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Sobre renzotaddei

Anthropologist, professor at the Federal University of São Paulo

Opinion | Stop. Breathe. We Can’t Keep Working Like This. (Ezra Klein/New York Times)

Cal Newport explains how Slack and Gmail are making us miserable — and what to do about it.

Friday, March 5th, 2021

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ezra klein

Well, I’m Ezra Klein. Welcome to “The Ezra Klein Show.”

Before we get into it, a bit of housekeeping. We are looking for an associate producer. That job is still open, but not for much longer. If you have two years of audio experience and want to work on the show, go check out the link to the job listing and show notes. But to the show today, I want to begin here with a concept that’s going to be important throughout the episode — the hyperactive hive mind. That’s the idea at the center of Cal Newport’s new book, “A World Without Email.” And it’s the idea he says at the center of how a lot of us are working and living these days. He defines the hyperactive hive mind as a workflow centered on ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools, like email and instant messenger. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but if you’re someone working in an office, maybe a remote one now, where there’s just a constant stream of digital work-like chatter, that you kind of always need to be keeping up with, but also you sense it’s distracting you from doing your work and also from seeing your family and just relaxing pretty often, that you’re in a hyperactive hive mind. And a lot of us — not all of us, but a lot of us — are in this now. I’ve been a fan of Newport’s work for years, going back to his book, “Deep Work.” Newport has been circling this idea that all of the digital wonder around us has come with a cost. We’re losing our ability to concentrate. These remarkable vistas of information that have been opened to us have also been polluted by endless distraction. And so, we’re not benefiting from any of this the way we thought we would. Instead of getting more done in less time, we feel like we have less time than ever and are never getting enough done. It’s really weird. Something is wrong here. And one reason I like Newport’s work is I think he is right on this. I think we have a lot of trouble seeing the cost of technology, at least when that technology comes with a lot of good, as the internet and digital communication, of course, does. But we have to be able to step back and look at it because the way we adopt a technology at the beginning is never going to be — never going to be — particularly when it is harnessed to firms trying to sell it all to us. It is never going to be the way we ultimately should use it. But the weakness, I would say, of Newport’s previous book — so a weakness he agrees with — is that they were about individuals. They were sometimes the equivalent of giving diet advice to somebody who lives in the chips and cookies aisle of the supermarket. There’s not a lot you can do around that much temptation, but even more so when your built environment is decided for you, when so many choices about how you have to work and what you have to be part of are already made for you. But this book is a step forward in that way. This book is about systems, and in particular, about workplaces. Newport is making a radical argument here, that companies that obsess about efficiency, that think of themselves as rational economic actors, they are utterly failing to question and experiment with their own workflows, like the fundamental nature of how they do their business. And in that, they are making their employees unhappy. They are making their products worse, and they are just contributing to an overall degradation of society. It’s a pretty stunning indictment. I’m not sure I agree with all of it. But I think there’s really something to it. As always, my email is ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com. Always interested to know who you’d like to see on the show next, so send me your guest suggestions. Here’s Cal Newport.

So this is a book about how the information technology revolution went wrong in the workplace. What went wrong?

cal newport

Well, once we had the arrival of email in the workplace, it very quickly gave rise to a really new way of organizing large groups of people to work together. It’s what I call the hyperactive hive mind. But essentially, we said, OK, now that we have low friction, low cost digital communication, we can just figure things out on the fly. We’ll plug everyone into an inbox, or later, into a Slack channel, and ad hoc unstructured back and forth messages, just figure things out with people as you need them. And that swept basically the entire knowledge sector. And I think that ended up being a disaster.

ezra klein

Why? What is your evidence it’s a disaster?

cal newport

Well, I have two main threads. So the first thread of evidence is that it makes it essentially impossible to work. And essentially, the culprit here is network switching. Human brains take a long time to switch. If you’re going to put your target of attention on one thing and then switch it to a new target, that takes a while, right? There’s biological things going on here. You have to suppress some networks. You have to amplify other networks. It takes some time. When you glance at an inbox or when you glance at a Slack channel, as is required that you do constantly, if back and forth messaging is how you organize most of your work, you begin to trigger all these network shifts, so all of these complex biological cascades initiate. And you see all these unresolved issues and things you can’t get back to. And then if you wrench your attention back to what you were trying to do, it creates this whole pile-up in your brain, which we experience as a loss of cognitive function. We also feel frustrated. We feel tired. We feel anxious. Because the human brain can’t do it. And so essentially, the hyperactive hive mind, on paper, had this really good attribute, which is it’s flexible and it’s easy and it’s cheap. You just kind of figure things out on the fly. But the biological reality is it made us really bad at doing our work. And then we have the second thread, which I think had been somewhat unexplored, which is this way of working makes us miserable. It just clashes with our fundamental human wiring to have this nonstop piling up of communication from our tribe members that we can’t keep up with. And that hits all of these deeply rooted social networks in our brain to take this type of thing seriously. No matter how much the frontal cortex tells us it’s OK, we don’t have to answer these emails right away. There’s a deeper part of our brain that’s worried. And so it makes us miserable, and it makes us terrible at work. But other than that, though, it’s been pretty good.

ezra klein

I want to pick up on this question of whether or not it’s making us miserable. Because one way of looking at this is that it is a triumph of workers who don’t want to work all that hard and want lots of opportunities for distraction over bosses who want them to work really hard. So Slack is just an amazingly deceptive piece of enterprise software, in my mind. I was at an organization that we didn’t have it. And then I helped bring it to that organization. And now, it’s completely clear to me that Slack makes organizations less effective. It’s very well built to help workers slack off, right? To help me slack off. I enjoy slacking off on Slack. I mean, it’s literally right there in the name. It’s called Slack. And they’ve made all these wonderful — you can put GIFs in so easily and little reaction emoji. It’s a great way to bullshit around the water cooler digitally. And so there’s one perspective on this, which is that we’re seeing a failure, and then another that we’re seeing a kind of success of people taking their time back and having more socializing at work. Why should that not be the attitude or conceptual frame I put around this?

cal newport

Well, no, I think you’re getting at some truth there. I had a recent New Yorker piece that was titled, “Slack is the right tool for the wrong way to work,” where I was trying to really grapple with this notion that there’s a reason why Slack is popular, and there’s also a reason why we hate it. It’s serving two purposes, which kind of complicates the story. I think it’s absolutely true that one of the benefits of the hive mind is it gives you obfuscation. So say you don’t want to work as hard. Let’s say I don’t want to do as much, or I’m in a situation maybe where I can’t work as hard. There is an obfuscation you can get because it’s so ambiguous and ad hoc and on-demand that you can basically generate smokescreens by rapid responses and being on active on the Slack channels. And there’s also a social component to it. And I think those are both really interesting aspects of the hive mind. But I don’t think either justify the hive mind is the right way to work.

ezra klein

A point you make in the book is productivity growth across the economy is not way better today than it was before the widespread adoption of email or before the widespread adoption of Slack. One might have thought that speeding communication would make it so we could get a lot more done a lot quicker. That does not appear to be happening. What problem does interoffice communication solve, and at what point does it become too much?

cal newport

Well, so what Slack was trying to do — or at least, this was my argument in that former piece — is, Slack said, OK, if we’re going to use the hyperactive hive mind as our primary workflow — that is, if we’re just going to work things out on the fly with back and forth messaging, email is not that great at it. We can do it better with Slack. So when I called Slack the right tool for the wrong way to work, I mean, it’s a tool that is optimized. If we’re going to do the hive mind, this is a better tool for implementing constant chatter than email was, which is why we both love and hate it. We love it because if our organization runs on constant chatter, it does a better job as a tool of that than an inbox does with email. We hate it because this way of working has fundamental issues. But if we go back in time, what problem was email solving? I mean, my ultimate argument is that the original rise, which I document, came from the reality that having fast, but asynchronous communication was sort of a productivity silver bullet. It was an issue that rose once the rise of large offices emerged in mid century, this notion that you might have 1,000 people working in a non-industrial manner for the same company. How do they communicate? And the telephone, the interoffice telephone introduced a synchronous option, but there’s a lot of overhead to getting someone on the phone at the same time. Memos and mail carts, this gave us an asynchronous option, but they were slow. There was people involved. You had to put things on carts. It could take all day. So email was solving a really real problem. I want to do asynchronous communication. I want to do it fast and with low overhead. But once it was there in a way that was unintentional, unplanned, no one thought this was a good way to work, it spiraled us into this hyperactive hive mind, where we basically threw out any other processes or structures for organizing our work and said, why don’t we just figure it out on the fly? And there’s a lot of reasons why that happened. But what I want to underscore here is that shift was unintentional and unplanned. We live in this hive mind not because some corporate consultant said this will make us more productive. It’s actually a lot more accidental.

ezra klein

From an economic perspective, what you’re positing here is not just a very big market failure, but a really big failure of firm organization and management. What you’re saying is that the people in charge of these firms, certainly the people in charge of the digital structure internally at these firms, have actually failed at a very profound level. They’ve brought in these tools. These tools have gotten out of control. They’re reducing worker productivity and firm productivity. They’re reducing worker happiness and firm overall happiness. All that seems basically true to me, but then what is your explanation for why so very, very few major firms have come up with some really, really aggressively alternative way to work? If this is all working so badly, why is it spreading so ubiquitously?

cal newport

This was one of the big ideas I did some original reporting on for the book. We have a big explanation from this from the late management theorist, Peter Drucker, who coined the term “knowledge work” and really helped American industry in particular understand how this type of work was different than industrial work. He sort of set the trajectories in place. One of the big ideas he emphasized was autonomy. Knowledge workers, unlike industrial workers, need autonomy on how they get their work done. You cannot tell them how to work, how they organize themselves productivity. So he was really pushing autonomy. He introduced this very influential notion of management by objectives. Don’t tell me how to work, just give me clear objectives, and leave it up to me how to actually get things done. And there’s a lot of truth in that, right? I mean, he was right in the sense that you can’t tell an ad copywriter or a computer programmer, you know, how to write ad copy or how to program a computer in the way that you could go to an assembly line in a car plant, because he used to study GM, and say, OK, here’s the step-by-step process for building a steering wheel. So he was right about that. But I think it went too far. My argument is that we are so insistent on autonomy on how we execute work, we accidentally expanded that envelope to mean autonomy on how we also organize our work, how we assign our work, how we figure out who should be working on what. And so we fell into this autonomy trap where we feel as managers or entrepreneurs or people who run companies, like, look, it’s not our job to try to figure out the best way to organize work. We’ll just let individuals do that. And when you leave it entirely up to the individuals, you end up with the hyperactive hive mind because it’s the kind of the easiest, least common denominator thing, that if you have no other control, that’s where we’re going to end up. So I think we’re in a trap because we took truckers’ autonomy maybe a little bit too literally.

ezra klein

I want to try out an alternative explanation I knew that I’ve been thinking about. And this one comes more from the incentives of enterprise software companies like Slack or Microsoft in making Teams. Or I guess, Facebook has Blue Jeans as their Zoom competitor and so on and so forth. Which is that you might think the way productivity software, firm level productivity software, gets marketed is that you go to the people who run IT for a big firm and you show some studies about how your software will make the firm work better, and they compare that to the other people trying to sell them something and then go with you if your studies are best. But actually, particularly once you hit a critical mass of other firms using something, there’s actually pressure from employees. And the employee pressure comes from, I would enjoy this software, so I could be good. We would prefer — I remember pushing for Gmail at The Washington Post because we were using Lotus Notes at that point, or Lotus mail, whatever the Lotus level mail software was. And of course, Gmail made it easier to be on email all the time. And so, there’s a funny way in which what we think of as enterprise software is actually sold for the ones that are the real winners in the space through employee demands. But the incentives are misaligned. Then what you’re actually trying to do is win over employees, and you’re going to do that through software that’s more fun to use.

cal newport

That actually just underscores this interesting autonomy trap we’re in. I mean, you want to imagine a car factory, right? How is it that might be the more fun way to build the cars, right? So in other sectors, people are more process engineering focused, right? What’s the evidence? What’s the best way to do this? And in the knowledge sector, you can imagine a similar thought about how should brains collaborate, what’s the right way for brains to work, how much work should be on everyone’s plate, where should we store things, what’s the right way to communicate. Should it be back and forth messages? Should it be more synchronous meetings? You would think that we could be doing tons of thinking and engineering like that. But we don’t because we’re in this autonomy trap. We’re like, look, that’s not up for us. We put up the OKRs. You guys figure out how to work. And if you tell us you think Slack is more fun, then maybe we’ll buy Slack. But if you step back, I think the metaphorical house is on fire here. We’re at a point now where it’s completely common in a lot of knowledge ware companies that not only do you spend a lot of time doing things like email and meetings, you now spend all of your time doing that, every working hour. And actual work has to get done in these hidden second shifts that happen in the morning or happen in the evening, which creates all of these unexpected inequities. I mean, the fact that that is happening now should be alarm bells ringing, but instead, we’re like, it’s busy. It’s modern times. We’re high tech. That’s just what life is like. We have acceded to it, which I find surprising.

ezra klein

So there’s a thread here that I think is interesting. So you go back to more of the period you’re talking about. Well, let’s call it the early 2000s. So now you’re seeing the very sharp rise of your Google’s. Apple’s already pretty big, but you begin to see Facebook, et cetera. And you remember all this. There was a real vogue for, can you believe all these Silicon Valley firms have ping pong tables? Just like, it’s ping pong tables everywhere. And, right, Google had all of these features done on their workplace culture. And there were slides in a bunch of the offices and on-site laundry and these beautiful lunches with fancy chefs and cafeterias. Initially, this was all presented as paradise for a worker. And then, slowly, this alternative narrative began to take hold, which is, no, this is actually a quite insidious kind of trap. This is a way of making workers spend all of their time at work. It’s a way of making it so people don’t go home easily at night. It’s a way of blurring the lines between what is fun and social and community, which we normally think of as not happening in your office, and what is your office. And it’s a way of getting people to put in 10, 12-hour days. And a lot of the software that emerges out of these companies and out of this period actually seems to me to take that physical insight, that by blurring the line of fun at work, you could allow work to colonize spaces that hadn’t colonized before, and it becomes a software insight. And so then, as you say, things that look like fun at the front end, right — we can chatter with our employees all day — now begin to overwhelm things that actually would have been more fun or more restful or more fulfilling. Like, you have Slack pings hitting your phone at night when you’re supposed to be with your family, or you’re sitting with your friends, and you’re looking at your phone because you’re just so used to being in that constant communication. That the blending of work and fun, which I do think of as a distinctive work culture thing of our era, has actually been really toxic for real fun — and maybe for work, too.

cal newport

Well, it certainly doesn’t help. And I agree that it’s really a culture of 20 to 30 somethings living in the Bay Area during a certain period, who had emerged with this lifestyle that was entirely integrated with the digital, especially once you get post-smartphone, post-constant connectivity. And you do see that trend move into these tools. But there’s also countervailing trends. So I’ll give you a counter example. I was fascinated working on the book on this notion of extreme programming. So it’s like a workplace methodology and the guy who was telling me about it is a real zealot. His company had been bought by Google, and he had gotten disillusioned that Google wasn’t hardcore enough about his methodology. So he left to start his own lab. But if we think about extreme programming as like an extreme case study, what they do in these shops is all built around, OK, we have brains that can produce good code. If that’s really what we want to maximize, how do we do it? So there’s no email, there’s no Slack. You come in, you sit at a screen with another programmer. If you have two brains working on the same thing, you push each other, and you get more insights. But also, you take less breaks. You slack less, right? Their project leads handles all communication on their behalf. You have no inbox, you have no whatever, and they just code. And it’s so intense that they’re done by 3:00 or 4:00. And there would be no notion that you would stay there late. It would be impossible to. We work really hard, and then when we’re done, we’re done. They said when people are newly hired here, they end up having to go home and take naps for the first couple of weeks, just to adjust to the load. Now that is rightfully called extreme, but what boggles my mind is why aren’t there dozens and dozens of experiments of all these different ways of working? Clearly, you can change the way you work. When you start thinking about, OK, how do you get value out of human minds? How do you stop the human mind from burning out? How do we stop people from being miserable? There’s all of these options. And the fact that it’s so unexplored, that something like an extreme program is this weird outlier case study, to me, I think that’s very striking, right? I mean, to me, it’s a revolution waiting to happen. We’ve seen this in past intersections of technology and commerce, that there’s these long simmering revolutions, where we’re not doing things the way that would be smart. We’re doing what’s convenient. We’re doing what the momentum pushes us. We’re following inertia. And then, overnight, suddenly, we have electric motors and factories. Overnight, they don’t build cars craft method anymore. They do it the assembly line. So these tend to be non-contiguous, right, so these kind of discontinuities when we have these jumps. I just think something like this is coming for knowledge work. This constant back and forth chatter, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. And so something has to change.

ezra klein

Let me pick up on the cars example. I love the way you tell the very oft told story of Henry Ford and the Model T and the assembly line. Because I’ve read a version of that story I don’t know how many dozen times in productivity and management and innovation books. But it often feels like there was bespoke artisanal car manufacturing, and then all of a sudden, here comes Henry Ford and the Model T. And you focus on what is happening between those two moments, right? This period when Ford is experimenting, how difficult the experimentation must have been, how frustrating it must have been, and that there are a bunch of experiments that failed. Can you talk a little bit about that, the path from one to the other?

cal newport

Yeah, I think it’s very, very illustrative. So, Ford, when he was first running his factory, when you have the early days, let’s say, of the Highland Park Factory, the craft method did dominate, right? So they took this bespoke method, where just some craftsmen would build a car. And the way they scaled it is they just had more teams working on more cars. They put them up on sawhorses, and you would surround it, you and five other guys. And you would build a car. And so he started experimenting. OK, this seems like it’s not that fast. And so he went through a whole series of experimentations, which I thought were really interesting once you uncovered them. They tried lots of things. Like, what if we have one guy who is the wheel guy, and he just goes from sawhorse to sawhorse and puts on the wheels? Well, what if we put the materials in the ceiling so that they can come down chutes? And then you could have it come right down to where you are without having to take on space on the floor. Well, what if we have a whole team that moves from car to car? So he was doing all of these experiments to try to figure out, is there a better way to actually take all this material, and then on the other end, have a car built? And the two things I like to emphasize is, one, the way they were building cars before was very easy and very convenient and very natural. And we actually see this story come up a lot in the history of industrial manufacturing, that when you had early factories, you built things the way that was convenient and natural because it seemed too foreboding to try to figure out something else, right? And this goes back to sort of the history of industrial manufacturing. And, two, it was a huge pain to get past that. It was all those experiments, but the assembly line was a huge pain. Once it got running, they had to hire a lot more people. They had to spend a lot more money. I’m sure no one liked the notion who was an investor in Ford. Like, you’re doing what? We’re going to double the amount of floor managers who don’t build things, but just watch things? And it would get stuck all the time. When you’re trying to figure out how to make this thing work, if the steering wheel guy is a little bit too slow, the whole assembly line would stop. So it was really inconvenient. It was a pain, and it cost more money at first. But it was 10 to 100x more productive once they figured it out, which, to me, is a good metaphor for we gravitate towards what’s easy and convenient. And it can be a pain to move to what works better at first. There is an upfront cost to figuring out, let’s say, better ways of producing things.

ezra klein

So you’ve been studying this over the course of your last two or three books. You’ve been circling this book, I would say. And for this book, you’ve spoken to a lot of firms that were trying to change the way they worked pretty radically. They’re the exceptions. And then I’m sure you’ve spoken to a lot of people in firms that weren’t. What is your explanation for why firms are more loath to experiment? Is it just the Peter Drucker thing at this point? Or do you see more happening in terms of the status quo bias, the lock in, the power dynamics of firms that make this kind of experimentation hard for managers to try?

cal newport

So there’s sort of three hypotheses on the table I was looking at. So there’s the Peter Drucker autonomy trap. There is the — it just been hard, right? Let’s call this the Henry Ford lesson, right, that it’s actually a real pain to figure out what works better. This is convenient, this is cheap. When I was interviewing Gloria Mark, she told me about how, when she was in the computer supported collaborative work scene back in the early 1990s and computer networks were new, there was all this exciting research about look at all these tools we’re going to build that are going to sit on networks, and we can access them on networks. And it’s going to make our work so much more effective and productive. And she said the whole field basically went away once email spread because it was just cheaper to buy an email server. It’s like, look, we can just do this all with file attachments and CCs and it’s fine. We don’t need it. And then the third reason would be power dynamics, right? Which is something I heard hypothesized a lot that maybe that for a boss or something, this them more power. It could be either productivity power play, like I’ll get more out of my workers. Or it could be a sort of egotistic self-regard. I like people answer me, sort of powerplays. All three hypotheses play a role. As far as I can tell, though, it’s a combination of the first two that probably play the biggest role. So, the bosses, manager, C suites, at all these levels, I think there’s this growing awareness that this is terrible. It’s a terrible way to work. Our output as a company is lower, and employees turnover and leave the workforce because it makes them miserable. So the power dynamics didn’t show up to be as important as they once suspected. But I think it’s a combination of the autonomy bias and just the fact it’s hard. The companies I document that do replace the hyperactive hive mind with more bespoke processes that reduce all this constant back and forth, it wasn’t easy to do. It’s like figuring out how to make the assembly line work. There’s going to be false starts. There’s going to be experiments. It’s going to cost more overhead. Bad things are going to happen temporarily. And you have to be willing to go through that. And that’s a big hurdle.

ezra klein

So one of the obvious objections to your theory here is that if this is a market failure, if most firms are running this wrong, then it should be relatively easy to correct in the sense that firms will emerge that are working off of more Cal Newportian theory of the case. And they will come to overwhelm the market because their productivity will be higher, their output will be better. They will get better employees because it’ll be more fun to work there. When I read through the book, it obviously seems some of these firms are more fun, right? So you spend some time in firms that have shorter work weeks. You have firms that have way better work-life balances. I know some of those firms, and they don’t dominate their industry. Their practices are not spreading like wildfire. And that implies to me that something is wrong somewhere in the model because if this is such an economic drag, or at least, such a drag on worker happiness, then there should be a really huge competitive advantage to the firms who have figured out a better way or who are wandering around it. What’s your theory there?

cal newport

I think it’s coming. There is a huge competitive advantage. It’s why I think we’re going to experience a punctuated equilibrium here. The shift is going to seem to be practically overnight when the shift does come. And a couple of reasons to believe it’s coming — one I like to emphasize that the timeline here is not unusual. I mean, how long did it take from the beginning of industrial car manufacturing to the change that was the assembly line? It was about 20 to 25 years. We’ve had email as a large presence for about 20 to 25 years. If you look at the electric dynamo, its integration into factory construction, it took about 50 years, even after we had generators who could generate electricity and we had electric motors. And clearly, the right thing to do was to put electric motors on the factory equipment, as opposed to having all these overhead cams and belts that were powered off of old steam engines. It still took 50 or 60 years until there was this moment where, OK, everything shifted over, and there was a lot of reasons about inertia and infrastructure that’s already been invested. So my argument is, you basically should hold this to me, right? So I’m making a falsifiable — this is my Karl Popper moment here. I’m saying, let’s look in five years. I think we’re going to see a big difference. Now partially what I’ve noticed is between when I started talking to people about this for my 2016 book, Deep Work, and now, there’s a notable shift in some of the CEOs I talked to. There’s a notable shift in some of the investors I talked to. This is on the radar, I should say, of these communities. Because they’re beginning to realize there might be hundreds of billions of dollars of GDP on the table, and that is a really rich pie. There’s been a lot of investment activity in the last couple of years on companies that are trying to better help extract this. In the conclusion of my book, I quote anonymously but a relatively well known CEO, who’s saying, like, this is going to be the moonshot of the next decade, is figuring out how to get past the hive mind and have much more sustainable productive ways of working. He calls it the moonshot because there is so much value there, but also it’s going to require so much energy to figure it out. So I would say five years from now, things will look different. And that’s a falsifiable hypothesis. I mean, if we’re in the same place five years from now, then maybe not. But we’re basically on track. This is a very normal timeline in technology and commerce. For a new technology comes, we do what’s easiest. We finally have this moment of punctuated equilibrium. We’re like, OK, enough is enough, and we shift to a different phase. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

One of the things that I think about in the difficulty here because we’ve known each other a long time, and you know that I’m a believer in the Cal Newport oeuvre on these subjects. I care about deep work. Back when I was at Vox, we had a little deep work icon you could put on in Slack. And you’d be doing deep work, and nobody should bother you.

cal newport

That’s a very ironic thing you just said, by the way, a deep work icon on Slack.

ezra klein

Listen, it’s all ironic. I’m aware of that. One of the things that I notice in myself as a worker — and others for that matter, too, but I’ll be the example here — is that as much as I know I get more done if I don’t flick over to Twitter, if I don’t flick over to Slack or my email, and I use freedom and I cut myself off from those things when I’m trying to get things done, there’s still a big part of me that wants to. And one of the tricky parts of this is, is that it’s not one of these things that is good for us and it feels good when we do it. It’s incredibly tiring to work in a sustained, focused way without getting those little dopamine hits of distraction. And the more often you get those little hits, the more you crave them. I mean, this is part of Deep Work, that you begin to train your brain to demand these little bits of feedback. And so it becomes very hard to change the way your firm works or to even just change the way you work, not because you don’t think you should, but because you are so trained to do the other thing, right? You’ve come to expect it. Then once you do it, you kind of fall back into old patterns. I’m curious how you think about that part of it, that retraining of our own expectations and rhythms.

cal newport

Well, so one of the changes I’ve had in my thinking, let’s say between “Deep Work” and this book, is thinking about the individual. I think one of the issues people had — let’s say you read something like “Deep Work.” You’re like, OK, I get it. Like, concentration produces more than non-concentration. I try to spend more time in the deep work. And so then, as an individual, you should try to put more time on that. And you’re talking about how that’s very difficult. Well, that’s difficult in part because not a failure of will, you as an individual, but because it is a necessity of this underlying hyperactive hive mind workflow that this inbox is where everything’s happening. Like, there’s people who need you. Everything you’re involved in is taking place in that inbox. This back and forth messaging is how this is getting figured out and that is getting resolved and how this issue is also getting handled. And so this urge to, I need to go back and check this, I think we too often think of it as a failure of will, but it’s a failure of workflow. And it’s the reason why I think a lot of people had a hard time executing ideas of deep work. It’s the reason why I think moves to have email-free Fridays, or let’s have better norms about response times, the reason why this has failed to really calm any issues with inbox or email overload is because this is where the work happens, and when you’re away from it, it causes problems. Which is, this is my big revelation, is that we can’t solve these problems in the inbox. We have to solve these problems below the inbox. We actually have to go and take the implicit work processes that are generating all these back and forth messages and expectation of ad hoc unstructured communication, and we have to replace them with things to generate many fewer messages. We need to make the inbox a lot less interesting. I think that’s more important than trying to convince people to ignore the interesting nature of the inbox. And so, that’s something I’ve really been thinking about. Because it’s not helping to keep all of our focus on — and by our, I just mean the culture that deals with email overload — to keep all the focus on hacks and tips and how to better engage with your inbox. The problem, I think, is below.

ezra klein

And one of the difficulties here, too, is that there are some — advantages may not be exactly the right word, but benefits that come out of being personally engaged and sorting through the information flow. So I believe — you can tell me if I’m wrong. I believe I make an anonymous appearance in this book. And there’s this moment where you say I was talking to the editor-in-chief of a new media, a new journalism company.

cal newport

This is you, yes, OK.

ezra klein

It is me, yeah. And I was saying to him, why didn’t you just have somebody checking Twitter on behalf of your staff and telling them if anything interesting is coming. And you say, well, this unnamed journalism EIC had never thought of this before and thought, well, what if — and that’s actually not how I remember that conversation. I’m going to give you some shit about this. And so I remember the issue there, what I said, it’s true I thought about that. That’s not a lie, but is that the difficulty with having somebody else check Twitter on my behalf, is that I am doing the information processing. And only I know what I find interesting. And only I see the things in it that I will see. And even worse for journalists — and this might be distinctive to my industry, but it is a problem in my industry — Twitter is an important place where you build your own brand. And so, I think collectively, it would make sense if we’re not all herding on there and thinking the same way and talking to each other. But for any individual to leave is a little bit irrational because you deprive yourself of mindshare and the people who could give you future jobs. And in the sort of ways your peers understand you as fitting into the firmament, which is very important for the future of your career. And so this is a situation where not every but a lot of journalists I know do not like how much time they spend on Twitter. There’s a lot of talk about this health site, all of that. And people drop off and they’ll come back because to not be there feels like it has worse consequences, even though to be there is very unpleasant. So I want to hear your response to my more nuanced explanation of why journalists are on Twitter.

cal newport

Yeah, no, I remember you having that response, and I still don’t buy it. I think it’s — [LAUGHTER] I think Twitter is melting journalist brains. I mean —

ezra klein

I’m not arguing that.

cal newport

Yeah, it’s making journalists miserable. I still hold by my original stance. Like, there’s got to be a way that the — I mean, you mentioned it was like breaking news was important. And hearing from sources was important, so that went over to email a little bit. And that’s where I figured —

ezra klein

No, I don’t think — I will say I don’t think the breaking news function is that important. I think a lot of journalists will tell you it is, but I don’t agree with them on that.

cal newport

Right.

ezra klein

I think it’s actually more esoteric things one sees that can be important.

cal newport

Right, but at the time, I think the breaking news was a thing that — and I think we’ve in general, as a culture, I think have evolved on that because we realize like, oh, wait, we’re not getting on the ground AP reports from Twitter. We’re getting a lot of randomness and a lot of false information, too. I would still argue there’s got to be a way — I mean, this is like digital minimalism 101. So let’s say there is something about direct encounter with the esoterica of Twitter that helps sort of you gain a better zeitgeist understanding of cultural trends, which will then inform your writing. OK, let’s say we buy that premise. Minimalism would say, great. What’s the right way to get that benefit while minimizing the cost? It would probably be like, I have my Twitter hour, where I go. The thing that I think was killer for a lot of journalists is this notion of, I always am on this thing, and I’m always checking this thing. And Twitter has its own emotional issues. It has its own issues like you’ve talked about. And I heard you talk about this with Zeynep Tufekci recently on your podcast. It has idea hurting issues, but it also has the issues I talk about, which it significantly reduces your cognitive capacity. You can’t think as clearly. You feel tired. You feel anxious. The work you produce as a journalist, all of that is worse as well. When I was doing the digital minimalism promotion a couple of years ago, there was one — I’ll leave this anonymous. And it’s not you, though — I will say that. There was one interview I did with a well-known journalist. And this journalist producer admitted to me, I didn’t really have you on for the audience, I wanted the host to hear these ideas because I think this person is going insane. I have to get them off of Twitter, so.

ezra klein

Did it work?

cal newport

Oh, no. Oh, no. It got worse.

ezra klein

[LAUGHS] You say something, though, around this issue that I think is really wise, which is that one thing that a lot of these mediums do is that they make us all think we should be generalists. They make us all think that we should and can do everything. So something about the way Twitter does news is that it feels like you should be on top of everything. And I think actually something that I try very hard as a journalist to do is say, there are some things that I’m just not going to know that much about because I need to know a lot about the things I write on. And so, I need to let other things pass me by. But in general, you have a section of the book — this is more towards the end, but where you talk about specialization as an answer here and how one of the odd effects of hyperactive hive mind thinking is that it has cut against specialization. Could you talk a little bit about specialization, why you think we’ve lost it and what kinds of ways we could get it back?

cal newport

One of the claims I try to back up in the book is that when you remove the friction required to communicate with people inside your organization, both the amount and diversity of things that’s on their plate that they have to deal with explodes. Right? So now you just have many more things you have to do. You have many more, some of it administrative and some of it non-administrative. But if you just look at the sheer variety of things that the knowledge worker has on their proverbial task list — and I say proverbial because they probably don’t actually have a real task list. It probably is just all mungled in their inbox, which is its own issue. It’s huge, right? So there’s a really interesting notion from the literature on this. And it’s this idea of diminishment of intellectual specialization. And it’s a term that was coined by an economist named Peter Sassone, and he was at Georgia Tech. And he wrote this paper back in the ‘90s that I cite all the time because I think it’s just really fascinating. But he studied earlier technologies arriving. He had five companies, 20 departments within these companies, more like the personal computer, right? So this would have been the late ‘80s. So not email, but we can extrapolate from this. And what he documented happened in these companies is that these computers had time-saving, quote unquote, software, word processors and early email and these type of things. And so these companies say this is great. We can fire support staff. We don’t need a typing pool. We don’t need secretaries. We can fire support staff because now everything is kind of easy enough. The friction’s low enough that the executives or the employees themselves can just do the work. The problem was, is, all this work now shifted onto the plate, so that the people that maybe were doing five main things for the company now had 15 things on their plate, so they could get less of the original value producing work done. So they had to hire more of these higher priced employees to actually keep up with the same amount of output. And Sassone crunched the numbers and said, actually, their salary costs ended up, after all this was done, 15 percent higher. So they cut the salaries of support staff, but then they had to add more of these higher priced salaries because people were less productive, and they ended up worse off than they were before. And he called this the diminishment of intellectual specialization. I think this is something that’s just really being amplified right now in our age of the hyperactive hive mind. Every unit in your company, every vendor, every client, every other team that might need your time and attention, can just easily grab you, grab that time and attention, put more and more things on your plate. It makes everyone’s life a little bit easier in the moment. But we get so much less done of the primary things that originally produce value, is that you’re not actually getting ahead. And in the end, you’re producing less. So I think this notion that we all do a lot more, we all can do a lot more, is not necessarily compatible with trying to get the most out of people. And I’m going to real argue that we need to return to much more specialization. I do very few things.

ezra klein

One of my criticisms of some of your past books — and we’ve talked about this — is that they felt to me very much about the individual creator, that it felt to me sometimes like you are really creating a structure that made sense for Cal Newport, university professor, or even maybe Ezra Klein, article writer. But that there were managers in this world that were collaborative workers in this world, and it wouldn’t work for them. You have more on that in this book in a way that I find persuasive. But something you talk about here is that management has to be about more than responsiveness, and that one of the things happening with a lot of these tools is they are changing the expectations of managers. They are changing how responsive their employees expect them to be. They are changing sort of the work that management is actually able to do. And so probably degrading or at least changing the way firms are managed. Can you talk a little bit about this from the manager’s perspective?

cal newport

Yeah, and there’s research on this. I mean, I found this interesting study where they could look at inbox levels. Like, how much email is managers having to answer? And they could correlate this with what they call leadership activities. So the type of activities are important for getting the most out of your team, moving your team to where it needs to be, seeing issues that are coming from down the road and make sure that you’re around them, giving the support that individual team members need to thrive. All these leadership activities significantly decrease as you increase the amount of email that managers have to answer. And what these researchers documented is that as the email load increases, managers retreat into a task-oriented productivity mode. And they’re just like human network routers. Like, I’m just trying to take care of small things to come at me via email, answering questions, moving things around. And a lot of the managers I talked to when I was working on this book just have this vision of themselves as, I’m like an operator. And little questions and concerns come to me, and I try to answer them as quickly as possible. And one of the big points is, that’s not really good management. There’s some of that have to figure out how to do. Of course, questions need to be answered. But if all you’re doing is just trying to keep up with a hyperactive hive mind flow of all these ongoing conversations, the real important stuff doesn’t happen, that managers, too, need to be able to do one thing at a time, give things the attention they deserve. And that’s basically impossible if the hyperactive hive mind is the main way that your team coordinates and organizes. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

So I want to ask a little bit about solutions here. And you go into sort of some granular detail on different ways different firms end up doing Trello boards and other things. But I want to talk about it in more high level. Let me start here. Let’s say you are somebody running an existing firm right now. You’re not starting something new. You have 100 employees or used to certain ways of doing things. You have all the accoutrements of modern enterprise software. You have Slack, you have Gmail. You’re an advertising firm, a media firm, whatever it might be. Where do they start implementing the ideas of this book?

cal newport

Well, so the big idea is, whether you name it or not, you have processes that repeatedly happen that produce the stuff that has to happen in your company. Now if you don’t have names for them, if you haven’t thought about them, you’re probably implementing most of these processes with the hyperactive hive mind. Just, let’s figure it out on the fly. So the first step is just to identify what these things are. We have a deal with client question process. We have an article production process. We have a strategizing for future business moves process, right? You name them. You see what they are. What are the things that we actually do on a repeated basis? And what I recommend is what you really want to do is, process by process, say, OK, how do we actually want to implement how this happens? And the metric that I push, it’s not like how much time is it going to take or how hard is this particular method, but to what degree can we minimize unscheduled back and forth communication? So how can we implement this particular process, like responding to client questions, producing articles, whatever it is, in a way that does not require the sort of asynchronous back and forth messaging that, in turn, will require check after check after check after check to kind of keep that ping pong ball bouncing. Once you know that what you’re looking at is processes and what you’re trying to do is reduce unscheduled back and forth messaging, it opens up endless innovations. Like, oh, there’s all sorts of different ways we might do this, right? But if you don’t have the right metrics in mind, if you’re not looking at the right target, you’re just going to get stuck looking at these overcrowded email inboxes and sending around memos about, let’s have better norms on response times, or let’s write better subject lines or something like that. You’re putting your energy into the wrong process. So that’s that process oriented thinking. Optimize, optimize one by one. Back and forth messages, that’s the killer. That’s what we want to reduce. You just do that, and you’ll begin to see, I think, almost immediate results. It reduces the pressure on the inbox, as opposed to have better organizational tactics for dealing with the inbox.

ezra klein

And how about if you’re somebody starting a new firm or at a new firm? If you buy the Cal Newport theory that there are huge gains to be unlocked by building a radically different culture of communication and process, how do you unlock them? How do you keep focus on that, particularly when people are going to come in, expecting it to work or the way they’ve known other places to work?

cal newport

It’s not easy. I mean, first, there’s a general culture that you want to try to instill, which is a culture that really thinks about tools like email are great for sending information. I’d rather send you a file with an email than a fax machine. They’re terrible for interaction. We should not be trying to collaborate or coordinate ourselves with back and forth messages. Two, you really have to separate execution from how we organize the work. Execution has to be really autonomous. You have to be very careful that you’re not stepping on the toes of creative skilled professionals about how they actually write their ad copy or how they actually write their code, that making that sacrosanct is what allows knowledge work to be much more satisfying and meaningful and allows us to avoid the drudgery that industrial work fell into. You’re putting your focus on the workflows that organize that work. What are the processes by which information moves? We make decisions. We agree on things. Where do files go? Where do we take them from? So make sure that execution is sacrosanct. It’s all of the organization around the execution that you’re trying to optimize. And then, two, lead by example. So even if it’s really convenient for you just to grab that purse and be like, OK, let me not do that. Let me try to think about these processes. And I document somewhat in the book what it’s like to try to get these things in place. They need buy-in. They have to be bottom up. Everyone involved in the process has to be involved in making it. And you have to have a culture of evolution. It’s not quite working, let’s tweak it. So put those things into place, it’s still not easy. But, again, it was a pain to build the assembly line. So at least there’s incentives to push you through that pain.

ezra klein

And one of the things that is a little bit counterintuitive about this book is, I think people building new things, meetings, in-person meetings, phone meetings, they have a really bad reputation. I often say to people, like, let’s try to just make this an email, which means I have a lot of emails bouncing back and forth. You have a little bit higher of an opinion about what it means to save more things for meetings than I think the dominant culture holds. So if you were to preach the value of actual meetings as opposed to having things be done through communication, how would you tell a CEO or tell a CEO to tell their employees that they should think about meetings with a little bit more affection, and email with a little bit less?

cal newport

Well, any time you have to make a decision or have back and forth — there’s interaction that has to occur — real time is exponentially better than asynchronous, right? It’s better to be able to just talk with you on the phone or on Zoom or in person to go back and forth. The amount of bits of information that’s able to be established in a back and forth conversation is of a different order of magnitude than when you’re in a purely linguistic medium. Like, I put some text in an email, it goes to you. Later that day, you send an email back that has some more text. That type of asynchronous communication has huge overheads, and it’s not very effective. So I’m a huge believer in real time interaction as a highly effective and efficient way to get things done, to reach decisions that do interactions. The problem with meetings people have is that they’re not coupled with well thought through processes, right? So if you look at a software development firm, where they think a lot about this type of stuff, and if it’s a software development team that’s running an agile methodology like Scrum, they will have these daily stand-up meetings. They only last 20 minutes. They fit very clearly into an overall structure of how tasks are identified, assigned, and reviewed, right? So they have these 20-minute meetings that incredibly efficiently people figure out, here’s what I did. Here’s what I’m working on. Here’s what I need from you. I need it by now. Great, we’re on the same team. Go right, right? It’s a meeting done well. That’s way more effective than try and do that over email. What happens I think in a lot of hyperactive hive mind style knowledge firms is that we throw meetings as issues as a proxy for productivity. I don’t really want to think about this. If I put a meeting on my calendar, then at least I know that has to happen. So at least I won’t forget it. I think meetings are often used because people don’t have systems where they trust themselves to remember or make progress on things. Like, well, if it’s a recurring meeting, then I do look at my calendar. They’re not tied to other processes. They’re not tried to optimize ways to get things done. So, meetings not connected to processes can make work really unbearable. I think a lot of pandemic workers have discovered that doing Zoom all day long can’t possibly be the best way to organize. But a meeting tied to a really smart process can actually save you a lot of time.

ezra klein

I guess a good place to come to a close. So end of the show, I always ask for a couple of different book recommendations, and let me start here. What’s a book that’s done the most to inspire your work and your explorations?

cal newport

Well, it probably depends on the topics that I’m reading, but when it came to these explorations of email, I was really taken by a lot of these books that were the 20th century techno determinists. So there was all this interesting philosophy of technology thinkers in the 20th century that were really trying to understand a way that if you introduce a new technology into an ecosystem, it can actually really unsettle this ecosystem in ways that are unpredictable and unintentional. And that opened up a lot for me because it got me out of this mindset of, well, if we’re all doing email, it must be because it’s helping somebody. There must be a reason why we’re doing this. It’s got to be maybe adversaries versus the good guys and what’s the battle going on. But the idea that technology itself can just have these ecological changes I think is really important. So probably Lewis Mumford’s “Technics and Civilization,” that’s an early 20th century book that really pushed those ideas. I think that’s really interesting. A lot of Neil Postman — Postman was a very famous techno determinist. I actually cite a speech from Postman at the end of the book that was influential to me. It wasn’t a book that he wrote. It was a summary of his thoughts on technology. And it’s really rich, and I put it in the citation in the book. But that’s where he made really clear this notion that technology is not additive, it’s ecological. He was like the Middle Ages plus the — once you got the printing press, it was not just the Middle Ages plus printing presses. It was an entirely different world. And that notion really shaped the way I thought about email. The arrival of email did not give us the 1990 office plus now we had email. It gave us an entirely different notion of what work meant. And so any of these writers who were writing in this vein of technological determinism were very influential. I think it comes through in a lot of my thinking.

ezra klein

You talk a lot about the difference between the kinds of products one creates and the hyperactive work worlds many of us exist in and the slower, more thoughtful, more deeply creative spaces of “Deep Work.” What’s a fiction book or piece of art that you think is what it looks like when “Deep Work” works, the kind of thing that you’re not going to be able to do checking Twitter every couple of minutes?

cal newport

Well, I mean, basically, any award caliber literary fiction has to be created in that mindset. So whatever your favorite sort of award caliber literary fiction novel is, there’s really no way to produce real insight in writing at that level without actually just having the ability to be alone with your own thoughts and observing the world, and just letting that percolate and letting that move, and trying to craft and move and work with it. I’ll say it’s not a book, it’s a video. I actually wrote an essay about a blog post about not too long ago. It was a stone carver. A young woman, I think she’s based in the — near you, actually. I think she’s she’s based in the Bay Area. And it was just this video they had put up on Vimeo that just captured what it is to carve a statue out of stone. And something about that was really affecting to me. It’s just all you do all day long, and she’s looking at the stone and she has the bust. And then it’s manipulating the material and manipulating the real world. And it’s in this warehouse, and the doors open out into some trees or something like that. And I don’t know — there was something very affecting to me about that story. But it’s someone that’s just, they are 100 percent in the world of trying to take this block of stone, and from it, make manifest some sort of intention that exists just in their mind. I mean, that’s human depth personified, and the opposite, I would say, of Slack.

ezra klein

So my son just came home and is crying in the background. So this final one feels apropos. What’s your favorite children’s book?

cal newport

When my first kid was born, my literary agent sent me a bunch of books. And there’s one that all of my kids have loved. It’s called “Andrew Henry’s Meadow.” And it’s an older book. It’s illustrated. And the premise is this young boy who builds things. It’s beautifully illustrated. And he’s not sort of — it feels like he’s not appreciated by his family, so he leaves. And all the kids follow him across the creek and through the woods and to Andrew Henry’s meadow. And they build these elaborate, beautifully illustrated houses. There’s like a castle, and there’s like a tree house. It’s all built from sort of found objects. And then the parents realize at some point that they’re gone, and they’re all panicking. And they go and they find them. And when they finally bring them back, they make a space for Andrew Henry in the basement to be able to build his contraptions. Kids love it because of the illustrations. It somehow just gets into the psyche of kids. But there’s kind of a nicer message lurking in there. I’ve always kind of liked that message of understanding what it is to drive your kids and then making room for it. So that’s my underground favorite because almost no one’s heard of it. And we’ve gone through a couple of copies now.

ezra klein

Cal Newport, thank you very much.

cal newport

Thanks, Ezra. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

That is the show. Thank you for listening. I always appreciate you being here. Give us a review on whatever podcast app you’re listening on if you’re enjoying it, or send it to a friend. “The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld, fact-checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld.


We were promised, with the internet, a productivity revolution. We were told that we’d get more done, in less time, with less stress. Instead, we got always-on communication, the dissolution of the boundaries between work and home, the feeling of constantly being behind, lackluster productivity numbers, and, to be fair, reaction GIFs. What went wrong?

Cal Newport is a computer scientist at Georgetown and the author of books trying to figure that out. At the center of his work is the idea that the technologies billed as offering us more productive, happier, socially rich lives have left us more exhausted, empty and stressed out than ever. He’s doing something not enough people do: questioning whether this was all worth it.

My critique of Newport’s work has always been that it focuses too much on the individual: Telling someone whose workplace communicates exclusively via Slack and email to be a “digital minimalist” is like telling someone who lives in a candy store to diet. But his new book, “A World Without Email,” is all about systems — specifically, the systems that govern how we work. In it, Newport makes a radical argument: We are living through a massive, rolling failure of markets and firms to rethink work for the digital age. But that can change. We can change it.

To listen to the full conversation, subscribe to “The Ezra Klein Show” wherever you get your podcasts, or click the player below.

(A full transcript of the episode can be found here.)

The Ezra Klein Show Poster

Why ‘Tight’ Cultures May Fare Better Than ‘Loose’ Cultures In A Pandemic (NPR)

npr.org

Fran Kritz, February 23, 2021


Top left: An officer asks people to observe lockdown rules in Brighton, England. Bottom left: A protester at a lockdown demonstration in Brussels, Belgium last month. Top right: Malaysian health officers screen passengers with a thermal scanner at Kuala Lumpur Airport in January 2020. Bottom right: Employees eat their lunch in Wuhan, China, in March 2020. Luke Dray/Getty Images; Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images; Mohd Rasfan/AFP; Getty Images

On Monday, the U.S. reached a heartbreaking 500,000 deaths from COVID-19.

But widespread death from COVID-19 isn’t necessarily inevitable.

Data from Johns Hopkins University shows that some countries have had few cases and fewer deaths per capita. The U.S. has had 152 deaths per 100,000 people, for example, versus .03 in Burundi and .04 in Taiwan.

There are many reasons for these differences among countries, but a study in The Lancet Planetary Health published last month suggests that a key factor may be cultural.

The study looks at “loose” nations — those with relaxed social norms and fewer rules and restrictions — and “tight” nations, those with stricter rules and restrictions and harsher disciplinary measures. And it found that “loose” nations had five times more cases (7,132 cases per million people versus 1,428 per million) and over eight times more deaths from COVID-19 (183 deaths per million people versus 21 per million) than “tight” countries during the first ten months of the pandemic.

Michele Gelfand, the lead author of the study and a professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in cross cultural psychology, previously published work on tight- and loose- rules nations in Scienceand in a 2018 book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.

Gelfand says her past research suggested that tight cultures may be better equipped to respond to a global pandemic than loose cultures because their citizensmay be more willing to cooperate with rules, and that the pandemic “is the first time we have been able to examine how countries around the world respond to the same collective threat simultaneously.”

For the Lancet article, the researchers examined data from 57 countries in the fall of 2020 using the online database “Our World in Data,” which provides daily updates on COVID-19 cases and deaths. They paired this information with previous research classifying each of the countries on a scale of cultural tightness or looseness. Results revealed that nations categorized as looser — like the U.S., Brazil and Spain — experienced significantly more cases and deaths from COVID-19 by October 2020 than countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, which have much tighter cultures.

NPR talks to Gelfand about the findings and about how understanding the concepts of “looser” and “tighter” nations might lead to measures that help prevent COVID-19 cases and deaths as the pandemic continues.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did your past research bring you to your current findings about the pandemic?

One of the things I’ve been looking at for many years is how strictly cultures abide by social norms. All cultures have social norms that are kind of unwritten rules for social behavior. We don’t face backward in elevators. We don’t start singing loudly in movie theaters. And we behave this way because it helps us to coordinate with other human beings, to help our societies function. [Norms] are really the glue that keep us together.

One thing we learned during our earlier work is that some cultures abide by social norms quite strictly. And these differences are not random. Tight cultures tend to have had a lot of threat in their histories from Mother Nature, like disasters, famine and pathogen outbreaks, and non-natural threats such as invasions on their territory. And the idea is when you have a lot of collective threat you need strict rules. They help people coordinate and predict each other’s behavior. So, in a sense, you can think about it from an evolutionary perspective that following rules helps us to survive chaos and crisis.

Can you change a culture to make it tighter?

Yes, but you need leadership to tell you this is a really dangerous situation. And you need people from the bottom up being willing to sacrifice some of the freedom for rules to keep the whole country safe. And that’s what’s happening in New Zealand, where they had few cases and few deaths per million, and where they’re really very egalitarian. My interpretation is that people said look, “We all have to follow the rules to keep people safe.”

Can you give us some examples of how tight and loose cultures operate when there’s not a pandemic going on?

Tight cultures have a lot of order and discipline — they have a lot less crime and more monitoring of [citizens’] behavior and [more] security personnel and police per capita. Loose cultures struggle with order.

Loose cultures corner the market on openness toward people from different races and religion and are far more creative in terms of idea generation and ability to think outside the box. Tight cultures struggle with openness.

Do you think it’s possible to tighten up as needed?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean I would call that ambidexterity — the ability to tighten up when there’s an objective threat and to loosen up when the threat is diminished. People who don’t like the idea of tightening would need to understand that this is temporary and the quicker we tighten the quicker it will reduce the threat and the quicker we can get back to our freedom-loving behavior.

I imagine people are worried, though, about long-term consequences of tightening up.

We shouldn’t confuse authoritarianism with tightness.

Following rules in terms of wearing masks and social distancing will help get us back faster to opening up the economy and to saving our freedom. And we can also look to other cultures that have been able to open up with greater success, like Taiwan for example. Increased self-regulation and [abidance of] physical distancing, wearing masks and avoiding large crowds allowed the country to keep both the infection and mortality rates low without shutting down the economy entirely. We need to think of this as being situation-specific in terms of following certain types of rules.

It requires using cultural intelligence to understand when we deploy tightness and when we deploy looseness. And my optimistic view is that we’re going to learn how to communicate about threats better, how to nudge people to follow rules, so that people understand the danger but also feel empowered to deal with it.

[In the U.S., for example, we] need to have national unity to cope with collective threat so that we are prepared as a nation to come together like we have in the past during other collected threats, such as after September 11.

Fran Kritz is a health policy reporter based in Washington, D.C., who has contributed to The Washington Post and Kaiser Health News. Find her on Twitter: @fkritz

NOAA Acknowledges the New Reality of Hurricane Season (Gizmodo)

earther.gizmodo.com

Molly Taft, March 2, 2021


This combination of satellite images provided by the National Hurricane Center shows 30 hurricanes that occurred during the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.
This combination of satellite images provided by the National Hurricane Center shows 30 hurricanes that occurred during the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.

We’re one step closer to officially moving up hurricane season. The National Hurricane Center announced Tuesday that it would formally start issuing its hurricane season tropical weather outlooks on May 15 this year, bumping it up from the traditional start of hurricane season on June 1. The move comes after a recent spate of early season storms have raked the Atlantic.

Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. That’s when conditions are most conducive to storm formation owing to warm air and water temperatures. (The Pacific ocean has its own hurricane season, which covers the same timeframe, but since waters are colder fewer hurricanes tend to form there than in the Atlantic.)

Storms have begun forming on the Atlantic earlier as ocean and air temperatures have increased due to climate change. Last year, Hurricane Arthur roared to life off the East Coast on May 16. That storm made 2020 the sixth hurricane season in a row to have a storm that formed earlier than the June 1 official start date. While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration won’t be moving up the start of the season just yet, the earlier outlooks addresses the recent history.

“In the last decade, there have been 10 storms formed in the weeks before the traditional start of the season, which is a big jump,” said Sean Sublette, a meteorologist at Climate Central, who pointed out that the 1960s through 2010s saw between one and three storms each decade before the June 1 start date on average.

It might be tempting to ascribe this earlier season entirely to climate change warming the Atlantic. But technology also has a role to play, with more observations along the coast as well as satellites that can spot storms far out to sea.

“I would caution that we can’t just go, ‘hah, the planet’s warming, we’ve had to move the entire season!’” Sublette said. “I don’t think there’s solid ground for attribution of how much of one there is over the other. Weather folks can sit around and debate that for awhile.”

Earlier storms don’t necessarily mean more harmful ones, either. In fact, hurricanes earlier in the season tend to be weaker than the monsters that form in August and September when hurricane season is at its peak. But regardless of their strength, these earlier storms have generated discussion inside the NHC on whether to move up the official start date for the season, when the agency usually puts out two reports per day on hurricane activity. Tuesday’s step is not an official announcement of this decision, but an acknowledgement of the increased attention on early hurricanes.

“I would say that [Tuesday’s announcement] is the National Hurricane Center being proactive,” Sublette said. “Like hey, we know that the last few years it’s been a little busier in May than we’ve seen in the past five decades, and we know there is an awareness now, so we’re going to start issuing these reports early.”

While the jury is still out on whether climate change is pushing the season earlier, research has shown that the strongest hurricanes are becoming more common, and that climate change is likely playing a role. A study published last year found the odds of a storm becoming a major hurricanes—those Category 3 or stronger—have increase 49% in the basin since satellite monitoring began in earnest four decades ago. And when storms make landfall, sea level rise allows them to do more damage. So regardless of if climate change is pushing Atlantic hurricane season is getting earlier or not, the risks are increasing. Now, at least, we’ll have better warnings before early storms do hit.

5 Pandemic Mistakes We Keep Repeating (The Atlantic)

theatlantic.com

Zeynep Tufekci

February 26, 2021


We can learn from our failures.
Photo illustration showing a Trump press conference, a vaccine syringe, and Anthony Fauci
Alex Wong / Chet Strange/ Sarah Silbiger / Bloomberg / Getty / The Atlantic

When the polio vaccine was declared safe and effective, the news was met with jubilant celebration. Church bells rang across the nation, and factories blew their whistles. “Polio routed!” newspaper headlines exclaimed. “An historic victory,” “monumental,” “sensational,” newscasters declared. People erupted with joy across the United States. Some danced in the streets; others wept. Kids were sent home from school to celebrate.

One might have expected the initial approval of the coronavirus vaccines to spark similar jubilation—especially after a brutal pandemic year. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism.

The problem is not that the good news isn’t being reported, or that we should throw caution to the wind just yet. It’s that neither the reporting nor the public-health messaging has reflected the truly amazing reality of these vaccines. There is nothing wrong with realism and caution, but effective communication requires a sense of proportion—distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe. We need to be able to celebrate profoundly positive news while noting the work that still lies ahead. However, instead of balanced optimism since the launch of the vaccines, the public has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end.

This pessimism is sapping people of energy to get through the winter, and the rest of this pandemic. Anti-vaccination groups and those opposing the current public-health measures have been vigorously amplifying the pessimistic messages—especially the idea that getting vaccinated doesn’t mean being able to do more—telling their audiences that there is no point in compliance, or in eventual vaccination, because it will not lead to any positive changes. They are using the moment and the messaging to deepen mistrust of public-health authorities, accusing them of moving the goalposts and implying that we’re being conned. Either the vaccines aren’t as good as claimed, they suggest, or the real goal of pandemic-safety measures is to control the public, not the virus.

Five key fallacies and pitfalls have affected public-health messaging, as well as media coverage, and have played an outsize role in derailing an effective pandemic response. These problems were deepened by the ways that we—the public—developed to cope with a dreadful situation under great uncertainty. And now, even as vaccines offer brilliant hope, and even though, at least in the United States, we no longer have to deal with the problem of a misinformer in chief, some officials and media outlets are repeating many of the same mistakes in handling the vaccine rollout.

The pandemic has given us an unwelcome societal stress test, revealing the cracks and weaknesses in our institutions and our systems. Some of these are common to many contemporary problems, including political dysfunction and the way our public sphere operates. Others are more particular, though not exclusive, to the current challenge—including a gap between how academic research operates and how the public understands that research, and the ways in which the psychology of coping with the pandemic have distorted our response to it.

Recognizing all these dynamics is important, not only for seeing us through this pandemic—yes, it is going to end—but also to understand how our society functions, and how it fails. We need to start shoring up our defenses, not just against future pandemics but against all the myriad challenges we face—political, environmental, societal, and technological. None of these problems is impossible to remedy, but first we have to acknowledge them and start working to fix them—and we’re running out of time.

The past 12 months were incredibly challenging for almost everyone. Public-health officials were fighting a devastating pandemic and, at least in this country, an administration hell-bent on undermining them. The World Health Organization was not structured or funded for independence or agility, but still worked hard to contain the disease. Many researchers and experts noted the absence of timely and trustworthy guidelines from authorities, and tried to fill the void by communicating their findings directly to the public on social media. Reporters tried to keep the public informed under time and knowledge constraints, which were made more severe by the worsening media landscape. And the rest of us were trying to survive as best we could, looking for guidance where we could, and sharing information when we could, but always under difficult, murky conditions.

Despite all these good intentions, much of the public-health messaging has been profoundly counterproductive. In five specific ways, the assumptions made by public officials, the choices made by traditional media, the way our digital public sphere operates, and communication patterns between academic communities and the public proved flawed.

Risk Compensation

One of the most important problems undermining the pandemic response has been the mistrust and paternalism that some public-health agencies and experts have exhibited toward the public. A key reason for this stance seems to be that some experts feared that people would respond to something that increased their safety—such as masks, rapid tests, or vaccines—by behaving recklessly. They worried that a heightened sense of safety would lead members of the public to take risks that would not just undermine any gains, but reverse them.

The theory that things that improve our safety might provide a false sense of security and lead to reckless behavior is attractive—it’s contrarian and clever, and fits the “here’s something surprising we smart folks thought about” mold that appeals to, well, people who think of themselves as smart. Unsurprisingly, such fears have greeted efforts to persuade the public to adopt almost every advance in safety, including seat belts, helmets, and condoms.

But time and again, the numbers tell a different story: Even if safety improvements cause a few people to behave recklessly, the benefits overwhelm the ill effects. In any case, most people are already interested in staying safe from a dangerous pathogen. Further, even at the beginning of the pandemic, sociological theory predicted that wearing masks would be associated with increased adherence to other precautionary measures—people interested in staying safe are interested in staying safe—and empirical research quickly confirmed exactly that. Unfortunately, though, the theory of risk compensation—and its implicit assumptions—continue to haunt our approach, in part because there hasn’t been a reckoning with the initial missteps.

Rules in Place of Mechanisms and Intuitions

Much of the public messaging focused on offering a series of clear rules to ordinary people, instead of explaining in detail the mechanisms of viral transmission for this pathogen. A focus on explaining transmission mechanisms, and updating our understanding over time, would have helped empower people to make informed calculations about risk in different settings. Instead, both the CDC and the WHO chose to offer fixed guidelines that lent a false sense of precision.

In the United States, the public was initially told that “close contact” meant coming within six feet of an infected individual, for 15 minutes or more. This messaging led to ridiculous gaming of the rules; some establishments moved people around at the 14th minute to avoid passing the threshold. It also led to situations in which people working indoors with others, but just outside the cutoff of six feet, felt that they could take their mask off. None of this made any practical sense. What happened at minute 16? Was seven feet okay? Faux precision isn’t more informative; it’s misleading.

All of this was complicated by the fact that key public-health agencies like the CDC and the WHO were late to acknowledge the importance of some key infection mechanisms, such as aerosol transmission. Even when they did so, the shift happened without a proportional change in the guidelines or the messaging—it was easy for the general public to miss its significance.

Frustrated by the lack of public communication from health authorities, I wrote an article last July on what we then knew about the transmission of this pathogen—including how it could be spread via aerosols that can float and accumulate, especially in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. To this day, I’m contacted by people who describe workplaces that are following the formal guidelines, but in ways that defy reason: They’ve installed plexiglass, but barred workers from opening their windows; they’ve mandated masks, but only when workers are within six feet of one another, while permitting them to be taken off indoors during breaks.

Perhaps worst of all, our messaging and guidelines elided the difference between outdoor and indoor spaces, where, given the importance of aerosol transmission, the same precautions should not apply. This is especially important because this pathogen is overdispersed: Much of the spread is driven by a few people infecting many others at once, while most people do not transmit the virus at all.

After I wrote an article explaining how overdispersion and super-spreading were driving the pandemic, I discovered that this mechanism had also been poorly explained. I was inundated by messages from people, including elected officials around the world, saying they had no idea that this was the case. None of it was secret—numerous academic papers and articles had been written about it—but it had not been integrated into our messaging or our guidelines despite its great importance.

Crucially, super-spreading isn’t equally distributed; poorly ventilated indoor spaces can facilitate the spread of the virus over longer distances, and in shorter periods of time, than the guidelines suggested, and help fuel the pandemic.

Outdoors? It’s the opposite.

There is a solid scientific reason for the fact that there are relatively few documented cases of transmission outdoors, even after a year of epidemiological work: The open air dilutes the virus very quickly, and the sun helps deactivate it, providing further protection. And super-spreading—the biggest driver of the pandemic— appears to be an exclusively indoor phenomenon. I’ve been tracking every report I can find for the past year, and have yet to find a confirmed super-spreading event that occurred solely outdoors. Such events might well have taken place, but if the risk were great enough to justify altering our lives, I would expect at least a few to have been documented by now.

And yet our guidelines do not reflect these differences, and our messaging has not helped people understand these facts so that they can make better choices. I published my first article pleading for parks to be kept open on April 7, 2020—but outdoor activities are still banned by some authorities today, a full year after this dreaded virus began to spread globally.

We’d have been much better off if we gave people a realistic intuition about this virus’s transmission mechanisms. Our public guidelines should have been more like Japan’s, which emphasize avoiding the three C’s—closed spaces, crowded places, and close contact—that are driving the pandemic.

Scolding and Shaming

Throughout the past year, traditional and social media have been caught up in a cycle of shaming—made worse by being so unscientific and misguided. How dare you go to the beach? newspapers have scolded us for months, despite lacking evidence that this posed any significant threat to public health. It wasn’t just talk: Many cities closed parks and outdoor recreational spaces, even as they kept open indoor dining and gyms. Just this month, UC Berkeley and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst both banned students from taking even solitary walks outdoors.

Even when authorities relax the rules a bit, they do not always follow through in a sensible manner. In the United Kingdom, after some locales finally started allowing children to play on playgrounds—something that was already way overdue—they quickly ruled that parents must not socialize while their kids have a normal moment. Why not? Who knows?

On social media, meanwhile, pictures of people outdoors without masks draw reprimands, insults, and confident predictions of super-spreading—and yet few note when super-spreading fails to follow.

While visible but low-risk activities attract the scolds, other actual risks—in workplaces and crowded households, exacerbated by the lack of testing or paid sick leave—are not as easily accessible to photographers. Stefan Baral, an associate epidemiology professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that it’s almost as if we’ve “designed a public-health response most suitable for higher-income” groups and the “Twitter generation”—stay home; have your groceries delivered; focus on the behaviors you can photograph and shame online—rather than provide the support and conditions necessary for more people to keep themselves safe.

And the viral videos shaming people for failing to take sensible precautions, such as wearing masks indoors, do not necessarily help. For one thing, fretting over the occasional person throwing a tantrum while going unmasked in a supermarket distorts the reality: Most of the public has been complying with mask wearing. Worse, shaming is often an ineffective way of getting people to change their behavior, and it entrenches polarization and discourages disclosure, making it harder to fight the virus. Instead, we should be emphasizing safer behavior and stressing how many people are doing their part, while encouraging others to do the same.

Harm Reduction

Amidst all the mistrust and the scolding, a crucial public-health concept fell by the wayside. Harm reduction is the recognition that if there is an unmet and yet crucial human need, we cannot simply wish it away; we need to advise people on how to do what they seek to do more safely. Risk can never be completely eliminated; life requires more than futile attempts to bring risk down to zero. Pretending we can will away complexities and trade-offs with absolutism is counterproductive. Consider abstinence-only education: Not letting teenagers know about ways to have safer sex results in more of them having sex with no protections.

As Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told me, “When officials assume that risks can be easily eliminated, they might neglect the other things that matter to people: staying fed and housed, being close to loved ones, or just enjoying their lives. Public health works best when it helps people find safer ways to get what they need and want.””

Another problem with absolutism is the “abstinence violation” effect, Joshua Barocas, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and Infectious Diseases, told me. When we set perfection as the only option, it can cause people who fall short of that standard in one small, particular way to decide that they’ve already failed, and might as well give up entirely. Most people who have attempted a diet or a new exercise regimen are familiar with this psychological state. The better approach is encouraging risk reduction and layered mitigation—emphasizing that every little bit helps—while also recognizing that a risk-free life is neither possible nor desirable.

Socializing is not a luxury—kids need to play with one another, and adults need to interact. Your kids can play together outdoors, and outdoor time is the best chance to catch up with your neighbors is not just a sensible message; it’s a way to decrease transmission risks. Some kids will play and some adults will socialize no matter what the scolds say or public-health officials decree, and they’ll do it indoors, out of sight of the scolding.

And if they don’t? Then kids will be deprived of an essential activity, and adults will be deprived of human companionship. Socializing is perhaps the most important predictor of health and longevity, after not smoking and perhaps exercise and a healthy diet. We need to help people socialize more safely, not encourage them to stop socializing entirely.

The Balance Between Knowledge And Action

Last but not least, the pandemic response has been distorted by a poor balance between knowledge, risk, certainty, and action.

Sometimes, public-health authorities insisted that we did not know enough to act, when the preponderance of evidence already justified precautionary action. Wearing masks, for example, posed few downsides, and held the prospect of mitigating the exponential threat we faced. The wait for certainty hampered our response to airborne transmission, even though there was almost no evidence for—and increasing evidence against—the importance of fomites, or objects that can carry infection. And yet, we emphasized the risk of surface transmission while refusing to properly address the risk of airborne transmission, despite increasing evidence. The difference lay not in the level of evidence and scientific support for either theory—which, if anything, quickly tilted in favor of airborne transmission, and not fomites, being crucial—but in the fact that fomite transmission had been a key part of the medical canon, and airborne transmission had not.

Sometimes, experts and the public discussion failed to emphasize that we were balancing risks, as in the recurring cycles of debate over lockdowns or school openings. We should have done more to acknowledge that there were no good options, only trade-offs between different downsides. As a result, instead of recognizing the difficulty of the situation, too many people accused those on the other side of being callous and uncaring.

And sometimes, the way that academics communicate clashed with how the public constructs knowledge. In academia, publishing is the coin of the realm, and it is often done through rejecting the null hypothesis—meaning that many papers do not seek to prove something conclusively, but instead, to reject the possibility that a variable has no relationship with the effect they are measuring (beyond chance). If that sounds convoluted, it is—there are historical reasons for this methodology and big arguments within academia about its merits, but for the moment, this remains standard practice.

At crucial points during the pandemic, though, this resulted in mistranslations and fueled misunderstandings, which were further muddled by differing stances toward prior scientific knowledge and theory. Yes, we faced a novel coronavirus, but we should have started by assuming that we could make some reasonable projections from prior knowledge, while looking out for anything that might prove different. That prior experience should have made us mindful of seasonality, the key role of overdispersion, and aerosol transmission. A keen eye for what was different from the past would have alerted us earlier to the importance of presymptomatic transmission.

Thus, on January 14, 2020, the WHO stated that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” It should have said, “There is increasing likelihood that human-to-human transmission is taking place, but we haven’t yet proven this, because we have no access to Wuhan, China.” (Cases were already popping up around the world at that point.) Acting as if there was human-to-human transmission during the early weeks of the pandemic would have been wise and preventive.

Later that spring, WHO officials stated that there was “currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection,” producing many articles laden with panic and despair. Instead, it should have said: “We expect the immune system to function against this virus, and to provide some immunity for some period of time, but it is still hard to know specifics because it is so early.”

Similarly, since the vaccines were announced, too many statements have emphasized that we don’t yet know if vaccines prevent transmission. Instead, public-health authorities should have said that we have many reasons to expect, and increasing amounts of data to suggest, that vaccines will blunt infectiousness, but that we’re waiting for additional data to be more precise about it. That’s been unfortunate, because while many, many things have gone wrong during this pandemic, the vaccines are one thing that has gone very, very right.

As late as April 2020, Anthony Fauci was slammed for being too optimistic for suggesting we might plausibly have vaccines in a year to 18 months. We had vaccines much, much sooner than that: The first two vaccine trials concluded a mere eight months after the WHO declared a pandemic in March 2020.

Moreover, they have delivered spectacular results. In June 2020, the FDA said a vaccine that was merely 50 percent efficacious in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 would receive emergency approval—that such a benefit would be sufficient to justify shipping it out immediately. Just a few months after that, the trials of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines concluded by reporting not just a stunning 95 percent efficacy, but also a complete elimination of hospitalization or death among the vaccinated. Even severe disease was practically gone: The lone case classified as “severe” among 30,000 vaccinated individuals in the trials was so mild that the patient needed no medical care, and her case would not have been considered severe if her oxygen saturation had been a single percent higher.

These are exhilarating developments, because global, widespread, and rapid vaccination is our way out of this pandemic. Vaccines that drastically reduce hospitalizations and deaths, and that diminish even severe disease to a rare event, are the closest things we have had in this pandemic to a miracle—though of course they are the product of scientific research, creativity, and hard work. They are going to be the panacea and the endgame.

And yet, two months into an accelerating vaccination campaign in the United States, it would be hard to blame people if they missed the news that things are getting better.

Yes, there are new variants of the virus, which may eventually require booster shots, but at least so far, the existing vaccines are standing up to them well—very, very well. Manufacturers are already working on new vaccines or variant-focused booster versions, in case they prove necessary, and the authorizing agencies are ready for a quick turnaround if and when updates are needed. Reports from places that have vaccinated large numbers of individuals, and even trials in places where variants are widespread, are exceedingly encouraging, with dramatic reductions in cases and, crucially, hospitalizations and deaths among the vaccinated. Global equity and access to vaccines remain crucial concerns, but the supply is increasing.

Here in the United States, despite the rocky rollout and the need to smooth access and ensure equity, it’s become clear that toward the end of spring 2021, supply will be more than sufficient. It may sound hard to believe today, as many who are desperate for vaccinations await their turn, but in the near future, we may have to discuss what to do with excess doses.

So why isn’t this story more widely appreciated?

Part of the problem with the vaccines was the timing—the trials concluded immediately after the U.S. election, and their results got overshadowed in the weeks of political turmoil. The first, modest headline announcing the Pfizer-BioNTech results in The New York Times was a single column, “Vaccine Is Over 90% Effective, Pfizer’s Early Data Says,” below a banner headline spanning the page: “BIDEN CALLS FOR UNITED FRONT AS VIRUS RAGES.” That was both understandable—the nation was weary—and a loss for the public.

Just a few days later, Moderna reported a similar 94.5 percent efficacy. If anything, that provided even more cause for celebration, because it confirmed that the stunning numbers coming out of Pfizer weren’t a fluke. But, still amid the political turmoil, the Moderna report got a mere two columns on The New York Times’ front page with an equally modest headline: “Another Vaccine Appears to Work Against the Virus.”

So we didn’t get our initial vaccine jubilation.

But as soon as we began vaccinating people, articles started warning the newly vaccinated about all they could not do. “COVID-19 Vaccine Doesn’t Mean You Can Party Like It’s 1999,” one headline admonished. And the buzzkill has continued right up to the present. “You’re fully vaccinated against the coronavirus—now what? Don’t expect to shed your mask and get back to normal activities right away,” began a recent Associated Press story.

People might well want to party after being vaccinated. Those shots will expand what we can do, first in our private lives and among other vaccinated people, and then, gradually, in our public lives as well. But once again, the authorities and the media seem more worried about potentially reckless behavior among the vaccinated, and about telling them what not to do, than with providing nuanced guidance reflecting trade-offs, uncertainty, and a recognition that vaccination can change behavior. No guideline can cover every situation, but careful, accurate, and updated information can empower everyone.

Take the messaging and public conversation around transmission risks from vaccinated people. It is, of course, important to be alert to such considerations: Many vaccines are “leaky” in that they prevent disease or severe disease, but not infection and transmission. In fact, completely blocking all infection—what’s often called “sterilizing immunity”—is a difficult goal, and something even many highly effective vaccines don’t attain, but that doesn’t stop them from being extremely useful.

As Paul Sax, an infectious-disease doctor at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital, put it in early December, it would be enormously surprising “if these highly effective vaccines didn’t also make people less likely to transmit.” From multiple studies, we already knew that asymptomatic individuals—those who never developed COVID-19 despite being infected—were much less likely to transmit the virus. The vaccine trials were reporting 95 percent reductions in any form of symptomatic disease. In December, we learned that Moderna had swabbed some portion of trial participants to detect asymptomatic, silent infections, and found an almost two-thirds reduction even in such cases. The good news kept pouring in. Multiple studies found that, even in those few cases where breakthrough disease occurred in vaccinated people, their viral loads were lower—which correlates with lower rates of transmission. Data from vaccinated populations further confirmed what many experts expected all along: Of course these vaccines reduce transmission.

And yet, from the beginning, a good chunk of the public-facing messaging and news articles implied or claimed that vaccines won’t protect you against infecting other people or that we didn’t know if they would, when both were false. I found myself trying to convince people in my own social network that vaccines weren’t useless against transmission, and being bombarded on social media with claims that they were.

What went wrong? The same thing that’s going wrong right now with the reporting on whether vaccines will protect recipients against the new viral variants. Some outlets emphasize the worst or misinterpret the research. Some public-health officials are wary of encouraging the relaxation of any precautions. Some prominent experts on social media—even those with seemingly solid credentials—tend to respond to everything with alarm and sirens. So the message that got heard was that vaccines will not prevent transmission, or that they won’t work against new variants, or that we don’t know if they will. What the public needs to hear, though, is that based on existing data, we expect them to work fairly well—but we’ll learn more about precisely how effective they’ll be over time, and that tweaks may make them even better.

A year into the pandemic, we’re still repeating the same mistakes.

The top-down messaging is not the only problem. The scolding, the strictness, the inability to discuss trade-offs, and the accusations of not caring about people dying not only have an enthusiastic audience, but portions of the public engage in these behaviors themselves. Maybe that’s partly because proclaiming the importance of individual actions makes us feel as if we are in the driver’s seat, despite all the uncertainty.

Psychologists talk about the “locus of control”—the strength of belief in control over your own destiny. They distinguish between people with more of an internal-control orientation—who believe that they are the primary actors—and those with an external one, who believe that society, fate, and other factors beyond their control greatly influence what happens to us. This focus on individual control goes along with something called the “fundamental attribution error”—when bad things happen to other people, we’re more likely to believe that they are personally at fault, but when they happen to us, we are more likely to blame the situation and circumstances beyond our control.

An individualistic locus of control is forged in the U.S. mythos—that we are a nation of strivers and people who pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. An internal-control orientation isn’t necessarily negative; it can facilitate resilience, rather than fatalism, by shifting the focus to what we can do as individuals even as things fall apart around us. This orientation seems to be common among children who not only survive but sometimes thrive in terrible situations—they take charge and have a go at it, and with some luck, pull through. It is probably even more attractive to educated, well-off people who feel that they have succeeded through their own actions.

You can see the attraction of an individualized, internal locus of control in a pandemic, as a pathogen without a cure spreads globally, interrupts our lives, makes us sick, and could prove fatal.

There have been very few things we could do at an individual level to reduce our risk beyond wearing masks, distancing, and disinfecting. The desire to exercise personal control against an invisible, pervasive enemy is likely why we’ve continued to emphasize scrubbing and cleaning surfaces, in what’s appropriately called “hygiene theater,” long after it became clear that fomites were not a key driver of the pandemic. Obsessive cleaning gave us something to do, and we weren’t about to give it up, even if it turned out to be useless. No wonder there was so much focus on telling others to stay home—even though it’s not a choice available to those who cannot work remotely—and so much scolding of those who dared to socialize or enjoy a moment outdoors.

And perhaps it was too much to expect a nation unwilling to release its tight grip on the bottle of bleach to greet the arrival of vaccines—however spectacular—by imagining the day we might start to let go of our masks.

The focus on individual actions has had its upsides, but it has also led to a sizable portion of pandemic victims being erased from public conversation. If our own actions drive everything, then some other individuals must be to blame when things go wrong for them. And throughout this pandemic, the mantra many of us kept repeating—“Wear a mask, stay home; wear a mask, stay home”—hid many of the real victims.

Study after study, in country after country, confirms that this disease has disproportionately hit the poor and minority groups, along with the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to severe disease. Even among the elderly, though, those who are wealthier and enjoy greater access to health care have fared better.

The poor and minority groups are dying in disproportionately large numbers for the same reasons that they suffer from many other diseases: a lifetime of disadvantages, lack of access to health care, inferior working conditions, unsafe housing, and limited financial resources.

Many lacked the option of staying home precisely because they were working hard to enable others to do what they could not, by packing boxes, delivering groceries, producing food. And even those who could stay home faced other problems born of inequality: Crowded housing is associated with higher rates of COVID-19 infection and worse outcomes, likely because many of the essential workers who live in such housing bring the virus home to elderly relatives.

Individual responsibility certainly had a large role to play in fighting the pandemic, but many victims had little choice in what happened to them. By disproportionately focusing on individual choices, not only did we hide the real problem, but we failed to do more to provide safe working and living conditions for everyone.

For example, there has been a lot of consternation about indoor dining, an activity I certainly wouldn’t recommend. But even takeout and delivery can impose a terrible cost: One study of California found that line cooks are the highest-risk occupation for dying of COVID-19. Unless we provide restaurants with funds so they can stay closed, or provide restaurant workers with high-filtration masks, better ventilation, paid sick leave, frequent rapid testing, and other protections so that they can safely work, getting food to go can simply shift the risk to the most vulnerable. Unsafe workplaces may be low on our agenda, but they do pose a real danger. Bill Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, pointed me to a paper he co-authored: Workplace-safety complaints to OSHA—which oversees occupational-safety regulations—during the pandemic were predictive of increases in deaths 16 days later.

New data highlight the terrible toll of inequality: Life expectancy has decreased dramatically over the past year, with Black people losing the most from this disease, followed by members of the Hispanic community. Minorities are also more likely to die of COVID-19 at a younger age. But when the new CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, noted this terrible statistic, she immediately followed up by urging people to “continue to use proven prevention steps to slow the spread—wear a well-fitting mask, stay 6 ft away from those you do not live with, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated places, and wash hands often.”

Those recommendations aren’t wrong, but they are incomplete. None of these individual acts do enough to protect those to whom such choices aren’t available—and the CDC has yet to issue sufficient guidelines for workplace ventilation or to make higher-filtration masks mandatory, or even available, for essential workers. Nor are these proscriptions paired frequently enough with prescriptions: Socialize outdoors, keep parks open, and let children play with one another outdoors.

Vaccines are the tool that will end the pandemic. The story of their rollout combines some of our strengths and our weaknesses, revealing the limitations of the way we think and evaluate evidence, provide guidelines, and absorb and react to an uncertain and difficult situation.

But also, after a weary year, maybe it’s hard for everyone—including scientists, journalists, and public-health officials—to imagine the end, to have hope. We adjust to new conditions fairly quickly, even terrible new conditions. During this pandemic, we’ve adjusted to things many of us never thought were possible. Billions of people have led dramatically smaller, circumscribed lives, and dealt with closed schools, the inability to see loved ones, the loss of jobs, the absence of communal activities, and the threat and reality of illness and death.

Hope nourishes us during the worst times, but it is also dangerous. It upsets the delicate balance of survival—where we stop hoping and focus on getting by—and opens us up to crushing disappointment if things don’t pan out. After a terrible year, many things are understandably making it harder for us to dare to hope. But, especially in the United States, everything looks better by the day. Tragically, at least 28 million Americans have been confirmed to have been infected, but the real number is certainly much higher. By one estimate, as many as 80 million have already been infected with COVID-19, and many of those people now have some level of immunity. Another 46 million people have already received at least one dose of a vaccine, and we’re vaccinating millions more each day as the supply constraints ease. The vaccines are poised to reduce or nearly eliminate the things we worry most about—severe disease, hospitalization, and death.

Not all our problems are solved. We need to get through the next few months, as we race to vaccinate against more transmissible variants. We need to do more to address equity in the United States—because it is the right thing to do, and because failing to vaccinate the highest-risk people will slow the population impact. We need to make sure that vaccines don’t remain inaccessible to poorer countries. We need to keep up our epidemiological surveillance so that if we do notice something that looks like it may threaten our progress, we can respond swiftly.

And the public behavior of the vaccinated cannot change overnight—even if they are at much lower risk, it’s not reasonable to expect a grocery store to try to verify who’s vaccinated, or to have two classes of people with different rules. For now, it’s courteous and prudent for everyone to obey the same guidelines in many public places. Still, vaccinated people can feel more confident in doing things they may have avoided, just in case—getting a haircut, taking a trip to see a loved one, browsing for nonessential purchases in a store.

But it is time to imagine a better future, not just because it’s drawing nearer but because that’s how we get through what remains and keep our guard up as necessary. It’s also realistic—reflecting the genuine increased safety for the vaccinated.

Public-health agencies should immediately start providing expanded information to vaccinated people so they can make informed decisions about private behavior. This is justified by the encouraging data, and a great way to get the word out on how wonderful these vaccines really are. The delay itself has great human costs, especially for those among the elderly who have been isolated for so long.

Public-health authorities should also be louder and more explicit about the next steps, giving us guidelines for when we can expect easing in rules for public behavior as well. We need the exit strategy spelled out—but with graduated, targeted measures rather than a one-size-fits-all message. We need to let people know that getting a vaccine will almost immediately change their lives for the better, and why, and also when and how increased vaccination will change more than their individual risks and opportunities, and see us out of this pandemic.

We should encourage people to dream about the end of this pandemic by talking about it more, and more concretely: the numbers, hows, and whys. Offering clear guidance on how this will end can help strengthen people’s resolve to endure whatever is necessary for the moment—even if they are still unvaccinated—by building warranted and realistic anticipation of the pandemic’s end.

Hope will get us through this. And one day soon, you’ll be able to hop off the subway on your way to a concert, pick up a newspaper, and find the triumphant headline: “COVID Routed!”

Zeynep Tufekci is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and an associate professor at the University of North Carolina. She studies the interaction between digital technology, artificial intelligence, and society.

Arqueólogos identificam 48 ilhas construídas por indígenas na Amazônia da era pré-colonial (G1)

g1.globo.com

Pesquisadores do Instituto Mamirauá trabalham na identificação de estruturas encontradas em áreas de várzea no Amazonas; levantamento foi feito em 4 anos. Segundo o IPHAN, quase 400 sítios arqueológicos achados no estado estão registrados no cadastro nacional.

Por Lucas Faria e Mayara Subtil, Rede Amazônica

20/02/2021 09h46


As longas distâncias percorridas em voadeiras e as conversas informais com ribeirinhos resultaram no registro de 48 ilhas criadas artificialmente por indígenas no período anterior à era-colonial na floresta amazônica.

Entre 2015 e 2019, arqueólogos do Instituto de Desenvolvimento Sustentável Mamirauá trabalharam na identificação dessas estruturas, localizadas em áreas de várzea do Médio e Alto Solimões, no Amazonas.

“Um dos principais pontos de importância (da identificação das ilhas) é a engenhosidade humana frente às adversidades, pois na Amazônia se tem uma ideia vaga e pensa que populações que viveram aqui não conseguiram desenvolver estratégias e evoluir. É uma resposta positiva de como se integrar à natureza e como aproveitar recursos de uma maneira mais ordenada e se ter segurança, alimento, fatura. É um legado que a gente precisa passar das populações que viveram na floresta amazônica”, declarou Márcio Amaral, pesquisador do instituto que encontrou as ilhas.

Ilustração de indivíduo da população indígena Omágua, atual Kambeba.  — Foto: Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira/Arquivo pessoal
Ilustração de indivíduo da população indígena Omágua, atual Kambeba. — Foto: Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira/Arquivo pessoal

Uma das hipóteses dos arqueólogos envolvidos no levantamento aponta que essas ilhas podem ter sido construídas por indígenas Omáguas, ancestrais dos Kambeba, população composta atualmente por cerca de 1,5 mil indivíduos, segundo o Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

Os pesquisadores acreditam também que há chances dessas áreas terem sido ocupadas ainda entre os séculos XV e XVI, época em que os europeus começaram a passar pela Amazônia – principalmente no entorno do rio Solimões. O indício reforça a teoria de que o bioma possivelmente já era ocupado nesse período por grupos organizados e complexos.

“Essas ilhas foram encontradas meio que por acaso. Por acaso por nós, pesquisadores. Na verdade, a gente estava fazendo trabalho de levantamento de sítio. Eram áreas que a gente não conhecia nada, não sabia nem como eles eram. Isso é interessante porque todas essas informações já vieram dos moradores. Só vamos incorporando essas informações”, complementou Eduardo Kazuo, coordenador do grupo de pesquisa em arqueologia do Instituto Mamirauá.

Ilhas artificiais foram identificadas em áreas de várzea do Médio e Alto Solimões, no Amazonas.  — Foto: Earth Studio/Reprodução
Ilhas artificiais foram identificadas em áreas de várzea do Médio e Alto Solimões, no Amazonas. — Foto: Earth Studio/Reprodução

Mas os dados ainda são preliminares. Segundo os arqueólogos, ainda não se tem conhecimento, por exemplo, sobre o período de ocupação das ilhas ou quais as culturas indígenas que estavam ali.

Os “aterrados”, como são chamados pelas pessoas que moram nas proximidades, medem pelo menos de um a três hectares por sete metros de altura. Márcio Amaral cita que somente na última expedição, ocorrida em novembro de 2019 e com duração de 12 dias, encontrou 13 ilhas. Todo o trabalho dos pesquisadores abrange uma área de 180 mil km² e 350 sítios arqueológicos já foram mapeados.

Resquícios de materiais foram encontrados nas ilhas artificiais identificadas na Amazônia.  — Foto: Márcio Amaral/Instituto Mamirauá
Resquícios de materiais foram encontrados nas ilhas artificiais identificadas na Amazônia. — Foto: Márcio Amaral/Instituto Mamirauá

“O primeiro traço diagnóstico dessas ilhas é a forma singular na paisagem. Há um microbioma nessas ilhas que tem relação com plantas úteis, árvores frutíferas, algumas plantas medicinais. Se tem uma floresta antropogênica, que tem um fundo de criação humana, com árvores e espécies úteis aos seres humanos que é diferenciado do entorno imediato da várzea. A cobertura florestal é diferente”, acrescentou.

Márcio também conta ter encontrado resquícios de material cerâmico nas ilhas. Segundo o arqueólogo, cacos, potes, panelas e tigelas achados eram usados, principalmente, para preparar os alimentos e armazená-los, “além de várias outras coisas de origem orgânica, como ossos, carvões, até o chamado ‘pão de índio’, que pode ser mandioca ou milho, processado e armazenado de maneiras que poderiam ser estocado de um ano para o outro”, acrescentou.

No Médio e Alto Solimões, ilhas artificiais oferecem proteção durante as cheias
No Médio e Alto Solimões, ilhas artificiais oferecem proteção durante as cheias

Próximos passos

O material encontrado pelos pesquisadores ainda precisa ser registrado junto ao Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional (IPHAN) para que possam, então, conseguir recursos e retornar a campo. O objetivo é seguir com o trabalho de escavação para futuras análises. Conforme Eduardo Kazuo, um relatório sobre as identificações está sendo preparado para ser encaminhado ao instituto.

Somente no Amazonas, 395 sítios arqueológicos estão registrados no Cadastro Nacional de Sítios Arqueológicos (CNSA) e mais de mil já foram identificados, conforme o IPHAN. Todos são protegidos pela Lei Federal 3.924, de julho de 1961. Ainda conforme o IPHAN, o tipo de sítio mais conhecido no estado do Amazonas são os que estão relacionados com as ocupações ceramistas.

“Contudo, na minha visão, os agentes de preservação mais importantes dos sítios arqueológicos, sobretudo na Amazônia, são as comunidades que ali vivem no entorno e muitas vezes sobre os sítios arqueológicos, que conhecem esses sítios, auxiliam os pesquisadores a identificarem esses lugares, registrarem e pesquisarem. Eu vejo os moradores dos sítios arqueológicos como os principais agentes de conservação”, declarou a arqueóloga Helena Lima, pesquisadora titular do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi (MPEG).

“Na Amazônia, a gente não tem muita pedra como material construtivo. Não tem muita rocha. Então, o que que era utilizado por esses povos como material construtivo que viviam ali? Era a própria terra, o solo que era movimentado, coisas de madeira e de palha que se apodrecem muito rapidamente ao longo do tempo. Então normalmente um sítio arqueológico na Amazônia vai ter muita cerâmica fragmentada na superfície, vai ter restos de plantas e ossos de animais, vai ter solos escuros, que são as terras pretas, mas em alguns lugares vamos encontrar aterros artificiais, que são como ilhas”, explicou o arqueólogo e professor da USP Eduardo Neves.

Materiais encontrados pelos pesquisadores serão registrados no IPHAN.  — Foto: Márcio Amaral/Instituto Mamirauá
Materiais encontrados pelos pesquisadores serão registrados no IPHAN. — Foto: Márcio Amaral/Instituto Mamirauá

Ainda de acordo com o professor Eduardo Neves, tais registros revelam informações sobre uma Amazônia ocidental que é “absolutamente desconhecida”.

“E segundo que mostra uma variabilidade, pois se a gente olhar para os povos indígenas hoje no Brasil e na Amazônia, a gente percebe que tem uma diversidade cultural muito grande que pode ser aferida das diferentes, centenas, dezenas de línguas indígenas faladas na Amazônia, na América do Sul, mas na Amazônia em particular”, reforçou.

‘They called her a crazy witch’: did medium Hilma af Klint invent abstract art? (The Guardian)

theguardian.com

Stuart Jeffries

Tue 6 Oct 2020 15.53 BST Last modified on Tue 6 Oct 2020 16.45 BST


In 1971, the art critic Linda Nochlin wrote an essay called Why have there been no great women artists? The question may be based on a false premise: there have been, we just didn’t get to see their work.

The visionary Swedish artist Hilma af Klint exemplifies this clearly, argues Halina Dyrschka, the German film-maker, whose beautiful film Beyond the Visible, about the painter’s astonishing work, is released on Friday. When I ask her why af Klint has been largely ignored since her death in 1944, Dyrschka tells me over video link from Berlin: “It’s easier to make a woman into a crazy witch than change art history to accommodate her. We still see a woman who is spiritual as a witch, while we celebrate spiritual male artists as geniuses.”

When Dyrschka first saw Hilma af Klint’s paintings seven years ago, “they spoke to me more profoundly than any art I have ever seen”. She was beguiled by the grids and intersecting circles, schematic flower forms, painted numbers, looping lines, pyramids and sunbursts.“It felt like a personal insult that those paintings had been hidden from me for so long.”

Af Klint had three strikes against her. She was a woman, she had no contacts in the art world, and, worst of all, she was a medium who believed her art flowed through her unmediated by ego. She worked for many years in quiet obscurity on a Swedish island where she cared for her mother as the latter went blind. Today, her work is being appreciated, but not bought up, by collectors because it is held by her descendants. As Ulla af Klint, widow of the nephew who inherited the artist’s work, says in the film: “You can’t make money out of Hilma.”

Af Klint’s mysticism hobbled her reputation long after her death. In the 1970s, her grand nephew Johan af Klint offered paintings to Sweden’s leading modern art museum, the Moderna Museet. The then-director turned them down. “When he heard that she was a medium, there was no discussion. He didn’t even look at the pictures.” Only in 2013 did the museum redeem itself with a retrospective.

“For some it’s very provocative when someone says, ‘I did this physically but it’s not by me. I was in contract with energies greater than me,’” says Iris Müller-Westermann, who curated that show. But, she adds, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich were all influenced by contemporary spiritual movements such as theosophy and anthroposophy too, as they sought to transcend the physical world and the constraints of representational art.

It’s striking that many female artists have been mediums but, unlike, say, the late British pianist and dinner lady Rosemary Brown, who claimed to have transcribed new works from the beyond by Rachmaninov, Beethoven and Liszt, Hilma af Klint was directed not to transcribe new works by dead artists but by forces from a higher realm. In one notebook, she described how she was inspired. “I registered their magnitude within me. Above the easel I saw the Jupiter symbol which [shone] brightly and persisted for several seconds, brightly. I started the work immediately proceeding in such a way that the pictures were painted directly through me with great power.”

When she died, Af Klint left more than 1,300 works, which had only been seen by a handful of people. She also left 125 notebooks, in one of which she stipulated that her work should not be publicly displayed until 20 years after her death. The “Higher Ones” she was in contact with through seances told Af Klint that the world was not ready yet for her work. Maybe they had a point.

Group X, No 2, Altarpiece, Group X, No 3, Altarpiece and Group X, No 1, Altarpiece (left to right) by painter Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) hanging in the Guggenheim.
Group X, No 2, Altarpiece, Group X, No 3, Altarpiece and Group X, No 1, Altarpiece (left to right) by painter Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) hanging in the Guggenheim. Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo

In 1944, three great pioneers of abstract art died: Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and af Klint. Kandinsky claimed to have created the first abstract painting in 1911. And when in 2012 New York’s Museum of Modern Art staged their show Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925, Af Klint was not even included as a footnote. And yet, as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zweitung art critic Julia Voss argues in the film, the Swedish artist had the jump on Kandinsky by five years in producing the first abstract painting in 1906.

For her film, Dyrschka contracted MoMA to find out why Af Klint had been erased from art history and was told “they weren’t so sure Hilma af Klint’s art worked as abstract art. After all, she hadn’t exhibited in her lifetime so how could one tell?” In the film, Dyrschka tries to answer that question by juxtaposing paintings by Af Klint with those of famous 20th-century male artists. Her golden square from 1916 is placed alongside a similar image by Josef Albers from 1971; her automatic writing doodles from 1896 are pitted against Cy Twombly’s 1967 squiggles. They make the rhetorical point strongly: whatever the men were doing, af Klint had probably done it first.

Hilma af Klint was born in Stockholm in 1862. Thanks to the family fortune she was able to study at the Royal Academy in Stockholm from which she graduated in 1887. She went on to support herself by painting landscapes and portraits as well as very beautiful botanical works. She joined the Theosophical Society in 1889 and in 1896 established a group of female artists called the Five, who each Friday met to pray, make automatic writing and attempt to communicate with other worlds through seances. Theosophists believe that all forms of life are part of the same cosmic whole. “It was a women’s liberation philosophy,” argues Voss. “It said: ‘Sure you can be priestesses.’”

But Af Klint was not just a conduit for occult spirits. She was also attuned to the scientific developments of the day. As Dyrschka argues in her film, the years in which the artist was creatively active was a time in which science was discovering worlds beyond the visible – including subatomic particles and electromagnetic radiation. Af Klint’s art involved making the invisible visible, be it that which science disclosed or that which the Higher Powers commissioned her to depict.

Wonderful energy … Hilma af Klint’s Altarbild, 1915.
Wonderful energy … Hilma af Klint’s Altarbild, 1915. Photograph: Albin Dahlström/© Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk

But on those Friday meetings, she encountered supernatural beings beyond science’s remit. The Five claimed to receive messages from other worlds. Af Klint recorded one message in her notebook: “‘Accept,’ says the angel ‘that a wonderful energy follows from the heavenly to the earthly.’” The Five called these spirit guides High Masters and gave them names: Amaliel, Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Georg and Gregor. In 1904, these High Masters called for a temple to be built, filled with paintings that the Five would make. Only Af Klint accepted this strange commission and in November 1906 set to work on what grew over the next 11 years to become a series of of 193 paintings.

The philosopher and occultist Rudolf Steiner, whose anthroposophical society she would join, saw the early paintings in this series in 1908 but was uncomprehending. Strikingly, in the next four years Af Klint did little painting, but retreated to the obscure island of Munsö in Lake Mälaren, near her family’s estate on neighbouring Adelsö – in part because she was caring for her ailing mother, but also because Steiner’s patriarchal dismissal stung.

“She was treated locally as a crazy witch,” says Dyrschka. “The locals used to wonder what she did with all the eggs that were delivered to her studio.” They were used for her favoured material, tempera, which critics have noted gives her work on paper a luminous quality.

In a sense this retreat from the world was creatively sensible. Surrounded by water and spirits, Af Klint worked at the service of her occult beliefs. She had great hopes that Steiner would help her build a temple to house her art on a Swedish island that would glorify his philosophy. In 1932 she wrote to him: “Should the paintings which I created between 1902 and 1920, some of which you saw for yourself, be destroyed. Or can one do something with them?”

It sounds like a threat; happily, she didn’t destroy the work even though nothing came of her dream temple. Af Klint did sketch out what the temple should look like – it should be made of alabaster and have an astronomical tower with an internal spiral staircase. Poignantly, in her film Dyrschka juxtaposes this description with images of the Guggenheim in New York where Af Klint’s oeuvre was belatedly given pride of place last year. The skylight and the ramps look like the temple that Hilma af Klint died without seeing realised.

Sensation … the 2018 exhibition at the Guggenheim, New York.
Sensation … the 2018 exhibition at the Guggenheim, New York. Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo

True, the 1986 touring exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Paintings 1890–1985 exhibition at LACMA in Los Angeles marked the beginning of Af Klint’s international recognition. But it was the Guggenheim exhibition that, more than a century after Af Klint arguably invented abstract and painted some of the most beguiling if neglected canvases in art history, really got what she deserved.

For science historian Ernst Peter Ficsher quoted in the film, it is us rather than Af Klint who require reviving. We need her vision in our disenchanted age. “We know that the universe is made up of 95% dark matter but the strange thing is nobody gets excited about this. I think our world has become blurred stupid dulled unless somewhere out there there’s a Hilma af Klint painting it all so in a hundred years we will see what we’ve missed. In 1900 we still knew how to marvel. Today we sit in front of our iPhones and media and are bored.” Hilma af Klint’s paintings, just maybe, gives us the opportunity to escape the everyday and marvel anew.

  • Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint is released on 9 October.

The Coronavirus Is Plotting a Comeback. Here’s Our Chance to Stop It for Good. (New York Times)

nytimes.com

Apoorva Mandavilli


Lincoln Park in Chicago. Scientists are hopeful, as vaccinations continue and despite the emergence of variants, that we’re past the worst of the pandemic.
Lincoln Park in Chicago. Scientists are hopeful, as vaccinations continue and despite the emergence of variants, that we’re past the worst of the pandemic. Credit: Lyndon French for The New York Times
Many scientists are expecting another rise in infections. But this time the surge will be blunted by vaccines and, hopefully, widespread caution. By summer, Americans may be looking at a return to normal life.

Published Feb. 25, 2021Updated Feb. 26, 2021, 12:07 a.m. ET

Across the United States, and the world, the coronavirus seems to be loosening its stranglehold. The deadly curve of cases, hospitalizations and deaths has yo-yoed before, but never has it plunged so steeply and so fast.

Is this it, then? Is this the beginning of the end? After a year of being pummeled by grim statistics and scolded for wanting human contact, many Americans feel a long-promised deliverance is at hand.

Americans will win against the virus and regain many aspects of their pre-pandemic lives, most scientists now believe. Of the 21 interviewed for this article, all were optimistic that the worst of the pandemic is past. This summer, they said, life may begin to seem normal again.

But — of course, there’s always a but — researchers are also worried that Americans, so close to the finish line, may once again underestimate the virus.

So far, the two vaccines authorized in the United States are spectacularly effective, and after a slow start, the vaccination rollout is picking up momentum. A third vaccine is likely to be authorized shortly, adding to the nation’s supply.

But it will be many weeks before vaccinations make a dent in the pandemic. And now the virus is shape-shifting faster than expected, evolving into variants that may partly sidestep the immune system.

The latest variant was discovered in New York City only this week, and another worrisome version is spreading at a rapid pace through California. Scientists say a contagious variant first discovered in Britain will become the dominant form of the virus in the United States by the end of March.

The road back to normalcy is potholed with unknowns: how well vaccines prevent further spread of the virus; whether emerging variants remain susceptible enough to the vaccines; and how quickly the world is immunized, so as to halt further evolution of the virus.

But the greatest ambiguity is human behavior. Can Americans desperate for normalcy keep wearing masks and distancing themselves from family and friends? How much longer can communities keep businesses, offices and schools closed?

Covid-19 deaths will most likely never rise quite as precipitously as in the past, and the worst may be behind us. But if Americans let down their guard too soon — many states are already lifting restrictions — and if the variants spread in the United States as they have elsewhere, another spike in cases may well arrive in the coming weeks.

Scientists call it the fourth wave. The new variants mean “we’re essentially facing a pandemic within a pandemic,” said Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

A patient received comfort in the I.C.U. of Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria, Calif., last month. 
Credit: Daniel Dreifuss for The New York Times

The United States has now recorded 500,000 deaths amid the pandemic, a terrible milestone. As of Wednesday morning, at least 28.3 million people have been infected.

But the rate of new infections has tumbled by 35 percent over the past two weeks, according to a database maintained by The New York Times. Hospitalizations are down 31 percent, and deaths have fallen by 16 percent.

Yet the numbers are still at the horrific highs of November, scientists noted. At least 3,210 people died of Covid-19 on Wednesday alone. And there is no guarantee that these rates will continue to decrease.

“Very, very high case numbers are not a good thing, even if the trend is downward,” said Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. “Taking the first hint of a downward trend as a reason to reopen is how you get to even higher numbers.”

In late November, for example, Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island limited social gatherings and some commercial activities in the state. Eight days later, cases began to decline. The trend reversed eight days after the state’s pause lifted on Dec. 20.

The virus’s latest retreat in Rhode Island and most other states, experts said, results from a combination of factors: growing numbers of people with immunity to the virus, either from having been infected or from vaccination; changes in behavior in response to the surges of a few weeks ago; and a dash of seasonality — the effect of temperature and humidity on the survival of the virus.

Parts of the country that experienced huge surges in infection, like Montana and Iowa, may be closer to herd immunity than other regions. But patchwork immunity alone cannot explain the declines throughout much of the world.

The vaccines were first rolled out to residents of nursing homes and to the elderly, who are at highest risk of severe illness and death. That may explain some of the current decline in hospitalizations and deaths.

A volunteer in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine trial received a shot in the Desmond Tutu H.I.V. Foundation Youth Center in Masiphumelele, South Africa, in December.
Credit: Joao Silva/The New York Times

But young people drive the spread of the virus, and most of them have not yet been inoculated. And the bulk of the world’s vaccine supply has been bought up by wealthy nations, which have amassed one billion more doses than needed to immunize their populations.

Vaccination cannot explain why cases are dropping even in countries where not a single soul has been immunized, like Honduras, Kazakhstan or Libya. The biggest contributor to the sharp decline in infections is something more mundane, scientists say: behavioral change.

Leaders in the United States and elsewhere stepped up community restrictions after the holiday peaks. But individual choices have also been important, said Lindsay Wiley, an expert in public health law and ethics at American University in Washington.

“People voluntarily change their behavior as they see their local hospital get hit hard, as they hear about outbreaks in their area,” she said. “If that’s the reason that things are improving, then that’s something that can reverse pretty quickly, too.”

The downward curve of infections with the original coronavirus disguises an exponential rise in infections with B.1.1.7, the variant first identified in Britain, according to many researchers.

“We really are seeing two epidemic curves,” said Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious disease modeler at the University of Toronto.

The B.1.1.7 variant is thought to be more contagious and more deadly, and it is expected to become the predominant form of the virus in the United States by late March. The number of cases with the variant in the United States has risen from 76 in 12 states as of Jan. 13 to more than 1,800 in 45 states now. Actual infections may be much higher because of inadequate surveillance efforts in the United States.

Buoyed by the shrinking rates over all, however, governors are lifting restrictions across the United States and are under enormous pressure to reopen completely. Should that occur, B.1.1.7 and the other variants are likely to explode.

“Everybody is tired, and everybody wants things to open up again,” Dr. Tuite said. “Bending to political pressure right now, when things are really headed in the right direction, is going to end up costing us in the long term.”

A fourth wave doesn’t have to be inevitable, scientists say, but the new variants will pose a significant challenge to averting that wave.
Credit: Lyndon French for The New York Times

Looking ahead to late March or April, the majority of scientists interviewed by The Times predicted a fourth wave of infections. But they stressed that it is not an inevitable surge, if government officials and individuals maintain precautions for a few more weeks.

A minority of experts were more sanguine, saying they expected powerful vaccines and an expanding rollout to stop the virus. And a few took the middle road.

“We’re at that crossroads, where it could go well or it could go badly,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The vaccines have proved to be more effective than anyone could have hoped, so far preventing serious illness and death in nearly all recipients. At present, about 1.4 million Americans are vaccinated each day. More than 45 million Americans have received at least one dose.

A team of researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle tried to calculate the number of vaccinations required per day to avoid a fourth wave. In a model completed before the variants surfaced, the scientists estimated that vaccinating just one million Americans a day would limit the magnitude of the fourth wave.

“But the new variants completely changed that,” said Dr. Joshua T. Schiffer, an infectious disease specialist who led the study. “It’s just very challenging scientifically — the ground is shifting very, very quickly.”

Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida, described herself as “a little more optimistic” than many other researchers. “We would be silly to undersell the vaccines,” she said, noting that they are effective against the fast-spreading B.1.1.7 variant.

But Dr. Dean worried about the forms of the virus detected in South Africa and Brazil that seem less vulnerable to the vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna. (On Wednesday, Johnson & Johnson reported that its vaccine was relatively effective against the variant found in South Africa.)

Ccoronavirus test samples in a lab for genomic sequencing at Duke University in Durham, N.C., earlier this month.
Credit: Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

About 50 infections with those two variants have been identified in the United States, but that could change. Because of the variants, scientists do not know how many people who were infected and had recovered are now vulnerable to reinfection.

South Africa and Brazil have reported reinfections with the new variants among people who had recovered from infections with the original version of the virus.

“That makes it a lot harder to say, ‘If we were to get to this level of vaccinations, we’d probably be OK,’” said Sarah Cobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago.

Yet the biggest unknown is human behavior, experts said. The sharp drop in cases now may lead to complacency about masks and distancing, and to a wholesale lifting of restrictions on indoor dining, sporting events and more. Or … not.

“The single biggest lesson I’ve learned during the pandemic is that epidemiological modeling struggles with prediction, because so much of it depends on human behavioral factors,” said Carl Bergstrom, a biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Taking into account the counterbalancing rises in both vaccinations and variants, along with the high likelihood that people will stop taking precautions, a fourth wave is highly likely this spring, the majority of experts told The Times.

Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, said he was confident that the number of cases will continue to decline, then plateau in about a month. After mid-March, the curve in new cases will swing upward again.

In early to mid-April, “we’re going to start seeing hospitalizations go up,” he said. “It’s just a question of how much.”

Hospitalizations and deaths will fall to levels low enough to reopen the country — though mask-wearing may remain necessary as a significant portion of people, including children, won’t be immunized.
Credit: Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

Now the good news.

Despite the uncertainties, the experts predict that the last surge will subside in the United States sometime in the early summer. If the Biden administration can keep its promise to immunize every American adult by the end of the summer, the variants should be no match for the vaccines.

Combine vaccination with natural immunity and the human tendency to head outdoors as weather warms, and “it may not be exactly herd immunity, but maybe it’s sufficient to prevent any large outbreaks,” said Youyang Gu, an independent data scientist, who created some of the most prescient models of the pandemic.

Infections will continue to drop. More important, hospitalizations and deaths will fall to negligible levels — enough, hopefully, to reopen the country.

“Sometimes people lose vision of the fact that vaccines prevent hospitalization and death, which is really actually what most people care about,” said Stefan Baral, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Even as the virus begins its swoon, people may still need to wear masks in public places and maintain social distance, because a significant percent of the population — including children — will not be immunized.

“Assuming that we keep a close eye on things in the summer and don’t go crazy, I think that we could look forward to a summer that is looking more normal, but hopefully in a way that is more carefully monitored than last summer,” said Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland.

Imagine: Groups of vaccinated people will be able to get together for barbecues and play dates, without fear of infecting one another. Beaches, parks and playgrounds will be full of mask-free people. Indoor dining will return, along with movie theaters, bowling alleys and shopping malls — although they may still require masks.

The virus will still be circulating, but the extent will depend in part on how well vaccines prevent not just illness and death, but also transmission. The data on whether vaccines stop the spread of the disease are encouraging, but immunization is unlikely to block transmission entirely.

Self-swab testing for Covid at Duke University in February.
Credit: Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

“It’s not zero and it’s not 100 — exactly where that number is will be important,” said Shweta Bansal, an infectious disease modeler at Georgetown University. “It needs to be pretty darn high for us to be able to get away with vaccinating anything below 100 percent of the population, so that’s definitely something we’re watching.”

Over the long term — say, a year from now, when all the adults and children in the United States who want a vaccine have received them — will this virus finally be behind us?

Every expert interviewed by The Times said no. Even after the vast majority of the American population has been immunized, the virus will continue to pop up in clusters, taking advantage of pockets of vulnerability. Years from now, the coronavirus may be an annoyance, circulating at low levels, causing modest colds.

Many scientists said their greatest worry post-pandemic was that new variants may turn out to be significantly less susceptible to the vaccines. Billions of people worldwide will remain unprotected, and each infection gives the virus new opportunities to mutate.

“We won’t have useless vaccines. We might have slightly less good vaccines than we have at the moment,” said Andrew Read, an evolutionary microbiologist at Penn State University. “That’s not the end of the world, because we have really good vaccines right now.”

For now, every one of us can help by continuing to be careful for just a few more months, until the curve permanently flattens.

“Just hang in there a little bit longer,” Dr. Tuite said. “There’s a lot of optimism and hope, but I think we need to be prepared for the fact that the next several months are likely to continue to be difficult.”

Credit: Lyndon French for The New York Times

Fundação Renova deve ser extinta e Vale, BHP e Samarco precisam pagar R$ 10 bilhões em danos morais, pede o MPMG (Observatório da Mineração)

Maurício Angelo, 25 de fevereiro de 2021

A Fundação Renova não pode mais existir por representar os interesses das mineradoras – Vale, BHP e Samarco – que a mantém e ser incapaz de cumprir de forma independente com as ações de reparação do maior desastre ambiental da história do Brasil, o rompimento da barragem de Mariana.

Por isso, o MPMG acaba de ajuizar ação civil pública pedindo a extinção da Fundação Renova, a nomeação de uma junta interventora para exercer a função de conselho curador, incluindo um desenho institucional de transição e a condenação por danos morais no valor de R$10 bilhões.

O modelo atual da Fundação Renova, que teve as suas contas rejeitas pela quarta vez pelo MPMG, que apontou diversas ilicitudes na gestão da Fundação e a interferência direta das mineradoras, “é como se fosse autorizado que os acusados no processo penal e nos processos coletivos em geral pudessem decidir e gerir os direitos e as garantias fundamentais das suas próprias vítimas”, diz a ação.

Segundo o MPMG, é evidente a ilicitude constitucional e legal da Fundação Renova e impossível a sua manutenção, pois “não é razoável, diante dos direitos fundamentais, dos direitos humanos, da dignidade humana, ambiental e do próprio devido processo legal” que a Renova siga sendo responsável pela reparação do desastre de Mariana.

Esse pedido, que deverá ser analisado pela justiça estadual de Minas Gerais, mexe com todo o modelo fechado em acordos anteriores que definiram os programas executados e que se provaram insuficientes diante da gravidade e a complexidade do caso, que completou 5 anos em novembro último.

Foto de capa: Ismael dos Anjos

Extinção é consequência de anos de irregularidades

A extinção da Renova é a consequência de uma série de irregularidades e investigações que tenho denunciado no Observatório desde a criação da Fundação, em 2016.

a suspeita de que a Renova esteja sendo usada em manobras fiscais por Vale, Samarco e BHP para reembolsar parte dos bilhões gastos até hoje. Em 2020, a Renova também decidiu cortar o auxílio financeiro a sete mil pessoas em Minas Gerais e no Espírito Santo, foi denunciada por uma “possível violação em massa de direitos humanos” e obrigada pela justiça a voltar atrás.

As propagandas veiculadas pela Renova em alguns dos principais jornais e veículos do país ao custo de R$ 17 milhões foram consideradas enganosas e irregulares pelo Ministério Público Federal e defensorias públicas. A Renova foi usada para pressionar prefeitos da bacia do Rio Doce a abrir mão de ações judiciais no Brasil e no exterior.

Dezenas de milhares de pessoas sequer foram reconhecidas como atingidos pelo rompimento da barragem de Mariana até hoje e os distritos destruídos pela lama ainda não foram reconstruídos. Alguns, como Paracatu de Baixo e Gesteira, estão em fase prévia de estudos ou aguardam os projetos serem homologados pela justiça.

Falta de participação dos atingidos

Um ponto crítico de toda a história é a falta da participação dos atingidos, o que motivou inclusive uma repactuação do acordo original feito em 2016, reformado em 2018 para tentar garantir que as pessoas afetadas tivessem realmente voz no processo.

Não funcionou.

É o que afirma o MPMG na ação, destacando que ao longo desses mais de cinco anos, diversas foram as falhas dos programas da Fundação Renova apontados no âmbito do sistema do Comitê Interfederativo (CIF), no processo judicial, nos relatórios técnicos dos experts do Ministério Público e trabalhos e manifestações realizadas pelas representações dos atingidos.

“A resistência da Fundação Renova” em resolver os problemas, dizem os promotores, “decorre, em grande medida, da falta de participação dos atingidos na concepção, implementação e execução das medidas reparatórias”.

Outro fator relevante, continua o MPMG, é o fato de que a Fundação Renova insiste em desconsiderar estudos técnicos elaborados e/ou validados no âmbito do sistema CIF, bem como a produção técnica dos experts no diagnóstico socioeconômico e socioambiental e no monitoramento dos programas.

Para os promotores Gregório de Almeida e Valma Cunha, “é urgente que estes ilícitos e desvios de finalidade sejam imediatamente cessados como forma de restabelecer a incidência da ordem jurídica, dos direitos e das garantias constitucionais fundamentais e de próprio devido processo legal”.

Modelo de transição complexo

Segundo a ação, o regime de transição deverá assegurar tudo o que foi negociado até aqui, um caso complexo que envolve a manutenção do sistema de governança, com suas respectivas atribuições, incluindo o Comitê Interfederativo (CIF) e instâncias internas (Câmaras Técnicas, Comitês de Assessoramento), as Comissões Locais de Pessoas Atingidas e Assessorias Técnicas contratadas, Auditoria Externa Independente, experts e contratações específicas dedicadas ao monitoramento dos programas mediante Acordos de Cooperação Técnica-Científica.

O objetivo é realizar o processo de repactuação mediante plano de ação e cronograma a ser estabelecido em comum acordo pelo Ministério Público, Defensoria Pública, Empresas, a União, o Estado De Minas Gerais, o Estado Do Espírito Santo, com a participação dos atingidos, conforme os princípios e cláusula do TAC-Gov (acordo reformulado de 2018).

O Plano de Ação e o Cronograma deverão considerar duas frentes de atuação a serem trabalhadas no Processo de Repactuação, destacam, uma voltada à própria repactuação dos programas de reparação hoje em curso, considerando o respeito aos direitos humanos e a participação dos atingidos e outra relativa à nova governança voltada à condução dos Programas Socioambientais e Socioeconômicos, “garantindo-se que essa venha se dar por meio de processos e fluxos que assegurem imparcialidade, legitimidade, participação, transparência, preservando-se os objetivos e premissas estabelecidos nos acordos pelas partes e assumidos como compromissos pelas empresas envolvidas com o desastre”, destacam.

Durante a transição, as mineradoras devem garantir que nenhuma medida de reparação tenha seu cronograma suspenso ou atrasado. “Seria incoerência aceitar que as irregularidades da Fundação Renova possam justificar qualquer atraso ou não realização da reparação de todos os danos causados pelas empresas envolvidas no desastre, sobretudo considerando que já se passaram 5 anos e ainda há muito a ser feito para garantir a reparação integral”, afirmam os promotores.

O MPMG pede que seja contemplado pela decisão liminar de intervenção a nomeação de uma junta interventora judicial, que exercerá a função de conselho curador, composta por membros indicados pelo MPF, MPMG, MPES, o presidente do CIF, o estado de MG e do ES e as defensorias públicas da União, de Minas Gerais e do Espírito Santo.

Pedidos finais

Nesse caso, é importante conhecer os detalhes dos pedidos finais do Ministério Público de Minas Gerais, que mostram a responsabilidade das mineradoras e como será feita, na prática, a extinção da Renova, sem que isso acarrete mais prejuízos aos atingidos e sem que os dirigentes que eventualmente respondam por medias cíveis e criminais saiam impunes. São eles:

1- Extinguir a FUNDAÇÃO RENOVA, com a consequente averbação da sentença junto ao serviço de registro civil de pessoas jurídicas de Belo Horizonte e cancelamento da inscrição junto ao Cadastro Nacional da Pessoa Jurídica (CNPJ);

2 – Condenar as instituidoras e mantenedoras SAMARCO MINERAÇÃO S.A, VALE S.A. e BHP BILLITON BRASIL LTDA, em responsabilidade solidária, à reparação dos danos materiais causados no desvio de finalidade e nos ilícitos praticados dentro e por intermédio da FUNDAÇÃO RENOVA, com a frustração dos Programas Acordados no TTAC e nos seus objetivos estatutários, com desvios de finalidade, sem prejuízo das medidas cíveis e criminais a serem adotadas posteriormente em face dos dirigentes que concorreram para a prática dos ilícitos, danos esses a serem apurados em liquidação de sentença, conforme admite o art. 324, §1º, inciso II, do CPC;

3 – Condenar as instituidoras e mantenedoras SAMARCO MINERAÇÃO S.A, VALE S.A. e BHP BILLITON BRASIL LTDA, em responsabilidade solidária, à reparação dos danos morais no valor de R$ 10 dez bilhões de reais, que corresponde aproximadamente aos valores gastos, com ineficiência dos Programas, até o presente momento por intermédio da FUNDAÇÃO RENOVA, revertendo o valor da condenação ao desenvolvimento de políticas públicas de direitos humanos e ambientais nas regiões atingidas pelos rejeitos decorrentes do rompimento da Barragem do FUNDÃO.

4 – Expedir ofício ao Ministério da Previdência e Assistência Social, para que informe se há débitos pendentes junto ao INSS; à Caixa Econômica Federal, referentemente aos débitos junto ao FGTS; às Fazendas Federal, Estadual e Municipal;

5 – expedir ofício aos Serviços de Registro Imobiliário de Belo Horizonte, a fim de levantar eventual patrimônio imobiliário da FUNDAÇÃO RENOVA; expedir ofício ao Banco Central do Brasil, requisitando informações sobre contas bancárias de qualquer natureza em nome da FUNDAÇÃO RENOVA; proceder à liquidação do patrimônio fundacional (inclusive com a publicação de edital para conhecimento de terceiros interessados) e à reversão dos bens residuais, com a nomeação de liquidante, nos termos do Estatuto e do artigo 69 do Código Civil.

“Faltam resultados, falta reparação, falta boa vontade das empresas: falta empatia e humanidade para com as pessoas atingidas. Cinco anos depois, as duas maiores empresas de mineração em todo o mundo não conseguiram reconstruir um único distrito”, conclui a ação.

Procurada para comentar, a Renova não se manifestou até a publicação desta reportagem.

Atualização: leia na íntegra a resposta enviada pela Renova após a publicação da matéria.

A Fundação Renova discorda das alegações feitas pelo Ministério Público de Minas Gerais relacionadas às contas da instituição e informa que irá contestar nas instâncias cabíveis o pedido de intervenção proposto em Ação Civil Pública nesta quarta-feira (24).  

Além das prestações de contas realizadas anualmente, a Fundação também encaminha ao MPMG as respectivas aprovações de suas contas feitas pelo Conselho Curador, pelo Conselho Fiscal e pela empresa independente responsável pela auditoria das demonstrações financeiras, conforme prevê a Cláusula 53 do TTAC. 

As contas da Fundação Renova são ainda verificadas por auditorias externas independentes, que garantem transparência no acompanhamento e fiscalização dos investimentos realizados e dos resultados alcançados. As contas da Fundação foram aprovadas por essas auditorias. 

A respeito do questionamento do MP relacionado ao superávit da Fundação Renova em 2019, é importante esclarecer que é recomendável que instituições do terceiro setor trabalhem com superávit, indicador de que o trabalho está sendo realizado de forma qualificada e técnica. No caso da Fundação Renova, o valor relativo ao superávit é reaplicado nas ações de reparação do ano seguinte. 

Sobre a remuneração de seus executivos, a Fundação Renova esclarece que adota uma política de mercado, com valores compatíveis com as responsabilidades assumidas. Importante esclarecer que os valores aportados pelas mantenedoras para o custeio da fundação (salários e custos administrativos) não comprometem e não são contabilizados nos valores destinados à reparação e compensação dos danos causados pelo rompimento de Fundão.  

Cabe ressaltar que a Fundação Renova é responsável pela mobilização para a reparação dos danos causados pelo rompimento da barragem de Fundão, cujo escopo engloba 42 programas que se desdobram nos projetos que estão sendo implementados nos 670 quilômetros de área impactada ao longo do rio Doce e afluentes e em ações de longo prazo. Cerca de R$ 11,8 bilhões foram desembolsados pela Fundação Renova até o momento, tendo sido pagos R$ 3,26 bilhões em indenizações e auxílios financeiros para 320 mil pessoas até janeiro deste ano. 

A indenizações ganharam novo impulso com o Sistema Indenizatório Simplificado, implementado pela Fundação Renova a partir de decisão da 12ª Vara Federal em ações apresentadas por Comissões de Atingidos dos municípios impactados. Ele tem possibilitado o pagamento de indenização a categorias com dificuldade de comprovação de danos. O primeiro pagamento por meio do sistema foi realizado em setembro. Até o início de fevereiro de 2021, mais de 5 mil pessoas foram pagas pelo Sistema Indenizatório Simplificado. O valor ultrapassou R$ 450 milhões. 

Reparação 

A Fundação Renova permanece dedicada ao trabalho de reparação dos danos provocados pelo rompimento da barragem de Fundão, em Mariana (MG), propósito para o qual foi criada.  

As obras dos reassentamentos têm previsão de desembolso de R$ 1 bilhão para 2021, um aumento de 14% em relação ao ano anterior. O valor refere-se a todas as modalidades de reassentamento, englobando as construções dos novos distritos de Bento Rodrigues, Paracatu de Baixo e Gesteira, e, também, a modalidade de reassentamento Familiar e a reconstrução de residências em comunidades rurais. O avanço da infraestrutura, priorizado dentro do plano estratégico de prevenção contra a Covid-19, permitirá a aceleração da construção das residências das famílias atingidas. Assim, os reassentamentos coletivos ganham desenhos de cidades planejadas.  

A questão do prazo de entrega dos reassentamentos está sendo discutida em um Ação Civil Pública (ACP) em curso na Comarca de Mariana, tendo sido submetido recurso para análise em segunda instância (TJMG), o qual ainda aguarda apreciação e julgamento. Nesse contexto, foram expostos os protocolos sanitários aplicáveis em razão da Covid-19, que obrigaram a Fundação a desmobilizar parte do efetivo e a trabalhar com equipes reduzidas, o que provocou a necessidade de reprogramação das atividades. 

A água do rio Doce pode ser consumida após passar por tratamento convencional em sistemas municipais de abastecimento. Além disso, foram recuperados 113 afluentes, pequenos rios que alimentam o alto rio Doce. Cerca de 888 nascentes estão com o processo de recuperação iniciado. Até o momento, as ações de restauração florestal alcançam mais de 1.000 hectares em Minas Gerais e no Espírito Santo, uma área equivalente a 1.000 campos de futebol. 

Na área de saneamento, 9 municípios iniciaram obras para tratamento de esgoto e resíduos sólidos com recursos repassados pela Fundação Renova. Estão previstos R$ 600 milhões para projetos nos 39 municípios impactados. 

Em 2020, a Fundação iniciou um repasse de R$ 830 milhões aos governos de Minas Gerais e do Espírito Santo e prefeituras da bacia do rio Doce, para investimentos em infraestrutura, saúde e educação. Esses recursos promoverão a reestruturação de mais de 150 quilômetros de estradas, de cerca de 900 escolas em 39 municípios e do Hospital Regional de Governador Valadares (MG), além de possibilitar a implantação do Distrito Industrial de Rio Doce (MG). 

Israeli Archaeologists Present Groundbreaking Universal Theory of Human Evolution (Haaretz)

Tel Aviv University archaeologists Miki Ben-Dor and Ran Barkai proffer novel hypothesis, showing how the greed of Homo erectus set us careening down an anomalous evolutionary path

Ruth Schuster, Feb. 25, 2021

Why the human brain evolved as it did never has been plausibly explained. Apparently, not since the first life-form billions of years ago did a single species gain dominance over all others – until we came along. Now, in a groundbreaking paper, two Israeli researchers propose that our anomalous evolution was propelled by the very mass extinctions we helped cause. Or: As we sawed off the culinary branches from which we swung, we had to get ever more inventive in order to survive.

As ambling, slow-to-reproduce large animals diminished and gradually went extinct, we were forced to resort to smaller, nimbler animals that flee as a strategy to escape predation. To catch them, we had to get smarter, nimbler and faster, according to the universal theory of human evolution proposed by researchers Miki Ben-Dor and Prof. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University, in a paper published in the journal Quaternary.

In fact, the great African megafauna began to decline about 4.6 million years ago. But our story begins with Homo habilis, which lived about 2.6 million years ago and apparently used crude stone tools to help it eat flesh, and with Homo erectus, which thronged Africa and expanded to Eurasia about 2 million years ago. The thing is, erectus wasn’t an omnivore: it was a carnivore, Ben-Dor explains to Haaretz.

“Eighty percent of mammals are omnivores but still specialize in a narrow food range. If anything, it seems Homo erectus was a hyper-carnivore,” he observes.

And in the last couple of million years, our brains grew threefold to a maximum capacity of about 1,500 cranial capacity, a size achieved about 300,000 years ago. We also gradually but consistently ramped up in technology and culture – until the Neolithic revolution and advent of the sedentary lifestyle, when our brains shrank to about 1,400 to 1,300cc, but more on that anomaly later.

The hypothesis suggested by Ben-Dor and Barkai – that we ate our way to our present physical, cultural and ecological state – is an original unifying explanation for the behavioral, physiological and cultural evolution of the human species.

Out of chaos

Evolution is chaotic. Charles Darwin came up with the theory of the survival of the fittest, and nobody has a better suggestion yet, but mutations aren’t “planned.” Bodies aren’t “designed,” if we leave genetic engineering out of it. The point is, evolution isn’t linear but chaotic, and that should theoretically apply to humans too.

Hence, it is strange that certain changes in the course of millions of years of human history, including the expansion of our brain, tool manufacture techniques and use of fire, for example, were uncharacteristically progressive, say Ben-Dor and Barkai.

“Uncharacteristically progressive” means that certain traits such as brain size, or cultural developments such as fire usage, evolved in one direction over a long time, in the direction of escalation. That isn’t what chaos is expected to produce over vast spans of time, Barkai explains to Haaretz: it is bizarre. Very few parameters behave like that.

So, their discovery of correlation between contraction of the average weight of African animals, the extinction of megafauna and the development of the human brain is intriguing.

From mammoth marrow to joint of rat

To be clear, just this month a new paper posited that the late Quaternary extinction of megafauna, in the last few tens of thousands of years, wasn’t entirely the fault of humanity. In North America specifically, it was due primarily to climate change, with the late-arriving humans apparently providing the coup de grâce to some species.

In the Old World, however, a human role is clearer. African megafauna apparently began to decline 4.6 million years ago, but during the Pleistocene (2.6 million to 11,600 years ago) the size of African animals trended sharply down, in what the authors term an abrupt reversal from a continuous growth trend of 65 million years (i.e., since the dinosaurs almost died out).

When Homo erectus the carnivore began to roam Africa around 2 million years ago, land mammals averaged nearly 500 kilograms. Barkai’s team and others have demonstrated that hominins ate elephants and large animals when they could. In fact, originally Africa had six elephant species (today there are two: the bush elephant and forest elephant). By the end of the Pleistocene, by which time all hominins other than modern humans were extinct too, that average weight of the African animal had shrunk by more than 90 percent.

And during the Pleistocene, as the African animals shrank, the Homo genus grew taller and more gracile, and our stone tool technology improved (which in no way diminished our affection for archaic implements like the hand ax or chopper, both of which remained in use for more than a million years, even as more sophisticated technologies were developed).

If we started some 3.3 million years ago with large, crude stone hammers that may have been used to bang big animals on the head or break bones to get at the marrow, over the epochs we invented the spear for remote slaughter. By about 80,000 years ago, the bow and arrow was making its appearance, which was more suitable for bringing down small fry like small deer and birds. Over a million years ago, we began to use fire, and later achieved better control of it, meaning the ability to ignite it at will. Later we domesticated the dog from the wolf, and it would help us hunt smaller, fleet animals.

Why did the earliest humans hunt large animals anyway? Wouldn’t a peeved elephant be more dangerous than a rat? Arguably, but catching one elephant is easier than catching a large number of rats. And megafauna had more fat.

A modern human can only derive up to about 50 percent of calories from lean meat (protein): past a certain point, our livers can’t digest more protein. We need energy from carbs or fat, but before developing agriculture about 10,000 years ago, a key source of calories had to be animal fat.

Big animals have a lot of fat. Small animals don’t. In Africa and Europe, and in Israel too, the researchers found a significant decline in the prevalence of animals weighing over 200 kilograms correlated to an increase in the volume of the human brain. Thus, Ben-Dor and Barkai deduce that the declining availability of large prey seems to have been a key element in the natural selection from Homo erectus onward. Catching one elephant is more efficient than catching 1,000 rabbits, but if we must catch 1,000 rabbits, improved cunning, planning and tools are in order.

Say it with fat

Our changing hunting habits would have had cultural impacts too, Ben-Dor and Barkai posit. “Cultural evolution in archaeology usually refers to objects, such as stone tools,” Ben-Dor tells Haaretz. But cultural evolution also refers to learned behavior, such as our choice of which animals to hunt, and how.

Thus, they posit, our hunting conundrum may have also been a key element to that enigmatic human characteristic: complex language. When language began, with what ancestor of Homo sapiens, if any before us, is hotly debated.

Ben-Dor, an economist by training prior to obtaining a Ph.D. in archaeology, believes it began early. “We just need to follow the money. When speaking of evolution, one must follow the energy. Language is energetically costly. Speaking requires devotion of part of the brain, which is costly. Our brain consumes huge amounts of energy. It’s an investment, and language has to produce enough benefit to make it worthwhile. What did language bring us? It had to be more energetically efficient hunting.”

Domestication of the dog also requires resources and, therefore, also had to bring sufficient compensation in the form of more efficient hunting of smaller animals, he points out. That may help explain the fact that Neolithic humans not only embraced the dog but ate it too, going by archaeological evidence of butchered dogs.

At the end of the day, wherever we went, humans devastated the local ecologies, given enough time.

There is a lot of thinking about the Neolithic agricultural revolution. Some think grain farming was driven by the desire to make beer. Given residue analysis indicating that it’s been around for over 10,000 years, that theory isn’t as far-fetched as one might think. Ben-Dor and Barkai suggest that once we could grow our own food and husband herbivores, the megafauna almost entirely gone, hunting for them became too energy-costly. So we had to use our large brains to develop agriculture.

And as the hunter-gathering lifestyle gave way to permanent settlement, our brain size decreased.

Note, Ben-Dor adds, that the brains of wolves which have to hunt to survive are larger than the brain of the domesticated wolf, i.e., dogs. We did promise more on that. That was it. Also: The chimpanzee brain has remained stable for 7 million years, since the split with the Homo line, Barkai points out.

“Why does any of this matter?” Ben-Dor asks. “People think humans reached this condition because it was ‘meant to be.’ But in the Earth’s 4.5 billion years, there have been billions of species. They rose and fell. What’s the probability that we would take over the world? It’s an accident of nature. It never happened before that one species achieved dominance over all, and now it’s all over. How did that happen? This is the answer: A non-carnivore entered the niche of carnivore, and ate out its niche. We can’t eat that much protein: we need fat too. Because we needed the fat, we began with the big animals. We hunted the prime adult animals which have more fat than the kiddies and the old. We wiped out the prime adults who were crucial to survival of species. Because of our need for fat, we wiped out the animals we depended on. And this required us to keep getting smarter and smarter, and thus we took over the world.”

A memory without a brain (ScienceDaily)

How a single cell slime mold makes smart decisions without a central nervous system

Date: February 23, 2021

Source: Technical University of Munich (TUM)

Summary: Researchers have identified how the slime mold Physarum polycephalum saves memories — although it has no nervous system.


Slime mold on dead leaves (stock image). Credit: © Iuliia / stock.adobe.com

Having a memory of past events enables us to take smarter decisions about the future. Researchers at the Max-Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization (MPI-DS) and the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have now identified how the slime mold Physarum polycephalum saves memories — although it has no nervous system.

The ability to store and recover information gives an organism a clear advantage when searching for food or avoiding harmful environments. Traditionally it has been attributed to organisms that have a nervous system.

A new study authored by Mirna Kramar (MPI-DS) and Prof. Karen Alim (TUM and MPI-DS) challenges this view by uncovering the surprising abilities of a highly dynamic, single-celled organism to store and retrieve information about its environment.

Window into the past

The slime mold Physarum polycephalum has been puzzling researchers for many decades. Existing at the crossroads between the kingdoms of animals, plants and fungi, this unique organism provides insight into the early evolutionary history of eukaryotes — to which also humans belong.

Its body is a giant single cell made up of interconnected tubes that form intricate networks. This single amoeba-like cell may stretch several centimeters or even meters, featuring as the largest cell on earth in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Decision making on the most basic levels of life

The striking abilities of the slime mold to solve complex problems, such as finding the shortest path through a maze, earned it the attribute “intelligent.” It intrigued the research community and kindled questions about decision making on the most basic levels of life.

The decision-making ability of Physarum is especially fascinating given that its tubular network constantly undergoes fast reorganization — growing and disintegrating its tubes — while completely lacking an organizing center.

The researchers discovered that the organism weaves memories of food encounters directly into the architecture of the network-like body and uses the stored information when making future decisions.

The network architecture as a memory of the past

“It is very exciting when a project develops from a simple experimental observation,” says Karen Alim, head of the Biological Physics and Morphogenesis group at the MPI-DS and professor on Theory of Biological Networks at the Technical University of Munich.

When the researchers followed the migration and feeding process of the organism and observed a distinct imprint of a food source on the pattern of thicker and thinner tubes of the network long after feeding.

“Given P. polycephalum‘s highly dynamic network reorganization, the persistence of this imprint sparked the idea that the network architecture itself could serve as memory of the past,” says Karen Alim. However, they first needed to explain the mechanism behind the imprint formation.

Decisions are guided by memories

For this purpose the researchers combined microscopic observations of the adaption of the tubular network with theoretical modeling. An encounter with food triggers the release of a chemical that travels from the location where food was found throughout the organism and softens the tubes in the network, making the whole organism reorient its migration towards the food.

“The gradual softening is where the existing imprints of previous food sources come into play and where information is stored and retrieved,” says first author Mirna Kramar. “Past feeding events are embedded in the hierarchy of tube diameters, specifically in the arrangement of thick and thin tubes in the network.”

“For the softening chemical that is now transported, the thick tubes in the network act as highways in traffic networks, enabling quick transport across the whole organism,” adds Mirna Kramar. “Previous encounters imprinted in the network architecture thus weigh into the decision about the future direction of migration.”

Design based on universal principles

“Given the simplicity of this living network, the ability of Physarum to form memories is intriguing. It is remarkable that the organism relies on such a simple mechanism and yet controls it in such a fine-tuned manner,” says Karen Alim.

“These results present an important piece of the puzzle in understanding the behavior of this ancient organism and at the same time points to universal principles underlying behavior. We envision potential applications of our findings in designing smart materials and building soft robots that navigate through complex environments,” concludes Karen Alim.


Story Source:

Materials provided by Technical University of Munich (TUM). Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Mirna Kramar, Karen Alim. Encoding memory in tube diameter hierarchy of living flow network. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2021; 118 (10): e2007815118 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2007815118

White Supremacy Set the Stage for Texas’ Miserable Disaster Response (Thruth Out)

truthout.org

Scott Kurashige, February 21, 2021


In order to make sense of the natural and human-induced disaster that has struck Texas, the nation will first need an accurate picture of who lives here. Yes, Texas has its oil barons, fossil-fuel lobbyists, and opportunistic political “leaders” who have extracted wealth from the state at the expense of the environment and human needs. But the real figure that should stand out is 17 million people.

That’s roughly the Latinx, Black, Indigenous, and Asian population of Texas, which comprises nearly 60 percent of the state. Only 3 states and 69 countries have a larger total population. Denmark, Finland, and Norway combined do not total 17 million residents. Of the 13 cities in the U.S. with populations above 900,000 today, five are in Texas (Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, and Fort Worth) and only 25 to 48 percent “non-Hispanic whites.” Thus, any story of Texans freezing, dying or hospitalized from carbon monoxide poisoning, losing power for vital medical equipment, or suffering without water or pipes bursting is more than likely occurring among the states BIPOC majority.

Outrage has erupted in Texas and throughout the nation, perhaps building on the momentum of the 2020 uprisings against white supremacy and police-perpetrated violence. Coming on the heels of the Trump-fueled mob attack on the Capitol and GOP refusal to hold the former president accountable, the catastrophe in Texas may be similar to the many “100-year” or “500-year” events that have now become commonplace. Floods, wildfires, freezes and heatwaves wreak havoc today but provide a preview of much worse effects to come from the compounded effects of industrial pollution and capitalist consumption.

As a result, three long overshadowed problems are now being widely discussed.

First, after the popular revolts of the 1960s, global powers responded with neoliberal restructuring designed to heighten the free reign of capital while weakening the collective power of workers and unions. This is what the Zapatistas called the Empire of Money, and it’s the mentality behind the deregulation and privatization of energy markets and utilities that leaves people literally in the cold when rapidly changing realities overwhelm systems designed to cut corners for immediate profiteering.

Second, Gov. Greg Abbott’s spurious scapegoating of renewable energy for the power outages—a perfect exposition of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism”—has escalated demands for a Green New Deal. More broadly, it has exposed the need for an immediate and transformative response to the climate crisis rooted in principles of climate justice that empower and uplift peoples in the global South and the most oppressed sectors of the global North bearing the brunt of the crisis.

Third, Ted Cruz’s “let them eat cake” vacation to Cancun was a visible reminder of the cruelty of our political system — a system that rewards politicians propped up by corporate money, right-wing lies, and racist ideologies for blaming others and evading responsibility. The elites most responsible for the disastrous effects of climate change, racism, ableism, and poverty would have us believe that it is always others who must suffer instead of their own families.

The policies that have caused death and suffering have not “failed”; they have worked exactly as intended. The exponential growth of the billionaire class has been a direct product of five decades of neoliberalism, but the gains for the working and middle classes have been deliberately illusory. Yet, there can be no innocent return to the era of liberalism and the New Deal. We need to appreciate from history how the problems illuminated now in Texas are interconnected with the decline of the white majority and the liberal order.

Herrenvolk Democracy and the New Deal Order

Prior to the policy reforms of the first half of the 20th century, there was little assumption that the government had a responsibility to intervene to redress even the most grotesque economic injustices, such as exploitation of child labor, starvation wages, deadly working conditions, or food contamination. FDR’s New Deal galvanized a new and unprecedented coalition in support of social and economic reform, creating both employment and relief programs in response to the Great Depression and safety net measures like Social Security and Unemployment Insurance that have continued to the present.

The age of FDR represented a dramatic shift from the laissez-faire Hoover administration and a form of dominance that has been largely unparalleled in U.S. politics since. At its core, however, the New Deal coalition embodied the central contradiction in American democracy. Going back to at least Jefferson and Jackson, the push to expand the franchise and economic opportunity was tied to white supremacy. Thus, in the words of the late sociologist Pierre van den Berghe, it promoted herrenvolk (master race) democracy, or the concept that only the dominant group was entitled to such rights and capable of using them responsibly. White small farmers, settlers and workers routinely internalized a belief that they earned their freedom and citizenship rights as Americans through wars of genocide, campaigns of dispossession and reactionary social movements to uphold white supremacy.

The New Deal, though never coming close to achieving full equality, provided a new opening for labor unionization, civil rights, and Native sovereignty, thereby raising the prospects for multiracial democracy. Yet, the New Deal also continued to reinforce the contradictory unity of democracy and white supremacy. For example, it established public housing on a limited and racially segregated basis. However, the greater and longer-term impact of federal intervention was to subsidize white homeowners to buy homes with government-backed mortgages in neighborhoods restricted to whites by racist developers, realtors, and covenants.

Particularly in the South, FDR and national party leaders embraced white supremacist Democrats who prevented most African Americans and Mexican Americans from voting. So long as Black and Brown voters were shut out of the system, whites could perceive their votes as being for liberal economic policies like infrastructure development that served their self-interest, rather than simply voting against what they feared.

In Texas — part of the “Solid South” backing the Democrats almost exclusively for over 100 years — FDR won his first three elections with over 80 percent of the vote. Even when prominent conservative and white supremacist Democrats defected in 1944, he prevailed with 71 percent. During this time, the population of Texas was on average 70 percent or greater “non-Hispanic whites.”

The End of Liberal Hegemony

The Civil Rights Movement was born of a refusal to allow the white supremacist rule of herrenvolk democracy to continue. The right-wing currents that emerged in response were thus distinctly grounded in white supremacy. Though the new right was led by the corporate class — eventually finding a firm home in the GOP of Nixon and Reagan — it came to power with the fracture of the liberal order by winning middle and working-class whites away from the Democrats. This was a national phenomenon not limited to a “southern” strategy. In my 2017 book The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit, I argue that Detroit, once the model of progress for capitalists and socialists, alike, became a model for the new right strategy of Black disenfranchisement and neoliberal dispossession.

During Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy engineered through a state takeover, the autocratic “emergency manager” worked with moneyed interests to take away or gut union jobs, homes, water, pensions, and health care benefits in order to impose austerity on the people and pave the way for billionaire developers and investors. This was an extreme form of a national trend to dismantle social programs and impose a Social Darwinist neglect of human needs by writing oppressed communities out of the social contract. The racist, classist and ableist response to COVID-19 has made this all too tragically clear.

As in Detroit, right-wing revanchism and race-baiting generally arose wherever demographic growth heralded a nonwhite majority. California was a pioneer of the dog-whistle racism that Republicans used to win over suburban whites from the 1960s to 1990s until the new majority came of age. Texas, whose once-commanding “non-Hispanic white” demographic majority disappeared between 1970 and 2010, has perfected much of the voter suppression, gerrymandering, and racist/heteropatriarchal scapegoating at the heart of the neo-Confederate playbook for minority rule by the current GOP.

The wealthy, privileged whites served by the Texas’s dominant political class are a small minority of the population. That’s the ongoing legacy of conquest, colonialism and proletarianization. Seen in this light, the unnecessary human suffering and death during the current catastrophe — whose full effects may not be known for some time — connect Texas to New Orleans and Flint, where short-term economic and political expediency have combined with racist, classist and ableist dehumanization to render mass populations disposable before, during, and after natural and human-induced disasters.

Contesting Minority Rule

This is how the bifurcation of herrenvolk democracy is now playing out: We are simultaneously moving toward a new social order that fulfills real democracy and a worse system driven by “master race” ideology. In Texas, where new and sustainable infrastructure is desperately needed, the New Deal has been supplanted by conspiracy theories and political Ponzi schemes. Like deregulated energy rates, these schemes promise cost savings at the expense of long-term stability and security, ultimately drowning households and local governments in debt while the Dow reaches record highs.

What is conceivable with the empowerment of a new majority in Texas and everywhere? We need structural change in politics to sweep away the politicians controlled by big money and dependent on lies, climate denial and scapegoating to remain in power. We all saw what Trump was able to get away with, and his legacy continues through the likes of Cruz and Abbott. But we also know that these crises are not limited to red states, and that Democratic policies have generally been inadequate, even as bolder and more promising proposals and leaders linked to activist movements have begun to arise and challenge the party’s establishment.

As Grace Lee Boggs recognized the growing illegitimacy of dominant institutions, she taught us that “the only way to survive is by taking care of one another.” That does not mean we should let those in power off the hook. What it implies is that we must do more than protest. We must to look to grassroots organizers, Indigenous peoples, and women of color feminists for models of solidarity in this transitional era of systemic collapse. In recent years, movements at Standing Rock and Mauna Kea have responded to colonial desecration by projecting a future centered on Earth, water and life.

During this catastrophe, Mutual Aid Houston has reported an “overwhelming wave of support” to provide food, blankets and money to people in need. The self-described BIPOC abolitionist collective formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and police brutality. It demonstrates scholar-activist Dean Spade’s point that mutual aid is not charity: “It’s a form of coming together to meet survival needs in a political context.” These local acts are putting into practice the values and concepts of community-based care that can establish relations for a more humane social order.

People with extremist views less able to do complex mental tasks, research suggests (The Guardian)

theguardian.com

Natalie Grover, 22 Feb 2021


Cambridge University team say their findings could be used to spot people at risk from radicalisation
Head jigsaw puzzle
A key finding of the psychologists was that people with extremist attitudes tended to think about the world in a black and white way. Photograph: designer491/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Our brains hold clues for the ideologies we choose to live by, according to research, which has suggested that people who espouse extremist attitudes tend to perform poorly on complex mental tasks.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge sought to evaluate whether cognitive disposition – differences in how information is perceived and processed – sculpt ideological world-views such as political, nationalistic and dogmatic beliefs, beyond the impact of traditional demographic factors like age, race and gender.

The study, built on previous research, included more than 330 US-based participants aged 22 to 63 who were exposed to a battery of tests – 37 neuropsychological tasks and 22 personality surveys – over the course of two weeks.

The tasks were engineered to be neutral, not emotional or political – they involved, for instance, memorising visual shapes. The researchers then used computational modelling to extract information from that data about the participant’s perception and learning, and their ability to engage in complex and strategic mental processing.

Overall, the researchers found that ideological attitudes mirrored cognitive decision-making, according to the study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

A key finding was that people with extremist attitudes tended to think about the world in black and white terms, and struggled with complex tasks that required intricate mental steps, said lead author Dr Leor Zmigrod at Cambridge’s department of psychology.

“Individuals or brains that struggle to process and plan complex action sequences may be more drawn to extreme ideologies, or authoritarian ideologies that simplify the world,” she said.

She said another feature of people with tendencies towards extremism appeared to be that they were not good at regulating their emotions, meaning they were impulsive and tended to seek out emotionally evocative experiences. “And so that kind of helps us understand what kind of individual might be willing to go in and commit violence against innocent others.”

Participants who are prone to dogmatism – stuck in their ways and relatively resistant to credible evidence – actually have a problem with processing evidence even at a perceptual level, the authors found.

“For example, when they’re asked to determine whether dots [as part of a neuropsychological task] are moving to the left or to the right, they just took longer to process that information and come to a decision,” Zmigrod said.

In some cognitive tasks, participants were asked to respond as quickly and as accurately as possible. People who leant towards the politically conservative tended to go for the slow and steady strategy, while political liberals took a slightly more fast and furious, less precise approach.

“It’s fascinating, because conservatism is almost a synonym for caution,” she said. “We’re seeing that – at the very basic neuropsychological level – individuals who are politically conservative … simply treat every stimuli that they encounter with caution.”

The “psychological signature” for extremism across the board was a blend of conservative and dogmatic psychologies, the researchers said.

The study, which looked at 16 different ideological orientations, could have profound implications for identifying and supporting people most vulnerable to radicalisation across the political and religious spectrum.

“What we found is that demographics don’t explain a whole lot; they only explain roughly 8% of the variance,” said Zmigrod. “Whereas, actually, when we incorporate these cognitive and personality assessments as well, suddenly, our capacity to explain the variance of these ideological world-views jumps to 30% or 40%.”

Texas Power Grid Run by ERCOT Set Up the State for Disaster (New York Times)

nytimes.com

Clifford Krauss, Manny Fernandez, Ivan Penn, Rick Rojas – Feb 21, 2021


Texas has refused to join interstate electrical grids and railed against energy regulation. Now it’s having to answer to millions of residents who were left without power in last week’s snowstorm.

The cost of a free market electrical grid became painfully clear last week, as a snowstorm descended on Texas and millions of people ran out of power and water.
Credit: Nitashia Johnson for The New York Times

HOUSTON — Across the plains of West Texas, the pump jacks that resemble giant bobbing hammers define not just the landscape but the state itself: Texas has been built on the oil-and-gas business for the last 120 years, ever since the discovery of oil on Spindletop Hill near Beaumont in 1901.

Texas, the nation’s leading energy-producing state, seemed like the last place on Earth that could run out of energy.

Then last week, it did.

The crisis could be traced to that other defining Texas trait: independence, both from big government and from the rest of the country. The dominance of the energy industry and the “Republic of Texas” ethos became a devastating liability when energy stopped flowing to millions of Texans who shivered and struggled through a snowstorm that paralyzed much of the state.

Part of the responsibility for the near-collapse of the state’s electrical grid can be traced to the decision in 1999 to embark on the nation’s most extensive experiment in electrical deregulation, handing control of the state’s entire electricity delivery system to a market-based patchwork of private generators, transmission companies and energy retailers.

The energy industry wanted it. The people wanted it. Both parties supported it. “Competition in the electric industry will benefit Texans by reducing monthly rates and offering consumers more choices about the power they use,” George W. Bush, then the governor, said as he signed the top-to-bottom deregulation legislation.

Mr. Bush’s prediction of lower-cost power generally came true, and the dream of a free-market electrical grid worked reasonably well most of the time, in large part because Texas had so much cheap natural gas as well as abundant wind to power renewable energy. But the newly deregulated system came with few safeguards and even fewer enforced rules.

With so many cost-conscious utilities competing for budget-shopping consumers, there was little financial incentive to invest in weather protection and maintenance. Wind turbines are not equipped with the de-icing equipment routinely installed in the colder climes of the Dakotas and power lines have little insulation. The possibility of more frequent cold-weather events was never built into infrastructure plans in a state where climate change remains an exotic, disputed concept.

“Deregulation was something akin to abolishing the speed limit on an interstate highway,” said Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston. “That opens up shortcuts that cause disasters.”

The state’s entire energy infrastructure was walloped with glacial temperatures that even under the strongest of regulations might have frozen gas wells and downed power lines.

But what went wrong was far broader: Deregulation meant that critical rules of the road for power were set not by law, but rather by a dizzying array of energy competitors.

Utility regulation is intended to compensate for the natural monopolies that occur when a single electrical provider serves an area; it keeps prices down while protecting public safety and guaranteeing fair treatment to customers. Yet many states have flirted with deregulation as a way of giving consumers more choices and encouraging new providers, especially alternative energy producers.

California, one of the early deregulators in the 1990s, scaled back its initial foray after market manipulation led to skyrocketing prices and rolling blackouts.

States like Maryland allow customers to pick from a menu of producers. In some states, competing private companies offer varied packages like discounts for cheaper power at night. But no state has gone as far as Texas, which has not only turned over the keys to the free market but has also isolated itself from the national grid, limiting the state’s ability to import power when its own generators are foundering.

Consumers themselves got a direct shock last week when customers who had chosen variable-rate electricity contracts found themselves with power bills of $5,000 or more. While they were expecting extra-low monthly rates, many may now face huge bills as a result of the upswing in wholesale electricity prices during the cold wave. Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday said the state’s Public Utility Commission has issued a moratorium on customer disconnections for non-payment and will temporarily restrict providers from issuing invoices.

A family in Austin, Texas, kept warm by a fire outside their apartment on Wednesday. They lost power early Monday morning.
Credit: Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

There is regulation in the Texas system, but it is hardly robust. One nonprofit agency, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, was formed to manage the wholesale market. It is supervised by the Public Utility Commission, which also oversees the transmission companies that offer customers an exhaustive array of contract choices laced with more fine print than a credit card agreement.

But both agencies are nearly unaccountable and toothless compared to regulators in other regions, where many utilities have stronger consumer protections and submit an annual planning report to ensure adequate electricity supply. Texas energy companies are given wide latitude in their planning for catastrophic events.

One example of how Texas has gone it alone is its refusal to enforce a “reserve margin” of extra power available above expected demand, unlike all other power systems around North America. With no mandate, there is little incentive to invest in precautions for events, such as a Southern snowstorm, that are rare. Any company that took such precautions would put itself at a competitive disadvantage.

A surplus supply of natural gas, the dominant power fuel in Texas, near power plants might have helped avoid the cascade of failures in which power went off, forcing natural gas production and transmission offline, which in turn led to further power shortages.

In the aftermath of the dayslong outages, ERCOT has been criticized by both Democratic and Republican residents, lawmakers and business executives, a rare display of unity in a fiercely partisan and Republican-dominated state. Mr. Abbott said he supported calls for the agency’s leadership to resign and made ERCOT reform a priority for the Legislature. The reckoning has been swift — this week, lawmakers will hold hearings in Austin to investigate the agency’s handling of the storm and the rolling outages.

For ERCOT operators, the storm’s arrival was swift and fierce, but they had anticipated it and knew it would strain their system. They asked power customers across the state to conserve, warning that outages were likely.

But late on Sunday, Feb. 14, it rapidly became clear that the storm was far worse than they had expected: Sleet and snow fell, and temperatures plunged. In the council’s command center outside Austin, a room dominated by screens flashing with maps, graphics and data tracking the flow of electricity to 26 million people in Texas, workers quickly found themselves fending off a crisis. As weather worsened into Monday morning, residents cranked up their heaters and demand surged.

Power plants began falling offline in rapid succession as they were overcome by the frigid weather or ran out of fuel to burn. Within hours, 40 percent of the power supply had been lost.

The entire grid — carrying 90 percent of the electric load in Texas — was barreling toward a collapse.

Much of Austin lost power last week due to rolling blackouts.
Credit: Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

In the electricity business, supply and demand need to be in balance. Imbalances lead to catastrophic blackouts. Recovering from a total blackout would be an agonizing and tedious process, known as a “black start,” that could take weeks, or possibly months.

And in the early-morning hours last Monday, the Texas grid was “seconds and minutes” away from such a collapse, said Bill Magness, the president and chief executive of the Electric Reliability Council.

“If we had allowed a catastrophic blackout to happen, we wouldn’t be talking today about hopefully getting most customers their power back,” Mr. Magness said. “We’d be talking about how many months it might be before you get your power back.”

The outages and the cold weather touched off an avalanche of failures, but there had been warnings long before last week’s storm.

After a heavy snowstorm in February 2011 caused statewide rolling blackouts and left millions of Texans in the dark, federal authorities warned the state that its power infrastructure had inadequate “winterization” protection. But 10 years later, pipelines remained inadequately insulated and heaters that might have kept instruments from freezing were never installed.

During heat waves, when demand has soared during several recent summers, the system in Texas has also strained to keep up, raising questions about lack of reserve capacity on the unregulated grid.

And aside from the weather, there have been periodic signs that the system can run into trouble delivering sufficient energy, in some cases because of equipment failures, in others because of what critics called an attempt to drive up prices, according to Mr. Hirs of the University of Houston, as well as several energy consultants.

Another potential safeguard might have been far stronger connections to the two interstate power-sharing networks, East and West, that allow states to link their electrical grids and obtain power from thousands of miles away when needed to hold down costs and offset their own shortfalls.

But Texas, reluctant to submit to the federal regulation that is part of the regional power grids, made decisions as far back as the early 20th century to become the only state in the continental United States to operate its own grid — a plan that leaves it able to borrow only from a few close neighbors.

The border city of El Paso survived the freeze much better than Dallas or Houston because it was not part of the Texas grid but connected to the much larger grid covering many Western states.

But the problems that began with last Monday’s storm went beyond an isolated electrical grid. The entire ecosystem of how Texas generates, transmits and uses power stalled, as millions of Texans shivered in darkened, unheated homes.

A surplus supply of natural gas, the dominant power fuel in Texas, near power plants might have helped avoid the cascade of failures.
Credit: Eddie Seal/Bloomberg

Texans love to brag about natural gas, which state officials often call the cleanest-burning fossil fuel. No state produces more, and gas-fired power plants produce nearly half the state’s electricity.

“We are struggling to come to grips with the reality that gas came up short and let us down when we needed it most,” said Michael E. Webber, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

The cold was so severe that the enormous oil and natural gas fields of West Texas froze up, or could not get sufficient power to operate. Though a few plants had stored gas reserves, there was insufficient electricity to pump it.

The leaders of ERCOT defended the organization, its lack of mandated reserves and the state’s isolation from larger regional grids, and said the blame for the power crisis lies with the weather, not the overall deregulated system in Texas.

“The historic, just about unprecedented, storm was the heart of the problem,” Mr. Magness, the council’s chief executive, said, adding: “We’ve found that this market structure works. It demands reliability. I don’t think there’s a silver-bullet market structure that could have managed the extreme lows and generation outages that we were facing Sunday night.”

In Texas, energy regulation is as much a matter of philosophy as policy. Its independent power grid is a point of pride that has been an applause line in Texas political speeches for decades.

Deregulation is a hot topic among Texas energy experts, and there has been no shortage of predictions that the grid could fail under stress. But there has not been widespread public dissatisfaction with the system, although many are now wondering if they are being well served.

“I believe there is great value in Texas being on its own grid and I believe we can do so safely and securely and confidently going forward,” said State Representative Jeff Leach, a Republican from Plano who has called for an investigation into what went wrong. “But it’s going to take new investment and some new strategic decisions to make sure we’re protected from this ever happening again.”

Steven D. Wolens, a former Democratic lawmaker from Dallas and a principal architect of the 1999 deregulation legislation, said deregulation was meant to spur more generation, including from renewable energy sources, and to encourage the mothballing of older plants that were spewing pollution. “We were successful,” said Mr. Wolens, who left the Legislature in 2005.

But the 1999 legislation was intended as a first iteration that would evolve along with the needs of the state, he said. “They can focus on it now and they can fix it now,” he said. “The buck stops with the Texas Legislature and they are in a perfect position to determine the basis of the failure, to correct it and make sure it never happens again.”

Clifford Krauss reported from Houston, Manny Fernandez and Ivan Penn from Los Angeles, and Rick Rojas from Nashville. David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.

Texas Blackouts Point to Coast-to-Coast Crises Waiting to Happen (New York Times)

nytimes.com

Christopher Flavelle, Brad Plumer, Hiroko Tabuchi – Feb 20, 2021


Traffic at a standstill on Interstate 35 in Kileen, Texas, on Thursday.
Traffic at a standstill on Interstate 35 in Kileen, Texas, on Thursday. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Continent-spanning storms triggered blackouts in Oklahoma and Mississippi, halted one-third of U.S. oil production and disrupted vaccinations in 20 states.

Even as Texas struggled to restore electricity and water over the past week, signs of the risks posed by increasingly extreme weather to America’s aging infrastructure were cropping up across the country.

The week’s continent-spanning winter storms triggered blackouts in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and several other states. One-third of oil production in the nation was halted. Drinking-water systems in Ohio were knocked offline. Road networks nationwide were paralyzed and vaccination efforts in 20 states were disrupted.

The crisis carries a profound warning. As climate change brings more frequent and intense storms, floods, heat waves, wildfires and other extreme events, it is placing growing stress on the foundations of the country’s economy: Its network of roads and railways, drinking-water systems, power plants, electrical grids, industrial waste sites and even homes. Failures in just one sector can set off a domino effect of breakdowns in hard-to-predict ways.

Much of this infrastructure was built decades ago, under the expectation that the environment around it would remain stable, or at least fluctuate within predictable bounds. Now climate change is upending that assumption.

“We are colliding with a future of extremes,” said Alice Hill, who oversaw planning for climate risks on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “We base all our choices about risk management on what’s occurred in the past, and that is no longer a safe guide.”

While it’s not always possible to say precisely how global warming influenced any one particular storm, scientists said, an overall rise in extreme weather creates sweeping new risks.

Sewer systems are overflowing more often as powerful rainstorms exceed their design capacity. Coastal homes and highways are collapsing as intensified runoff erodes cliffs. Coal ash, the toxic residue produced by coal-burning plants, is spilling into rivers as floods overwhelm barriers meant to hold it back. Homes once beyond the reach of wildfires are burning in blazes they were never designed to withstand.

A broken water main in McComb., Miss. on Thursday.
Credit: Matt Williamson/The Enterprise-Journal, via Associated Press

Problems like these often reflect an inclination of governments to spend as little money as possible, said Shalini Vajjhala, a former Obama administration official who now advises cities on meeting climate threats. She said it’s hard to persuade taxpayers to spend extra money to guard against disasters that seem unlikely.

But climate change flips that logic, making inaction far costlier. “The argument I would make is, we can’t afford not to, because we’re absorbing the costs” later, Ms. Vajjhala said, after disasters strike. “We’re spending poorly.”

The Biden administration has talked extensively about climate change, particularly the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs in renewable energy. But it has spent less time discussing how to manage the growing effects of climate change, facing criticism from experts for not appointing more people who focus on climate resilience.

“I am extremely concerned by the lack of emergency-management expertise reflected in Biden’s climate team,” said Samantha Montano, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy who focuses on disaster policy. “There’s an urgency here that still is not being reflected.”

A White House spokesman, Vedant Patel, said in a statement, “Building resilient and sustainable infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather and a changing climate will play an integral role in creating millions of good paying, union jobs” while cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

And while President Biden has called for a major push to refurbish and upgrade the nation’s infrastructure, getting a closely divided Congress to spend hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars, will be a major challenge.

Heightening the cost to society, disruptions can disproportionately affect lower-income households and other vulnerable groups, including older people or those with limited English.

“All these issues are converging,” said Robert D. Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who studies wealth and racial disparities related to the environment. “And there’s simply no place in this country that’s not going to have to deal with climate change.”

Flooding around Edenville Township, Mich., last year swept away a bridge over the Tittabawassee River.
Credit: Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

In September, when a sudden storm dumped a record of more than two inches of water on Washington in less than 75 minutes, the result wasn’t just widespread flooding, but also raw sewage rushing into hundreds of homes.

Washington, like many other cities in the Northeast and Midwest, relies on what’s called a combined sewer overflow system: If a downpour overwhelms storm drains along the street, they are built to overflow into the pipes that carry raw sewage. But if there’s too much pressure, sewage can be pushed backward, into people’s homes — where the forces can send it erupting from toilets and shower drains.

This is what happened in Washington. The city’s system was built in the late 1800s. Now, climate change is straining an already outdated design.

DC Water, the local utility, is spending billions of dollars so that the system can hold more sewage. “We’re sort of in uncharted territory,” said Vincent Morris, a utility spokesman.

The challenge of managing and taming the nation’s water supplies — whether in streets and homes, or in vast rivers and watersheds — is growing increasingly complex as storms intensify. Last May, rain-swollen flooding breached two dams in Central Michigan, forcing thousands of residents to flee their homes and threatening a chemical complex and toxic waste cleanup site. Experts warned it was unlikely to be the last such failure.

Many of the country’s 90,000 dams were built decades ago and were already in dire need of repairs. Now climate change poses an additional threat, bringing heavier downpours to parts of the country and raising the odds that some dams could be overwhelmed by more water than they were designed to handle. One recent study found that most of California’s biggest dams were at increased risk of failure as global warming advances.

In recent years, dam-safety officials have begun grappling with the dangers. Colorado, for instance, now requires dam builders to take into account the risk of increased atmospheric moisture driven by climate change as they plan for worst-case flooding scenarios.

But nationwide, there remains a backlog of thousands of older dams that still need to be rehabilitated or upgraded. The price tag could ultimately stretch to more than $70 billion.

“Whenever we study dam failures, we often find there was a lot of complacency beforehand,” said Bill McCormick, president of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. But given that failures can have catastrophic consequences, “we really can’t afford to be complacent.”

Crews repaired switches on utility poles damaged by the storms in Texas.
Credit: Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

If the Texas blackouts exposed one state’s poor planning, they also provide a warning for the nation: Climate change threatens virtually every aspect of electricity grids that aren’t always designed to handle increasingly severe weather. The vulnerabilities show up in power lines, natural-gas plants, nuclear reactors and myriad other systems.

Higher storm surges can knock out coastal power infrastructure. Deeper droughts can reduce water supplies for hydroelectric dams. Severe heat waves can reduce the efficiency of fossil-fuel generators, transmission lines and even solar panels at precisely the moment that demand soars because everyone cranks up their air-conditioners.

Climate hazards can also combine in new and unforeseen ways.

In California recently, Pacific Gas & Electric has had to shut off electricity to thousands of people during exceptionally dangerous fire seasons. The reason: Downed power lines can spark huge wildfires in dry vegetation. Then, during a record-hot August last year, several of the state’s natural gas plants malfunctioned in the heat, just as demand was spiking, contributing to blackouts.

“We have to get better at understanding these compound impacts,” said Michael Craig, an expert in energy systems at the University of Michigan who recently led a study looking at how rising summer temperatures in Texas could strain the grid in unexpected ways. “It’s an incredibly complex problem to plan for.”

Some utilities are taking notice. After Superstorm Sandy in 2012 knocked out power for 8.7 million customers, utilities in New York and New Jersey invested billions in flood walls, submersible equipment and other technology to reduce the risk of failures. Last month, New York’s Con Edison said it would incorporate climate projections into its planning.

As freezing temperatures struck Texas, a glitch at one of two reactors at a South Texas nuclear plant, which serves 2 million homes, triggered a shutdown. The cause: Sensing lines connected to the plant’s water pumps had frozen, said Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Agency.

It’s also common for extreme heat to disrupt nuclear power. The issue is that the water used to cool reactors can become too warm to use, forcing shutdowns.

Flooding is another risk.

After a tsunami led to several meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2011, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission told the 60 or so working nuclear plants in the United States, many decades old, to evaluate their flood risk to account for climate change. Ninety percent showed at least one type of flood risk that exceeded what the plant was designed to handle.

The greatest risk came from heavy rain and snowfall exceeding the design parameters at 53 plants.

Scott Burnell, an Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman, said in a statement, “The NRC continues to conclude, based on the staff’s review of detailed analyses, that all U.S. nuclear power plants can appropriately deal with potential flooding events, including the effects of climate change, and remain safe.”

A section of Highway 1 along the California coastline collapsed in January amid heavy rains.
Credit: Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The collapse of a portion of California’s Highway 1 into the Pacific Ocean after heavy rains last month was a reminder of the fragility of the nation’s roads.

Several climate-related risks appeared to have converged to heighten the danger. Rising seas and higher storm surges have intensified coastal erosion, while more extreme bouts of precipitation have increased the landslide risk.

Add to that the effects of devastating wildfires, which can damage the vegetation holding hillside soil in place, and “things that wouldn’t have slid without the wildfires, start sliding,” said Jennifer M. Jacobs, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Hampshire. “I think we’re going to see more of that.”

The United States depends on highways, railroads and bridges as economic arteries for commerce, travel and simply getting to work. But many of the country’s most important links face mounting climate threats. More than 60,000 miles of roads and bridges in coastal floodplains are already vulnerable to extreme storms and hurricanes, government estimates show. And inland flooding could also threaten at least 2,500 bridges across the country by 2050, a federal climate report warned in 2018.

Sometimes even small changes can trigger catastrophic failures. Engineers modeling the collapse of bridges over Escambia Bay in Florida during Hurricane Ivan in 2004 found that the extra three inches of sea-level rise since the bridge was built in 1968 very likely contributed to the collapse, because of the added height of the storm surge and force of the waves.

“A lot of our infrastructure systems have a tipping point. And when you hit the tipping point, that’s when a failure occurs,” Dr. Jacobs said. “And the tipping point could be an inch.”

Crucial rail networks are at risk, too. In 2017, Amtrak consultants found that along parts of the Northeast corridor, which runs from Boston to Washington and carries 12 million people a year, flooding and storm surge could erode the track bed, disable the signals and eventually put the tracks underwater.

And there is no easy fix. Elevating the tracks would require also raising bridges, electrical wires and lots of other infrastructure, and moving them would mean buying new land in a densely packed part of the country. So the report recommended flood barriers, costing $24 million per mile, that must be moved into place whenever floods threaten.

A worker checked efforts to prevent coal ash from escaping into the Waccamaw River in South Carolina after Hurricane Florence in 2018.
Credit: Randall Hill/Reuters

A series of explosions at a flood-damaged chemical plant outside Houston after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 highlighted a danger lurking in a world beset by increasingly extreme weather.

The blasts at the plant came after flooding knocked out the site’s electrical supply, shutting down refrigeration systems that kept volatile chemicals stable. Almost two dozen people, many of them emergency workers, were treated for exposure to the toxic fumes, and some 200 nearby residents were evacuated from their homes.

More than 2,500 facilities that handle toxic chemicals lie in federal flood-prone areas across the country, about 1,400 of them in areas at the highest risk of flooding, a New York Times analysis showed in 2018.

Leaks from toxic cleanup sites, left behind by past industry, pose another threat.

Almost two-thirds of some 1,500 superfund cleanup sites across the country are in areas with an elevated risk of flooding, storm surge, wildfires or sea level rise, a government audit warned in 2019. Coal ash, a toxic substance produced by coal power plants that is often stored as sludge in special ponds, have been particularly exposed. After Hurricane Florence in 2018, for example, a dam breach at the site of a power plant in Wilmington, N.C., released the hazardous ash into a nearby river.

“We should be evaluating whether these facilities or sites actually have to be moved or re-secured,” said Lisa Evans, senior counsel at Earthjustice, an environmental law organization. Places that “may have been OK in 1990,” she said, “may be a disaster waiting to happen in 2021.”

East Austin, Texas, during a blackout on Wednesday.  
Credit: Bronte Wittpenn/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

Texas’s Power Crisis Has Turned Into a Disaster That Parallels Hurricane Katrina (TruthOut)

truthout.org

Sharon Zhang, Feb. 18, 2021


Propane tanks are placed in a line as people wait for the power to turn on to fill their tanks in Houston, Texas on February 17, 2021.
Propane tanks are placed in a line as people wait for the power to turn on to fill their tanks in Houston, Texas, on February 17, 2021. Mark Felix for The Washington Post via Getty Images

As many in Texas wake up still without power on Thursday morning, millions are now also having to contend with water shutdowns, boil advisories, and empty grocery shelves as cities struggle with keeping infrastructure powered and supply chains are interrupted.

As of estimates performed on Wednesday, 7 million Texans were under a boil advisory. Since then, Austin has also issued a citywide water-boil notice due to power loss at their biggest water treatment plant. Austin Water serves over a million customers, according to its website.

With hundreds of thousands of people still without power in the state, some contending that they have no water coming out of their faucets at all, and others facing burst pipes leading to collapsed ceilings and other damage to their homes, the situation is dire for many Texans facing multiple problems at once.

Even as some residents are getting their power restored, the problems are only continuing to layer as the only grocery stores left open were quickly selling out of food and supplies. As many without power watched their refrigerated food spoil, lines to get into stores wrapped around blocks and buildings and store shelves sat completely empty with no indication of when new shipments would be coming in. Food banks have had to cancel deliveries and schools to halt meal distribution to students, the Texas Tribune reports.

People experiencing homelessness, including a disproportionate number of Black residents, have especially suffered in the record cold temperatures across the state. There have been some reports of people being found dead in the streets because of a lack of shelter.

“Businesses are shut down. Streets are empty, other than a few guys sliding around in 4x4s and fire trucks rushing to rescue people who turn their ovens on to keep warm and poison themselves with carbon monoxide,” wrote Austin resident Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone. “Yesterday, the line at our neighborhood grocery store was three blocks long. People wandering around with handguns on their hip adds to a sense of lawlessness (Texas is an open-carry state).”

The Texas agricultural commissioner has said that farmers and ranchers are having to throw away millions of dollars worth of goods because of a lack of power. “We’re looking at a food supply chain problem like we’ve never seen before, even with COVID-19,” he told one local news affiliate.

An energy analyst likened the power crisis to the fallout of Hurricane Katrina as it’s becoming increasingly clear that the situation in Texas is a statewide disaster.

As natural gas output declined dramatically in the state, Paul Sankey, who leads energy analyst firm Sankey Research, said on Bloomberg, “This situation to me is very reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina…. We have never seen a loss [of energy supply] at this scale” in mid-winter. This is “the biggest outage in the history [of] U.S. oil and gas,” Sankey said.

Many others online echoed Sankey’s words as “Katrina” trended on Twitter, saying that the situation is similar to the hurricane disaster in that it has been downplayed by politicians but may be uncovered to be even more serious in the coming weeks.

Experts say that the power outages have partially been caused by the deregulation of the state’s electric grid. The government, some say, favored deregulatory actions like not requiring electrical equipment upgrades or proper weatherization, instead relying on free market mechanisms that ultimately contributed to the current disaster.

Former Gov. Rick Perry faced criticism on Wednesday when he said that Texans would rather face the current disaster than have to be regulated by the federal government. And he’s not the only Republican currently catching heat — many have begun calling for the resignation of Gov. Greg Abbott for a failure of leadership. On Wednesday, as millions suffered without power and under boil-water advisories, the governor went on Fox to attack clean energy, which experts say was not a major contributor to the current crisis, and the Green New Deal.

After declaring a state of emergency in the state over the weekend, the Joe Biden administration announced on Wednesday that it would be sending generators and other supplies to the state.

O amor e sua ética, segundo bell hooks (OutrasPalavras)

Sem medo de ser naïf, feminista negra norte-americana debate sentimento crucial na experiência humana. Propõe libertá-lo das ilusões românticas, praticando-o em desafio às relações alienadas e em busca de intimidade cúmplice e libertadora

OutrasPalavras Crise Civilizatória por Silvane Silva

Publicado 17/02/2021 às 20:16 – Atualizado 17/02/2021 às 20:52

Por Silvane Silva | Imagen: Egon Schiele

MAIS:
Este texto é o prefácio de:
TUDO SOBRE O AMOR, de bell hooks
Publicado pela Editora Elefante, parceira editorial de Outras Palavras

Tudo sobre o amor — Novas perspectivas está disponível no site da Editora Elefante 

Escrever este prefácio em meio à pandemia de covid-19, vivendo em isolamento social meses, foi um exercício ao mesmo tempo doloroso e libertador. Em certa altura de Tudo sobre o amor, bell hooks diz que, se não pudéssemos fazer mais nada, se por algum motivo a leitura fosse a única atividade possível, isso seria suficiente para fazer a vida valer a pena, porque os livros podem ter uma função terapêutica e transformadora. Particularmente, não tenho dúvidas a respeito disso, pois a leitura sempre teve esse importante papel em minha vida. Alguns textos nos fazem reviver memórias impressas em nosso corpo e espírito e, dessa maneira, têm o poder de nos transformar e curar.

Em uma sociedade que considera falar de amor algo naïf, a proposta apresentada por bell hooks ao escrever sobre o tema é corajosa e desafiadora. E o desafio é colocarmos o amor na centralidade da vida. Ao afirmar que começou a pensar e a escrever sobre o amor quando encontrou “cinismo em lugar de esperança nas vozes de jovens e velhos”, e que o cinismo é a maior barreira que pode existir diante do amor, porque ele intensifica nossas dúvidas e nos paralisa, bell hooks faz a defesa da prática transformadora do amor, que manda embora o medo e liberta nossa alma. Ela nos convoca a regressar ao amor. Se o desamor é a ordem do dia no mundo contemporâneo, falar de amor pode ser revolucionário. Para compreendermos a proposta da autora e a profundidade de suas reflexões, o primeiro passo deve ser abandonar a ideia de que o amor é apenas um sentimento e passar a entendê-lo como ética de vida. É sabido que bell hooks evidencia em toda a sua obra que o pessoal é político. Este também será o caminho trilhado por ela neste livro, pontuando o quanto nossas ações pessoais relacionadas ao amor implicam uma postura perante o mundo e uma forma de inserção na sociedade. Ou seja: o amor não tem nada a ver com fraqueza ou irracionalidade, como se costuma pensar. Ao contrário, significa potência: anuncia a possibilidade de rompermos o ciclo de perpetuação de dores e violências para caminharmos rumo a uma “sociedade amorosa”.

Tudo sobre o amor: novas perspectivas, publicado nos Estados Unidos no ano 2000, é o primeiro livro da chamada Trilogia do Amor, seguido de Salvação: pessoas negras e amor, de 2001, e Comunhão: a busca feminina pelo amor, de 2002. bell hooks é o tipo de pensadora que, quando atraída por um assunto, tende a esmiuçá-lo, observá-lo por todos os ângulos e explorá-lo por completo. Se ao longo de toda a sua obra o tema do amor aparece, em diversos momentos, como algo que tem um lugar significativo para nossa vida e cultura, é na Trilogia do Amor que a autora nos apresenta suas teses sobre o tema e, mais do que isso, nos oferece lições práticas de como agir.

Ao descrever as maneiras pelas quais homens e mulheres em geral, e pessoas negras em particular, desenvolvem sua capacidade de amar dentro de uma cultura patriarcal, racista e niilista, bell hooks relaciona sua teoria do amor com os principais problemas da sociedade. Apesar de falar a partir da sociedade estadunidense, suas reflexões servem para nós brasileiros, já que também sofremos dos males que a autora tanto procura ver superados: racismo, sexismo, homofobia, imperialismo e exploração.

Seguindo os passos de pessoas que ofereceram o amor como arma poderosa de luta e de transformação da sociedade, como Martin Luther King Jr., por exemplo, bell hooks reposiciona o amor como uma força capaz de transformar todas as esferas da vida: a política, a religião, o local de trabalho, o ambiente doméstico e as relações íntimas. Aprofundando as ideias trazidas por Cornel West referentes às “políticas de conversão” para tratar o niilismo presente na sociedade, hooks coloca a ética do amor no centro dessas políticas. E, nessa perspectiva, compreende que o pessoal sobrevive por meio da ligação com o coletivo: é o poder de se autoagenciar (self-agency) em meio ao caos e determinar o autoagenciamento coletivo.

Tudo sobre o amor: novas perspectivas procura mostrar como somos ensinados desde a infância a ter suposições equivocadas e falsas em relação ao amor e ressalta o quanto nossa sociedade não considera a importância e a necessidade de aprendermos a amar. Tendemos a acreditar que já nascemos com esse conhecimento, mas bell hooks demonstra que o amor não está dado: ele é construção cotidiana, que só assumirá sentido na ação — o que significa dizer que precisamos encontrar a definição de amor e aprender a praticá-lo.

Em “Clareza: pôr o amor em palavras”, primeiro capítulo deste livro, bell hooks afirma que em nossa sociedade o amor costuma servir para nomear tudo, pulverizando seu significado. Nessa confusão em relação ao que queremos dizer quando usamos a palavra “amor” está a origem da nossa dificuldade de amar. Por isso, saber nomear o que é o amor é a condição para que ele exista. Se os dicionários tendem a enfatizar a definição dada ao amor romântico, bell hooks nos mostra que o amor é muito mais que uma “afeição profunda por uma pessoa”. A melhor definição de amor é aquela que nos faz pensar o amor como ação — conforme diz o psiquiatra M. Scoot Peck, trata-se da “vontade de se empenhar ao máximo para promover o próprio crescimento espiritual ou o de outra pessoa”. Nota-se que o espiritual aqui não está vinculado à religião, mas a uma força vital presente em cada indivíduo. Nesse sentido, a afeição seria apenas um dos componentes do amor. Para amar verdadeiramente devemos aprender a misturar vários ingredientes: carinho, afeição, reconhecimento, respeito, compromisso e confiança, assim como honestidade e comunicação aberta. Uma das contribuições fundamentais trazidas por bell hooks é nos fazer pensar que são as ações que constroem os sentimentos. Dessa maneira, ao pensar o amor como ação, nos vemos obrigados a assumir a responsabilidade e o comprometimento com esse aprendizado.

O segundo capítulo, “Justiça: lições de amor na infância”, demonstra que o impacto do patriarcado e a forma da dominação masculina sobre mulheres e crianças são barreiras para o amor, algo pouco presente na bibliografia sobre o tema. Nós aprendemos sobre o amor na infância, e quer nossa família seja chamada funcional ou disfuncional, sejam nossos lares felizes ou não, são eles as nossas primeiras escolas de amor. Neste capítulo, bell hooks levanta a importante discussão sobre a necessidade de valorizar, respeitar e assegurar os direitos civis básicos das crianças. Caso contrário, a maioria delas não conhecerá o amor, tendo em vista que não existe amor sem justiça. Nesse ponto, a autora demonstra o quanto o lar da família nuclear é uma esfera institucionalizada de poder que pode ser facilmente autocrática e fascista. Dessa maneira, continua ela, se queremos uma sociedade eticamente amorosa, precisamos desmascarar o mito de que abuso e negligência podem coexistir com amor. Onde há abuso, a prática amorosa fracassou. Não se pode concordar que a punição severa seja uma forma aceitável de se relacionar com as crianças. “O amor é o que o amor faz”, e é nossa responsabilidade dar amor às crianças, reconhecendo que elas não são propriedades e têm direitos que nós precisamos garantir.

No terceiro capítulo, “Honestidade: seja verdadeira com o amor”, bell hooks afirma que a verdade é o coração da justiça. Somos ensinados desde a infância que não devemos mentir, que devemos jogar limpo. Entretanto, na prática, quem diz a verdade normalmente é punido, reforçando a ideia de que mentir é melhor. Homens mentem para agradar às mães e depois às mulheres. Mentir e se dar bem é um traço da masculinidade patriarcal. Meninos e homens são encorajados a todo momento a fazer o que for preciso para manter sua posição de controle. Por sua vez, as mulheres também mentem para os homens como forma de agradar e manipular. Vivemos em uma sociedade em que a cultura do consumo também encoraja a mentira. A publicidade é um dos maiores exemplos disso. As mentiras impulsionam o mundo da publicidade predatória e o desamor é bênção para o consumismo. Além disso, manter as pessoas em um estado constante de escassez fortalece a economia de mercado. Dessa maneira, hooks enfatiza que a tarefa de sermos amorosos e construirmos uma sociedade amorosa implica reafirmar o valor de dizer a verdade e, portanto, estarmos dispostos a ouvir as verdades uns dos outros. A confiança é o fundamento da intimidade.

Partindo do pressuposto de que não é fácil amar a si mesmo, no quarto capítulo, “Compromisso: que o amor seja amor-próprio”, bell hooks nos ensina que, quando somos positivos, não só aceitamos e afirmamos quem somos mas também somos capazes de afirmar e aceitar os outros. E o movimento feminista ajudou as mulheres a compreender o poder pessoal que se adquire com uma autoafirmação positiva. Quando temos de fazer um trabalho que odiamos, por exemplo, isso ataca a nossa autoestima e autoconfiança. O trabalho, quando percebido como um fardo, por se realizar em empregos ruins em vez de aprimorar a autoestima, deprime o espírito. Como lidar com essa questão se a maioria de nós não pode fazer o trabalho que ama? Um dos modos de experimentar satisfação seria nos comprometermos totalmente com o trabalho a ser realizado, seja ele qual for. Trazer o amor para o ambiente laboral pode criar a transformação necessária para tornar qualquer trabalho que façamos um meio de expressarmos o nosso melhor. Quando trabalhamos com amor, renovamos nosso espírito, e essa renovação é um ato de amor-próprio que alimenta nosso crescimento. E não devemos confundir amor-próprio com egoísmo ou egocentrismo. O amor-próprio é a base de nossa prática amorosa, pois, ao dar amor a nós mesmos, concedemos ao nosso ser interior a oportunidade de ter amor incondicional. É o amor-próprio que garante que nossos esforços amorosos com as outras pessoas não falhem.

No quinto capítulo, “Espiritualidade: o amor divino”, hooks chama a atenção para o fato de que a crise na vida estadunidense não poderia ser causada por falta de interesse na espiritualidade, tendo em vista que a imensa maioria das pessoas diz seguir alguma religião. Isso indicaria que a vida espiritual é algo importante nessa sociedade. No entanto, esse interesse é cooptado pelas forças do materialismo e do consumismo hedonista, traduzido na lógica do “compro, logo sou”. A religião “organizada” falhou em satisfazer a “fome espiritual”, e as pessoas procuram preencher esse vazio com o consumismo. A autora questiona: “Imagine como nossa vida seria diferente se todos os indivíduos que se dizem cristãos, ou que alegam serem religiosos, servissem de exemplo para todos, sendo amorosos”. A atualidade desse questionamento para o Brasil de hoje é desconcertante, tendo em vista os milhões de ditos “cristãos” que, ao invés de amar o próximo como a si mesmos, destilam ódio e preconceito.

“Valores: viver segundo uma ética amorosa” é o título do capítulo 6, no qual bell hooks reforça que o despertar para o amor só pode acontecer se nos desapegarmos da obsessão por poder e domínio. Para nos tornarmos pessoas mais alegres e mais realizadas, precisamos adotar uma ética amorosa, pois nossa alma sente quando agimos de maneira antiética, rebaixando o nosso espírito e desumanizando os outros. Viver dentro de uma ética amorosa é uma escolha de se conectar com o outro. Isso significa, por exemplo, se solidarizar com pessoas que vivem sob o jugo de governos fascistas, mesmo estando em um país democrático. Neste ponto, hooks retoma a afirmação de Cornel West de que uma “política de conversão” restaura a sensação de esperança. E reafirma que abraçar a ética amorosa significa inserir todas as dimensões do amor — “cuidado, compromisso, confiança, responsabilidade, respeito e conhecimento” — em nossa vida cotidiana.

“Ganância: simplesmente ame”, o sétimo capítulo do livro, demonstra que o isolamento e a solidão são as causas centrais da depressão e do desespero. O materialismo cria um mundo de narcisismo no qual consumir é a coisa mais importante. Nessa reflexão, a autora analisa como a participação ativa dos Estados Unidos em guerras globais colocou em questão o compromisso desse país com a democracia, sacrificando a visão de liberdade, amor e justiça em nome do materialismo e do dinheiro. Ela aborda também o desespero que tomou conta das pessoas quando líderes que lutavam pela paz e pela justiça foram assassinados, no final da década de 1960. Nesse momento, as pessoas perderam a conexão com a comunidade, e a atenção voltou-se para a ideia de ganhar dinheiro, o máximo possível. Os líderes passaram a ser os ricos e os famosos, as estrelas do cinema e da música. As igrejas e os templos, que antes eram espaços de reunião da comunidade, com o advento da teologia da prosperidade, tornaram-se lugares onde a ética materialista é respaldada e racionalizada. O que vale a partir de então é a cultura do consumo desenfreado. Pessoas também são tratadas como objetos e são esses os valores que passam a orientar as atitudes em relação ao amor. Isso se reflete também nas políticas públicas, como no fato de os Estados Unidos serem um dos países mais ricos do mundo e não possuírem um sistema universal de saúde que possa oferecer serviços aos menos favorecidos. Dessa maneira, bell hooks convida as pessoas à escolha de viver com simplicidade. Isso necessariamente intensifica a nossa capacidade de amar, nos ensina a praticar a compaixão e afirma nossa conexão com a comunidade.

O oitavo capítulo, “Comunidade: uma comunhão amorosa”, afirma, conforme as palavras de M. Scott Peck, que “nas comunidades e por meio delas reside a salvação do mundo”. Para desenvolver suas reflexões sobre essa questão, bell hooks lembra que o capitalismo e o patriarcado, juntos, como estrutura de dominação, produziram o afastamento das famílias nucleares de suas respectivas famílias estendidas. Por essa razão, aumentaram os abusos de poder no ambiente familiar, pois a família estendida é um lugar onde podemos aprender o poder da comunidade. Outra possibilidade importante dessa experiência de comunidade é a amizade, que para muitos é o primeiro contato com uma “comunidade carinhosa”. hooks reforça que amar em amizades nos fortalece de tal maneira que nos permite levar esse amor para as interações familiares e românticas. E, embora seja comum afrouxarmos os laços de amizade quando criamos laços românticos, quanto mais verdadeiros forem nossos amores românticos, menos teremos de nos afastar das nossas amizades, pois “a confiança é a pulsação do verdadeiro amor”. Ao nos engajarmos em uma prática amorosa, podemos estabelecer as bases para a construção de uma comunidade com desconhecidos. Esse amor que criamos em comunidade permanece conosco aonde quer que vamos, diz hooks.

“Reciprocidade: o coração do amor”, o nono capítulo, se inicia com os dizeres: “O amor nos permite adentrar o paraíso”. Para falar da construção amorosa entre casais, a autora parte dos equívocos ocorridos nos seus dois relacionamentos afetivos mais intensos, de um lado devido à falta de definição do que seria o amor e, de outro, pela confusão de esperar receber do companheiro o amor que não recebeu da família. Aponta que, mesmo em relacionamentos não heterossexuais, a tendência é o casal assumir uma lógica de que um dos parceiros deve sustentar o amor e o outro, apenas o seguir. Acrescenta ainda o fato de que as mulheres são encorajadas pelo pensamento patriarcal a acreditar que deveriam ser sempre amorosas, porém, isso não significa dizer que estão mais capacitadas do que os homens para fazer isso. Por essa razão, é comum que mulheres procurem livros de autoajuda para aprender a amar e manter o relacionamento. No entanto, grande parte desses livros normalizam o machismo e ensinam a manipular, a jogar um jogo de poder que nada tem a ver com o amor.

No décimo capítulo, “Romance: o doce amor”, bell hooks afirma categoricamente que poucas pessoas entram num relacionamento romântico possuindo a capacidade de realmente receber amor. Isso porque criamos envolvimentos amorosos que estão condenados a repetir os nossos dramas familiares. Comentando sobre o romance O olho mais azul, de Toni Morrison, ela diz que “a ideia de amor romântico é uma das ideias mais destrutivas na história do pensamento humano”. Esse amor que se dá num “estalo”, num “clique”, que não necessita de construção e depende apenas de “química” atrapalha o nosso caminho para o amor. O amor é tanto uma intenção como uma ação. Nossa cultura valoriza demais o amor como fantasia ou mito, mas não faz o mesmo em relação à arte de amar. Ao não atingirem esse mito, as pessoas se decepcionam. No entanto, é preciso entender que essa decepção é pelo amor romântico não alcançado. O amor verdadeiro, quando buscado, nem sempre nos levará ao “felizes para sempre” e, mesmo se o fizer, é preciso que saibamos: amar dá trabalho, não é essa história perfeita e pronta dos contos de fadas.

Em “Perda: amar na vida e na morte”, o décimo primeiro capítulo, a autora trata do medo coletivo da morte, apresentando-o como uma doença do coração para a qual a única cura é o amor. Da mesma maneira, somos incapazes de falar sobre a nossa necessidade de amar e sermos amados. Por medo de que nos vejam como fracos, raramente compartilhamos nossos pensamentos sobre a mortalidade e a perda. É isso que bell hooks nos convida a fazer

O capítulo 12, “Cura: o amor redentor”, nos leva a refletir sobre nossas dores, pois, ainda que tenham nos ensinado o contrário, sofrimentos desnecessários nos ferem. A escolha que temos é não permitir que tais sofrimentos nos deixem cicatrizes por toda a vida. O que faremos dessas marcas está em nossas mãos. O poder curativo da mente e do coração está sempre presente, e nós temos a capacidade de renovar nosso espírito e nossa alma. No entanto, é bastante difícil conseguirmos nos curar em isolamento: a cura é um ato de comunhão. bell hooks diz que precisamos conhecer a compaixão e nos envolver num processo de perdão para nos livrarmos de toda bagagem que carregamos e que impede a nossa cura. O perdão intensifica nossa capacidade de apoiarmos uns aos outros. Fazer as pazes com nós mesmos e com os outros é o presente que a compaixão e o perdão nos oferecem. A autora nos ensina que ser positivo e viver em um estado permanente de esperança renova o espírito e que, quando reavivamos nossa fé na promessa do amor, a esperança se torna nossa cúmplice.

O capítulo 13, “Destino: quando os anjos falam de amor”, fecha o livro apresentando a relação de bell hooks com os anjos. Anjos são aqueles que trazem as notícias que darão alívio ao nosso coração. São os guardiães do bem-estar da alma. Revelam nosso desejo coletivo de regressar ao amor. A autora relata que as primeiras histórias de anjos lhe foram contadas ainda na infância, quando frequentava a igreja, onde aprendeu que os anjos eram consoladores sábios nos momentos de solidão. E, conforme foi crescendo, hooks passou a descobrir muitos anjos em seus autores preferidos, cujos livros permitem entender a vida com mais complexidade. Ela finaliza dizendo que, depois de tanto ficar sozinha, no escuro do quarto, agarrada à metafísica do amor, tentando entender seu mistério, pôde finalmente alcançar uma nova visão do amor. E a essa prática espiritual disciplinada ela chama de “prática de abrir o coração”. Foi isso que desde então a levou a seguir o caminho do amor e a “falar cara a cara com os anjos”.

Na teoria sobre o amor de bell hooks é possível perceber inspirações das igrejas cristãs negras do sul dos Estados Unidos e também da filosofia budista, especialmente com base no mestre zen vietnamita Thich Nhat Hanh, cuja atuação disseminou o conceito de “budismo engajado”, que diz respeito a somar a observação dos preceitos básicos do budismo com uma prática cotidiana socialmente comprometida. Ao lermos Tudo sobre o amor, podemos encontrar também diversos pontos de contato com as ideias trazidas pela filósofa burquinense Sobonfu Somé, em seu livro O espírito da intimidade: ensinamentos ancestrais africanos sobre maneiras de se relacionar, sobretudo no que se refere ao conceito de comunidade. Nesse sentido, ao propor que as transformações desejadas para a sociedade ocorram por meio da prática do amor, bell hooks nos afasta dos paradigmas eurocêntricos e coloniais que construíram a sociedade ocidental, baseada em exploração, injustiça, racismo e sexismo, e (re)direciona o nosso pensamento e a nossa prática rumo à ancestralidade.

A tradução deste livro, trazendo a ideia do amor como transformação política, chega num momento muito oportuno e necessário. Por aqui, essa semente já brotou. Existem pessoas pensando o amor para além do “amor romântico”, como o pastor Henrique Vieira, que destaca a força poderosa do amor para a destruição de preconceitos e a construção de uma sociedade mais justa em seu livro O amor como revolução, ou como o professor Renato Noguera, especialista em estudos africanos, que se dedica a produzir reflexões sobre o amor e é autor do livro Por que amamos: o que os mitos e a filosofia têm a dizer sobre o amor. Nesse caminho segue também a pensadora Carla Akotirene que, ancorada nos estudos do feminismo negro e na ancestralidade, discute o papel político das afetividades, inserindo no debate a urgência do combate à violência doméstica. Pesquisadores voltados para a filosofia africana têm (re)construído conhecimentos que dialogam diretamente com o pensamento de bell hooks em sua Trilogia do Amor. Exemplos disso são os trabalhos de Katiúscia Ribeiro e Wanderson Nascimento. Este último tem um artigo escrito em parceria com Vinícius da Silva, com o título “Políticas do amor e sociedades do amanhã”. Sendo assim, acredito que as lições de bell hooks sobre o amor, apresentadas em português pela Editora Elefante, servirão para difundir e fortalecer ainda mais essa construção. O futuro é ancestral.

Silvane Silva é doutora em história social pela Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (puc-sp) com a tese O protagonismo das mulheres quilombolas na luta por direitos em comunidades do Estado de São Paulo (1988-2018). Em 2018, participou do Programa de Incentivo Acadêmico Abdias do Nascimento como pesquisadora visitante no Centro de Estudos Latino-Americanos da Universidade da Flórida, nos Estados Unidos. É co-organizadora do livro Narrativas quilombolas: dialogar, conhecer, comunicar (Imprensa Oficial do Estado de São Paulo, 2017). Atua como professora e pesquisadora nas temáticas história e cultura afro-brasileira, educação para relações étnico-raciais e educação escolar quilombola. É pesquisadora do Centro de Estudos Culturais Africanos e da Diáspora (Cecafro) da puc-sp e integrante do Grupo de Estudos em Educação da Faculdade de Educação da Universidade de São Paulo (usp).

The freeze in Texas exposes America’s infrastructural failings (The Economist)

economist.com

Feb 17th 2021

You ain’t foolin’ nobody with the lights out

WHEN IT RAINS, it pours, and when it snows, the lights turn off. Or so it goes in Texas. After a winter storm pummelled the Lone Star State with record snowfall and the lowest temperatures in more than 30 years, millions were left without electricity and heat. On February 16th 4.5m Texan households were cut off from power, as providers were overloaded with demand and tried to shuffle access to electricity so the whole grid did not go down.

Whole skylines, including Dallas’s, went dark to conserve power. Some Texans braved the snowy roads to check into the few hotels with remaining rooms, only for the hotels’ power to go off as they arrived. Others donned skiwear and remained inside, hoping the lights and heat would come back on. Across the state, what were supposed to be “rolling” blackouts lasted for days. It is still too soon to quantify the devastation. More than 20 people have died in motor accidents, from fires lit for warmth and from carbon-monoxide poisoning from using cars for heat. The storm has also halted deliveries of covid-19 vaccines and may prevent around 1m vaccinations from happening this week. Several retail electricity providers are likely to go bankrupt, after being hit with surging wholesale power prices.

Other states, including Tennessee, were also covered in snow, but Texas got the lion’s share and ground to a halt. Texans are rightly furious that residents of America’s energy capital cannot count on reliable power. Everyone is asking why.

The short answer is that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates the grid, did not properly forecast the demand for energy as a result of the storm. Some say that this was nearly impossible to predict, but there were warnings of the severity of the coming weather in the preceding week, and ERCOT’s projections were notably short. Brownouts last summer had already demonstrated the grid’s lack of excess capacity, says George O’Leary of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & CO (TPH), an energy investment bank.

Many Republican politicians were quick to blame renewable energy sources, such as wind power, for the blackouts, but that is not fair. Some wind turbines did indeed freeze, but natural gas, which accounts for around half of the state’s electricity generation, was the primary source of the shortfall. Plants broke down, as did the gas supply chain and pipelines. The cold also caused a reactor at one of the state’s two nuclear plants to go offline. Transmission lines may have also iced up, says Wade Schauer of Wood Mackenzie, an energy-research firm. In short, Texas experienced a perfect storm.

Some of the blame falls on the unique design of the electricity market in Texas. Of America’s 48 contiguous states, it is the only one with its own stand-alone electricity grid—the Texas Interconnection. This means that when power generators fail, the state cannot import electricity from outside its borders.

The state’s deregulated power market is also fiercely competitive. ERCOT oversees the grid, while power generators produce electricity for the wholesale market. Some 300 retail electricity providers buy that fuel and then compete for consumers. Because such cold weather is rare, energy companies do not invest in “winterising” their equipment, as this would raise their prices for consumers. Perhaps most important, the state does not have a “capacity market”, which would ensure that there was extra power available for surging demand. This acts as a sort of insurance policy so the lights will not go out, but it also means customers pay higher bills.

For years the benefits of Texas’s deregulated market structure were clear. At 8.6 cents per kilowatt hour, the state’s average retail price for electricity is around one-fifth lower than the national average and about half the cost of California’s. In 1999 the state set targets for renewables, and today it accounts for around 30% of America’s wind energy.

This disaster is prompting people to question whether Texas’s system is as resilient and well-designed as people previously believed. Greg Abbott, the governor, has called for an investigation into ERCOT. This storm “has exposed some serious weaknesses in our free-market approach in Texas”, says Luke Metzger of Environment Texas, a non-profit, who had been without power for 54 hours when The Economist went to press.

Wholly redesigning the power grid in Texas seems unlikely. After the snow melts, the state will need to tackle two more straightforward questions. The first is whether it needs to increase reserve capacity. “If we impose a capacity market here and a bunch of new cap-ex is required to winterise equipment, who bears that cost? Ultimately it’s the customer,” says Bobby Tudor, chairman of TPH. The second is how Texas can ensure the reliability of equipment in extreme weather conditions. After a polar vortex in 2014 hit the east coast, PJM, a regional transmission organisation, started making higher payments based on reliability of service, says Michael Weinstein of Credit Suisse, a bank. In Texas there is no penalty for systems going down, except for public complaints and politicians’ finger-pointing.

Texas is hardly the only state to struggle with blackouts. California, which has a more tightly regulated power market, is regularly plunged into darkness during periods of high heat, winds and wildfires. Unlike Texas, much of northern California is dependent on a single utility, PG&E. The company has been repeatedly sued for dismal, dangerous management. But, as in Texas, critics have blamed intermittent renewable power for blackouts. In truth, California’s blackouts share many of the same causes as those in Texas: extreme weather, power generators that failed unexpectedly, poor planning by state regulators and an inability (in California, temporary) to import power from elsewhere. In California’s blackouts last year, solar output naturally declined in the evening. But gas plants also went offline and weak rainfall lowered the output of hydroelectric dams.

In California, as in Texas, it would help to have additional power generation, energy storage to meet peak demand and more resilient infrastructure, such as buried power lines and more long-distance, high-voltage transmission. Weather events that once might have been dismissed as unusual are becoming more common. Without more investment in electricity grids, blackouts will be, too.

A Glimpse of America’s Future: Climate Change Means Trouble for Power Grids (New York Times)

nytimes.com

Brad Plumer, Feb. 17, 2021


Systems are designed to handle spikes in demand, but the wild and unpredictable weather linked to global warming will very likely push grids beyond their limits.
A street in Austin, Texas, without power on Monday evening.
Credit: Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Published Feb. 16, 2021Updated Feb. 17, 2021, 6:59 a.m. ET

Huge winter storms plunged large parts of the central and southern United States into an energy crisis this week, with frigid blasts of Arctic weather crippling electric grids and leaving millions of Americans without power amid dangerously cold temperatures.

The grid failures were most severe in Texas, where more than four million people woke up Tuesday morning to rolling blackouts. Separate regional grids in the Southwest and Midwest also faced serious strain. As of Tuesday afternoon, at least 23 people nationwide had died in the storm or its aftermath.

Analysts have begun to identify key factors behind the grid failures in Texas. Record-breaking cold weather spurred residents to crank up their electric heaters and pushed power demand beyond the worst-case scenarios that grid operators had planned for. At the same time, a large fraction of the state’s gas-fired power plants were knocked offline amid icy conditions, with some plants suffering fuel shortages as natural gas demand spiked. Many of Texas’ wind turbines also froze and stopped working.

The crisis sounded an alarm for power systems throughout the country. Electric grids can be engineered to handle a wide range of severe conditions — as long as grid operators can reliably predict the dangers ahead. But as climate change accelerates, many electric grids will face extreme weather events that go far beyond the historical conditions those systems were designed for, putting them at risk of catastrophic failure.

While scientists are still analyzing what role human-caused climate change may have played in this week’s winter storms, it is clear that global warming poses a barrage of additional threats to power systems nationwide, including fiercer heat waves and water shortages.

Measures that could help make electric grids more robust — such as fortifying power plants against extreme weather, or installing more backup power sources — could prove expensive. But as Texas shows, blackouts can be extremely costly, too. And, experts said, unless grid planners start planning for increasingly wild and unpredictable climate conditions, grid failures will happen again and again.

“It’s essentially a question of how much insurance you want to buy,” said Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems engineer at Princeton University. “What makes this problem even harder is that we’re now in a world where, especially with climate change, the past is no longer a good guide to the future. We have to get much better at preparing for the unexpected.”

Texas’ main electric grid, which largely operates independently from the rest of the country, has been built with the state’s most common weather extremes in mind: soaring summer temperatures that cause millions of Texans to turn up their air-conditioners all at once.

While freezing weather is rarer, grid operators in Texas have also long known that electricity demand can spike in the winter, particularly after damaging cold snaps in 2011 and 2018. But this week’s winter storms, which buried the state in snow and ice, and led to record-cold temperatures, surpassed all expectations — and pushed the grid to its breaking point.

Residents of East Dallas trying to warm up on Monday after their family home lost power.
Credit: Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News, via Associated Press

Texas’ grid operators had anticipated that, in the worst case, the state would use 67 gigawatts of electricity during the winter peak. But by Sunday evening, power demand had surged past that level. As temperatures dropped, many homes were relying on older, inefficient electric heaters that consume more power.

The problems compounded from there, with frigid weather on Monday disabling power plants with capacity totaling more than 30 gigawatts. The vast majority of those failures occurred at thermal power plants, like natural gas generators, as plummeting temperatures paralyzed plant equipment and soaring demand for natural gas left some plants struggling to obtain sufficient fuel. A number of the state’s power plants were also offline for scheduled maintenance in preparation for the summer peak.

The state’s fleet of wind farms also lost up to 4.5 gigawatts of capacity at times, as many turbines stopped working in cold and icy conditions, though this was a smaller part of the problem.

In essence, experts said, an electric grid optimized to deliver huge quantities of power on the hottest days of the year was caught unprepared when temperatures plummeted.

While analysts are still working to untangle all of the reasons behind Texas’ grid failures, some have also wondered whether the unique way the state manages its largely deregulated electricity system may have played a role. In the mid-1990s, for instance, Texas decided against paying energy producers to hold a fixed number of backup power plants in reserve, instead letting market forces dictate what happens on the grid.

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott called for an emergency reform of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit corporation that oversees the flow of power in the state, saying its performance had been “anything but reliable” over the previous 48 hours.

In theory, experts said, there are technical solutions that can avert such problems.

Wind turbines can be equipped with heaters and other devices so that they can operate in icy conditions — as is often done in the upper Midwest, where cold weather is more common. Gas plants can be built to store oil on-site and switch over to burning the fuel if needed, as is often done in the Northeast, where natural gas shortages are common. Grid regulators can design markets that pay extra to keep a larger fleet of backup power plants in reserve in case of emergencies, as is done in the Mid-Atlantic.

But these solutions all cost money, and grid operators are often wary of forcing consumers to pay extra for safeguards.

“Building in resilience often comes at a cost, and there’s a risk of both underpaying but also of overpaying,” said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. “It’s a difficult balancing act.”

In the months ahead, as Texas grid operators and policymakers investigate this week’s blackouts, they will likely explore how the grid might be bolstered to handle extremely cold weather. Some possible ideas include: Building more connections between Texas and other states to balance electricity supplies, a move the state has long resisted; encouraging homeowners to install battery backup systems; or keeping additional power plants in reserve.

The search for answers will be complicated by climate change. Over all, the state is getting warmer as global temperatures rise, and cold-weather extremes are, on average, becoming less common over time.

But some climate scientists have also suggested that global warming could, paradoxically, bring more unusually fierce winter storms. Some research indicates that Arctic warming is weakening the jet stream, the high-level air current that circles the northern latitudes and usually holds back the frigid polar vortex. This can allow cold air to periodically escape to the South, resulting in episodes of bitter cold in places that rarely get nipped by frost.

ImageCredit: Jacob Ford/Odessa American, via Associated Press

But this remains an active area of debate among climate scientists, with some experts less certain that polar vortex disruptions are becoming more frequent, making it even trickier for electricity planners to anticipate the dangers ahead.

All over the country, utilities and grid operators are confronting similar questions, as climate change threatens to intensify heat waves, floods, water shortages and other calamities, all of which could create novel risks for the nation’s electricity systems. Adapting to those risks could carry a hefty price tag: One recent study found that the Southeast alone may need 35 percent more electric capacity by 2050 simply to deal with the known hazards of climate change.

And the task of building resilience is becoming increasingly urgent. Many policymakers are promoting electric cars and electric heating as a way of curbing greenhouse gas emissions. But as more of the nation’s economy depends on reliable flows of electricity, the cost of blackouts will become ever more dire.

“This is going to be a significant challenge,” said Emily Grubert, an infrastructure expert at Georgia Tech. “We need to decarbonize our power systems so that climate change doesn’t keep getting worse, but we also need to adapt to changing conditions at the same time. And the latter alone is going to be very costly. We can already see that the systems we have today aren’t handling this very well.”

John Schwartz, Dave Montgomery and Ivan Penn contributed reporting.

Why Anthropology Matters (Scientific American)

scientificamerican.com

It’s the antidote to nativism, the enemy of hate—a vaccine of understanding, tolerance and compassion that can counter the rhetoric of demagogues

Wade Davis, February 1, 2021

Pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas. Credit: Alamy

In 2012, both Kiplinger and Forbes ranked anthropology as the least valuable undergraduate major, unleashing a small wave of indignation as many outside the field rushed to defend the study of culture as ideal preparation for any life or career in an interconnected and globalized world. The response from professional anthropologists, confronted by both an existential challenge and public humiliation, was earnest but largely ineffective, for the voice of the discipline had been muted by a generation of self-absorption, tempered by a disregard for popular engagement that borders on contempt.

Ruth Benedict, acolyte of the great Franz Boas and in 1947 president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), reputedly said that the very purpose of anthropology was to make the world safe for human differences.

Today, such activism seems as passé as a pith helmet. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the AAA met in Washington, D.C. Four thousand anthropologists were in the nation’s capital in the wake of the biggest story of culture they or the country would ever encounter. The entire gathering earned but a mention in The Washington Post, a few lines in the gossip section essentially noting that the nutcases were back in town. It was hard to know who was more remiss, the government for failing to listen to the one profession that could have answered the question on everyone’s lips—Why do they hate us?—or the profession itself for failing to reach outside itself to bring its considerable insights to the attention of the nation.

Perhaps fittingly it took an outsider to remind anthropologists why anthropology matters. Charles King, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, begins his remarkable book The Reinvention of Humanity by asking us to envision the world as it existed in the minds of our grandparents, perhaps your great-grandparents. Race, he notes, was accepted as a given, a biological fact, with lineages dividing white from Black reaching back through primordial time. Differences in customs and beliefs reflected differences in intelligence and destiny, with every culture finding its rung on an evolutionary ladder rising from the savage to the barbarian to the civilized of the Strand in London, with technological wizardry, the great achievement of the West, being the sole measure of progress and success.

Sexual and behavioral characteristics were presumed fixed. Whites were smart and industrious, Blacks physically strong but lazy, and some people were barely distinguishable from animals; as late as 1902 it was debated in parliament in Australia whether aborigines were human beings. Politics was the domain of men, charity work and the home the realm of women. Women’s suffrage only came in 1919. Immigrants were seen as a threat, even by those who had themselves only just managed to claw their way ashore. The poor were responsible for their own miseries, even as the British army reported that the height of officers recruited in 1914 was on average six inches taller than that of enlisted men, simply because of nutrition. As for the blind, deaf and dumb, the cripples, morons, Mongoloids, and the mad, they were best locked away, lobotomized and even killed to remove them from the gene pool.

The superiority of the white man was accepted with such assurance that the Oxford English Dictionary in 1911 had no entries for racism or colonialism. As recently as 1965, Carleton Coon completed a set of two books, The Origin of Races and The Living Races of Man, in which he advanced the theory that the political and technological dominance of Europeans was a natural consequence of their evolved genetic superiority. He even asserted that “racial intermixture can upset the genetic as well as the social equilibrium of a group.” Coon at the time of his retirement in 1963 was a respected professor and curator at the University of Pennsylvania. Interracial marriage remained illegal across much of the United States until 1967.

Today, not two generations on, it goes without saying that no educated person would share any of these bankrupt certitudes. By the same token, what we take for granted would be unimaginable to those who fiercely defended convictions that appear to the modern eye both transparently wrong and morally reprehensible. All of which raises a question. What was it that allowed our culture to go from zero to 60 in a generation, as women moved from the kitchen to the boardroom, people of color from the woodshed to the White House, gay men and women from the closet to the altar?

Political movements are built upon the possibility of change, possibilities brought into being by new ways of thinking. Before any of these struggles could flourish, something fundamental, some flash of insight, had to challenge and, in time, shatter the intellectual foundations that supported archaic beliefs as irrelevant to our lives today as the notions of 19th-century clergymen, certain that the earth was but 6,000 years old.

The catalyst, as Charles King reminds us, was the wisdom and scientific genius of Franz Boas and a small band of courageous scholars—Margaret Mead, Alfred Kroeber, Elsie Clews Parsons, Melville Herskovits, Edward Sapir, Robert Lowie, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston and many others— contrarians all, who came into his orbit, destined to change the world. We live today in the social landscape of their dreams. If you find it normal, for example, that an Irish boy would have an Asian girlfriend, or that a Jewish friend might find solace in the Buddhist dharma, or that a person born into a male body could self-identify as a woman, then you are a child of anthropology.

If you recognize that marriage need not exclusively imply a man and a woman, that single mothers can be good mothers, and that two men or two women can raise good families as long as there is love in the home, it’s because you’ve embraced values and intuitions inconceivable to your great-grandparents. And if you believe that wisdom may be found in all spiritual traditions, that people in all places are always dancing with new possibilities for life, that one preserves jam but not culture, then you share a vision of compassion and inclusion that represents perhaps the most sublime revelation of our species, the scientific realization that all of humanity is one interconnected and undivided whole.

Widely acknowledged as the father of American cultural anthropology, Franz Boas was the first scholar to explore in a truly open and neutral manner how human social perceptions are formed, and how members of distinct societies become conditioned to see and interpret the world. What, he asked, was the nature of knowing? Who decided what was to be known? How do seemingly random beliefs and convictions converge into this thing called culture, a term that he was the first to promote as an organizing principle, a useful point of intellectual departure.

Far ahead of his time, Boas recognized that every distinct social community, every cluster of people distinguished by language or adaptive inclination, was a unique facet of the human legacy and its promise. Each was a product of its own history. None existed in an absolute sense; every culture was but a model of reality. We create our social realms, Boas would say, determine what we then define as being common sense, universal truths, the appropriate rules and codes of behavior. Beauty really does lie in the eye of the beholder. Manners don’t make the man; men and women invent the manners. Race and gender are cultural constructs, derived not from biology but born in the realm of ideas.

Critically, none of this implied an extreme relativism, as if every human behavior must be accepted simply because it exists. Boas never called for the elimination of judgment, only its suspension so that the very judgments we are ethically and morally obliged to make as human beings may be informed ones. Even as he graced the cover of Time magazine in 1936, a German Jew in exile from a homeland already dripping in blood, Boas railed against the cruel conceits and stupidity of scientific racism. Inspired by his time among the Inuit on Baffin Island, and later the Kwakwaka’wakw in the salmon forests of the Pacific Northwest, he informed all who would listen that the other peoples of the world were not failed attempts to be them, failed attempts to be modern. Every culture was a unique expression of the human imagination and heart. Each was a unique answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? When asked that question, humanity responds in 7,000 different languages, voices that collectively comprise our repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species.

Boas would not live to see his insights and intuitions confirmed by hard science, let alone define the zeitgeist of a new global culture. But, 80 years on, studies of the human genome have indeed revealed the genetic endowment of humanity to be a single continuum. Race truly is a fiction. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth, all descendants of common ancestors, including those who walked out of Africa some 65,000 years ago, embarking on a journey that over 40,000 years, a mere 2500 generations, carried the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world.

But here is the important idea. If we are all cut from the same fabric of life, then by definition we all share the same mental acuity, the same raw genius. Whether this intellectual potential is exercised through technological innovation, as has been the great achievement of the West, or through the untangling of complex threads of memory inherent in a myth, a priority of many other peoples in the world, is simply a matter of choice and orientation, adaptive insights and cultural emphasis. There is no hierarchy of progress in the history of culture, no evolutionary ladder to success. Boas and his students were right. The brilliance of scientific research, the revelations of modern genetics, has affirmed in an astonishing way both the unity of humanity and the essential wisdom of cultural relativism. Every culture really does have something to say; each deserves to be heard, just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine.

As a scholar, Boas ranks with Einstein, Darwin and Freud as one of the four intellectual pillars of modernity. His core idea, distilled in the notion of cultural relativism, was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the discipline of physics. Everything Boas proposed ran against orthodoxy. It was a shattering of the European mind, the sociological equivalent of the splitting of the atom. And though his research took him to esoteric realms of myth and shamanism, symbolism and the spirit, he remained grounded in the politics of racial and economic justice, the promise and potential of social change. A tireless campaigner for human rights, Boas maintained always that anthropology as a science only made sense if it was practiced in the service of a higher tolerance. “It is possible,” wrote Thomas Gossett in his 1963 book Race: The History of an Idea in America, that “Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history.”

Though remembered today as the giants of the discipline, Boas and his students in their time were dismissed from jobs because of their activism; denied promotion because of their beliefs; harassed by the FBI as the subversives they truly were; and attacked in the press simply for being different. And yet they stood their ground, and because they did, as Charles King writes, “anthropology came into its own on the front lines of the great moral battle of our time… [as it] anticipated and in good measure built the intellectual foundations for the seismic social changes of the last hundred years from women’s suffrage and civil rights to sexual revolution and marriage equality.”

Were Boas to be with us today, his voice would surely resound in the public square, the media, in all the halls of power. He would never sit back in silence as fully half the languages of the world hover on the brink of extinction, implying the loss within a single generation of half of humanity’s intellectual, ecological and spiritual legacy. To those who suggest that indigenous cultures are destined to fade away, he would reply that change and technology pose no threat to culture, but power does. Cultures under threat are neither fragile nor vestigial; in every instance, they are living dynamic peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces. If human beings are the agents of cultural loss, he would note, we can surely be facilitators of cultural survival.  

Anthropology matters because it allows us to look beneath the surface of things. The very existence of other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other visions of life itself, puts the lie to those in our own culture who say that we cannot change, as we know we must, the fundamental way in which we inhabit this planet. Anthropology is the antidote to nativism, the enemy of hate, a vaccine of understanding, tolerance and compassion that silences the rhetoric of demagogues, inoculating the world from the likes of the Proud Boys and Donald Trump. As the events of the last months have shown, the struggle long ago championed by Franz Boas is ongoing. Never has the voice of anthropology been more important.

But it must be spoken to be heard. With a million Uighurs in Chinese prison camps, the forests of the Penan in Sarawak laid waste, and the very homeland of the Inuit melting from beneath their lives, contemporary anthropologists must surely do better than indulging doctrinal grievance studies, seminars on intersectionality, the use of pronouns and other multiple expressions of woke orthodoxy if the discipline is to avoid the indictment of actually being the most worthless of undergraduate degrees.

Wade Davis is a professor of anthropology and holds the B.C. Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia. His latest book is Magdalena: River of Dreams (Knopf 2020).

Study of 3.5 Million People Finds Human Hormones Change With The Seasons (Science Alert)

sciencealert.com

Carly Cassella, 7 FEBRUARY 2021


A review of millions of blood tests has shown a whole host of human hormones that fall into clear seasonal patterns, although these changes are small in magnitude.

Hormones from the pituitary gland, which help control reproduction, metabolism, stress and lactation, were mostly found to peak in late summer.

Peripheral organs under the control of the pituitary, like those that produce our sex hormones or the thyroid hormone, also showed seasonality. Instead of peaking in summer, however, these hormones hit their stride in winter.

Testosterone, estradiol, and progesterone, for instance, reached their pinnacle in late winter or spring.

The findings provide the strongest evidence to date that humans possess an internal seasonal clock, which somehow impacts our hormones in a way that lines up with the seasons.

“Together with a long history of studies on a winter−spring peak in human function and growth, the hormone seasonality indicates that, like other animals, humans may have a physiological peak season for basic biological functions,” the authors write

The underlying mechanism that drives this circannual clock is still unknown, but the authors suggest there is a natural, year-long feedback circuit at play between the pituitary gland and peripheral glands in the body.

The pituitary hormones, which are uniquely tuned to sunlight, could be feeding these other organs over the course of a year, allowing them to grow in functional mass in a way that aligns with the seasons.

“Thus, humans may show coordinated seasonal set-points with a winter−spring peak in the growth, stress, metabolism, and reproduction axes,” the authors write.

As the paper mentions, it’s not too different from what we find in other mammals, where fluctuations in certain hormones lead to seasonal changes in an animal’s reproduction, activity, growth, pigmentation, or migration.

Mammals like arctic reindeer, for instance, show a decrease in a hormone called leptin when winter days become shortest, and this helps lower their energy consumption, decreasing their body temperature and inhibiting their ability to reproduce.

Even primates closer to the equator show sensitivity to subtle seasonal changes. For instance, Rhesus macaques ovulate significantly more during the post-monsoon season so that their offspring are born just before the monsoons hit in summer.

Whether or not human hormones also fluctuate with the seasons remains unclear.

Most datasets that have been analysed so far are not very large and do not cover all human hormones, which makes drawing conclusions very challenging. Studies have either examined only human sex hormones, or they have focused on stress and metabolic hormones. Results have also been quite varied and inconsistent.

While some studies on human sex hormones suggest seasonal changes should be considered, other studies conclude seasons are an unimportant source of variability. 

Meanwhile, research on salivary cortisol levels – aka the stress hormone – finds there is some seasonal variability, and a big data study on the thyroid-stimulating hormone found higher levels of this hormone in summer and winter.

The new research is the largest of the lot and includes a massive dataset of Israeli health records covering 46 million person-years. It also analyses all human hormones.

Controlling for changes throughout a single day, the authors found humans do show seasonal patterns in their hormone levels, although not as strongly as other mammals.

The physiological effects of these hormonal shifts are still not clear, but some of the changes to the thyroid hormone, T3, and the stress hormone, cortisol, do align with previous findings.

For example, the thyroid hormone, which was found to peak in winter, has been tied to thermogeneration.  The seasonal timing of cortisol, which was found to peak in February, also agrees with past studies spanning the northern and southern hemispheres.

The seasonal changes are small in magnitude, but as the authors point out, from a clinical perspective, “even a small systematic effect can cause misdiagnosis if the normal ranges are not adapted to the seasons, with associated costs of extra tests and treatment.”

More studies on a similarly large scale and in various parts of the world will need to be done to verify the results further. But the findings suggest we are not so different from other mammals after all.

If our hormones really do ebb and flow with the seasons, even just a little bit, it could be important for our health that we know. 

The study was published in PNAS.

Plant-based diets crucial to saving global wildlife, says report (The Guardian)

theguardian.com

Damian Carrington, Wed 3 Feb 2021 14.30 GMT Last modified on Thu 4 Feb 2021 05.08 GMT

More than 80% of global farmland is used to raise animals, which provide only 18% of calories eaten. Photograph: Alamy

The global food system is the biggest driver of destruction of the natural world, and a shift to predominantly plant-based diets is crucial in halting the damage, according to a report.

Agriculture is the main threat to 86% of the 28,000 species known to be at risk of extinction, the report by the Chatham House thinktank said. Without change, the loss of biodiversity will continue to accelerate and threaten the world’s ability to sustain humanity, it said.

The root cause is a vicious circle of cheap food, the report said, where low costs drive bigger demand for food and more waste, with more competition then driving costs even lower through more clearing of natural land and use of polluting fertilisers and pesticides.

The report, supported by the UN environment programme (Unep), focused on three solutions. First is a shift to plant-based diets because cattle, sheep and other livestock have the biggest impact on the environment.

More than 80% of global farmland is used to raise animals, which provide only 18% of calories eaten. Reversing the rising trend of meat consumption removes the pressure to clear new land and further damage wildlife. It also frees up existing land for the second solution, restoring native ecosystems to increase biodiversity.

The availability of land also underpins the third solution, the report said, which is farming in a less intensive and damaging way but accepting lower yields. Organic yields are on average about 75% of those of conventional intensive farming, it said.

Fixing the global food system would also tackle the climate crisis, the report said. The food system causes about 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions, with more than half coming from animals. Changes to food production could also tackle the ill health suffered by 3 billion people, who either have too little to eat or are overweight or obese, and which costs trillions of dollars a year in healthcare.

“Politicians are still saying ‘my job is to make food cheaper for you’, no matter how toxic it is from a planetary or human health perspective,” said Prof Tim Benton, at Chatham House. “We must stop arguing that we have to subsidise the food system in the name of the poor and instead deal with the poor by bringing them out of poverty.”

Benton said the impact of the food system on climate and health was becoming widely accepted but that biodiversity was too often seen as a “nice to have”.

Susan Gardner, director of Unep’s ecosystems division, said the current food system was a “double-edged sword” providing cheap food but failing to take into account the hidden costs to our health and to the natural world. “Reforming the way we produce and consume food is an urgent priority,” she said.

Jane Goodall, the renowned conservationist, said the intensive farming of billions of animals seriously damaged the environment and inhumane crowded conditions risked new pandemic diseases crossing into people: “It should be phased out as soon as possible.”

On Tuesday, a landmark review by Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta concluded the world was being put at extreme risk by the failure of economics to take account of the rapid depletion of biodiversity.

The Chatham House report said the world had lost half its natural ecosystems and that the average population size of wild animals had fallen by 68% since 1970. In contrast, farmed animals, mainly cows and pigs, now account for 60% of all mammals by weight, with humans making up 36% and animals just 4%.

In reforming the global food system, “the convergence of global food consumption around predominantly plant-based diets is the most crucial element”, the report said. For example, it said, a switch from beef to beans by the US population would free up fields equivalent to 42% of US cropland for other uses such as rewilding or more nature-friendly farming.

In another example, the report said if the permanent pasture around the world that was once forest was returned to its native state, it would store 72bn tonnes of carbon – roughly equivalent to seven years of global emissions from fossil fuels. Benton said the report was not advocating that all people should become vegan, but should follow healthy diets that are as a result much lower in meat.

The year ahead offers a potentially unique opportunity to redesign the global food system, the Benton said, with major UN summits on biodiversity and climate, as well as the world’s first UN Food Systems Summit and an international Nutrition for Growth summit. The large sums being spent by governments as nations recover from the Covid-19 pandemic also provide opportunities for “policymaking that affords equal priority to public and planetary health”, the report said.

Philip Lymbery, at Compassion in World Farming, said: “The future of farming must be nature-friendly and regenerative, and our diets must become more plant-based, healthy and sustainable. Without ending factory farming, we are in danger of having no future at all.”

Mudanças climáticas podem estar por trás da pandemia de Covid-19; entenda (Galileu)

revistagalileu.globo.com

Redação Galileu, 05 Fev 2021 – 16h19 Atualizado em 05 Fev 2021 – 16h19

Estudo indica que espécies de morcegos, que carregam diferentes tipos de coronavírus, mudaram de região ao longo dos anos em decorrência das alterações no clima

Estudo indica que 40 espécies de morcegos migraram para a província de Yunnan no último século (Foto:  Jackie Chin/Unsplash)
A população mundial de morcegos carrega cerca de 3 mil tipos diferentes de coronavírus (Foto: Jackie Chin/Unsplash)

Desde o início da pandemia do novo coronavírus, há um ano, algumas questões permanecem sem resposta. Entre elas, de onde surgiu o Sars-CoV-2, causador da Covid-19.  No fim de janeiro, o jornal Science of the Total Environment publicou um estudo que evidencia uma possível relação entre a pandemia e as mudanças climáticas.

De acordo com a pesquisa, as emissões globais de gases do efeito estufa no último século favoreceram o crescimento de um habitat para morcegos, tornando o sul da China uma região propícia para o surgimento e a propagação do vírus Sars-CoV-2.

A análise foi feita com base em um mapa da vegetação do mundo no século 20, utilizando dados relacionados a temperatura, precipitação e cobertura de nuvens. Os pesquisadores analisaram a distribuição de morcegos no início dos anos 1900 e, comparando com a distribuição atual, concluíram que diferentes espécies mudaram de região por causa das mudanças no clima do planeta.

“Entender como a distribuição das espécies de morcego pelo mundo mudou em função das mudanças climáticas pode ser um passo importante para reconstruir a origem do surto de Covid-19”, afirmou, em nota, Robert Beyer, pesquisador do Departamento de Zoologia da Universidade de Cambridge, no Reino Unido, e autor principal do estudo.

Foram observadas grandes alterações na vegetação da província chinesa de Yunnan, de Mianmar e do Laos. Os aumentos na temperatura, na incidência da luz solar e nas concentrações de dióxido de carbono presente na atmosfera fizeram com que o habitat, que antes era composto por arbustos tropicais, se transformasse em savana tropical e florestas temperadas.

As novas características criaram um ambiente favorável para que 40 espécies de morcegos migrassem para a província de Yunnan no último século, reunindo assim mais de 100 tipos de coronavírus na área em que os dados apontam como a origem do surto do Sars-CoV-2. Essa região também é habitat dos pangolins, que são considerados prováveis agentes intermediários na pandemia.

“Conforme as mudanças climáticas alteraram os habitats, espécies deixaram algumas áreas e foram para outras — levando os vírus com elas. Isso não apenas alterou as regiões onde os vírus estão presentes, mas provavelmente permitiu novas interações entre animais e vírus, fazendo com que vírus mais perigosos fossem transmitidos ou desenvolvidos”, explicou Beyer.

O estudo ainda identificou que as mudanças climáticas resultaram no aumento do número de espécies de morcegos em outras regiões, como na África Central, na América do Sul e na América Central. “A pandemia de Covid-19 causou grande prejuízo social e econômico. Os governos devem aproveitar a oportunidade para reduzir os riscos que doenças infecciosas apresentam à saúde e agir para mitigar as mudanças climáticas”, alertou o professor Andrea Manica, do Departamento de Zoologia da Universidade de Cambridge.

Os pesquisadores também ressaltam que é preciso limitar a expansão de áreas urbanas, fazendas e áreas de caça em habitats naturais para que seja reduzido o contato entre humanos e animais transmissores doenças.

Esta matéria faz parte da iniciativa #UmSóPlaneta, união de 19 marcas da Editora Globo, Edições Globo Condé Nast e CBN. Saiba mais em umsoplaneta.globo.com

Antonio Nobre: O planeta está enfermo – é preciso ‘rejardiná-lo’ (National Geographic)

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Em entrevista exclusiva, o cientista pioneiro na aplicação da Teoria de Gaia fala sobre a importância da cosmovisão indígena e oferece uma solução simples para salvar o planeta das mudanças climáticas: replantar as trilhões de árvores que derrubamos.
Floresta amazônica queima no Maranhão. Em entrevista, o cientista Antônio Nobre usa o exemplo da Etiópia, que plantou 353 milhões de árvores em 12 horas, para defender que somos capazes de recuperar o planeta: “Se a humanidade inteira fizer, em dois meses nós plantamos um trilhão de árvores no planeta inteiro.”
Foto de Charlie Hamilton James

Por Paulina Chamorro

Publicado 3 de fev. de 2021 17:00 BRT


Antonio Nobre é um cientista que fala das ciências da terra com amor. Pode parecer estranho ler essas palavras em uma mesma frase, mas, após ouvi-lo, em poucos minutos entendemos que seu ponto de partida é múltiplo e que muito do que a ciência não calcula também entra na equação de Nobre.

Um dos principais precursores da Teoria de Gaia aplicada, Nobre traduziu os rios voadores para a população brasileira e faz da divulgação científica misturada com saberes tradicionais um ato de amor pela natureza.

Em entrevista exclusiva e inédita realizada em outubro de 2020, o agrônomo, mestre em biologia, doutor em ciências da terra, ex-pesquisador do Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia e pesquisador sênior do Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais conversa por videoconferência sobre como salvar o planeta.

Há seis anos, Nobre publicou o relatório O Futuro Climático da Amazônia, onde discorreu sobre alguns “segredos da floresta” – como os rios voadores e a bomba biótica, um teoria que ele afirma ter captado os mecanismos que provam que a Terra é um grande organismo vivo. Hoje, junto do grupo Biotic Pump Greening Group, formado por uma equipe multidisciplinar de cientistas e ativistas, defende que, para curar as doenças que afligem o organismo Terra, devemos ‘rejardinar’ o planeta, plantando novamente as trilhões de árvores que derrubamos ao longo dos séculos.

Tudo está relacionado, e Antonio Nobre avisou há tempos.

Antonio Nobre dá uma palestra em seminário realizado em 2019. Um dos principais precursores da Teoria de Gaia aplicada, Nobre é agrônomo, mestre em biologia, doutor em ciências da terra, ex-pesquisador do Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia e pesquisador sênior do Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais.
Foto de Reinaldo Canato/Divulgação FRUTO

Paulina Chamorro, National Geographic: No seu mais recente livro, A vida não é útil, o filósofo, escritor e líder indígena Ailton Krenak fala da Teoria de Gaia e que você é um “continuador dessas especulações sobre diferentes linguagens que o organismo Terra utiliza para se comunicar conosco”. Como as ciências da Terra e a cosmovisão indígena se aproximam para você?

Antonio Nobre: Uma vez eu estava tendo uma conversa com os indígenas, em Manaus, em um evento organizado pelo Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) e outras organizações e a gente estava começando esse diálogo. Eles queriam que a gente falasse sobre a floresta, fotossíntese, carbono porque estava começando essa coisa de vender carbono e de que floresta vale pela massa dela. Quando terminei a apresentação, os indígenas começaram a se manifestar. Tinha alguns bem jovens e um deles pegou o microfone e disse: ‘Cientista acha que sabe muito, cientista não sabe nada. Cientista acha que vê a Terra com satélite lá de fora, mas ele não entende nada do que ele vê. Cientista sabe muito menos do que o sábio indígena’.

Quando ele terminou, eu peguei o microfone e falei: ‘Eu queria dizer o seguinte, 1/16 do sangue que corre na minha veia é de indígena e tem um outro tanto que é de quilombola. Tem uma maior parte que é de branco europeu, como a maior parte dos brasileiros chamados brancos. É uma mistura aqui. Então, eu não gostei de vocês falarem que a gente não sabe nada, porque eu me sinto parente de vocês. Eu estudei ciência, não estudei a ciência indígena, estudei a ciência do branco e eu estou aqui com a disposição da gente conversar, trocar ideias’. E a gente começou a conversar a partir daí, houve um diálogo.

Anos mais tarde, o ISA publicou um livro chamado Manejo do mundo, e eu fiz um capítulo desse livro, contando um pouco dessa história que eu acabei de contar. Nesse capítulo, eu fui estudar um pouquinho do que outro sábio, o Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, tinha falado e, registrado por Bruce Albert, publicado no livro A queda do céu, que é um livro clássico, importante, da sabedoria yanomami, sobre vários assuntos. E eu peguei o que era atinente ao que eu fazia, que era a parte de clima, floresta e fui fazendo uma comparação. Ele falava uma coisa e eu ia buscar o rebatimento daquela coisa fazendo a tradução na ciência. E o que eu vi? Que tudo o que o livro falava era extremamente fundamentada na melhor ciência, sem conhecer nada da ciência do branco. Ele conhecia a ciência que ele chama do saber dos espíritos da floresta. E isso daí foi um exercício que me abriu um campo de progressão. Inclusive, algo que mudou minha carreira de cientista, que era puramente cientista duro, das ciências da natureza, mas que está acostumado a fazer de acordo com a liturgia da ciência.

Eu percebi que a ciência, com todos os seus valores – eu não estou desmerecendo em absoluto a ciência – também tem suas coisas não explicáveis, aquilo que não é alcançado. Tem defeitos também, inclusive em relação à vaidade, ao ego. Tem uma espécie de preconceito contra o saber da natureza, como se o saber tivesse que ser arrancado da natureza usando esmeril, martelo, talhadeira. Então, na minha perspectiva, não era uma postura de recepção, de contemplação ou uma postura filosófica. É uma postura de ir lá, colocar instrumento, medir, olhar imagem de satélite e arrancar da natureza um conhecimento e apresentar para o mundo: ‘Olha o que eu descobri’.

Eu percebi isso. Fiz também uma autocrítica e comecei a ver aquela sabedoria indígena. Uma sabedoria sintética, que é transmitida por fábula, que encanta através da sua poesia porque não é só um saber frio, um saber calculista, é um saber eivado das energias da natureza, eivado da espiritualidade que existe na natureza que eles veem e reverenciam. É uma relação também de filho para mãe, a mãe terra, a mãe natureza. E uma relação de reverência inerente. Ela já é assim, sempre foi. Claro que existem desvios, tem povos indígenas que já não se ligam mais, que foram muito influenciados por essa cultura europeia que veio para cá e que se desenvolveu de forma parcial.

A partir desse momento de reconhecimento da beleza e do poder da simplicidade do conhecimento indígena, eu comecei a reavaliar o meu conhecimento científico pelo viés reducionista, aquele viés cartesiano, racionalista, e perceber também que a sabedoria não é restrita ao intelecto. A sabedoria é uma propriedade do universo. E quando nós – como intelectos ou como seres cognitivos ou conscientes, ou pelo menos que buscam a consciência – começamos a olhar para sabedoria do universo sem colocar o ego na frente, ou seja, como seres contempladores ou contemplativos, a gente percebe a grandiosidade desse saber que já existe na natureza e que, quando nós estudamos e nos inteiramos e absorvemos esse saber, a gente está, na realidade, fazendo um empréstimo. Nós estamos tomando algo pré-existente, já configurado por uma inteligência superior e nos apropriando, nos embebendo daquele saber, daquele conhecimento.

N.G.: Estamos vivendo uma última chance do equilibrio de Gaia?

A.N.: As pessoas não se dão conta de estarem existindo em um mundo de complexidade absurda que está enfermo. E como a gente percebe que ele está enfermo? Febre, calor, frio em alguns lugares. Em 2019, teve dois fenômenos: a Besta do Leste (Beast from the East), uma massa de ar polar do polo Norte deslocada para cima da Rússia que depois chegou na Europa e congelou tudo, até nas pirâmides nevou. E lá no polo norte, que chegou não sei quantos graus Celsius acima do normal. Está ficando tudo confuso, como fica nosso corpo quando está enfermo. A gente tem febre, a gente começa a ter mal-estar, a digestão não funciona direito, dá dor de cabeça. O planeta Terra é vivo, não há mais nenhuma dúvida em relação a isso e nenhuma controvérsia no mundo científico. Finalmente, a teoria de Gaia hoje é uma das teorias mais importantes da história, que descobriu o funcionamento do planeta. O planeta é vivo e hoje nós temos os mecanismos que mostram a fisiologia do planeta, a relação dos ecossistemas – a vida na Terra é responsável pela regulação planetária. Como a vida na Terra está sob ataque intenso e destrutivo, é normal esperar isso. Se você pegar um ser humano e começar a atacar os fígados, os rins, o coração, chega uma hora que o corpo vai, inicialmente, cair enfermo e, depois, morto.

Então, a possibilidade de matarmos Gaia existe, está em curso. Na realidade, nós estamos matando Gaia porque no momento em que todos os ecossistemas da Terra mostram sinais de falência, aumentam as atividades, não só de governos, mas de empresas e indivíduos com motosserra, trator. 

Mas, às vezes, o consumo é fabricado também. Eu queria só fazer uma menção ao fato de que o covid-19 é o primeiro freio de arrumação que Gaia está apresentando para essa humanidade, que ficou perdida na sua própria ilusão de grandeza. A covid-19 bloqueou o planeta. E aí, o que nós vamos fazer com isso? A primeira coisa que a covid fez foi mostrar que era mentira que a gente não pode frear o ‘desenvolvimento’ ou a economia. Mentira. A gente freou este ano [2020]. Morreram pessoas? Muitas morreram, muitas ficaram enfermas, muitas perderam emprego e, não obstante, não acabou a humanidade, nem acabou a civilização. Agora, temos a oportunidade de aprender a lição com a covid sobre o que os povos indígenas, há 500 anos, e os cientistas, há 30 anos, vem berrando e dizendo: ‘Está errado, esta forma de existir na Terra é enferma e ela vai matar a todos, não só os humanos, todos os seres’. Uma grande extinção já está em curso.

Concluindo, a situação do planeta Terra é de um ser enfermo. Não por acaso veio uma enfermidade para, de certa forma, produzir uma certa imunidade para a Terra. Então, a covid é como se fosse um anticorpo contra o agente infeccioso. Quem é o agente infeccioso? A mentalidade humana, não o ser humano. Nós somos surgidos da natureza, mas a nossa mentalidade é que nos colocou nessa posição de antagonismo com a vida que nos dá suporte e é, de certa forma, ou, de forma total, suicida. Se você destrói o que te mantém vivo, você morre. É suicídio se você faz isso por deliberação, que é o que a humanidade tem feito. Por deliberação, está indo lá destruir a floresta Amazônica, destruir o Pantanal. Agora, eu fiquei sabendo, em volta da Ilha de Galápagos, uma frota de barcos chineses arrasta tudo que tem de vida marítima lá.

N.G.: Queria que contasse sobre a regulação biótica do ambiente, que é como a Teoria de Gaia passou a ser reconhecida. Que caminhos são esses? E como chegamos aos rios voadores da Amazônia?

A.N.: Victor Gorshkov e Anastassia Makarieva já tinham publicado – e foi assim que eu os conheci – um livro chamado Regulação Biótica do Ambiente em um período em que [a teoria de] Gaia estava sendo controversa no meio científico, principalmente pelo rechaço que os neodarwinistas faziam a Gaia desde o começo. Fizeram oposição cerrada, ridicularizaram Gaia. E o James Lovelock e a Lynn Margulis – quando lançaram a teoria de Gaia, hipótese de Gaia na época, nos anos 1970 – lançaram como uma ideia, como o Copérnico lançou a ideia de que a Terra girava em volta do Sol e não o Sol em volta da Terra. Mas eles não mostraram muitos mecanismos. Mais tarde, o James Lovelock começou a mostrar alguns mecanismos de como a vida regularia o clima da Terra. Mas, ainda assim, ficou a noção do Copérnico, que eles constataram que a Terra era um sistema autorregulado. James Lovelock trabalhou com a Nasa nas primeiras tentativas de mandar sondas para outros planetas, Marte e Vênus. Ele entendeu que a Terra é um lugar muito especial, que os nossos dois vizinhos são lugares especiais ao seu modo, mas Vênus é superquente e Marte é superfrio. Não tem condição nenhuma de vida nesses lugares e a Terra é este lugar extraordinário. Então, eles perceberam, a Terra é viva, é essa a explicação. A Terra é viva. Mas sem mostrar os mecanismos. Lá nos anos 1990, Victor Gorshkov e outros autores construíram a teoria da regulação biótica do ambiente, que eu chamo de Gaia 2.0. Por quê? Você sabe, os russos não vão ao banheiro sem escrever uma equação, eles são muito quantitativos. No caso, eram dois físicos de partícula teóricos. Tudo é equação. É como se fosse Newton ou Einstein: eles tinham essa visão quantitativa e teórica da ciência, entraram nesse campo do sistema terrestre, ou ciência de Gaia, e lançaram esse livro. Saiu em 2000, eu comprei o livro, li e falei: ‘Mataram a charada!’ Essas pessoas vieram e mostraram o que James Lovelock e Margulis não tinham mostrado: os mecanismos com as equações em baixo. Eles demonstraram Gaia – sem falar o nome Gaia porque eles não usam essa expressão, mas regulação biótica do ambiente.

Naquela época, não podia falar Gaia. ‘Ah esse cara deve ser religioso, muita perseguição mesmo.’ ‘Herege, está do lado de uma teoria que não tem nenhum fundamento.’ Muitos biólogos fizeram esse papel, por incrível que possa parecer, porque biólogo é quem estuda a vida. Como é que pode quem estuda a vida ter sido o pior inimigo da teoria que dizia que a Terra é viva? Foram eles que a descarrilaram por, praticamente, 40 anos. Recentemente, um deles começou a voltar, porque agora já tantos estão informando que Gaia é real. Eles começaram a voltar e falar: ‘Não, não, eu acho que Gaia pode mesmo, pode ser darwinizada e não sei o que’. Mas tardiamente. Bom, melhor tarde do que nunca. 

Eu entrei em contato com [Victor Gorshkov e Anastassia Makarieva] e depois a gente começou a trabalhar juntos.

Essa interação com os russos progrediu quando eu estava trabalhando no Programa de Grande Escala da Biosfera-Atmosfera na Amazônia (LBA), um projeto que juntou gente de três continentes. América Latina – principalmente os brasileiros, mas não só –, América do Norte – com o pessoal via Nasa – e Europa, muitas instituições, universidades, centenas. Na realidade, acho que chegou, em algum momento, a mais de mil cientistas. Eu estava trabalhando na Amazônia, estudando tudo aquilo e, nessa época, montei a primeira torre de fluxo na Amazônia, em 1995. Depois, montei a primeira torre de longo prazo, que está funcionando até hoje, perto de Manaus, em 1998. E depois ajudei a construir esse projeto. A gente estava observando o que a floresta estava fazendo e eu comecei a fazer essas indagações, os mistérios da Amazônia que eu conto lá no meu relatório de 2014. As indagações eram: Como a floresta subsiste? Essa foi uma ponderação que eu fiz. Como a floresta subsiste aos cataclismos planetários, aos cataclismos que atingem Gaia e continua existindo? Ela tem que ter uma capacidade extraordinária. E eu propus isto, que ela teria a capacidade de puxar a umidade do oceano para dentro do continente.

Nessa época eu tinha lido a Regulação biótica do ambiente, do Gorshkov e da Makarieva, e eu entrei em contato com eles e começamos a colaborar. Isso foi em 2004. Aí, eles pegaram as ideias e a gente interagiu muito em cima do que eles já estavam fazendo. Eles já estavam trabalhando com essa noção de que a floresta controla a atmosfera, e eu trouxe a vivência e os dados da Amazônia e essa hipótese. Dois anos depois, eles apresentaram a teoria da bomba biótica. Basicamente, eles botaram as equações e mostraram de que forma as florestas são capazes de gerar sua própria chuva. Isso era o contrário da crença dos meteorologistas da época – eles achavam que tinha floresta na banda equatorial porque chovia na banda equatorial. A teoria da bomba biótica demonstrou que chovia na banda equatorial por conta das florestas. Se você tirar a floresta, acaba a chuva.

Já tem 16 anos que a gente trabalha em colaboração. Publicamos muitos trabalhos mostrando os mecanismos da bomba biótica de umidade até o ponto de perceber que a forma mais efetiva de lidar com as mudanças climáticas é parar de emitir gases poluentes – CO2, metano, óxido nitroso, todos os gases que ajudam a aquecer o planeta. É uma condição básica, mas a gente descobriu isso na nossa pesquisa.

A forma necessária, indispensável, para regular o planeta é restaurar os ecossistemas da Terra, porque foram os ecossistemas da Terra que mantiveram e que geraram este ambiente confortável, este clima amigável que tem o planeta. Não existe nenhum outro corpo celeste conhecido com condições semelhantes e a única explicação que nós temos aqui é a vida. Então, o que tem que se fazer? Restaurar a vida na Terra, restaurar. Tem um outro nome para isso, em inglês se chama rewilding, wild de selvagem, re de reconstruir o selvagem, reconstruir a natureza. Nos últimos 200 anos, a humanidade desmatou e matou três trilhões de árvores grandes. Três trilhões, ou seja, metade do que a Terra tinha. Então, você imagina um pinguço cortando metade do fígado fora, o fígado que processa o álcool. Foi o que a gente fez. A gente cortou metade das florestas do mundo e é por isso que o aquecimento global está acelerando. Também por conta da poluição, mas não é só a poluição, o principal é a destruição dos órgãos que mantém o planeta funcional e amigável.

Concluindo: esse processo na ciência é muito lento. Veja o caso de Gaia. Em 1974 saiu o livro do Lovelock e da Lynn Margulis e depois foi controversa, controversa, controversa e só começou a virar uma unanimidade agora em 2017, em 2018 – 40 anos a gente perdeu no processo. E a gente não tem mais esse tempo. Claro que a teoria da bomba biótica também foi controversa, mas não tanto quanto a hipótese de Gaia. Já tem muita gente aceitando, mas tem uma banda de meteorologistas que odeiam a teoria, acha que está errada porque a gente mostrou algumas inconsistências na ciência deles. Está atrasando, não está chegando. Então o que a gente resolveu fazer? O mesmo que a gente fez com os rios voadores. Os rios voadores eram uma coisa meio borderline, meio lateral, que existia desde 1992. Dois americanos, acho que são irmãos, descreveram um aeroriver para explicar um fenômeno de uma inundação na Califórnia, mas depois ficou meio pegando poeira nos escaninhos da ciência. Em 2004, o José Marengo testou os jatos de baixos níveis, as monções da América do Sul, que explicavam mais ou menos o transporte de umidade da Amazônia para cá [São Paulo]. Antes disso, em 1979, o professor Dr. Enéas Salati já tinha sugerido uma ligação entre a floresta Amazônica e o Sul, Sudeste do Brasil, mas ficou nisso.

Aí eu encontrei o Gérard Moss, que é aviador, e a Margi Moss, esposa dele. Eles eram empreendedores, tinham feito o projeto Brasil das Águas com um hidroavião – eles pousaram com um hidroavião em todos os rios e lagos do Brasil pegando amostra e mandando para limnólogos. Eu dei a ideia para o Gérard: ‘Por que você não segue os rios de vapor na Amazônia?’. Ele pegou a ideia e depois convidamos cientistas – o Carlos Nobre, o José Marengo, o professor Salate. Fizemos um grupo e montamos o projeto Rios Voadores. Esse projeto trabalhou muito a comunicação. Em 2008, saiu uma reportagem no Fantástico. Em 2009, na BBC, um documentário belíssimo. Em 2010, eu dei uma palestra no TED e aí a coisa se tornou extremamente sexy, atraente, capturou a imaginação das pessoas antes de ser uma unanimidade científica. Mas a ciência veio atrás, ocorreu uma retro-fertilização. De 2012 para frente, vários artigos saíram na Science, na Nature sobre os rios aéreos da Amazônia. Hoje já é um termo consolidado. 

N.G.: Sobre o grupo da bomba biótica, como é esse projeto e quanto tempo temos?

A.N.: Esse grupo, o Biotic Pump Greening Group, a gente formou, principalmente, com cientistas, mas não só. É um grupo internacional e a nossa proposta é estudar sistemas de Gaia e entender como é que funciona. E um dos lugares que nós mais nos aprofundamos nesse entendimento é a Amazônia. Como a América do Sul foi aquinhoada com esse berço esplêndido? Por que a Amazônia é o que é, como é? Por que ela tem uma capacidade de lidar por mais de 50 milhões de anos com os cataclismos planetários? Nesse período de 50 milhões de anos, a Terra passou por meteoros, passou por aquecimento e resfriamento, teve as glaciações, os oceanos mudaram as correntezas, as correntezas atmosféricas, e a Amazônia aguentou firme. Estudando isso, nós chegamos a desenvolver – eu fui um dos que ajudou os dois colegas russos a desenvolver – a teoria da bomba biótica.

Demorou 70 anos para ser demonstrada a teoria da migração dos continentes e hoje é matéria básica para qualquer geólogo, não tem um geólogo que não sabe que tem deriva de continente, mas demorou 70 anos. Gaia, 40 anos. Bomba biótica nós não temos nem mais um ano, já está acabando o planeta. Nós estamos em condição terminal de enfermidade para a Gaia, por isso as mudanças climáticas. A reação que nós temos que ter é uma reação exponencial, uma reação de multiplicação, além da geométrica, e a humanidade tem capacidade, eu tenho certeza que sim. Sabe por quê? Porque em agosto do ano passado, isso só para dar um exemplo, o povo de um país na África Oriental chamado Etiópia plantou 353 milhões de árvores em 12 horas. É um país que tem 109 milhões de habitantes, ou seja, seria equivalente a cada habitante plantar três mudas de árvore. E a China, nos últimos 25 anos, plantou uma área de floresta equivalente ao que o Brasil destruiu nos últimos 40, 800 mil km².

Claro, tem problemas, não vingou tudo, a mesma coisa da Etiópia, várias vão morrer. Mas o fato de que a gente, como humanidade, consegue. Se a gente se colocar, são sete bilhões de seres com capacidade cognitiva e capacidade de mudar o mundo a ponto de gerar uma nova era geológica, chamada antropoceno. O ser humano, essa cultura que tomou o planeta, essa tal de civilização tecnológica, tem, hoje, a mesma competência que as eras geológicas de milhões de anos do passado tinham para mudar o planeta, só que no sentido destrutivo. Nós estamos propondo com esse grupo que nós somos capazes de replantar Gaia, usando uma expressão cunhada por uma amiga e ativista, a Suprabha Seshan, da Índia. Ela é do Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, que fica em Kerala, na parte ocidental da Índia e faz o resgate de floresta. E ela chama assim: ‘Nós temos que rejardinar a biosfera’. Esse conceito transmite tudo que é: uma horticultura ecológica.

Nós precisamos fazer um trabalho, e nos é facultado fazer esse trabalho por conta de uma tecnologia absolutamente fantástica da natureza chamada semente. As pessoas falam ‘ah semente’, claro, você come no seu cereal todo dia. Mas a semente é um milagre tecnológico – se você olhar por qualquer ângulo, se você pegar uma semente e estudá-la, entender o que tem dentro de uma semente, como ela funciona. Pegaram um sarcófago do Egito, acharam com 3 mil anos de idade, tinha sementes dentro, plantaram e germinou. Imagina um carro parado 3 mil anos, você chegar lá e tentar dar partida no carro. Nada. Na verdade, não vai ser um carro, vai ser uma ruína. Uma estrutura que tem alguma coisa viva dentro dela, tem um embrião vivo, durar 3 mil anos e você botar na terra com água, sol e germinar. Eles germinaram uma palmeira que está extinta na natureza, que estava nas sementes lá dentro do sarcófago. Essa tecnologia nós não temos, é a tecnologia de Gaia. Gaia já passou por muitos cataclismos e não existe um ser vivo que não tenha um propágulo de reprodução. Os fungos têm os esporos, as bactérias têm os cistos, os animais têm ovos e desenvolvimento como nós, que somos fetos, as árvores. E isso está tudo na nossa mão. Por que a Etiópia foi lá e plantou 353 milhões de árvores?

Eu fiz uma conta usando a mesma taxa de plantio que a Etiópia fez. Se a humanidade inteira fizer – claro que tem gente que não vai poder plantar, que vive em lugares gelados –, mas fazendo as coisas de maneira generosa, em dois meses nós plantamos um trilhão de árvores no planeta inteiro. Dois meses. Então, por que não está ao alcance? Está ao alcance dessa humanidade. E a gente ainda [pode] usar a tecnologia para acelerar, para plantar em lugares que hoje não são apropriados para o plantio de árvores, como os desertos, por exemplo. Com a teoria da bomba biótica, a gente está mostrando que é possível porque a natureza fez isso ao longo de milhões de anos. Nós podemos acelerar o processo, a gente sabe como, porque a gente aprendeu nos ecossistemas que hoje funcionam, ou que funcionavam, e estão sendo destruídos agora. 

Em sumário, esse grupo Biotic Pump Greening Group é a nossa resposta e a nossa proposta para a união. Nós não queremos fazer uma coisa que só nós sabemos. A gente quer compartilhar, a gente quer juntar, a gente quer unir, puxar todas as capacidades e competências, que não são poucas, que tem na Terra, inclusive, e especialmente, as dos indígenas. Porque eles têm uma capacidade de síntese que nos remete a matemática, que é elegância. A demonstração de um teorema em poucas linhas é visto pelos matemáticos como uma demonstração elegante. E não é elegante da moda, nem elegante da frivolidade, é elegância genuína do poder da simplicidade, como E=mc² do Einstein. Uma equação simples e que dá conta de processos grandiosos. Isso eu vejo na sabedoria indígena. Toda essa complexidade que eu estou falando aqui, intelectivamente, dos sistemas vivos, dos mecanismos, das maquinarias, os indígenas têm uma competência em sintetizar em uma frase, em uma sabedoria que é potente, é autoexplicativa e que muitas vezes usa conceitos da fábula e, portanto, captura a imaginação das pessoas, o cérebro direito, a narrativa, a contação de história. Ali, embutido naquela semente de sabedoria, tem toda essa complexidade que eu, aqui do meu lado da ciência reducionista, estou cavando na terra que nem um tatu, como disse Davi Kopenawa. Todo esse conhecimento detalhista, minucioso, com microscópio, é empacotado em uma frase, com sabedoria, com poesia. Não que seja inútil, ao contrário. A gente pode com ela esmiuçar, cavar como um tatu, essa potência da simplicidade e da elegância que os indígenas têm ao descrever como funciona Gaia, ao descrever como funciona a vida, não só Gaia. Como funciona também a cultura, uma cultura que não é divorciada da mãe Terra, da mãe corpo, ela é integrada, ela tem uma relação de amizade, não de oponência, de guerra, de luta, mas, ao contrário, de amizade, de embrace, de abraçar. E essa conexão é urgente e indispensável porque, se eu pegar toda a nossa sabedoria teórica ou prática ou tecnológica ou de engenharia e tentar resolver o problema da Terra, como muitos estão propondo – geoengenharia, de jogar poeira lá na estratosfera para esfriar o planeta, botar um espelho no espaço, jogar ferro no oceano para fertilizar as algas –, tudo isso é loucura, é distopia pura. Vai levar a gente a destruir mais rápido o resto que ainda sobra da parte viva de Gaia por estar entrando em conflagração com a complexidade de funcionamento, de estrutura.