When delusion meets reality: Taking the mantle of Sisyphus to avoid the road of Mad Max

For the last couple decades, the United States of America has been on a collision course with reality, and I think everyone has felt it. To the political right wing of the country, that feeling has manifested as episodic concern over debt (when talk turns to spending for the common good), fear of a decline in American global “leadership”, and some vague notion of lost glory and moral decay. Toward the left, it has been more about environmental collapse and war, and increasingly, about a detachment from scientific understanding of reality, as scientists have increasingly coalesced around a concern over climate change. The scientific divide has not been a clear left/right issue, with things like anti-vaccine sentiments being present on both “sides”, and a deep suspicion of genetic modification technology, and the pharmaceutical industry on the left being driven by a reasonable (in my opinion) suspicion of the massive corporations that have dominated both of those fields of late.

But regardless, there has been a general consensus that things cannot continue as they are.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the stakes have been raised, and I’ve been watching the response to this plague in news, government, and online discourse, take some deeply bizarre turns. It has been mentioned, from time to time, that we seem to be living in some strange side-universe of whatever human timeline actually continues on into the deep future. This is that weird timeline that only shows up in a comic book in some alternate reality, where Donald Trump actually won an election, and major political parties in the US responded to a global pandemic by insisting that it wasn’t happening, and that the death counts were all made up. I think much of that feeling of unreality comes from the the slow realization that a lot of what we were taught about the United States and its role in the world was never true. Whatever the reason, this is where we are.

As of writing, just under 100,000 people have been killed in the United States by this virus, and we still have people saying that a lockdown and social distancing are more damaging to society.

I’ve heard some people say that the entire pandemic is somehow part of a global left-wing conspiracy, and any evidence to the contrary is faked in some way, or caused by the lockdown itself. Obviously I don’t agree.

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The manifestations and results of American “leadership”

I’m working on patron rewards today, but here’s a bit of discussion on what’s been going on in Venezuela:

I’ll write more on this as time goes by, but as is said in this conversation, the US has a long, bloody history of interfering in other countries. Despite the rhetoric often used, that interference is not based on whether or not the leaders of those countries are democratically elected, whether they’re corrupt, or whether they’re good or bad to their people. It is always based on what those in the US government think will benefit corporate profits, and what will interfere with any efforts at creating successful socialist countries.

One of the points made here that I think is worth noting is that about the treatment of heavily armed/militarized countries, and those that focus on other things like social progress first. Those countries that tend to retain their autonomy and resist US coup or invasion efforts are the ones that build up their capacity for violence. People talk about preventing Iran or North Korea from getting nuclear weapons, but the reality is that it only takes a glance at history to realize that as soon as they start to disarm, they will be seen as weak targets by the US military-industrial complex, and a source of profit for blood.

If the US wanted to play a role in increasing peace, and encouraging other countries to treat their people well, then we would be backing regimes like the Morales regime in Bolivia, or the da Silva regime in Brazil, not the brutal thugs who ousted or imprisoned them. We would have supported Gaddafi in Libya for getting rid of his weapons of mass destruction, the way we currently support the brutal Saudi regime, rather than working to oust him. This has nothing to do with whether the leaders were “good people” – Gaddafi, at least by the end of his life, clearly was not. But since the United States, as a country, regularly supports, aids, and enables vicious rulers and militaries all over the world, it’s worth noting who gets that support, and who that support is used against.

The lesson the US seems to be trying to teach the world is that seeking peace, and trying to look after your people rather than build up your security and military, is seen as a threat to the American empire, and will result in a never-ending onslaught of coups, assassinations, sanctions, and invasions.

Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

Climate change, mental health and green spaces

I periodically talk about “building a better world”, and I wanted to go into what I mean by that, just a bit. It’s a hard concept to define, because the world is such a complex place, and ideally a person’s understanding of how it works should always be changing as they take in new information. In any given piece of writing, I’m aiming at the best world I can think of, based on my current level of understanding.

This image is a piece of concept art, showing a

“Green City”, by Nick Pederson

I’m aiming for “utopia” not because I think a perfect world is possible – I think the very concept is more or less meaningless – but because I think that as a species we’re capable of learning, and improving things over time, and we should always be working in that direction. In most situations, most people seem to agree. We develop more efficient and effective technology, better medicines, new ways to treat mental health, new ways to communicate, and so on. We take what we have, and what we know about the present and the past, and use it to try to build something better for the future, in one way or another.

When it comes to how society is ordered, there seems to be a persistent resistance to change, not just by those who benefit the most from the status quo, but also by everyday folks, who seem to believe that the current system, whatever it happens to be, is the best we’re likely to get. When things are bad enough, either for the population on average, or for particular groups, we see people pushing for change, either to “go back” to some version of the past they think was better, or to “go forward” to something better than past or present.

Some of the resistance to change is simply the size of the stakes. Tinkering with a piece of equipment, or the practices of one organization is pretty small, and if it fails, there’s a limit to how much harm it can do. At the societal level, there is at least the hypothetical potential for real catastrophe, and so changes driven by popular demand often won’t happen until it seems like catastrophe is going to happen without change. In addition, however, I think one part of the problem when it comes to working toward societal improvement is with scope of imagination. It’s easy to look at a particular tool, machine, or technique, and spot ways in which it might be better. It’s hard to to see ways in which the overall form and function of our entire society could be better, and it’s easy to look around and see ways in which it could be worse.

So while part of what I want to do is to process news and science, and help shine a spotlight on some of the things I think need more attention; another part is trying to take what is, and use it to imagine what could be. Some of that gets channeled into science fiction writing, and some of it I do on this blog by working through the kinds of effects one change or another could have, what role they could play in the massive effort of reshaping how our society operates on both a local and a global scale.

In my recent post about research into the potential of urban gardening for food production, I touched briefly on the secondary positive effects of increasing the amount of “green” space in cities. I’d like to go into that a little bit more, because I think that there are a number of ways in which the world would be improved by increasing the the amount of plant life we cultivate in engineered environments like cities, and by viewing cities as part of the ecosystems that surround them, rather than as somehow separate from them.

The image shows the  Promenade Plantée, an park built on an abandoned viaduct. The stricture resembles an elevated train track, made of brick arches, with shop fronts in the space under the arches. The top of the viaduct has grasses, shrubs, and benches, with trees on either side of it, and the buildings of Paris in the background

Promenade Plantée, Paris

Psychological responses to climate change, and to other aspect of environmental problems and the way our society operates as a whole have long been an obstacle to change. As it stands, a lot of people feel drained by work, and generally gloomy about both the state of the world, and their ability to do anything about it. I believe that moving towards a democratic socialist economic model, where people have more ownership of their work, and more say in how their businesses and countries are run, would go a long way to improving mental health across society. That said, even if we make such a change far more rapidly than I think is possible, the massive changes to our climate, and the changes that will follow as a consequence of that, are going to mess with people’s heads.

The concept of eco-anxiety has been discussed quite a bit in recent years, both among those of us who spend a large portion of our time on the subject of climate change, and among younger people who are growing up with an awareness of climate change as a looming disaster that they’re largely powerless to stop.

Coping with the changes that we can no longer avoid is going to be rough, and there is merit in taking action not just to address the material equations of food, water, energy, and medicine, but also the mental health of the population. The goal is not just to survive, but to build a world in which, as much as possible, everyone can thrive. I will not be satisfied with stopping the process of making the world worse, I want it to be better.

With that in mind, I want to take another look at the concept of urban gardening, not just for the fraction of a city’s food it could provide, but also for the other benefits.

First, briefly, is the issue of air pollution. It’s a major problem in cities around the world, it causes a dizzying array of mental and physical health problems, and it is more dangerous in higher temperatures. Add in global warming, and I think the problem is clear.

Plant life can reduce the harmful effects of air pollution. The degree of effect can be unclear, and depending on species and conditions, there may not always be a clear physical health benefit from adding plant life to cities, as things like pollen can have their own negative effects on lung health. While I think increasing urban plant life would be a good thing for air pollution overall, it’s important to pay attention to potential downsides, and plan for them. Never make the mistake of thinking any changes we make will – or can be – entirely perfect.

Beyond that, however, there’s a fair amount of work that has been done in the last few years showing that time spent in and around growing plants can decrease stress and increase happiness.

Analyzing data that followed people over a five year period, the research has found that moving to a greener area not only improves people’s mental health, but that the effect continues long after they have moved.

The findings add to evidence that suggests increasing green spaces in cities — such as parks and gardens — could deliver substantial benefits to public health.

The research is one of the first studies to consider the effects of green space over time and has used data from the British Household Panel Survey, a repository of information gathered from questionnaires filled in by households across Great Britain.

On gardening:

Through a series of questionnaires, [this study]found that the gardeners had significantly higher levels of body appreciation, significantly higher levels of body pride, and significantly higher levels of appreciation for their body’s functionality, compared to a group of 81 non-gardeners, recruited from the same area of London.

The study also discovered that the longer period of time the participants spent gardening, the larger the improvement in positive body image when they left their allotment.

Previous research has shown that gardening is associated with improved psychological wellbeing and physical health. This new study adds to previous work by Professor Swami demonstrating that exposure to natural environments helps to promote positive body image.

On gardens in hospitals:

Adding greenery in the form of a garden to the often sterile, cold environment of hospitals and other healthcare facilities can reduce stress in patients, visitors and staff and even lessen a patient’s pain in some instances, says a Texas A&M University authority on health care design.

On access to public parks:

According to the study, published in International Journal of Environmental Health Research, urban parks have been recognized as key neighborhood places that provide residents with opportunities to experience nature and engage in various activities. Through contact with the natural environment and engagement in health-promoting and/or social and recreational activities in parks, users experience physical and mental health benefits such as stress reduction and recovery from mental fatigue.

Principle investigator Hon K. Yuen, Ph.D., OTR/L, professor in the UAB Department of Occupational Therapy, said the original intent of the project was to validate previous research findings on the impact of park visit on emotional well-being, and evaluate the contribution of choosing to participate in physical activity in the park in relation to emotional well-being after the park visit.

“Overall, we found park visitors reported an improvement in emotional well-being after the park visit,” said Yuen. “However, we did not find levels of physical activity are related to improved emotional well-being. Instead, we found time spent in the park is related to improved emotional well-being.”

More than that, the nature of the green space matters too. Any is better than none, but having something approaching wilderness seems to make a real difference as well:

A new study led by the University of Washington has found that not all forms of nature are created equal when considering benefits to people’s well-being. Experiencing wildness, specifically, is particularly important for physical and mental health, according to the study published Jan. 29 in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Cities.

Past research has found health and wellness benefits of nature for humans, but this is the first study to show that wildness in urban areas is profoundly important for human well-being.

“It was clear from our results that different kinds of nature can have different effects on people,” said lead author Elizabeth Lev, a graduate student in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. “The wilder areas in an urban park seem to be affording more benefits to people — and their most meaningful interactions depended on those relatively wild features.”

We are an increasingly urban species, and as we continue into the 21st century, we are already facing the need to redesign most aspects of our infrastructure to account for climate change (and recently for infectious disease). Many cities are already working in green spaces where they can, and this is a good thing. Increasing that trend, treating plant life as a valuable resource to be maintained and cultivated for the population, and making it possible for people to be involved in gardening themselves would all go some way toward improving life for most of humanity.

The image shows a narrow strip of grassland between a road and a parking lot, with a diverse array of plants, most flowering. The overall effect is that of a natural grassland or prairie in full bloom, with a road, and then some trees on the right, and an apartment complex and parking area on the left. The plants are a mix of different greens, some brown, and maroon, blue, pink, yellow, and white flowers  of all different shapes and sizes.

Tokyo road reserve

Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

Video: A useful discussion of Planet of the Humans

I haven’t watched Michael Moore’s new climate change film, and what discussion I’ve seen about it has given me the impression that when I DO get around to watching it, I’m going to find it more than a little irritating in parts. So I haven’t really felt like talking about it much. A number of scientists and activists who’ve been involved in climate change work dislike it, for what seem to be good reasons. Some other people feel that it has made some good points. Overall, it seems to be having a somewhat de-motivating effect more than anything, and that’s not good, in my opinion.

I do think it’s worth paying attention, though, as Moore has a degree of celebrity, and that means that his work, for better or for worse, is likely to be something that comes up in thinking about the politics of human interaction with the rest of life on this planet. I’ll probably post more about this at some point in the future, but in the meantime, this discussion between Michael Brooks and Joshua Kahn Russell seems like a good place to start:



Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

My unpaid job as cat furniture

CW: Pictures of a vicious, meat-eating beast.

When we end up going back to work in some capacity, I think our cat might have a hard time dealing with it. He has become accustomed to our constant presence, and seems to think it’s a good thing. In the last couple weeks, he has discovered that he does, in fact, very much like using people as a place to nap.

St. Ray is a very soft cat. He has brindled black and gold-grey fur, with white legs, shoulders, belly, and white on his nose, cheeks, and forehead. He's solidly built, and seems to be at least part British Shorthair. His fur is thick, but not "long". More of a plush texture. In this picture, he's lying on my legs as I recline on the couch, with my feet up on one of the couch's arms. He is asleep, and very cute.

I went to put my feet up, and he materialized beside me, to jump up. Clearly I was keeping an appointment I didn’t know had been made. Maybe he has telepathic powers?


This is another angle of the same picture. He's nestled into the groove between my legs as I lie with my ankles crossed. He appears to be sleeping, and very content. St. Ray is a very soft cat. He has brindled black and gold-grey fur, with white legs, shoulders, belly, and white on his nose, cheeks, and forehead. He's solidly built, and seems to be at least part British Shorthair. His fur is thick, but not "long". More of a plush texture.

I honestly wish I could fall asleep as instantly as he seems to be able to.


In this picture he's farther up on my torso. I'm wearing a green shirt. The picture mainly shows his face, neck, shoulders, and one folded paw. His eyes are green, and half-open. St. Ray is a very soft cat. He has brindled black and gold-grey fur, with white legs, shoulders, belly, and white on his nose, cheeks, and forehead. He's solidly built, and seems to be at least part British Shorthair. His fur is thick, but not "long". More of a plush texture.

After a little while, he decided it was time for him to move up onto my stomach/chest. Once he got in the obligatory hard poke or two in my solar plexus, he settled down, and stared at me till I started petting him.

In this picture, you can see only his face/ears, and my arm draped over his shoulders. St. Ray is a very soft cat. He has brindled black and gold-grey fur, with white legs, shoulders, belly, and white on his nose, cheeks, and forehead. He's solidly built, and seems to be at least part British Shorthair. His fur is thick, but not "long". More of a plush texture.

Petting demanded and received, he laid his head down on my chest for round two of his nap.

In this picture, you can see his face, and one paw on my chest next to his face. His body is out of focus behind the face. His eyes are closed, and he is very cute. St. Ray is a very soft cat. He has brindled black and gold-grey fur, with white legs, shoulders, belly, and white on his nose, cheeks, and forehead. He's solidly built, and seems to be at least part British Shorthair. His fur is thick, but not "long". More of a plush texture.

I moved my arm to a more comfortable position (for me), and he flopped his out so he could do his best impression of a small heated blanket. He then fell asleep, and I resigned myself to my role as a heated mattress.

“I wish I could be half as comfortable as he spends the majority of his life looking” – Tegan, while I was making this post.

Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

NOLA sanitation workers in second week of protests, as the capitalists running the U.S. work to break an unofficial general strike

The central dogma of the Neoliberal order that has gained and held power in America over the last few decades has been the privatization of public goods and services. Accompanying that effort to turn every level of society into a profit-making venture has come the destruction of any form of worker power or collective action. As the United States continues its unofficial general strike, under assault from political and capitalist strike-breakers, some official strikes are ongoing. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a number of the ways in which the capitalist system further enriches the wealthy by exploiting and underpaying workers through any means – legal or not – they can get away with.

Sanitation work has always been one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, and one that is crucial to the mental and physical health of the entire population. Now, on top of the existing hazards of injury and infection, there is the constant exposure to COVID-19 through potentially infectious material in every bag of trash they collect. In New Orleans, a group of sanitation workers has been protesting pay and conditions for over a week now:

Striking sanitation workers on Monday renewed demands for hazard pay during the coronavirus pandemic as a major city vendor acknowledged that it signed a deal to pay their prison labor replacements less than the minimum wage outlined in its contract with the city.

For the past week, a group of about a dozen workers has gathered outside the New Orleans East headquarters of Metro Service Group, a waste disposal company that has a $10.7 million annual contract to collect trash in a wide swath of the city’s east bank.

Pictures of the demonstrators have circulated widely on social media. In one image, they hold the “I AM A MAN” signs that Memphis workers carried during the 1968 sanitation strike that ended with Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

The striking workers, called “hoppers,” are employed through a staffing agency and do not have a collective bargaining agreement. They said they have continued to receive low pay even as the novel coronavirus brings new danger to their jobs. They also say they have only occasionally received protective gear, although the sanitation company says it’s amassed a stockpile of masks and gloves that it gives to workers.

“We feel like we’re putting our health at risk,” said sanitation worker Jerry Simon. “Every time we go out there, we could catch the virus.”

So far, the dispute shows no signs of ending. The workers and their employer can’t even agree on whether they were fired.

Simon said the workers went on strike on May 5 and the staffing agency, PeopleReady, fired them the next day. But the staffing company and Metro Service Group both disputed that the workers had actually been terminated. PeopleReady said the workers were welcome to come back at any time.

With some regular workers off the job, last week Metro Service Group filled their positions with state work-release inmates placed through a private company called Lock5 LLC. The inmates come from around the state, but they’re housed in a detention center that the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office leases to Lock5.

The work-release inmates were set to receive $9.25 an hour, according to Lock5 manager Hootie Lockhart. He said he usually tries to secure more pay, but the economic crisis has made it hard to find well-paying jobs.

The inmates stand to keep much less than that at the end of the day, moreover. In an arrangement outlined in state law, Lock5 takes up to 64 percent of inmate pay to cover its own expenses, Lockhart said.

Lockhart said he had no idea he was entering into a labor dispute when he sent inmates to New Orleans. He said he pulled the workers off the job when he found out.

“I did not know that there was a strike going on. That was never relayed to us,” he said. “We won’t be back. Not as long as there’s a labor issue.”

A Metro spokeswoman said there had been no service interruption because of the strike or the departure of Lockhart’s workers.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration said that under its contract, Metro Service Group is supposed to pay employees at least $10.25 an hour. In a statement on Monday, the company acknowledged that it signed a contract to pay the inmate laborers $9.25 an hour. The company said the inmates’ pay, which has yet to be invoiced, would be “amended” to meet the minimum.

“We’d like to add that, while hoppers went on strike and while we were unable to secure a regular stream of private sector workers to fill their spots during their strike, we are pleased to be able to provide work-release-approved inmates with meaningful work at a good wage so that they can more easily transition back into society,” said a company spokesman.

A Cantrell spokesman voiced no objections to the use of work-release inmates — noting that the city uses them during Carnival season — but New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams said he was disappointed.

He also said he was “deeply concerned” about the original workers’ situation.

“These folks are as front-line as a janitor in a hospital,” Williams said. “They are taking contaminated materials away from our homes every day.”

The original workers employed by the temp agency, PeopleReady, said they want to meet with Metro Service Group to discuss their demands, which include a $15 hourly wage and $150 a week in hazard pay during the pandemic.

Simon said his group is open to compromise — but so far, the sanitation company isn’t talking.

“If we could talk, get a meeting, we could start getting somewhere. We’re ready to come back to work,” Simon said.

Collective action by workers has always been central to securing wages, and to safe working conditions under capitalism. In a system where “profit” is defined as income not spent on labor and materials, company owners have a direct financial incentive to underpay their workers, and to skimp on safety measures, as they have done throughout the history of this system. Very often, things like workplace safety are discussed in terms of industrial machinery or chemicals, or mine safety, but exposure to disease is absolutely a part of that, not just for healthcare workers, but for millions of other people who interact with the general public in a myriad of ways.

This pandemic has shown the degree to which that is true, with the high rate of exposure for all “essential” workers, and it has shown us how important it is for workers to have a say in the running of their workplaces. We have a long way to go to develop the kind of organized power we need, and it’s very clear that it is needed. The capitalist class has never made a move toward social responsibility without being forced to, and they have a record of going to extreme lengths to avoid making any concessions to the people whose work generates their wealth, and makes their society function.

If we’re going to deal with the economic, humanitarian, or environmental crises facing us, we need the power of organized, collective action, because the “elites” aren’t going to bother changing anything if it means losing even a little bit of their power. Look for actions and groups near you that you can support, and read up on the history and tactics of organizing for the good of the many.

Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

Urban gardening as part of the change we need

Taking control of our affects on the planet’s climate requires mostly or entirely ending our use of fossil fuels. At minimum, it requires us to develop a society that can function well without them, and that only uses them in rare circumstances. That’s a tall order. We use an incredible amount of energy every day, and a large majority of that comes from burning coal, oil, and gas.

The goal is to continue enjoying the benefits of modern technology, while reducing air pollution, and reducing our destabilizing effect on the climate. Replacing fossil fuels with one other source of power is unlikely. The closest we have to an option there is nuclear power, and while that will certainly be part of the equation, it’s unlikely to be a panacea.

The most commonly proposed “solution” is a compound approach, often described as “stabilization wedges”. To use a concept popularized by the COVID-19 pandemic response, we need to “flatten the curve” of CO2 emissions, and rather than trying to do it all at once with a total replacement of fossil fuels, we can divide the curve up into different wedges.

For example, one wedge we’ve been working on already is energy efficiency – improving insulation in homes, using things like LEDs for light, running more efficient appliances, and so on. All of this can reduce the total amount of energy we need to produce per person.

Another might be biogas from sewage. It will never be enough to supply all of our energy, but it’s an available source for part of what we need, and it will always exist in a reliable proportion to the number of people feeding into it.

Another is wind power.

Another is solar thermal power.

Another is photovoltaic.

Another is nuclear.

And so on. The progress we make in “filling in” those wedges not only gets us closer to stability, it also reduces the speed at which the climate will warm in the future, which buys us time to adapt to those changes that can no longer be avoided.

One set of wedges can be found in food production. We spend a lot of energy on food. Preparing the ground, watering crops, controlling pests, harvesting crops, processing the harvest, preserving the food, transporting it – all of that takes energy. All of it can also be done with less energy than is currently used. Some of that is a matter of efficiency, but some of it is also a matter of changing how we use the space we have.

As it stands, we mostly use monoculture farming. Vast areas are used for one crop, and one crop alone. This allows us to use specialized equipment to grow, harvest, and process vast amounts of a single food very efficiently, but it also means that very few parts of society grow all the food they need near where it’s needed. Instead, it’s grown in centralized locations, and shipped around the world. One place grows corn and soybeans, but little meat, fruit, or vegetables, so those must all be shipped in from farther away, which takes energy.

Some of that is determined by climate conditions – not all plants will grow everywhere; but some is just how we’ve designed our system, and we can start to change that. A study conducted in Sheffield, England, showed that using just 10% of the city’s current “green” spaces to grow food, could provide up to 15% of the fruit and vegetables needed by the population of that city:

In a study published in Nature Food, academics from the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield investigated the potential for urban horticulture by mapping green spaces and grey spaces across the city.

They found that green spaces including parks, gardens, allotments, roadside verges and woodland cover 45 per cent of Sheffield — a figure similar to other UK cities.

Allotments cover 1.3 per cent of this, while 38 per cent of green space comprised of domestic gardens, which have immediate potential to start growing food.

The interdisciplinary team used data from Ordnance Survey and Google Earth to reveal that an extra 15 per cent of the city’s green space, such as parks and roadside verges, also has potential to be converted into community gardens or allotments.

Putting domestic gardens, allotments and suitable public green spaces together would open up 98m2 per person in Sheffield for growing food. This equates to more than four times the 23m2 per person currently used for commercial horticulture across the UK.

If 100 per cent of this space was used for growing food, it could feed approximately 709,000 people per year their ‘five a day’, or 122 per cent of the population of Sheffield. But even converting a more realistic 10 per cent of domestic gardens and 10 per cent of available green space, as well as maintaining current allotment land, could provide 15 per cent of the local population — 87,375 people — with sufficient fruit and veg

It’s hard to know exactly what a more balanced society would look like, but I have to say that one in which people live around growing food, even in cities, seems like a step in the right direction, to me. I also think we ought to be doing more to grow food near where it’s eaten through indoor farms of various sorts. As I’ve said before, we need to make big changes in how we conduct agriculture, and those changes should account for the volatility of a warmer planet. Not every place will be able to feed itself at all times, but the closer we can get to that, the better we’ll be able to deal with a more chaotic climate, and the better we’ll be able to meaningfully help each other when needed.

That also applies to personal life. In the past, we were not as insulated from the world, and most societies made a habit of storing food and supplies against emergencies, or taking the nomadic approach and moving away from shortages. The fact that, as a species, we’ve become largely immobile, means that things like storing food, water, and medicine against unforeseen emergencies is a habit we should cultivate.The picture shows a canal with clear water running through a city. There are plants growing along the water's edge, with a path on either side, and more shrubs and trees on top of walls by the paths. Further out from the canal, you can see there are roads, and then skyscrapers.

Having food production be more diverse and abundant at a local level is part of that. It means that a blight on one crop won’t automatically mean famine or economic collapse, and it means that a disaster in another part of the world will do less to affect food supplies where you live. That, and gardening seems to improve quality of life for a lot of people.

I hope this study on urban gardening can point to a path we follow more, as an increasingly urban species, trying to find a more balanced way to live on this planet.

Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

Toure Reed: What Ta-Nehisi Coates got wrong about the New Deal

Ta-Nehisi Coates has done some excellent work on making the case for why reparations are needed as a matter of both justice, and of basic morality. His analysis of how we got to the current racial disparities in wealth, political power, and standards of living is important, and he makes a powerful case for taking action to ensure that people today, and into the future, aren’t forced to suffer from bigotry just because the infrastructure of their oppression was built before they were born.

All that said, there are some ways in which Coates misses the mark. Folks on the left often point out that racial divisions and animosity are actively exacerbated by people in power, at least partly as a tool of dividing the working class, and preventing solidarity from taking root. In this video, Toure Reed makes the point that the current racial divides along economic and geographical boundaries go beyond the effects of unquestionably racist policies before, during, and after The New Deal. It was also a matter of capitalists changing where industry was centered, and who was able to follow those jobs.

Listening to this, it feels a bit like hearing about a trial run of the process by which American industry was moved to other countries to increase profits through lower labor costs, resulting in rising poverty in America, and a shifting of our industrial pollution and problems to other populations, in the name of “free trade”.

Where the so-called “white working class” was left behind as capital moved jobs overseas, where the workers could not follow, the black working class was left behind as capital moved jobs out of cities. Those who could follow were the ones would could take advantage of the federal aid programs that, as Coates rightly points out, were only available to white people.

Under the New Deal and Segregation, a white supremacist, capitalist government joined the interests of the capitalist class with those of white people, at the expense of everyone else. In time, as changes in technology made relocating cheaper, and changes in the rights of workers made the cost of labor in the United States more expensive, it became clear that the primary allegiance being shown there was not to white workers, but to capitalists. The “free trade” era saw jobs moved again, and this time everyone was left behind. What remained was scapegoating along ethnic lines.

While moving to a democratic socialist model would not solve all problems, giving workers ownership and democratic control of their companies would end the ability of a handful of rich owners to destroy lives by shuffling the giving and taking livelihoods based on what increases their hoards. Reparations are an essential element in moving forward, but are, by themselves, insufficient. They must be part of a broader restructuring of where power lies in our society.

Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

Nomiki Konst on how the movement can keep its power

The Left has not had real power in the United States for a very long time. We’re starting to re-learn how to build that kind of massed democratic power, but the people who currently run things don’t want us to change the systems that gave them their wealth and power. There are – as there have always been – efforts to use real concerns and real differences to undermine efforts at building the solidarity we need to overcome the accumulated power of the aristocracy. Nobody has all the answers (that’s part of why we’re stronger in solidarity), Nomiki Konst is one of the people working to figure out and provide at least some of them:

Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

Heeding warnings, and proactive responses to climate change: megadroughts

The notion of designing infrastructure around anticipated environmental conditions is not a new one. The easiest example to illustrate this is probably floods – across the world there are dams, levees, and certain areas – often agricultural fields – can be designated and designed as places for water to flow, to reduce its effects elsewhere. Boston, MA is currently working on a plan to redesign the city with sea level rise in mind. While the waters will eventually reach the point where portions of the city are permanently below sea level, long before that point there will be increasingly frequent flooding from storm surges and high tides. To deal with that, low-lying areas are being turned into public parks that will be useful as recreational areas when they’re dry, and that can be safely allowed to flood when the need arises. EDIT: I had originally said they’re not going far enough with their predictions. That is because I misunderstood and didn’t read thoroughly enough. They are planning for 21″ (53.3cm) of sea level rise by 2050. Good for them!

The image shows a drought-stricken corn field. The soil is cracked and parched looking, the sky is cloudy, but empty of rain, with blue showing behind the white clouds. The corn stocks are brown, bent, and dead. The only green is from a couple hardy weeds and grasses nearby. You can almost feel the heat looking at the silent scene.

Photo by Tom Castelazo

Just as sea level rise is now being accepted as an inevitable problem that coastal regions are going to have to deal with, other areas are also facing near-certain changes that they need to plan for. Some regions, like the American northeast, are likely to see a shift in the direction of a monsoon-like pattern, with more annual precipitation in fewer, larger events, with dry spells between.

What the western US is facing is, in some ways, more straightforward – it’s going to dry out.

With the western United States and northern Mexico suffering an ever-lengthening string of dry years starting in 2000, scientists have been warning for some time that climate change may be pushing the region toward an extreme long-term drought worse than any in recorded history. A new study says the time has arrived: a megadrought as bad or worse than anything even from known prehistory is very likely in progress, and warming climate is playing a key role. The study, based on modern weather observations, 1,200 years of tree-ring data and dozens of climate models, appears this week in the leading journal Science.

“Earlier studies were largely model projections of the future,” said lead author Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “We’re no longer looking at projections, but at where we are now. We now have enough observations of current drought and tree-ring records of past drought to say that we’re on the same trajectory as the worst prehistoric droughts.”

Reliable modern observations date only to about 1900, but tree rings have allowed scientists to infer yearly soil moisture for centuries before humans began influencing climate. Among other things, previous research has tied catastrophic naturally driven droughts recorded in tree rings to upheavals among indigenous Medieval-era civilizations in the Southwest. The new study is the most up-to-date and comprehensive long-term analysis. It covers an area stretching across nine U.S. states from Oregon and Montana down through California and New Mexico, and part of northern Mexico.

Using rings from many thousands of trees, the researchers charted dozens of droughts across the region, starting in 800 AD. Four stand out as so-called megadroughts, with extreme aridity lasting decades: the late 800s, mid-1100s, the 1200s, and the late 1500s. After 1600, there were other droughts, but none on this scale.

The team then compared the ancient megadroughts to soil moisture records calculated from observed weather in the 19 years from 2000 to 2018. Their conclusion: as measured against the worst 19-year increments within the previous episodes, the current drought is already outdoing the three earliest ones. The fourth, which spanned 1575 to 1603, may have been the worst of all — but the difference is slight enough to be within the range of uncertainty. Furthermore, the current drought is affecting wider areas more consistently than any of the earlier ones — a fingerprint of global warming, say the researchers. All of the ancient droughts lasted longer than 19 years — the one that started in the 1200s ran nearly a century — but all began on a similar path to to what is showing up now, they say.

Nature drove the ancient droughts, and still plays a strong role today. A study last year led by Lamont’s Nathan Steiger showed that among other things, unusually cool periodic conditions over the tropical Pacific Ocean (commonly called La Niña) during the previous megadroughts pushed storm tracks further north, and starved the region of precipitation. Such conditions, and possibly other natural factors, appear to have also cut precipitation in recent years. However, with global warming proceeding, the authors say that average temperatures since 2000 have been pushed 1.2 degrees C (2.2 F) above what they would have been otherwise. Because hotter air tends to hold more moisture, that moisture is being pulled from the ground. This has intensified drying of soils already starved of precipitation.

All told, the researchers say that rising temperatures are responsible for about half the pace and severity of the current drought. If this overall warming were subtracted from the equation, the current drought would rank as the 11th worst detected — bad, but nowhere near what it has developed into.

“It doesn’t matter if this is exactly the worst drought ever,” said coauthor Benjamin Cook, who is affiliated with Lamont and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “What matters is that it has been made much worse than it would have been because of climate change.” Since temperatures are projected to keep rising, it is likely the drought will continue for the foreseeable future; or fade briefly only to return, say the researchers.

“Because the background is getting warmer, the dice are increasingly loaded toward longer and more severe droughts,” said Williams. “We may get lucky, and natural variability will bring more precipitation for a while. But going forward, we’ll need more and more good luck to break out of drought, and less and less bad luck to go back into drought.” Williams said it is conceivable the region could stay arid for centuries. “That’s not my prediction right now, but it’s possible,” he said.

Lamont climatologist Richard Seager was one of the first to predict, in a 2007 paper, that climate change might eventually push the region into a more arid climate during the 21st century; he speculated at the time that the process might already be underway. By 2015, when 11 of the past 14 years had seen drought, Benjamin Cook led a followup study projecting that warming climate would cause the catastrophic natural droughts of prehistory to be repeated by the latter 21st century. A 2016 study coauthored by several Lamont scientist reinforced those findings. Now, says Cook, it looks like they may have underestimated. “It’s already happening,” he said.

The effects are palpable. The mighty reservoirs of Lake Mead and Lake Powell along the Colorado River, which supply agriculture around the region, have shrunk dramatically. Insect outbreaks are ravaging dried-out forests. Wildfires in California and across wider areas of the U.S. West are growing in area. While 2019 was a relatively wet year, leading to hope that things might be easing up, early indications show that 2020 is already on a track for resumed aridity.

“There is no reason to believe that the sort of natural variability documented in the paleoclimatic record will not continue into the future, but the difference is that droughts will occur under warmer temperatures,” said Connie Woodhouse, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona who was not involved in the study. “These warmer conditions will exacerbate droughts, making them more severe, longer, and more widespread than they would have been otherwise.”

Angeline Pendergrass, a staff scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, said that she thinks it is too early to say whether the region is at the cusp of a true megadrought, because the study confirms that natural weather swings are still playing a strong role. That said, “even though natural variability will always play a large role in drought, climate change makes it worse,” she said.

Tucked into the researchers’ data: the 20th century was the wettest century in the entire 1200-year record. It was during that time that population boomed, and that has continued. “The 20th century gave us an overly optimistic view of how much water is potentially available,” said Cook. “It goes to show that studies like this are not just about ancient history. They’re about problems that are already here.”

Because we know this is coming, we have the ability to act on it, and to reduce the impact it will have. Increasing water storage and water conservation measures now will make it easier to cope with future droughts. Lawns can be replaced with drought-tolerant alternatives to grass, and/or with region-appropriate food gardens. Sewer systems can be re-designed to recycle water. Agriculture will have to either change crops, or move indoors to seek shelter from increasingly harsh conditions. And regardless of what approaches are taken, priority has to be given to protecting existing water supplies from contamination. Industrial contamination of all kinds needs to be controlled. It should be no surprise to my readers that I believe the best way to do this is a combination of research, regulation, and replacing the existing corporate model with democratically operated, worker-owned cooperatives, so that the people running operations that might pollute local water supplies are also the people who have to drink from them.

Likewise, many industries use a huge amount of water, and it’s essential that that be made more efficient where possible, and recycled and re-used where necessary.

As with desalination, this will generate a great deal of more concentrated toxic waste that will, in turn, need to be dealt with. This is true for a number of things. It has already been reported many times that the natural gas industry has, in addition beyond the water used, been generating vast quantities of radioactive waste, which is currently being handled with predictable irresponsibility. That needs to change. Fracking needs to stop, and the existing waste needs to be managed responsibly. Likewise, nuclear waste from fission plants needs to be dealt with based on the requirements of its storage and containment, and not based on what’s profitable for corporations generating that waste. It’s likely that in the coming decades, there will be an increase in nuclear power. I have mixed feelings about this, but if it’s going to happen, then plants must be designed to do without water for extended periods of time, ideally indefinitely. Waste needs to be stored in a manner that does not rely on a constantly replenished supply of water, through dry-cask storage, or better yet used in generators designed to run on radioactive waste while containing and consuming it.

The list of challenges that need to be overcome, in facing the conversion of the western US into a desert, is as long as the list of ways in which we use water. Because we have a solid idea of what changes are coming for different regions, we have the ability to plan ahead even as we work to reduce the speed of those changes by cutting back on fossil fuels.

Just as America missed the opportunity to slow and contain COVID-19 before it could spread out of control, the world has missed the opportunity to avoid a devastating, rapid rise in global temperature. We can – and must – slow that rise, and work to reverse it if possible, but in the meantime, every step we take to adapt to the changes we can no longer avoid will both reduce the suffering caused by those changes, and make it easier for us to continue reducing our emissions, and pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.

The more we plan and act in advance, the less time, resources, and life we will waste on disasters that didn’t need to be as big as they became. The logic of capitalism, with its just-in-time production, its profit-obsessed notions of efficiency, and its focus on greed as an engine for society, has never been valid. That said, we’re entering an era in which it will shift from lethal dysfunctionality to insanity. If you look at any society existing in harsh conditions, you will find that its success and resilience depend on its ability to act and plan collectively, for the good of all. We’re facing a new era in which our technology and medicine can no longer shield us from the dangers of the planet we live on as they have done for many of us – we must adapt to our surroundings as they change, and we can no longer afford to hand over most of our resources into to a tiny number of people to do with as they please.

In reality, we could never afford that, and the current environmental crisis is that bill coming due. Now we have to pay up, and if it’s not dealt with through collective action and through socialism, then I fear it will be through mass death, and or even extinction.

There’s a degree to which I feel like I’m repeating myself with these pieces, and that’s because while some of this work is –finally– beginning to be done, the amount that still remains before we can say we’re really dealing with the problem is… a lot. There’s a lot of work to do, and for much of it, we’ve known it needs doing since before I was born. Just as we knew about the dangers of climate change early enough to do something about it, had we taken action, so to have we known a lot about how to mitigate and adapt to those dangers for long enough that we could have been well on our way to building a more resilient society by now, that could ride out the coming chaos while improving life for everyone. It may be too late to stop the planet from warming for the rest of my lifetime, but it’s not too late, at least in theory, to prevent that warming from causing an unimaginable level of death and misery.

I think the transition town movement has it right – each town, and each region is going to have different needs, based on different sub-climates and different starting points. The role of society as a whole is to maintain a global network of distribution and mutual aid that can help those short on resources to meet their needs, so that when drought, flooding, heatwaves, or disease come for other areas, everyone who’s doing better has the resources to help.

A rising tide can lift all boats, if we make sure that no boats are held down by anchor chains that aren’t long enough. Sailors, you have nothing to lengthen but your chains!

Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!