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!

Bezos Aims to Divide the Working Class with New Real Estate Scheme

Shortly before Tegan and I decided to leave the United States, hopefully never to return, we considered buying a house. Mortgage payments are generally less than rent, and we’d both had a succession of rich and/or corporate landlords who did as little as humanly possible to keep their properties habitable, so we wanted to try for something better. Additionally, home ownership has long been presented as a pathway to financial security, and some sense of stability. Because rents will keep rising, year after year after year, renters tend to have to keep moving, which is a huge expense and a huge disruption all by itself. We wanted out of that trap. We didn’t have a lot of money, but thanks to intergenerational wealth, we did have enough for a down payment on something small. The problem was, for every place we looked at, There was some big landlord or house-flipper who was willing to offer more than the asking price, with cash on hand. Our landlord at the time owned dozens of homes in the area, and so we were competing with him and his ilk, while he used the money that we gave him every month to outbid us. For that and other reasons, we ended up deciding to gamble on being able to escape the US and find a way to make it work in a country where, if nothing else, we’d have access to a real healthcare system.

That future is still uncertain, but given that the pandemic would have robbed both of us of our incomes had we stayed, we would have burned through that “nest egg” anyway. Add in the far lower cost of health coverage and treatment, and I’m still comfortable with the choice we made. The thing is, the problem of landlords is not unique to the US. We’re still forced to send huge amounts of money, every month, to someone who we’ve never met, who lives on the other side of the country, and who views us as a source of passive income, nothing more. The role of the landlord, in our society, is a parasitic one, and those of us playing “host” often have no real option other than to find ways to provide for ourselves and our landlords, lest we be violently forced into homelessness.

Considering all of that, it makes perfect sense that Jeff Bezos, perhaps the biggest parasite on the planet, is getting into the business.

In this wonderful capitalist society, homes aren’t actually places for people to live. They serve that purpose, of course, but that’s secondary to their real function, which is making money for whoever owns them. That’s why having a housing shortage is beneficial to those at the top – it helps keep rents high, and for all they like to insist that they prefer having tenants and the income they bring, they’re known the world over for keeping homes empty rather than lowering rents to fill them.

The innovation in parasitism that Bezos is backing now, is a fantasy of getting in on the landlord grift even if you don’t have the money to buy a home. He’s offering to let people buy shares of homes, so that they can get a share of the rent:

About Arrived Homes

Arrived is the first SEC-qualified real estate investing platform that allows virtually anyone to buy shares in single-family rental properties with investment amounts ranging from $100 to $10,000 per property.

The company acquires rental homes and allows individual investors to become owners of the properties by purchasing shares through the platform. Arrived Homes manages the assets, while investors collect passive income through quarterly dividends in addition to earning a return through appreciation.

The company quickly gained the attention of several high-profile investors during its seed round in 2021, getting investments from Jeff Bezos, through Bezos Expeditions, Inc founder Marc Benioff through Time Ventures, former Zillow Group Inc CEO Spencer Rascoff and Uber Technologies Inc CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

I’m not surprised that this is getting attention from “high-profile investors”. Our entire economic system revolves around finding ways to funnel money from working people to those at the top, from the conventional exploitation of the workplace, to straight-up wage theft, to price-gouging, to finding ways to get money from the government, to using the government to erect barriers for normal people, then charging to have those barriers temporarily removed. The greed of those at the top has been making it more and more difficult for people to actually own their own homes, and so they’ve “innovated” a way to make people feel like they’re owners, without actually being owners, or having any of the rights that come with ownership.

It reminds me of how a great many people own stocks, at a very small level, either through personal investment or through retirement. Whenever I see people talking about laws to reign in the stock market, someone will inevitably pop up to insist that that would be bad because a majority of Americans own stocks. Stocks, they say, are how everyday working folk can get ahead in life (since just working clearly isn’t enough anymore). There are even people who will oppose regulation, because they’re worried about their tiny portfolios, ignoring the fact that the vast majority of shares in the US – 81% as of 2021 – are owned by the richest 10% of the population. As with white supremacy, it’s a way to trick people in the middle and towards to bottom into identifying with those at the top.

The result is that now, in addition to competing with mini-Trump figures like my former landlord, anyone looking to buy a home just to use as a home is also now competing with the richest people on the entire planet, who can spend hundreds of millions buying homes for no purpose other than to get richer, and in this case, to siphon even more money from poorer people, by getting them to invest, so they can hang out in the dining room, and get a few scraps from the table.

And the profits they make from this will be used to oppose any efforts to actually make housing (and life in general) affordable.

As I’ve said with many other issues, this won’t end until it’s forced to end. Wealth and power will keep accumulating at the top, leaving less and less for everyone else, until something is done to deliberately reverse that process. It’s also worth noting that any effort to solve this problem will be treated as the end of the world. Throughout history, every time anything is done to improve life for those at the bottom, those at the top will insist that what’s being proposed is the worst sort of crime against humanity. Weekends? They’ll cause the economy to crash and everyone will die. Minimum wage? It’ll cause the economy to crash and everyone will die. Workplace safety? It’ll cause the economy to crash and everyone will die. Affordable housing? Limits on Wall Street? Taxes for the rich? Universal healthcare or even a public option? It’ll cause the economy to crash and everyone will die.

We need to make a change, and we need to understand that no matter what change is being made, if it gets in the way of the all-consuming greed of the elite, they will respond as though we’re coming to torture them to death in front of their families. A similar argument is often made against doing anything to dismantle white supremacy – whatever it is, it’ll cause “hordes” of Black people to come out of the cities, and start ravaging the countryside, and you know that’s true, because Fox News and similar organizations spend a huge amount of time and money saying so.

We’re surrounded by messaging – not just from bullshit factories like Fox – that constantly tells us that things can’t get better, and that any effort to make things better will inevitably fail and make them worse. We’re going through a version of that now with the effort to force people who’re currently working at home to get back to the office. We get people like Lauren Boebert using a congressional hearing to whine about how lazy workers are, and how they have to be forced to work every second of the day, and so telecommuting must be stopped. At the same time, we get articles about how working from home threatens the investments of landlords who rent out offices, as though we ought to be shaping our laws and our lives around what guarantees the best return on investment for the rich.

I suppose at its most over-simplified, that’s what capitalism is – a system in which laws, customs and human lives are shaped and distorted around the wants and whims of the rich. Governments are overthrown, wars are waged, and lives are destroyed, all in service of supporting the capitalist class that has been granted ownership of most of the world, and feels it’s owed ownership of all of the world.

When I talk about climate change, much of my motivation revolves around how the rising temperature is making it increasingly difficult to survive on this planet. That’s also why I talk a lot about capitalism. Even without its numerous and horrific environmental impacts, it is making live increasingly difficult for growing portions of the population, and looking at history, there is no point at which that will naturally end or reverse itself. They’re bringing back black lung in Appalachia. They’re trying to bring back company towns. The idea that we somehow “learned” from the horrors that led to the labor movements a century ago is an absurd lie. The only reason capitalists pay anyone at all, or spend any money on workplace safety, or allow people to have any free time, is because they are forced to do so.

In that regard, it’s encouraging to see a rise in unionization and union successes. Unions, by themselves, won’t fix everything, but they can take us a long way in the right direction, especially when they coordinate with each other, and work together for the common good. I expect that the primary reason big investors are so excited by Bezos’ real estate scheme is because it looks like a new way to make money while also complicating and obscuring ownership, and therefor responsibility.

But I think another reason is that, as with the decision to move retirement funds into the stock market, it’s a way to trick people into identifying with their rulers, rather than with each other. Efforts to lower rents will suddenly have new opposition from folks who bought a share in a few rental homes, and see that as an attack on the pittance of extra income they get from that. People who survive by working for a paycheck will see themselves as capitalists because they get a little rent money from “their” rental properties, and so they’ll fight to keep that money flowing, even if it hurts them more in the long run.

Solidarity is, I believe, something that naturally forms between people. I think those at the top share my belief, which is why they put so much effort into building and maintaining systems designed to undermine and suppress that part of human nature. Unfortunately, that means that however much cooperation comes naturally to us, we need to actually put in time and energy to build and maintain solidarity in the face of that ongoing assault. Right now, labor unions seem to be our best tool for that job, and the uplifting end to the point is that a growing number of people seem to be recognizing that.

Sorry for skipping a week, things have just been feeling a bit overwhelming, and for some reason I find fiction writing to require more effort and energy per word.  I’m still aiming for one post here per week, but that depends a bit on how much progress I make with other things that currently feel more important than this blog.

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.

A health/blog update, and some thoughts on Israel and Palestine

I had a heart-related health scare today, and spent most of the day in the hospital getting checked out. Some results are pending, but it currently seems that I’m OK. That said, the illusion of imminent mortality was a bit tiring, and also very slightly perspective-shifting. I want to work more on fiction and on some other things in my life, so for the rest of this year, at least, my posts are probably going to be less. I had intended to write a somewhat in-depth post about Israel and Palestine, and I may still do that, but for now I’ll just say this:

Even if we were to assume – which I believe we should not – that “both sides” have an equal right to live on that land, the power dynamic, which has existed for longer than I’ve been alive, makes it clear what’s going on. De-escalation cannot happen without a commitment to it by the more powerful party, and there is zero question that Israel is more powerful. They’ve lowered the life expectancy in Gaza to the point where fully half the population are children, who have only ever known occupation and oppression.

Hamas, as an organization, also do evil things, and their attacks on civilians are inexcusable. That said, Hamas is also Israel’s chosen enemy, and was aided in their rise to power, just as more reasonable governing authorities were undermined. The only way for peace to happen, is for Israel to choose to end the cycle of revenge. The Palestinians cannot end it, just as the people of every other occupied territory cannot.

If Israel wants peace, they must end the ethnic cleansing of the West Bank, and the attacks on mosques and worshippers, and the deliberate killing and maiming of protesters and journalists. They must demonstrate goodwill by providing the resources that they’ve kept from Palestinians for longer than I’ve been alive. They must stop destroying olive groves and wells.

If Israel wants peace.

As it stands, they very clearly do not.

It is heartbreaking to see this brutality and death, and it is horrifying to see people around the world cheering on Israel’s dehumanization of Palestinians, and their escalating campaign of genocide. I desperately want it to end, but that has no bearing on what will happen. The death toll is going to keep climbing, for weeks if not months, and at every step of the way, we will be told that all the Palestinian deaths are justified, including the children, because of Hamas. They will claim that the children are “human shields”, and apparently we’ve come to a point where a lot of the world believes that when someone uses a human shield, you’re supposed to kill the victim, blame the person behind them, and move on.

I want to end on this: However much disinformation you think you have seen about current events, you’ve almost certainly seen more. I have seen old videos of Palestinian children held in cages by the IDF, described as Israeli children being held in cages by Hamas. I have seen videos of munitions in the sky over Ukraine being described as IDF use of white phosphorous on Gaza. The lies are everywhere, and while I believe that the vast majority of them will continue coming from one side, I’ve learned by now that there are people within every movement who are perfectly willing to make shit up in support of their cause. Use caution, and insofar as you are able, use patience. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when so many people have been exposed to so much dishonest propaganda, and I fear it’s only going to get worse.

Be kind, be skeptical, and stand in solidarity with the oppressed.

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.