Arquivo mensal: setembro 2015

How Climate Change is Behind the Surge of Migrants to Europe (Time) + other related articles

Even as Europe wrestles over how to absorb the migrant tide, experts warn that the flood is likely to get worse as climate change becomes a driving factor.

More than 10,000 migrants and refugees traveled to Western Europe via Hungary over the weekend, fleeing conflict-ravaged and impoverished homelands in the hope of finding a more secure life abroad. Even as Europe wrestles over how to absorb the new arrivals, human rights activists and migration experts warn that the movement is not likely to slow anytime soon. Intractable wars, terror and poverty in the Middle East and beyond will continue to drive the surge. One additional factor, say scientists, is likely to make it even worse: climate change.

From 2006 to 2011, large swaths of Syria suffered an extreme drought that, according to climatologists, was exacerbated by climate change. The drought lead to increased poverty and relocation to urban areas, according to a recent report by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and cited by Scientific American. “That drought, in addition to its mismanagement by the Assad regime, contributed to the displacement of two million in Syria,” says Francesco Femia, of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security. “That internal displacement may have contributed to the social unrest that precipitated the civil war. Which generated the refugee flows into Europe.” And what happened in Syria, he says, is likely to play out elsewhere going forward.

Across the Middle East and Africa climate change, according to climatologists at the U.S. Department of Defense-funded Strauss Center project on Climate Change and African Political Stability in Texas, has already affected weather. These changes have contributed to more frequent natural disasters like flooding and drought. Agricultural land is turning to desert and heat waves are killing of crops and grazing animals. Over the long term, changing weather patterns are likely to drive farmers, fishermen and herders away from affected areas, according to Femia’s Center for Climate and Security, and into urban centers — as has already happened in Syria. Both the Pentagon, which calls climate change a “threat multiplier” and U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have warned of “water wars,” in which rival governments or militias fight over declining resources, sending even greater waves of migrants in search of security and sustenance. On Aug. 31, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that climate change could create a new class of migrants, what he called “climate refugees” at a conference on climate change conference in Anchorage, Alaska. “You think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival,” he said.

Security analysts say they are already seeing the impact, particularly in migration patterns from northern Africa and the Sahel region, which is the band of farmland just below the Sahara desert. “All the indicators seem to fairly solidly convey that climate change — desertification and lack of water, or floods, are massively contributing to human mobility,” says Michael Werz, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress policy group in Washington, D.C. Syrians and Afghans may make up the largest number of refugees flooding into Europe right now, but Africans from the Sahel are not far behind. “No one is saying ‘I’d better pack my stuff and go to Europe because I expect CO2 emissions to rise,’” he says. But the knock on effects — failed crops, ailing livestock and localized conflicts over resources—are already driving residents of the Sahel northward to flee poverty. Libya’s collapse has opened the doors wide for migrants, and the smugglers who ship them across the Mediterranean to Europe.

As Europeans debate over what to do about the influx of migrants, there has been a call for an international effort to stabilize the regions from which they come. But it’s not enough to talk about ending conflict, says Femia. “A lot more attention has to be paid to putting more resources into climate adaptation and water security and food security, so migration doesn’t become the primary option.” Tackling the problem at its source doesn’t mean ending conflict, but stopping it before it starts. And that means addressing climate change as well.

The European Migrant Crisis Is A Nightmare. Climate Change Will Make It Worse (Huff Post)

Hundreds of thousands of migrants are seeking refuge in Europe, but millions more will be displaced as the climate warms.

<span class='image-component__caption' itemprop="caption">2-year-old Aliou Seyni Diallo eats dry couscous given to him by a neighbor, after he collapsed in tears of hunger in the village of Goudoude Diobe, in the Matam region of northeastern Senegal, Tuesday, May 1, 2012.</span>

CREDIT: REBECCA BLACKWELL/ASSOCIATED PRESS. 2-year-old Aliou Seyni Diallo eats dry couscous given to him by a neighbor, after he collapsed in tears of hunger in the village of Goudoude Diobe, in the Matam region of northeastern Senegal, Tuesday, May 1, 2012.

The hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving in Europe or dying on the way to its shores could be a harbinger of things to come, researchers and policymakers warn, because a potentially greater driver of displacement looms on the horizon: climate change.

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned at a recent State Department-led conference on climate change in the Arctic, the scenes of chaos and heartbreak in Europe will be repeated globally unless the world acts to mitigate climate change.

“Wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival,” Kerry said.

World leaders have long warned that natural disasters and degraded environments linked to climate change could — indeed, have already started to — drive people from their homes. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres declared in 2009 that climate change will create millions of refugees and internally displaced populations. “Not only states, but cultures and identities will be drowned,” Guterres said.

Displacement is already happening in some parts of the world. Almost 28 million people on average were displaced by environmental disasters every year between 2008 and 2013, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center — roughly three times as many as were forced from their homes by conflict and violence.

It’s difficult to predict exactly how many more may be displaced as climate change progresses. “When global warming takes hold there could be as many as 200 million people overtaken” by the consequences, professor Norman Myers of Oxford University argued in a 2005 paper. For comparison’s sake, 350,000 migrants sought entry into the  European Union in 2014, the International Organization for Migration estimated.

Few countries or international organizations are prepared to deal with environmentally displaced people. As a 2011 report from the European Parliament’s Directorate-General for Internal Policies detailed, there is no specific legal protection for “environmentally displaced individuals” beyond temporary measures that would prove insufficient if the environmental damage to their homeland endured.

The UN has a non-binding agreement on internal displacement from 1998 that includes provisions for people fleeing natural disasters, but it is not obligatory and includes no penalties for countries that ignore it, as Roger Zetter, a professor emeritus in refugee studies at Oxford, told The Huffington Post. The portions addressing natural disasters focus on storms, not the more complex and slow-onset effects of climate change.

Myers’ sensational prediction of hundreds of millions of climate change refugees has come under fire in the years since its 2005 publication. “It’s a very contentious overestimate,” Zetter said. “It’s a back-of-the-envelope figure.”

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get data on the number of current migrants who left their homes primarily because of climate change. For most, environmental degradation is one factor among many, Zetter and other experts cautioned. Nevertheless, climate change-related environmental impacts will present “very significant challenges,” Zetter said.

“What climate change and displacement do is present developmental problems for countries that are already struggling,” he explained. “If you’ve got to start spending more and more money on flood relief channels or earthquake-proof buildings or increasing huge water transfer programs to cope with depleting aquifers, there’s no question that it will add a huge additional financial burden and make planning and development strategies more difficult.” 

And for some countries, climate change poses an immediate and very real threat — countries like the small island states threatened by rising seas. “If there’s no land, they’ll have to leave,” Zetter said.

<span class='image-component__caption' itemprop="caption">In this March 30, 2004 file photo, a man fishes on a bridge on Tarawa atoll, Kiribati. Fearing that climate change could wipe out their entire Pacific archipelago, the leaders of Kiribati are considering an unusual backup plan: moving the populace to Fiji.</span>

CREDIT: RICHARD VOGEL/ASSOCIATED PRESS. In this March 30, 2004 file photo, a man fishes on a bridge on Tarawa atoll, Kiribati. Fearing that climate change could wipe out their entire Pacific archipelago, the leaders of Kiribati are considering an unusual backup plan: moving the populace to Fiji.

That includes places like Kiribati, a country made up of 33 islands in the remote South Pacific. Kiribati will be among the first countries to vanish beneath the rising ocean, possibly as soon as the end of this century. But long before then, its atolls and reef islands will be uninhabitable for their 103,000 residents if a violent storm comes crashing through, or if the ocean seeps into their already inadequate supply of fresh groundwater. Half of the country’s citizens live on the Tarawa Atoll, a crescent of white sand two-thirds of a mile across whose highest point is just 10 feet above the ocean.

Operating on the unfortunate assumption that the sea will swallow the country, the government of Kiribati purchased 6,000 acres of land in Fiji last year, in case they need to uproot an entire people and put them somewhere else.

Major storms and flooding already cause tremendous displacement — almost 28 million per year on average, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Many more are affected, but not necessarily displaced — an average of 140 million people yearly, the International Panel on Climate Change reports. Scientists expect climate change to make violent storms like Typhoon Haiyan, which forced a million people to flee their homes in the Philippines in 2013, stronger and more frequent.

Typhoons and monsoon floods hit people hard and fast, forcing them to literally flee for their lives. Scientists call those rapid-onset climate events. But there are also slow-onset climate events like drought, desertification and sea level rise.

These slow-moving changes are “much more difficult to relate to mobility patterns,” Albert Kraler, a program manager for research at the International Center for Migration Policy Development in Vienna, told HuffPost. Often, environmental changes are just “one of the factors informing people’s migration choices.”

Despite the difficulty in determining exact numbers, the United Nations Environment Program concluded in a 2011 study on the Sahel, a semi-arid belt across northern Africa, that “migration occurs when livelihoods cannot be maintained, especially when agriculture or herding is severely affected by environmental degradation or extreme events.”

The changes in the Sahel are perhaps the most obvious example of slow-onset events. The UN dubbed the region “ground zero” for climate change “due to its extreme climatic conditions and highly vulnerable population.” Its arid climate and infrequent rain are getting worse, and scientists blame climate change. The rain is less predictable than it used to be — sometimes there is too much and sometimes nowhere near enough. For almost everyone in the Sahel, food has become more expensive and scarcer. As a result, 30 percent of households in Burkina Faso, in the heart of the Sahel, have relocated in the last 20 years because they could no longer survive, The Guardian reported in 2013.

People have always migrated across this region. But these days, “the traditional temporary and seasonal migration patterns of many farmers, herders and fishermen in the region are increasingly being replaced by a more permanent shift southward and to urban areas,” UNEP reports. “Nearly half of the West African population now lives in largely overcrowded coastal cities, including 12 townships of over one million inhabitants along the coastline from Senegal to Nigeria.”

The population of the Sahel region is expected to skyrocket over the next few decades. Competition between tribes and ethnic groups, pastoralists, farmers and fishermen over ever-scarcer natural resources, which has existed for as long as people have lived there, is becoming intense. And then there’s Boko Haram. Its fighters have set up camps on islands emerging out of Lake Chad, a once-majestic expanse of fresh water that in the past supported millions of people in the heart of the Sahel. But the lake has lost 90 percent of its area since the 1960s. Now, there’s a militant Muslim fundamentalist insurgency taking hold amid an ongoing environmental disaster.

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A dead donkey lies partially covered by the wind-swept sand near the village of Dala in the Sahel belt of Chad, Friday, April 20, 2012. UNICEF estimates that 127,000 children under five in Chad's Sahel belt will require lifesaving treatment for severe acute malnutrition this year, with an estimated 1 million expected throughout the wider Sahel region. The organization says the current food and nutrition crisis stems from scarce rainfalls in 2011, which caused poor harvests and livestock production.</span>

CREDIT: BEN CURTIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS. A dead donkey lies partially covered by the wind-swept sand near the village of Dala in the Sahel belt of Chad, Friday, April 20, 2012. UNICEF estimates that 127,000 children under five in Chad’s Sahel belt will require lifesaving treatment for severe acute malnutrition this year, with an estimated 1 million expected throughout the wider Sahel region. The organization says the current food and nutrition crisis stems from scarce rainfalls in 2011, which caused poor harvests and livestock production.

Climate change is also a factor in the worsening storms and environmental degradation of coastal South Asia — factors that, when combined with mismanagement and political dysfunction, are putting millions of people at risk. Some have already started to migrate because their ways of living are becoming impossible. In the Indus delta in Pakistan, entire villages have been wiped off the map. Bangladeshis and Indians in the Sundarbans, a vast mangrove forest where the Ganges meets the sea, are heading inland, away from the rising ocean and the increasingly saline farmland.

Bangladesh is expected to be the largest single source of climate refugees, with up to 30 million people at risk. Many end up in slums in cities like Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital and the world’s fastest-growing megacity. Some 70 percent of Dhaka’s slum dwellers moved there because of environmental degradation, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Migrants and refugees across the world, driven by rapid-onset natural disasters or by a complex combination of the more slow-moving effects of a changing climate, are already putting immense strain on the countries and cities they end up in. A lot of the time locals aren’t happy to see them, and many governments have been caught unprepared and unwilling to take them in.

Already, migrants and refugees across the world are already putting immense strain on the countries and cities where they end up.

In Europe, Hungary is putting up a fence to keep migrants and refugees out. “We don’t want to [live together with Muslims],” Hungary’s prime minister Victor Orban said on Thursday, “and I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country.”

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Detainees sit in a detention center on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 23, 2009. Australia came under fire from the U.N. children's aid agency and human rights advocates June 3, 2011, over its plan to send unaccompanied child asylum seekers to Malaysia under a refugee swap deal.</span>

CREDIT: MARK BAKER/ASSOCIATED PRESS. Detainees sit in a detention center on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 23, 2009. Australia came under fire from the U.N. children’s aid agency and human rights advocates June 3, 2011, over its plan to send unaccompanied child asylum seekers to Malaysia under a refugee swap deal.

For the past two years, Australia has deployed its navy to force migrants and asylum-seekers away. The government allegedly bribed one captain more than $30,000 to take his boatload of migrants to Indonesia. Other migrants are being held in detention centers on tiny islands like Nauru, where, according to an Australian Senate committee report, children are sexually abused and guards offer weed in exchange for sex.

As for America, when residents of Kivalina, a Native village in northwestern Alaska that is rapidly disappearing into the ocean, tried to get the government to lend a hand, the response they received was that “there’s no agency set up to address those questions.”

Europe’s handling of the current refugee situation doesn’t bode well for a future in which vulnerable populations fleeing the effects of climate change are again knocking at their doors. Nor does it seem likely that Western countries will embark on the expensive and challenging task of helping at-risk countries prepare, as John Kerry warned we must do. The Western world is facing a lot of tough questions, Zetter said.

“We’ve not faced up to the challenge that we obviously are the emitters, that we are creating climate change, that we are creating this additional pressure on the developmental trajectories that many countries face,” he said.

The Village That Will Be Swept Away (The Atlantic)

Residents of Newtok, Alaska, voted to relocate as erosion destroyed their land. That was the easy part.

Andrew Burton / Getty

ALANA SEMUELS

AUG 30, 2015

NEWTOK, Alaska—Two decades ago, the people of this tiny village came to terms with what had become increasingly obvious: They could no longer fight back the rising waters.

Their homes perched on a low-lying, treeless tuft of land between two rivers on Alaska’s west coast, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles watched from their blue home on stilts on Newtok’s southern side as the Ninglick River inched closer and closer, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea.

“Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told me, over a bowl of moose soup.

Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock.

It wasn’t an easy decision, to leave behind the place where many of them were born, and where most have memories of following their parents and grandparents out on the tundra to hunt and fish. But villagers could see the water creeping closer to their homes and school, which the Army Corps of Engineers said could be underwater as soon as 2017.

Alana Semuels

Newtok is eroding in part because it sits on permafrost, a once-permanently frozen sublayer of soil found in Arctic region. As temperatures increase in Alaska, that permafrost is melting, leading to rapid erosion. Snow is melting earlier in the spring in Alaska, sea ice is disappearing and the ocean temperature is increasing. Alaska is warming at a rate two to three times faster than the mainland United States, and the average winter temperature has risen 6.3 degrees over the past 50 years.

Alaska sits on the front lines of climate change. But the rest of the nation is getting warmer, too, and so communities across the country may soon have to face some of the same problems. That’s one reason President Obama is visiting the region this week.

“What’s happening in Alaska isn’t just a preview of what will happen to the rest of us if we don’t take action,” Obama said in a video previewing his visit. “It’s our wakeup call.”

But many of the nation’s climate change policies are focused on helping victims rebuild in place after a disaster. There’s little funding or political will to spend money on moving communities away from disaster-prone zones to prevent tragedies from happening, perhaps because policymakers don’t want to believe the dire predictions about what will happen to many of the nation’s coastal villages and towns.

But the experience of Alaska shows that failing to take action could be costly.A  2003 report from the Government Accountability Office found that most of Alaska’s 200-plus native villages are affected by erosion and flooding, and that four were in “imminent danger.” By 2009, the GAO said 31 villages were in imminent danger.

As of this year, though, only a few of those villages are making immediate plans to move. Newtok is the furthest along of these four villages in its relocation efforts, and the scariest part is that it isn’t very far along at all.

* * *

Newtok is an isolated village. There are no roads that lead there—the only way a visitor can get in or out is by a propeller plane that stops by a few times each day, except in inclement weather. There are no roads in Newtok, either— boardwalks run between the homes and the school and the post office, and just about every family has a small boat that is its primary mode of transportation.

It wasn’t that long ago that Yupik communities like this one were nomadic, traveling to the rivers to catch salmon and to higher ground when the waters rose. But between 1900 and 1950, as missionaries in Alaska tried to “civilize” native Alaskans, the Yupik began to settle in villages, in part because of legislation that required all children of a certain age to attend school. One group of people ended up in the place where Newtok now stands in part because a federal-government barge carrying a new school building could only reach this far up the Newtok River before getting stuck.

The river is fast approaching Newtok’s series of boardwalks. (Alana Semuels)

Villagers did not abandon their lifestyle just because they began living in a town with a post office and electricity. This is still a place built on a subsistence system, where residents survive off moose, seals, fish, berries, and other local plants all year round. The homes, small wooden boxes on stilts, often have pelts from a musk ox hanging on their porches, or moose antlers stacked alongside the snowmobiles and ATVs in the yard. As Canadian geese caw overhead, different breeds of dogs run throughout the village, a reminder of the dog teams that used to help villagers travel through snow. Just about every house has a small shelter out back where residents hang the moose, seal, and fish they’ve caught to dry.

As I wandered around town, I encountered Zenia Andy, who was watching her son Paiton disembowel a seal he had hunted. His hands stained red with blood, he gutted the creature with  an ulu, a sharp rounded blade attached to a handle. He separated the ribs, the heart, the flippers, the head, carefully saving every part.

The dedication to this subsistence lifestyle could have made it difficult for residents to pick up and move, since most Alaska Natives want to continue to be close to traditional hunting grounds but high enough off the land that the rising tides will not displace them ever again. Kivalina and Shismaref, two of the other threatened Alaska Native villages, have struggled to find a place to relocate that is within reach of their traditional hunting grounds and can also withstand decades of melting permafrost, Robin Bronen, the executive director of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project, told me.

But Newtok was lucky. Villagers had once spent summers nine miles from Newtok on a place called Nelson Island, part of a vast stretch of land on Alaska’s western coast that sits on volcanic bedrock elevated from the river. Villagers voted to move there, to a piece of land they call Mertarvik, which in Yupik means “getting water from the stream.”

In 1996, the Newtok Native Corporation, which was then the village’s governing body, passed a resolution allowing leaders to negotiate with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which managed the land where Mertarvik sits. Newtok had to hire a lobbyist to prod Congress for eight years to get title to the land, Bronen said, and in exchange they offered to relent their claim to their current land and allow the government to turn it into a wildlife refuge. This shouldn’t have been a difficult swap—fly over Mertarvik or Newtok by plane, and all you can see is vast stretches of land and water with no development (or trees) whatsoever. The trade was finally approved in 2003.

But it’s been 12 years since then and not a whole lot has happened since, despite two massive flooding incidents in 2004 and 2005, one of which temporarily turned Newtok into an island. Three homes have been constructed in Mertarvik, but no one lives there year round. There’s a half-completed evacuation center next to piles of pipes and Dura-base flooring.

“We’ve been waiting so long. I don’t know. I’m beginning to lose a little bit of hope,” Newtok resident Jimmy Charles told me as he stopped by the one-room post office to pick up his mail.

The difficulty of relocating Newtok was evident from the beginning. Most villages can’t find funding for relocation projects because the costs often outweigh the expected benefits, according to the 2003 GAO report. Money to build new runways is usually only available after the old runways have been flooded or eroded, not to prevent such flooding from happening. It’s expensive to bring in materials and labor to remote villages, and the Army Corps of Engineers requires villages to pay up to half of the costs of these projects—“funding that many of them do not have,” according to the report. Dave Williams, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager in Alaska, told me his group had been approved to build a road and community building at the new site. Newtok would be required to pay 35 percent of the costs, but has not followed through on the necessary paperwork, he saidThe Corps estimated that moving Newtok could cost $130 million in total.

The whole effort to move a village feels a bit like a giant Catch-22: The school district won’t build a new school at the new site until 25 families live there, but no families want to live there without a school. The FAA won’t fund the design and construction of the Newtok airport until there is power generation at Mertarvik to provide runway lighting, but without an airport, it’s difficult to get a power source there. Mail service requires at least 25 families and regularly scheduled transportation to the community, which doesn’t exist without an airport.

Paiton Andy gets help from friends gutting a seal. (Alana Semuels)

Newtok’s experience demonstrates that decades after the nation first became familiar with climate change, Americans are still focused on responding to climate-related disasters, not preventing them.

“In almost every disaster event in America, from Hurricane Sandy to tornadoes in Oklahoma, the rally cry of ‘we will rebuild’ and FEMA’s support of rebuilding in place exemplifies the hazard-centric idea that disasters are one-off aberrations of normal conditions and that increased warning infrastructure, response plans, and technological interventions can prevent the next disaster,” writes Elizabeth Marino, an anthropologist who has studied Shismaref and has a book coming out about the town’s efforts to move. “Rebuilding in the same way, in the same place leaves no space for reconsidering our relationship with the environment.”

In Kivalina, for example, the U.S. government completed a $2.5 million sea wall to protect the village from the sea in 2006 to great fanfare. The wall was partially destroyed in a storm surge the same year, according to Bronen. In 1900, Galveston, Texas, was destroyed by a hurricane that killed 6,000 people, but the city rebuilt, only to be damaged repeatedly by storms, including Hurricane Ike in 2008. The city is now considering building an “Ike Dike,” which would cost billions.

Still, no matter how compelling it might be to try and move Newtok, neither the state nor federal government has the authority or the funding to spearhead the move.

“There has not been any formal direction on how to proceed on all of this,” Sally Russell Cox, a planner with Alaska’s Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, told me. “While I can advise and assist and provide resources, it’s really the community that’s supposed to be relocating themselves.”

I was referred to Cox by a number of different governmental agencies when I asked for a name of a point person on the move. Yet Cox told me she was never asked to formally lead any sort of relocation project, it’s just fallen to her because she’s in her department’s division of community and rural affairs.

To be sure, there are problems inherent in having a state or federal agency step in and move a Native community, but the village voted to move itself, and needs assistance and funding to carry out those plans. Yet there is nowhere the village could apply on the state level to get the funding they need to move, said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“To my knowledge, there is no mechanism within any of the departments of state government that could wholly fund the move of Newtok to Mertarvik,” he told me.

Funds are even tighter now that Alaska is facing a $3.7 billion budget deficit because of the declining price of oil. The state gets almost 90 percent of its revenues from oil taxes and royalties.

The river is eroding whole chunks of land near homes. (Alana Semuels)

While it has waited for funding, erosion has made Newtok even more isolated.  In 1996, the Newtok river was captured by the Ninglick River, creating more powerful tides on the smaller river, and in 2005, a raging storm temporarily turned the village into an island. A 2013 storm destroyed the barge landing where the town gets most of its supplies. The barge now drops off goods at a makeshift landing on ground that is continuing to erode.

“It’s getting closer each year,” Zenia Andy told me, as her son gutted the seal. She glanced up at the river, which is now just a few hundred feet from her house. “It used to be so far away.”

The community members in 2006 partnered with state and federal agencies to create the Newtok Planning Group, which meets a few times a year to coordinate efforts. But the group comes with no funding mandate, nor does it have much authority. Four homes close to the Ninglick River need to be moved, but when the group asked the Natural Resources Conservation Service for funding to do so, they were told the move would not meet the program’s criteria. Funds designated by Congress to move communities like Newtok were instead used to study the feasibility of a move, Bronen told me.

The villagers’ biggest hope for funding is now FEMA, thanks to the 2013 storm and the subsequent flooding, which allowed Newtok to apply for $4 million of FEMA funds through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. That money, if it is approved, will be used to relocate 12 homes and buy out five homeowners in Newtok, who can use that money to build a new house in Mertarvik. But that application was submitted in July and funds won’t be available for another year.

The two decades the village has been trying to move seem especially long when compared to the amount of time it took the village of Pattonsburg, Missouri, to move after the Great Flood of 1993. The community had experienced floods for years, but the Great Flood buried homes and businesses under 20 feet of water. That year, the village voted to move, and by 1994, the town of New Pattonsburg had been established on higher ground. All it took was a disaster.

* * *

Nine miles may sound close to people accustomed to paved roads, highways, and dense cities. But the nine-mile-long ride from Newtok to Mertarvik is 50 minutes on a bumpy boat across a river so wide it looks like the sea. In the winter, villagers go back and forth by snowmobile once the river freezes up, and they say that freeze-up is happening later and later. Boat and snowmobile are the only way to get between the two sites.

I visited Mertarvik with Tom John, a tribal administrator, and his wife Bernice, on a recent August afternoon. We had to wait for high tide, since the Newtok river is now too shallow during low tide for boats. As the motor coughed up mud, we headed out to the wider waters of the Ninglick River. We passed land sloughing off into the sea and signs of erosion everywhere, as if someone had taken a guillotine and chopped the Earth away. Though it was summer, typically an easy time to get across, the air was cold and the water bumpy, and the journey felt long.

Andrew Burton / Getty

We arrived in Mertarvik, parked the boat at a small dirt beach there, and walked up a steep ramp of road made from Dura-base—mats that are easier and faster to install than roads—laid by the military as part of the Defense Department’s Innovative Readiness Training program, which seeks to deploy military personnel to help civilian communities as part of war preparation. (The soldiers have since left.)

In addition to the Dura-base road and three tan houses on the hillside, there are the beginnings of a massive evacuation center, funded by Alaska’s state legislature, but so far, only the foundation has been completed. Nails are falling out of the stairway leading to the elevated evacuation center, which had been considered a top priority because the village needs somewhere to house families while their homes are being transported between the two sites. (A 2013 audit of the evacuation center found that the group in charge of building the center, the Newtok Traditional Council, failed to inspect the workmanship and the materials. That council has been replaced by the Newtok Village Council, which employs Tom John.)

It was spitting rain and windy the day we visited Mertarvik, weather that will become more common through the fall months, the Johns told me. The wet weather only made the urgency of the move more evident to them as they stood on this high mountain, looking out over the water towards their village, which this fall will be threatened with floods every time it rains.

“We have to get it right this time,” Tom John told me, standing on the platform of the rickety evaluation center as his grandson played on nearby abandoned construction vehicles.

“The whole world is watching us,” Bernice added, and then she headed off to a nearby field to pick salmon berries and blackberries.

Bernice and Tom John in the half-completed evacuation center in Mertarvik. (Alana Semuels)

Much of the move is out of their hands, though. Without a major influx of new homes and an airport it will be difficult to convince anyone to live in Mertarvik. And without more money—a lot more money—the town can’t build anything.

Lisa and Jeff Charles and their five children moved to one of the three new homes in Mertarvik in the summer of 2012. There was no electricity or running water, so the experience felt like camping, but they enjoyed the quiet, Lisa Charles told me. But their children needed to go to school, so the family couldn’t stay in Mertarvik during the school year.

When Lisa got pregnant, she didn’t want to be a 50-minute boat ride from medical care. Though they could survive on the food they caught, the Charles’ have loans to pay, for the snowmobiles and ATV that allow them to subsistence hunt. To pay those loans, they needed jobs back in the village. After the summer, they returned home to Newtok, and the tribal council gave the Mertarvik home to someone else.

* * *

While the village waits to move to Mertarvik, Newtok is falling apart. State agencies have been hesitant to invest in the town, since it is supposed to be moving soon. The boardwalks connecting the homes are rotted, their nails falling out, pieces of wood surrendered to the mud. A small spit of land runs between the air strip and the village, but the boardwalk connecting the two has gaping holes, making the ride over it in a four-wheeler harrowing.

Without running water or toilets, villagers use “honey buckets” for waste, which they dump into the river, but high waters sometimes bring waste back into the village. The dump site was lost to erosion, and the new dump is only accessible during high tide by boat. “Do not burn your trash here,” one sign reads on the banks of the Ninglick River.

The village’s water supply, a freshwater lake, is just a few hundred feet from the saltwater river—in a severe storm, it could be compromised by the saltwater. A rickety series of pipes, held up on stilts, connects the lake to a shed where villagers collect tap water, where the boardwalk is nearly always covered in mud and trash.

The deterioration is taking a toll on public health. Between 1994 and 2009, more than one-quarter of infants in Newtok were hospitalized with lower respiratory tract infections, which meant Newtok had one of the highest rates of infection in the state. Public health professionals in 2006 found that inadequate levels of drinking water and high levels of contamination from honey bucket waste could be contributing to the infections.

Lisa Charles raised two of her children in Anchorage, and the rest in Newtok. Her infants had no health problems in Anchorage, but in Newtok, two of her babies came down with fevers and respiratory infections, she told me.

With little progress on Mertarvik and the water continuing to rise, it’s unclear how much longer the villagers will wait. If they leave and head to a bigger city, the centuries-old traditions and culture that they’ve preserved could disappear.

“My kids’ education comes first,” Zenia Andy told me, when I asked her whether she planned to move. If the school begins to lose teachers and students, she may move her family somewhere else.

The waters could reach Newtok’s school by 2017. (Alana Semuels)

Another resident, Jimmy Charles, told me that his children didn’t want to stay in Newtok because of the frequent floods.

Lisa and Jeff Charles have stuck around despite the floods and the health scares because they think Newtok is a good place to raise their children, and they want their kids to have the same experiences they did, trapping muskrats in the winter and fishing in the summer for survival. But Lisa Charles is beginning to worry for their safety. During the 2013 storm, she and her family watched as the water got higher and higher, eventually reaching 20 feet from their house. Charles eventually evacuated her grandmother and children to the school to be safe.

She wants to stay and relocate the nine miles across the water to Mertarvik, but she’s been waiting a long time.

“If it gets too dangerous, I have to get my kids out,” she told me.

Over the past few weeks, the fall rains have started, once again threatening to flood her hometown.

RELATED STORY

Alaska’s Climate Refugees 

An Astrobiologist Asks a Sci-fi Novelist How to Survive the Anthropocene (Nautilus)

BY DAVID GRINSPOON
ILLUSTRATIONS BY KYLE T. WEBSTER
SEPTEMBER 3, 2015

Humans will have a chance to prove their adaptability as the Earth undergoes unprecedented challenges in the Anthropocene, an era named after our impact on the biosphere. To learn what it takes to survive far into the future, astrobiologist David Grinspoon interviewed Kim Stanley Robinson, a writer regarded as one of the most important science fiction and political novelists alive today. Robinson’s recent book, 2312, permits humans to survive near-extinction and populate the solar system over the course of 300 years.

We decided to kick off the conversation with a 2312 excerpt from the chapter, “Earth, The Planet of Sadness:”

“Clean tech came too late to save Earth from the catastrophes of the early Anthropocene. It was one of the ironies of their time that they could radically change the surfaces of the other planets, but not Earth. The methods they employed in space were almost all too crude and violent. Only with the utmost caution could they tinker with anything on Earth, because everything there was so tightly balanced and interwoven.”

Grinspoon_BREAKER-03

David Grinspoon: Humans in 2312 can transverse the universe, but they could not save the Earth from environmental devastation. Do you think our intelligence just isn’t adaptive enough to learn how to live sustainably?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Human intelligence is adaptive. It’s given us enormous powers in the physical world thus far. With it, we’ve augmented our senses by way of technologies like microscopes, telescopes, and sensors, such that we have seen things many magnitudes smaller and larger than we could see with unaided senses, as well as things outside of our natural sensory ranges.

But our intelligence has also led to unprecedented problems as our planet reaches its carrying capacity. Is intelligence adaptive enough to adjust to the calamities of its own success? This situation is a completely new thing in history—which means that no one can answer the question now.

DG: What do you think it would take for us to persist?

KSR: I think we can make it through this current, calamitous time period. I envision a two-part process. First, we need to learn what to do in ecological terms. That sounds tricky, but the biosphere is robust and we know a lot about it, so really it’s a matter of refining our parameters; i.e. deciding how many of us constitutes a carrying capacity given our consumption, and then figuring out the technologies and lifestyles that would allow for that carrying capacity while also allowing ecosystems to thrive. We have a rough sense of these parameters now.

The second step is the political question: It’s a matter of self-governance. We’d need to act globally, and that’s obviously problematic. But the challenge is not really one of intellect. It’s the ability to enforce a set of laws that the majority would have to agree on and live by, and those who don’t agree would have to follow.

So this isn’t a question of reconciling gravity with quantum mechanics, or perceiving the strings of string theory. Instead it involves other aspects of intelligence, like sociability, long-range planning, law, and politics. Maybe these kinds of intelligence are even more difficult to develop, but in any case, they are well within our adaptive powers.

DG: Do you think the spread of Internet access can help us forge a multi-generational global identity that might drive change? It wouldn’t be the first time that technological advancements massively transformed humankind’s history.

KSR: The Internet may be helpful but we’ll need more than global awareness. We need a global economic system that is designed specifically for sustainability. We already have a global economic system in the form of institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Together, their agreements make up a comprehensive system. But right now, this system cheats future generations by systematically underpricing the true costs of our exploitation of the biosphere. It sets the prices of the Earth’s natural resources by establishing what is basically the aggregation of supplies and demands. But this process is biased toward pricing things lower and lower, because of pressure from buyers and the need for sellers to stay in business. As a result, sellers sell their products for less than they cost to make, which should lead to bankruptcy for the seller, but it doesn’t because parts of the costs have been shifted onto future generations to pay. When practiced systematically it becomes a kind of multi-generational Ponzi scheme, and leads to the mass extinction event of the early Anthropocene, which we have already started.

What we want is to remember that our system is constructed for a purpose, and so in need of constant fixing and new tries.

Measurements used by the Global Footprint Network and a famous study led by Robert Costanza have shown that the “natural services” we use can be assigned a dollar amount that is much greater than the entire human economy, and that we overdraw these resources and destroy their function. So in effect, we are eating our future.

And I think it’s going to be hard to change the global economic system quickly. There’s a term for that among economists called path dependence. For example, we have a path dependency on carbon that we could shift over to a cleaner and cheaper—cheaper, if you take into account the true costs to the planet—power and transport system. But the pace of technological change for something that big might be up to a century because we’re constrained by path dependence. And I don’t think we have that much time.

DG: So, are we talking evolution or revolution? Do we need to escape from path dependence and start anew? 

KSR: No, we have to alter the system we already have, because like an animal with evolutionary constraints, we can’t change everything and start from scratch. But what we could do is reconstruct regulations on the existing global economic system. For this, we would need to wrench capitalism so that the global rules of the World Bank, etc., required ecological sustainability as their main criterion. That way, prices would shift to match their true costs. Burning carbon would cost more than it does now, and clean energy would become cheaper than burning carbon. This would address the most pressing part of our crisis, but finding a replacement for the market to allocate goods and price them is not easy.

As we enter this new mass extinction event, at some point there is going to be a global civilization response that will try to deal with it: try to cope, survive, and repair landscapes and ecosystems. The scientific method and democratic politics are going to be the crucial tools, I’d say. For them to work, we need universal justice and education because we need active and well-educated citizens who are empowered and live at adequacy.

From where we are now, this looks pretty hard, but I think that’s because capitalism as we know it is represented as natural, entrenched, and immutable. None of that is true. It’s a political order and political orders change. What we want is to remember that our system is constructed for a purpose, and so in need of constant fixing and new tries.

DG: I often wonder if civilizations elsewhere in the universe have made it through times like the ones we’re facing now. Astrobiologists think the likelihood of there being extraterrestrial intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is high. Our next question is if they’re out there, why haven’t they made themselves obvious to us? One recently suggested answer to this puzzle, known as the Fermi Paradox, is that unsustainable growth is an unavoidable property of civilizations, so they self-destruct. 

KSR: The Fermi Paradox poses a really interesting question, but I think it’s unanswerable. My feeling is, the universe is too big, and life too planet-specific for intelligent life forms to communicate with each other, except for by accident and very rarely. So perhaps they’re out there, and perhaps they’ve made it through something like our current era, but we wouldn’t know. I am just making assumptions based on the data, and telling a science fiction story. But so is everyone else talking about this issue.

DG: If you don’t want to speculate on outer space, do you think civilizations in science fiction offer any examples of long-lived societies?

KSR: I like to think so. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, a planetary society runs as a kind of giant anarchist collective. Decisions are made in long, consensus-building sessions, and the economy appears to be a matter of voluntary contributions of work. It’s a culture of minimal need and use, such that everyone lives at adequacy and no one consumes very much, as this is regarded as gross behavior.

Iain Banks’s Culture series describes a far-future, post-scarcity society in which the technological power available to civilization is such that basic needs are always more than satisfied. However, they have other sorts of problems that have to do with the interactions between different societies.

In my novel, 2312, the economy is in some ways a funhouse mirror portrayal of our world. One of the civilizations—called the Mondragon after the Basque city in Spain that runs its economy as a set of nested co-ops—provides for everyone’s basic needs as a kind of public utility district service. Then there is a more free-market capitalist world of exchange of luxuries; these arrangements are loosely grouped as “above and beyonds.” That’s one image of a possible future, sustainable economy. However, if you include all the civilizations on Earth and in space in 2312, there remains a steep inequality gradient with most of the poor on Earth.

DG: So you’re saying that even if we learn to live sustainably, we may still have serious poverty?

KSR: Actually, 2312 is not so much a prediction of a future but rather a symbolic portrait of now. Poverty is mostly political in nature because the technological ability to create adequacy for all living humans exists in 2312 (as it does now) but it has never been made the “civilizational project.” In the symbolic sense, people have already begun a process of speciation, in that the most prosperous on Earth live on average decades longer than the poorest people, and can change gender to an extent. Instead, the main division between people is height. By dividing people into the “shorts” and the “talls,” I was alluding to the idea that we are becoming separate sub-species based on class. And by describing how the “shorts” have many advantages, I was trying to point out that the assumption that bigger is better is false in many situations.

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DG: Another interesting detail in 2312 is that biomes can be made from scratch on asteroids, according to a set of directions that reads like a recipe. But you warn of a potential danger at an early stage in the process: “Once you get your marsh going, you may fall in love with it.” Why is that a risk?

KSR: It’s a bit of a joke. Some of the ecologists I spoke to when I was writing the book told me that marshes were their favorite biomes because of their fecundity. As someone who likes the high Sierra I was surprised by this, and learned to look at the landscape differently. It also made me consider how all biomes are beautiful, depending on how you look at them. So being urged to move on to drier biomes is then part of that idea, but it’s not a very serious one. I have to admit that a lot of what is in 2312 is me fooling around. I think this is one thing that has made the book attractive to people, the sense of play, and that our landscapes and cities as artworks with aesthetic pleasures.

DG: Even though the Earth is a mess in 2312, the heroine of the book falls in love with the sky as seen on Earth, and the wolves that have been re-introduced. Do you think that people will always retain a connection to this planet despite its flaws? 

KSR: Yes, this was a point I was trying to make. I have this intuition that because we evolved on Earth, and are, as individuals, part of a complex network of living and natural forces, that we are biomes in effect. The result is that we will never be able to stay healthy if away from Earth for long. We carry the Earth within us, and by the same measure, I think we’ll always need the Earth around us to replenish ourselves.

David Grinspoon is an astrobiologist working with several interplanetary spacecrafts. In 2013, he was named the inaugural Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress. He tweets at @DrFunkySpoon.

This article was originally published in our “Turbulence” issue in July, 2014.

Small advances: understanding the micro biome (ABC RN)

Tuesday 1 September 2015 4:27PM

Amanda Smith

Microbes

IMAGE: THE HUMAN MICROBIOME MAY PLAY A ROLE IN EVERYTHING FROM OBESITY TO ASTHMA (FLICKR/PACIFIC NORTHWEST NATIONAL LABORATORY)

What is it that makes you, you? While you’re made up of 10 trillion human cells, 100 trillion microbial cells also live on you and in you. This vast array of microscopic bugs may be your defining feature, and scientists around the world are racing to find out more. Amanda Smith reports.

AUDIO: https://soundcloud.com/abc_rn/excerpt-the-body-microbial/s-oz6JA

Microbes, it seems, are the next big thing. Around the world, scientists are researching the human microbiome—the genes of our microbes—in the hope of unlocking quite a different way to understand sickness and health.

At the Microbiome Initiative at the University of California, San Diego, Rob Knight runs the American Gut Project, a citizen science initiative where you can get your microbiome sequenced.

Breast milk is meant to present the baby with a manageable dose of everything in the environment. It samples the entire environment—everything the mother eats, breathes, touches.

MAUREEN MINCHIN, AUTHOR OF MILK MATTERS.

‘What we can do right now is put you on this microbial map, where we can compare your microbes to the microbes of thousands of other people we’ve already looked at,’ he says. ‘But what we need to do is develop more of a microbial GPS that doesn’t just tell you where you are, but tells you where you want to go and what you need to do, step by step, in order to get there.’

The Australian Centre for Ecogenomics is also setting up a service where you can get your gut microbes analysed. The centre’s director, Phillip Hugenholtz, predicts that in years to come such a process will be a diagnostic procedure when you go to the doctor, much like getting a blood test.

‘I definitely think that’s going to become a standard part of your personalised medicine’, he says. ‘Micro-organisms are sometimes a very good early indicator of things occurring in your body and so it will become something that you’d go and get done maybe once or twice a year to see what’s going on.’

While this level of interest in the microbiome is new, the first person to realise we’re all teeming with micro-organisms was Dutchman Anton Leeuwenhoek, way back in 1676. Leeuwenhoek was interested in making lenses, and constructed himself a microscope.

‘He was looking at the scum from his teeth, and was amazed to see in this scraped-off plaque from inside his own mouth what he called hundreds of different “animalcules swimming a-prettily”,’ says Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at Kings College London.

‘He was the first to describe this, and it took hundreds of years before people actually believed that we were completely full of these microbes and we’d co-evolved with them.’

Microbes have come a long way over the last century. Until recent advances in DNA sequencing, all tummy bugs were considered bad.

‘We used to think that there was no such thing as a good microbe in our guts, that they were all out to do us no good, and we’ve basically spent the last 100 years trying to eliminate them with disinfectants and then the last 50 years with antibiotics,’ says Spector.

This has given rise to the ‘hygiene hypothesis’, which contends that by keeping ourselves too clean, we’re denying ourselves the microbes necessary to keep our immune system balanced, resulting in all sorts of chronic diseases.

‘Over the last half-century, as infectious diseases like polio and measles and hepatitis and so-on have plummeted in their frequency, chronic diseases—everything from obesity to diabetes to inflammatory bowel disease—have been skyrocketing,’ says the Microbiome Initiative’s Rob Knight.

‘So the idea is that potentially without exposure to a diverse range of healthy microbes our immune systems might be going into overdrive and attacking our own cells, or overreacting to harmless things we find in the environment.’

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

IMAGE: ANTONIE VAN LEEUWENHOEK WAS THE FIRST MICROBIOLOGIST AND THE FIRST TO OBSERVE MICRO-ORGANISMS USING A MICROSCOPE. (LICENSED UNDER PUBLIC DOMAIN VIA COMMONS)

In terms of human DNA, we’re all 99.99 per cent identical. However our microbial profiles can differ enormously. We might share just 10 per cent of our dominant microbial species with others.

According to Knight, some of the differences are explained by method of birth.

‘If you come out the regular way you get coated with microbes as you’re passing through your mother’s birth canal,’ he says.

Babies delivered by Caesarian section, on the other hand, have microbes that are mostly found on adult skin, from being touched by different doctors and nurses.

‘One thing that’s potentially interesting about that is differences between C-section and vaginally delivered babies have been reported: higher rates in C-section babies of asthma, allergies, atopic disease, even obesity. All of those have been linked to the microbiome now.’

Also important to the development of healthy microbiota in babies is breastfeeding, according to Maureen Minchin, the author of Milk Matters.

‘We’ve known for over 100 years that breast milk and formula result in very, very different gut flora in babies, but it’s only very recently that anyone has thought to look and see what breast milk does contain, and at last count there were well over 700 species of bacteria in breast milk,’ she says.

According to Minchin, breastfeeding is the bridge between the womb and the world for babies.

‘Breast milk is meant to present the baby with a manageable dose of everything in the environment. It samples the entire environment—everything the mother eats, breathes, touches. Her microbiome is present in that breast milk and will help create the appropriate microbiome in the baby.’

Minchin is an advocate of the World Health Organisation’s recommendation to breastfeed exclusively to six months and then continue breastfeeding while introducing other foods through the first and second year.

Related: Why the digestive system and its bacteria are a ‘second brain’

So if what babies are fed is important for their microbiome, what about adults? Tim Spector says research into microbes is yielding new information about healthy eating.

‘It’s going to soon revolutionise how we look at food and diet. This is one of the most exciting things in science at the moment, because it’s obviously much easier to change your microbes than it is to change your genes.’

‘Most processed foods only contain about five ingredients, and in a way our epidemic of the last 30 years of obesity and allergy is that our diets have become less and less diverse.’

According to Spector, studies of people with various chronic diseases, obesity and diabetes show a common feature, which is that their gut microbes have a much-reduced diversity compared to healthy people.

He likes to use the analogy of a garden: ‘A neglected garden has very few species, not much fertilised soil, and this allows weeds to take over in great numbers,’ he says.

‘I think this is a nice concept because we’re very good gardeners, humans, and I think we need to start using those principles—fertilising, adding soil, experimenting and avoiding adding nasty toxins to our own bodies as we would our gardens.’

May your gut flora bloom!

The Widening World of Hand-Picked Truths (New York Times)

Nearly half a century ago, in what passed as outrage in pre-Internet times, people across the country became incensed by the latest edition of Time magazine. In place of the familiar portrait of a world leader — Indira Gandhi, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ho Chi Minh — the cover of the April 8, 1966, issue was emblazoned with three red words against a stark black background: “Is God Dead?”

Thousands of people sent letters of protest to Time and to their local newspapers. Ministers denounced the magazine in their sermons.

The subject of the fury — a sprawling, 6,000-word essay of the kind Time was known for — was not, as many assumed, a denunciation of religion. Drawing on a panoply of philosophers and theologians, Time’s religion editor calmly considered how society was adapting to the diminishing role of religion in an age of secularization, urbanism and, especially, stunning advances in science.

With astronauts walking in space, and polio and other infectious diseasesseemingly on the way to oblivion, it was natural to assume that people would increasingly stop believing things just because they had always believed them. Faith would steadily give way to the scientific method as humanity converged on an ever better understanding of what was real.

Almost 50 years later, that dream seems to be coming apart. Some of the opposition is on familiar grounds: The creationist battle against evolution remains fierce, and more sophisticated than ever. But it’s not just organized religions that are insisting on their own alternate truths. On one front after another, the hard-won consensus of science is also expected to accommodate personal beliefs, religious or otherwise, about the safety of vaccines, G.M.O. crops, fluoridation or cellphone radio waves, along with the validity of global climate change.

Like creationists with their “intelligent design,” the followers of these causes come armed with their own personal science, assembled through Internet searches that inevitably turn up the contortions of special interest groups. In an attempt to dilute the wisdom of the crowd, Google recently tweaked its algorithm so that searching for “vaccination” or “fluoridation,” for example, brings vetted medical information to the top of the results.

But presenting people with the best available science doesn’t seem to change many minds. In a kind of psychological immune response, they reject ideas they consider harmful. A study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that it is more effective to appeal to anti-vaxxers through their emotions, with stories and pictures of children sick with measles, the mumps or rubella — a reminder that subjective feelings are still trusted over scientific expertise.

On a deeper level, characteristics that once seemed biologically determined are increasingly challenged as malleable social constructs. As she resigned from her post this summer, an N.A.A.C.P. local leader continued to insistshe was black although she was born white. Facebook now offers users a list of 56 genders to choose from. Transgender sits on the list, along with its opposite, cisgender — meaning that, like most people, you identify yourself as male or female according to the way the cells of your embryo unfolded in the womb.

Even conditions once certified as pathologies are redefined. While some parents cling to discredited research blaming vaccines for giving children autism, others embrace the condition as one more way of being and speak of a new civil rights movement promoting “neurodiversity,” the subject of a book by Steve Silberman, published this month.

While this has been a welcome and humane development for those diagnosed as “higher functioning” on the autism scale, parents of severely impaired children have expressed dismay.

Viewed from afar, the world seems almost on the brink of conceding that there are no truths, only competing ideologies — narratives fighting narratives. In this epistemological warfare, those with the most power are accused of imposing their version of reality — the “dominant paradigm” — on the rest, leaving the weaker to fight back with formulations of their own. Everything becomes a version.

Ideas like these have been playing out in the background as native Hawaiian protesters continue to delay the construction of a new telescope on Mauna Kea that they say would desecrate a mountaintop where the Sky Father and Earth Mother gave birth to humankind. Last month, they staged a demonstration at the annual meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Honolulu.

There are already 13 telescopes on the mountain, all part of the Mauna Kea Science Reserve, which was established by the state in 1968 on what is widely considered the premier astronomical vantage point in the Northern Hemisphere. After I wrote about the controversy last fall, I heard from young anthropologists, speaking the language of postmodernism, who consider science to be just another tool with which Western colonialism further extends its “cultural hegemony” by marginalizing the dispossessed and privileging its own worldview.

Science, through this lens, doesn’t discover knowledge, it “manufactures” it, along with other marketable goods.

Altruism and compassion toward the feelings of others represent the best of human impulses. And it is good to continually challenge rigid categories and entrenched beliefs. But that comes at a sacrifice when the subjective is elevated over the assumption that lurking out there is some kind of real world.

The widening gyre of beliefs is accelerated by the otherwise liberating Internet. At the same time it expands the reach of every mind, it channels debate into clashing memes, often no longer than 140 characters, that force people to extremes and trap them in self-reinforcing bubbles of thought.

In the end, you’re left to wonder whether you are trapped in a bubble, too, a pawn and a promoter of a “hegemonic paradigm” called science, seduced by your own delusions.