane Toad Wars, and it comes to us thanks to the very latest in avian innovation. May I present to you, the Ibis-devised “stress-and-wash” technique for cane toad cuisine?

Ibis are often seen feeding on food dumped by humans, but citizen scientists are increasingly reporting the native species is dining out on toxic cane toads.

Gold Coast coordinator of Watergum’s Cane Toads program Emily Vincent said the “stress and wash” method had been viewed numerous times by citizen scientists.

“It’s quite amusing to watch and it’s quite different from other native species and their methods of eating them,” she said.

“The ibis will pick up cane toads and they will flick them about and stress out the toads.

“What this does is it makes the cane toads release toxins from the parotoid gland at the back of their neck, which is their defence mechanism when they’re faced with predators.

“Then they’ll take them down to the creek and wash them.”
Ms Vincent said it was encouraging to see the ibis capitalising on the food source, which was first introduced into Australia in 1935 to control cane beetles in Queensland’s sugarcane crops.

The cane toad has since spread into New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

“We have lots and lots of ibis in Australia,” she said.

“This is a learned behaviour and it’s been observed in multiple different regions.

“I think it will have an impact, especially as more species tag along and copy the behaviour.”

The article has some other useful information, including the fact that while the toad’s poison is apparently unpleasant for birds, it doesn’t actually do a whole lot to them. They mainly avoid it because of the flavor. I do feel bad for the toads (as I feel bad for some shown in the video above), but Australia’s ecosystem could really use a break, so it’s nice to see this.

Maybe this will finally bring peace between the Australians and the Ibis. I certainly hope so, given that country’s record when it comes to fighting birds, but it’s hard to say. In the meantime, here’s the current state of things as I understand it:

Small blog update, and a video

For the rest of November, I’m going to be doing low-effort posts for the most part. I’m behind on my novel, and the sad truth is that if I want to be able to keep writing, I need more sources of income. As wonderful as my patrons are, they form a pretty small crowd that hasn’t grown much over the last year, so I think it would be foolish to assume that that will change after another year or two.

I intend to keep posting daily, but for the rest of this month, and probably periodically going forward, I’ll be taking time for other work. I doubt it’s just me, but I find it hard to remind myself that yes, writing a novel is work that I actually have a responsibility to keep doing in my current situation, and it’s sometimes discouraging to work on something that only has a possibility of paying off months or years down the line.

Anyway, for a change of tone, here’s a two-parter on U.S. policing, and how it interacts with U.S. culture – television in particular. There are content warnings in the videos, but if you know anything about our “justice” system, you already know this is gonna get dark.

Chevron’s greed and callousness underscore the need for revolutionary change.

Steve Donziger, who became famous for essentially being captive for years for exposing corporate human rights abuses, has shared a document leaked from Chevron, the company whose crimes he exposed.

The memo reads as follows:

Lago Agrio,
June 25th, 1980
OTE-276-80

DRILLING, WORKOVER & PRODUCTION PITS

Ing. René Buoaram

Attenion: Mr. E. K. Johnson

A study has been completed regarding the cost and necessity of eliminating possible contamination of the enviornment by the earthen pits used in the drilling, producing, and workover operations in the Oriente Region. The Study was requested in your memorandum No. 628 dated June 12, 1980.

In general, the possibility of polution by our current waste disposal into pits is very minimal when liquid levels are monitored and drains are maintained in good operating condition. It is our recommendation that the pits not be lined, filled nor fenced. Further, we recommend that the siphons continue to be used to keep the oil in the pits and the water drained from the pits.

First, the current pits are necessary for efficient and economical operation of our drilling and workover programs and for our production operations. The alternative for using our current pits, is to use steel pits at a prohibitive cost. The additional cost to transport the pits for each workover and swapping operation would also be expensive. A second alternative is to fill the old pits, dig new pits, and line the new pits. The cost to fill the old pits would be US$ 5,180 per well or US$ 1,222,480 for the 236 wells. The cost to dig new pits would be US$ 472,000. Linning the new pit would cost US$ 2,503,488. The total cost of eliminating the old pits and lining new pits would be US$ 4,197,968.

The cost of fencing the current pits would be an additional US$ 700,316. However, it has been our experience that the barbed wire used for these fences would be stolen within a very short time and render the fences useless.

The design of the current syphon system in our pits is such that the oil is retained in the pit and only water is drained from the pit. The water that is discharged from the pit is of low salinity that has little or no detrimental effect on the environment. To attest to this fact, no yellowing or dying vegetation can be found throughout this area of operation.

Therefore, it is recommended that the pits neither be fenced, lined, nor filled, and that the siphons continue to be used.

D. W. Archer

District Superintendent

Again, they’ve spent US$ 2 billion avoiding accountability for the consequences of this decision. When I say that we need to work on environmental cleanup, and on preventing pollution from the new technologies we use to replace fossil fuels, that includes stuff like this, and it includes all forms of resource extraction. This kind of careless waste “disposal” isn’t even close to being unique to the oil industry. It’s the default for everyone, everywhere, and the profit and political power gained from over a century of ruthless and irresponsible profit-seeking is being used not just to shield those most responsible from accountability, but also to prevent any change for the better, for as long as these ghouls can cling to their wealth and power.

 

Video: How The Good Place Redefines the Sitcom

I’ve bee having a gloomy sort of day, for various reasons, and I don’t have much of anything to post, so here’s this instead. It’s a nice overview of one of the best shows I’ve ever watched, and a look into at least part of why it’s so good. Watching this won’t spoil the show for you in any meaningful capacity, and obviously I highly recommend that if you haven’t seen The Good Place, you should change that.

Soggy Sunday: There can be no climate action without fresh water.

There are a lot of reasons why I keep stressing the need for ecosystem management as the core of our climate action. We have, throughout our history, been utterly dependent on the natural world, even as we have been destroying it in the name of endless “growth”. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the medicines that keep us alive, the materials we use to shelter ourselves from the elements – all of it ties back to so-called “nature”, because we are a part of it.

That means that as we work to end greenhouse gas emissions, and adapt to the changes we’ve already caused, we must also change how we do business in other areas. Ending our direct contribution to warming will mean little if we increase other forms of pollution as we do it. It’s not as simple as swapping out what kind of fuel powers our society, and if we pretend that the climate is our only existential environmental threat, then we will continue driving ourselves toward extinction through other means.

A holistic approach is going to mean a lot of things, but when it comes down to it, none of that is possible without continual access to fresh water. That may seem obvious, but it’s cause for real concern, as this report made for COP27 discusses:

The report titled: “The essential drop to reach Net-Zero: Unpacking Freshwater’s Role in Climate Change Mitigation,” released November 9 2022 at COP27 in harm El-Sheikh, is the first-ever summary of current research on the role of water in climate mitigation. A key message is the need to better understand global water shortages and scarcity in order to plan climate targets that do not backfire in future. If not planned carefully, negative impacts of climate action on freshwater resources might threaten water security and even increase future adaptation and mitigation burdens.

“Most of the measures needed to reach net-zero carbon targets can have a big impact on already dwindling freshwater resources around the world,” said Dr Lan Wang Erlandsson from Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University. “With better planning, such risks can be reduced or avoided.”

The report describes why, where, and how freshwater should be integrated into climate change mitigation plans to avoid unexpected consequences and costly policy mistakes. Even efforts usually associated with positive climate action – such as forest restoration or bioenergy – can have negative impacts if water supplies are not considered.

Done right, however, water-related and nature-based solutions can instead address both the climate crisis and other challenges, said Dr Malin Lundberg Ingemarsson from Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

“We have identified water risks, but also win-win solutions that are currently not used to their full potential. One example is restoration of forests and wetlands which bring social, ecological, and climate benefits all at once. Another example is that better wastewater treatment can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from untreated wastewater, while improving surface water and groundwater quality, and even provide renewable energy through biogas.”

That was when I decided I actually wanted to write about this a bit. “Nature-based solutions” are exactly what we need. As dangerous as heat waves and storms may be, one of the biggest dangers to our species is the breakdown of ecosystem services, of which most people seem to be largely unaware. I couldn’t say the exact numbers, but for all we must spend trillions on ending fossil fuel use, I think we should also spend trillions on ecosystem restoration and support. Even if we weren’t depleting both ground and surface water, and even if we weren’t poisoning what remains with reckless abandon, the melting of mountain glaciers around the world means that before long, billions could lose their primary water source. We need to be actively working to build up ecosystems, because they aren’t just affected by the weather, they affect the weather. Deforestation means less rainfall. That’s going to vary from ecosystem to ecosystem, but it’s not hard to understand.

Plants don’t just absorb rainwater, they also transfer it from the ground to the air. Trees in particular act as giant vaporizers, humidifying the air around their crowns. That, in turn, helps create rain downwind, or even sometimes right over the same forest. That movement of water, as I’ve discussed before, also moves heat around, which can help mitigate extreme heat, which affects everyone’s need for water. My insistence on viewing ourselves as a part of nature isn’t some spiritual feeling of connection, it’s a simple fact, supported by overwhelming evidence.

The report highlights five key messages on the interlinkage between water and mitigation:

• Climate mitigation measures depend on freshwater resources. Climate mitigation planning and action need to account for current and future freshwater availability.
•  Freshwater impacts – both positive and negative – need to be evaluated and included in climate mitigation planning and action.
•  Water and sanitation management can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More efficient drinking water and sanitation services save precious freshwater resources and reduce emissions.
•  Nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change can deliver multiple benefits for people and the environment. Measures safeguarding freshwater resources, protecting biodiversity, and ensuring resilient livelihoods are crucial.
•  Joint water and climate governance need to be coordinated and strengthened. Mainstreaming freshwater in all climate mitigation planning and action requires polycentric and inclusive governance.

“Climate change mitigation efforts will not succeed if failing to consider water needs,” said Marianne Kjellén, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). “Water must be part of powerful solutions for enhancing ecosystem resilience, preserving biodiversity and regenerative food and energy production systems. In short, water security needs to be factored in to climate action,” she adds.

There’s a part of me that simply cannot believe that that last thought needs to be spelled out. How could anybody possibly think that we could respond to the threat of climate change without factoring in water? Hasn’t everyone been talking about “the coming water wars” for years? But, of course, action on that end of things has been woefully inadequate, just as it has been in every other area. Not only that, but the system we’re trying to change uses war not just to control people, but also to generate profit. Those of us still connected to our humanity hear “water wars” and think of the horrors of war, and perhaps the horrors of water scarcity. The rich and powerful, particularly in the United States, think of all the money they’ll make by converting raw resources into dead bodies, ravaged landscapes, and fat paychecks. There’s also a rather large portion of the population that is ideologically committed to the belief that a magical being put this entire cosmos here for “us” (which means the rich and powerful) to do with as we see fit. So yeah – it needs to be spelled out. For a lot of people, I’m afraid we’ll have to change the world around them, and hope their minds change afterwards, but in the meantime, it’s good to figure out what we should be doing about the water problem.

While I hope to go through the report more thoroughly, and write about its contents, I’ve had such intentions in the past. I’m approaching a year of daily posting (not counting the time I took off for Raksha’s death), which is a strange new experience for me, so hopefully I’ll actually be able to follow through this time. Still, maintaining work on my current novel is a more important right now, so in the meantime, here’s a link to the report, all nicely laid out by section. If you want me make this project (or any other) more of a priority, I’ll take that into consideration once you sign up at patreon.com/oceanoxia and send me a message about it.

It is a simple fact that on this planet, water is life. It’s also a fact that when we have tried to, we’ve been able to clean up polluted bodies of water, restore ecosystems, and bring species back from the brink of extinction. We do have the resources and understanding to make the world better, all we lack is a political an economic system that values doing so.


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Caturday: Cardboard Box Edition

His Holiness Saint Ray The Cat leads a life of both excitement and boredom. He and I now have a morning routine of stepping outside to take the air. I contemplate life, catch up on social media and the like, and he wanders around eating grass and sniffing things (catching up on social media and the like). Then we go back inside, and he either begs for catnip, or goes to sleep. I want to be clear – he does not get catnip when he begs. I can’t get around giving him food when he’s been howling for the hour before feeding time, but I’ll be damned if I train my cat to expect drugs as a reward for tapping on my elbow every two minutes.

Anyway, one of my innovations for keeping him entertained during the day, is a length of candle wick hanging from my study door’s handle. It originally had a cork tied to the end, but after that was rabbit-kicked away, we both discovered that he loves just a bit of string with a knot at the end. Finally, after all these years, I found a toy that he’ll play with by himself.

In many ways, His Holiness is a perfect cat for us. He’s extremely tolerant of everything we do, to the point where we joke about him being aware of our harassment as the price for being saved from starvation on the street. He loves cuddling, has few objections to being picked up and snuggled, and the most objection I get to trimming his claws is that he shifts his weight so that he could roll off my lap if I let him.

My one complaint – and that’s too strong of a word for it – is that he doesn’t sit in things very much. I’ve tried to get him to hang out in a box next to me and stuff, but he prefers a more luxurious environment. He tends to hang out on the bed, or the couch, or in laundry. He’ll hang out on my lap sometimes, and on the rug by the heater next to me when the heat is on, but boxes, bags, and things of that nature are primarily ways for him to make noise when he wants our attention.

I recently had a package delivered, and on a whim, I decided to put a little catnip in the empty box. It was a given that he would be in the box until he’d consumed all of it, but he decided to just… hang out, afterwards.

His Holiness is a British Shorthair of solid build, with gray-black brindled fur on his back, sides, head, and tail. His legs, belly, and throat are snowy white, and plush-soft. His face and muzzle form triangle of white fur that peaks on his forehead, and crosses his cheeks, blending with the throat fur. In this picture, he’s on his side, partly curled in a cardboard box, and looking up at the camera, with his face slightly smushed on one side by the box.

This was, as you can see, extremely cute. I had put the box between the legs of a chair , which held the sides up so they didn’t bend out when subjected to his bulk. I think he likes the way the box holds him. Naturally, I had to grab his string.

His Holiness is curled rather like the Golden Spiral, as he attempts to catch the blurred string between his mitten-like paws.

One thing he likes to do with the string (and if I get enough *⇒patrons⇐* I’ll post a video of it), is to grab the knot at the end between his tiny little front teeth, and pull. If there’s not enough tension, he’ll step on the string. I have no idea why he does this, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the developmental weirdness of his canines.

His Holiness is the bane of all that moves within easy reach of wherever he happens to be sitting. Playing with him usually takes more effort from me than he’s willing to expend. He’s often content to just watch something, rather than chase or pounce on it, unless it’s actually in his face. In this picture he’s got a fragile grip on the string between his paw, right in front of his snoot.

I played with him till he stopped reacting to the string bumping against his face, and he apparently decided that he was in a great place for his midday nap.

Eventually, His Holiness got tired, so he curled up and just went to sleep in the box. He spent most of the rest of the day there.

He ended up spending most of the rest of the day there, and I was hopeful that this would become a regular thing, but since then it seems that he’s only really going to interact with the box when he’s either begging for catnip, or has just been given some. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not willing to train him to harass me for drugs, so box time will probably end up being an infrequent occurrence. Regardless, I’m glad I got these pictures to share with all of you.


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Video: Didn’t like the “Just Stop Oil” Soup Protest? Doesn’t Matter.

A few weeks back I wrote a blog post about what I called “Liberal Protest Activism”, in response to both the infamous souping of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and to the general response to said souping. What I didn’t mention was that that post was, in part, inspired by a Twitter disagreement with Michael Mann. Basically, someone had called the protest inappropriate, and I responded by pointing out that more conventional protest had not resulted in adequate action. Mann quote-tweeted me, and basically said I was lying, and that saying “nothing has been done” is being used to justify extremism. I pointed out that I hadn’t said “nothing”, and he blocked me.

Honestly, it hurt a little. I’ve looked up to Mann for a long time, and I still do. The work he’s done on climate science and advocacy is valuable, and he gets entirely too much hate. On the other hand, as I’ve said in the past, being an expert in climate science does not make you an expert in sociology, politics, or policy. Having him not only disagree with me, but point to me as someone being extremist and wrong was a shock, so I spent time thinking about it, which generated the blog post mentioned above. I also deleted that tweet, because I didn’t want to keep getting notifications from people responding to Mann calling me a liar. As far as I can tell, trying to “defend my honor” would end up benefiting no one worth considering. I wrote that blog post partly as a way to deal with my bad mood. I ended up writing this post, because Rebecca Watson has a new video out about the same subject, so now I feel a little braver in talking about it.

There’s a lot there that I agree with (as always, the transcript is at the link above), but I wanted to pause on one point that Watson made:

They were angry simply because young people were doing something for a cause they cared about, and the angry people know deep in their hearts that they do not have even a fraction of that courage and that conviction, and they know that the cause is a good one that SHOULD inspire us all to that kind of courage and conviction. But instead we’re at home eating Cheez-its and doom scrolling Twitter, and channeling our guilt by getting angry at someone who is actually out there doing something. My hypothesis is that NO protest these people could have done would ever have been widely considered to be “meaningful,” and “good” and “effective,” and despite that, there’s a good chance that this protest will historically be seen to be all of those things.

Oof. That hits a little close to home. Regardless of how you feel about their tactics, there’s no question that what they are doing takes courage, especially given the consistently hostile response they have gotten. They’ve put far more on the line for this cause than I have, and they’ve generated a great deal of conversation with the art protests – more conversation than came from their more direct act of spraying paint on the Bank of England to protest its investment in fossil fuels. I think I should have given them a bit more credit. I also very much agree with the guess that no protest the did would have gotten wide support

The reality is that protests generally aren’t popular, and the people who make headlines for protests share that unpopularity. From Watson’s video:

And that hypothesis is based on decades of research: as I said two years ago during the Black Lives Matter protests, “in 1961, 57% of Americans said that sit-ins hurt the cause of those fighting against segregation. By 1963 that number had risen to 60%. By 1964, after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it was 74%. Three quarters of Americans thought Martin Luther King’s “extreme” tactics were hurting the Civil Rights fight. He was one of the most hated men in America. And yet, the Civil Rights movement succeeded.” And even though “79% of people said the (LA) riots were not justified…nearly 30 years later, scientists can see that those riots helped “build support for policy by mobilizing supporters.” They found that both white and African American voters “were mobilized to register (to vote), that new registrants tended to affiliate as Democrats, and that voters shifted their policy support toward public schools, net of a general shift in support for education spending. This mobilization appears to have persisted: those mobilized by the riot remained regular participators over a decade later and remained more Democratic than the general population, even after accounting for demographics.””

She then goes on to talk about Mann’s response to the protest, and the result of his decision not to avoid getting embroiled in pointless internet arguments over tone. I knew he had an article tut-tutting about it, but I didn’t know he made himself a dishonest push poll to “back up” his opinion, and continued arguing about it. I expected better from him, but it’s a good reminder that people are just people are just people. What matters is that we keep working as best we can.

As of this recording, Mann is kind of losing it on Twitter and really insisting that this survey proves something about the relative effectiveness of the soup protest. It’s understandable, because I think he does good work in his own field (which is climatology, not public relations or sociology) and so he’s probably not accustomed to being corrected by people who actually know what they’re talking about. I hope he is able to take a step back and realize that this is just bad science with a dash of “bad understanding of history” thrown in. A well-designed survey could certainly find that people largely were turned off by this protest, but the people who study movements and social change understand that protests – nonviolent, disruptive, or outright violent – might work or not work, regardless of whether or not you like it.