Pressure Grows for Biden To Create Civilian Climate Corps

One of the biggest failures of capitalism, particularly the neoliberal version, is the simple fact that there is a lot of work that needs to be done in any society, but that doesn’t generate any profit by itself. Housework is the example with which everyone is at least somewhat familiar. It’s work that absolutely needs doing in every home, but with the exception of paid housekeepers, nobody expects to be compensated for it. Outside of the home, the world is filled with such work, some of which is done, and some of which is not. Infrastructure and its maintenance, pollution cleanup, and ecosystem management also don’t have much to offer in terms of built-in profit making.

People do make a profit off of these things, but it’s generally through government contracts, grants, and donations. Our system is so dedicated to the notion that private, for-profit corporations are the best way to do everything, that we take public resources, and give them to private corporations, so that they can do the work, cut as many corners as possible, and make a profit. The highway system, the power grid, sewage and water systems – all put together with public resources, because there wasn’t a direct profit to be made in setting that stuff up. Likewise the billions that private corporations have made from NASA’s innovations, and from publicly funded medical research.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t get the funding it needs, and the environment is probably at the top of that list. That said, this is something that can be changed, at least in theory. All those public projects have been undertaken within this system, and while I think they were made worse by the fixation on putting everything into the hands of capitalists whenever possible, they still make everyone’s lives better. Public investment is a thing that can be done in the United States, and there’s now an effort to create a “civilian climate corps” to deal with the ever-increasing amount of work that has to be done in response to global warming:

Dozens of Democratic U.S. lawmakers joined more than 50 civil society groups who on Monday implored President Joe Biden to sign an executive order establishing a Civilian Climate Corps that would “put young Americans to work serving their communities” and tackling the planetary emergency.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)—who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate, and Nuclear Safety—and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) led at least 50 House and Senate Democrats plus independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in a letter urging Biden to act in the face of the worsening climate crisis. They noted that the president’s January 2021 executive order on tackling the emergency mandated a strategy for creating a Civilian Climate Corps within 90 days.

“With deadly heat, dangerous floods, rising seas, and devastating wildfires—including those that ravaged Maui last month—the climate crisis demands a whole-of-government response at an unprecedented scale,” the lawmakers wrote. “Following up on your earlier commitments, existing legislation, and the demands from young people across the nation, we urge you to issue an executive order formally establishing a Civilian Climate Corps initiative to work on key conservation and climate priorities.”

“By leveraging the historic climate funding secured during your administration, using existing authorities, and coordinating across AmeriCorps and other relevant federal agencies, your administration can create a federal Civilian Climate Corps that unites its members in an effort to fight climate change, build community resilience, support environmental justice, and develop career pathways to good-paying union jobs focused on climate resilience and a clean economy,” the letter adds.

Inspired by the best aspects of the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps—which despite the nostalgia it often evokes among progressives, was for men only, racially segregated, and paid just $1 a day—the Civilian Climate Corps has long enjoyed the support of many congressional Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who wanted it included in previous legislation.

Climate, environmental, and social justice groups also support the proposal. On Monday, more than 50 of them sent their own letter to the White House urging Biden to “be as ambitious as possible in tackling the great crisis of our time,” in part by establishing a Civilian Climate Corps “through existing authorities, with existing climate funding, that can coordinate across relevant federal agencies.”

I keep saying that we’re in the age of endless recovery now. Disasters fueled by global warming are getting so big and so frequent that we can’t keep up. Recovery takes years, people get abandoned, and all of that reduces the resources available to actually tackle climate change directly. It’s a destructive spiral, but it doesn’t have to be as bad as it is, and we might even be able to pull out of it, if we actually make it a priority.

A civilian climate corps would be helpful in two big ways. First, it would be a jobs program, which would reduce poverty (a good thing in itself), and strengthen workers’ bargaining power. The second is that if used right, it could dramatically increase our ability to recover from disasters, and to directly address the causes of global warming. I’m sure a lot of the money from this would end up flowing through corporations, which is inefficient in some ways, but it’s also probably the most direct way to convert taxpayer money into new renewable and nuclear power. Beyond that, the corps could be put to work on sea walls, or even on things like getting people out of places, like Miami, that cannot practically be protected for sea level rise.

Obviously, this kind of ambitious project will have both ideological and self-interested opposition, from the right wing and from corporate interests that benefit from the status quo, and that don’t want people to see public spending as a real option. I think there are also a number of Democrats, even discounting Manchin and Sinema, who wouldn’t support this. Even so, the Democrats are currently our best bet for making progress here, because with Republicans in charge, there’s zero chance of this going anywhere. To me, that reads like the odds are still against the civilian climate corps going anywhere, but this is one of those situations where an organized working class could put pressure on the people in power.

Looking at responses to the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes and the UAW strike, I think that while we’re not at a point where we can get an actual general strike for climate action, we’re closer to that than we have been at any point in my lifetime. There’s much more support for unions and strikes than I’ve ever seen, and support for climate action keeps rising. A climate corps also has room for the patriotism that infects so much of American society, and I think it’s an easier, clearer goal for non-activists to latch onto, than “end fossil fuel use”. The notion of giving back society isn’t a new one, and it’s well past time that the US stopped treated the armed forces as the only way to “serve your country”.

We’ll see where this goes, but I like the idea, and I hope I hear more about it going forward.

Huge Study Shows Importance of Diversity in Ecosystem Restoration

Over the last few years, it has seemed like the idea of planting trees to fight climate change has been gaining in popularity, particularly among those who want to avoid any real systemic change. I also have a sneaking suspicion that if they do get around to any tree-planting, their goal will be to plant large numbers of whatever is cheapest. Unfortunately, if you’re trying to actually help an ecosystem recover, that’s very slow, inefficient way to go about it. It’s depressingly clear that some people will never accept this message, but diversity really is better:

One of the world’s biggest ecological experiments, co-led by the University of Oxford on the island of Borneo, has revealed that replanting logged tropical forests with diverse mixtures of seedlings can significantly accelerate their recovery. The findings, published today in the journal Science Advances, emphasise the importance of preserving biodiversity in pristine forests and restoring it in recovering logged forest.

The experiment was set up by the University of Oxford’s Professor Andy Hector and colleagues over 20 years ago, as part of the SE Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP). This assessed the recovery of 125 different plots in an area of logged tropical forest that were sown with different combinations of tree species. The results revealed plots replanted with a mixture of 16 native tree species showed faster recovery of canopy area and total tree biomass, compared to plots replanted with four or just one species. However, even plots that had been replanted with one tree species, were recovering more quickly than those left to restore naturally.

Professor Hector, the lead scientist of the study, said, ‘Our new study demonstrates that replanting logged tropical forests with diverse mixtures of native tree species achieves multiple wins, accelerating the restoration of tree cover, biodiversity, and important ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration.’

According to the researchers, a likely reason behind the result is that different tree species occupy different positions, or ‘niches’, within an ecosystem. This includes both the physical and environmental conditions to which the species is adapted, and how it interacts with other organisms. As a result, diverse mixtures complement each other to increase overall functioning and stability of the ecosystem. For instance, some tropical tree species are more tolerant of drought because they produce a greater amount of protective chemicals, giving the forest resilience to periodic times of low rainfall. Professor Hector added, ‘Having diversity in a tropical forest can be likened to an insurance effect, similar to having a financial strategy of diverse investment portfolios.’

Well, putting it in financial terms does seem like one way to get them to see the value of diversity. Well played, Professor Hector.

Beyond reinforcing what ecologists have long known about the importance of biodiversity, this study shows that we absolutely can intervene to help ecosystems recover more quickly. Doing so is not going to be enough by itself – we need to end fossil fuel use or it’s pointless – but in addition to having the tools to do that, we also have the tools to make real progress on repairing the damage we’ve done to the world’s ecosystems. Unfortunately, we can’t really get to work on that until we stop doing that damage in the first place. No amount of forest restoration work will help us, if old forests are still being destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations.

Things like this are why I think systemic change is necessary – because our system is set up in such a way that it can’t really promote or protect things that don’t have a monetary value. We know that we need healthy forests, for our own sake, but we keep destroying them anyway, and restoration is generally more of an afterthought. I suppose if I’m keeping to the theme of this post, then I would say that we need to “diversify” our political and economic systems, so that they can allow for healthy ecosystems, human flourishing, and progress, without all the destructive overproduction.

Fables, Wage Theft, and Asymmetrical Class Warfare

I feel like I should probably talk about media monopolies more. The way corporations have managed to gain control of ever-larger portions of our entertainment media has caused all manner of problems, most of them for the very people who create the products those same corporations sell. In many ways, that’s traditional, right? Every capitalist company is in the business of exploiting its workers – extracting as much work as possible, for as little pay as possible. Part of that process, in publication, is control over intellectual property, and the use and abuse of legal teams to get and maintain that control. I’m writing about this now, because a good example has come up, along with a solution that I absolutely love.

Fables is a comic series published by DC Comics, and written by one Bill Willingham. I have never read any of them, but they’re apparently very good, so maybe I’ll have to change that. Since the original run, which ended in 2015, DC has apparently been doing spinoffs and games, with no regard for Willingham’s ownership of the intellectual property. Willingham himself is not a fan of current intellectual property law, but that doesn’t mean just letting corporations have their way when they abuse said law. The problem is, as I mentioned above, those corporations tend to have legal teams for just this purpose, which makes fighting them a daunting task. How much of your money, and how many years of your life are you willing to sacrifice, to just to stop corporate abuse of your work? For a lot of people, a fight like that isn’t worth it, and corporations count on that, knowing that the personal cost of a legal battle would never affect them. So, what? Does that mean we just have to let the corporations win?

Well, no. The long term solution, I think, is for the people in these industries to continue the organizing work they’ve already been doing, but Willingham has found a much easier and more immediate solution. Fables is no longer his intellectual property, and it doesn’t belong to DC Comics (owned by Warner Bros. Discovery), either. As of today, Fables, in its entirety, belongs to all of us:

As of now, 15 September 2023, the comic book property called Fables, including all related Fables spin-offs and characters, is now in the public domain. What was once wholly owned by Bill Willingham is now owned by everyone, for all time. It’s done, and as most experts will tell you, once done it cannot be undone. Take-backs are neither contemplated nor possible.

Willingham cites the potential cost, in years of his life, of trying to force DC to live up to its legal obligations (he’s 67), and I really appreciate his reasoning for this tactic:

Since I can’t afford to sue DC, to force them to live up to the letter and the spirit of our long-time agreements; since even winning such a suit would take ridiculous amounts of money out of my pocket and years out of my life (I’m 67 years old, and don’t have the years to spare), I’ve decided to take a different approach, and fight them in a different arena, inspired by the principles of asymmetric warfare. The one thing in our contract the DC lawyers can’t contest, or reinterpret to their own benefit, is that I am the sole owner of the intellectual property. I can sell it or give it away to whomever I want.

I chose to give it away to everyone. If I couldn’t prevent Fables from falling into bad hands, at least this is a way I can arrange that it also falls into many good hands. Since I truly believe there are still more good people in the world than bad ones, I count it as a form of victory.

This won’t stop DC from making Fables comics, shows, or anything else, but it does mean that they will never have exclusive ownership of them again, because literally anyone has the exact same right. Did you read these, get inspired, and write fanfiction? It’s now just as canon as anything under the DC label. Congratulations! Willingham’s press release, linked above, goes into greater detail on his own opinions about intellectual property law as it is, and as it should be, but I want to focus on his “what did DC do to deserve this?” section:

Q: What Exactly Has DC Comics Done to Provoke This?

Too many things to list exhaustively, but here are some highlights: Throughout the years of my business relationship with DC, with Fables and with other intellectual properties, DC has always been in violation of their agreements with me. Usually it’s in smaller matters, like forgetting to seek my opinion on artists for new stories, or for covers, or formats of new collections and such. In those times, when called on it, they automatically said, “Sorry, we overlooked you again. It just fell through the cracks.” They use the “fell through the cracks” line so often, and so reflexively, that I eventually had to bar them from using it ever again. They are often late reporting royalties, and often under-report said royalties, forcing me to go after them to pay the rest of what’s owed.

You recognize what this is, right? It’s wage theft. This is part of the tens of billions of dollars stolen from workers, by capitalists. This is how that theft is most often committed. They use deliberate incompetence to hold on to the money for a little bit longer, and to make it hard to keep track of what’s owed. When I lived in Somerville, I saw my landlord do this to his workers constantly. He’d forget to pay them, and then plead poverty and delay the payment (he owned about 75 other people’s homes), and then underpay, and when the worker objected, he’d argue about how much was owed. This is the same damned thing, done by a massive corporation, and you’d better believe they do it at a massive scale. Hell, it’s the same as Trump’s reputation for never paying people – this is a big part of how capitalists get so rich, and prevent those below them from improving their own lot in life.

More than that, DC tried to trick Willingham into giving them ownership over Fables, and when he called them out on it, they claimed they hadn’t read the contract. More weaponized incompetence, to disguise attempted theft. Putting it squarely in the hands of the public was a brilliant move.

At the same time, I can see why it was less than ideal for for Willingham. First, because it doesn’t prevent DC from doing more with Fables, and second because much as I dislike the fact, we live in a capitalist world, and we all need money to survive. That means that while it would be nice to be able to just create art and share it with the world, those who like doing so are forced to consider the hours put into that work, which could have been spent working for a wage. The system sucks, but opting out of it isn’t really an option. Willingham no longer has exclusive ownership either, and that’s not without its costs. In this case, however, it may not have been that difficult of a decision. He himself is still bound by contract not to do anything with that property, except through DC. They own his ability to use the intellectual property he technically owned, they just haven’t been paying him for its use. Remember that Frank Wilhoit quote?

Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

Capitalism has a very similar principle, where the “in-group” is the ruling class – capitalists – and the “out-group” is everyone else. It’s probably a big part of why conservatives like capitalism so much.

This isn’t a clear win for Willingham, but it is a strategic victory, and not just for him. His mention of asymmetrical warfare is one that I think we’d all do well to consider, because the class war is very far from symmetrical. The amount of power concentrated in the hands of the ruling class is probably greater than it ever has been, and failing to account for that would be, well, like negotiating your pay without the support of a union. Capitalists need workers, but the don’t need you, and one-on-one, they will destroy you.

So we don’t fight them one-on-one, and we don’t meet them on a battle field for “honorable combat”. This has never been a fair fight, and so we are under no obligation to fight fairly. Use the strengths we have, take advantage of opportunities as the arise, and if you can’t win a battle, maybe you can force a draw.

Floating Sea Farm Design Passes Proof of Concept

This was from Tuesday, while Freethoughtblogs was still down and I was posting on my patreon instead. I could use a bit of a cheat day for various reasons, so I’m taking advantage of the technical difficulties to use this post twice. This is very much in the vein of “sounds too good to be true, but it’s an interesting concept. A while back, I saw articles about a clever design for a desert greenhouse that used the evaporation of seawater to both maintain a cool enough temperature for crops, and to provide the water those crops needed. Now, a team at the University of South Australia has designed a floating version, that uses wicking and an evaporator to irrigate the crops:

Professor Haolan Xu and Dr Gary Owens from UniSA’s Future Industries Institute have developed the vertical floating sea farm which is made up of two  chambers: an upper layer similar to a glasshouse and a lower water  harvest chamber.
“The system works much like a wicking bed that household gardeners might be familiar with,” Dr Owen says.
“However, in this case, clean water is supplied by an array of solar  evaporators that soak up the seawater, trap the salts in the evaporator  body and, under the sun’s rays, release clean water vapour into the air  which is then condensed on water belts and transferred to the upper  plant growth chamber.”
In a field test, the researchers grew three common vegetable crops –  broccoli, lettuce, and pak choi – on seawater surfaces without  maintenance or additional clean water irrigation.
The system, which is powered only by solar light, has several  advantages over other solar sea farm designs currently being trialled,  according to Professor Xu.
“Other designs have installed evaporators inside the growth chamber  which takes up valuable space that could otherwise be used for plant  growth. Also, these systems are prone to overheating and crop death,”  Professor Xu says.
Floating farms, where traditional photovoltaic panels harvest  electricity to power conventional desalination units, have also been  proposed but these are energy intensive and costly to maintain.
“In our design, the vertical distribution of evaporator and growth  chambers decreases the device’s overall footprint, maximising the area  for food production. It is fully automated, low cost, and extremely easy  to operate, using only solar energy and seawater to produce clean water  and grow crops.”
Dr Owens says their design is only proof-of-concept at this stage,  but the next step is to scale it up, using a small array of individual  devices to increase plant production. Meeting larger food supply needs  will mean increasing both the size and number of devices.

I very much want to see this scaled up. When they say “fully automated”, I’m assuming that’s something of an exaggeration, since the crops will probably need at least some attention, beyond planting and harvesting, and the machinery will need maintenance, and to be cleaned of salt buildup and sea life.

In the paper itself, the authors say the field trials were done in pools with “artificial seawater”, which is great as a proof-of-concept, but it completely sidesteps the fact that sea life tends to glue itself to every possible surface. It would honestly surprise me if the water intakes didn’t start getting plugged or covered a lot faster than expected. On the plus side, the tests generated more fresh water than the plants could use, so operating at reduced efficiency may still provide enough water, especially if there’s a system for storing excess water at the beginning, and using it to supplement a shortage. If they have that, then they can also have the same sensors send out an automated maintenance request.

The other big concern, which I’m sure has occurred to you, is that the sea surface is a rather boisterous place. Even on a nice day, you get choppy water, knocking things around, and as we all know, there are days that are not nice!

The planet’s warming fast, and hot seas tend to produce big storms. I don’t know if farms like this are more vulnerable to a hurricane or typhoon than crops in coastal areas hit by those storms, but it sure seems like a problem that’ll need to be accounted for. The researchers say this is best suited for places with mild weather conditions, but I have to ask: Do such places exist, anymore?

Despite my concerns, I think this is really neat, and I feel like there’s likely to be at least some application for it, even if that consists of creating sheltered lagoons or something. In the meantime, the only way to find out what problems lie in wait for this technology, is to start using it, and seeing what it takes.

Capitalist Demands That Governments Kill Poor People To Discipline Workers

This past February, I gave an overview of how the government uses poverty to kill people, knowing that that’s what they are doing, in order to benefit the capitalist class. Using inflation caused by capitalist greed as an excuse, the government increases interest rates, with the intention of “cooling inflation” by increasing unemployment. That means more people without housing. It means more people rationing medicine, or doing without it altogether. It means lives destroyed, and futures stolen.

And it is just one way in which the government puts its hand on the scale to keep all of us submissive, obedient, and grateful to our superiors. Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s one of those “superiors” – Tim Gurney of “millennials and their avocado toast” fame – just openly making my case for me, about how he thinks the peasants need to be reminded of their place:

“People have decided they really didn’t want to work so much anymore through COVID and that has had a massive issue on productivity,” Gurner, donning slicked back hair and an unbuttoned white shirt, says in the video. “They have been paid a lot to do not too much.”

“We need to see unemployment rise,” Gurner said. “Unemployment needs to jump 40-50 percent in my view. We need to see pain in the economy. We need to remind people that they work for the employer [emphasis mine], not the other way around. There’s been a systematic change where employees feel the employer is extremely lucky to have them, as opposed to the other way around.” He then says that “hurting the economy” is what the whole world is trying to do.

Sam’s comments at the very beginning of that clip touch on the presidency of Salvadore Allende, a Chilean socialist politician who was elected to the presidency in 1970, and overthrown with the help of the United States 50 years and two days ago, on September 11th, 1973. Allende’s overthrow, and the wave of terror and murder that followed, were tragic and criminal for many reasons, but one that I wish more people knew about was Project Cybersyn, so I’m taking a moment to link to that here. Those decades of murder, which in many ways still continue, were very much a matter of reminding people of their place. True democracy, economic and political, could not be tolerated. Who do those workers think they are? The nobles still send in the guards to brutalize rebellious subjects.

This is one of those times in which, once you start to see it everywhere. In the US, the way police are allowed to steal from people based on vibes, the way employers are allowed to get away with just refusing to pay billions in wages every year, the way student debt is explicitly used to funnel poor people into the US war machine – so much of  our society is designed, from the bottom up, to maintain the class divides that advocates of capitalism pretend no longer exist. They like to pretend they’re just like us, right up until the second anyone asks for a raise, or for a safe workplace. The power maintained within the US itself allows for the projection of power around the globe, and the methods of “disciplining” the former colonies that we saw in Chile.

This is why the working class needs to organize, and to stay organized. I think Americans in the 20th century allowed themselves to be persuaded that society had just moved beyond the abuses of the robber barons. Part of that, I think, was that during the Cold War, capitalist countries, and the US in particular, were investing a lot more into the wellbeing of their citizens. This wasn’t some natural function of capitalism, but I think they tried hard to make it look that way, because it was really just another branch of the war against communism. In the midst of a Red Scare, nobody had any problem spending taxpayer money to fight the commies, and that included investing in the happiness of the general public, so they could convince the working class that capitalism was better. My favorite example of this is the town in West Virginia that only got their bridge fixed after they wrote to the USSR asking for aid. There’s no USSR for them to worry about anymore, and while China may take on that role, it’s not doing so currently. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there’s been no alternative, and so there’s less pressure to make the common people happy.

Under feudalism, and under early capitalism, if the under-class got too uppity, the nobles would generally use violence to maintain their authority. In modern liberal democracies, the ruling class is better at hiding its hand, but they haven’t actually changed. The law is mostly designed around the protection and management of property, such that it defaults to the benefit of property owners. The whole system is set up so that you need money to survive, and unless you are a capitalist, your only way to get money is by selling your labor. At the bottom end, the police work to ensure that surviving without money is impossible. The land is all enclosed – either privately owned, or owned and protected by the government, such that nobody can actually just live off it. Being too poor to afford your own home in this system is treated as a criminal act all by itself. Unhoused people are subject to every abuse the police can devise, including having their belongings stolen and destroyed on a regular basis. If you try to protect them from that, you get reactions like multimillionaire “everyman” Joe Rogan being shocked that anyone would even consider letting them own stuff.

The violence used to suppress the under-class is now mostly disguised as policing, but that violence is still there. It’s more individualized, too. Beyond the routine abuse of unhoused people, it takes place when someone’s evicted, or when police target left-wing activists, or when police and private “security” forces attack pipeline protesters. It never went anywhere, it just got disguised, and given a whole bunch of spin to make people accept it, and even cheer it on.

Over the last two centuries, real advances have been made in quality of living, in some parts of the world, but those advances came from working people fighting back against the capitalist rush to oligarchy, and against white supremacy designed to destroy class solidarity. I hope it is clear by now that those advances are also not permanent. If anything, they are an aberration – a statistical outlier against centuries of concentration of power in the hands of a tiny ruling class. That said, I think the advances that have been made demonstrate that we can go further. Many people view the socialist and communist revolutions of the 20th century as total failures, and while I think there are arguments to be had about that, we don’t need to have them here. We know, that in every country in the world, the working class has been able to improve its own situation through collective power, despite violent opposition from the ruling class.

What we need, going forward, is to aim higher than things like a living wage. We need to aim for revolutionary change. While the ruling class will doubtless continue to use violence to maintain their power, “revolution” does not mean war, necessarily. My preferred tactic would be a general strike – collectively bringing a country to a halt, and refusing to continue accepting the system as it is. What classifies change as “revolutionary”, in this context, is that it changes not just who is in power, but how power is distributed in the first place. I think that going from monarchy to capitalist republic was an upgrade, in many ways, but I think we can do better. Things like worker cooperatives, for example, demonstrate that it’s possible to have democratically run corporations, even in a world that is set up in every way to privilege the more traditional, authoritarian model. Reshape the law to actively support such organizations, and I think they’d do quite well, especially if it comes with a deliberate phase-out of capitalist corporations.

Nothing like that will happen easily, and while it might appear quick when it happens, it will be the result of years of hard work, and probably bloodshed on the part of those organizing the political power to make it happen. The upside is that that work is starting, and I think that’s part of why ghouls like Gurner and Larry Summers are so freaked out that they’re openly calling for higher unemployment and everything that comes with it. In many ways, the class war is a real war. It’s a power struggle, and one side is not just accustomed to killing to keep their power, it’s routine for them. It’s nice to see the people at the top getting worried, and I think it’s very helpful of Gurner to just come out and say how they see the world. Hopefully it will help more people realize that this is why life is so hard, when we have so much abundance.

Video: Roblox and Digital Child Labor

One of the projects I was on, when I worked at TERC, was called Building Systems from Scratch. From my perspective, it was an experiment in teaching climate science indirectly.  Kids in the participating schools built simple games using MIT’s Scratch program, all relating to climate change and climate action. Part of the idea was to use something fun and rewarding – learning how to build a simple game – to make it easier to learn about climate science. It turns out that Roblox Corporation looked at the way children like playing and building video games, and saw an opportunity to profit off of child labor. .

I honestly know next to nothing about Roblox. Hbomberguy taught me the history of the “oof” noise in it, and that it was yet another exploitative capitalist corporation, but I didn’t realize just how bad it really was.

The video game industry has come under the spotlight for bad working conditions a number of times in recent years. Companies over-rely on contractors and forced overtime, repeatedly pushing their workers to the breaking point, and justifying all of it because people who go into the industry tend to like developing video games. The work is rewarding, and therefor it’s OK to underpay and over-work people. I think it’s reasonable to pay more for unpleasant work, but that’s never a justification to underpay for the pleasant stuff. Work is work, and people have a right to the products of their labor.

I’ve believed for a while now that capitalists view happiness in workers as a version of the notion of “time theft”. If a worker isn’t grinding every second that they’re being paid for, that means that they’re “stealing” from the company. Likewise, if workers are feeling happy and fulfilled, that’s proof that they could be more exploited. They could be generating more profit for the company, and they’re not, which is just like stealing from the company!

This reasoning seems to be why Roblox has felt justified in  their use of child labor and scrip to become a multi-billion dollar corporation. More Perfect Union has more:

This honestly reminds me a lot of the college football scam, where corporations and colleges make millions off of “student athletes” without paying them, all because it’s supposedly just a fun school activity, and if they’re very lucky, they’ll have a chance to go pro and make some actual money before their bodies give out. Roblox isn’t as brutal as football, but the dynamic seems much the same. The workers aren’t taken seriously, and so their labor doesn’t “count”, even as it’s making a small number of evil adults obscenely wealthy. It’s fucked up to have to say it, but the video is right: Children need labor protections.

Biden Did Another Good Thing

I don’t like saying nice things about Joe Biden. I don’t particularly like the man, and his politics are counter to mine in many important ways. When it comes to a politician, that goes beyond a difference of opinion, his opinion comes with political power. That said, I do like having pessimistic expectations undermined, and while Biden has been far from perfect, he’s done a few things that are unequivocally good, and better than I would have expected from him. His NLRB is one, as I mentioned recently, and now he has revoked a number of oil drilling licenses and protected a large portion of Alaska (equivalent to 1.33 Belgiums) from oil drilling, with a larger area that’s partially protected. Apparently, this is being done in a way that it will be hard to undo, next time the GOP takes power. I wouldn’t say this makes up for things like the Willow Project, but this is a good thing, without question. Beau gives a good summary, and a prediction of outrage and lawsuits from Republicans:

Air Pollution Shows That Segregation Never Fully Ended

 I often run into people (on the internet) who insist that systemic racism, in which the physical, social, and legal infrastructure of the United States disadvantages non-white people in general, and Black people in particular, is no longer a problem. It’s the same disingenuous line of thinking behind the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision that Congress didn’t really mean it when they renewed the Voting Rights Act, and it relies on the pretense that when explicit racial segregation in the letter of the law ended in 1964, that ended racial segregation in every way that mattered. The problem is that under Segregation, the school systems, laws and legal conventions, and the infrastructure itself were all designed to promote and maintain white supremacy.

In case it is unclear to anyone, that doesn’t just mean that white people tend to get better results from the system, it also means that Black people are actively pushed down. The police play an major role in that, from brutalizing and terrorizing communities, to forcing people into the prison system, to literally stealing peoples’ money. The school systems are still mostly segregated as well, and combine with the cops to form the infamous “school-to-prison pipeline. And as for where Black people live, the ground, air, and water in Black neighborhoods that were set up under Segregation is far more likely to be poisoning them, every day of their lives. The go-to example for this is probably the fact that race is a major factor in determining your lead exposure, but air pollution is probably next on the list.

I talk about air pollution a lot, because it’s a way in which we all pay a terrible price for the world being run the way that it is. It screws with us in all sorts of nasty ways, which is why there have been successful efforts to reduce it. Unfortunately, there’s a pattern in the success of those efforts. If you’ve been paying attention to the theme of this post, you’ll see this coming – Black communities don’t seem to be seeing the same benefits:

Fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5, consists of particles or droplets smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. While some PM2.5 in the environment comes from natural sources, such as wildfires, the majority of particulate matter pollution in the U.S. is the result of human activities, including emissions from vehicles, power plants, and factories.

The small size makes PM2.5 harmful for human health, said Kai Chen, assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health and senior author of the study.

When you inhale such small particles, they can get into your lungs and some smaller particles can even get into the blood stream and circulate around the body,” said Chen. “That can impact your heart, which leads to a lot of the cardiovascular disease we see today.”

Environmental efforts including the 1963 Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Ambient Air Quality Standards for PM2.5, established in 1997, have helped bring down PM2.5 levels throughout the United States. This, in turn, has yielded benefits to human health. But it has remained unclear whether these health benefits are distributed equitably across racial and ethnic groups.

We know that some minorities, especially Black and Hispanic people, are exposed to higher levels of PM2.5 than white people,” said Chen. “In our study, we wanted to go further and assess vulnerability to PM2.5 across different groups and see how that relates to mortality.”

The researchers took pollution and mortality data from over 3,000 US counties, and found that mortality linked to air pollution decreased in white, Hispanic, and Black populations, but the decrease was not evenly distributed.

However, the ratio of mortality rates between white and Hispanic people and between white and Black people hardly changed between 2001 and 2016. Mortality rates for Hispanic people were 1.37 times higher than white people in 2001, increasing to 1.45 times higher by 2016. Mortality rates for Black people were 4.59 times higher than white people in 2001 and 4.47 times higher in 2016.

Air pollution reduced and that reduced exposure for everyone, which is very good news,” said Chen. “But Black people still experience a higher burden because they are more vulnerable and at higher risk of mortality.”

The findings, he says, underscore that the public health burden of air pollution differs across racial groups and that should help inform policy design going forward. The EPA, U.S. lawmakers, and local governments should consider not just the overall population as they develop policies to improve air quality, but also high-vulnerability groups in particular.

Poor air quality imposes a substantial burden on Black Americans, with greater exposures and greater vulnerability,” said coauthor Harlan Krumholz, the Harold H. Hines, Jr. Professor of Medicine at Yale School of Medicine. “We have identified another way that the structure of our society contributes to cardiovascular health disparities. The study demonstrates that the excess mortality among Black people is not just derived from traditional risk factors, but likely also to the increased exposure to poor air quality based on where they live.”

That burden isn’t theoretical, either. It affects fetal development, brain function, cardiovascular health, respiratory health, and all of that means higher stress levels, a harder time coping with a white supremacist society, and higher medical bills. If you don’t get your money stolen by your boss, or by cops, you get it taken through poor health, simply because you were born Black. The higher mortality also imposes a financial burden, because dying is a big expense all by itself.

This is why reparations are needed. The systemic injustices “of the past” were literally built into the foundations of the United States as it exists in the present. Money was spent, and time and energy invested in creating an uneven playing field, and it will require at least as much investment to unmake those systemic injustices, let alone repair the damage that has been done to the Black community in America. The harm is ongoing, and it will not stop until we actually commit to making it stop.

Video Games, Bat Brains, and the Social Landscape

I find social dynamics, in humans and in other animals, to be very interesting. More than that, I find the way that humans study and think about social dynamics to also be interesting. I started writing this post because I mis-read the headline of a study (we’ll get to that later), and became invested in making my pre-emptive tangent about video games relevant.

The image shows three Skritt at the entrance to a cave, one in the foreground, one in the mid-ground, and one in the background. They are rat-like humanoids, wearing bits of armor, and carrying swords and staves.

The image shows three Skritt at the entrance to a cave, one in the foreground, one in the mid-ground, and one in the background. They are rat-like humanoids, wearing bits of armor, and carrying swords and staves.

One of my favorite fantasy “races” is a species called Skritt, from the game Guild Wars 2. They’re generally introduced to the player as a nuisance – small, rat-like humanoids who seem to have a compulsion to steal from others, but while they can speak, they’re… not very bright.

Until you get a few of them in a room together, at which point, their speech becomes clearer, and their thoughts more direct.

It turns out that the reason Skritt are everywhere, since the rise of the dragon Primordius drove them out of the depths, is that while they have individual identity, they also have a collective intelligence. They communicate with each other, constantly and almost subconsciously, using hyper-sonic squeaks, and if you get enough of them together, they all become genius-level smart. In many ways, a Skritt alone is no Skritt at all.

This feels like a fantasy application of the concept of a hive-mind, the fictional trope inspired by eusociality – the kind of super-organism arrangement most commonly associated with bees and ants. The concept largely focuses on an in-born caste system, with “queens” doing all the work of giving birth, non-reproductive workers, and a few males who exist to fertilize the queens and not much more. These organisms also tend to build themselves homes – and colonies, termite mounds, bee hives, and so on.

The prime example of a non-controversially eusocial mammal is the naked mole-rat, which lives and works collectively, and has one “queen” doing all the reproductive work. It actually has counterpart in Guild Wars, called the Dredge. They don’t have the “hive mind” setup that the Skritt do, but they are very explicitly designed after an American view of the USSR. Having been previously enslaved to the Dwarves, they are now mostly governed by a “dictatorship of the moletariat”, and they have cities like Molensk and Molengrad. They are a collective, but have a more human approach to things.

The image shows a Dredge NPC from Guild Wars 2. It's humanoid, with the head of a naked mole-rat. Its eyes are squinted shut, and it has protruding incisors , with its mouth closing behind them. It's wearing a brown jumpsuit, and pauldrons. It's holding a gun-like device that appears to have a tuning fork for a barrel.

The image shows a Dredge NPC from Guild Wars 2. It’s humanoid, with the head of a naked mole-rat. Its eyes are squinted shut, and it has protruding incisors , with its mouth closing behind them. It’s wearing a brown jumpsuit, and pauldrons. It’s holding a gun-like device that appears to have a tuning fork for a barrel.

I find this a little amusing, as well, because in developing their social rodent groups, they made the actually eusocial one less so, and more like humans.

Humans (and Dredge) seem to exist at the edge of the word’s definition, since we’re very clearly a social species that divides labor, works collectively, and so on, but we don’t really have the kind of reproductive arrangement that you find in bees and mole-rats. From that perspective, I suppose the Skritt would likewise not be eusocial, because their hierarchies and divisions are societal – formed through voluntary or coincidental association, not physiological. The hive-mind is just an additional aspect of what they are.

E.O. Wilson proposed the idea of human eusociality, based on our collectivity and our divisions of labor, but to me that seems like a rather superficial conflation, born of a lifetime obsession with ants. I have the utmost respect for Wilson and his work in ecology, biogeography, and science communication, but I have to disagree on this subject. I think there’s a way in which it makes intuitive sense – after all, termites and ants build cities just like we do – but the complexities of our social interactions – and those of most other social species – are different from the complexities of truly eusocial organisms.

Our social landscape is fascinating and complex, and I think there’s plenty of reason to see us as having a form of collective intelligence, but like the Skritt and the Dredge, we’re more akin to most other social mammals.

There’s one comparison that I think should be made more often. Wolves obviously come up, because of our long historical relationship with them, and apes because of our visual and evolutionary similarity. What I would like to see more of, especially in fantasy settings, is bats.

The image shows a group of around 10 Egyptian fruit bats roosting on a cave ceiling. They're all clustered together on the left half of the picture, looking down at the camera with their eyes

The image shows a group of around 10 Egyptian fruit bats roosting on a cave ceiling. They’re all clustered together on the left half of the picture, looking down at the camera with their eyes “glowing” from the flash. Their fur is a dark gray, and looks very soft. Their faces are a bit rat-like, and very cute.

We’ve known that most bats are social for a long time. All it takes is to see a few of them roosting in a barn, a tree, or a cave, and it’s clear that, while they don’t seem to build anything together, or to hunt as a group, they are nonetheless social creatures. The biggest bat colony in the world has an estimated 20 million individuals, putting it ahead of the entire New York City metro area in terms of population. I would posit that when you have that many individual creatures living together, social dynamics will evolve, and will be complex and varied. Based on what I understand about evolution, it would be impossible for things to go any other way. That being the case, what are bat societies like?

There’s plenty of information out there from observing bat behavior, but that gives us limited insight into how the bats themselves see the world. It may seem a bit silly (especially coupled with a discussion of fantasy games), but if we’re considering whether social animals have societies, then wouldn’t it be important to get the bats’ perspective in some way?

The problem is, how do you study this sort of thing? Bats are rather famous for their ability to fly, and interacting with animals (including humans) tends to change their behavior, making it difficult to study their “natural” activities. Not only that, but bats are on the long list of animals with whom we cannot verbally communicate. How could we possibly know how they see things?

Well, we depart from the realm of fantasy, and enter the realm of what was very recently science fiction. Modern technology has gotten to the point where scientists are able to read bats’ minds, to a limited degree, and it turns out that they don’t just maintain a geographical map of their roosting sites, they also maintain a social map:

In the new study, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, used wireless neural recording and imaging devices to “listen in” on the hippocampal brain activity of groups of Egyptian fruit bats as they flew freely within a large flight room — often moving among tightly clustered social groups — while tracking technology recorded the bats’ movements.

The researchers were surprised to find that, in this social setting, the bat’s place neurons encoded far more information than simply the animal’s location. As a bat flew toward a landing spot, the firing of place neurons also contained information about the presence or absence of another bat at that spot. And when another bat was present, the activity of these neurons indicated the identity of the bat they were flying toward.

“This is one of the first papers to show identity representation in a non-primate brain,” said study senior author Michael Yartsev, an associate professor of bioengineering and neuroscience at UC Berkeley. “And surprisingly, we found it in the hub of what was supposed to be the brain’s GPS. We found that it still acts as a GPS, but one that is also tuned to the social dynamic in the environment.”

This is the headline I mis-read, by the way. I thought, for a moment, that this was about learning about bat communication and neurons, rather than bat navigation. Back to the actual study, this makes sense, right? We form internal social maps of the world, associated places with people, with feelings, and with activities and experiences. It stands to reason that other creatures – especially other mammals – would do something similar, and that it would be detectable in the brain.

Due to the complexity of the experiment, Forli initially had doubts about whether allowing groups of bats to fly and interact freely would yield results about the neural basis of collective behavior. He was concerned that the movements of the bats and their social interactions might be too random to uncover robust relationships between their neural activity and their behavior.

So he was pleasantly surprised when the bats spontaneously established a handful of specific resting spots within the flight room and followed very similar trajectories when traveling among them. The bats also showed strong preferences for flying toward specific “friend” bats, often landing very close to or even on top of each other.

We found that if you put together a small group of bats in a room, they would not actually behave randomly, but would show precise patterns of behavior,” Forli said. “They would spend time with specific individuals and show specific and stable places where they liked to go.”

These precise patterns of behavior allowed Forli to identify not only the neural activity associated with different flight trajectories, but also how the neural activity changed depending on the identity of the bat present at the target location and the movements of other bats.

“By recording just a handful of those neurons from this brain structure, we can really know what the bats were doing in their social space,” Yartsev said. “We could find out if they were going to an empty location or to a location where there were other individuals, which is really surprising.”

Later in the article, Yartzev points out that most research into animal neuronal activity has been done on immobile creatures, which may tell us which bits of their brains relate to certain stimuli, but clearly can’t tell us much about the animal’s experience of the world. This study faces similar problems – it’s still captive bats in an alien environment – but it clearly gives us a much better insight into insight into how bats see and think about the world.

The world is filled with fantasy races derived from some form of “what if this animal, but more human” thought process. While it would require magic to get rat-people like the Skritt, the more we learn about the real world, the clearer it becomes that we’re not actually that different from the animals around us. They also form relationships, and opinions about each other. They also choose where to go and what to do, based on who they think they’re likely to encounter. They’re not just like us, but…

They’re just like us – for real.

A Month Later, Maui Still Needs Help

I meant to write about the Maui fire around a month ago, but I got distracted by other things. That means that I am now, totally intentionally, doing my part to ensure that Maui is not forgotten now that the news cycle has moved on. Hawai’i, for all it’s a state, is also very much a colony in a number of ways, and Native Hawaiians have been living under various forms of occupation since the US took it over. Colonial rule and capitalist extraction also played a role in the severity of last month’s fire, thanks to invasive grasses originally planted to feed livestock, and then allowed to grow wild long after the ranches were abandoned, and that’s not even touching who’s at fault for global warming.

Unfortunately, the fire has brought in the next round of ruthless exploitation, as disaster capitalists swoop in to take advantage of the fact that those in the path of the fire lost what little they had. For those who’re unclear on the concept, I recommend this Teen Vogue article for the short version, and The Shock Doctrine for the long version. For a one-sentence summary, “disaster capitalism” describes the way capitalists descend on disaster areas to take advantage of desperation, chaos, and confusion. In the case of Maui, that means capitalists trying to buy up those few scraps of land still owned by Native Hawaiians.

Days after the blaze began, survivors started reporting cold calls from out-of-state investors hoping to scoop up their property for bargain bin prices. On one Facebook thread, several Maui realtors described receiving similar calls. One of them told Jacobin that he received a call on August 9, just one day after the fires began.

Like most locals in the close-knit Maui community, the realtor was disgusted by the opportunism.“It’s been bottom-feeders calling us, asking about what kinds of lands we have available,” he said. “This is not the time. It’s unfathomable what people are going through with loss of life, that they would be calling. But I guess that’s America.”

Land speculation in the wake of natural disasters is hardly unique to Maui. In the months after Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle in 2019, home sales rose by double digits in the county most affected. After the 2017 fire in Santa Rosa, California, sales jumped 17 percent. Every time a town is destroyed, the buy-low mentality that drives investment kicks in.

Doing right by Native Hawaiians would defeat the purpose of colonizing the islands in the first place, but what the government should do is offer a blank check to everyone who lost their home, for whatever it takes to rebuild up to modern standards, along with any investment needed for infrastructure. That would be a good start. I don’t want to give the impression that there’s no help – contrary to misconceptions floating around the internet, there’s more help available than just $700 per person, but I don’t know how well the help that does exist will protect people against the pressure to sell.

Recovering from a disaster like this takes years. Biden has committed $95 million to rebuilding, but people there are worried about being forgotten, and about having promised help never show up:

Across Maui, many residents are worried about being abandoned this week as the island marks one month since the deadliest wildfires in the United States in more than a century. The fires killed at least 115 people, destroyed more than 2,200 structures and caused an estimated tens of billions of dollars in damage. An investigation is underway to determine what initially sparked the wildfires.
Maui County filed a lawsuit against utility Hawaiian Electric Company alleging the company’s failure to shut off power, despite weather service warnings, contributed to the catastrophe. The tragedy’s aftermath is further compounded as authorities in Maui are near completion of the search and recovery phase.

“I think the fear right now is when all of this attention goes away, the big question becomes, ‘What happens next?'” said Hawaii state Sen. Angus McKelvey whose district includes West Maui and Lahaina. “Will all of those commitments and public promises be kept?”

As donations ranging from clothes to food continue to arrive in Maui, Sne Patel, who manages vacation rentals around the town of Lahaina, which suffered the most fire damage, said residents want a more tangible item. Patel leads the LahainaTown Action Committee, an advocacy group of 110 local businesses, many of which saw their properties gutted.

“It’s money that our residents need,” said Patel. “We’re so grateful that there’s a lot of stuff sent early on, but we don’t need that as much. We need more financial, fiscal support.”

Ani said Americans must be generous.

“We need cash in hands. Now,” said Ani, who expressed hope people would give to verified nonprofits including Maui Rapid Response, ‘Aina Momona and the Hawaii Community Foundation.

“Because the truth is, there’s still a lot of uncertainty and a lot of people want to be in a position to lift some of their financial burdens as best as they can,” Ani continued. “For those who want to help, send gift cards. Send money, and let the people decide what they need to empower themselves financially.”

This is honestly what it all comes down to. Cash is what matters, in a capitalist society. They say money doesn’t buy happiness, but it absolutely does buy everything you need to have the ability to pursue happiness, rather than mere survival. Right now, however, survival – and avoiding exploitation – are at the forefront. In addition to the links in the quoted article, I’ve also been pointed to the Hawai’i Peoples’ Fund and Kākoʻo Maui. If you have money set aside to help others, this is something worth giving to.

More than that, this is a way that you can directly combat the capitalist concentration of wealth and power, by helping to deny them the profits they hope to make off of human suffering. Obviously this is true for Maui, but it’s also true for every other disaster, and for life outside of disasters, insofar as that exists anymore. The more we uplift and directly empower those who need it, the more they are able to do the same for others, and the more all of us are able to invest time, energy, and resources in the fight for systemic change.