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.

Documenting Collapse, and the Importance of Research Collections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Transphobes are Losing at the Voting Booth

Conservatives, as a rule, lie to win elections. This isn’t some unique observation I’ve just made, it’s a pretty well-established fact. Their policies are almost always bad for a majority of people, and so they can’t run on what they actually want to do. They have to distract people. At their most honest, they lie about the effects of the laws they want to pass, like when they insist that cutting taxes for the rich will cause that wealth to “trickle down” to everyone else. They make similar claims about keeping wages low, and deregulating businesses, but they’ve been saying that stuff for so long that most people can see the lie for themselves.

Their preference, at least right now, is to focus on what we’ve come to know as “the culture war”. This narrative relies on the much more vague overarching lie that the reason everything’s getting worse (whether or not it actually is) is all those cultural evils and bad people they’ve been warning against. Immigrants, secularism, homosexuality, anti-racism, and – their current favorite – the terrifying existence of trans people. They’re playing on nostalgia – the idea that things used to be better in “the good old days”, and drawing a spurious correlation: All this stuff that seems new and makes us uncomfortable has been increasing at the same time as things have been “getting worse”, therefor the new and uncomfortable stuff must be the cause of things getting worse. If we can just make the bad people and bad stuff go away, things will go back to the way they used to be, and everything will be good (for us) again.

It’s an old lie, but an enduring one. I think part of its tenacity, at least in the United States, comes from the ubiquity of certain kinds of Christianity. We grow up hearing about how God causes societal calamities as a way to punish people who’ve “gone astray” and do evil things. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because the people there just wouldn’t stop sinning, and so God killed them all. The entire planet was flooded, and every terrestrial life extinguished (except for a handful on a boat), because they were all just so evil that God didn’t have any other choice. All those evil, evil babies just had to go!

I think if you directly challenged them on this connection, many conservatives would say they don’t actually believe that there’s a direct link, but rather that it’s all coming from the same people. Maybe some would say that God is “allowing” bad people into government as punishment for tolerance, or something like that, but there seems to be this general belief that all this “decadence” and acceptance is somehow making everything worse, so we need to return to the Old Ways.

This has had varying levels of success. A majority of people don’t seem to think this way, but our laws are built so that you don’t need an actual majority of people to gain power. You need a majority of voters in key locations, which can be a clear minority of the overall population. That means that there’s power to be gained from collecting a small number of dedicated people, and keeping them enraged at all times.

The go-to over the last few years has been attacking trans people, and lying about them to scare gullible bigots. It’s been observed by others that they tend to make the perfect target. They’re a small enough minority that a lot of folks can go through life never (knowingly) meeting a trans person, which makes it easy to lie about them without getting caught by the target audience. They’ve also shown that their sense of self is strong enough that they won’t just go away in the face of an oppressive society. The fact that trans people are who they say they are means that they will keep fighting to live as themselves, as anyone would, and so there’s a movement for conservatives to push against, and lie about. When you break it down, it seems like a reliable strategy, and the Republican Party has certainly made it central to their efforts.

Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to work quite like they want it to.

Youtuber Three Arrows did a video about this about a year ago, pointing out that the vicious campaign against trans people was failing, as an electoral strategy. The blog Ettingermentum has been making a similar case, and recently went on The Majority Report to elaborate:

It’s just not working. People at large aren’t buying the bullshit the way the hardcore Republican base are, and all the hateful rhetoric isn’t translating to electoral success. In some cases, it’s even hurting them, and it’s wonderful to see.

That does not mean that the problem is going to go away by itself. Bigotry does still motivate a lot of people, and the US is set up to heavily favor a conservative minority in a number of ways, meaning that they’re fully able to pass laws and foment violence against trans people (and any perceived as such), and that means that the fight for trans rights is as important as it’s ever been. Transphobia is still widespread in the general population.

The thing is, it’s not something that’s actually motivating new people to go vote for the oppression of trans people. Those who do vote for it were already reliably going to vote Republican, and most other people – even if they’re transphobic – view the focus on trans people as some great existential threat as the bizarre obsession that it is. At times, it can feel as though we’ll be stuck fighting the same battles forever, but in many ways, that feeling itself is a lie told by the bigots themselves – that they will never go away, never stop hating, and that they never lose. The truth is that they are losing on this issue, because humanity as a whole is simply better than them. Keep fighting and keep loving, because it is making a difference!

Déjà Vu Isn’t a Glitch, It’s the Matrix Working as Designed

So, in pursuit of posting something weekly, I started writing about a recently published study on Greenland’s glaciers. The main take-away is that over the last twenty years, they’ve doubled their rate of retreat, with a couple possible exceptions in the far north. This was expected. Greenhouse gas emissions have not meaningfully decreased, and so their concentration in the atmosphere has continued to rise. The mechanism by which the planet is heating has increased, so of course the rate of warming has increased. The temperature has increased, so of course the rate of ice melt has increased. That’s all there really is to say about it, and it’s not really news to anyone reading this blog.

It’s the same sort of thing that’s been written countless times by countless people all around the world, and still, nothing meaningful is being done. There’s widespread support around the world for doing something about it and there has been for ages, and still, nothing meaningful is being done.

The politicians that claim to be the ones who accept the seriousness of the problem very clearly do not, as they continue supporting new fossil fuel extraction, and they keep increasing the budget of the US military, one of the biggest polluters on the planet. It seems pretty clear, from their actions, that the goal of the rich and powerful is to stay the course, and use violence to suppress any effort to steer us away from the cliff. They seem to actively want to make the world as uninhabitable and chaotic as they can, while holding on to their wealth and power. Looking at their actions, it’s hard to see anything other than murderous intent.

Elon Musk is increasingly displaying his own white supremacist beliefs, for example, even supporting the message of the Illinois Nazis from the Blues Brothers, and it’s increasingly clear that he’s far from alone in that belief, within his class. Wherever there’s a change that would benefit most of humanity, you will find billionaires spending their obscene wealth to create opposition to it, and to demonize those supporting it. If you want a cease-fire in Palestine, that means you’re antisemitic, even if you’re Jewish. If you want to end fossil fuel use, that clearly means that you want to keep the world’s poor in their poverty by denying them coal-generated electricity, even though those at the bottom are the hardest-hit by the warming climate, and the least able to withstand those blows.

It’s probably pretty easy to develop bigoted views about those “beneath” you, when you’re part of a class that’s wholly detached from human concerns. Many of them have never worried about having enough to survive in their lives, and it’s far easier to blame those who do struggle, than to actually face the injustice built into their luxurious and destructive lifestyles.

So, in pursuit of posting every week, I started writing about the growing gap in wealth, power, and life experience between the rich, and everyone else, and how wealth and privilege twist the human mind in ways that virtually guarantee this outcome. It’s the same sort of thing that’s been written countless times, by countless people, and yet the problem keeps getting worse. Rents keep rising, along with other expenses, even though there’s plenty of everything to go around.

So, I started writing about organizing – a topic on which I’m still fairly ignorant, because its the one area where I can find at least a little hope. Interest in unions has risen dramatically in the last three years, and major strike actions have proven successful, as workers and bosses both realize the power that the workers have, when united.

This hasn’t resulted in real climate action, or real change to the political/economic system that has brought us to this point, but in a capitalist society, where money is power, the ability for workers to claw back even a little of the wealth that they generate with their labor is far from nothing. Less material desperation means more time and energy for living life, and for further collective action. These wins also act as a proof of concept – nonviolent collective action, aimed at the flow of money, can get real results.

The question is, how far does that go? How much are unions able to do to repair systemic harm? How much can we claw back before the powerful turn to violence to keep the rabble in their place? I don’t see a way around finding out, because as I’ve said many times, those at the top are clearly willing to let the world burn, if they get to rule the ashes. Hell, I think some of them want the world to burn, because they know that increased desperation at the bottom makes their exploitation much easier. If you look at the edges, like the effort to stop Atlanta’s “cop city”, you begin see the violence inherent in the system. Look past the borders, at the bottom of the global economic system, and you will find a level of violence that we in the rich nations of the world were taught had been left behind. You’ll discover that that violence has always been an integral part of the system. From there, it’s not exactly hard to believe that those whose billions stem from that violence would be willing to turn it on their subjects in wealthy nations, if that’s what it took to protect their power.

There’s no easy way out of this, from what I can tell. There’s no point at which those in power will say, “Ok, we’ve clearly messed up, let’s try actual democracy for a change”. They’re convinced that the only reason things are bad anywhere, is that they don’t have enough power. They’re a class of would-be dictators or oligarchs, who all think that they would be the kind of ruler the world needs, and any effort to empower those at the bottom just proves that the rabble need to be ruled.

I think that things like unions, strikes, and direct action are our best path forward, and I think that the world as a whole urgently needs these things to happen in rich and powerful nations. Time and time again, efforts at systemic change in the former colonies have been met with genocidal violence, backed by wealthy nations that know they’re safe from any retaliation. There’s no reason for the rulers of those nations to stop doing that, unless the people of those nations take action to make them stop. We are inside the fortress, in a manner of speaking, which means that we have the ability to change things here, without having to get past the walls and armaments. I sometimes wonder if that is why there’s so much effort to demonize immigrants, and to create and maintain societal segregation between groups. It keeps people from working together, and it keeps the citizenry of wealthy nations from understanding how the world works, and how their own problems are part of the same system that’s causing so much death and misery “over there”.

This isn’t a guaranteed victory. The people, united, can still fuck up. We can still perpetuate bigotry, and maintain injustice. There’s no guarantee of victory, but I think it’s fair to say, at this point, that without revolutionary change, there is a guarantee of defeat, for humanity as a whole.

In Praise of Universal Healthcare

So funny story – Two Sundays ago, I managed to cut my hand badly enough to need stitches, and to force me to not do any writing while the cut did its initial healing.

Since most of my readership is from the US, I thought it might be useful to give a snapshot of my experience in a universal system. There’s a flat fee of €100 for visiting Accident and Emergency, and the triage nurse, after bandaging my hand, told me to go home to sleep, and come back in the morning. It was when most of the city was celebrating Halloween, so my little cut was pretty low on the priority list. I went back in the morning, got the cut properly cleaned and stitched up, got a tetanus booster, and was sent on my way with instructions to return if I started showing signs of infection. Having grown up in the US, I checked whether I should brace for another bill for another trip to A&E, but I did not. That initial fee, plus the tiny amount I pay monthly for private insurance as an immigrant, covers everything to do with this injury. It’s a small disincentive – enough that I’m not gonna be cavalier about using such a service, but the arrangement is such that there’s no incentive for me to delay treatment for fear of the cost. The hundreds or thousands I’d have to pay for the same service in the US would, at minimum, have made me seriously consider cleaning and binding my wound myself, and trusting in my body’s ability to fight infection.

A week and a couple days out from the injury, and everything’s healing up fine. The stitches should finish dissolving before too long, and I’ll back to normal. It was a clean cut, and it didn’t hit any nerves or tendons, but if it had, I would have gotten that treatment based on what was needed, not on what I could afford. No surprise bills, no extra paperwork, no negotiating with a middle-man insurance company for the right to anesthetic, or three stitches instead of two, or whatever else they and the for-profit hospitals would think up to siphon off more of my money.

Universal healthcare systems are not perfect, and they absolutely do let people down, but the sheer scale of callousness, greed, and exploitation that’s built into the US healthcare system can scarcely be exaggerated. Supporters of that system like to rant about government bureaucracy, but nothing in any government system I’ve encountered comes close to the bureaucratic nightmare of navigating the labyrinth of arbitrary rules, barriers, costs, and paperwork that has been forced upon every patient in the United States. If you have a universal healthcare system, fight hard against any who would seek to take that away (looking at you, UK). If you don’t have such a system, do what you can to get one, and fight against the lies told to justify the cruel parasitism of for-profit healthcare.

So that’s why there wasn’t a post last week, and why I’m not sure there will be anything more substantial this week. I’ve got other work that I’m behind on, thanks to losing the use of a hand for a few days. Even so, I’m grateful to live somewhere that has a real healthcare system, and I’m actually feeling good about the progress of this novel. If you’re reading this, I hope life is treating you decently, despite the chaos and horror flooding that’s been flooding the airwaves.

Caturday: A Study in Incompetence

Gentle readers, I must caution you to have a care for misleading images! In this image, we see a lush garden, with ferns, flowers, and an ivy-covered wall. Atop the wall, there is a small, black and white cat, looking intently downwards. The object of his gaze, on the ground, is a larger, fatter tabby cat, who appears to be looking up at his fellow feline.

Two cunning hunters have spotted each other, and are frozen, watching. This, I regret to say, is utter fiction. The little black and white cat did, in fact, see my chonky dude, but MY cat is… decidedly less competent.

In this picture, the tabby has his head pointed straight up at the sky, very awkwardly, while he sniffs, trying to locate the other cat, a few feet away.

And now the truth becomes clear. The tabby, His Holiness, Saint Ray the Cat, was not actually looking at the cat on the wall. He could SMELL another cat nearby, but he never actually SAW it. Instead, he sniffed the air like a weirdo for a good three or four minutes, before giving up, and wandering off to investigate a bush. In his defense, the wall is actually pretty wide, so from the perspective of His Holiness, only a little of the other cat’s head may have been visible. Even so, I’m glad he’s only outside under supervision, because I don’t think he’d survive very long in the wild. A cunning hunter, he is not.

We need to clean the water. All of it. Here’s how that’s not an impossible task.

“The Climate Crisis” is an umbrella term that covers every way in which global warming, driven by the way industrialized societies have been dumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, is making life worse and more dangerous. The higher global temperature is dangerous all by itself, but it’s exacerbating a whole host of other problems all over the planet. Of those, the “Water Crisis” is one of the most widely-discussed. This makes sense, right? Take away our water, and humans die pretty quickly. If we run out of it, that’s pretty much the end of the line.

Of course, were not running out of water. Not really. We’re running out of clean water – water that’s safe for humans to drink. Historically, that has meant water that’s not filled with microorganisms, which can give us nasty ailments like dysentery, leading to fun stuff like death by diarrhea. We’ve developed all sorts of ways to safely hydrate ourselves, but generally, water from underground has been the safest. There are vast reservoirs of the stuff, called aquifers, that just sit in porous ground, so that all we have to do is dig a deep enough hole in the right place, and it’ll fill up with clean water. We can also boil it, which will kill any disease-causing microorganisms, make filters that form a physical barrier against those pathogens, or use small amounts of chemicals like chlorine or iodine to poison them.

The problem is, we don’t just use clean water for drinking, cooking, and washing. We also use it to irrigate our crops, and to manufacture various goods. Modern society, as a rule uses a truly staggering amount of water, using thousands of liters to make a single car, for one example. Our default has been to act as though our sources of clean water were infinite, even though we’ve known for a long time that they’re not. The result is that the world’s groundwater is running out, and there doesn’t really seem to be much of a plan to replace them. Hell, thanks to capitalism, we instead have corporations staking their claim to various water sources so they can charge people for access, and relying on capitalist governments to use violence to enforce their ownership.

Like most of the crises of the modern day, the water crisis is of our own making, both through how we use and waste clean water, and through how we allow it to be controlled for profit. It’s tempting to say that solving the problem is as easy. All we have to do is end wasteful over-use, end water privatization, and treat it as a public good, and we’re well on our way, right? Well, I obviously think we should do those things, but it’s not enough. It seems more likely that with all the manufacturing needed to end fossil fuel use, and the water needed to keep crops alive on a hotter planet, the water crisis will continue to exist for decades to come. That means that to solve it, we also need to be actively cleaning water, both for our own use, and to avoid contamination of the aquifers that will begin replenishing themselves, if we ever stop draining them.

Unfortunately, the microbial contamination that I mentioned above isn’t the only problem. When you use water to manufacture a car, it’s contaminated by a whole host of chemicals, some of which can seep into aquifers along with the water. Worse, chemical corporations like Dupont have a habit of directly dumping their waste products into rivers. Multiply that by the millions of factories around the world, and add in things like the pharmaceuticals we flush down the toilet, and it’s clear that if we want future generations to have water that won’t mess with their bodies in unpredictable ways, we need to clean things up. The most reliable way to do that is to clean all the water.

Which sounds like a bit of a tall order. Even if we ignore the oceans, and just focus on the fresh water, there’s no way cleaning it all is practical, right? The amount of power needed to run water filtration plants capable of removing all those chemicals would be huge, especially if we’re using them not just for the water that we use, but for water sources in general.

Well, yes, probably.

But that’s only if we’re focused on using machinery and energy to clean it. There are other ways. Better ways.

I’ve talked about this before, and I’ll probably talk about it again, but we could make this world a much better place to live if we stopped working against nature, and started working with it. As non-indigenous cultures spread out across the world, reshaping much of it for our convenience, wetlands have mostly been viewed as problems to be solved. It makes a degree of sense. The water and soft soil make them bad places to build, they tend not to smell particularly good, and they’re great for breeding all sorts of biting flies, some of which carry diseases. Rather than working around them, we’ve defaulted towards draining them and filling them in, to the point where politicians who want to convince people that they’re honest, upstanding leaders will often talk about “draining the swamp”, as a metaphor for getting rid of corruption.

Well, it turns out that we need swamps, and marshes, and bogs. Completely aside from the important roles they play in maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem health, and in protecting coasts from storm surges, wetlands are also good for cleaning chemicals out of water. This is something I’ve talked about before, and I’m sure I’ll talk about it again in the future. Water in wetlands doesn’t just sit there, it’s taken in and put out again by plants, which can break down some chemicals, and absorb others. The stuff that’s absorbed becomes part of the plant, and when that plant dies, it becomes part of the soil. In the case of things like heavy metals, it’s still there, in the sediment, but what’s important for us is that it’s no longer floating around. When the water leaves the wetland, it’s cleaner than it was before. That process doesn’t remove those microbes that can make us sick, but those are so easy to deal with that in an emergency, all you need is the means to boil water, and the willingness to drink hot water when you’re desperate. It’s not pleasant, and it can taste funny, but honestly the microbes are the least concerning part of water contamination – we’re good at getting rid of those!

So we need more wetlands, and we need to view them as a part of our water system, same as the pumps, pipes, and purification systems that we build. We need to learn how to let go of the pretense that we are somehow apart from nature, and start incorporating it into our society. For that, we can look to societies of the past, and see how wetlands have been integrated into the water systems of, for example, the ancient Mayan civilization:

The Maya built and maintained reservoirs that were in use for more than 1,000 years, wrote University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign anthropology professor Lisa Lucero in a perspective in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These reservoirs provided potable water for thousands to tens of thousands of people in cities during the annual, five-month dry season and in periods of prolonged drought.

“Most major southern lowland Maya cities emerged in areas that lacked surface water but had great agricultural soils,” Lucero said. “They compensated by constructing reservoir systems that started small and grew in size and complexity.”

Over time, the Maya built canals, dams, sluices and berms to direct, store and transport water. They used quartz sand for water filtration, sometimes importing it from great distances to massive cities like Tikal in what is now northern Guatemala. A sediment core from one of Tikal’s reservoirs also found that zeolite sand had been used in its construction. Previous studies have shown that this volcanic sand can filter impurities and disease-causing microbes from water. The zeolite also would have been imported from sources about 18 miles (30 kilometers) away.

“Tikal’s reservoirs could hold more than 900,000 cubic meters of water,” Lucero wrote. Estimates suggest that up to 80,000 people lived in the city and its environs in the Late Classic period, roughly 600 to 800 C.E. The reservoirs kept people and crops hydrated during the dry season, Lucero said.

Maya royalty got much of their status from their ability to provide water to the populace.

“Clean water and political power were inextricably linked – as demonstrated by the fact that the largest reservoirs were built near palaces and temples,” Lucero wrote. The kings also performed ceremonies to gain the favor of ancestors and the rain god, Chahk.

A key challenge was to keep standing water in reservoirs from becoming stagnant and undrinkable, and for that the Maya likely relied on aquatic plants, many of which still populate Central American wetlands today, Lucero said. These include cattails, sedges, reeds and others. Some of these plants have been identified in sediment cores from Maya reservoirs.

These plants filtered the water, reducing murkiness and absorbing nitrogen and phosphorous, Lucero said.

This wasn’t just an accident either. They dredged their reservoirs regularly to maintain their function, and used the sediment to fertilize their fields. When it comes to stuff like heavy metals and other industrial contamination, that’s one area where we should probably find a different solution. As I said above, some of these pollutants just hang out in the sediment, and can become dangerous again if they’re stirred up. That means that dredging is a more complicated process, and we have to find different ways to dispose of the muck, but the overall setup is one that would serve us well, I think.

The most iconic aquatic plant associated with the ancient Maya is the water lily, Nymphaea ampla, which thrives only in clean water, Lucero said. Its pollen has been found in sediment cores from several Maya reservoirs. Water lilies symbolized “Classic Maya kingship,” Lucero wrote.

“The kings even donned headdresses adorned with the flowers and are depicted with water lilies in Maya art,” Lucero said.

“Water lilies do not tolerate acidic conditions or too much calcium such as limestone or high concentrations of certain minerals like iron and manganese,” she wrote.

To keep water lilies alive, water managers would have had to line the reservoirs with clay, Lucero said. A layer of sediment would be needed for plants’ roots. In turn, the water lilies and trees and shrubs planted near the reservoirs shaded the water, cooling it and inhibiting the growth of algae.

“The Maya generally did not build residences near reservoir edges, so contamination seeping through the karstic terrain would not have been an issue,” Lucero wrote.

The evidence gathered from several southern lowland cities indicates that, as constructed wetlands, Maya reservoirs supplied potable water to people for more than 1,000 years, failing only when the severest droughts took hold in the region between 800 and 900 C.E., Lucero said. She notes that current climate trends will require many of the same approaches the Maya employed, including the use of aquatic plants to improve and maintain water quality naturally.

“Constructed wetlands provide many advantages over conventional wastewater treatment systems,” she wrote. “They provide an economical, low technology, less expensive and high energy-saving treatment technology.”

In addition to providing clean water, constructed wetlands also support aquatic animals and can be a source of nutrients to replenish agricultural soils, she wrote.

“The next step moving forward is to combine our respective expertise and implement the lessons embodied in ancient Maya reservoirs in conjunction with what is currently known about constructed wetlands,” she wrote.

I think it’s fair to say that the droughts that are coming will be worse than those of a thousand years ago, simply because the temperature is higher, and is still rising. Even so, the more we support the ecosystems around us, the more resilient they will be, and the better off we will be. Further, as I’ve posted in the past, wetlands are great for pulling CO2 out of the air, and whether we dredge them, or leave them be as part of an ever-changing landscape, their mere existence will serve us in many ways.

It’s easy to feel as though the pollution of the world happened easily, and cleaning it up will be far more difficult. There’s definitely truth in that, given how widely pollution has spread, but I think it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t exactly easy to mess the world up as much as we have. It’s taken a huge amount of labor, extracting fuels, processing resources, manufacturing goods, and waging bloody wars to keep the capitalist mode of production running. It still takes all of that to maintain it, and while cleaning up won’t generate energy the way burning coal does, there’s ample evidence that it can create other benefits for society, that we’ll be glad to have. I posted a while back about how researchers have developed a way to break down PFAS – “forever chemicals” – in a lab, using chemicals like lye, DMSO, and sodium hydroxide, but guess what?

We can also remove them from the water using plants.

Conducted in partnership with Australia’s national science agency CSIRO and the University of Western Australia, the research found that PFAS chemicals (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) can be removed from contaminated water via Australian native rushes – Phragmites australis, Baumea articulata, and Juncus kraussii.

Phragmites australis, otherwise known as the common reed, removed legacy PFAS contaminants by 42-53 per cent from contaminated surface water (level: 10 µg/L).

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to PFAS may lead to a range of health issues including a decline in fertility, developmental delays in children, increased risk of some cancers, a reduced immune system, higher cholesterol, and risk of obesity.

UniSA and CSIRO researcher Dr John Awad says that this research could alleviate many of these environmental and health risks by providing a clean, green, and cost-effective method to remove PFAS from the environment.

“PFASs are often referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because they don’t break down, instead accumulating in the environment and in our bodies where they can cause adverse health effects,” Dr Awad says.

“In Australia, PFAS concerns often relate to the use of firefighting foam – especially legacy firefighting foam – which accumulates in the surface water of our waterways.

“Our research tested the effectiveness of Australian rushes to remove PFAS chemicals from stormwater, finding that Phragmites australis was the most effective at absorbing chemicals through its roots and shoots.”

The study used constructed floating wetlands as a mechanism for plants to grow hydroponically. Dr Awad says floating wetlands present a novel and flexible way for natural remediation systems.

“Constructed floating wetlands can be readily installed into existing urban environments, such as holding reservoirs and retention basins, making them highly manoeuvrable and adaptable to local waterways,” Dr Awad says.

“Plus, as this innovative water treatment system does not require pumping or the ongoing addition of chemicals, it is a cost-effective remediation system for PFAS removal.

“Add native plants to the mix and we have delivered a truly clean, green and environmentally-friendly method for removing toxic PFAS chemicals from contaminated water.”

You’ll note the same language in this article from Australia, as we saw in the earlier one about how the Maya managed their reservoirs – not just as places to hold water, but also as places to clean it, and to keep it clean. Do it right, and you can even help deal with the microbe and mosquito problems, without relying on machinery and chemicals.

I want to close by saying that while constructed wetlands are important, and something we should do more of, natural wetlands are also important. Firstly, we need them for biodiversity and ecosystem health, because humanity needs those for our long-term survival and wellbeing. Secondly, and more to the point of this article, even wetlands that are far away from major waterways and human population centers have an impact on water quality:

Geographically isolated wetlands play an outsized role in providing clean water and other environmental benefits even though they may lack the regulatory protections of other wetlands, according to an article by Indiana University researchers and colleagues.

Given those benefits, the authors argue, decision-makers should assume that isolated wetlands are critical for protecting aquatic systems, and the burden of proof should be on those who argue on a case-by-case basis that individual wetlands need not be protected.

In addition to protecting all wetlands by default, this is one way in which, as I’ve said before, we need to work with beavers. When it comes to the creation and maintenance of wetlands, beavers (and their instinctive hatred of the sound of trickling water) are ecosystem engineers without parallel, and their natural range is the entire northern hemisphere. Further, in addition to everything already mentioned about wetlands, beaver dams themselves also help clean water, by accumulating sediment, which traps pollutants in the soil. It’s not far off from how I was describing the way plants trap heavy metals. We should not introduce them to ecosystems that have never had them before, but in North America and Eurasia, we should be bolstering beaverkind however we can.

There’s a phrase that I dislike, but that seems to be very popular – work smarter, not harder. When it comes to repairing the damage that’s been done to the world over the last couple centuries, there are many ways in which we simply will have to work harder, or work just as hard on different things. That said, a big part of why I believe repairing that damage is possible, is that there are a myriad of ways in which we can “work smarter”, and achieve great results with comparatively little effort, by working with ecosystems. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve only been talking about fresh water here. The oceans are also polluted. Salt marshes help with that, as does seaweed, but the other part of it is that a lot of pollution in the oceans comes from what we do on land and in freshwater systems. Addressing that end of things will help the oceans clean themselves. Just as efforts to clean our water sources won’t be enough if we don’t stop adding new pollution to them, efforts to clean the oceans won’t be enough if we don’t deal with the water flowing into them. It’s all connected, so despite the size of the oceans, making real progress on land is essential.

The obstacles to a better world are enormous, but we can overcome them, if we can learn how to do things differently.

Hey, sorry about the long delay between posts. I meant to have this up mid-week, but got distracted by other things. I’m planning to post weekly, at minimum, but if you want me to dedicate more time to this stuff, giving me money on Patreon is a great way to do that. I’m trying to finish Tadpole and the Inner Tower this year, but I keep running into delays, largely rooted in my own lack of skill as a fiction writer, hence my desire to spend more time on that end of things.

Rebuilding Damaged Brains with 3D Printing

Brain damage is a scary thing, and there are a lot of ways that it can happen. The brain’s plasticity means that sometimes people can recover lost functionality, but wouldn’t it be nice if we had the ability to actually rebuild damaged brain tissue? Well, thanks to 3D printing and stem cells, that ability may not be far away! I’ve seen articles for a while now about using stem cells to grow replacement organs, but I honestly didn’t expect to see brains on the list.

In this new study, the University of Oxford researchers fabricated a two-layered brain tissue by 3D printing human neural stem cells. When implanted into mouse brain slices, the cells showed convincing structural and functional integration with the host tissue.

The cortical structure was made from human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs), which have the potential to produce the cell types found in most human tissues. A key advantage of using hiPSCs for tissue repair is that they can be easily derived from cells harvested from patients themselves, and therefore would not trigger an immune response.

The hiPSCs were differentiated into neural progenitor cells for two different layers of the cerebral cortex, by using specific combinations of growth factors and chemicals. The cells were then suspended in solution to generate two ‘bioinks’, which were then printed to produce a two-layered structure. In culture, the printed tissues maintained their layered cellular architecture for weeks, as indicated by the expression of layer-specific biomarkers.

When the printed tissues were implanted into mouse brain slices, they showed strong integration, as demonstrated by the projection of neural processes and the migration of neurons across the implant-host boundary. The implanted cells also showed signalling activity, which correlated with that of the host cells. This indicates that the human and mouse cells were communicating with each other, demonstrating functional as well as structural integration.

The researchers now intend to further refine the droplet printing technique to create complex multi-layered cerebral cortex tissues that more realistically mimic the human brain’s architecture. Besides their potential for repairing brain injuries, these engineered tissues might be used in drug evaluation, studies of brain development, and to improve our understanding of the basis of cognition.

I think it’ll be interesting to see what comes of this, and what a living brain can or can’t do with new tissue. Beyond that, having brain tissue on which to experiment, without having to use a living person, could end up being a huge deal for understanding our brains, and how to fix or adjust them. You can find more, including images and diagrams, at the link above.

And now I’m going to go try to drain all the goo out of my sinuses.