Social constructs as humanity’s greatest threat, and our greatest source of hope

When the “Fight for Fifteen” movement began in the United States in 2012, the argument for increasing the minimum wage was the same as it is now – the cost of living has risen faster than the minimum wage, and so the effective income of America’s poorest was going down, year by year. Now, in 2021, the fight is still for a minimum wage of $15 per hour, even as the cost of living has continued to skyrocket. The reality is that in 2012, $15 was still too low to actually meet the cost of living in many parts of the country, so with those costs even higher now, why are we still talking about a minimum wage increase that was inadequate nearly a decade ago?

Because the driving force in capitalism is the desire for endlessly growing profits, and the most straightforward way to generate those profits has always been finding ways to “cut labor costs” by underpaying the workers on whom the company depends. From slavery, to sharecropping, to scrip, to child labor, to unsafe conditions, to industrial pollution, the story of capitalism has been an unbroken chain of the capitalist class finding any means – legal or not – to shift the costs of their business onto those with less money and power. So the effort to increase the minimum wage, so that those at the bottom can afford to live while continuing to enrich those at the top, has faced constant opposition from the most powerful people in the country.

We’re stuck fighting for what was already a compromise favoring the rich a decade ago.

This problem is not unique to the question of wages, and it has translated to infuriating delays on the most pressing issues of our time.

It’s been 63 years since the first publicly televised warning about climate change. At the time, it wasn’t clear how  long the process would take, partly because of inadequate understanding of the issue itself, and partly because there was no way to tell exactly how humanity would respond to the impending crisis. By 1980 it was clear that, largely due to rapidly rising annual CO2 emissions, the timeline was a lot shorter than initially thought. The need for urgent action was clear.

Now, decades later, we’re still stuck in an endless loop of rebutting and debunking “arguments” that were refuted long ago. As with the fight over the minimum wage, this stagnation is not because of any legitimate objection to the science, or even the proposed solutions. It’s because the richest and most powerful people in the world don’t want to change the system that brought them their wealth and power. Just as capitalists have invested heavily in opposing minimum wage increases, unionization, universal healthcare, and many other things, they have also paid a number of people very well to repeat these obvious lies across all media, no matter how many times they are debunked.

As I often say, we have missed the window to avoid catastrophic levels of change. The degree of catastrophe is still under our control – we could simultaneously work to end our fossil fuel use, and to prepare our society for unavoidable changes before they become truly catastrophic. Just as buildings can be designed to better withstand earthquakes, so to can our society be re-structured to withstand higher temperatures, higher sea levels, and ongoing ecological collapse.

The problem is that people are going to respond to the conditions in which they find themselves with the tools that are available to them. Just as the foreign policy of colonial powers, especially the United States, has led to refugee crises around the world as people flee homes made uninhabitable by forces beyond their control, so too are people beginning to respond to the changes in climate as best they can.

Some of this is taking the form of more refugees, though the exact numbers are hard to separate from those fleeing warfare and manufactured poverty.

Some of it comes in the form of increasing the use of fossil fuels – as the primary energy source used in the world – for things like air conditioning:

To survive the summer heat, Qatar not only air-conditions its soccer stadiums, but also the outdoors — in markets, along sidewalks, even at outdoor malls so people can window shop with a cool breeze. “If you turn off air conditioners, it will be unbearable. You cannot function effectively,” says Yousef al-Horr, founder of the Gulf Organization for Research and Development.

Yet outdoor air conditioning is part of a vicious cycle. Carbon emissions create global warming, which creates the desire for air conditioning, which creates the need for burning fuels that emit more carbon dioxide. In Qatar, total cooling capacity is expected to nearly double from 2016 to 2030, according to the International District Cooling & Heating Conference.

And it’s going to get hotter.

By the time average global warming hits 2 degrees Celsius, Qatar’s temperatures would soar, said Mohammed Ayoub, senior research director at the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute. In rapidly growing urban areas throughout the Middle East, some predict cities could become uninhabitable.

“We’re talking about 4 to 6 degrees Celsius increase in an area that already experiences high temperatures,” Ayoub said. “So, what we’re looking at more is a question of how does this impact the health and productivity of the population.”

The danger is acute in Qatar because of the Persian Gulf humidity. The human body cools off when its sweat evaporates. But when humidity is very high, evaporation slows or stops. “If it’s hot and humid and the relative humidity is close to 100 percent, you can die from the heat you produce yourself,” said Jos Lelieveld, an atmospheric chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany who is an expert on Middle East climate.

That became abundantly clear in late September, as Doha hosted the 2019 World Athletics Championships. It moved the start time for the women’s marathon to midnight Sept. 28. Water stations handed out sponges dipped in ice-cold water. First-aid responders outnumbered the contestants. But temperatures hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 28 of the 68 starters failed to finish, some taken off in wheelchairs.

Workers are particularly at risk. A German television report alleged hundreds of deaths among foreign workers in Qatar in recent years, prompting new limits on outdoor work. A July article in the journal Cardiology said that 200 of 571 fatal cardiac problems among Nepalese migrants working there were caused by “severe heat stress” and could have been avoided.

The U.S. Air Force calls very hot days “black flag days” and limits exposure of troops stationed at al-Udeid Air Base. Personnel conducting patrols or aircraft maintenance work for 20 minutes, then rest for 40 minutes and drink two bottles of water an hour. People doing heavy work in the fire department or aircraft repair may work for only 10 minutes at a time, followed by 50 minutes of rest, according to a spokesman for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.

In early July, Qatar’s Civil Defense Command warned against doing outdoor work between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., putting gas cylinders in the sun, turning on water heaters, completely filling fuel tanks or car tires, or needlessly running the air conditioner. It urged people to drink plenty of fluids — and to beware of snakes and scorpions.

Because we’ve delayed for so long, we are in the process of making the problem much, much worse simply by trying to survive while preserving an unjust and unsustainable system.

For all of the the talk – entirely justified – about the dangers of natural amplifying feedback loops and runaway global warming, I think we’ve neglected this particular feedback, because we’re not used to thinking of ourselves as being part of nature. Animals  and plants across the entire surface of this planet are changing where and how they live in response to the warming, and Homo sapiens is no exception to that trend. We are responding, in many ways, as we always have – by managing our surroundings, and by protecting the social structures to which we are accustomed.

This way lies extinction.

There’s a lot of talk these days about social constructs,  and a lot of misunderstanding, both willful and not. Social constructs are effectively the rules that humans have created for ourselves to deal with the difficulties of being a social species. I would argue that they exist in all animal species that exhibit any sort of social behavior. Things like behavioral mating displays (as opposed to physical features like mating plumage in birds), territorial marking and disputes, and various power dynamics fall into this category.

Human social constructs seem to be a mix of things that might be considered the study of “evolutionary psychology” (if that field wasn’t overrun by psuedoscientific nonsense) and things – like the ideas of race created and enforced by European colonial powers – that were created and maintained quite deliberately. The current hierarchy of wealth and power in most of the world seems to be a mix of the two. Sticking with the European example, as the one with which I am most familiar, the current capitalist class system was created in part, to protect the positions of those who had been at the top of Feudal society. This is probably closest to the surface in the United Kingdom, but if you poke around, you’ll find that the ruling classes of so-called “Western Society” (another social construct with little basis in reality) have many members whose families were also powerful under Feudalism.

It’s easy to feel like all of these problems are unavoidably part of “human nature”, and so absent an external force, we’re simply unable to make the changes needed. Under this fatalistic line of thinking, we will either develop some technological miracle, like fusion power, that will solve everything without the need for systemic change, or we will destroy ourselves. I think this view is best encapsulated in the concept of “capitalist realism”. I also think, as I’ve said before, that this view of an unchanging “human nature” is part of the larger framework of indoctrination that has been developed to get people to accept the destructive and unjust nature of capitalism. It’s similar to the myth that the people living in the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia  prior to European colonization did little or nothing to manage their land or organize their societies.

Social constructs have been central to our most powerful tool as a species – our ability to make collective use of our distributed knowledge and skills. That, I would argue, is what truly lies at the heart of “human nature”, and what all the myriad of human societies throughout the history of our species have had in common. This is part of what gives me hope for the future. While it’s rare to see truly revolutionary change in any one human’s life, we have found countless ways of organizing ourselves, and changed them as need have dictated. Social constructs are a form of infrastructure, and just as with all other infrastructure, they serve us best when we constantly examine, maintain, update, and improve them.

I can’t promise that we’ll do what we need to in the time we have. What’s happening on this planet right now is unlike anything our species has ever faced. It is as much an unknown as space travel was at the beginning of the 20th century. We’re better at figuring out what’s likely to happen (thanks to social constructs like mathematics and the scientific method), but the best we can do is calculate likely futures based on what we understand today. What I will say is that I believe we have the physical and conceptual tools we need, as a species, to build a better world, even in the midst of the rapid warming and ecological collapse that has been forced upon us by our “rulers”, past and present.

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Police violence continues:The GOP isn’t the only problem

During the Obama years, his administration’s responses to the Keystone protest, Occupy Wall Street, and the birth of the BLM movement showed about of people that the Democratic party was either unwilling or unable to solve our problems.

They won’t fix anything now, either.

Well-meaning or not, the Democrats are not going to save us.

We have to save ourselves. 

How to disguise repression for power and profit

One of the most infuriating things about healthcare in the United States is that not only is it viciously expensive, the private insurance system is a deliberately confusing labyrinth filled with tricks and traps designed to maximize profit both for the insurance companies and for healthcare providers.

Prices for care vary widely not only from place to place, but also depending on who’s actually paying. The overwhelming majority of transactions in our day to day lives deal with fixed prices. The price one person pays is the same as the one everyone else pays, and things like haggling are not even an option. You pay the asking price, or you don’t buy that product.

That means that when we get a bill for hundreds or thousands of dollars for something related to health care, we tend to assume that’s just the cost, and seeing the size of some of those bills, it’s not hard to understand why people would be willing to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars per month to avoid a bill of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for accident or illness. A good health insurance plan can make a huge difference in the life of a U.S. resident.

For example, when I spent a semester in Tanzania, I took the anti-malarial drug Malarone. It was the best option available, particularly because the alternatives had common side effects like intense, usually unpleasant dreams, or increased sensitivity to solar radiation. For a northerner visiting the tropics, it’s generally a bad idea to do things that make sunburns more likely.

The problem is that Malarone is more expensive. It’s a daily pill, and at the time I  believe it cost $5USD per pill. Nowadays the same supply would cost a little over $7USD per pill. For a four month trip, that’s around $600, on top of any other expenses. The insurance I had at the time, through my father’s work, covered it entirely.

That’s not the actual cost to make the pills though- not even close. It’s also probably not what the insurance company paid for them.

The relationship between patient and insurer is very adversarial, resulting in the aforementioned labyrinth, but beyond that, the bills patients see are almost never what insurance companies pay. They negotiate better rates and prices, and then try to push the costs they can’t negotiate away onto the patient, with the kinds of results David Pakman discusses in this clip:

I can’t help but feel that the extortionate “asking price” helps push people into paying so much for insurance, to avoid medical bankruptcy.

My own experiences include a plan in 2008 and 2009 that wouldn’t cover any emergency rooms within about 10 miles of where I lived, spending months and countless hours trying to confirm that the coverage I was paying for in 2018 and 2019 was active, and on trying to find a doctor that would even accept it, getting charged $200 out of pocket for a 10 minute consultation with a doctor when it turned out the card I had been paying $600 per month to get wasn’t working, and many other delightful experiences.

I took a fall on my bicycle in 2009 that cracked my helmet in half, and decided to hope no serious damage had been done rather than pay for the emergency room. I was hit by a car while commuting on my bike in 2013 (the driver’s fault), and had to turn down the ambulance ride and avoid getting my injuries checked out for the same reason. In both cases, I got lucky.

The entire world is subjected to relentless propaganda about how the United States is “the greatest country in the world”, but much of that is just incidental exposure to messaging aimed at American citizens, designed apparently to keep us from realizing the degree to which we are mistreated by our country and its ruling class.

I sometimes see people from Europe wondering why Americans don’t take to the streets over things like the healthcare situation, poor wages and inadequate safety nets, and so much more. A lot of it is things like this. Protesters risk arrest. Many companies reserve the right to fire employees who get arrested, or who miss work because they got arrested, or who miss work for a protest or a strike. Losing work isn’t just losing a paycheck, for many it’s also losing access to healthcare.

Protesting for any change in a left-wing direction can result in brutal attacks by police with kinetic and chemical weapons, which can result in massive medical bills. Rioting even more so (though police often try to turn peaceful protests into riots).

The reality of the United States is that it has found ways to repress its citizenry far beyond what you might think is happening based on what the law says. Rather than direct government control, corporations set the conditions under which people can have a stable, healthy life, and the government only has to prevent you from getting around the obstacles created by the corporations.

Health insurance companies levy heavy taxes for access to medicine, the government just ensures that there’s no better alternative than paying, and that same pattern exists throughout the system.

That’s why so much activism now includes efforts to help protesters avoid the steep penalties for exercising their right to protest, and it’s also why I ended up settling on my favoured approach to working for change.

This same dynamic exists to various extents in all capitalist countries. It is not the only form of repression, but despite all the talk about the “free” nature of capitalism, it is still a form of repression, and from what I can tell, it’s only getting worse.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Florida state of emergency highlights a larger problem

Whether it’s banning references to climate change, or sending armed goons to invade the home of a scientist calling out false COVID numbers, the Florida Republican Party hasn’t been shy about suppressing or ignoring science that relates to ongoing crises.

That’s why it was rather alarming to hear that Florida governor Ron DeSantis has declared a state of emergency over a looming industrial disaster.

Work crews were pumping millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater into an ecologically sensitive Florida bay on Sunday, as they tried to prevent the “imminent” collapse of a storage reservoir at an old phosphate mine.

Officials in Manatee county extended an evacuation zone overnight and warned that up to 340m gallons could engulf the area in “a 20ft wall of water” if they could not repair the breach at the Piney Point reservoir in the Tampa Bay area, north of Bradenton.

In addition to the direct kinetic and water damage of a flood that size, mine waste ponds tend to contain toxic, often radioactive materials, as in this case.

Crews are working both to plug the leaks, and to drain the pond, but it’ll be a little over a week before they’re done. In the meantime, the area is being evacuated.

If you do a quick search for “mine tailing disasters”, you’ll see that this is neither a new problem, nor one that is limited to any one part of the globe. The reality is that dealing with the problem of mine waste has been put off more or less indefinitely, rather than cutting into profits to address the issue. It should come as no surprise to my readers that I think this is not a problem that can be put off much longer.

Obviously climate disasters like storm-fueled floods or drought-fueled dust storms or fires can spread toxic waste, but “storage solutions” like this also put drinking and irrigation water at risk. Unfortunately I think the problem goes deeper than that. As I mentioned this past September, the industrial activity involved in non-fossil energy technology is neither cleaner than any other form of mining and manufacturing, nor is it exempt from the ways in which the profit motive encourages companies to cut corners and ignore problems.

I very much hope that the immediate danger is averted, and neither the homes, nor the jail in the flood zone are harmed. Once the crisis has passed, however, the larger problem remains, and as with so many others, the longer we delay dealing with it, the more it will cost in blood and resources to deal with it.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Forests for food: ecosystem management for a brighter future

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, much of the blame for the disaster that followed rightly went to neglected or inadequate infrastructure, and the structural racism that allowed known problems to linger until they brought devastation on the low-lying minority communities of that city. Most of that death and destruction could have been prevented, had those with the power to do so cared more about human life than about money.

The region’s “natural” infrastructure got a bit less focus. Salt marshes and mangrove swamps once lined far more of the Gulf Coast than they do today. Industrial and commercial activity have both steadily cut away at those ecosystems, carving channels for ships and poisoning the water with oil and gas wells. The result was that the natural breakwaters that used to protect low-lying populations like New Orleans are mostly gone, so when a storm surge rises, there’s no tangle of vegetation to slow its momentum and reduce its power to overwhelm the human structures farther inland.

In our careless destruction of the ecosystems around us, we are also robbing ourselves of the benefits we derive from so-called “ecosystem services“.

Other such services include things like the oxygen generated through photosynthesis, the food we take from wild populations, the pollination provided by bees and other insects, the parasites eaten by insectivores, the water cleaned by wetlands, and so on.

It’s pretty common for people to take these services for granted. They’ve always been there, and it can be easy to feel like they always will be.

These days, however, it’s increasingly obvious that not only are we losing them at an alarming rate, for some, like natural protections against storm surges, they’re effectively almost gone.

If we want humanity to survive, we are faced with either attempting to replace these services with human constructs, or with cultivating and protecting them, restoring at least some of what has been lost, and living in a manner that encourages those ecosystems to thrive.

This is no small task, as we’ve done a lot of damage and the rapid warming of our planet will do still more in the coming years. It may well end up costing us as much as the technological and societal changes -like ending fossil fuel use- that are already at the centre of environmental discourse.

Now that we are effectively a force of nature on the surface of this planet, our survival depends on planning for the deep future. I think this is one reason the concept of a food forest has appealed to me since I first encountered it.

Food forests are basically what they sound like. A planned and cultivated forest ecosystem filled with plants that produce food for human consumption. Nut, fruit, and sugar trees for the upper stories, berries and things like grape vines lower down, and various edible greens, roots, and mushrooms at ground level.

Done right, such an ecosystem requires little labour to maintain, and where conventional farming often depletes the soil, leaving the land less productive for future generations, a food forest can potentially feed people for centuries or more without the need for massive use of fertilizers or pesticides.

I want to be clear – this is a trade-off. I don’t know the exact numbers, but a system like this is going to produce a lower density of food per acre than a monoculture field. Machine-based harvesting wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t work as efficiently. This is not a form of agriculture designed to produce vast amounts of a single crop like wheat, corn, or soy.

I think the ideal arrangement would be a mix of unmanaged wilderness, conventional farmland, and various kinds of food forest. The concept also isn’t limited to a conventional “forest” – similar planned ecosystems are possible in a wide variety of conditions,  and may not always include things like larger trees. While food is a central part of such an ecosystem, it’s multi-purpose.  It provides habitat for wildlife, a communal place for recreation, a tool for public education, and the cultivation and maintenance of ecosystem services.

This is not a new concept. Not even close.

When I say a well-managed food forest can feed people for centuries, that’s because such forests have already done so. Perhaps the most famous example is an ancient forest in Morocco, but in reality this form of agriculture has been found in all sorts of places. European cultures, as part of their obsession with the imagined superiority of their “race”, dismissed the possibility that Native American cultures, for example, pursued their own forms of agriculture and land management, simply because they didn’t conform to how the colonists thought such activities “should” look.

What this really comes down to is this: our current global society operates largely on the assumption that humans are somehow separate from the rest of life on this planet – that because we are different in how we interact with our surroundings, we do not depend on the ecosystems we inhabit. I’ll delve more into ecosystem services and things like food forests in the future, but with the alarm about declining wild bee populations alone, I think it has become abundantly clear that that perceived separation was always as much of a lie as the white supremacist dismissal of these forms of ecosystem management.

As indicated by some of the sources I have linked, work has long been underway to both raise awareness of these practices and to expand existing food forest projects – both new, and very, very old. In ecology, diversity tends to mean strength and resilience. I think that’s a guideline we would do well to follow if we want humanity to have a future worth living in.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Dublin, at last

Well, where to begin?

Firstly, let me apologize for my long absence. My extended visa in the UK expired at the end of March, and so Tegan and I had arranged to move to Dublin, where her PhD began this year.

Unfortunately, her bout with Covid back in February is still showing up on tests, so she wasn’t allowed to travel. I came on ahead, with the cat and the dog to set up shop. Without going into too much detail, life got a lot more complicated than we had expected, and, I didn’t have much time or energy for anything other than moving.

Now I’m in Dublin at last, with Tegan shortly behind (I hope), and so far it has been lovely. Pretty much as soon as I got off the ferry from Holyhead, a fellow stopped to declaim at length about what a pretty dog Raksha is (which is an inarguable Truth), and to give me both his number, and the offer of help if I needed it.

That has set the tone for my time here the last couple days, with neighbors and contacts helping with boxes, groceries (since I am in quarantine) and other offers of assistance.

I couldn’t help thinking that this is very like the kind of community organizing/building work that inspired my direct action post, and after so long in the fragmented social landscape that seems so common in cities, there’s a lot for me to learn simply by trying to be a good member of this community to which I’ve moved.

It’s remarkable, for example, how a group of people going about their lives will cover enough ground in a city that if someone needs something, the odds are good that a neighbour will be able to pick it up, without needing a company like Amazon.

I suppose it comes with a loss in privacy – I’m not used to people outside my household knowing my grocery list and whatnot – but I find that it doesn’t bother me too much.

Maybe coming to terms with mass surveillance and other invasions of privacy has prepared us all to re-embrace the comparatively mild inconveniences that might come with a supportive community.

Multiple governments and corporations know, or will know as soon as they wish to, my health problems, my money problems, what I say near microphones, and what I do online.

They will never offer to pick up supplies for me, or to walk my dog.

When I get a terminal disease, they may well know it before I do, but they will not tell me or help me without a high price.

I’ve known them for two days, but I know for a fact that my new neighbours will bring me soup if I’m ill, whether or not I ask for it. I also know that being a renter impedes my ability to give as much to this community as I otherwise could.  Repairs, improvements, and maintenance all have to go through the company that owns my home, and while the people there are perfectly nice, and I’m sure are good people, their decisions in that regard are informed more by seeking profit than by the needs of their tenants.

I cannot be certain, but I suspect that is why my new refrigerator doesn’t work, and won’t until some time after my quarantine is over, despite this flat being vacant for weeks before I got here.

What would life be like if, instead of paying €1600 per month to someone else, somewhere else, I could spend that directly on what’s needed? Even if that was just a few hundred per month, it would allow me to save, and to spend more money on things like communal agriculture projects, or an algal farming cooperative, or something like that.

Instead, we have a long chain of people, each of whom is forced by law and circumstance to pay the next link, all funneling back to a small handful whose only skill is hoarding wealth.

In training themselves to become or remain wealthy, they neglected any of the creativity or human experience that would allow them to spend that wealth in a way that provides a net benefit for their own species, or the species on which we rely.

All.of this is to say that I’m “back”, with no intention of such lapses in the foreseeable future.  My formatting will be different for a bit because I’m doing this on a phone till I can get my computer running, but it good to be able to write for y’all again.

Tomorrow’s post will be on food forests, and as always I’m eager for feedback that will help me improve this blog as a resource for those who read it.

Edit: food forest post is going up Sunday. I lost track of time unpacking. It’s easy to forget that things other than writing also take time.

COVID update: Why masks and distancing matter, and why we need to change how things are run

It’s surreal. I’ve been isolating with Tegan and the critters since March. It was pretty easy, because nobody was hiring, and neither of us was able to get wage labor until Tegan got a minimum wage gig in August almost by accident. The animals both love having us around all the time, and we humans still enjoy each other’s company. It’s not a big apartment, and given the infectiousness of this virus, and the long period of asymptomatic contagiousness, we figured that if one of us got it, both of us would. Apparently not. I got tested yesterday, and my result was negative.

Even so, the evidence at this point is pretty clear – even if a mask and distancing don’t prevent you from getting the disease, they will make it far more likely that you’ll have a light case. For those who aren’t clear on why, here’s a basic breakdown:

When the virus enters your system and begins to hijack cells for reproduction, it starts a timed contest. The “goal” of the virus is to infect every cell it can, to reproduce as much as it can, and to spread to as many other people as it can before your body either wipes it out, or dies. The “goal” of your immune system is to develop antibodies that can destroy the virus before it infects you badly enough that you die.

Let’s say you got the virus because some science-denying asshole coughed and sneezed directly in your face. You got a huge dose – your starting population of the virus is in the tens of thousands, and its starting position is in your mouth, nose, and eyes. Viruses grow exponentially in the body – one cell produces many particles of the virus, and because those are starting inside your body, the odds are that most of them will infect other cells and repeat the process. You go from a population of 20,000 to 20,000,000 very, very quickly, and from there to the hundreds of millions, and then billions. By the time your immune system has the ability to really respond, huge portions of your body are infected, and with COVID-19 that means not just your respiratory system, but your circulatory system, nervous system, and multiple organs. Billions of your cells each pumping out thousands upon thousands of new virus particles. This isn’t great for your health, because the virus population is using your resources to do all of this, and those resources are then unavailable for normal bodily functions.

The virus is not what kills you, though. The problem is that the immune system doesn’t kill the virus directly, it targets the virus’s means of reproduction – infected cells. So, your body develops the ability to detect and destroy infected cells, some time after your initial exposure, and then it sets about doing that. The question then is – how many of your cells are infected? If the number is too high, then your immune system will basically be doing the equivalent of amputating a limb that has gangrene to prevent the rot from spreading to the rest of your body. It’s probably better than dying, but it comes with its own dangers. Specifically, it’s amputating one cell at a time, and it’s doing it in your lungs, your heart, your blood vessels, your nerves, and so on. The extent of your viral infection determines the extent to which your body destroys itself to purge the infection.

It’s a bit like doing a controlled burn to eradicate an invasive species like honeysuckle (in the US) – if it’s just in a small area, that method might well work, but if – as is the case in much of the United States – there’s honeysuckle throughout the forest understory, then you’re likely to destroy not just the invasive species, but the rest of the forest as well.

Now let’s say you contract the virus from your significant other or room mate, but you’ve had windows open and kitchen and bathroom vents running, you wear masks most of the time, you stay in separate rooms, and you never interact directly (can you tell I’m bitter about my current situation?). Now, instead of 20,000, your starting virus population is 1. Or more likely 100. Now your body has a better chance of developing and carrying out its response before the virus has infected too many of your cells. Now, instead of hundreds of billions of cells that need to be destroyed, there are just billions, or a few hundred million (out of hundreds of trillions in your body). Your body can take that hit pretty easily. It’s not good, and it’s not fun, but neither is it lethal, and depending on what cells are infected, it might not even have lasting effects.

By taking all those precautions, you’ve gone from your body melting down your lungs and veins, and killing you to eradicate your viral population, to doing pretty minor damage that you may not even notice, in an asymptomatic case.

So, back to my situation if I do catch the disease from Tegan, does that mean I get to interact with her again? No. Not while she’s still sick. See – you don’t stop being vulnerable to infection once you’re infected. It’s not an on/off situation. Let’s say I tested positive, but I don’t have any symptoms. Good. All of my caution has paid off, and my viral load is in the hundreds of thousands. I might get a bit of a cough or a fever, and if I’m unlucky I could have lasting damage to some parts of my body, but I’m not going to be in danger for my life.

And then, since I’m “already infected”, I go to take care of my wife, who’s worse off than I am. And every time I go into the bedroom, my viral population gets a boost. It might even get virus particles that have evolved to be better at invading cells (like the new variants now spreading across the globe). Now I’m going from a manageable, or even asymptomatic viral load, to a dangerous one, and at the same time, I’m adding to Tegan’s viral load, and increasing the odds that her immune system will do serious damage. I might even introduce a new variant to her.

And so I sit in a chilly room with wind blowing through the open door, and a vent running in the kitchen. I don’t go to comfort her, even though we could both use a hug. If I need to give her something, I leave it in the hall, and go back into my part of the apartment. If someone delivers a package, I tell them to set it outside the door, and wait till they’re long gone before I open it to get what they left.

Infectious disease is a numbers game, and knowing that, we can adjust our behavior to cut off the viral supply lines.

As I was writing this, I noticed that a great deal of what I was saying also applies to how countries deal with a pandemic. Fortunately, we’re not just killing everyone who tests positive, but the more people test positive, the more there are to infect others, and the greater the total amount of viral particles there are in any given location. A park on a breezy day may seem safe – and it is safer than an enclosed space – but if everyone in that park is infected, they’re giving off a cloud of viral particles, like cigarette smoke, that is more or less likely to reach other people, depending on how many are producing that cloud.

The lack of response in the US and the UK (probably other countries too, but I haven’t paid as close attention to them) has done just that. It has increased the viral loads of those countries, and consequently increased the viral load of infected individuals. Even now, isolation and masking are still saving lives, and helping to control the pandemic and many other infectious diseases. This basic math is the same for every infectious disease. COVID-19 is worse than most because, like with the honeysuckle I mentioned earlier, it’s an invasive species. It has no “natural predators” in our bodies to slow it down, and it has no “natural habitat” in our bodies that it will focus on and stay in. It’s in new territory, in every human it encounters right now, and so it’s going where it can, to the greatest extent that it can, and it turns out that it can go just about everywhere inside us. Eventually, the global population will have some level of resting immunity to this kind of coronavirus. I think it’s unlikely that it will ever go away completely – it’s going to be more like the common cold or influenza – but it will get less lethal, because it will be harder for the new variants to grow out of control as they do now, because we’ll have at least some defenses against things that look similar.

I’ll end by saying – not for the last time – that a pandemic like this is why it’s so important to have societies that understand and accept science, and that value the lives and wellbeing of the general population over, say, profit for the ruling class. Say what you will about Vietnam, but the evidence is clear – quarantining infected villages, and ensuring that those under quarantine had all the food, shelter, and entertainment they needed was effective. The leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam may be wealthier than the general population, but that gap is (a) not as big as it is in capitalist countries, and (b) did not lead them to put their own wealth ahead of the lives of their population. Doing the right thing in a pandemic is not profitable for the ruling class. It’s an investment in the population at large. It costs money to inform people they’re under quarantine, and to provide them with meals, and to ensure that they’re able to quarantine without losing their homes, healthcare, or food.

This is not likely to be the last pandemic in my lifetime (assuming I die of old age). This will come up again, and if most of the world is run by and for capitalists, we’ll go through all of this again, even though we know how to stop it. The same is true for climate change. We know what we need to do to both slow the warming of the climate, and to adapt our societies to survive the warming we cannot avoid, but doing so will not be as profitable for the ruling class as the status quo. As long as the profit motive is the primary guiding principle of our society, we will fail to adequately address climate change, and we will fail in our responses to every pandemic that comes along.

Stay the course. Wear a mask. Keep your distance. Listen to the scientific and medical communities, and organize so that we can actually deal with the problems that face us.


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