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Anthropologist, professor at the Federal University of São Paulo

The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts (The Atlantic)

theatlantic.com

Adam Serwer, Dec. 23, 2019


A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of The New York Times Magazine’s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.

An engraving of a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina
Bettmann / Getty

This article was updated at 7:35 p.m. ET on December 23, 2019

When The New York Times Magazine published its 1619 Project in August, people lined up on the street in New York City to get copies. Since then, the project—a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social, and economic institutions—has spawned a podcast, a high-school curriculum, and an upcoming book. For Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter who conceived of the project, the response has been deeply gratifying.

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“They had not seen this type of demand for a print product of The New York Times, they said, since 2008, when people wanted copies of Obama’s historic presidency edition,” Hannah-Jones told me. “I know when I talk to people, they have said that they feel like they are understanding the architecture of their country in a way that they had not.”

U.S. history is often taught and popularly understood through the eyes of its great men, who are seen as either heroic or tragic figures in a global struggle for human freedom. The 1619 Project, named for the date of the first arrival of Africans on American soil, sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America’s founding documents, the story of the country’s great men necessarily looks very different.

The reaction to the project was not universally enthusiastic. Several weeks ago, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who had criticized the 1619 Project’s “cynicism” in a lecture in November, began quietly circulating a letter objecting to the project, and some of Hannah-Jones’s work in particular. The letter acquired four signatories—James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes, all leading scholars in their field. They sent their letter to three top Times editors and the publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, on December 4. A version of that letter was published on Friday, along with a detailed rebuttal from Jake Silverstein, the editor of the Times Magazine.

The letter sent to the Times says, “We applaud all efforts to address the foundational centrality of slavery and racism to our history,” but then veers into harsh criticism of the 1619 Project. The letter refers to “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing’” and says the project reflected “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Wilentz and his fellow signatories didn’t just dispute the Times Magazine’s interpretation of past events, but demanded corrections.

In the age of social-media invective, a strongly worded letter might not seem particularly significant. But given the stature of the historians involved, the letter is a serious challenge to the credibility of the 1619 Project, which has drawn its share not just of admirers but also critics.

Nevertheless, some historians who declined to sign the letter wondered whether the letter was intended less to resolve factual disputes than to discredit laymen who had challenged an interpretation of American national identity that is cherished by liberals and conservatives alike.

“I think had any of the scholars who signed the letter contacted me or contacted the Times with concerns [before sending the letter], we would’ve taken those concerns very seriously,” Hannah-Jones said. “And instead there was kind of a campaign to kind of get people to sign on to a letter that was attempting really to discredit the entire project without having had a conversation.”

Underlying each of the disagreements in the letter is not just a matter of historical fact but a conflict about whether Americans, from the Founders to the present day, are committed to the ideals they claim to revere. And while some of the critiques can be answered with historical fact, others are questions of interpretation grounded in perspective and experience.

In fact, the harshness of the Wilentz letter may obscure the extent to which its authors and the creators of the 1619 Project share a broad historical vision. Both sides agree, as many of the project’s right-wing critics do not, that slavery’s legacy still shapes American life—an argument that is less radical than it may appear at first glance. If you think anti-black racism still shapes American society, then you are in agreement with the thrust of the 1619 Project, though not necessarily with all of its individual arguments.

The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.

The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize. Inherent in that vision is a kind of pessimism, not about black struggle but about the sincerity and viability of white anti-racism. It is a harsh verdict, and one of the reasons the 1619 Project has provoked pointed criticism alongside praise.

Americans need to believe that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of history bends toward justice. And they are rarely kind to those who question whether it does.

Most Americans still learn very little about the lives of the enslaved, or how the struggle over slavery shaped a young nation. Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that few American high-school students know that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, that the Constitution protected slavery without explicitly mentioning it, or that ending slavery required a constitutional amendment.

“The biggest obstacle to teaching slavery effectively in America is the deep, abiding American need to conceive of and understand our history as ‘progress,’ as the story of a people and a nation that always sought the improvement of mankind, the advancement of liberty and justice, the broadening of pursuits of happiness for all,” the Yale historian David Blight wrote in the introduction to the report. “While there are many real threads to this story—about immigration, about our creeds and ideologies, and about race and emancipation and civil rights, there is also the broad, untidy underside.”

In conjunction with the Pulitzer Center, the Times has produced educational materials based on the 1619 Project for students—one of the reasons Wilentz told me he and his colleagues wrote the letter. But the materials are intended to enhance traditional curricula, not replace them. “I think that there is a misunderstanding that this curriculum is meant to replace all of U.S. history,” Silverstein told me. “It’s being used as supplementary material for teaching American history.” Given the state of American education on slavery, some kind of adjustment is sorely needed.

Published 400 years after the first Africans were brought to in Virginia, the project asked readers to consider “what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.” The special issue of the Times Magazine included essays from the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, who argued that sprawl in Atlanta is a consequence of segregation and white flight; the Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, who posited that American countermajoritarianism was shaped by pro-slavery politicians seeking to preserve the peculiar institution; and the journalist Linda Villarosa, who traced racist stereotypes about higher pain tolerance in black people from the 18th century to the present day. The articles that drew the most attention and criticism, though, were Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay chronicling black Americans’ struggle to “make democracy real” and the sociologist Matthew Desmond’s essay linking the crueler aspects of American capitalism to the labor practices that arose under slavery.

The letter’s signatories recognize the problem the Times aimed to remedy, Wilentz told me. “Each of us, all of us, think that the idea of the 1619 Project is fantastic. I mean, it’s just urgently needed. The idea of bringing to light not only scholarship but all sorts of things that have to do with the centrality of slavery and of racism to American history is a wonderful idea,” he said. In a subsequent interview, he said, “Far from an attempt to discredit the 1619 Project, our letter is intended to help it.”

The letter disputes a passage in Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which lauds the contributions of black people to making America a full democracy and says that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” as abolitionist sentiment began rising in Britain.

This argument is explosive. From abolition to the civil-rights movement, activists have reached back to the rhetoric and documents of the founding era to present their claims to equal citizenship as consonant with the American tradition. The Wilentz letter contends that the 1619 Project’s argument concedes too much to slavery’s defenders, likening it to South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun’s assertion that “there is not a word of truth” in the Declaration of Independence’s famous phrase that “all men are created equal.” Where Wilentz and his colleagues see the rising anti-slavery movement in the colonies and its influence on the Revolution as a radical break from millennia in which human slavery was accepted around the world, Hannah-Jones’ essay outlines how the ideology of white supremacy that sustained slavery still endures today.

“To teach children that the American Revolution was fought in part to secure slavery would be giving a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what the American Revolution was all about but what America stood for and has stood for since the Founding,” Wilentz told me. Anti-slavery ideology was a “very new thing in the world in the 18th century,” he said, and “there was more anti-slavery activity in the colonies than in Britain.”

Hannah-Jones hasn’t budged from her conviction that slavery helped fuel the Revolution. “I do still back up that claim,” she told me last week—before Silverstein’s rebuttal was published—although she says she phrased it too strongly in her essay, in a way that might mislead readers into thinking that support for slavery was universal. “I think someone reading that would assume that this was the case: all 13 colonies and most people involved. And I accept that criticism, for sure.” She said that as the 1619 Project is expanded into a history curriculum and published in book form, the text will be changed to make sure claims are properly contextualized.

On this question, the critics of the 1619 Project are on firm ground. Although some southern slave owners likely were fighting the British to preserve slavery, as Silverstein writes in his rebuttal, the Revolution was kindled in New England, where prewar anti-slavery sentiment was strongest. Early patriots like James Otis, John Adams, and Thomas Paine were opposed to slavery, and the Revolution helped fuel abolitionism in the North.

Historians who are in neither Wilentz’s camp nor the 1619 Project’s say both have a point. “I do not agree that the American Revolution was just a slaveholders’ rebellion,” Manisha Sinha, a history professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, told me.* “But also understand that the original Constitution did give some ironclad protections to slavery without mentioning it.”

The most radical thread in the 1619 Project is not its contention that slavery’s legacy continues to shape American institutions; it’s the authors’ pessimism that a majority of white people will abandon racism and work with black Americans toward a more perfect union. Every essay tracing racial injustice from slavery to the present day speaks to the endurance of racial caste. And it is this profound pessimism about white America that many of the 1619 Project’s critics find most galling.

Newt Gingrich called the 1619 Project a “lie,” arguing that “there were several hundred thousand white Americans who died in the Civil War in order to free the slaves.” In City Journal, the historian Allen Guelzo dismissed the Times Magazine project as a “conspiracy theory” developed from the “chair of ultimate cultural privilege in America, because in no human society has an enslaved people suddenly found itself vaulted into positions of such privilege, and with the consent—even the approbation—of those who were once the enslavers.” The conservative pundit Erick Erickson went so far as to accuse the Times of adopting “the Neo-Confederate world view” that the “South actually won the Civil War by weaving itself into the fabric of post war society so it can then discredit the entire American enterprise.” Erickson’s bizarre sleight of hand turns the 1619 Project’s criticism of ongoing racial injustice into a brief for white supremacy.

The project’s pessimism has drawn criticism from the left as well as the right. Hannah-Jones’s contention that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country” drew a rebuke from James Oakes, one of the Wilentz letter’s signatories. In an interview with the World Socialist Web Site, Oakes said, “The function of those tropes is to deny change over time … The worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis. It’s always been here. There’s nothing we can do to get out of it. If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?”

These are objections not to misstatements of historical fact, but to the argument that anti-black racism is a more intractable problem than most Americans are willing to admit. A major theme of the 1619 Project is that the progress that has been made has been fragile and reversible—and has been achieved in spite of the nation’s true founding principles, which are not the lofty ideals few Americans genuinely believe in. Chances are, what you think of the 1619 Project depends on whether you believe someone might reasonably come to such a despairing conclusion—whether you agree with it or not.

Wilentz reached out to a larger group of historians, but ultimately sent a letter signed by five historians who had publicly criticized the 1619 Project in interviews with the World Socialist Web Site. He told me that the idea of trying to rally a larger group was “misconceived,” citing the holiday season and the end of the semester, among other factors. (A different letter written by Wilentz, calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, quickly amassed hundreds of signatures last week.) The refusal of other historians to sign on, despite their misgivings about some claims made by the 1619 Project, speaks to a divide over whether the letter was focused on correcting specific factual inaccuracies or aimed at discrediting the project more broadly.

Sinha saw an early version of the letter that was circulated among a larger group of historians. But, despite her disagreement with some of the assertions in the 1619 Project, she said she wouldn’t have signed it if she had been asked to. “There are legitimate critiques that one can engage in discussion with, but for them to just kind of dismiss the entire project in that manner, I thought, was really unwise,” she said. “It was a worthy thing to actually shine a light on a subject that the average person on the street doesn’t know much about.”

Although the letter writers deny that their objections are merely matters of “interpretation or ‘framing,’” the question of whether black Americans have fought their freedom struggles “largely alone,” as Hannah-Jones put it in her essay, is subject to vigorous debate. Viewed through the lens of major historical events—from anti-slavery Quakers organizing boycotts of goods produced through slave labor, to abolitionists springing fugitive slaves from prison, to union workers massing at the March on Washington—the struggle for black freedom has been an interracial struggle. Frederick Douglass had William Garrison; W. E. B. Du Bois had Moorfield Storey; Martin Luther King Jr. had Stanley Levison.

“The fight for black freedom is a universal fight; it’s a fight for everyone. In the end, it affected the fight for women’s rights—everything. That’s the glory of it,” Wilentz told me. “To minimize that in any way is, I think, bad for understanding the radical tradition in America.”

But looking back to the long stretches of night before the light of dawn broke—the centuries of slavery and the century of Jim Crow that followed—“largely alone” seems more than defensible. Douglass had Garrison, but the onetime Maryland slave had to go north to find him. The millions who continued to labor in bondage until 1865 struggled, survived, and resisted far from the welcoming arms of northern abolitionists.

“I think one would be very hard-pressed to look at the factual record from 1619 to the present of the black freedom movement and come away with any conclusion other than that most of the time, black people did not have a lot of allies in that movement,” Hannah-Jones told me. “It is not saying that black people only fought alone. It is saying that most of the time we did.”

Nell Irvin Painter, a professor emeritus of history at Princeton who was asked to sign the letter, had objected to the 1619 Project’s portrayal of the arrival of African laborers in 1619 as slaves. The 1619 Project was not history “as I would write it,” Painter told me. But she still declined to sign the Wilentz letter.

“I felt that if I signed on to that, I would be signing on to the white guy’s attack of something that has given a lot of black journalists and writers a chance to speak up in a really big way. So I support the 1619 Project as kind of a cultural event,” Painter said. “For Sean and his colleagues, true history is how they would write it. And I feel like he was asking me to choose sides, and my side is 1619’s side, not his side, in a world in which there are only those two sides.”

This was a recurrent theme among historians I spoke with who had seen the letter but declined to sign it. While they may have agreed with some of the factual objections in the letter or had other reservations of their own, several told me they thought the letter was an unnecessary escalation.

“The tone to me rather suggested a deep-seated concern about the project. And by that I mean the version of history the project offered. The deep-seated concern is that placing the enslavement of black people and white supremacy at the forefront of a project somehow diminishes American history,” Thavolia Glymph, a history professor at Duke who was asked to sign the letter, told me. “Maybe some of their factual criticisms are correct. But they’ve set a tone that makes it hard to deal with that.”

“I don’t think they think they’re trying to discredit the project,” Painter said. “They think they’re trying to fix the project, the way that only they know how.”

Historical interpretations are often contested, and those debates often reflect the perspective of the participants. To this day, the pro-Confederate “Lost Cause” intepretation of history shapes the mistaken perception that slavery was not the catalyst for the Civil War. For decades, a group of white historians known as the Dunning School, after the Columbia University historian William Archibald Dunning, portrayed Reconstruction as a tragic period of, in his words, the “scandalous misrule of the carpet-baggers and negroes,” brought on by the misguided enfranchisement of black men. As the historian Eric Foner has written, the Dunning School and its interpretation of Reconstruction helped provide moral and historical cover for the Jim Crow system.

In Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois challenged the consensus of “white historians” who “ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption,” and offered what is now considered a more reliable account of the era as an imperfect but noble effort to build a multiracial democracy in the South.

To Wilentz, the failures of earlier scholarship don’t illustrate the danger of a monochromatic group of historians writing about the American past, but rather the risk that ideologues can hijack the narrative. “[It was] when the southern racists took over the historical profession that things changed, and W. E. B. Du Bois fought a very, very courageous fight against all of that,” Wilentz told me. The Dunning School, he said, was “not a white point of view; it’s a southern, racist point of view.”

In the letter, Wilentz portrays the authors of the 1619 Project as ideologues as well. He implies—apparently based on a combative but ambiguous exchange between Hannah-Jones and the writer Wesley Yang on Twitter—that she had discounted objections raised by “white historians” since publication.

Hannah-Jones told me she was misinterpreted. “I rely heavily on the scholarship of historians no matter what race, and I would never discount the work of any historian because that person is white or any other race,” she told me. “I did respond to someone who was saying white scholars were afraid, and I think my point was that history is not objective. And that people who write history are not simply objective arbiters of facts, and that white scholars are no more objective than any other scholars, and that they can object to the framing and we can object to their framing as well.”

When I asked Wilentz about Hannah-Jones’s clarification, he was dismissive. “Fact and objectivity are the foundation of both honest journalism and honest history. And so to dismiss it, to say, ‘No, I’m not really talking about whites’—well, she did, and then she takes it back in those tweets and then says it’s about the inability of anybody to write objective history. That’s objectionable too,” Wilentz told me.

Both Du Bois and the Dunning School saw themselves as having reached the truth by objective means. But as a target of the Dunning School’s ideology, Du Bois understood the motives and blind spots of Dunning School scholars far better than they themselves did.  

“We shall never have a science of history until we have in our colleges men who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race,” Du Bois wrote, “and who will not deliberately encourage students to gather thesis material in order to support a prejudice or buttress a lie.”

The problem, as Du Bois argued, is that much of American history has been written by scholars offering ideological claims in place of rigorous historical analysis. But which claims are ideological, and which ones are objective, is not always easy to discern.


*An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect title for historian Manisha Sinha’s book.

Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.

We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project (New York Times)

nytimes.com

Dec. 20, 2019


Letter to the Editor

Five historians wrote to us with their reservations. Our editor in chief replies.

Published Dec. 20, 2019Updated Jan. 4, 2020

The letter below was published in the Dec. 29 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

RE: The 1619 Project

We write as historians to express our strong reservations about important aspects of The 1619 Project. The project is intended to offer a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes. The Times has announced ambitious plans to make the project available to schools in the form of curriculums and related instructional material.

We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history. Some of us have devoted our entire professional lives to those efforts, and all of us have worked hard to advance them. Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service. Nevertheless, we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.

These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. Dismissal of objections on racial grounds — that they are the objections of only “white historians” — has affirmed that displacement.

On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history, the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false. Some of the other material in the project is distorted, including the claim that “for the most part,” black Americans have fought their freedom struggles “alone.”

Still other material is misleading. The project criticizes Abraham Lincoln’s views on racial equality but ignores his conviction that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed universal equality, for blacks as well as whites, a view he upheld repeatedly against powerful white supremacists who opposed him. The project also ignores Lincoln’s agreement with Frederick Douglass that the Constitution was, in Douglass’s words, “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” Instead, the project asserts that the United States was founded on racial slavery, an argument rejected by a majority of abolitionists and proclaimed by champions of slavery like John C. Calhoun.

The 1619 Project has not been presented as the views of individual writers — views that in some cases, as on the supposed direct connections between slavery and modern corporate practices, have so far failed to establish any empirical veracity or reliability and have been seriously challenged by other historians. Instead, the project is offered as an authoritative account that bears the imprimatur and credibility of The New York Times. Those connected with the project have assured the public that its materials were shaped by a panel of historians and have been scrupulously fact-checked. Yet the process remains opaque. The names of only some of the historians involved have been released, and the extent of their involvement as “consultants” and fact checkers remains vague. The selective transparency deepens our concern.

We ask that The Times, according to its own high standards of accuracy and truth, issue prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in The 1619 Project. We also ask for the removal of these mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools, as well as in all further publications, including books bearing the name of The New York Times. We ask finally that The Times reveal fully the process through which the historical materials were and continue to be assembled, checked and authenticated.

Sincerely,

Victoria Bynum, distinguished emerita professor of history, Texas State University;
James M. McPherson, George Henry Davis 1886 emeritus professor of American history, Princeton University;
James Oakes, distinguished professor, the Graduate Center, the City University of New York;
Sean Wilentz, George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American history, Princeton University;
Gordon S. Wood, Alva O. Wade University emeritus professor and emeritus professor of history, Brown University.


Editor’s response:

Since The 1619 Project was published in August, we have received a great deal of feedback from readers, many of them educators, academics and historians. A majority have reacted positively to the project, but there have also been criticisms. Some I would describe as constructive, noting episodes we might have overlooked; others have treated the work more harshly. We are happy to accept all of this input, as it helps us continue to think deeply about the subject of slavery and its legacy.

The letter from Professors Bynum, McPherson, Oakes, Wilentz and Wood differs from the previous critiques we have received in that it contains the first major request for correction. We are familiar with the objections of the letter writers, as four of them have been interviewed in recent months by the World Socialist Web Site. We’re glad for a chance to respond directly to some of their objections.

Though we respect the work of the signatories, appreciate that they are motivated by scholarly concern and applaud the efforts they have made in their own writings to illuminate the nation’s past, we disagree with their claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding. While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted.

The project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life. We are not ourselves historians, it is true. We are journalists, trained to look at current events and situations and ask the question: Why is this the way it is? In the case of the persistent racism and inequality that plague this country, the answer to that question led us inexorably into the past — and not just for this project. The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at the magazine, has consistently used history to inform her journalism, primarily in her work on educational segregation (work for which she has been recognized with numerous honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship).

Though we may not be historians, we take seriously the responsibility of accurately presenting history to readers of The New York Times. The letter writers express concern about a “closed process” and an opaque “panel of historians,” so I’d like to make clear the steps we took. We did not assemble a formal panel for this project. Instead, during the early stages of development, we consulted with numerous scholars of African-American history and related fields, in a group meeting at The Times as well as in a series of individual conversations. (Five of those who initially consulted with us — Mehrsa Baradaran of the University of California, Irvine; Matthew Desmond and Kevin M. Kruse, both of Princeton University; and Tiya Miles and Khalil G. Muhammad, both of Harvard University — went on to publish articles in the issue.) After those consultations, writers conducted their own research, reading widely, examining primary documents and artifacts and interviewing historians. Finally, during the fact-checking process, our researchers carefully reviewed all the articles in the issue with subject-area experts. This is no different from what we do on any article.

As the five letter writers well know, there are often debates, even among subject-area experts, about how to see the past. Historical understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being adjusted by new scholarship and new voices. Within the world of academic history, differing views exist, if not over what precisely happened, then about why it happened, who made it happen, how to interpret the motivations of historical actors and what it all means.

The passages cited in the letter, regarding the causes of the American Revolution and the attitudes toward black equality of Abraham Lincoln, are good examples of this. Both are found in the lead essay by Hannah-Jones. We can hardly claim to have studied the Revolutionary period as long as some of the signatories, nor do we presume to tell them anything they don’t already know, but I think it would be useful for readers to hear why we believe that Hannah-Jones’s claim that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” is grounded in the historical record.

The work of various historians, among them David Waldstreicher and Alfred W. and Ruth G. Blumrosen, supports the contention that uneasiness among slaveholders in the colonies about growing antislavery sentiment in Britain and increasing imperial regulation helped motivate the Revolution. One main episode that these and other historians refer to is the landmark 1772 decision of the British high court in Somerset v. Stewart. The case concerned a British customs agent named Charles Stewart who bought an enslaved man named Somerset and took him to England, where he briefly escaped. Stewart captured Somerset and planned to sell him and ship him to Jamaica, only for the chief justice, Lord Mansfield, to declare this unlawful, because chattel slavery was not supported by English common law.

It is true, as Professor Wilentz has noted elsewhere, that the Somerset decision did not legally threaten slavery in the colonies, but the ruling caused a sensation nonetheless. Numerous colonial newspapers covered it and warned of the tyranny it represented. Multiple historians have pointed out that in part because of the Somerset case, slavery joined other issues in helping to gradually drive apart the patriots and their colonial governments. The British often tried to undermine the patriots by mocking their hypocrisy in fighting for liberty while keeping Africans in bondage, and colonial officials repeatedly encouraged enslaved people to seek freedom by fleeing to British lines. For their part, large numbers of the enslaved came to see the struggle as one between freedom and continued subjugation. As Waldstreicher writes, “The black-British alliance decisively pushed planters in these [Southern] states toward independence.”

The culmination of this was the Dunmore Proclamation, issued in late 1775 by the colonial governor of Virginia, which offered freedom to any enslaved person who fled his plantation and joined the British Army. A member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies “than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.” The historian Jill Lepore writes in her recent book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” “Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.” And yet how many contemporary Americans have ever even heard of it? Enslaved people at the time certainly knew about it. During the Revolution, thousands sought freedom by taking refuge with British forces.

As for the question of Lincoln’s attitudes on black equality, the letter writers imply that Hannah-Jones was unfairly harsh toward our 16th president. Admittedly, in an essay that covered several centuries and ranged from the personal to the historical, she did not set out to explore in full his continually shifting ideas about abolition and the rights of black Americans. But she provides an important historical lesson by simply reminding the public, which tends to view Lincoln as a saint, that for much of his career, he believed that a necessary prerequisite for freedom would be a plan to encourage the four million formerly enslaved people to leave the country. To be sure, at the end of his life, Lincoln’s racial outlook had evolved considerably in the direction of real equality. Yet the story of abolition becomes more complicated, and more instructive, when readers understand that even the Great Emancipator was ambivalent about full black citizenship.

The letter writers also protest that Hannah-Jones, and the project’s authors more broadly, ignore Lincoln’s admiration, which he shared with Frederick Douglass, for the commitment to liberty espoused in the Constitution. This seems to me a more general point of dispute. The writers believe that the Revolution and the Constitution provided the framework for the eventual abolition of slavery and for the equality of black Americans, and that our project insufficiently credits both the founders and 19th-century Republican leaders like Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner and others for their contributions toward achieving these goals.

It may be true that under a less egalitarian system of government, slavery would have continued for longer, but the United States was still one of the last nations in the Americas to abolish the institution — only Cuba and Brazil did so after us. And while our democratic system has certainly led to many progressive advances for the rights of minority groups over the past two centuries, these advances, as Hannah-Jones argues in her essay, have almost always come as a result of political and social struggles in which African-Americans have generally taken the lead, not as a working-out of the immanent logic of the Constitution.

And yet for all that, it is difficult to argue that equality has ever been truly achieved for black Americans — not in 1776, not in 1865, not in 1964, not in 2008 and not today. The very premise of The 1619 Project, in fact, is that many of the inequalities that continue to afflict the nation are a direct result of the unhealed wound created by 250 years of slavery and an additional century of second-class citizenship and white-supremacist terrorism inflicted on black people (together, those two periods account for 88 percent of our history since 1619). These inequalities were the starting point of our project — the facts that, to take just a few examples, black men are nearly six times as likely to wind up in prison as white men, or that black women are three times as likely to die in childbirth as white women, or that the median family wealth for white people is $171,000, compared with just $17,600 for black people. The rampant discrimination that black people continue to face across nearly every aspect of American life suggests that neither the framework of the Constitution nor the strenuous efforts of political leaders in the past and the present, both white and black, has yet been able to achieve the democratic ideals of the founding for all Americans.

This is an important discussion to have, and we are eager to see it continue. To that end, we are planning to host public conversations next year among academics with differing perspectives on American history. Good-faith critiques of our project only help us refine and improve it — an important goal for us now that we are in the process of expanding it into a book. For example, we have heard from several scholars who profess to admire the project a great deal but wish it had included some mention of African slavery in Spanish Florida during the century before 1619. Though we stand by the logic of marking the beginning of American slavery with the year it was introduced in the English colonies, this feedback has helped us think about the importance of considering the prehistory of the period our project addresses.

Valuable critiques may come from many sources. The letter misperceives our attitudes when it charges that we dismiss objections on racial grounds. This appears to be a reference not to anything published in The 1619 Project itself, but rather to a November Twitter post from Hannah-Jones in which she questioned whether “white historians” have always produced objective accounts of American history. As is so often the case on Twitter, context is important. In this instance, Hannah-Jones was responding to a post, since deleted, from another user claiming that many “white historians” objected to the project but were hesitant to speak up. In her reply, she was trying to make the point that for the most part, the history of this country has been told by white historians (some of whom, as in the case of the Dunning School, which grossly miseducated Americans about the history of Reconstruction for much of the 20th century, produced accounts that were deeply flawed), and that to truly understand the fullness and complexity of our nation’s story, we need a greater variety of voices doing the telling.

That, above all, is what we hoped our project would do: expand the reader’s sense of the American past. (This is how some educators are using it to supplement their teaching of United States history.) That is what the letter writers have done, in different ways, over the course of their distinguished careers and in their many books. Though we may disagree on some important matters, we are grateful for their input and their interest in discussing these fundamental questions about the country’s history.

Sincerely,
Jake Silverstein
Editor in chief


The 1619 Project was launched in August 2019, on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies that would become the United States. It consisted of two components: a special issue of the magazine, containing 10 essays exploring the links between contemporary American life and the legacy of slavery, as well as a series of original poetry and fiction about key moments in the last 400 years; and a special broadsheet section, produced in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. This work was converted into supplementary educational materials in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. The materials are available free on the Pulitzer Center’s website, pulitzercenter.org.

A new DNA study offers insight into the horrific story of the trans-Atlantic slave trade (CNN)

By Harmeet Kaur, CNN

Updated 1438 GMT (2238 HKT) July 26, 2020 – original article

This drawing of the Liverpool slave ship Brooks was commissioned by abolitionists to depict the inhumanity of the slave trade by showing how Africans were crammed below decks.

This drawing of the Liverpool slave ship Brooks was commissioned by abolitionists to depict the inhumanity of the slave trade by showing how Africans were crammed below decks.

(CNN) Much of what we know about the horrors of slavery in the Americas comes from historical records. But new research shows that evidence of the slave trade’s atrocities can also be found in the DNA of African Americans.

A study conducted by the consumer genetics company 23andMe, published Thursday in theAmerican Journal of Human Genetics, offers some new insight into the consequences of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, from the scale at which enslaved Black women were raped by their White masters to the less-documented slave trade that occurred within the Americas.

It’s one of the largest studies of its kind, thanks in part to the massive database of 23andMe customers that researchers were able to recruit consenting participants from.

The authors compiled genetic data from more than 50,000 people from the Americas, Western Europe and Atlantic Africa, and compared it against the historical records of where enslaved people were taken from and where they were enslaved. Together, the data and records tell a story about the complicated roots of the African diaspora in the Americas.

For the most part, the DNA was consistent with what the documents show. But, the study authors said, there were some notable differences.

Here’s some of what they found, and what it reveals about the history of slavery.

It shows the legacy of rape against enslaved women

The enslaved workers who were taken from Africa and brought to the Americas were disproportionately male. Yet, genetic data shows that enslaved women contributed to gene pools at a higher rate.

In the US and parts of the Caribbean colonized by the British, African women contributed to the gene pool about 1.5 to 2 times more than African men. In Latin America, that rate was even higher. Enslaved women contributed to the gene pool in Central America, the Latin Caribbean and parts of South America about 13 to 17 times more.

To the extent that people of African descent in the Americas had European ancestry, they were more likely to have White fathers in their lineage than White mothers in all regions except the Latin Caribbean and Central America.

What that suggests: The biases in the gene pool toward enslaved African women and European men signals generations of rape and sexual exploitation against enslaved women at the hands of White owners, authors Steven Micheletti and Joanna Mountain wrote in an email to CNN.

That enslaved Black women were often raped by their masters “is not a surprise” to any Black person living in the US, says Ravi Perry, a political science professor at Howard University. Numerous historical accounts confirm this reality, as the study’s authors note.

But the regional differences between the US and Latin America are what’s striking.

The US and other former British colonies generally forced enslaved people to have children in order to maintain workforces — which could explain why the children of an enslaved woman were more likely to have an enslaved father. Segregation in the US could also be a factor, the authors theorized.

By contrast, the researchers point to the presence of racial whitening policies in several Latin American countries, which brought in European immigrants with the aim of diluting the African race. Such policies, as well as higher mortality rates of enslaved men, could explain the disproportionate contributions to the gene pool by enslaved women, the authors wrote.

It sheds light on the intra-American slave trade

Far more people in the US and Latin America have Nigerian ancestry than expected, given what historical records show about the enslaved people that embarked from ports along present-day Nigeria into the Americas, according to the study.

What that suggests: This is most likely a reflection of the intercolonial slave trade that occurred largely from the British Caribbean to other parts of the Americas between 1619 and 1807, Micheletti and Mountain wrote.

Once enslaved Africans arrived in the Americas, many were put on new ships and transported to other regions.”

Documented intra-American voyages indicate that the vast majority of enslaved people were transported from the British Caribbean to other parts of the Americas, presumably to maintain the slave economy as transatlantic slave trading was increasingly prohibited,” the authors wrote in the study.

When enslaved people from Nigeria who came into the British Caribbean were traded into other areas, their ancestry spread to regions that didn’t directly trade with that part of Africa.

It shows the dire conditions enslaved people faced

Conversely, ancestry from the region of Senegal and the Gambia is underrepresented given the proportion of enslaved people who embarked from there, Micheletti and Mountain said.

The reasons for that are grim.

What that suggests: One possible explanation the authors gave for the low prevalence of Senegambian ancestry is that over time, more and more children from the region were forced onto ships to make the journey to the Americas.

The unsanitary conditions in the holds of the ship led to malnourishment and illness, the authors wrote, meaning that less of them survived.

Another possibility is the dangerous conditions that enslaved people from the region faced once they arrived. A significant proportion of Senegambians were taken to rice plantations in the US, which were often rampant with malaria, Micheletti and Mountain said.

The study has limitations

The 23andMe study is significant in how it juxtaposes genetic data with historical records, as well as in the size of its dataset, experts who weren’t involved in the study told CNN.

“I’m not aware of anyone that has done such a comprehensive job of putting these things together, by a long shot,” said Simon Gravel, a human genetics professor at McGill University. “It’s really big progress.”

Still, he said, the research has its limitations.

In order to conduct their analysis, the scientists had to make “a lot of simplifications,” Gravel said. The researchers broke down African ancestry into four corresponding regions on the continent’s Atlantic Coast: Nigerian, Senegambian, Coastal West African and Congolese.”

That doesn’t tell you the whole story,” Gravel added, though he said more data is needed in the broader field of genomics for the researchers to drill down deeper.

Jada Benn Torres, a genetic anthropologist at Vanderbilt University, also said she would have liked to see a higher proportion of people from Africa included in the study. Out of the more than 50,000 participants, about 2,000 were from Africa. “

From the perspective of human evolutionary genetics, Africa is the most genetic diverse continent,” she wrote in an email to CNN. “In order to adequate capture existing variation, the sample sizes must be large.”

But both Gravel and Benn Torres called the study an exciting start that offers more information about the descendents of enslaved Africans.

And that, the researchers, said was what they set out to do.”

We hope this paper helps people in the Americas of African descent further understand where their ancestors came from and what they overcame,” Micheletti wrote.

“… To me, this is the point, to make a personal connection with the millions of people whose ancestors were forced from Africa into the Americas and to not forget what their ancestors had to endure.”

Higher-class individuals are worse at reading emotions and assuming the perspectives of others, study finds (PsyPost)

Eric W. Dolan – September 4, 2020

New research provides evidence that people from higher social classes are worse at understanding the minds of others compared to those from lower social classes. The study has been published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“My co-author and I set out to examine a question that we deemed important given the trend of rising economic inequality in American society today: How does access to resources (e.g., money, education) influence the way we process information about other human beings?” said study author Pia Dietze, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Irvine.

“We tried to answer this question by examining two essential components within the human repertoire to understand each other’s minds: the way in which we read emotional states from other people’s faces and how inclined we are to take the visual perspective of another person.”

For their study, the researchers recruited 300 U.S. individuals from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform and another 452 U.S. individuals from the Prolific Academic platform. The participants completed a test of cognitive empathy called the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, which assesses the ability to recognize or infer someone else’s state of mind from looking only at their eyes and surrounding areas.

The researchers also had 138 undergraduates at New York University complete a test of visual perspective-taking known as the Director Task, in which they were required to move objects on a computer screen based on the perspective of a virtual avatar.

The researchers found that lower-class people tended to perform better on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test and Director Task than their higher-class counterparts.

“We find that individuals from lower social class backgrounds are better at identifying emotions from other people’s faces and are more likely to spontaneously take another person’s visual perspective. This is in line with a large body of work documenting a tendency for lower-class people to be more socially attuned to others. In addition, our research shows that this can happen at a very basic level; within seconds or milliseconds of encountering a new face or person,” Dietze told PsyPost.

But like all research, the new study includes some limitations.

“This research is based on correlational data. As such, we need to see this research as part of a larger body work to answer the question of causality. However, the insights gained from our study allows us to speculate about how and why we think these tendencies develop,” Dietze explained.

“We theorize that social class can influence social information processing (i.e., the processing of information about other people) at such a basic level because social classes can be conceptualized as a form of culture. As such, social class cultures (like other forms of culture, for example, national cultures), have a pervasive psychological influence that impact many aspects of life, at times even at spontaneous levels.”

The study, “Social Class Predicts Emotion Perception and Perspective-Taking Performance in Adults“, was authored by Pia Dietze and Eric D. Knowles.

Study suggests religious belief does not conflict with interest in science, except among Americans (PsyPost)

Beth Ellwood – August 31, 2020

A new study suggests that the conflict between science and religion is not universal but instead depends on the historical and cultural context of a given country. The findings were published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

It is widely believed that religion and science are incompatible, with each belief system involving contradictory understandings of the world. However, as study author Jonathan McPhetres and his team point out, the majority of research on this topic has been conducted in the United States.

“One of my main areas of research is trying to improve trust in science and finding ways to better communicate science. In order to do so, we must begin to understand who is more likely to be skeptical towards science (and why),” McPhetres, an assistant professor of psychology at Durham University, told PsyPost.

In addition, “there’s a contradiction between scientific information and many traditional religious teachings; the conflict between science and religion also seems more pronounced in some areas and for some people (conservative/evangelical Christians). So, I have partly been motivated to see exactly how true this intuition is.”

First, nine initial studies that involved a total of 2,160 Americans found that subjects who scored higher in religiosity showed more negative implicit and explicit attitudes about science. Those high in religiosity also showed less interest in science-related activities and a decreased interest in reading or learning about science.

“It’s important to understand that these results don’t show that religious people hate or dislike science. Instead, they are simply less interested when compared to a person who is less religious,” McPhetres said.

Next, the researchers analyzed data from the World Values Survey (WEVs) involving 66,438 subjects from 60 different countries. This time, when examining the relationship between religious belief and interest in science, correlations were less obvious. While on average, the two concepts were negatively correlated, the strength of the relationship was small and varied by country.

Finally, the researchers collected additional data from 1,048 subjects from five countries: Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. Here, the relationship between religiosity and attitudes about science was, again, small. Furthermore, greater religiosity was actually related to greater interest in science.

Based on these findings from 11 different studies, the authors suggest that the conflict between religion and science, while apparent in the United States, may not generalize to other parts of the world, a conclusion that “severely undermines the hypothesis that science and religion are necessarily in conflict.” Given that the study employed various assessments of belief in science, including implicit attitudes toward science, interest in activities related to science, and choice of science-related topics among a list of other topics, the findings are particularly compelling.

“There are many barriers to science that need not exist. If we are to make our world a better place, we need to understand why some people may reject science and scientists so that we can overcome that skepticism. Everyone can contribute to this goal by talking about science and sharing cool scientific discoveries and information with people every chance you get,” McPhetres said.

The study, “Religious Americans Have Less Positive Attitudes Toward Science, but This Does Not Extend to Other Cultures”, was authored by Jonathon McPhetres, Jonathan Jong, and Miron Zuckerman.

A Supercomputer Analyzed Covid-19 — and an Interesting New Theory Has Emerged (Medium/Elemental)

A closer look at the Bradykinin hypothesis

Thomas Smith, Sept 1, 2020

Original article

3d rendering of multiple coronavirus.
Photo: zhangshuang/Getty Images

Earlier this summer, the Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee set about crunching data on more than 40,000 genes from 17,000 genetic samples in an effort to better understand Covid-19. Summit is the second-fastest computer in the world, but the process — which involved analyzing 2.5 billion genetic combinations — still took more than a week.

When Summit was done, researchers analyzed the results. It was, in the words of Dr. Daniel Jacobson, lead researcher and chief scientist for computational systems biology at Oak Ridge, a “eureka moment.” The computer had revealed a new theory about how Covid-19 impacts the body: the bradykinin hypothesis. The hypothesis provides a model that explains many aspects of Covid-19, including some of its most bizarre symptoms. It also suggests 10-plus potential treatments, many of which are already FDA approved. Jacobson’s group published their results in a paper in the journal eLife in early July.

According to the team’s findings, a Covid-19 infection generally begins when the virus enters the body through ACE2 receptors in the nose, (The receptors, which the virus is known to target, are abundant there.) The virus then proceeds through the body, entering cells in other places where ACE2 is also present: the intestines, kidneys, and heart. This likely accounts for at least some of the disease’s cardiac and GI symptoms.

But once Covid-19 has established itself in the body, things start to get really interesting. According to Jacobson’s group, the data Summit analyzed shows that Covid-19 isn’t content to simply infect cells that already express lots of ACE2 receptors. Instead, it actively hijacks the body’s own systems, tricking it into upregulating ACE2 receptors in places where they’re usually expressed at low or medium levels, including the lungs.

In this sense, Covid-19 is like a burglar who slips in your unlocked second-floor window and starts to ransack your house. Once inside, though, they don’t just take your stuff — they also throw open all your doors and windows so their accomplices can rush in and help pillage more efficiently.

The renin–angiotensin system (RAS) controls many aspects of the circulatory system, including the body’s levels of a chemical called bradykinin, which normally helps to regulate blood pressure. According to the team’s analysis, when the virus tweaks the RAS, it causes the body’s mechanisms for regulating bradykinin to go haywire. Bradykinin receptors are resensitized, and the body also stops effectively breaking down bradykinin. (ACE normally degrades bradykinin, but when the virus downregulates it, it can’t do this as effectively.)

The end result, the researchers say, is to release a bradykinin storm — a massive, runaway buildup of bradykinin in the body. According to the bradykinin hypothesis, it’s this storm that is ultimately responsible for many of Covid-19’s deadly effects. Jacobson’s team says in their paper that “the pathology of Covid-19 is likely the result of Bradykinin Storms rather than cytokine storms,” which had been previously identified in Covid-19 patients, but that “the two may be intricately linked.” Other papers had previously identified bradykinin storms as a possible cause of Covid-19’s pathologies.

Covid-19 is like a burglar who slips in your unlocked second-floor window and starts to ransack your house.

As bradykinin builds up in the body, it dramatically increases vascular permeability. In short, it makes your blood vessels leaky. This aligns with recent clinical data, which increasingly views Covid-19 primarily as a vascular disease, rather than a respiratory one. But Covid-19 still has a massive effect on the lungs. As blood vessels start to leak due to a bradykinin storm, the researchers say, the lungs can fill with fluid. Immune cells also leak out into the lungs, Jacobson’s team found, causing inflammation.

And Covid-19 has another especially insidious trick. Through another pathway, the team’s data shows, it increases production of hyaluronic acid (HLA) in the lungs. HLA is often used in soaps and lotions for its ability to absorb more than 1,000 times its weight in fluid. When it combines with fluid leaking into the lungs, the results are disastrous: It forms a hydrogel, which can fill the lungs in some patients. According to Jacobson, once this happens, “it’s like trying to breathe through Jell-O.”

This may explain why ventilators have proven less effective in treating advanced Covid-19 than doctors originally expected, based on experiences with other viruses. “It reaches a point where regardless of how much oxygen you pump in, it doesn’t matter, because the alveoli in the lungs are filled with this hydrogel,” Jacobson says. “The lungs become like a water balloon.” Patients can suffocate even while receiving full breathing support.

The bradykinin hypothesis also extends to many of Covid-19’s effects on the heart. About one in five hospitalized Covid-19 patients have damage to their hearts, even if they never had cardiac issues before. Some of this is likely due to the virus infecting the heart directly through its ACE2 receptors. But the RAS also controls aspects of cardiac contractions and blood pressure. According to the researchers, bradykinin storms could create arrhythmias and low blood pressure, which are often seen in Covid-19 patients.

The bradykinin hypothesis also accounts for Covid-19’s neurological effects, which are some of the most surprising and concerning elements of the disease. These symptoms (which include dizziness, seizures, delirium, and stroke) are present in as many as half of hospitalized Covid-19 patients. According to Jacobson and his team, MRI studies in France revealed that many Covid-19 patients have evidence of leaky blood vessels in their brains.

Bradykinin — especially at high doses — can also lead to a breakdown of the blood-brain barrier. Under normal circumstances, this barrier acts as a filter between your brain and the rest of your circulatory system. It lets in the nutrients and small molecules that the brain needs to function, while keeping out toxins and pathogens and keeping the brain’s internal environment tightly regulated.

If bradykinin storms cause the blood-brain barrier to break down, this could allow harmful cells and compounds into the brain, leading to inflammation, potential brain damage, and many of the neurological symptoms Covid-19 patients experience. Jacobson told me, “It is a reasonable hypothesis that many of the neurological symptoms in Covid-19 could be due to an excess of bradykinin. It has been reported that bradykinin would indeed be likely to increase the permeability of the blood-brain barrier. In addition, similar neurological symptoms have been observed in other diseases that result from an excess of bradykinin.”

Increased bradykinin levels could also account for other common Covid-19 symptoms. ACE inhibitors — a class of drugs used to treat high blood pressure — have a similar effect on the RAS system as Covid-19, increasing bradykinin levels. In fact, Jacobson and his team note in their paper that “the virus… acts pharmacologically as an ACE inhibitor” — almost directly mirroring the actions of these drugs.

By acting like a natural ACE inhibitor, Covid-19 may be causing the same effects that hypertensive patients sometimes get when they take blood pressure–lowering drugs. ACE inhibitors are known to cause a dry cough and fatigue, two textbook symptoms of Covid-19. And they can potentially increase blood potassium levels, which has also been observed in Covid-19 patients. The similarities between ACE inhibitor side effects and Covid-19 symptoms strengthen the bradykinin hypothesis, the researchers say.

ACE inhibitors are also known to cause a loss of taste and smell. Jacobson stresses, though, that this symptom is more likely due to the virus “affecting the cells surrounding olfactory nerve cells” than the direct effects of bradykinin.

Though still an emerging theory, the bradykinin hypothesis explains several other of Covid-19’s seemingly bizarre symptoms. Jacobson and his team speculate that leaky vasculature caused by bradykinin storms could be responsible for “Covid toes,” a condition involving swollen, bruised toes that some Covid-19 patients experience. Bradykinin can also mess with the thyroid gland, which could produce the thyroid symptoms recently observed in some patients.

The bradykinin hypothesis could also explain some of the broader demographic patterns of the disease’s spread. The researchers note that some aspects of the RAS system are sex-linked, with proteins for several receptors (such as one called TMSB4X) located on the X chromosome. This means that “women… would have twice the levels of this protein than men,” a result borne out by the researchers’ data. In their paper, Jacobson’s team concludes that this “could explain the lower incidence of Covid-19 induced mortality in women.” A genetic quirk of the RAS could be giving women extra protection against the disease.

The bradykinin hypothesis provides a model that “contributes to a better understanding of Covid-19” and “adds novelty to the existing literature,” according to scientists Frank van de Veerdonk, Jos WM van der Meer, and Roger Little, who peer-reviewed the team’s paper. It predicts nearly all the disease’s symptoms, even ones (like bruises on the toes) that at first appear random, and further suggests new treatments for the disease.

As Jacobson and team point out, several drugs target aspects of the RAS and are already FDA approved to treat other conditions. They could arguably be applied to treating Covid-19 as well. Several, like danazol, stanozolol, and ecallantide, reduce bradykinin production and could potentially stop a deadly bradykinin storm. Others, like icatibant, reduce bradykinin signaling and could blunt its effects once it’s already in the body.

Interestingly, Jacobson’s team also suggests vitamin D as a potentially useful Covid-19 drug. The vitamin is involved in the RAS system and could prove helpful by reducing levels of another compound, known as REN. Again, this could stop potentially deadly bradykinin storms from forming. The researchers note that vitamin D has already been shown to help those with Covid-19. The vitamin is readily available over the counter, and around 20% of the population is deficient. If indeed the vitamin proves effective at reducing the severity of bradykinin storms, it could be an easy, relatively safe way to reduce the severity of the virus.

Other compounds could treat symptoms associated with bradykinin storms. Hymecromone, for example, could reduce hyaluronic acid levels, potentially stopping deadly hydrogels from forming in the lungs. And timbetasin could mimic the mechanism that the researchers believe protects women from more severe Covid-19 infections. All of these potential treatments are speculative, of course, and would need to be studied in a rigorous, controlled environment before their effectiveness could be determined and they could be used more broadly.

Covid-19 stands out for both the scale of its global impact and the apparent randomness of its many symptoms. Physicians have struggled to understand the disease and come up with a unified theory for how it works. Though as of yet unproven, the bradykinin hypothesis provides such a theory. And like all good hypotheses, it also provides specific, testable predictions — in this case, actual drugs that could provide relief to real patients.

The researchers are quick to point out that “the testing of any of these pharmaceutical interventions should be done in well-designed clinical trials.” As to the next step in the process, Jacobson is clear: “We have to get this message out.” His team’s finding won’t cure Covid-19. But if the treatments it points to pan out in the clinic, interventions guided by the bradykinin hypothesis could greatly reduce patients’ suffering — and potentially save lives.

Exponential growth bias: The numerical error behind Covid-19 (BBC/Future)

A basic mathematical calculation error has fuelled the spread of coronavirus (Credit: Reuters)

Original article

By David Robson – 12th August 2020

A simple mathematical mistake may explain why many people underestimate the dangers of coronavirus, shunning social distancing, masks and hand-washing.

Imagine you are offered a deal with your bank, where your money doubles every three days. If you invest just $1 today, roughly how long will it take for you to become a millionaire?

Would it be a year? Six months? 100 days?

The precise answer is 60 days from your initial investment, when your balance would be exactly $1,048,576. Within a further 30 days, you’d have earnt more than a billion. And by the end of the year, you’d have more than $1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 – an “undecillion” dollars.

If your estimates were way out, you are not alone. Many people consistently underestimate how fast the value increases – a mistake known as the “exponential growth bias” – and while it may seem abstract, it may have had profound consequences for people’s behaviour this year.

A spate of studies has shown that people who are susceptible to the exponential growth bias are less concerned about Covid-19’s spread, and less likely to endorse measures like social distancing, hand washing or mask wearing. In other words, this simple mathematical error could be costing lives – meaning that the correction of the bias should be a priority as we attempt to flatten curves and avoid second waves of the pandemic around the world.

To understand the origins of this particular bias, we first need to consider different kinds of growth. The most familiar is “linear”. If your garden produces three apples every day, you have six after two days, nine after three days, and so on.

Exponential growth, by contrast, accelerates over time. Perhaps the simplest example is population growth; the more people you have reproducing, the faster the population grows. Or if you have a weed in your pond that triples each day, the number of plants may start out low – just three on day two, and nine on day three – but it soon escalates (see diagram, below).

Many people assume that coronavirus spreads in a linear fashion, but unchecked it's exponential (Credit: Nigel Hawtin)

Many people assume that coronavirus spreads in a linear fashion, but unchecked it’s exponential (Credit: Nigel Hawtin)

Our tendency to overlook exponential growth has been known for millennia. According to an Indian legend, the brahmin Sissa ibn Dahir was offered a prize for inventing an early version of chess. He asked for one grain of wheat to be placed on the first square on the board, two for the second square, four for the third square, doubling each time up to the 64th square. The king apparently laughed at the humility of ibn Dahir’s request – until his treasurers reported that it would outstrip all the food in the land (18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains in total).

It was only in the late 2000s that scientists started to study the bias formally, with research showing that most people – like Sissa ibn Dahir’s king – intuitively assume that most growth is linear, leading them to vastly underestimate the speed of exponential increase.

These initial studies were primarily concerned with the consequences for our bank balance. Most savings accounts offer compound interest, for example, where you accrue additional interest on the interest you have already earned. This is a classic example of exponential growth, and it means that even low interest rates pay off handsomely over time. If you have a 5% interest rate, then £1,000 invested today will be worth £1,050 next year, and £1,102.50 the year after… which adds up to more than £7,000 in 40 years’ time. Yet most people don’t recognise how much more bang for their buck they will receive if they start investing early, so they leave themselves short for their retirement.

If the number of grains on a chess board doubled for each square, the 64th would 'hold' 18 quintillion (Credit: Getty Images)

If the number of grains on a chess board doubled for each square, the 64th would ‘hold’ 18 quintillion (Credit: Getty Images)

Besides reducing their savings, the bias also renders people more vulnerable to unfavourable loans, where debt escalates over time. According to one study from 2008, the bias increases someone’s debt-to-income ratio from an average of 23% to an average of 54%.

Surprisingly, a higher level of education does not prevent people from making these errors. Even mathematically trained science students can be vulnerable, says Daniela Sele, who researchs economic decision making at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. “It does help somewhat, but it doesn’t preclude the bias,” she says.

This may be because they are relying on their intuition rather than deliberative thinking, so that even if they have learned about things like compound interest, they forget to apply them. To make matters worse, most people will confidently report understanding exponential growth but then still fall for the bias when asked to estimate things like compound interest.

As I explored in my book The Intelligence Trap, intelligent and educated people often have a “bias blind spot”, believing themselves to be less susceptible to error than others – and the exponential growth bias appears to fall dead in its centre.

Most people will confidently report understanding exponential growth but then still fall for the bias

It was only this year – at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – that researchers began to consider whether the bias might also influence our understanding of infectious diseases.

According to various epidemiological studies, without intervention the number of new Covid-19 cases doubles every three to four days, which was the reason that so many scientists advised rapid lockdowns to prevent the pandemic from spiralling out of control.

In March, Joris Lammers at the University of Bremen in Germany joined forces with Jan Crusius and Anne Gast at the University of Cologne to roll out online surveys questioning people about the potential spread of the disease. Their results showed that the exponential growth bias was prevalent in people’s understanding of the virus’s spread, with most people vastly underestimating the rate of increase. More importantly, the team found that those beliefs were directly linked to the participants’ views on the best ways to contain the spread. The worse their estimates, the less likely they were to understand the need for social distancing: the exponential growth bias had made them complacent about the official advice.

The charts that politicians show often fail to communicate exponential growth effectively (Credit: Reuters)

The charts that politicians show often fail to communicate exponential growth effectively (Credit: Reuters)

This chimes with other findings by Ritwik Banerjee and Priyama Majumda at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, and Joydeep Bhattacharya at Iowa State University. In their study (currently under peer-review), they found susceptibility to the exponential growth bias can predict reduced compliance with the World Health Organization’s recommendations – including mask wearing, handwashing, the use of sanitisers and self-isolation.

The researchers speculate that some of the graphical representations found in the media may have been counter-productive. It’s common for the number of infections to be presented on a “logarithmic scale”, in which the figures on the y-axis increase by a power of 10 (so the gap between 1 and 10 is the same as the gap between 10 and 100, or 100 and 1000).

While this makes it easier to plot different regions with low and high growth rates, it means that exponential growth looks more linear than it really is, which could reinforce the exponential growth bias. “To expect people to use the logarithmic scale to extrapolate the growth path of a disease is to demand a very high level of cognitive ability,” the authors told me in an email. In their view, simple numerical tables may actually be more powerful.

Even a small effort to correct this bias could bring huge benefits

The good news is that people’s views are malleable. When Lammers and colleagues reminded the participants of the exponential growth bias, and asked them to calculate the growth in regular steps over a two week period, people hugely improved their estimates of the disease’s spread – and this, in turn, changed their views on social distancing. Sele, meanwhile, has recently shown that small changes in framing can matter. Emphasising the short amount of time that it will take to reach a large number of cases, for instance – and the time that would be gained by social distancing measures – improves people’s understanding of accelerating growth, rather than simply stating the percentage increase each day.

Lammers believes that the exponential nature of the virus needs to be made more salient in coverage of the pandemic. “I think this study shows how media and government should report on a pandemic in such a situation. Not only report the numbers of today and growth over the past week, but also explain what will happen in the next days, week, month, if the same accelerating growth persists,” he says.

He is confident that even a small effort to correct this bias could bring huge benefits. In the US, where the pandemic has hit hardest, it took only a few months for the virus to infect more than five million people, he says. “If we could have overcome the exponential growth bias and had convinced all Americans of this risk back in March, I am sure 99% would have embraced all possible distancing measures.”

David Robson is the author of The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things (WW Norton/Hodder & Stoughton), which examines the psychology of irrational thinking and the best ways to make wiser decisions.

Eduardo Góes Neves: ‘O Brasil não tem ideia do que é a Amazônia’ (Gama)

Fabrizio Lenci

A mentalidade colonial, o racismo ambiental e a política são os maiores desafios da floresta. A análise é do arqueólogo Eduardo Góes Neves

Isabelle Moreira Lima – 30 de Agosto de 2020

A Amazônia é uma incompreendida. É regida por uma mentalidade colonial, com decisões tomadas de fora para dentro. E é justamente por isso que sua preservação é um imenso desafio. A análise é do arqueólogo Eduardo Góes Neves, que pesquisa a Amazônia há 30 anos. Professor Titular de Arqueologia Brasileira do Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia da Universidade de São Paulo, onde é vice-diretor, ele mantém a pesquisa de campo em estados como Rondônia e Acre pelo menos três meses por ano.

Para continuar a leitura acesse o conteúdo completo, disponível no link: https://gamarevista.com.br/semana/o-que-sera-da-amazonia/entrevista-eduardo-goes-neves-floresta-amazonica

Love the Fig (The New Yorker)

newyorker.com

Ben Crair, August 10, 2020

The produce section of the grocery store is a botanical disaster. Most people know that a tomato is technically a fruit, but so is an eggplant, a cucumber, and a spaghetti squash. A banana, which grows from a flower with a single ovary, is actually a berry, while a strawberry, which grows from a flower with several ovaries, isn’t a berry at all but an aggregate fruit. The most confusing classification, though, will start showing up on American shelves this month. Shoppers will find mission figs with the grapes, kiwis, and other fruit, but a clever botanist would sell them at the florist, with the fresh-cut roses. Although many people dismiss figs as a geriatric delicacy or the sticky stuff inside bad cookies, they are, in fact, something awesome: enclosed flowers that bloom modestly inward, unlike the flamboyant showoffs on other plants. Bite a fig in half and you’ll discover a core of tiny blossoms.

All kinds of critters, not only humans, frequent fig trees, but the plants owe their existence to what may be evolution’s most intimate partnership between two species. Because a fig is actually a ball of flowers, it requires pollination to reproduce, but, because the flowers are sealed, not just any bug can crawl inside.* That task belongs to a minuscule insect known as the fig wasp, whose life cycle is intertwined with the fig’s. Mother wasps lay their eggs in an unripe fig. After their offspring hatch and mature, the males mate and then chew a tunnel to the surface, dying when their task is complete. The females follow and take flight, riding the winds until they smell another fig tree. (One species of wasp, in Africa, travels ten times farther than any other known pollinator.) When the insects discover the right specimen, they go inside and deposit the pollen from their birthplace. Then the females lay new eggs, and the cycle begins again. For the wasp mother, however, devotion to the fig plant soon turns tragic. A fig’s entranceway is booby-trapped to destroy her wings, so that she can never visit another plant. When you eat a dried fig, you’re probably chewing fig-wasp mummies, too.

The fig and the fig wasp are a superlative example of what biologists call codependent evolution. The plants and insects have been growing old together for more than sixty million years. Almost every species of fig plant—more than seven hundred and fifty in total—has its own species of wasp, although some commercial fig production favors varieties that do not require pollination. (They are grown from cuttings and produce fruit without any seeds.) But codependence hasn’t made the fig and the fig wasp weak, like it can with humans. The figs and fig wasps’ pollination system is extremely efficient compared with that of other plants, some of which just trust the wind to blow their pollen where it needs to go. And the figs’ specialized flowers, far from isolating them in an evolutionary niche, have allowed them to radiate throughout the natural world. Fig plants can be shrubs, vines, or trees. Strangler figs sprout in the branches of another tree, drop their roots to the forest floor, and slowly envelop their host. The branches of a large strangler fig can stretch over acres and produce a million figs in one flowering. Figs themselves can be brown, red, white, orange, yellow, or green. (Wild figs are not as sweet as the plump and purple mission figs you buy at the farmers’ market.) And their seeds sprout where other plants’ would flounder: rooftops, cliff sides, volcanic islands. The fig genus, Ficus, is the most varied one in the tropics. It also routinely shows up in the greenhouse and the garden.

The variety and adaptability of fig plants make them a favorite foodstuff among animals. In 2001, a team of researchers published a review of the scientific literature and found records of fig consumption for nearly thirteen hundred bird and mammal species. One of the researchers, Mike Shanahan—a rain-forest ecologist and the author of a forthcoming book about figs, “Gods, Wasps, and Stranglers”—had spent time studying Malaysian fig trees as a Ph.D. candidate, in 1997. He would sometimes lie beneath a huge strangler fig and record its visitors, returning repeatedly for several days. “I would typically see twenty-five to thirty different species,” Shanahan told me. “The animals would include lots of different squirrel species and some curious creatures called tree shrews. There would be some monkeys and a whole range of different bird species, from tiny little flowerpeckers up to the hornbills, which are the biggest fruit-eating birds in Asia.” There were also pigeons, fruit doves, fairy bluebirds, barbets, and parrots. As the biologist Daniel Janzen put it in “How to Be a Fig,” an article from 1979, “Who eats figs? Everybody.”

With good reason, too. Figs are high in calcium, easy to chew and digest, and, unlike plants that fruit seasonally, can be found year-round. This is the fig plant’s accommodation of the fig wasp. A fig wasp departs a ripe fig to find an unripe fig, which means that there must always be figs at different stages. As a result, an animal can usually fall back on a fig when a mango or a lychee is not in season. Sometimes figs are the only things between an animal and starvation. According to a 2003 study of Uganda’s Budongo Forest, for instance, figs are the sole source of fruit for chimpanzees at certain times of year. Our pre-human ancestors probably filled up on figs, too. The plants are what is known as a keystone species: yank them from the jungle and the whole ecosystem would collapse.

Figs’ popularity means they can play a central role in bringing deforested land back to life. The plants grow quickly in inhospitable places and, thanks to the endurance of the fig wasps, can survive at low densities. And the animals they attract will, to put it politely, deposit nearby the seeds of other fruits they’ve eaten, thereby introducing a healthy variety of new plants. Nigel Tucker, a restoration ecologist in Australia, has recommended that ten per cent of new plants in tropical-reforestation projects be fig seedlings. Rhett Harrison, a former fig biologist, told me that the ratio could be even higher. “My inclination is that we should be going to some of these places and just planting a few figs,” he said.

Fig trees are also sometimes the only trees left standing from former forests. In parts of India, for instance, they are considered holy, and farmers are reluctant to chop them down. “Diverse cultures developed taboos against felling fig trees,” Shanahan told me. “They said they were homes to gods and spirits, and made them places of prayer and symbols of their society.” You can’t really taste the fig’s spiritual aura in a Fig Newton, but it shines in the mythologies of world religions. Buddha found enlightenment under a fig tree, and the Egyptian pharaohs built wooden sarcophagi from Ficus sycomorus. An apple tree might have cost Adam and Eve their innocence, but a fig tree, whose leaves they used to cover their nudity, gave them back some dignity. If only they had preferred figs in the first place, we might all still live in Eden.

*This article has been revised to clarify the fact that not all fig plants require pollination to produce edible fruit.

Natural disasters must be unusual or deadly to prompt local climate policy change (Science Daily)

Date: August 28, 2020

Source: Oregon State University

Summary: Natural disasters alone are not enough to motivate local communities to engage in climate change mitigation or adaptation, a new study has found. Rather, policy change in response to extreme weather events appears to depend on a combination of factors, including fatalities, sustained media coverage, the unusualness of the event and the political makeup of the community.

Natural disasters alone are not enough to motivate local communities to engage in climate change mitigation or adaptation, a new study from Oregon State University found.

Rather, policy change in response to extreme weather events appears to depend on a combination of factors, including fatalities, sustained media coverage, the unusualness of the event and the political makeup of the community.

Climate scientists predict that the frequency and severity of extreme weather events will only continue to increase in coming decades. OSU researchers wanted to understand how local communities are reacting.

“There’s obviously national and state-level climate change policy, but we’re really interested in what goes on at the local level to adapt to these changes,” said lead author Leanne Giordono, a post-doctoral researcher in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “Local communities are typically the first to respond to extreme events and disasters. How are they making themselves more resilient — for example, how are they adapting to more frequent flooding or intense heat?”

For the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, Giordono and co-authors Hilary Boudet of OSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Alexander Gard-Murray at Harvard University examined 15 extreme weather events that occurred around the U.S. between March 2012 and June 2017, and any subsequent local climate policy change.

These events included flooding, winter weather, extreme heat, tornadoes, wildfires and a landslide.

The study, published recently in the journal Policy Sciences, found there were two “recipes” for local policy change after an extreme weather event.

“For both recipes, experiencing a high-impact event — one with many deaths or a presidential disaster declaration — is a necessary condition for future-oriented policy adoption,” Giordono said.

In addition to a high death toll, the first recipe consisted of Democrat-leaning communities where there was focused media coverage of the weather event. These communities moved forward with adopting policies aimed at adapting in response to future climate change, such as building emergency preparedness and risk management capacity.

The second recipe consisted of Republican-leaning communities with past experiences of other uncommon weather events. In these locales, residents often didn’t engage directly in conversation about climate change but still worked on policies meant to prepare their communities for future disasters.

In both recipes, policy changes were fairly modest and reactive, such as building fire breaks, levees or community tornado shelters. Giordono referred to these as “instrumental” policy changes.

“As opposed to being driven by ideology or a shift in thought process, it’s more a means to an end,” she said. “‘We don’t want anyone else to die from tornadoes, so we build a shelter.’ It’s not typically a systemic response to global climate change.”

In their sample, the researchers didn’t find any evidence of mitigation-focused policy response, such as communities passing laws to limit carbon emissions or require a shift to solar power. And some communities did not make any policy changes at all in the wake of extreme weather.

The researchers suggest that in communities that are ideologically resistant to talking about climate change, it may be more effective to frame these policy conversations in other ways, such as people’s commitment to their community or the community’s long-term viability.

Without specifically examining communities that have not experienced extreme weather events, the researchers cannot speak to the status of their policy change, but Giordono said it is a question for future study.

“In some ways, it’s not surprising that you see communities that have these really devastating events responding to them,” Giordono said. “What about the vast majority of communities that don’t experience a high-impact event — is there a way to also spark interest in those communities?”

“We don’t want people to have to experience these types of disasters to make changes.”


Story Source:

Materials provided by Oregon State University. Original written by Molly Rosbach. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Leanne Giordono, Hilary Boudet, Alexander Gard-Murray. Local adaptation policy responses to extreme weather events. Policy Sciences, 2020; DOI: 10.1007/s11077-020-09401-3

You’re facing a lot of choices amid the pandemic. Cut yourself slack: It’s called decision fatigue (USA Today)

Grace Hauck | USA TODAY | 08.30.2020

Is it safe to go to the grocery store? Can my kids have a play date? Will the other child wear a mask? Can I send them back to school? When my boss asks me to come back to the office, should I?

Shayla Bell lies awake at night racking her brain for answers and preparing for another day of unprecedented choices. 

“There’s all these little, small decisions all the time,” said Bell, a suburban Chicago retail professional with two kids. “I find myself being my own devil’s advocate so often to try to reach the best conclusion. And I’m tired.”

Six months since the United States declared the coronavirus pandemic a state of emergency, millions of isolated Americans are at their wits’ end, exhausted from making a seemingly endless series of health and safety decisions for themselves and their loved ones. There’s a name for this phenomenon, and researchers call it decision fatigue.

“It’s a state of low willpower that results from having invested effort into making choices,” said Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State University who coined the term in 2010. “It leads to putting less effort into making further choices, so either choices are avoided or they are made in a very superficial way.”

Like a mental gas tank, the human brain has a limited capacity of energy, and as you make decisions throughout the day, you deplete that resource. As you become fatigued, you may be inclined to avoid additional decisions, stick to the status quo or base a decision on a single criteria, Baumeister said. 

When we’re able to maintain daily routines, the brain can automate decisions and rely on heuristics – or mental shortcuts – to avoid fatigue. But the pandemic has disrupted many of our routines, forcing us to allocate more mental energy to decision-making.

The effects of decision fatigue have serious implications for people in positions of authority. Jonathan Levav, who studies behavioral decision theory at Stanford University, found that judges serving on parole boards in Israel were more likely to give favorable rulings at the very beginning of the workday or after a food break than later in a sequence of cases, after the judges had made more decisions.

“If you make a lot of decisions repeatedly, that has an effect on subsequent decisions,” Levav said. “As people make more decisions, they’re more likely to simplify whatever subsequent decisions they’re dealing with.”

Similar studies have found that people making decisions on behalf of loved ones in intensive care units or nurses working telemedicine shifts, experience decision fatigue over time, which can impair their ability to make informed decisions for the patient or provide efficient recommendations, respectively.

We’re not just making a greater number of daily decisions. We’re also making high-stakes, moral decisions, said Elizabeth Yuko, a writer and staff member at the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education.

“It’s fatigue with making decisions that have consequences we’ve never had to deal with before,” Yuko said. “These things come with such a moral weight on them, it comes with even more stress.”

For parents and guardians, in particular, the stakes are high. Erin Scarpa, a mother of two who works at a bank in New Jersey, said she temporarily relocated her family to North Carolina specifically to avoid making decisions about socializing with neighbors. Scarpa said she’s particularly concerned about reports of patients suffering lasting damage from COVID-19.

“You’re talking about decisions that could limit your child’s life forever,” Scarpa said. “That’s a whole other concept.”

Sneha Dave, a recent college graduate living with an inflammatory bowel disease and unidentified respiratory condition, said she struggled with crippling decision fatigue at the beginning of the pandemic.

“There’s been so many times where I go to the grocery store where I turn around because there are too many cars there. I spend a lot of time deciding what the right time to go to the grocery store is or whether I should go in,” she said.

Dave said she’s still grappling with a big decision – whether or not to pursue a round of treatment for her bowel disease, which would severely weaken her immune system – but she’s slowly learned how to cope with her decision fatigue.

“The chronic illness community has been able to adapt significantly better and make these decisions a little easier because these are decisions we’ve made our whole lives,” Dave said.

How statewide COVID-19 policies affect decision fatigue

Streamlined state and nationwide policies on COVID-19 have the potential to alleviate decision fatigue, some researchers said, but the notion of greater regulation carries contentious political implications.

“The more that requirements are in place, such as mask mandates, the less it’s a personal choice about what to do. And it makes it easier to make other, related decisions,” said Kathleen Vohs, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies self-control. “You don’t have to agonize about whether it’s safe to go to the grocery store when you know that others will have masks on.”

Mandates may also cause people to feel depleted if they find it difficult to comply with a policy, researchers said. Others may be making such specific, preferential decisions that statewide policies wouldn’t be enough to alleviate decision fatigue.

Sheena Iyengar, a Columbia Business School professor and author studying the psychology and economics of choice, is gathering data on how Americans feel about statewide COVID-19 policies.

Contrary to classical economic theory, Iyengar’s work has found that, in some contexts, people may prefer to have their choices limited or entirely removed. For example, people are more likely to purchase jams or chocolates – or to undertake optional class essay assignments – when offered a limited rather than extensive array of choices. Study participants reported greater satisfaction with their selections when their options had been limited.

A similar trend may be playing out when it comes to COVID-19 policies, Iyengar said. Her preliminary findings suggest that people living in states with face mask policies reported being “happier” than those in states without mask mandates. The findings may simply be driven by political preferences, Iyengar said.

“There’s a naturally occurring experiment, although that experiment falls along political lines,” she said.

Tips for avoiding decision fatigue

There are some simple strategies for avoiding decision fatigue, researchers said. Many center on general health and well-being, such as maintaining a nutritious diet, getting a full night’s sleep and exercising regularly. Others focus on timing your decisions and developing routines to cut out unnecessary choices.

“Willpower diminishes and decision fatigue increases over the course of the day, so if you have important decisions to make, make them in the morning after a full night’s sleep and a good breakfast,” Baumeister said. “Be aware this is affecting you.”

Plan out tomorrow’s schedule the day before, said Dovid Spinka, a staff clinician at the Center for Anxiety in New York City. Prep or plan your meals for the week. Lay out your clothes in the evening, or – like Steve Jobs – develop a uniform.

If you begin to fade during the day, take a short break, go for a walk or practice mindfulness or breathing exercises, Spinka said. Prioritize your decisions, and try to focus on one at a time. If you’re facing a big decision but feel drained, take a nap or grab a snack. Write down your initial thoughts, but don’t make the decision yet. Come back to it when you’re feeling refreshed, or proactively delay the decision to a set date.

Especially in highly emotional times, people who tend to suppress their emotions may be more prone to experience decision fatigue, said Grant Pignatiello, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University. It’s important to be aware of how you’re feeling and talk to others about it.

“We are all going through a collective trauma of this pandemic, so it’s important that we cut ourselves a little slack. If we need to take a nap at the end of the day, watch Netflix or go for a walk, it’s OK,” Pignatiello said.

For Bell, that means granting herself some grace.

“I feel like we’re all – even the coolest cucumbers – we’re all at a higher stress level now,” she said. “So try to have some grace for yourself and others, and understand that we’re all doing the best we think we can.”

The Biblical Flood That Will Drown California (Wired)

Tom Philpott, 08.29.20 8:00 AM

The Great Flood of 1861–1862 was a preview of what scientists expect to see again, and soon.

This story originally appeared on Mother Jones and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In November 1860, a young scientist from upstate New York named William Brewer disembarked in San Francisco after a long journey that took him from New York City through Panama and then north along the Pacific coast. “The weather is perfectly heavenly,” he enthused in a letter to his brother back east. The fast-growing metropolis was already revealing the charms we know today: “large streets, magnificent buildings” adorned by “many flowers we [northeasterners] see only in house cultivations: various kinds of geraniums growing of immense size, dew plant growing like a weed, acacia, fuchsia, etc. growing in the open air.”

Flowery prose aside, Brewer was on a serious mission. Barely a decade after being claimed as a US state, California was plunged in an economic crisis. The gold rush had gone bust, and thousands of restive settlers were left scurrying about, hot after the next ever-elusive mineral bonanza. The fledgling legislature had seen fit to hire a state geographer to gauge the mineral wealth underneath its vast and varied terrain, hoping to organize and rationalize the mad lunge for buried treasure. The potential for boosting agriculture as a hedge against mining wasn’t lost on the state’s leaders. They called on the state geographer to deliver a “full and scientific description of the state’s rocks, fossils, soils, and minerals, and its botanical and zoological productions, together with specimens of same.”

The task of completing the fieldwork fell to the 32-year-old Brewer, a Yale-trained botanist who had studied cutting-edge agricultural science in Europe. His letters home, chronicling his four-year journey up and down California, form one of the most vivid contemporary accounts of its early statehood.

They also provide a stark look at the greatest natural disaster known to have befallen the western United States since European contact in the 16th century: the Great Flood of 1861–1862. The cataclysm cut off telegraph communication with the East Coast, swamped the state’s new capital, and submerged the entire Central Valley under as much as 15 feet of water. Yet in modern-day California—a region that author Mike Davis once likened to a “Book of the Apocalypse theme park,” where this year’s wildfires have already burned 1.4 million acres, and dozens of fires are still raging—the nearly forgotten biblical-scale flood documented by Brewer’s letters has largely vanished from the public imagination, replaced largely by traumatic memories of more recent earthquakes.

When it was thought of at all, the flood was once considered a thousand-year anomaly, a freak occurrence. But emerging science demonstrates that floods of even greater magnitude occurred every 100 to 200 years in California’s precolonial history. Climate change will make them more frequent still. In other words, the Great Flood was a preview of what scientists expect to see again, and soon. And this time, given California’s emergence as agricultural and economic powerhouse, the effects will be all the more devastating.

Barely a year after Brewer’s sunny initial descent from a ship in San Francisco Bay, he was back in the city, on a break. In a November 1861 letter home, he complained of a “week of rain.” In his next letter, two months later, Brewer reported jaw-dropping news: Rain had fallen almost continuously since he had last written—and now the entire Central Valley was underwater. “Thousands of farms are entirely underwater—cattle starving and drowning.”

Picking up the letter nine days later, he wrote that a bad situation had deteriorated. All the roads in the middle of the state are “impassable, so all mails are cut off.” Telegraph service, which had only recently been connected to the East Coast through the Central Valley, stalled. “The tops of the poles are under water!” The young state’s capital city, Sacramento, about 100 miles northeast of San Francisco at the western edge of the valley and the intersection of two rivers, was submerged, forcing the legislature to evacuate—and delaying a payment Brewer needed to forge ahead with his expedition.

The surveyor gaped at the sheer volume of rain. In a normal year, Brewer reported, San Francisco received about 20 inches. In the 10 weeks leading up to January 18, 1862, the city got “thirty-two and three-quarters inches and it is still raining!”

Brewer went on to recount scenes from the Central Valley that would fit in a Hollywood disaster epic. “An old acquaintance, a buccaro [cowboy], came down from a ranch that was overflowed,” he wrote. “The floor of their one-story house was six weeks under water before the house went to pieces.” Steamboats “ran back over the ranches fourteen miles from the [Sacramento] river, carrying stock [cattle], etc., to the hills,” he reported. He marveled at the massive impromptu lake made up of “water ice cold and muddy,” in which “winds made high waves which beat the farm homes in pieces.” As a result, “every house and farm over this immense region is gone.”

Eventually, in March, Brewer made it to Sacramento, hoping (without success) to lay hands on the state funds he needed to continue his survey. He found a city still in ruins, weeks after the worst of the rains. “Such a desolate scene I hope never to see again,” he wrote: “Most of the city is still under water, and has been for three months … Every low place is full—cellars and yards are full, houses and walls wet, everything uncomfortable.” The “better class of houses” were in rough shape, Brewer observed, but “it is with the poorer classes that this is the worst.” He went on: “Many of the one-story houses are entirely uninhabitable; others, where the floors are above the water are, at best, most wretched places in which to live.” He summarized the scene:

Many houses have partially toppled over; some have been carried from their foundations, several streets (now avenues of water) are blocked up with houses that have floated in them, dead animals lie about here and there—a dreadful picture. I don’t think the city will ever rise from the shock, I don’t see how it can.

Brewer’s account is important for more than just historical interest. In the 160 years since the botanist set foot on the West Coast, California has transformed from an agricultural backwater to one of the jewels of the US food system. The state produces nearly all of the almonds, walnuts, and pistachios consumed domestically; 90 percent or more of the broccoli, carrots, garlic, celery, grapes, tangerines, plums, and artichokes; at least 75 percent of the cauliflower, apricots, lemons, strawberries, and raspberries; and more than 40 percent of the lettuce, cabbage, oranges, peaches, and peppers.

And as if that weren’t enough, California is also a national hub for milk production. Tucked in amid the almond groves and vegetable fields are vast dairy operations that confine cows together by the thousands and produce more than a fifth of the nation’s milk supply, more than any other state. It all amounts to a food-production juggernaut: California generates $46 billion worth of food per year, nearly double the haul of its closest competitor among US states, the corn-and-soybean behemoth Iowa.

You’ve probably heard that ever-more more frequent and severe droughts threaten the bounty we’ve come to rely on from California. Water scarcity, it turns out, isn’t the only menace that stalks the California valleys that stock our supermarkets. The opposite—catastrophic flooding—also occupies a niche in what Mike Davis, the great chronicler of Southern California’s sociopolitical geography, has called the state’s “ecology of fear.” Indeed, his classic book of that title opens with an account of a 1995 deluge that saw “million-dollar homes tobogganed off their hill-slope perches” and small children and pets “sucked into the deadly vortices of the flood channels.”

Yet floods tend to be less feared than rival horsemen of the apocalypse in the state’s oft-stimulated imagination of disaster. The epochal 2011–2017 drought, with its missing-in-action snowpacks and draconian water restrictions, burned itself into the state’s consciousness. Californians are rightly terrified of fires like the ones that roared through the northern Sierra Nevada foothills and coastal canyons near Los Angeles in the fall of 2018, killing nearly 100 people and fouling air for miles around, or the current LNU Lightning Complex fire that has destroyed nearly 1,000 structures and killed five people in the region between Sacramento and San Francisco. Many people are frightfully aware that a warming climate will make such conflagrations increasingly frequent. And “earthquake kits” are common gear in closets and garages all along the San Andreas Fault, where the next Big One lurks. Floods, though they occur as often in Southern and Central California as they do anywhere in the United States, don’t generate quite the same buzz.

But a growing body of research shows there’s a flip side to the megadroughts Central Valley farmers face: megafloods. The region most vulnerable to such a water-drenched cataclysm in the near future is, ironically enough, the California’s great arid, sinking food production basin, the beleaguered behemoth of the US food system: the Central Valley. Bordered on all sides by mountains, the Central Valley stretches 450 miles long, is on average 50 miles wide, and occupies a land mass of 18,000 square miles, or 11.5 million acres—roughly equivalent in size to Massachusetts and Vermont combined. Wedged between the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coast Ranges to the west, it’s one of the globe’s greatest expanses of fertile soil and temperate weather. For most Americans, it’s easy to ignore the Central Valley, even though it’s as important to eaters as Hollywood is to moviegoers or Silicon Valley is to smartphone users. Occupying less than 1 percent of US farmland, the Central Valley churns out a quarter of the nation’s food supply.

At the time of the Great Flood, the Central Valley was still mainly cattle ranches, the farming boom a ways off. Late in 1861, the state suddenly emerged from a two-decade dry spell when monster storms began lashing the West Coast from Baja California to present-day Washington state. In central California, the deluge initially took the form of 10 to 15 feet of snow dumped onto the Sierra Nevada, according to research by the UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram and laid out in her 2015 book, The West Without Water, cowritten with Frances Malamud-Roam. Ingram has emerged as a kind of Cassandra of drought and flood risks in the western United States. Soon after the blizzards came days of warm, heavy rain, which in turn melted the enormous snowpack. The resulting slurry cascaded through the Central Valley’s network of untamed rivers.

As floodwater gathered in the valley, it formed a vast, muddy, wind-roiled lake, its size “rivaling that of Lake Superior,” covering the entire Central Valley floor, from the southern slopes of the Cascade Mountains near the Oregon border to the Tehachapis, south of Bakersfield, with depths in some places exceeding 15 feet.

At least some of the region’s remnant indigenous population saw the epic flood coming and took precautions to escape devastation, Ingram reports, quoting an item in the Nevada City Democrat on January 11, 1862:

We are informed that the Indians living in the vicinity of Marysville left their abodes a week or more ago for the foothills predicting an unprecedented overflow. They told the whites that the water would be higher than it has been for thirty years, and pointed high up on the trees and houses where it would come. The valley Indians have traditions that the water occasionally rises 15 or 20 feet higher than it has been at any time since the country was settled by whites, and as they live in the open air and watch closely all the weather indications, it is not improbable that they may have better means than the whites of anticipating a great storm.

All in all, thousands of people died, “one-third of the state’s property was destroyed, and one home in eight was destroyed completely or carried away by the floodwaters.” As for farming, the 1862 megaflood transformed valley agriculture, playing a decisive role in creating today’s Anglo-dominated, crop-oriented agricultural powerhouse: a 19th-century example of the “disaster capitalism” that Naomi Klein describes in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine.

Prior to the event, valley land was still largely owned by Mexican rancheros who held titles dating to Spanish rule. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which triggered California’s transfer from Mexican to US control, gave rancheros US citizenship and obligated the new government to honor their land titles. The treaty terms met with vigorous resentment from white settlers eager to shift from gold mining to growing food for the new state’s burgeoning cities. The rancheros thrived during the gold rush, finding a booming market for beef in mining towns. By 1856, their fortunes had shifted. A severe drought that year cut production, competition from emerging US settler ranchers meant lower prices, and punishing property taxes—imposed by land-poor settler politicians—caused a further squeeze. “As a result, rancheros began to lose their herds, their land, and their homes,” writes the historian Lawrence James Jelinek.

The devastation of the 1862 flood, its effects magnified by a brutal drought that started immediately afterward and lasted through 1864, “delivered the final blow,” Jelinek writes. Between 1860 and 1870, California’s cattle herd, concentrated in the valley, plunged from 3 million to 630,000. The rancheros were forced to sell their land to white settlers at pennies per acre, and by 1870 “many rancheros had become day laborers in the towns,” Jelinek reports. The valley’s emerging class of settler farmers quickly turned to wheat and horticultural production and set about harnessing and exploiting the region’s water resources, both those gushing forth from the Sierra Nevada and those beneath their feet.

Despite all the trauma it generated and the agricultural transformation it cemented in the Central Valley, the flood quickly faded from memory in California and the broader United States. To his shocked assessment of a still-flooded and supine Sacramento months after the storm, Brewer added a prophetic coda:

No people can so stand calamity as this people. They are used to it. Everyone is familiar with the history of fortunes quickly made and as quickly lost. It seems here more than elsewhere the natural order of things. I might say, indeed, that the recklessness of the state blunts the keener feelings and takes the edge from this calamity.

Indeed, the new state’s residents ended up shaking off the cataclysm. What lesson does the Great Flood of 1862 hold for today? The question is important. Back then, just around 500,000 people lived in the entire state, and the Central Valley was a sparsely populated badland. Today, the valley has a population of 6.5 million people and boasts the state’s three fastest-growing counties. Sacramento (population 501,344), Fresno (538,330), and Bakersfield (386,839) are all budding metropolises. The state’s long-awaited high-speed train, if it’s ever completed, will place Fresno residents within an hour of Silicon Valley, driving up its appeal as a bedroom community.

In addition to the potentially vast human toll, there’s also the fact that the Central Valley has emerged as a major linchpin of the US and global food system. Could it really be submerged under fifteen feet of water again—and what would that mean?

In less than two centuries as a US state, California has maintained its reputation as a sunny paradise while also enduring the nation’s most erratic climate: the occasional massive winter storm roaring in from the Pacific; years-long droughts. But recent investigations into the fossil record show that these past years have been relatively stable.

One avenue of this research is the study of the regular megadroughts, the most recent of which occurred just a century before Europeans made landfall on the North American west coast. As we are now learning, those decades-long arid stretches were just as regularly interrupted by enormous storms—many even grander than the one that began in December 1861. (Indeed, that event itself was directly preceded and followed by serious droughts.) In other words, the same patterns that make California vulnerable to droughts also make it ripe for floods.

Beginning in the 1980s, scientists including B. Lynn Ingram began examining streams and banks in the enormous delta network that together serve as the bathtub drain through which most Central Valley runoff has flowed for millennia, reaching the ocean at the San Francisco Bay. (Now-vanished Tulare Lake gathered runoff in the southern part of the valley.) They took deep-core samples from river bottoms, because big storms that overflow the delta’s banks transfer loads of soil and silt from the Sierra Nevada and deposit a portion of it in the Delta. They also looked at fluctuations in old plant material buried in the sediment layers. Plant species that thrive in freshwater suggest wet periods, as heavy runoff from the mountains crowds out seawater. Salt-tolerant species denote dry spells, as sparse mountain runoff allows seawater to work into the delta.

What they found was stunning. The Great Flood of 1862 was no one-off black-swan event. Summarizing the science, Ingram and USGS researcher Michael Dettinger deliver the dire news: A flood comparable to—and sometimes much more intense than—the 1861–1862 catastrophe occurred sometime between 1235–1360, 1395–1410, 1555–1615, 1750–1770, and 1810–1820; “that is, one megaflood every 100 to 200 years.” They also discovered that the 1862 flood didn’t appear in the sediment record in some sites that showed evidence of multiple massive events—suggesting that it was actually smaller than many of the floods that have inundated California over the centuries.

During its time as a US food-production powerhouse, California has been known for its periodic droughts and storms. But Ingram and Dettinger’s work pulls the lens back to view the broader timescale, revealing the region’s swings between megadroughts and megastorms—ones more than severe enough to challenge concentrated food production, much less dense population centers.

The dynamics of these storms themselves explain why the state is also prone to such swings. Meteorologists have known for decades that those tempests that descend upon California over the winter—and from which the state receives the great bulk of its annual precipitation—carry moisture from the South Pacific. In the late 1990s, scientists discovered that these “pineapple expresses,” as TV weather presenters call them, are a subset of a global weather phenomenon: long, wind-driven plumes of vapor about a mile above the sea that carry moisture from warm areas near the equator on a northeasterly path to colder, drier regions toward the poles. They carry so much moisture—often more than 25 times the flow of the Mississippi River, over thousands of miles—that they’ve been dubbed “atmospheric rivers.”

In a pioneering 1998 paper, researchers Yong Zhu and Reginald E. Newell found that nearly all the vapor transport between the subtropics (regions just south or north of the equator, depending on the hemisphere) toward the poles occurred in just five or six narrow bands. And California, it turns out, is the prime spot in the western side of the northern hemisphere for catching them at full force during the winter months.

As Ingram and Dettinger note, atmospheric rivers are the primary vector for California’s floods. That includes pre-Columbian cataclysms as well as the Great Flood of 1862, all the way to the various smaller ones that regularly run through the state. Between 1950 and 2010, Ingram and Dettinger write, atmospheric rivers “caused more than 80 percent of flooding in California rivers and 81 percent of the 128 most well-documented levee breaks in California’s Central Valley.”

Paradoxically, they are at least as much a lifeblood as a curse. Between eight and 11 atmospheric rivers hit California every year, the great majority of them doing no major damage, and they deliver between 30 and 50 percent of the state’s rain and snow. But the big ones are damaging indeed. Other researchers are reaching similar conclusions. In a study released in December 2019, a team from the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that atmospheric-river storms accounted for 84 percent of insured flood damages in the western United States between 1978 and 2017; the 13 biggest storms wrought more than half the damage.

So the state—and a substantial portion of our food system—exists on a razor’s edge between droughts and floods, its annual water resources decided by massive, increasingly fickle transfers of moisture from the South Pacific. As Dettinger puts it, the “largest storms in California’s precipitation regime not only typically end the state’s frequent droughts, but their fluctuations also cause those droughts in the first place.”

We know that before human civilization began spewing millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually, California was due “one megaflood every 100 to 200 years”—and the last one hit more than a century and a half ago. What happens to this outlook when you heat up the atmosphere by 1 degree Celsius—and are on track to hit at least another half-degree Celsius increase by midcentury?

That was the question posed by Daniel Swain and a team of researchers at UCLA’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences in a series of studies, the first of which was published in 2018. They took California’s long pattern of droughts and floods and mapped it onto the climate models based on data specific to the region, looking out to century’s end.

What they found isn’t comforting. As the tropical Pacific Ocean and the atmosphere just above it warm, more seawater evaporates, feeding ever bigger atmospheric rivers gushing toward the California coast. As a result, the potential for storms on the scale of the ones that triggered the Great Flood has increased “more than threefold,” they found. So an event expected to happen on average every 200 years will now happen every 65 or so. It is “more likely than not we will see one by 2060,” and it could plausibly happen again before century’s end, they concluded.

As the risk of a catastrophic event increases, so will the frequency of what they call “precipitation whiplash”: extremely wet seasons interrupted by extremely dry ones, and vice versa. The winter of 2016–2017 provides a template. That year, a series of atmospheric-river storms filled reservoirs and at one point threatened a major flood in the northern Central Valley, abruptly ending the worst multiyear drought in the state’s recorded history.

Swings on that magnitude normally occur a handful of times each century, but in the model by Swain’s team, “it goes from something that happens maybe once in a generation to something that happens two or three times,” he told me in an interview. “Setting aside a repeat of 1862, these less intense events could still seriously test the limits of our water infrastructure.” Like other efforts to map climate change onto California’s weather, this one found that drought years characterized by low winter precipitation would likely increase—in this case, by a factor of as much as two, compared with mid-20th-century patterns. But extreme-wet winter seasons, accumulating at least as much precipitation as 2016–2017, will grow even more: they could be three times as common as they were before the atmosphere began its current warming trend.

While lots of very wet years—at least the ones that don’t reach 1861–1862 levels—might sound encouraging for food production in the Central Valley, there’s a catch, Swain said. His study looked purely at precipitation, independent of whether it fell as rain or snow. A growing body of research suggests that as the climate warms, California’s precipitation mix will shift significantly in favor of rain over snow. That’s dire news for our food system, because the Central Valley’s vast irrigation networks are geared to channeling the slow, predictable melt of the snowpack into usable water for farms. Water that falls as rain is much harder to capture and bend to the slow-release needs of agriculture.

In short, California’s climate, chaotic under normal conditions, is about to get weirder and wilder. Indeed, it’s already happening.

What if an 1862-level flood, which is overdue and “more likely than not” to occur with a couple of decades, were to hit present-day California?

Starting in 2008, the USGS set out to answer just that question, launching a project called the ARkStorm (for “atmospheric river 1,000 storm”) Scenario. The effort was modeled on a previous USGS push to get a grip on another looming California cataclysm: a massive earthquake along the San Andreas Fault. In 2008, USGS produced the ShakeOut Earthquake Scenario, a “detailed depiction of a hypothetical magnitude 7.8 earthquake.” The study “served as the centerpiece of the largest earthquake drill in US history, involving over five thousand emergency responders and the participation of over 5.5 million citizens,” the USGS later reported.

That same year, the agency assembled a team of 117 scientists, engineers, public-policy experts, and insurance experts to model what kind of impact a monster storm event would have on modern California.

At the time, Lucy Jones served as the chief scientist for the USGS’s Multi Hazards Demonstration Project, which oversaw both projects. A seismologist by training, Jones spent her time studying the devastations of earthquakes and convincing policy makers to invest resources into preparing for them. The ARkStorm project took her aback, she told me. The first thing she and her team did was ask, What’s the biggest flood in California we know about? “I’m a fourth-generation Californian who studies disaster risk, and I had never heard of the Great Flood of 1862,” she said. “None of us had heard of it,” she added—not even the meteorologists knew about what’s “by far the biggest disaster ever in California and the whole Southwest” over the past two centuries.

At first, the meteorologists were constrained in modeling a realistic megastorm by a lack of data; solid rainfall-gauge measures go back only a century. But after hearing about the 1862 flood, the ARkStorm team dug into research from Ingram and others for information about megastorms before US statehood and European contact. They were shocked to learn that the previous 1,800 years had about six events that were more severe than 1862, along with several more that were roughly of the same magnitude. What they found was that a massive flood is every bit as likely to strike California, and as imminent, as a massive quake.

Even with this information, modeling a massive flood proved more challenging than projecting out a massive earthquake. “We seismologists do this all the time—we create synthetic seismographs,” she said. Want to see what a quake reaching 7.8 on the Richter scale would look like along the San Andreas Fault? Easy, she said. Meteorologists, by contrast, are fixated on accurate prediction of near-future events; “creating a synthetic event wasn’t something they had ever done.” They couldn’t just re-create the 1862 event, because most of the information we have about it is piecemeal, from eyewitness accounts and sediment samples.

To get their heads around how to construct a reasonable approximation of a megastorm, the team’s meteorologists went looking for well-documented 20th-century events that could serve as a model. They settled on two: a series of big storms in 1969 that hit Southern California hardest and a 1986 cluster that did the same to the northern part of the state. To create the ARkStorm scenario, they stitched the two together. Doing so gave the researchers a rich and regionally precise trove of data to sketch out a massive Big One storm scenario.

There was one problem: While the fictional ARkStorm is indeed a massive event, it’s still significantly smaller than the one that caused the Great Flood of 1862. “Our [hypothetical storm] only had total rain for 25 days, while there were 45 days in 1861 to ’62,” Jones said. They plunged ahead anyway, for two reasons. One was that they had robust data on the two 20th-century storm events, giving disaster modelers plenty to work with. The second was that they figured a smaller-than-1862 catastrophe would help build public buy-in, by making the project hard to dismiss as an unrealistic figment of scaremongering bureaucrats.

What they found stunned them—and should stun anyone who relies on California to produce food (not to mention anyone who lives in the state). The headline number: $725 billion in damage, nearly four times what the USGS’s seismology team arrived at for its massive-quake scenario ($200 billion). For comparison, the two most costly natural disasters in modern US history—Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Harvey in 2017—racked up $166 billion and $130 billion, respectively. The ARkStorm would “flood thousands of square miles of urban and agricultural land, result in thousands of landslides, [and] disrupt lifelines throughout the state for days or weeks,” the study reckoned. Altogether, 25 percent of the state’s buildings would be damaged.

In their model, 25 days of relentless rains overwhelm the Central Valley’s flood-control infrastructure. Then large swaths of the northern part of the Central Valley go under as much as 20 feet of water. The southern part, the San Joaquin Valley, gets off lighter; but a miles-wide band of floodwater collects in the lowest-elevation regions, ballooning out to encompass the expanse that was once the Tulare Lake bottom and stretching to the valley’s southern extreme. Most metropolitan parts of the Bay Area escape severe damage, but swaths of Los Angeles and Orange Counties experience “extensive flooding.”

As Jones stressed to me in our conversation, the ARkStorm scenario is a cautious approximation; a megastorm that matches 1862 or its relatively recent antecedents could plausibly bury the entire Central Valley underwater, northern tip to southern. As the report puts it: “Six megastorms that were more severe than 1861–1862 have occurred in California during the last 1800 years, and there is no reason to believe similar storms won’t occur again.”

A 21st-century megastorm would fall on a region quite different from gold rush–era California. For one thing, it’s much more populous. While the ARkStorm reckoning did not estimate a death toll, it warned of a “substantial loss of life” because “flood depths in some areas could realistically be on the order of 10–20 feet.”

Then there’s the transformation of farming since then. The 1862 storm drowned an estimated 200,000 head of cattle, about a quarter of the state’s entire herd. Today, the Central Valley houses nearly 4 million beef and dairy cows. While cattle continue to be an important part of the region’s farming mix, they no longer dominate it. Today the valley is increasingly given over to intensive almond, pistachio, and grape plantations, representing billions of dollars of investments in crops that take years to establish, are expected to flourish for decades, and could be wiped out by a flood.

Apart from economic losses, “the evolution of a modern society creates new risks from natural disasters,” Jones told me. She cited electric power grids, which didn’t exist in mid-19th-century California. A hundred years ago, when electrification was taking off, extended power outages caused inconveniences. Now, loss of electricity can mean death for vulnerable populations (think hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons). Another example is the intensification of farming. When a few hundred thousand cattle roamed the sparsely populated Central Valley in 1861, their drowning posed relatively limited biohazard risks, although, according to one contemporary account, in post-flood Sacramento, there were a “good many drowned hogs and cattle lying around loose in the streets.”

Today, however, several million cows are packed into massive feedlots in the southern Central Valley, their waste often concentrated in open-air liquid manure lagoons, ready to be swept away and blended into a fecal slurry. Low-lying Tulare County houses nearly 500,000 dairy cows, with 258 operations holding on average 1,800 cattle each. Mature modern dairy cows are massive creatures, weighing around 1,500 pounds each and standing nearly 5 feet tall at the front shoulder. Imagine trying to quickly move such beasts by the thousands out of the path of a flood—and the consequences of failing to do so.

A massive flood could severely pollute soil and groundwater in the Central Valley, and not just from rotting livestock carcasses and millions of tons of concentrated manure. In a 2015 paper, a team of USGS researchers tried to sum up the myriad toxic substances that would be stirred up and spread around by massive storms and floods. The cities of 160 years ago could not boast municipal wastewater facilities, which filter pathogens and pollutants in human sewage, nor municipal dumps, which concentrate often-toxic garbage. In the region’s teeming 21st-century urban areas, those vital sanitation services would become major threats. The report projects that a toxic soup of “petroleum, mercury, asbestos, persistent organic pollutants, molds, and soil-borne or sewage-borne pathogens” would spread across much of the valley, as would concentrated animal manure, fertilizer, pesticides, and other industrial chemicals.

The valley’s southernmost county, Kern, is a case study in the region’s vulnerabilities. Kern’s farmers lead the entire nation in agricultural output by dollar value, annually producing $7 billion worth of foodstuffs like almonds, grapes, citrus, pistachios, and milk. The county houses more than 156,000 dairy cows in facilities averaging 3,200 head each. That frenzy of agricultural production means loads of chemicals on hand; every year, Kern farmers use around 30 million pounds of pesticides, second only to Fresno among California counties. (Altogether, five San Joaquin Valley counties use about half of the more than 200 million pounds of pesticides applied in California.)

Kern is also one of the nation’s most prodigious oil-producing counties. Its vast array of pump jacks, many of them located in farm fields, produce 70 percent of California’s entire oil output. It’s also home to two large oil refineries. If Kern County were a state, it would be the nation’s seventh-leading oil-producing one, churning out twice as much crude as Louisiana. In a massive storm, floodwaters could pick up a substantial amount of highly toxic petroleum and byproducts. Again, in the ARkStorm scenario, Kern County gets hit hard by rain but mostly escapes the worst flooding. The real “Other Big One” might not be so kind, Jones said.

In the end, the USGS team could not estimate the level of damage that will be visited upon the Central Valley’s soil and groundwater from a megaflood: too many variables, too many toxins and biohazards that could be sucked into the vortex. They concluded that “flood-related environmental contamination impacts are expected to be the most widespread and substantial in lowland areas of the Central Valley, the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, the San Francisco Bay area, and portions of the greater Los Angeles metroplex.”

Jones said the initial reaction to the 2011 release of the ARkStorm report among California’s policymakers and emergency managers was skepticism: “Oh, no, that’s too big—it’s impossible,” they would say. “We got lots of traction with the earthquake scenario, and when we did the big flood, nobody wanted to listen to us,” she said.

But after years of patiently informing the state’s decisionmakers that such a disaster is just as likely as a megaquake—and likely much more devastating—the word is getting out. She said the ARkStorm message probably helped prepare emergency managers for the severe storms of February 2017. That month, the massive Oroville Dam in the Sierra Nevada foothills very nearly failed, threatening to send a 30-foot-tall wall of water gushing into the northern Central Valley. As the spillway teetered on the edge of collapse, officials ordered the evacuation of 188,000 people in the communities below. The entire California National Guard was put on notice to mobilize if needed—the first such order since the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. Although the dam ultimately held up, the Oroville incident illustrates the challenges of moving hundreds of thousands of people out of harm’s way on short notice.

The evacuation order “unleashed a flood of its own, sending tens of thousands of cars simultaneously onto undersize roads, creating hours-long backups that left residents wondering if they would get to high ground before floodwaters overtook them,” the Sacramento Bee reported. Eight hours after the evacuation, highways were still jammed with slow-moving traffic. A California Highway Patrol spokesman summed up the scene for the Bee:

Unprepared citizens who were running out of gas and their vehicles were becoming disabled in the roadway. People were utilizing the shoulder, driving the wrong way. Traffic collisions were occurring. People fearing for their lives, not abiding by the traffic laws. All combined, it created big problems. It ended up pure, mass chaos.

Even so, Jones said the evacuation went as smoothly as could be expected and likely would have saved thousands of lives if the dam had burst. “But there are some things you can’t prepare for.” Obviously, getting area residents to safety was the first priority, but animal inhabitants were vulnerable, too. If the dam had burst, she said, “I doubt they would have been able to save cattle.”

As the state’s ever-strained emergency-service agencies prepare for the Other Big One, there’s evidence other agencies are struggling to grapple with the likelihood of a megaflood. In the wake of the 2017 near-disaster at Oroville, state agencies spent more than $1 billion repairing the damaged dam and bolstering it for future storms. Just as work was being completed in fall 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission assessed the situation and found that a “probable maximum flood”—on the scale of the ArkStorm—would likely overwhelm the dam. FERC called on the state to invest in a “more robust and resilient design” to prevent a future cataclysm. The state’s Department of Water Resources responded by launching a “needs assessment” of the dam’s safety that’s due to wrap up in 2020.

Of course, in a state beset by the increasing threat of wildfires in populated areas as well as earthquakes, funds for disaster preparation are tightly stretched. All in all, Jones said, “we’re still much more prepared for a quake than a flood.” Then again, it’s hard to conceive of how we could effectively prevent a 21st century repeat of the Great Flood or how we could fully prepare for the low-lying valley that runs along the center of California like a bathtub—now packed with people, livestock, manure, crops, petrochemicals, and pesticides—to be suddenly transformed into a storm-roiled inland sea.

Onde está o poder? E quando o tivermos encontrado, o que fazer com ele?, por Bruno Latour (Labemus)

Artigo original

agosto 27, 2020

 Por Bruno Latour
Tradução: Igor Rolemberg

Clique aqui para pdf

Para a versão original do francês clique aqui

Vou tentar responder à questão “Onde está o poder?”. Como sempre, quando somos filósofos, temos a tendência de mudar um pouco o objeto. Não basta encontrar esse poder; é preciso ainda fazer alguma coisa a partir dele. É por isso que eu vou colocar três questões: Como investigar para encontrar o poder? Como desconfiar do poder em todos os sentidos do termo “desconfiar”? Por fim, como exercê-lo depois de encontrá-lo?

Permitam-me antes de mais nada colocar uma primeira regra de deontologia de pesquisa: Como dispor dos meios de provar a presença legítima ou ilegítima do poder para evitar qualquer suspeita? Coisa esquisita a crítica; outrora difícil, hoje se tornou um automatismo, quase um reflexo: assim que uma autoridade qualquer enuncia uma certeza, imediatamente a opinião pública, as redes sociais, o bom senso, concluem que é necessariamente falso – ou pelo menos que há por trás uma manipulação. Nós nos encontramos aí diante de um problema de pesquisa como na história em quadrinhos Lucky Luke. A crítica obedece agora à regra “a gente atira primeiro, e discute depois”. Para poder pesquisar, é preciso aprender a desacelerar e suspender a acusação de manipulação.

Segunda regra: se falamos de poder, se o traçamos, designamos, mostramos, só isso não basta. A denúncia, como bem mostrou Luc Boltanski, seria vazia de sentido, nesse caso. A regra então é a seguinte: se podemos detectar uma fonte legítima de poder, é necessário também oferecer os meios de exercê-lo para aqueles a quem ele se destina; se a fonte de poder é ilegítima, então precisamos nos esforçar e oferecer os meios de contra-atacar, de se estabelecer um contrapoder. Em resumo, só se deve denunciar o poder, se a denúncia der poder a nossos interlocutores. É inútil denunciá-lo se for para oferecer uma lição sobre a impotência.

Que seja preciso em todos os casos desconfiar do poder, que a gente busque descobrir suas fontes e reprimir seus efeitos, irei demonstrá-lo em cinco etapas.

SEM PODER, AS COISAS SEGUIRIAM DE MANEIRA RETA

A primeira etapa vai nos permitir aprender a identificar o exercício do poder ao mesmo tempo em que ele se torna mais difícil de ser detectado. Comecemos por um caso simples. Se vocês lerem no Le Monde uma manchete “Laboratório Servier suspeito de ter influenciado um relatório do Senado”, não terão dificuldade para notar que alguma coisa de anormal acontece. O jornalista fez o trabalho por vocês. De fato, não é normal que um professor de medicina tenha aparentemente modificado um relatório do Senado num inquérito sobre o sofrível caso Mediator, esse medicamento do laboratório Servier que hoje é objeto de uma série de processos com muitas repercussões. Nós nos encontramos aí diante de um inquérito interrompido ou alterado por conta de uma intervenção indevida. Vocês terão razão de suspeitar, sem problema algum, que se trata aí de um exercício ilegítimo de poder.

O caso seguinte é um pouco mais delicado: “Aumenta a contestação contra as antenas de transmissão, tanto no campo quanto na cidade”. Dessa vez, a matéria não facilitou o trabalho. Trata-se de empresas de telefonia que impõem as antenas sem discutir antes? É o Estado que faz vista grossa sobre essa implantação? Aqueles que se acreditam doentes são exagerados nas suas reivindicações, ou, ao contrário, é injusto não reconhecer que se trata de uma doença real que deveria dar direito a uma indenização? Encontramo-nos aí em plena controvérsia. Há uma incerteza quanto ao escândalo que deve ser denunciado. Vocês entendem muito bem que, nesse caso, a denúncia automática não levaria a lugar algum. Precisamos continuar a investigar cuidadosamente a fim de designar quem exerce o poder ilegitimamente e quem luta para fazer oposição a ele.

Terceiro exemplo, ainda mais incerto. Vocês leem no Le Monde um artigo com a manchete “A política de cortes orçamentários repousa sobre um diagnóstico errado”. A matéria afirma que todos os Estados da Europa padecem nesse momento dessa ideia que muitos economistas consideram absurda, segundo a qual é preciso reduzir o orçamento em vez de investir massivamente no momento em que a moeda custa pouco. É o argumento que Paul Krugman, prêmio Nobel de economia, repete quase todos os dias ao mundo inteiro no New York Times, sem ser ouvido. Eis assim um caso em que parece que o poder seja exercido pelos experts, através de redes opacas, pois influenciam o que chamamos de “esferas de poder”, aqui no sentido clássico do termo: a classe política. As ideias econômicas, diz a matéria, têm assim uma influência indevida sobre a vida pública e nos obrigam a apertar os cintos em nome de uma doutrina cuja origem não parece segura. Quem tem o poder nesse caso? É a doutrina econômica? São os economistas? Aqueles que ouvem demais os economistas? Vemos que a detecção do poder começa a se tornar mais difícil.

Desses três exemplos, o princípio de análise é o mesmo: existe uma via reta que foi desviada. Deveríamos ter um relatório honesto do Senado. Não temos. Deveríamos ter uma informação clara quanto ao perigo das antenas transmissoras. Não temos. Deveríamos ter uma política econômica credível. Não temos. Assim, nesses três casos o poder é identificado pela alteração entre o caminho reto e o desvio, pelo distanciamento que foi operado. É essa distância que justifica a denúncia. Mas vocês já devem ter entendido que isso supõe evidentemente que exista uma via reta, um estado normal, direito, digamos racional, que o poder veio deformar. Nessa visão das coisas, o poder é sempre irracional. Ele não deveria ser exercido. O denunciante, no fundo, sonha com um mundo livre de poder.

EM BUSCA DO PODER INVISÍVEL

Figura 1

A segunda etapa é mais difícil: de onde vem, com efeito, a via retilínea? Podemos falar de poder nesse caso? Se sim, como proceder à investigação? Para seguir reto é preciso que um poder se exerça. Mas ele estaria então de alguma forma latente, e não teria o mesmo sentido [que abordamos] no tópico anterior. Aí se encontra o tema batido da “naturalização” das condutas. Não vemos mais o poder, porém ele foi exercido antes; simplesmente, perdemos seu rastro. É claro que aqui convém recorrer a Michel Foucault.

Tomemos por exemplo a arquitetura da prisão, uma arquitetura completamente particular, pois, a partir da cabine central, o vigia pode observar diretamente o interior de todas as celas à sua volta. Vocês talvez não tivessem a ideia de considerar esse dispositivo como a prova de um exercício ilegítimo do poder. Isso lhes aparece ao contrário como uma forma normal de organização da prisão. E vocês estão certos. Antes dos trabalhos dos historiadores, isso era de fato um exercício legítimo: os arquitetos foram pagos ordinariamente, e o Estado interveio regularmente. E, no entanto, como mostra tão bem Michel Foucault num livro célebre, “Vigiar e Punir”, isso é para o Estado um modo de governo, de exercer sobre os prisioneiros um poder total. Desde o século XIX – não retomarei todo o argumento de Foucault – a arquitetura penal se tornou um modo normal, através do qual um poder extremamente violento se exerce calma e tranquilamente, de maneira regular e cotidiana. O que Foucault chama de “governamentalidade” é uma forma de poder que não podemos mais denunciar porque ela se tornou a norma, a razão, o saber, em resumo, a via reta. O poder foi naturalizado. Ele se exerce de maneira tão indiscutível quanto as leis da natureza. E por essa razão, mantém-se indenunciável.

Figura 2

O segundo exemplo irá talvez lhes surpreender mais: é o metro. Fotografei em frente ao Senado, em Paris, um dos dois exemplos do metro-padrão ainda expostos in situ. Nesse espaço simbólico, em frente ao Senado carregado de leis, antes que os metros fossem difundidos em todo lugar, os parisienses de antigamente podiam ir verificar se o seu metro estava de acordo com o metro correto. Donde o nome de metro-padrão. Nada mais objetivo que o metro. Nenhum de vocês iria pensar que ele exerce o poder ao tomar as medidas em centímetros e não em polegadas, como fazem os ingleses. E, no entanto, o sistema métrico possui uma longa história, foi preciso oitenta anos para que se impusesse em grande parte do mundo ao longo de uma batalha política mundial cujos traços evidentemente esquecemos. O metro é assim um belo caso de naturalização. Mas é preciso se esforçar muito para se lembrar das polêmicas suscitadas no começo por essa tomada de poder revolucionária sobre os hábitos de tantos artesãos e comerciantes. Temos aí um caso muito interessante, pois não vemos mais a origem do poder. Em tais casos, para conseguir detectar o poder é preciso recorrer ao que Foucault chama de arqueologia, ou seja, uma imersão, graças aos arquivos, numa história controvertida, violenta, de aplicação de hábitos pouco suspeitos.

O PODER PERMITE ASSIM COMO PROÍBE

Mas então, vocês diriam, se medir com um metro ou construir uma prisão é exercer o poder, o poder está em toda parte. Eu concordo, e por isso é preciso talvez estender a noção de poder ou dispensá-la. Com efeito, e esta será a terceira etapa de nosso breve excurso, o verbo “poder”, vocês bem sabem, não é sinônimo de “proibir”. Poder é também permitir.

Tomemos o exemplo aparentemente muito simples do controle remoto. É esse aparelho que lhes autoriza a não se mexerem, lhes dá o poder de continuarem sentados mudando os canais da televisão. Sem ele, os mais velhos como eu se recordarão, vocês seriam obrigados a se levantarem toda hora para zapear à vontade. É graça ao controle remoto que vocês podem se tornar o que os americanos chamam de “batata de sofá” (a couch potato).

Figura 3

Vocês têm aí uma ocasião de fato interessante para se colocar a questão “Onde está o poder?”. Porque, afinal de contas, esse jovem que não precisa mais se levantar de seu sofá é o ser mais autônomo, livre e contente do mundo. Em outras palavras, ele tem na sua mão esquerda o controle remoto e na mão direita chips ultra salgados e refrigerantes ultra açucarados. Nada o impede de ganhar tanto peso quanto queira… A questão “onde está o poder?” pode ser posta aqui muito concretamente. Esse jovem é ao mesmo tempo o ser mais livre da história, aquele que possui menos restrições, e aquele mais atrelado, envolto, vinculado a um conjunto de bens, cada um dos quais lhe permite fazer alguma coisa. Vocês veem que, num caso como esse, é difícil denunciar um exercício ilegítimo do poder (seus pais irão jogar o controle remoto pela janela para forçá-lo a se mexer finalmente?), como também é difícil notar a origem de todos esses hábitos consistentemente postos em prática (Os pais vão processar quem? A Coca-Cola? Ou o canal de televisão? A menos que seja o fabricante das batatas chips?)

Se refinamos a análise, a noção de poder se dilui completamente, ou se torna simplesmente sinônimo de descrição concreta de uma situação. Considerem esse belo exemplo: um caminhão tombado em Nova York porque o motorista não viu que a altura da passarela era inferior à altura de seu veículo. Isso é um exercício de poder? Claro que não. O condutor seguiu seu GPS e a base de dados não havia ainda integrado a altura das pontes dentro dos itinerários pré programados. Sem querer, o motorista se lançou numa armadilha. Ora, acontece que a altura das pontes de Nova York foi objeto, no século passado, de uma feroz disputa: Robert Moses, o Haussmann americano, limitou-a deliberadamente para as avenidas utilizadas por carros de passeio, a fim de que não fossem utilizadas por caminhões, que deveriam circular em vias mais largas reservadas aos serviços de logística (acusaram-no até de ter feito isso por razões raciais[1]). Não há dúvida de que a massa de aço da ponte muito baixa exerce um poder de extrema violência sobre o caminhão azarado. Mas não há dúvida também que Robert Moses, há um século de distância, exerce também um poder sobre o conjunto da situação: modificar o tamanho de todas as pontes de Nova York para que carros e caminhões circulem igualmente significaria despender somas astronômicas. Permeando-se através de uma regulamentação, depois dentro do concreto e do aço, e de uma definição de mobilidade urbana, Moses tornou irreversíveis suas decisões e fez com que suas Tábuas da Lei sejam obedecidas até hoje – e aqueles que as infringem, como esse caminhoneiro distraído, são severamente punidos.

Figura 4

APRENDER A DISPENSAR A NOÇÃO DE PODER

O exemplo do controle-remoto, assim como o das pontes de Nova York me levam à quarta etapa: ao opor a noção de poder a outra coisa (o exercício normal e retilíneo da razão), nós nos privamos da capacidade de, no fim das contas, identificar as fontes daquilo que molda nosso ambiente. Se eu sempre desconfiei da noção de poder, é que passei muitos anos a favorecer sua extensão ali onde ninguém o via: nas ciências e nas técnicas.  Frequentemente comparei a busca pelas fontes de poder àquela dos físicos para identificar a “matéria escura do universo”[2]. Para os coletivos humanos, essa matéria escura encontra-se, é claro, nos laboratórios, no sentido amplo do termo.

Veja este belo retrato de Louis Pasteur nos apresentando seus balões de ensaio com pescoço de cisne. É uma experiência célebre que eu estudei bastante[3]. Essa invenção lhe permitiu, pela primeira vez, conservar, ao abrigo de toda contaminação, líquidos bastante putrescíveis, uma vez aquecidos. Eles permaneceram intactos durante anos. E no entanto, o orifício dos balões permanecia aberto, e, dessa forma, acessível ao ar ambiente. Basta agitar o líquido para que ele entre em contato com os micróbios transportados pelo ar e que ficaram bloqueados na curva do pescoço para que, alguns dias depois, os balões tenham se tornado completamente opacos por causa da proliferação dos micro-organismos. Onde está o poder? Em todo lugar! Eis aí Pasteur que inventa uma série de gestos que permitem manter o ambiente esterilizado – aquilo que chamaremos em breve de assepsia – ou, contrariamente, de tornar esse ambiente ideal para a cultura de inúmeros micróbios suspensos no ar – o que se tornará o início dos meios de cultura.

Figura  5

Se há um caso onde todas as relações que nós costumamos manter foram modificadas por práticas inventadas em laboratório, esse é, sem dúvidas, um deles. A indústria, a higiene, a medicina foram totalmente impactadas pela introdução progressiva de inovações como essa daqui. Não precisa olhar muito longe para entender essa lição. Pensem apenas na epidemia do Ebola ano passado, ou, este ano, nos efeitos terríveis do vírus da Zika[4].

De modo mais geral, se vocês olharem à sua volta, perceberão que toda vez que as relações de força foram modificadas, é que ali foram inseridas ciências, técnicas ou ideias novas. E,toda vez, nós dependemos de saberes especializados que dependem, a seu turno, de uma infraestrutura cara, complexa, etc., e de instituições sólidas. Ora, vemos bem que nesse caso seria absurdo tentar distinguir o que pertence a um poder ilegítimo que seria necessário denunciar e o que está relacionado a um poder de controle sobre as condições de existência. Será necessário confiar nos saberes especializados, na maior parte das vezes extraordinariamente complexos, que pontuam, através de longas séries que chamei “caixas pretas”, o curso de nossas ações mais ordinárias.

Se eu desconfio da noção de “poder a denunciar”, é que ela não permite ponderar o valor justo da produção desses saberes. Por isso que muitos preferem recorrer frequentemente à teoria do complô. Ela se caracteriza por uma repartição estranha entre o que aceitamos sem nenhuma crítica – geralmente o exercício indevido de um poder ilegítimo e escondido que manipula docilmente a sociedade sem que consigamos prová-lo – e aquilo que criticamos meticulosamente exigindo um nível de prova tão elevado que nenhuma outra fonte de informação – imprensa, revistas especializadas, relatórios de especialistas –  jamais poderá  atingir[5]. Essa estranha patologia tem por origem a noção mesma de um poder que dissimula bem tanto a escassez de provas quanto a sua robustez. Transporta-se uma demanda de absoluto para aquilo que é necessariamente da ordem do relativo. Por causa dessa repartição, os complotistas deixam passar uma manada pela porteira enquanto caçam pelo em ovo. E a situação é ainda mais complicada porque, como mostra Luc Boltanski num livro astucioso, o que não falta é complô![6] De modo que os complotistas chegam a esse resultado estranho de duvidar de todas as provas oficiais (o que reforça esse exercício reflexo [automático] da crítica pelo qual comecei) sem conseguir no entanto identificar os verdadeiros complôs…

Assim, a suspeição pode nascer e se desenvolver independentemente das provas, e nesse caso a pessoa se torna paranoica – as teorias do complô não estão longe disso. Mas, inversamente, a ausência de provas pode diminuir a desconfiança: começa-se a acreditar que não há nada de anormal – “é necessário, as coisas são assim”. Vem então a complacência e com ela a inércia. A consequência é uma corrupção definitiva do espaço público.

UM EXCESSO DE PODER COM O QUAL NÃO SABEMOS O QUE FAZER

Estou consciente de ter ficado até aqui dando voltas em torno do mesmo ponto. “Onde está o poder?”, a questão de partida visava evidentemente a esfera pública, a da classe política. Não se tratava provavelmente de falar de controle-remoto, de antenas transmissoras, de pontes, de micróbios e de teoria econômica… Eu gostaria então nessa última etapa de tomar um caso que me é caro, que se refere muito bem à esfera pública e que exemplifica, novamente, a impotência de noções usuais de poder para interpretar situações concretas. O exemplo é o da Conferência do Clima, chamada “COP 21”, que se encerrou em 12 de dezembro de 2015, com entusiasmo. Ora, desde o dia 13 de dezembro, pela manhã, mais ninguém falava desse “acontecimento mundial”! Eis aí um caso de fato extraordinário: um poder, ou melhor, uma capacidade de agir, completamente original, com a qual ninguém sabe o que fazer.

Figura 6

Para se ter uma ideia da situação, fazendo um jogo de palavras, seria necessário falar em um enorme excesso de poder. Avaliem vocês mesmos: o termo que é utilizado pelos geólogos para descrever essa potência nova é o de Antropoceno, que eu prefiro chamar de Novo Regime Climático[7]. Os geólogos dão à humanidade (esse é o sentido do termo anthropos), tomada em bloco, uma capacidade, um poder, de modificar o estado do planeta mais rapidamente, de forma mais sustentada no tempo e irreversível do que em qualquer outra época de sua história. Temos então claramente um excesso de poder dado aos humanos, isto é, a cada um de nós, sem que evidentemente saibamos como seremos capazes de nos reunir politicamente para assumir uma tal capacidade de estrago e ação, uma tal responsabilidade[8].

Nesse caso, o que nos é dado é um poder que não sentimos capazes de assumir, este de se tornar coletivamente uma força geológica. Ora, estou certo que isso não lhes interessa em absoluto, que é precisamente algo que vocês gostariam de evitar. Quem desejaria se tornar uma força capaz de influenciar o clima? Aliás, essa é a razão pela qual tanta gente prefere ignorar ou mesmo negar as descobertas científicas. O clima é [como a obra] Amédée ou comment s’en débarasser de Ionesco.

Eis aí um caso que se refere perfeitamente ao que o grande filósofo americano, aliás muito pouco lido na França, John Dewey, chama de “o público e seus problemas”[9]. Dewey define o público não como o objeto de ocupação da classe política, mas como aquilo que é preciso constituir toda vez que um novo problema surge: “O público consiste no conjunto de todos aqueles que são tão afetados por consequências indiretas de transações que ele julga necessário vigiar sistematicamente suas consequências”. O público deve então ser criado toda vez que nós observamos consequências inesperadas de nossas ações. A mutação ecológica que nós vivemos é um problema do tipo. Exceto que, nesse caso, nós temos o problema, mas não o público que lhe corresponde!

O ponto fundamental de Dewey é que os homens ou mulheres políticas não são aqueles que sabem, mas simplesmente aqueles a quem é delegada a tarefa de explorar, tateando, numa certa obscuridade, com as ferramentas de pesquisa, as consequências de nossas ações. Como por definição essas consequências são imprevistas, o público está sempre se reformando e o Estado sempre atrasado com um problema. Aqueles da época t-1 são talvez mais ou menos levados em conta, mas aqueles da época atual, não. É evidentemente o caso do clima. Ninguém, há vinte anos, teria imaginado que fazer política para o Sr. Hollande [ex-presidente da França] teria consistido em encerrar solenemente uma operação diplomática sobre a questão do clima, bradando como ele fez no dia 12 de dezembro de 2015, “Viva o planeta!”.

Vocês veem bem que não sabemos como exercer esse novo poder geológico. Há algo de esmagador, de impressionante nesse poder planetário dado a cada um de nós, ao mesmo tempo que contamos quase nada para o balanço de carbono da humanidade em geral. É aí que é preciso lembrar a regra posta no início. A simples denúncia de um poder ilegítimo, identificado por nós mesmos ou com ajuda dos outros não basta: ela deve vir junto com a aquisição dos meios de lutar, sob pena de cairmos no desespero. É preciso que vocês possam contra-atacar, resistir, modificar, arrumar, acomodar, aceitar talvez, em todo caso reagir (o que designa o termo em inglês de empowerment). Sem isso vocês irão se sentir com os pés e as mãos atados. Nem pesquisa, nem suspeição bastam. Cabe à política assumir o controle.

É preciso ainda entrar em acordo sobre o que a política pode fazer: se ela denuncia sem indicar como podemos combater, a política se resume a uma lição de frustração e impotência. Nada mais desencorajador do que clamar contra um escândalo tendo o sentimento de não poder fazer nada. De ator passamos a espectador, a princípio indignado, depois passivo, e logo cúmplice. À investigação sobre o que é injusto deve se somar a pesquisa de novos meios de reagir.

Figura 7

Daí todo o interesse dessa última imagem que eu tirei em setembro de 2014 durante uma grande manifestação pelo (ou melhor contra o) clima nas ruas de Manhattan. O slogan orgulhoso da faixa proclama: “Nós sabemos quem é o responsável”. Aqui não estamos mais na simples denunciação: através um importante trabalho de acumulação de provas, os ativistas conseguiram transformar o esmagador fardo “nós somos todos responsáveis e não sabemos como reagir” em uma outra forma política: os emissores de CO2 não são quaisquer pessoas, mas um punhado de atores industriais privados e públicos cujos nomes, ações e capitais são conhecidos[10]. Se o poder se exerce, um contrapoder novo e original se constituiu. Uma resposta precisa, e evidentemente passível de revisão e modulável, foi encontrada para a questão inicial: “Onde está o poder?”

Notas:

[1]      JOERGES, Bernward. “Do Politics Have Artifacts”. Social Studies of Science, n.29, v.3, 1999, pp. 411-31. GARUTTI, Francesco. Can design be devious ? 2015. Filme.

[2]     LATOUR, Bruno. Cogitamus. Six lettres sur les humanités scientifiques. Paris: La Découverte, 2010.

[3]     LATOUR, Bruno. Pasteur: guerre et paix des microbes. Paris: La Découverte, 2001.

[4]     Nota do tradutor:  é preciso lembrar que o texto original foi publicado em 2016.

[5]     PADIS, Marc Olivier. “La passion du complot”. Esprit, n. 419, 2015.

[6]     BOLTANSKI, Luc. Enigmes et complots. Une enquête à propos d’enquêtes. Paris: Gallimard, 2012.

[7]     LATOUR, Bruno. Face à Gaïa. Huit conférences sur le Nouveau Régime Climatique. Paris: La découverte, 2015.

[8]     BONNEUIL, Christophe; FRESSOZ Jean-Baptiste. L’évènement anthropocène. La Terre, l’histoire et nous. Paris: Le Seuil, 2013.

[9]     DEWEY, John. Le public et ses problèmes (Traduit de l’anglais et préfacé par Joelle Zask). Pau: Gallimard- Folio, 2010.

[10]   HEEDE, Richard. “Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010.” Climate Accountability Institute (2013); CHANCEL, Lucas; PIKETTY, Thomas. Carbon and inequality: from Kyoto to Paris, 2015.

Para citar este texto:

LATOUR, Bruno. Onde está o poder? E quando o tivermos encontrado, o que fazer com ele? (Tradução por Igor Rolemberg) Blog do Labemus, 2020. [publicado em 27 de agosto de 2020]. Disponível em: https://blogdolabemus.com/2020/08/27/onde-esta-o-poder-e-quando-o-tivermos-encontrado-o-que-fazer-com-ele/(abrir em uma nova aba)

Referências bibliográficas:

BOLTANSKI, Luc. Enigmes et complots. Une enquête à propos d’enquêtes. Paris: Gallimard, 2012.

BONNEUIL, Christophe; FRESSOZ Jean-Baptiste. L’évènement anthropocène. La Terre, l’histoire et nous. Paris: Le Seuil, 2013.

CHANCEL, Lucas; PIKETTI Thomas. Carbon and inequality: from Kyoto to Paris, 2015.

DEWEY, John. Le public et ses problèmes (Traduit de l’anglais et préfacé par Joelle Zask). Pau: Gallimard- Folio, 2010.

GARUTTI, Francesco. Can design be devious ? 2015. Filme.

HEEDE, Richard. “Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010”. Climate Accountability Institute. 2013

JOERGES, Bernward. “Do Politics Have Artifacts”. Social Studies of Science, n.29, v.3, 1999, pp. 411-31.

LATOUR, Bruno. Pasteur: guerre et paix des microbes. Paris: La Découverte, 2001.

LATOUR, Bruno. Cogitamus. Six lettres sur les humanités scientifiques. Paris: La Découverte, 2010.

LATOUR, Bruno. Face à Gaïa. Huit conférences sur le Nouveau Régime Climatique. Paris: La découverte, 2015.

PADIS, Marc Olivier. “La passion du complot. Esprit, n. 419, 2015.

Viruses have big impacts on ecology and evolution as well as human health (The Economist)

economist.com

Aug 20th 2020 – 32-41 minutos


I
The outsiders inside

HUMANS ARE lucky to live a hundred years. Oak trees may live a thousand; mayflies, in their adult form, a single day. But they are all alive in the same way. They are made up of cells which embody flows of energy and stores of information. Their metabolisms make use of that energy, be it from sunlight or food, to build new molecules and break down old ones, using mechanisms described in the genes they inherited and may, or may not, pass on.

It is this endlessly repeated, never quite perfect reproduction which explains why oak trees, humans, and every other plant, fungus or single-celled organism you have ever seen or felt the presence of are all alive in the same way. It is the most fundamental of all family resemblances. Go far enough up any creature’s family tree and you will find an ancestor that sits in your family tree, too. Travel further and you will find what scientists call the last universal common ancestor, LUCA. It was not the first living thing. But it was the one which set the template for the life that exists today.

And then there are viruses. In viruses the link between metabolism and genes that binds together all life to which you are related, from bacteria to blue whales, is broken. Viral genes have no cells, no bodies, no metabolism of their own. The tiny particles, “virions”, in which those genes come packaged—the dot-studded disks of coronaviruses, the sinister, sinuous windings of Ebola, the bacteriophages with their science-fiction landing-legs that prey on microbes—are entirely inanimate. An individual animal, or plant, embodies and maintains the restless metabolism that made it. A virion is just an arrangement of matter.

The virus is not the virion. The virus is a process, not a thing. It is truly alive only in the cells of others, a virtual organism running on borrowed hardware to produce more copies of its genome. Some bide their time, letting the cell they share the life of live on. Others immediately set about producing enough virions to split their hosts from stem to stern.

The virus has no plan or desire. The simplest purposes of the simplest life—to maintain the difference between what is inside the cell and what is outside, to move towards one chemical or away from another—are entirely beyond it. It copies itself in whatever way it does simply because it has copied itself that way before, in other cells, in other hosts.

That is why, asked whether viruses are alive, Eckard Wimmer, a chemist and biologist who works at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, offers a yes-and-no. Viruses, he says, “alternate between nonliving and living phases”. He should know. In 2002 he became the first person in the world to take an array of nonliving chemicals and build a virion from scratch—a virion which was then able to get itself reproduced by infecting cells.

The fact that viruses have only a tenuous claim to being alive, though, hardly reduces their impact on things which are indubitably so. No other biological entities are as ubiquitous, and few as consequential. The number of copies of their genes to be found on Earth is beyond astronomical. There are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy and a couple of trillion galaxies in the observable universe. The virions in the surface waters of any smallish sea handily outnumber all the stars in all the skies that science could ever speak of.

Back on Earth, viruses kill more living things than any other type of predator. They shape the balance of species in ecosystems ranging from those of the open ocean to that of the human bowel. They spur evolution, driving natural selection and allowing the swapping of genes.

They may have been responsible for some of the most important events in the history of life, from the appearance of complex multicellular organisms to the emergence of DNA as a preferred genetic material. The legacy they have left in the human genome helps produce placentas and may shape the development of the brain. For scientists seeking to understand life’s origin, they offer a route into the past separate from the one mapped by humans, oak trees and their kin. For scientists wanting to reprogram cells and mend metabolisms they offer inspiration—and powerful tools.

II
A lifestyle for genes

THE IDEA of a last universal common ancestor provides a plausible and helpful, if incomplete, answer to where humans, oak trees and their ilk come from. There is no such answer for viruses. Being a virus is not something which provides you with a place in a vast, coherent family tree. It is more like a lifestyle—a way of being which different genes have discovered independently at different times. Some viral lineages seem to have begun quite recently. Others have roots that comfortably predate LUCA itself.

Disparate origins are matched by disparate architectures for information storage and retrieval. In eukaryotes—creatures, like humans, mushrooms and kelp, with complex cells—as in their simpler relatives, the bacteria and archaea, the genes that describe proteins are written in double-stranded DNA. When a particular protein is to be made, the DNA sequence of the relevant gene acts as a template for the creation of a complementary molecule made from another nucleic acid, RNA. This messenger RNA (mRNA) is what the cellular machinery tasked with translating genetic information into proteins uses in order to do so.

Because they, too, need to have proteins made to their specifications, viruses also need to produce mRNAs. But they are not restricted to using double-stranded DNA as a template. Viruses store their genes in a number of different ways, all of which require a different mechanism to produce mRNAs. In the early 1970s David Baltimore, one of the great figures of molecular biology, used these different approaches to divide the realm of viruses into seven separate classes (see diagram).

In four of these seven classes the viruses store their genes not in DNA but in RNA. Those of Baltimore group three use double strands of RNA. In Baltimore groups four and five the RNA is single-stranded; in group four the genome can be used directly as an mRNA; in group five it is the template from which mRNA must be made. In group six—the retroviruses, which include HIV—the viral RNA is copied into DNA, which then provides a template for mRNAs.

Because uninfected cells only ever make RNA on the basis of a DNA template, RNA-based viruses need distinctive molecular mechanisms those cells lack. Those mechanisms provide medicine with targets for antiviral attacks. Many drugs against HIV take aim at the system that makes DNA copies of RNA templates. Remdesivir (Veklury), a drug which stymies the mechanism that the simpler RNA viruses use to recreate their RNA genomes, was originally developed to treat hepatitis C (group four) and subsequently tried against the Ebola virus (group five). It is now being used against SARSCoV-2 (group four), the covid-19 virus.

Studies of the gene for that RNA-copying mechanism, RdRp, reveal just how confusing virus genealogy can be. Some viruses in groups three, four and five seem, on the basis of their RdRp-gene sequence, more closely related to members of one of the other groups than they are to all the other members of their own group. This may mean that quite closely related viruses can differ in the way they store their genomes; it may mean that the viruses concerned have swapped their RdRp genes. When two viruses infect the same cell at the same time such swaps are more or less compulsory. They are, among other things, one of the mechanisms by which viruses native to one species become able to infect another.

How do genes take on the viral lifestyle in the first place? There are two plausible mechanisms. Previously free-living creatures could give up metabolising and become parasitic, using other creatures’ cells as their reproductive stage. Alternatively genes allowed a certain amount of independence within one creature could have evolved the means to get into other creatures.

Living creatures contain various apparently independent bits of nucleic acid with an interest in reproducing themselves. The smallest, found exclusively in plants, are tiny rings of RNA called viroids, just a few hundred genetic letters long. Viroids replicate by hijacking a host enzyme that normally makes mRNAs. Once attached to a viroid ring, the enzyme whizzes round and round it, unable to stop, turning out a new copy of the viroid with each lap.

Viroids describe no proteins and do no good. Plasmids—somewhat larger loops of nucleic acid found in bacteria—do contain genes, and the proteins they describe can be useful to their hosts. Plasmids are sometimes, therefore, regarded as detached parts of a bacteria’s genome. But that detachment provides a degree of autonomy. Plasmids can migrate between bacterial cells, not always of the same species. When they do so they can take genetic traits such as antibiotic resistance from their old host to their new one.

Recently, some plasmids have been implicated in what looks like a progression to true virus-hood. A genetic analysis by Mart Krupovic of the Pasteur Institute suggests that the Circular Rep-Encoding Single-Strand-DNA (CRESSDNA) viruses, which infect bacteria, evolved from plasmids. He thinks that a DNA copy of the genes that another virus uses to create its virions, copied into a plasmid by chance, provided it with a way out of the cell. The analysis strongly suggests that CRESSDNA viruses, previously seen as a pretty closely related group, have arisen from plasmids this way on three different occasions.

Such jailbreaks have probably been going on since very early on in the history of life. As soon as they began to metabolise, the first proto-organisms would have constituted a niche in which other parasitic creatures could have lived. And biology abhors a vacuum. No niche goes unfilled if it is fillable.

It is widely believed that much of the evolutionary period between the origin of life and the advent of LUCA was spent in an “RNA world”—one in which that versatile substance both stored information, as DNA now does, and catalysed chemical reactions, as proteins now do. Set alongside the fact that some viruses use RNA as a storage medium today, this strongly suggests that the first to adopt the viral lifestyle did so too. Patrick Forterre, an evolutionary biologist at the Pasteur Institute with a particular interest in viruses (and the man who first popularised the term LUCA) thinks that the “RNA world” was not just rife with viruses. He also thinks they may have brought about its end.

The difference between DNA and RNA is not large: just a small change to one of the “letters” used to store genetic information and a minor modification to the backbone to which these letters are stuck. And DNA is a more stable molecule in which to store lots of information. But that is in part because DNA is inert. An RNA-world organism which rewrote its genes into DNA would cripple its metabolism, because to do so would be to lose the catalytic properties its RNA provided.

An RNA-world virus, having no metabolism of its own to undermine, would have had no such constraints if shifting to DNA offered an advantage. Dr Forterre suggests that this advantage may have lain in DNA’s imperviousness to attack. Host organisms today have all sorts of mechanisms for cutting up viral nucleic acids they don’t like the look of—mechanisms which biotechnologists have been borrowing since the 1970s, most recently in the form of tools based on a bacterial defence called CRISPR. There is no reason to imagine that the RNA-world predecessors of today’s cells did not have similar shears at their disposal. And a virus that made the leap to DNA would have been impervious to their blades.

Genes and the mechanisms they describe pass between viruses and hosts, as between viruses and viruses, all the time. Once some viruses had evolved ways of writing and copying DNA, their hosts would have been able to purloin them in order to make back-up copies of their RNA molecules. And so what began as a way of protecting viral genomes would have become the way life stores all its genes—except for those of some recalcitrant, contrary viruses.

III
The scythes of the seas

IT IS A general principle in biology that, although in terms of individual numbers herbivores outnumber carnivores, in terms of the number of species carnivores outnumber herbivores. Viruses, however, outnumber everything else in every way possible.

This makes sense. Though viruses can induce host behaviours that help them spread—such as coughing—an inert virion boasts no behaviour of its own that helps it stalk its prey. It infects only that which it comes into contact with. This is a clear invitation to flood the zone. In 1999 Roger Hendrix, a virologist, suggested that a good rule of thumb might be ten virions for every living individual creature (the overwhelming majority of which are single-celled bacteria and archaea). Estimates of the number of such creatures on the planet come out in the region of 1029-1030. If the whole Earth were broken up into pebbles, and each of those pebbles smashed into tens of thousands of specks of grit, you would still have fewer pieces of grit than the world has virions. Measurements, as opposed to estimates, produce numbers almost as arresting. A litre of seawater may contain more than 100bn virions; a kilogram of dried soil perhaps a trillion.

Metagenomics, a part of biology that looks at all the nucleic acid in a given sample to get a sense of the range of life forms within it, reveals that these tiny throngs are highly diverse. A metagenomic analysis of two surveys of ocean life, the Tara Oceans and Malaspina missions, by Ahmed Zayed of Ohio State University, found evidence of 200,000 different species of virus. These diverse species play an enormous role in the ecology of the oceans.

A litre of seawater may contain 100bn virions; a kilogram of dried soil perhaps a trillion

On land, most of the photosynthesis which provides the biomass and energy needed for life takes place in plants. In the oceans, it is overwhelmingly the business of various sorts of bacteria and algae collectively known as phytoplankton. These creatures reproduce at a terrific rate, and viruses kill them at a terrific rate, too. According to work by Curtis Suttle of the University of British Columbia, bacterial phytoplankton typically last less than a week before being killed by viruses.

This increases the overall productivity of the oceans by helping bacteria recycle organic matter (it is easier for one cell to use the contents of another if a virus helpfully lets them free). It also goes some way towards explaining what the great mid-20th-century ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson called “the paradox of the plankton”. Given the limited nature of the resources that single-celled plankton need, you would expect a few species particularly well adapted to their use to dominate the ecosystem. Instead, the plankton display great variety. This may well be because whenever a particular form of plankton becomes dominant, its viruses expand with it, gnawing away at its comparative success.

It is also possible that this endless dance of death between viruses and microbes sets the stage for one of evolution’s great leaps forward. Many forms of single-celled plankton have molecular mechanisms that allow them to kill themselves. They are presumably used when one cell’s sacrifice allows its sister cells—which are genetically identical—to survive. One circumstance in which such sacrifice seems to make sense is when a cell is attacked by a virus. If the infected cell can kill itself quickly (a process called apoptosis) it can limit the number of virions the virus is able to make. This lessens the chances that other related cells nearby will die. Some bacteria have been shown to use this strategy; many other microbes are suspected of it.

There is another situation where self-sacrifice is becoming conduct for a cell: when it is part of a multicellular organism. As such organisms grow, cells that were once useful to them become redundant; they have to be got rid of. Eugene Koonin of America’s National Institutes of Health and his colleagues have explored the idea that virus-thwarting self-sacrifice and complexity-permitting self-sacrifice may be related, with the latter descended from the former. Dr Koonin’s model also suggests that the closer the cells are clustered together, the more likely this act of self-sacrifice is to have beneficial consequences.

For such profound propinquity, move from the free-flowing oceans to the more structured world of soil, where potential self-sacrificers can nestle next to each other. Its structure makes soil harder to sift for genes than water is. But last year Mary Firestone of the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues used metagenomics to count 3,884 new viral species in a patch of Californian grassland. That is undoubtedly an underestimate of the total diversity; their technique could see only viruses with RNA genomes, thus missing, among other things, most bacteriophages.

Metagenomics can also be applied to biological samples, such as bat guano in which it picks up viruses from both the bats and their food. But for the most part the finding of animal viruses requires more specific sampling. Over the course of the 2010s PREDICT, an American-government project aimed at finding animal viruses, gathered over 160,000 animal and human tissue samples from 35 countries and discovered 949 novel viruses.

The people who put together PREDICT now have grander plans. They want a Global Virome Project to track down all the viruses native to the world’s 7,400 species of mammals and waterfowl—the reservoirs most likely to harbour viruses capable of making the leap into human beings. In accordance with the more-predator-species-than-prey rule they expect such an effort would find about 1.5m viruses, of which around 700,000 might be able to infect humans. A planning meeting in 2018 suggested that such an undertaking might take ten years and cost $4bn. It looked like a lot of money then. Today those arguing for a system that can provide advance warning of the next pandemic make it sound pretty cheap.

IV
Leaving their mark

THE TOLL which viruses have exacted throughout history suggests that they have left their mark on the human genome: things that kill people off in large numbers are powerful agents of natural selection. In 2016 David Enard, then at Stanford University and now at the University of Arizona, made a stab at showing just how much of the genome had been thus affected.

He and his colleagues started by identifying almost 10,000 proteins that seemed to be produced in all the mammals that had had their genomes sequenced up to that point. They then made a painstaking search of the scientific literature looking for proteins that had been shown to interact with viruses in some way or other. About 1,300 of the 10,000 turned up. About one in five of these proteins was connected to the immune system, and thus could be seen as having a professional interest in viral interaction. The others appeared to be proteins which the virus made use of in its attack on the host. The two cell-surface proteins that SARSCoV-2 uses to make contact with its target cells and inveigle its way into them would fit into this category.

The researchers then compared the human versions of the genes for their 10,000 proteins with those in other mammals, and applied a statistical technique that distinguishes changes that have no real impact from the sort of changes which natural selection finds helpful and thus tries to keep. Genes for virus-associated proteins turned out to be evolutionary hotspots: 30% of all the adaptive change was seen in the genes for the 13% of the proteins which interacted with viruses. As quickly as viruses learn to recognise and subvert such proteins, hosts must learn to modify them.

A couple of years later, working with Dmitri Petrov at Stanford, Dr Enard showed that modern humans have borrowed some of these evolutionary responses to viruses from their nearest relatives. Around 2-3% of the DNA in an average European genome has Neanderthal origins, a result of interbreeding 50,000 to 30,000 years ago. For these genes to have persisted they must be doing something useful—otherwise natural selection would have removed them. Dr Enard and Dr Petrov found that a disproportionate number described virus-interacting proteins; of the bequests humans received from their now vanished relatives, ways to stay ahead of viruses seem to have been among the most important.

Viruses do not just shape the human genome through natural selection, though. They also insert themselves into it. At least a twelfth of the DNA in the human genome is derived from viruses; by some measures the total could be as high as a quarter.

Retroviruses like HIV are called retro because they do things backwards. Where cellular organisms make their RNA from DNA templates, retroviruses do the reverse, making DNA copies of their RNA genomes. The host cell obligingly makes these copies into double-stranded DNA which can be stitched into its own genome. If this happens in a cell destined to give rise to eggs or sperm, the viral genes are passed from parent to offspring, and on down the generations. Such integrated viral sequences, known as endogenous retroviruses (ERVs), account for 8% of the human genome.

This is another example of the way the same viral trick can be discovered a number of times. Many bacteriophages are also able to stitch copies of their genome into their host’s DNA, staying dormant, or “temperate”, for generations. If the cell is doing well and reproducing regularly, this quiescence is a good way for the viral genes to make more copies of themselves. When a virus senses that its easy ride may be coming to an end, though—for example, if the cell it is in shows signs of stress—it will abandon ship. What was latent becomes “lytic” as the viral genes produce a sufficient number of virions to tear the host apart.

Though some of their genes are associated with cancers, in humans ERVs do not burst back into action in later generations. Instead they have proved useful resources of genetic novelty. In the most celebrated example, at least ten different mammalian lineages make use of a retroviral gene for one of their most distinctively mammalian activities: building a placenta.

The placenta is a unique organ because it requires cells from the mother and the fetus to work together in order to pass oxygen and sustenance in one direction and carbon dioxide and waste in the other. One way this intimacy is achieved safely is through the creation of a tissue in which the membranes between cells are broken down to form a continuous sheet of cellular material.

The protein that allows new cells to merge themselves with this layer, syncytin-1, was originally used by retroviruses to join the external membranes of their virions to the external membranes of cells, thus gaining entry for the viral proteins and nucleic acids. Not only have different sorts of mammals co-opted this membrane-merging trick—other creatures have made use of it, too. The mabuya, a long-tailed skink which unusually for a lizard nurtures its young within its body, employs a retroviral syncytin protein to produce a mammalian-looking placenta. The most recent shared ancestor of mabuyas and mammals died out 80m years before the first dinosaur saw the light of day, but both have found the same way to make use of the viral gene.

You put your line-1 in, you take your line-1 out

This is not the only way that animals make use of their ERVs. Evidence has begun to accumulate that genetic sequences derived from ERVs are quite frequently used to regulate the activity of genes of more conventional origin. In particular, RNA molecules transcribed from an ERV called HERV-K play a crucial role in providing the stem cells found in embryos with their “pluripotency”—the ability to create specialised daughter cells of various different types. Unfortunately, when expressed in adults HERV-K can also be responsible for cancers of the testes.

As well as containing lots of semi-decrepit retroviruses that can be stripped for parts, the human genome also holds a great many copies of a “retrotransposon” called LINE-1. This a piece of DNA with a surprisingly virus-like way of life; it is thought by some biologists to have, like ERVs, a viral origin. In its full form, LINE-1 is a 6,000-letter sequence of DNA which describes a “reverse transcriptase” of the sort that retroviruses use to make DNA from their RNA genomes. When LINE-1 is transcribed into an mRNA and that mRNA subsequently translated to make proteins, the reverse transcriptase thus created immediately sets to work on the mRNA used to create it, using it as the template for a new piece of DNA which is then inserted back into the genome. That new piece of DNA is in principle identical to the piece that acted as the mRNA’s original template. The LINE-1 element has made a copy of itself.

In the 100m years or so that this has been going on in humans and the species from which they are descended the LINE-1 element has managed to pepper the genome with a staggering 500,000 copies of itself. All told, 17% of the human genome is taken up by these copies—twice as much as by the ERVs.

Most of the copies are severely truncated and incapable of copying themselves further. But some still have the knack, and this capability may be being put to good use. Fred Gage and his colleagues at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in San Diego, argue that LINE-1 elements have an important role in the development of the brain. In 2005 Dr Gage discovered that in mouse embryos—specifically, in the brains of those embryos—about 3,000 LINE-1 elements are still able to operate as retrotransposons, putting new copies of themselves into the genome of a cell and thus of all its descendants.

Brains develop through proliferation followed by pruning. First, nerve cells multiply pell-mell; then the cell-suicide process that makes complex life possible prunes them back in a way that looks a lot like natural selection. Dr Gage suspects that the movement of LINE-1 transposons provides the variety in the cell population needed for this selection process. Choosing between cells with LINE-1 in different places, he thinks, could be a key part of the process from which the eventual neural architecture emerges. What is true in mice is, as he showed in 2009, true in humans, too. He is currently developing a technique for looking at the process in detail by comparing, post mortem, the genomes of different brain cells from single individuals to see if their LINE-1 patterns vary in the ways that his theory would predict.

V
Promised lands

HUMAN EVOLUTION may have used viral genes to make big-brained live-born life possible; but viral evolution has used them to kill off those big brains on a scale that is easily forgotten. Compare the toll to that of war. In the 20th century, the bloodiest in human history, somewhere between 100m and 200m people died as a result of warfare. The number killed by measles was somewhere in the same range; the number who died of influenza probably towards the top of it; and the number killed by smallpox—300m-500m—well beyond it. That is why the eradication of smallpox from the wild, achieved in 1979 by a globally co-ordinated set of vaccination campaigns, stands as one of the all-time-great humanitarian triumphs.

Other eradications should eventually follow. Even in their absence, vaccination has led to a steep decline in viral deaths. But viruses against which there is no vaccine, either because they are very new, like SARSCoV-2, or peculiarly sneaky, like HIV, can still kill millions.

Reducing those tolls is a vital aim both for research and for public-health policy. Understandably, a far lower priority is put on the benefits that viruses can bring. This is mostly because they are as yet much less dramatic. They are also much less well understood.

The viruses most prevalent in the human body are not those which infect human cells. They are those which infect the bacteria that live on the body’s surfaces, internal and external. The average human “microbiome” harbours perhaps 100trn of these bacteria. And where there are bacteria, there are bacteriophages shaping their population.

The microbiome is vital for good health; when it goes wrong it can mess up a lot else. Gut bacteria seem to have a role in maintaining, and possibly also causing, obesity in the well-fed and, conversely, in tipping the poorly fed into a form of malnutrition called kwashiorkor. Ill-regulated gut bacteria have also been linked, if not always conclusively, with diabetes, heart disease, cancers, depression and autism. In light of all this, the question “who guards the bacterial guardians?” is starting to be asked.

The viruses that prey on the bacteria are an obvious answer. Because the health of their host’s host—the possessor of the gut they find themselves in—matters to these phages, they have an interest in keeping the microbiome balanced. Unbalanced microbiomes allow pathogens to get a foothold. This may explain a curious detail of a therapy now being used as a treatment of last resort against Clostridium difficile, a bacterium that causes life-threatening dysentery. The therapy in question uses a transfusion of faecal matter, with its attendant microbes, from a healthy individual to reboot the patient’s microbiome. Such transplants, it appears, are more likely to succeed if their phage population is particularly diverse.

Medicine is a very long way from being able to use phages to fine-tune the microbiome. But if a way of doing so is found, it will not in itself be a revolution. Attempts to use phages to promote human health go back to their discovery in 1917, by Félix d’Hérelle, a French microbiologist, though those early attempts at therapy were not looking to restore balance and harmony. On the basis that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, doctors simply treated bacterial infections with phages thought likely to kill the bacteria.

The arrival of antibiotics saw phage therapy abandoned in most places, though it persisted in the Soviet Union and its satellites. Various biotechnology companies think they may now be able to revive the tradition—and make it more effective. One option is to remove the bits of the viral genome that let phages settle down to a temperate life in a bacterial genome, leaving them no option but to keep on killing. Another is to write their genes in ways that avoid the defences with which bacteria slice up foreign DNA.

The hope is that phage therapy will become a backup in difficult cases, such as infection with antibiotic-resistant bugs. There have been a couple of well-publicised one-off successes outside phage therapy’s post-Soviet homelands. In 2016 Tom Patterson, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, was successfully treated for an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection with specially selected (but un-engineered) phages. In 2018 Graham Hatfull of the University of Pittsburgh used a mixture of phages, some engineered so as to be incapable of temperance, to treat a 16-year-old British girl who had a bad bacterial infection after a lung transplant. Clinical trials are now getting under way for phage treatments aimed at urinary-tract infections caused by Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus infections that can lead to sepsis and Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections that cause complications in people who have cystic fibrosis.

Viruses which attack bacteria are not the only ones genetic engineers have their eyes on. Engineered viruses are of increasing interest to vaccine-makers, to cancer researchers and to those who want to treat diseases by either adding new genes to the genome or disabling faulty ones. If you want to get a gene into a specific type of cell, a virion that recognises something about such cells may often prove a good tool.

The vaccine used to contain the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past two years was made by engineering Indiana vesiculovirus, which infects humans but cannot reproduce in them, so that it expresses a protein found on the surface of the Ebola virus; thus primed, the immune system responds to Ebola much more effectively. The World Health Organisation’s current list of 29 covid-19 vaccines in clinical trials features six versions of other viruses engineered to look a bit like SARS-CoV-2. One is based on a strain of measles that has long been used as a vaccine against that disease.

Viruses engineered to engender immunity against pathogens, to kill cancer cells or to encourage the immune system to attack them, or to deliver needed genes to faulty cells all seem likely to find their way into health care. Other engineered viruses are more worrying. One way to understand how viruses spread and kill is to try and make particularly virulent ones. In 2005, for example, Terrence Tumpey of America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and his colleagues tried to understand the deadliness of the influenza virus responsible for the pandemic of 1918-20 by taking a more benign strain, adding what seemed to be distinctive about the deadlier one and trying out the result on mice. It was every bit as deadly as the original, wholly natural version had been.

The use of engineered pathogens as weapons of war is of dubious utility, completely illegal and repugnant to almost all

Because such “gain of function” research could, if ill-conceived or poorly implemented, do terrible damage, it requires careful monitoring. And although the use of engineered pathogens as weapons of war is of dubious utility—such weapons are hard to aim and hard to stand down, and it is not easy to know how much damage they have done—as well as being completely illegal and repugnant to almost all, such possibilities will and should remain a matter of global concern.

Information which, for billions of years, has only ever come into its own within infected cells can now be inspected on computer screens and rewritten at will. The power that brings is sobering. It marks a change in the history of both viruses and people—a change which is perhaps as important as any of those made by modern biology. It is constraining a small part of the viral world in a way which, so far, has been to people’s benefit. It is revealing that world’s further reaches in a way which cannot but engender awe. ■

Editor’s note: Some of our covid-19 coverage is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our hub

This article appeared in the Essay section of the print edition under the headline “The outsiders inside”

The aliens among us. How viruses shape the world (The Economist)

They don’t just cause pandemics

Leaders – Aug 22nd 2020 edition

HUMANS THINK of themselves as the world’s apex predators. Hence the silence of sabre-tooth tigers, the absence of moas from New Zealand and the long list of endangered megafauna. But SARSCoV-2 shows how people can also end up as prey. Viruses have caused a litany of modern pandemics, from covid-19, to HIV/AIDS to the influenza outbreak in 1918-20, which killed many more people than the first world war. Before that, the colonisation of the Americas by Europeans was abetted—and perhaps made possible—by epidemics of smallpox, measles and influenza brought unwittingly by the invaders, which annihilated many of the original inhabitants.

The influence of viruses on life on Earth, though, goes far beyond the past and present tragedies of a single species, however pressing they seem. Though the study of viruses began as an investigation into what appeared to be a strange subset of pathogens, recent research puts them at the heart of an explanation of the strategies of genes, both selfish and otherwise.

Viruses are unimaginably varied and ubiquitous. And it is becoming clear just how much they have shaped the evolution of all organisms since the very beginnings of life. In this, they demonstrate the blind, pitiless power of natural selection at its most dramatic. And—for one group of brainy bipedal mammals that viruses helped create—they also present a heady mix of threat and opportunity.

As our essay in this week’s issue explains, viruses are best thought of as packages of genetic material that exploit another organism’s metabolism in order to reproduce. They are parasites of the purest kind: they borrow everything from the host except the genetic code that makes them what they are. They strip down life itself to the bare essentials of information and its replication. If the abundance of viruses is anything to go by, that is a very successful strategy indeed.

The world is teeming with them. One analysis of seawater found 200,000 different viral species, and it was not setting out to be comprehensive. Other research suggests that a single litre of seawater may contain more than 100bn virus particles, and a kilo of dried soil ten times that number. Altogether, according to calculations on the back of a very big envelope, the world might contain 1031 of the things—that is one followed by 31 zeros, far outnumbering all other forms of life on the planet.

As far as anyone can tell, viruses—often of many different sorts—have adapted to attack every organism that exists. One reason they are powerhouses of evolution is that they oversee a relentless and prodigious slaughter, mutating as they do so. This is particularly clear in the oceans, where a fifth of single-celled plankton are killed by viruses every day. Ecologically, this promotes diversity by scything down abundant species, thus making room for rarer ones. The more common an organism, the more likely it is that a local plague of viruses specialised to attack it will develop, and so keep it in check.

This propensity to cause plagues is also a powerful evolutionary stimulus for prey to develop defences, and these defences sometimes have wider consequences. For example, one explanation for why a cell may deliberately destroy itself is if its sacrifice lowers the viral load on closely related cells nearby. That way, its genes, copied in neighbouring cells, are more likely to survive. It so happens that such altruistic suicide is a prerequisite for cells to come together and form complex organisms, such as pea plants, mushrooms and human beings.

The other reason viruses are engines of evolution is that they are transport mechanisms for genetic information. Some viral genomes end up integrated into the cells of their hosts, where they can be passed down to those organisms’ descendants. Between 8% and 25% of the human genome seems to have such viral origins. But the viruses themselves can in turn be hijacked, and their genes turned to new uses. For example, the ability of mammals to bear live young is a consequence of a viral gene being modified to permit the formation of placentas. And even human brains may owe their development in part to the movement within them of virus-like elements that create genetic differences between neurons within a single organism.

Evolution’s most enthralling insight is that breathtaking complexity can emerge from the sustained, implacable and nihilistic competition within and between organisms. The fact that the blind watchmaker has equipped you with the capacity to read and understand these words is in part a response to the actions of swarms of tiny, attacking replicators that have been going on, probably, since life first emerged on Earth around 4bn years ago. It is a startling example of that principle in action—and viruses have not finished yet.

Humanity’s unique, virus-chiselled consciousness opens up new avenues to deal with the viral threat and to exploit it. This starts with the miracle of vaccination, which defends against a pathogenic attack before it is launched. Thanks to vaccines, smallpox is no more, having taken some 300m lives in the 20th century. Polio will one day surely follow. New research prompted by the covid-19 pandemic will enhance the power to examine the viral realm and the best responses to it that bodies can muster—taking the defence against viruses to a new level.

Another avenue for progress lies in the tools for manipulating organisms that will come from an understanding of viruses and the defences against them. Early versions of genetic engineering relied on restriction enzymes—molecular scissors with which bacteria cut up viral genes and which biotechnologists employ to move genes around. The latest iteration of biotechnology, gene editing letter by letter, which is known as CRISPR, makes use of a more precise antiviral mechanism.

From the smallest beginnings

The natural world is not kind. A virus-free existence is an impossibility so deeply unachievable that its desirability is meaningless. In any case, the marvellous diversity of life rests on viruses which, as much as they are a source of death, are also a source of richness and of change. Marvellous, too, is the prospect of a world where viruses become a source of new understanding for humans—and kill fewer of them than ever before. ■

Correction: An earlier version of this article got its maths wrong. 1031 is one followed by 31 zeroes, not ten followed by 31 zeroes as we first wrote. Sorry.

Djamila Ribeiro: Salta na biografia de Claudia Andujar o seu compromisso com povos ameaçados (Folha de S.Paulo)

www1.folha.uol.com.br

Djamila Ribeiro, 27 de agosto de 2020

Recebi de presente de um querido amigo o livro “A Luta Yanomami”, de Claudia Andujar (editado pelo Instituto Moreira Salles, org. Thyago Nogueira).

Andujar dedicou parte considerável de sua vida a fotografar o povo indígena na fronteira entre Brasil e Venezuela, no extremo norte da Amazônia. Além do talento, que refletiu a tradição, a comunidade, a espiritualidade, as dores e perdas pela integração forçada por projetos de colonização da região implementados pelo regime militar, passando por suas próprias incursões experimentais na fotografia, salta na biografia da fotógrafa o seu compromisso com os direitos dos povos constantemente ameaçados e atacados pelos interesses predatórios do garimpo nas jazidas minerais da área, pelas doenças ocidentais e pelos governos.

Fabio Cypriano, estudioso da obra de Andujar, analisa no artigo “Quando o museu se torna um canal de informação” que a exposição “‘Luta Yanomami’ foi vista no início de um governo que se caracteriza por perseguir a causa indígena, ocupando um espaço nobre na avenida Paulista em defesa dessa causa urgente, o que foi, afinal, sempre o objetivo de Andujar”.

O livro, com fotos colhidas durante uma vida, que neste ano completou 89 anos, tem valor cultural inestimável e me aproximou dos ianomâmis, a quem peço licença para fazer uma ligeira visita pelas imagens.

Ao visitar, peço a bênção de Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, xamã, porta-voz e escritor, junto ao antropólogo Bruce Albert, da obra monumental “A Queda do Céu”, livro que narra a vida de Kopenawa até se tornar líder ianomâmi, fazendo dessa trajetória uma incursão na espiritualidade, na visão de mundo e de conceitos a partir da matriz de seu povo, bem como a denúncia de todos os graves ataques do garimpo na região.

É uma obra rara em um país que costuma apagar tais saberes do debate público. Ao explicar a origem de seu nome, Kopenawa, este de origem guerreira presenteado a ele pelos espíritos xapiri “em razão da fúria que havia em mim para enfrentar os brancos”, explica um pouco de seu povo.

“Primeiro foi Davi, o nome que os brancos me atribuíram na infância, depois foi Kopenawa, o que me deram mais tarde os espíritos vespa. E por fim acrescentei Yanomami, que é palavra sólida que não pode desaparecer, pois é o nome do meu povo. Eu não nasci numa terra sem árvores. Minha carne não vem do esperma de um branco. Sou filho dos habitantes das terras altas da floresta e caí no solo da vagina de uma mulher yanomami. Sou filho da gente à qual Omama deu a existência no primeiro tempo. Nasci nesta floresta e sempre vivi nela. Hoje, meus filhos e netos, por sua vez, nela crescem. Por isso meus dizeres são os de um verdadeiro yanomami.”

As palavras de Kopenawa ecoam pelo mundo. Em março, ele esteve na ONU para denunciar avanços contra os índios. O xamã denunciou o garimpo predatório sob a chancela do governo, eleito sob um discurso de ódio contra as populações originais desse país: “Essas são as palavras daquele que se faz de grande homem no Brasil e se diz presidente da República. É o que ele verdadeiramente diz: ‘Eu sou o dono dessa floresta, desses rios, desse subsolo, dos minérios, do ouro e das pedras preciosas! Tudo isso me pertence, então, vão lá buscar tudo e trazer para a cidade. Faremos tudo virar mercadoria!’. É o que os brancos acham e é com essas palavras que destroem a floresta, desde sempre. Mas, hoje, estão acabando com o pouco que resta. Eles já destruíram as nossas trilhas, sujaram os rios, envenenaram os peixes, queimaram as árvores e os animais que caçamos. Eles nos matam também com as suas epidemias”.

As palavras de Kopenawa, ditas antes da eclosão da pandemia no Brasil, ganharam contornos ainda mais sombrios. Desde 2019, o país vinha apresentando retrocessos desastrosos na preservação de terras indígenas. Segundo relatório do Instituto Socioambiental, a derrubada da floresta nas terras ianomâmi cresceu 113% no último ano, sendo que o aumento foi de 80% nas terras indígenas.

No cenário de pandemia, a situação é trágica. Somado ao desmonte em órgãos de proteção indígena, a subnotificação dos números de indígenas mortos pelo Ministério da Saúde, bem como o demorado e insuficiente plano para prevenção de contágio em comunidades indígenas e quilombolas com vetos que vão da obrigação do governo em fornecer água potável até a facilitação ao acesso ao auxílio emergencial, o governo segue com seu projeto de genocídio da população e deve ser responsabilizado, na pessoa do presidente, no Tribunal Penal Internacional, no qual está denunciado. Havendo justiça, assim será.

Beyoncé’s ‘Black Is King’ and the Pitfalls of African Consciousness (Black Perspectives)

By Russell Rickford

Beyoncé’s ‘Black Is King’ (Photo: Disney)

African American imaginings of Africa often intermingle with–and help illuminate–intimate hopes and desires for Black life in the United States. So when an African American pop star offers an extended meditation on Africa, the resulting work reflects not just her particular visions of the continent and its diaspora, but also larger aspirations for a collective Black future.

Black is King, Beyoncé’s elaborate, new marriage of music video and movie, is a finely-textured collage of cultural meaning. Though it is not possible, in the scope of this essay, to interpret the film’s full array of metaphors, one may highlight certain motifs and attempt to grasp their social implications.

An extravagant technical composition, Black is King is also a pastiche of symbols and ideologies. It belongs to a venerable African American tradition of crafting images of Africa that are designed to redeem the entire Black world. The film’s depiction of luminous, dignified Black bodies and lush landscapes is a retort to the contemptuous West and to its condescending discourses of African danger, disease and degeneration.

Black is King rebukes those tattered, colonialist tropes while evoking the spirit of Pan African unity. It falls short, however, as a portrait of popular liberation. In a sense, the picture is a sophisticated work of political deception. Its aesthetic of African majesty seems especially emancipatory in a time of coronavirus, murderous cops and vulgar Black death. One is almost tempted to view the film as another iteration of the principles of mass solidarity and resistance that galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.

But Black is King is neither radical nor fundamentally liberatory. Its vision of Africa as a site of splendor and spiritual renewal draws on both postcolonial ideals of modernity and mystical notions of a premodern past. Yet for all its ingenuity, the movie remains trapped within the framework of capitalist decadence that has fabulously enriched its producer and principal performer, Beyoncé herself. Far from exotic, the film’s celebration of aristocracy and its equation of power and status with the consumption of luxury goods exalts the system of class exploitation that continues to degrade Black life on both sides of the Atlantic.

That said, the politics of Black is King are complicated. The picture is compelling precisely because it appears to subvert the logic of global white supremacy. Its affirming representations of Blackness and its themes of ebony kinship will resonate with many viewers, but will hold special significance for African Americans, for whom Africa remains an abiding source of inspiration and identity. Indeed, Black is King seems purposefully designed to appeal to diasporic sensibilities within African American culture.

At the heart of the production lies the idea of a fertile and welcoming homeland. Black is King presents Africa as a realm of possibility. It plays on the African American impulse to sentimentalize the continent as a sanctuary from racial strife and as a source of purity and regeneration. Though the movie does not explicitly address the prospect of African American return or “repatriation” to Africa, allusions to such a reunion shape many of its scenes. No doubt some African American viewers will discover in the film the allure of a psychological escape to a glorious mother continent, a place where lost bonds of ancestry and culture are magically restored.

The problem is not just that such an Africa does not exist. All historically displaced groups romanticize “the old country.” African Americans who idealize “the Motherland” are no different in this respect. But by portraying Africa as the site of essentially harmonious civilizations, Black is King becomes the latest cultural product to erase the realities of class relations on the continent. That deletion, which few viewers are likely to notice, robs the picture of whatever potential it may have had to inspire a concrete Pan African solidarity based on recognition of the shared conditions of dispossession that mark Black populations at home and abroad.

To understand the contradictions of Black is King, one must examine the class dynamics hidden beneath its spectacles of African nobility. The movie, which depicts a young boy’s circuitous journey to the throne, embodies Afrocentrism’s fascination with monarchical authority. It is not surprising that African Americans should embrace regal images of Africa, a continent that is consistently misrepresented and denigrated in the West. Throughout their experience of subjugation in the New World, Black people have sought to construct meaningful paradigms of African affinity. Not infrequently, they have done so by claiming royal lineage or by associating themselves with dynastic Egypt, Ethiopia and other imperial civilizations.

The danger of such vindicationist narratives is that they mask the repressive character of highly stratified societies. Ebony royals are still royals. They exercise the prerogatives of hereditary rule. And invariably, the subjects over whom they reign, and whose lives they control, are Black. African Americans, one should recall, also hail from the ranks of a service class. They have good cause to eschew models of rigid social hierarchy and to pursue democratic themes in art and politics. Black is King hardly empowers them by portraying monarchy as a symbol of grandeur rather than as a system of coercion.

There are other troubling allusions in the film. One scene casts Beyoncé and her family members as African oligarchs. The characters signal their opulence by inhabiting a sprawling mansion complete with servants, marble statues and manicured lawns. Refinement is the intended message. Yet the conspicuous consumption, the taste for imported luxury products, the mimicry of European high culture and the overall display of ostentation call to mind the lifestyles of a notorious generation of postcolonial African dictators. Many of these Cold War rulers amassed vast personal wealth while their compatriots wallowed in poverty. Rising to power amid the drama of African independence, they nevertheless facilitated the reconquest of the continent by Western financial interests.

Black is King does not depict any particular historical figures from this stratum of African elites. (Some of the movie’s costumes pair leopard skin prints with finely tailored suits in a style that is reminiscent of flamboyant statesmen such as Mobutu Sese Seko of the Congo.) However, by presenting the African leisure class as an object of adulation, the film glamorizes private accumulation and the kind of empty materialism that defined the comprador officials who oversaw Africa’s descent into neocolonial dependency.

Black is King is, of course, a Disney venture. One would hardly expect a multinational corporation to sponsor a radical critique of social relations in the Global South. (It is worth mentioning that in recent years the Disney Company has come under fire for allowing some of its merchandise to be produced in Chinese sweatshops.) Small wonder that Disney and Beyoncé, herself a stupendously rich mogul, have combined to sell western audiences a lavishly fabricated Africa—one that is entirely devoid of class conflict.

Anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon once warned, in a chapter titled “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” that the African postcolonial bourgeoisie would manipulate the symbols of Black cultural and political autonomy to advance its own narrow agenda. Black is King adds a new twist to the scenario. This time an African American megastar and entrepreneur has appropriated African nationalist and Pan Africanist imagery to promote the spirit of global capitalism.

In the end, Black is King must be read as a distinctly African American fantasy of Africa. It is a compendium of popular ideas about the continent as seen by Black westerners. The Africa of this evocation is natural and largely unspoiled. It is unabashedly Black. It is diverse but not especially complex, for an aura of camaraderie supersedes its ethnic, national and religious distinctions. This Africa is a tableau. It is a repository for the Black diaspora’s psychosocial ambitions and dreams of transnational belonging.

What the Africa of Black is King is not is ontologically African. Perhaps the African characters and dancers who populate its scenes are more than just props. But Beyoncé is the picture’s essential subject, and it is largely through her eyes—which is to say, western eyes—that we observe the people of the continent. If the extras in the film are elegant, they are also socially subordinate. Their role is to adorn the mostly African American elites to whom the viewer is expected to relate.

There are reasons to relish the pageantry of Black is King, especially in a time of acute racial trauma. Yet the movie’s mystique of cultural authenticity and benevolent monarchy should not obscure the material realities of everyday life. Neoliberal governance, extractive capitalism and militarism continue to spawn social and ecological devastation in parts of Africa, the Americas and beyond. Confronting those interwoven realities means developing a concrete, global analysis while resisting metaphysical visions of the world.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Russell Rickford

Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of ‘We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination.’ A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.

O Brasil vive a banalização da morte? (Deutsche Welle)

Pandemia

23.08.2020, por Edison Veiga

Invisível para muitos, a maior tragédia sanitária da história brasileira virou uma macabra estatística. A ilusão da volta ao normal, dizem antropólogos, sociólogos e psicólogos, esconde uma espécie de negação coletiva.

Protesto da ONG Rio da Paz nas areias da praia de Copacabana

Há mais de três meses, em 19 de maio, o Brasil registrou pela primeira vez mais de mil mortos em 24 horas em decorrência da covid-19. Desde então, a situação epidemiológica do país, que já soma oficialmente mais de 113 mil óbitos pela pandemia, estabilizou-se em um trágico platô.

Se a situação sanitária parece longe de estar sob controle, por outro lado os discursos são de retomada de economia: há dois meses as atividades vêm sendo gradualmente reiniciadas em todo o território nacional, o isolamento social se afrouxa, e está sendo discutida a reabertura das escolas.

Para o antropólogo, cientista social e historiador Claudio Bertolli Filho, professor da Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp) e autor do livro História da Saúde Pública no Brasil, o país vive um cenário de “banalização da morte”.

Ele entende que isso é decorrente de uma dimensão política — a maneira como o governo federal conduziu e conduz a situação —, de uma aceitação social — o discurso de que “demos azar” ou de que quem tem comorbidades iria “acabar morrendo mesmo” —, e por fim, de aspectos culturais.

“O presidente Jair Bolsonaro é fruto da sociedade brasileira, que, historicamente, banalizou a morte, desde aquele papo que ‘bandido bom é bandido morto'”, diz Bertolli Filho à DW Brasil. “Há ainda uma tendência de nossa cultura, para sobrevivermos psicologicamente, a enfrentar o momento pandêmico negando as mortes, mostrando-nos imunes a elas.”

“É quando rejeito pensar que aquele que morreu é parecido comigo e eventualmente poderia ser eu próprio. Quem morreu é ‘o outro’, o ‘da periferia’, o que ‘tinha comorbidades’, o que ‘não seguiu as normas sanitárias'”, exemplifica o acadêmico.

Já para o historiador e sociólogo Mauro Iasi, professor da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) e autor de Política, Estado e Ideologia, a sequência diária de mortes, transformadas em estatística, acaba naturalizando-as à população.

“Quando nos vemos diante de um número elevado de mortes, como em um acidente, por exemplo, isso nos choca pela quebra desta aparente casualidade. No caso da pandemia, o ritmo diário das mortes, sua matematização pelas estatísticas, tende a devolver o fenômeno para o campo da casualidade, naturalizando-o”, argumenta ele.

Iasi exemplifica citando as mortes provocadas anualmente pela ação da Polícia Militar no Brasil — 5.804 em 2019. “A rotinização do fato faz com que se banalize o fenômeno, como parte da vida e, portanto, abrindo espaço para sua negação.”

Pesquisador do Núcleo de Estudos da Violência da Universidade de São Paulo (USP), o jornalista, economista e cientista político Bruno Paes Manso compara a sensação transmitida pelas mortes do coronavírus àquela em relação as vítimas de homicídio no país.

“Os grupos que morrem são vistos como aqueles que, de alguma forma, tinham justificativa para morrer. No caso dos homicídios, são as pessoas ‘que procuraram seu próprio destino’. [Para a opinião pública] a vítima é culpada da morte: são negros, pobres, moradores de periferia, suspeitos de serem traficantes”, comenta. “Existe uma certa ilusão de que as mortes se restringem a determinados grupos vistos pelas pessoas como aqueles que ‘podem morrer’. Isso gera não a banalização, mas uma tolerância a esse tipo de ocorrência.”

Ele acredita em uma lógica um tanto parecida nos óbitos decorrentes do coronavírus. Na racionalização, aponta o pesquisador, a opinião geral é de que a doença não atingiria os próximos, mas sim aqueles vistos como “o outro”: o idoso, aquele com comorbidades, os de alguma forma mais vulneráveis. Este raciocínio é balizado pelo que ocorre nas principais cidades — em geral, os distritos com maior número de mortos estão localizados nas periferias.

Desamparo

“O medo da morte iminente que vem junto com a pandemia mobiliza tanto conteúdos de medo e de desamparo, quanto uma espécie de negação coletiva, já que não existe nenhuma figura real de autoridade, nem na ciência, nem na política, que dê conta de ‘funcionar’ como figuras paternas ou maternas que possam cuidar ou proteger contra a morte”, analisa a psicóloga Nancy Ramacciotti de Oliveira-Monteiro, professora da Universidade Federal de São Paulo (Unifesp). “Até porque, em todo o mundo, por enquanto, ninguém sabe ainda como vencer essa ameaça comum a todos os seres humanos, com exceção da esperada chegada de vacinas.”

Ela lembra que o fato de essas mortes serem divulgadas diariamente por meio de estatísticas numéricas também dificulta a “identificação” por parte da população. Isso só não ocorre, pontua a professora, quando as mortes chegam a círculos próximos ou vitimizam alguma celebridade.

Para o psicólogo Ronaldo Pilati, professor da Universidade de Brasília (UnB), o fenômeno não pode ser chamado de “banalização”, mas sim de “minimização”. Ao recordar da comoção que houve no Brasil quando a Itália registrava cerca de mil mortes em um dia, por exemplo, ele ressalta que era um momento em que os brasileiros estavam “mais atentos e conectados à questão”, já que o mês de março foi quando diversas medidas de quarentena e isolamento social foram implementadas de fato.

“Com o passar do tempo e a maneira ineficiente com que o Brasil enfrentou a pandemia, houve uma mudança de comportamento”, observa. “Não houve enfrentamento coordenado [da questão] e isso confirmou a expectativa de desamparo que o brasileiro tem quando depende do Estado para a resolução de problemas.”

No livro Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil, a antropóloga americana Nancy Scheper-Hughes relata como mães brasileiras de favelas com altos índices de mortalidade infantil acabam lidando com os óbitos de seus filhos. Para a pesquisadora, a impotência faz com que essas mulheres acabem se conformando com a partida daqueles “mais fracos”, exercendo uma espécie de triagem para favorecer os bebês mais saudáveis, com mais “talento para viver”.

Professor da Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp), o antropólogo e sociólogo Marko Monteiro concorda que essa sensação é decorrente da desigualdade social brasileira. “Convivemos com a morte historicamente, desde a formação do país, a maneira violenta como foi construída a nação. Nossas ações cotidianas são permeadas por violência”, resume. “A banalização é consequência disso: os números mostram que quem está morrendo mais são as pessoas de áreas periféricas, negras, sem acesso… São os fatores modificáveis.”

“Então temos mecanismos sociais e psicológicos para conviver com essas mortes, que muitos consideram inevitáveis. É a clássica atitude do ‘eu não sou coveiro’, do ‘e daí?’… Por que isso ressoa em muita gente? Porque há a ideia de as mortes eram inevitáveis, que essas pessoas morreriam de qualquer jeito”, afirma.

Neutralidade é um lugar que não existe (Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil)

Acervo Online | Brasil por Carla Rodrigues 19 de agosto de 2020

A história da minha educação para o racismo me diz que fui racializada como branca para ser racista.

Sou branca e fui criada como branca. Mais do que isso, fui educada para saber identificar os fenótipos das pessoas negras, de modo a estabelecer rigorosas distinções entre pessoas brancas, pessoas então chamadas de “mulatas” e pessoas negras. Cresci aprendendo que pessoas negras são sujas e que a cor preta estava associada ao nojo, ao abjeto. Na escola progressista em que estudei, havia apenas duas pessoas negras, ambas filhas de funcionários. Durante décadas, escutei a exaltação dos ancestrais portugueses e italianos, que nos legaram pele branca, cabelos lisos e, no meu caso, olhos azuis, joia rara na família e objeto de disputa como  signo da herança materna portuguesa ou da herança paterna italiana.

Fui ensinada a ser superior porque branca, embora a superioridade de uma mulher branca de família pequeno burguesa estivesse fundamentada na cor, não em privilégios de classe ou gênero. Quando analiso para a minha educação para ser racista, vejo retrospectivamente que as pessoas brancas da minha família de imigrantes pobres talvez precisassem afirmar o privilégio de cor para escapar da subalternidade justo por não terem o privilégio de classe.

Por isso, inclusive, além de racistas, eram também classistas e repetiam os estereótipos que o racismo usa ainda hoje: pessoas pretas e pobres são igualmente perigosas, eventualmente preguiçosas, embora as mulheres negras tenham sido sempre alocadas nos trabalhos braçais do cuidado da casa e no cuidado de crianças. Esta divisão marcou a minha infância. Quando criança, nunca entendi a divisão subjetiva entre não poder gostar de pessoas pretas e adorar a mulher preta que cuidava de mim quando minha mãe não estava.

Há muito tempo quero escrever sobre minha experiência pessoal de ter sido educada para ser racista e, portanto, ter chegado à vida adulta naturalizando a desigualdade racial. Do debate que se seguiu ao artigo de Lilia Schwarcz a respeito do novo vídeo da Beyoncé, foi o texto de Lia Vainer Schucman que me motivou a escrever. Isso porque considero o argumento dela irrefutável: “nossa racialidade está sendo marcada, algo que acontece há alguns séculos com negros e indígenas no Brasil, ou seja: é quando o grupo antecede o indivíduo (o que nomeamos de processo de racialização).” A história da minha educação para o racismo me diz que fui racializada como branca para ser racista. Já Schucman defende uma racialização que, como reconhecimento de que todas as pessoas são marcadas, poderia nos levar ao fim do racismo. Parece contraditório, eu sei, mas vamos lá.

Há muitos anos tenho trabalhado para desconstruir as camadas de racismo que me foram sobrepostas. Aqui, uso o verbo descontruir como foi proposto pelo filósofo franco-argelino Jacques Derrida, a quem dediquei minhas pesquisas de mestrado e doutorado e com quem comecei a aprender que quem fala, o faz a partir de algum lugar. Isso porque um dos objetivos da desconstrução é a crítica à suposição da neutralidade dos discursos, que serve como anteparo a todas as premissas ocultas que os discursos de saber-poder contém.

Como mulher, experimentei inúmeras vezes – e infelizmente ainda experimento – a diferença de poder entre o discurso masculino de autoridade e o meu. Como pesquisadora, fui aprendendo a perceber e denunciar que esse discurso masculino obtém sua autoridade de uma suposição de neutralidade do saber. Daí para a leitura da filósofa Donna Haraway e seu clássico “Saberes localizados” foi um passo curto. No ensaio, Haraway desconstrói a suposição de neutralidade do discurso da ciência e confere às feministas a responsabilidade de produzir conhecimento como saber situado. É o que venho tentando fazer há algum tempo, tanto na minha escrita quanto no meu trabalho de orientadora de pesquisas acadêmicas que, muitas vezes, procuram a neutralidade em busca de autoridade, mesmo que para isso acabe abrindo mão da autoria do texto.

Neste processo, ainda em curso, precisei aprender que branco também é cor. Enxergar-se branca é enxergar-se marcada pela própria branquitude. É este aspecto que me mobiliza no debate sobre lugar de fala: a desconstrução da suposição de neutralidade de qualquer discurso. Quem continua pretendendo se ver como neutro ou neutra é quem, por acreditar que não tem cor, pode continuar oprimindo – seja as pessoas negras, seja as pessoas brancas subalternizadas – por uma suposta neutralidade do saber.

Não por acaso, o livro de Djamila Ribeiro (“O que é lugar de fala”, editora Letramento, 2017) tem como epígrafe trecho de um artigo de Lélia Gonzalez: “Exatamente porque temos sido falados, infantilizados (infans é aquele que não tem fala própria, é a criança que se fala na terceira pessoa, porque falada pelos adultos) que neste trabalho assumimos nossa própria fala. Ou seja, o lixo vai falar, e numa boa.”

Aqui posso fazer Djamila e Lélia conversarem com Achille Mbembe de “Crítica da razão negra” (N-1 Edições, 2019), em que ele divide a razão negra em dois momentos: o primeiro, o da consciência ocidental do negro, orientando pela interpelação do colonizador com perguntas como “quem é ele?; como o reconhecemos?; o que o diferencia de nós? poderá ele tornar-se nosso semelhante? como governá-lo e a que fins?”. No segundo momento, Mbembe percebe que as perguntas são as mesmas, a mudança está em quem as enuncia: “Quem sou eu?; serei eu, de verdade, quem dizem que eu sou?;  Será verdade que não sou nada além disto – minha aparência, aquilo que se diz de mim?; Qual o meu verdadeiro estado civil e histórico?”.

Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/ Unsplash

Quando me reconheço portadora de uma cor – branca – também posso enunciar estas perguntas, de tal modo a não precisar mais sustentar a posição de ter que repetir ao outro as perguntas do colonizador. Eu sou branca, e quanto a isso não há opção. Mas quanto a continuar sendo herdeira da violência da tradição colonizadora, acredito que haja escolha possível e que esta passa pelo desejo de cura da ferida colonial.

Retomo então minha experiência. Foi o racismo que me ensinou que sou branca. Fui marcada como branca a fim de que esta marcação funcionasse como signo de superioridade. Mas a mim hoje parece fácil perceber que a necessidade de marcação de superioridade só existe para aquele que se sente inferior, que se sabe fora do lugar de superioridade que almeja. Numa formação social marcada pela violência colonial, sobreviver é, entre tantas outras coisas, escapar do lugar de subalternidade.

Refletir sobre a experiência de ter sido marcada com a cor branca me ajudou a fazer a distinção que estou propondo aqui entre suposição de neutralidade do branco – a “branquitude” que não pretende se assumir como tal – e a admissão de que branco também é uma cor, uma marcação ou, para falar em termos interseccionais, um marcador que, se existe negativamente para a pessoa negra no racismo estrutural da sociedade brasileira, existe positivamente para a pessoa branca.

Com essa diferença, esboço uma hipótese: a maior rejeição à ideia de que todo discurso é situado, e que certos discursos estão autorizados por estarem situados a partir de um lugar de poder, e outros estão desautorizados por estarem situados fora desses lugares, a maior reação vem de quem ainda não vê a sua branquitude por se acreditar “neutra”. Para isso, é preciso negar que branco seja cor. É desse lugar de neutro que intelectuais, mesmos os/as mais respeitados/as, parecem não poder abrir mão. E aí caem na pior armadilha: “sou branco/a mas sou legal” (uma espécie de versão atualizada de “tenho até amigo gay”).

Fui racializada como branca porque fui educada para ser racista, o que me obrigou a assumir a minha cor e a carregar com ela o peso do racismo estrutural brasileiro. Se hoje penso, escrevo, pesquiso e ensino contra o racismo é por não suportar mais o sofrimento de viver num país em que pessoas negras são brutalmente excluídas, violentadas e exterminadas em nome da minha suposta superioridade branca. Esta é a cor da minha pele. Já o meu desejo tem sido destruir o racismo que me impôs uma suposição de superioridade branca na qual não me reconheço.

Carla Rodrigues é professora de Ética no Departamento de Filosofia da UFRJ, pesquisadora do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Filosofia e bolsista de produtividade da Faperj.

He Wants to Save the Present With the Indigenous Past (New York Times)

Bruce Pascoe’s book “Dark Emu” sparked a reconsideration of Australian history. Now he hopes to use his writing to revive Aboriginal community.

Bruce Pascoe in a field of mandadyan nalluk, also known as “dancing grass.”
Bruce Pascoe in a field of mandadyan nalluk, also known as “dancing grass.”Credit…AnnaMaria Antoinette D’Addario for The New York Times

By Damien Cave

Aug. 20, 2020

WALLAGARAUGH, Australia — Bruce Pascoe stood near the ancient crops he has written about for years and discussed the day’s plans with a handful of workers. Someone needed to check on the yam daisy seedlings. A few others would fix up a barn or visitor housing.

Most of them were Yuin men, from the Indigenous group that called the area home for thousands of years, and Pascoe, who describes himself as “solidly Cornish” and “solidly Aboriginal,” said inclusion was the point. The farm he owns on a remote hillside a day’s drive from Sydney and Melbourne aims to correct for colonization — to ensure that a boom in native foods, caused in part by his book, “Dark Emu,” does not become yet another example of dispossession.

“I became concerned that while the ideas were being accepted, the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the industry was not,” he said. “Because that’s what Australia has found hard, including Aboriginal people in anything.”

The lessons Pascoe, 72, seeks to impart by bringing his own essays to life — and to dinner tables — go beyond appropriation. He has argued that the Indigenous past should be a guidebook for the future, and the popularity of his work in recent years points to a hunger for the alternative he describes: a civilization where the land and sea are kept healthy through cooperation, where resources are shared with neighbors, where kindness even extends to those who seek to conquer.

“What happened in Australia was a real high point in human development,” he said. “We need to go back there.” Writing, he added, can only do so much.

Terry Hayes, a Yuin man and one of Bruce Pascoe’s team members, works in the orchard and garden.
Terry Hayes, a Yuin man and one of Bruce Pascoe’s team members, works in the orchard and garden.Credit…AnnaMaria Antoinette D’Addario for The New York Times
Hayes holds out yam daisy seedlings.
Hayes holds out yam daisy seedlings.Credit…AnnaMaria Antoinette D’Addario for The New York Times

“Dark Emu” is where he laid out his case. Published in 2014 and reissued four years later, the book sparked a national reconsideration of Australian history by arguing that the continent’s first peoples were sophisticated farmers, not roaming nomads.

Australia’s education system tended to emphasize the struggle and pluck of settlers. “Dark Emu” shifted the gaze, pointing to peaceful towns and well-tended land devastated by European aggression and cattle grazing. In a nation of 25 million people, the book has sold more than 260,000 copies.

Pascoe admits he relied on the work of formal historians, especially Rupert Gerritsen, who wrote about the origins of agriculture, and Bill Gammage, whose well-regarded tome, “The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia” (2012), tracked similar territory. Both books cited early settlers’ journals for evidence of Aboriginal achievement. Both argued that Aboriginal people managed nature in a more systematic and scientific fashion than most people realized, from fish traps to grains.

What made Pascoe’s version a best seller remains a contentious mystery.

Critics, including Andrew Bolt, a conservative commentator for News Corp Australia, have accused Pascoe of seeking attention and wealth by falsely claiming to be Aboriginal while peddling what they call an “anti-Western fantasy.”

Asked by email why he’s focused on Pascoe in around a dozen newspaper columns since November, Bolt replied: “Have fun talking to white man and congratulating yourself on being so broad-minded as to believe him black.”

Pascoe said “Bolty” is obsessed with him and struggles with nuance. He’s offered to buy him a beer, discuss it at the pub and thank him: “Dark Emu” sales have doubled since Bolt’s campaign against Pascoe intensified.

His fans argue that kind of banter exemplifies why he and his book have succeeded. His voice, honed over decades of teaching, writing fiction and poetry — and telling stories over beers — is neither that of an academic nor a radical. He’s a lyrical essayist, informative and sly.

The Wallagaraugh River from Bruce Pascoe’s farm.
The Wallagaraugh River from Bruce Pascoe’s farm.Credit…AnnaMaria Antoinette D’Addario for The New York Times

To some Aboriginal readers, he’s too Eurocentric, with his emphasis on sedentary agriculture. “It is insulting that Pascoe attempts to liken our culture to European culture, disregarding our own unique and complex way of life,” wrote Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a politician in the Northern Territory who identifies as Warlpiri/Celtic, last year on Facebook.

To others, Pascoe opens a door to mutual respect.

“He writes with such beautiful descriptions that let you almost see it,” said Penny Smallacombe, the head of Indigenous content for Screen Australia, which is producing a documentary version of “Dark Emu.” “It follows Bruce going on this journey.”

A telling example: Pascoe’s take on early explorers like Thomas Mitchell. He introduced Mitchell in “Dark Emu” as “an educated and sensitive man, and great company.” Later, he darkened the portrait: “His prejudice hides from him the fact that he is a crucial agent in the complete destruction of Aboriginal society.”

At the farm, tugging at his long white beard, Mr. Pascoe said he wanted to guide more than scold, letting people learn along with him. It’s apparently an old habit. He grew up working-class around Melbourne — his father was a carpenter — and after university taught at a school in rural Mallacoota, just down the winding river from where he now lives. He spent years guiding farm kids through “The Grapes of Wrath” while writing at night and editing a fiction quarterly, “Australian Short Stories,” with his wife Lyn Harwood.

“While the ideas were being accepted, the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the industry was not,” Pascoe said of the response to his book, “Dark Emu.” “That’s what Australia has found hard, including Aboriginal people in anything.”
“While the ideas were being accepted, the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the industry was not,” Pascoe said of the response to his book, “Dark Emu.” “That’s what Australia has found hard, including Aboriginal people in anything.”Credit…AnnaMaria Antoinette D’Addario for The New York Times

In his 30s, he said he started to explore his heritage after recalling a childhood experience when an Aboriginal neighbor yelled that she knew who his real family was so it was no use trying to hide. Talking to relatives and scouring records, he found Indigenous connections on his mother and father’s side. His publisher, Magabala, now describes him as “a writer of Tasmanian, Bunurong and Yuin descent.”

“Dark Emu” followed more than two dozen other books — fiction, poetry, children’s tales and essay collections. Pascoe said he had a hunch it would be his breakthrough, less because of his own talent than because Australia was, as he was, grappling with the legacy of the past.

In 2008, a year after his book about Australia’s colonial massacres, “Convincing Ground,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to Indigenous people on behalf of the government. In the months before “Dark Emu” was published, all of Australia seemed to be debating whether Adam Goodes, an Aboriginal star who played Australian football for the Sydney Swans, was right to condemn a 13-year-old girl who had called him an ape.

“There was just this feeling in the country that there’s this unfinished business,” Pascoe said. Pointing to the protests in the United States and elsewhere over racism and policing, he said that much of the world is still trying to dismantle a colonial ideology that insisted white Christian men have dominion over everything.

The deep past can help by highlighting that “the way Europeans think is not the only way to think,” he said.

Yam daisy sprouts grow in the back of Pascoe’s farmhouse.
Yam daisy sprouts grow in the back of Pascoe’s farmhouse.Credit…AnnaMaria Antoinette D’Addario for The New York Times

Pascoe now plans to make room for a dozen people working or visiting his 140-acre farm. Teaming up with academics, Aboriginal elders and his wife and his son, Jack, who has a Ph.D. in ecology, he’s set up Black Duck Foods to sell what they grow.

The bush fires of last summer slowed them all down — Pascoe spent two weeks sleeping in his volunteer firefighter gear and battling blazes — but the small team recently completed a harvest. Over lunch, Pascoe showed me a container of the milled grain from the dancing grass, shaking out the scent of a deep tangy rye.

Out back, just behind his house, yams were sprouting, their delicate stems making them look like a weed — easy for the untrained eye to overlook, in the 18th century or the 21st.

Terry Hayes, a Yuin employee, explained that they grow underground in bunches. “If there are five, you’ll take four and leave the biggest one,” he said. “So they keep growing.”

A tree on Pascoe’s farm that burned and fell down during last season’s fires.
A tree on Pascoe’s farm that burned and fell down during last season’s fires.Credit…AnnaMaria Antoinette D’Addario for The New York Times

That collective mind-set is what Pascoe longs to cultivate. He likes to imagine the first Australians who became neighbors, sitting around a fire, discussing where to set up their homes and how to work together.

That night, we sat on his porch and watched the sun set. On a white plastic table, in black marker, Pascoe had written Yuin words for what was all around us: jeerung, blue wren; marru, mountain; googoonyella, kookaburra. It was messy linguistics, with dirt and ashtrays on top of the translations — an improvised bridge between times and peoples.

Just like the Pascoe farm.

“I’d love people to come here and find peace,” he said, shaking off the evening chill after a long day of work that did not involve writing. “It would give me a lot of deep satisfaction for other people to enjoy the land.”

Damien Cave is the bureau chief in Sydney, Australia. He previously reported from Mexico City, Havana, Beirut and Baghdad. Since joining The Times in 2004, he has also been a deputy National editor, Miami bureau chief and a Metro reporter. @damiencave A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 21, 2020, Section C, Page 12 of the New York edition with the headline: Building a Future With the Indigenous Past.

Map showing newly emerging and reemerging infectious diseases (Cell)

Look at This Horrible, Horrible Map (Gizmodo)

Ed Cara, August 20, 2020

Here’s the most depressing map you’re likely to see this week, courtesy of Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The map, packaged in a recent paper co-written by Fauci, showcases the many other emerging diseases besides covid-19 that pose a threat to our health.

The paper, released over the weekend as a preprint in the journal Cell (meaning it may be revised before its final publication), is intended to lay out the environmental and human factors that led to covid-19 erupting on the world stage in late 2019. Fauci’s co-author is David Morens, senior scientific advisor at Office of the Director at NIAID. It’s an educational read, delving into how newly emerging diseases like covid-19 and familiar enemies like influenza can become so dangerous to humankind.

A map showing newly emerging and reemerging infectious diseases that have recently or could someday pose a serious threat to people’s health. The dots indicate where they were discovered or are most relevant currently.
Image: Anthony Fauci, David Morens/Cell

Viruses like the flu, for instance, quickly mutate into new strains that can easily swap genes with other flu viruses and pick up just the right assortment of genetic tricks that make them more lethal than the seasonal flu and help them spread widely from person to person. Coronaviruses aren’t quite so erratic, but their ability to infect a wide variety of host species makes them more likely to spill over into people—and that’s the leading theory behind how covid-19 entered the picture.

In fact, it’s more than possible, Fauci and Morens note, that the common cold coronaviruses we have today once caused major and deadly epidemics in the past. Though that could provide some comfort, seeing as these viruses are now relatively harmless, not all dangerous viruses become more tame over time, and those that do often take a long time to mellow out.

That brings us to the aforementioned map, an exhaustive but by no means complete illustration of the emerging and reemerging diseases that have recently caused us trouble or are still plaguing us (the danger of weaponized anthrax is highlighted as a “deliberately emerging” disease). Many of these aren’t particularly likely to become a pandemic, at least at the moment. Ebola, for instance, is highly fatal but remains relatively hard to transmit between people. Bacterial diseases like gonorrhea are worrisome because they’re becoming resistant to antibiotics, but they’re not especially lethal.

Far from being a vanishingly rare event, though, humankind has experienced a pandemic on average every 20 years in the last hundred years, with the last, the H1N1 flu, showing up 10 years ago.

None of this is to say that we’re powerless against the coming germ tide—there’s much we can do to prepare, and in fact, many people predicted something like covid-19 happening as recently as last October. But without learning from our mistakes this time around, there’s no telling just how bad the next pandemic will be.

“Science will surely bring us many life-saving drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics; however, there is no reason to think that these alone can overcome the threat of ever more frequent and deadly emergencies of infectious diseases,” Fauci and Morens wrote. “Covid-19 is among the most vivid wake-up calls in over a century. It should force us to begin to think in earnest and collectively about living in more thoughtful and creative harmony with nature, even as we plan for nature’s inevitable, and always unexpected, surprises.”

Marxista negro tem palestra cancelada ao colocar classe acima de raça e enfurecer socialistas americanos (O Globo)

Michael Powell, no New York Times. 18 de agosto de 2020

Artigo fonte.

Foto da Universidade da Pensilvânia mostra Adolph Reed dando aula em abril de 2019 Foto: ERIC SUCAR/UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA / NYT
Foto da Universidade da Pensilvânia mostra Adolph Reed dando aula em abril de 2019 Foto: ERIC SUCAR/UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA / NYT

NOVA YORK – Adolph Reed é filho do Sul segregado. Nascido em Nova Orleans, ele organizou negros pobres e soldados contra a guerra nos anos 1960 e se tornou um intelectual socialista em universidades de prestígio. Ao longo do tempo, ele se convenceu de que a esquerda está muito focada em raça e pouco em classe. Vitórias duradouras foram alcançadas, ele acredita, quando trabalhadores de todas as raças lutaram ombro a ombro por seus direitos.

Em maio, Reed, de 73 anos, professor emérito da Universidade da Pensilvânia, foi convidado para falar aos Democratas Socialistas da América (DSA), em Nova York. O homem que fez campanha para Bernie Sanders e acusou Barack Obama de promover uma “política neoliberal vazia e repressiva” discursaria à maior seção dos DSA, que formou a deputada Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez e uma nova geração de ativistas de esquerda.

Ele planejava argumentar que o foco da esquerda no impacto desproporcional do coronavírus na população negra minava a organização de uma frente multirracial, o que ele via como chave para a luta por saúde e a justiça econômica.

Como puderam convidar, perguntaram os membros do DSA, um palestrante que minimizava o racismo em tempos de peste e protestos? Deixá-lo falar, afirmava os afrossocialistas, seria “reacionário e reducionista”. “Não podemos ter medo de discutir o racismo só porque o tema pode ser manipulado pelos racistas”, afirmaram. “Isso é covardia e fortalece o capitalismo racial.”

Em meio a boatos de que os opositores interromperiam sua palestra via Zoom, Reed e os líderes do DAS concordaram em cancelar a palestra. A organização socialista mais poderosa do país rejeitou um marxista negro por suas opiniões sobre raça.

– Adolph é o maior teórico democrático de sua geração – disse Cornel West, professor de filosofia de Harvard (e socialista). – Ele assumiu posições impopulares sobre política identitária, mas tem uma trajetória de meio século. Se desistirmos da discussão, o movimento vai ficar mais estreito.

A decisão de silenciar Reed veio num momento que os americanos debatem o racismo na política, no sistema de saúde, na mídia e nas empresas. Esquerdistas que, como Reed, argumentam que há muito foco em raça e pouco em classe numa sociedade profundamente desigual são frequentemente postos de lado. O debate é particularmente caloroso porque os ativistas enxergam, agora, uma oportunidade única de avançar em pautas como violência policial, encarceramento em massa e desigualdade, e em que o socialismo – um movimento predominantemente branco – atrai jovens de diversas origens.

Intelectuais de esquerda argumentam que as desigualdades de renda e de acesso à saúde e também a brutalidade policial são frutos do racismo, a principal ferida americana. Depois de séculos de escravidão e segregação, os negros deveriam lidera a luta antirracista. Colocar essa luta de lado em nome da solidariedade de classe é absurdo, dizem eles.

– Adolph Reed e sua turma acreditam que se falarmos muito sobre raça, vamos alienar muita gente e não conseguiremos construir um movimento – disse Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professora de estudos afroamericanos na Universidade Princeton e socialista que já palestrou aos DSA e está familiarizada com esses debates. – Não queremos isso, queremos que os brancos entendam como seu racismo prejudicou a vida dos negros.

Reed e outros intelectuais e ativistas proeminentes, muitos deles negros, têm outra visão. Eles veem a ênfase em políticas raciais como um beco sem saída. Entre eles estão West; a historiadora Barbara Fields, da Universidade Columbia; Toure Reed, filho de Adolph, da Universidade Estadual de Illinois; e Bhaskar Sunkara, fundador da revista socialista “Jacobin”.

Eles aceitam a realidade brutal do racismo americano. No entanto, argumentam que os problemas que atormentam os Estados Unidos hoje – desigualdade, violência policial e encarceramento em massa – afetam negros e pardos, mas também os pobres e a classe trabalhadora brancos.

Risco de ‘dividir coalizão’

Os movimentos progressistas mais poderosos, dizem eles, estão enraizados na luta por políticas universais, como as leis que fortaleceram os sindicatos e os programas de incentivo ao emprego do New Deal, e as lutas atuais por educação superior gratuita, valorização do salário mínimo, reforma da polícia e acesso à saúde. Programas como esses ajudariam mais os negros, os latinos e os indígenas, que, em média, têm renda familiar menor e mais problemas de saúde do que os brancos, argumentam Reed e seus aliados. Insistir na questão racial pode dividir uma coalizão potencialmente forte e beneficiar os conservadores.

– Uma obsessão com desigualdade racial colonizou o pensamento da esquerda – disse Reed. – Há uma insistência de que raça e racismo são os determinantes fundamentais da existência dos negros.

Essas batalhas não são novas: no final do século XIX, socialistas enfrentaram seu próprio racismo e debateram a construção de uma organização multirracial. Eugene Debs, que concorreu à presidência cinco vezes, insistiu na defesa da igualdade racial. Questões similares incomodaram o movimento pelos direitos civis nos anos 1960.

A disseminação do vírus mortal e o assassinato de George Floyd por um policial, em Minneapolis, reacenderam o debate, que ganhou um tom geracional à medida que o socialismo atrai jovens dispostos a reformular organizações como os Democratas Socialistas da América, que existe desde os anos 1920. (Uma pesquisa da Gallup indicou que o socialismo é tão popular quanto o capitalismo entre pessoas de 18 a 39 anos.)

O DSA tem mais de 70 mil membros no país e 5,8 mil em Nova York – a média de idade está em torno de 30 e poucos anos. A organização ajudou a eleger candidatos como Ocasio-Cortez e Jamaal Bowman, que venceu um conhecido candidato democrata nas primárias de junho.

Em anos recentes, o DSA já havia recebido Reed como palestrante. No entanto, membros mais jovens, irritados com o isolamento provocado pela Covid-19 e engajados nos protestos contra a violência policial e contra Donald Trump, irritaram-se ao saber que ele havia sido novamente convidado.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, de Princeton, disse que Reed deveria saber que sua palestra sobre Covid-19 e os perigos da obsessão com desigualdade racial soaria como uma “provocação”.

Nada disso surpreendeu Reed, que, ironicamente, descreveu o ocorrido como uma “tempestade em uma xícara de café”. Alguns esquerdistas, disse ele, têm uma “recusa militante a pensar analiticamente”. Reed gosta de duelos intelectuais e, especialmente, de criticar progressistas que ele enxerga como muito amigáveis aos interesses do mercado. Ele escreveu que Bill Clinton e seus seguidores estavam dispostos a “sacrificar os pobres fingindo compaixão” e descreveu o ex-vice-presidente Joe Biden como um homem cujas “misericórdias estavam reservadas aos banqueiros”. Ele acha engraçado ser atacado pela questão racial.

– Eu nunca falo a partir de minha biografia, como se isso fosse um gesto de autenticidade – disse. – Quando meus oponentes dizem que eu não acredito que o racismo seja real, eu penso “OK, isso está estranho”.

Reed e seus camaradas acreditam que a esquerda muitas vezes prefere se envolver em batalhas raciais simbólicas, de estátuas à linguagem, em vez de ficar de olho em mudanças econômicas fundamentais. Melhor seria, eles argumentam, falar do que une brancos e negros. Enquanto há uma vasta disparidade entre americanos brancos e negros no geral, os trabalhadores pobres brancos são muito parecidos com trabalhadores pobres negros no que se refere à renda. Segundo Reed e seus aliados, os políticos do Partido Democrata usam a raça para se esquivar de questões econômicas, como distribuição de renda, o que incomodaria seus doadores ricos.

– Os progressistas usam a política identitária e a raça para conter os apelos por políticas redistributivas – disse Toure Reed, cujo livro “Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism” (“Rumo à liberdade: o argumento contra o reducionismo racial”) trata desses assuntos.

Filho de intelectuais itinerantes e radicais, Reed passou sua infância em Nova Orleans e desenvolveu um “ódio especial” pela segregação que havia no Sul. Ainda que ele tenha sentido algum prazer quando Nova Orleans removeu homenagens a personagens históricos racistas, ele prefere um outro tipo de simbolismo. Ele se lembra de, ainda menino, viajar por pequenas cidades do nordeste americano e ver lápides, cobertas de musgo, de soldados brancos que morreram lutando pelos Estados do Norte contra o Sul escravocrata na Guerra Civil.

– Ler aquelas lápides me dava uma sensação calorosa. “Então fulano morreu para que outros homens pudessem ser livres” – disse. – Há algo de muito comovente nisso.

Indigenous best Amazon stewards, but only when property rights assured: Study (Mongabay)

by Sue Branford on 17 August 2020

  • New research provides statistical evidence confirming the claim by Indigenous peoples that that they are the more effective Amazon forest guardians in Brazil — but only if and when full property rights over their territories are recognized, and fully protected, by civil authorities in a process called homologation.
  • Researchers looked at 245 Indigenous territories, homologated between 1982 and 2016. They concluded that Indigenous people were only able to curb deforestation effectively within their ancestral territories after homologation had been completed, endowing full property rights.
  • However, since the study was completed, the Temer and Bolsonaro governments have backpedaled on Indigenous land rights, failing to protect homologated reserves. Also, the homologation process has come to a standstill, failing its legal responsibility to recognize collective ownership pledged by Brazil’s Constitution.
  • In another study, researchers suggest that a key to saving the Amazon involves reframing our view of it, giving up the old view of it as an untrammeled Eden assaulted by modern exploitation, and instead seeing it as a forest long influenced by humanity; now we need only restore balance to achieve sustainability.
An Indigenous woman weaving anklets on her son. A clash of cultures in the Amazon threatens Indigenous lands and the rainforest. Image by Antônio Carlos Moura, s/d.

“The xapiri [shamanic spirits] have defended the forest since it first came into being. Our ancestors have never devastated it because they kept the spirits by their side,” declares Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, who belongs to the 27,000-strong Yanomami people living in the very north of Brazil.

He is expressing a commonly held Indigenous belief that they — the original peoples on the land, unlike the “white” Amazon invaders — are the ones most profoundly committed to forest protection. The Yanomami shaman reveals the reason: “We know well that without trees nothing will grow on the hardened and blazing ground.”

Now Brazil’s Indigenous people have gained scientific backing for their strongly held belief from two American academics.

In a study published this month in the PNAS journal, entitled Collective property rights reduce deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, two political scientists, Kathryn Baragwanath, from the University of California San Diego, and Ella Bayi, at the Department of Political Science, Columbia University, provide statistical proof of the Indigenous claim that they are the more effective forest guardians.

In their study, the researchers use comprehensive statistical data to show that Indigenous populations can effectively curb deforestation — but only if and when their full property rights over their territories are recognized by civil authorities in a process called homologação in Portuguese, or homologation in English.

A Tapirapé man and child. Image courtesy of ISA.

Full property rights key to curbing deforestation

The scientists reached their conclusions by examining data on 245 Indigenous reserves homologated between 1982 and 2016. By examining the step-by-step legal establishment of Indigenous reserves, they were able to precisely date the moment of homologation for each territory, and to assess the effectiveness of Indigenous action against deforestation before and after full property rights were recognized.

Brazilian law requires the completion of a complex four-stage process before full recognition. After examining the data, Baragwanath and Bayi concluded that Indigenous people were only able to curb deforestation within their ancestral territories effectively after the last phase ­— homologation — had been completed.

Most deforestation of Indigenous territories occurs at the borders, as land-grabbers, loggers and farmers invade. But the new study shows that, once full property rights are recognized, Indigenous people were historically able to reduce deforestation at those borders from around 3% to 1% — a reduction of 66% which the authors find to be “a very strong finding.”

However, they emphasize that this plunge in deforestation rate only comes after homologation is complete. Baragwanath told Mongabay: The positive “effect on deforestation is very small before homologation and zero for non-homologated territories.” The authors concluded: “We believe the final stage [is] the one that makes the difference, since it is when actual property rights are granted, no more contestation can happen, and enforcement is undertaken by the government agencies.”

Homologation is crucially important, say the researchers, because with it the Indigenous group gains the backing of law and of the Brazilian state. They note: “Without homologation, Indigenous territories do not have the legal rights needed to protect their territories, their territorial resources are not considered their own, and the government is not constitutionally responsible for protecting them from encroachment, invasion, and external use of their resources.”

They continue: “Once homologated, a territory becomes the permanent possession of its Indigenous peoples, no third party can contest its existence, and extractive activities carried out by external actors can only occur after consulting the [Indigenous] communities and the National Congress.”

The scientists offer proof of effective state action and protections after homologation: “For example, FUNAI partnered with IBAMA and the military police of Mato Grosso in May 2019 to combat illegal deforestation on the homologated territory of Urubu Branco. In this operation, 12 people were charged with federal theft of wood and fined R $90,000 [US $23,000], and multiple trucks and tractors were seized; the wood seized was then donated to the municipality.”

A Tapirapé woman at work. Image courtesy of ISA.

Temer and Bolsonaro tip the tables

However, under the Jair Bolsonaro government, which came to power in Brazil after the authors collected their data, the situation is changing.

Before Bolsonaro, the number of homologations varied greatly from year to year, apparently in random fashion. A highpoint was reached in 1991, when over 70 territories were homologated, well over twice the number in any other year. This may have been because Brazil was about to host the 1992 Earth Summit and the Collor de Mello government was keen to boost Brazil’s environmental credentials. The surge may have also occurred as a result of momentum gained from Brazil’s adoption of its progressive 1988 constitution, with its enshrined Indigenous rights.

Despite wild oscillations in the annual number of homologations, until recently progress happened under each administration. “Every President signed over [Indigenous] property rights during their tenure, regardless of party or ideology,” the study states.

But since Michel Temer became president at the end of August 2016, the process has come to a standstill, with no new homologations. Baragwanath and Bayi suggest that, by refusing to recognize the full property rights of more Indigenous peoples, the Temer and Bolsonaro administrations “could be responsible for an extra 1.5 million hectares [5,790 square miles] of deforestation per year.” That would help explain soaring deforestation rates detected by INPE, Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research in recent years.

Clearly, for homologation to be effective, the state must assume its legal responsibilities, says Survival International’s Fiona Watson, who notes that this is certainly not happening under Bolsonaro: “Recognizing Indigenous peoples’ collective landownership rights is a fundamental legal requirement and ethical imperative, but it is not enough on its own. Land rights need to be vigorously enforced, which requires political will and action, proper funding, and stamping out corruption. Far from applying the law, President Bolsonaro and his government have taken a sledgehammer to Indigenous peoples’ hard-won constitutional rights, watered down environmental safeguards, and are brutally dismantling the agencies charged with protecting tribal peoples and the environment.”

Watson continues: “Brazil’s tribes — some only numbering a few hundred living in remote areas — are pitted against armed criminal gangs, whipped up by Bolsonaro’s hate speech. As if this wasn’t enough, COVID-19 is killing the best guardians of the forest, especially the older generations with expertise in forest management. Lethal diseases like malaria are on the rise in Indigenous communities and Amazon fires are spreading.”

In fact, Bolsonaro uses the low number of Indigenous people inhabiting reserves today — low populations often the outcome of past horrific violence and even genocide — as an excuse for depriving them of their lands. In 2015 he declared: “The Indians do not speak our language, they do not have money, they do not have culture. They are native peoples. How did they manage to get 13% of the national territory?” And in 2017 he said: “Not a centimeter will be demarcated… as an Indigenous reserve.”

The Indigenous territory of Urubu Branco, cited by Baragwanath and Bayi as a stellar example of effective state action, is a case in point. Under the Bolsonaro government it has been invaded time and again. Although the authorities have belatedly taken action, the Apyãwa (Tapirapé) Indigenous group living there says that invaders are now using the chaos caused by the pandemic to carry out more incursions. https://www.youtube.com/embed/VEqoNo3O8Jg

Land rights: a path to conserving Amazonia

Even so, say the experts, it still seems likely that, if homologation was implemented properly now or in the future, with effective state support, it would lead to reduced deforestation. Indeed, Baragwanath and Bayi suggest that this may be one of the few ways of saving the Amazon forest.

“Providing full property rights and the institutional environment for enforcing these rights is an important and cost-effective way for countries to protect their forests and attain their climate goals,” says the study. “Public policy, international mobilization, and nongovernmental organizations should now focus their efforts on pressuring the Brazilian government to register Indigenous territories still awaiting their full property rights.”

But, in the current state of accelerating deforestation, unhampered by state regulation or enforcement, other approaches may be required. One way forward is suggested in a document optimistically entitled: “Reframing the Wilderness Concept can Bolster Collaborative Conservation.”

In the paper, Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares from the Helsinki Institute of Sustainable Science, and others suggest that it is time for a new concept of “wilderness.”

For decades, many conservationists argued that the Amazon’s wealth of biodiversity stems from it being a “pristine” biome, “devoid of the destructive impacts of human activity.” But increasingly studies have shown that Indigenous people greatly contributed to the exuberance of the forest by domesticating plants as much as 10,000 years ago. Thus, the forest and humanity likely evolved together.

In keeping with this productive partnership, conservationists and Indigenous peoples need to work in harmony with forest ecology, say the authors. This organic partnership is more urgently needed than ever, they say, because the entire Amazon basin is facing an onslaught, “a new wave of frontier expansion” by logging, industrial mining, and agribusiness.

Fernández-Llamazares told Mongabay: “Extractivist interests and infrastructure development across much of the Amazon are not only driving substantial degradation of wilderness areas and their unique biodiversity, but also forcing the region’s Indigenous peoples on the frontlines of ever more pervasive social-ecological conflict.…  From 2014 to 2019, at least 475 environmental and land defenders have been killed in Amazonian countries, including numerous members of Indigenous communities.”

Fernández-Llamazares believes that new patterns of collaboration are emerging.

“A good example of the alliance between Indigenous Peoples and wilderness defenders can be found in the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS, being its Spanish acronym), in the Bolivian Amazon,” he says. “TIPNIS is the ancestral homeland of four lowland Indigenous groups and one of Bolivia’s most iconic protected areas, largely considered as one of the last wildlands in the country. In 2011, conservationists and Indigenous communities joined forces to oppose the construction of a road that would cut across the heart of the area.” A victory they won at the time, though TIPNIS today remains under contention today.

Eduardo S. Brondizio, another study contributor, points out alternatives to the industrial agribusiness and mining model: numerous management systems established by small-scale farmers, for example, that are helping conserve entire ecosystems.

“The açaí fruit economy, for instance, is arguably the region’s largest [Amazon] economy today, even compared to soy and cattle, and yet it occupies a fraction of the [land] area occupied by soy and cattle, with far higher economic return and employment than deforestation-based crops, while maintaining forest cover and multiple ecological benefits.” he said.

And, he adds, it is a completely self-driven initiative. “The entire açaí fruit economy emerged from the hands and knowledge of local riverine producers who [have] responded to market demand since the 1980s by intensifying their production using local agroforestry knowledge.” It is important, he stresses, that conservationists recognize the value of these sustainable economic activities in protecting the forest.

The new alliance taking shape between conservationists and Indigenous peoples is comparable with the new forms of collaboration that have arisen among traditional people in the Brazilian Amazon. Although Indigenous populations and riverine communities of subsistence farmers and Brazil nut collectors have long regarded each other as enemies — fighting to control the same territory — they are increasingly working together to confront land-grabbers, loggers and agribusiness.

Still, there is no doubt time is running out. Brazil’s huge swaths of agricultural land are already contributing to, and suffering from, deepening drought, because the “flying rivers” that bring down rainfall from the Amazon are beginning to collapse. Scientists are warning that the forest is moving toward a precipitation tipping point, when drought, deforestation and fire will change large areas of rainforest into arid degraded savanna.

This may already be happening. The Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), a non-profit, research organisation, warned recently that the burning season, now just beginning in the Amazon, could devastate an even larger area than last year, when video footage of uncontrolled fires ablaze in the Amazon was viewed around the world. IPAM estimates that a huge area, covering 4,509 square kilometers (1,741 square miles), has been felled and is waiting to go up in flames this year — data some experts dispute. But as of last week, more than 260 major fires were already alight in the Amazon.

Years ago Davi Kopenawa Yanomami warned: “They [the white people] continue to maltreat the earth everywhere they go.… It never occurs to them that if they mistreat it too much it will finally turn to chaos.… The xapiri [the shamanic spirits] try hard to defend the white people the same way as they defend us.… But if Omoari, the dry season being, settles on their land for good, they will only have trickles of dirty water to drink and they will die of thirst. This could truly happen to them.”

Citations:

Kathryn Baragwanath and Ella Bayi, (10 August 2020), Collective property rights reduce deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, Julien Terraube, Michael C. Gavin, Aili Pyhälä, Sacha M.O. Siani, Mar Cabeza, and Eduardo S. Brondizio, (29 July 2020) Reframing the Wilderness Concept can Bolster Collaborative Conservation, Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Banner image: Young Tapirajé women. Image by Agência Brasil.

O que resta da crítica estrutural? – Estado da Arte (Estadão)

estadodaarte.estadao.com.br

Filipe Campello, 14 de agosto de 2020

O que mais chocou Hannah Arendt quando, a convite da New Yorker, cobria em 1963 o julgamento de Eichmann foi a incapacidade dos responsáveis pela barbárie do holocausto de pensar. Como seria possível que todos aqueles oficiais nazistas alegassem que estavam apenas seguindo regras, por mais absurdas e cruéis que fossem? E, se estavam obedecendo ordens, até que ponto seriam culpados?

Eichmann em Jerusalém

Arendt estava presenciando naqueles dias em Jerusalém uma pergunta que muitos alemães se fizeram após o fim da guerra. Foi a questão que, em 1946, ainda no calor dos acontecimentos, durante o tribunal de Nüremberg, o filósofo e psiquiatra Karl Jaspers, um dos principais mentores e depois grande amigo de Arendt, se coloca no livro A questão da culpa. Indo além do sentido de culpa estritamente penal, Jaspers traz um sentido também moral ligado à responsabilidade que temos perante nossos atos. “Eu, que não posso agir de outro modo a não ser como indivíduo”, escreve Jaspers, “sou moralmente responsável pelos meus atos, incluindo a execução de ordens militares e políticas. Não é simplesmente verdade que ‘ordens são ordens’”.

Mas Jaspers não se indaga apenas sobre a culpa daqueles indivíduos que estavam sendo julgados, mas sobre a responsabilidade de todo o povo alemão diante da barbárie daqueles anos. Para Jaspers, que era casado com uma judia, ainda que nem todos os alemães pudessem ser punidos por crimes de guerra, isso não os blindaria de reconhecer uma parcela de cumplicidade. O silêncio da indiferença, também ele, é político. Justamente aqueles indivíduos que se diziam apolíticos seriam acometidos por aquilo que Jaspers chama de culpa política. É nesse sentido que o ensaio traz uma reflexão autocrítica de responsabilização coletiva dos alemães com vistas à possibilidade de renovação cultural e política.

Jaspers

As reflexões de Arendt e Jaspers, ambas situadas durante processos de julgamentos penais, trazem então duas dimensões distintas da responsabilidade: a individual e a coletiva. O que é extremo naquele contexto representa um dos mais recorrentes dilemas filosóficos — a tensão entre regras que seguimos e a capacidade de nos responsabilizarmos por nossas escolhas. O problema é que, uma vez que várias dessas regras não estão sempre disponíveis à escolha do indivíduo, elas extrapolariam o âmbito da liberdade individual. Elas fariam parte daquilo que Wittgenstein chamou de jogo de linguagem: por tais regras serem socialmente compartilhadas, nosso horizonte de significações e visões de mundo esbarra no vocabulário que encontramos disponível.

Quando eu era criança, o que mais gostava de fazer era criar meus próprios jogos. Inventava as suas regras em detalhes: desenhava as cartas e o tabuleiro, definia as peças e como se ganharia o jogo. Gostava mais desse processo de criação do que dos jogos com regras já definidas. Talvez houvesse ali uma certa preferência pela subversão.

Acontece que criar novas regras sociais não é tão simples quanto a de um jogo para brincar. Várias dessas regras nos antecedem de um modo que sequer é possível participar do jogo se quisermos prescindir delas. É o que Wittgenstein argumenta em sua crítica à linguagem privada: eu já disponho de um vocabulário que não é propriedade minha; nele, não faria sentido nos referirmos a uma linguagem que fosse exclusivamente individual.

Wittgenstein em Swansea, 1947

É disso que se trata a crítica estrutural. Numa ampla tradição que em grande parte remete a Hegel, o objeto da crítica desloca-se do indivíduo para aquilo que o antecede: Padrões, práticas e hábitos sociais que traçam o horizonte de nossa relação com o mundo e que atravessam até mesmo a constituição de nossos desejos. Tal deslocamento vale desde a nossa referência cotidiana a objetos até a aspectos arraigados em práticas sociais que perpetuam relações de injustiça, como no que se chama de racismo estrutural.

A linguagem que compartilhamos já traz referências a uma semântica e a uma pragmática — um sentido e um uso de palavras e expressões. É o caso do termo “denegrir”, cujo teor racista tem sido alertado de algum tempo para cá. Acontece que enquanto uma pessoa não toma conhecimento deste sentido (não adentra, por assim dizer, o universo semântico implícito na expressão -, não se pode simplesmente acusá-la de usar o termo em um sentido intencionalmente racista. Em outro caso recente, um filho de imigrantes nos Estados Unidos foi fotografado fazendo o gesto de “OK” com a mão. Aparentemente, não haveria problema no gesto, não fosse o fato de ele ter sido apropriado na dark web por movimentos supremacistas brancos. Apesar de não ser possível exigir que ele tivesse consciência dessa apropriação (no caso, aliás, a acusação é ainda mais kafkiana porque ela estava apenas estalando os dedos), bastou uma postagem da foto no Twitter com a marcação da empresa onde ela trabalhava para sua vida virar de cabeça para baixo.

Enquanto há formas estruturais de racismo, qualquer um pode estar sujeito a práticas racistas já incorporadas em hábitos e normas sociais. Se formas de injustiça são estruturais, isso significa que a sociedade como um todo compartilha de uma responsabilidade em transformá-las. Poderíamos dizer, seguindo Jaspers, que o problema reside nas próprias regras a serem seguidas, e que por isso há também uma responsabilização coletiva na mudança delas.

O problema que surge, aqui, é justamente sobre o lugar da responsabilidade do indivíduo tal como posta no contexto extremo dos julgamentos do pós-guerra: Se não somos nós que escolhemos as regras do jogo, o que nos faz responsáveis por segui-las?

Gostaria de sugerir, aqui, duas ideias sobre este problema. A primeira é a de que aquilo que à primeira vista parece ser um limite da crítica estrutural é o que, na verdade, pode ser mais adequado para entender aquilo que cabe à responsabilidade individual; em segundo lugar, que alguns conceitos que tem assumido papel preponderante no debate ligado a pautas identitárias estão esvaziando o potencial da crítica estrutural, pois recam em uma lógica de punitivismo que paradoxalmente acaba por retirar do indivíduo uma dimensão que lhe cabe de responsabilidade.

Tomemos o exemplo do conceito de lugar de fala. O sentido por trás dele, que remete aos trabalhos de Gayatri Spivak, reside na noção de que nem as nossas formas de nos referir ao mundo nem o peso que eles terão no discurso são igualmente compartilhados. Como tem sido amplamente discutido pela literatura pós- e de(s)colonial, trata-se de uma crítica a uma suposta neutralidade epistêmica de nossas visões de mundo, onde questões de injustiça epistêmica são também políticas — quem está dentro e quem está fora, quem pode falar e quem é silenciado, quais falas, enfim, importam para o discurso — aquilo que no debate em línguas inglesa tem sido chamado de standpoint epistemology.

Gayatri Spivak

Como se vê, o que encontramos no centro desta discussão é a importância dada aos processos de aprendizado, à percepção e à tomada de consciência reflexiva de nossos discursos.

Quando usado, contudo, para fazer ataques pessoais baseados em questões identitárias, o sentido pretendido pelo conceito entra em contradição com o que ele pretende:  de um lado, ele pede por autocrítica e reflexão — ou seja, consciência do lugar a partir de onde se fala —, mas, de outro, acusa-se o indivíduo a partir de uma lógica identitária que justamente escamoteia a possibilidade do aprendizado e da reflexão. É o que se chama de contradição performativa: o próprio conceito, quando enunciado, perde a sua razão de ser.

Problema análogo vale para o sentido de punição no que tem sido chamado de cultura do cancelamento. Quem define quem é culpado e como deve ser punido?

Na genealogia moderna do Estado democrático de direito, o significado de punirmos socialmente alguém que cometeu um delito foi paulatinamente assumido pela esfera jurídica como sendo proporcional a esse delito. Qualquer pessoa que cometeu um crime deve responder por seus atos, mas antes disso ela tem que ter direito ao devido processo legal, que envolve presunção de inocência, direito ao contraditório e ampla defesa etc. A ideia básica do devido processo legal é que há uma pena correspondente a um crime. Não podemos simplesmente estampar um rótulo numa pessoa e taxa-la ad eternum de “criminoso”. É justamente esse tipo de postura que impede a reinserção social de quem foi preso e está novamente livre. Ao indivíduo também lhe é dado o direito a outras possibilidades de escolhas que também fazem parte do horizonte de sua narrativa, como arrepender-se e quer traçar sua biografia de uma outra maneira.

A assim chamada cultura do cancelamento acaba então assumindo dois pesos e duas medidas: ao mesmo tempo que pretende ser antipunitivista ou mesmo anticarcerária, pune socialmente sem conceder o que é previsto nas suas garantias legais. Cria-se uma espécie de antipunitivismo de ocasião, com a diferença de que a pena dada pelo cancelamento pode ser pior, pois não há mais a possibilidade de se pagar uma pena correspondente a um delito, mas enquanto viver a pessoa é condenada ao ostracismo.

(Reprodução: Twitter)

Apesar dos holofotes do cancelamento acabarem se voltando para casos envolvendo celebridades, que já tem mais visibilidade, a consequências dessa lógica punitivista e persecutória atinge mais duramente pessoas em condições de maior vulnerabilidade. E, aqui, as intuições por trás da crítica estrutural mostram-se novamente fecundas: Se há falhas na forma como as instituições da justiça atuam — seletividade e desproporcionalidade das punições, práticas extrajudiciais, ou mesmo limites do legalismo —, a crítica deve se voltar sobretudo a isso, sem precisarmos retroceder a práticas de condenações moral.

É por isso que tenho me posicionado contra qualquer forma de moralismo persecutório — ou seja, que pune o outro a partir de sua própria régua moral. Como entendo, o julgamento que faço a partir de minha régua moral diz mais sobre mim do que dos outros. Ele traça uma linha vertiginosa e arrogante sobre como os outros devem se comportar, e com ela, apenas escancara o narcisismo de minhas próprias convicções. Desconfio, portanto, tanto de quem exige do outro a perfeição quanto de quem se diz perfeito (a tal pessoa de bem) — o que não passa de uma forma ou ingênua ou cínica de autoengano.

Mesmo quem se diz tolerante, a depender da sinceridade de suas motivações, pode apenas esconder formas mais profundas de injustiças estruturais. É por isso que na língua alemã, além do vocábulo de variação latina “tolerieren”, há o verbo “dulden” — que quer dizer “suportar”: eu tenho que suportar quem pensa diferente de mim. Não por acaso, Goethe diz que “[a] tolerância deveria ser uma atitude apenas temporária: ela deve conduzir ao reconhecimento. Tolerar significa insultar.”

Detalhe do retrato de Goethe em 1828, óleo sobre tela de Stieler

Ao invés de voltar-se para a crítica a formas estruturais de injustiça — como tem enfatizado Silvio Almeida em seus trabalhos sobre o racismo estrutural —, o que o uso equivocado de conceitos como lugar de fala e outras práticas como linchamento virtual e cancelamento têm feito é o patrulhamento sobre quem pode ou não falar, muitas vezes assumindo um caráter cerceador da liberdade e de interdição do discurso. No limite, ele joga fora tanto as dimensões estruturais da crítica quanto a possibilidade de responsabilização individual — ou seja, a capacidade que cada um tem de rever suas próprias posições. Por isso, tenho usado o termo paradoxo, referindo-me a posições e posturas que entram em choque com aquilo que pretendem.

O que orienta a crítica estrutural, pelo contrário, não é o abandono da responsabilidade individual, senão confrontar o que podemos chamar de uma noção ingênua de liberdade: a de pressupor que os indivíduos são igualmente livres para perseguir suas próprias escolhas, sem justamente ter em mente um leque de condições estruturais que escrevem seu horizonte de liberdade –  a começar pelo país que nascemos, as condições econômicas de sua família, cor de sua pele, etc. Nada disso depende da liberdade individual. Ao jogar a responsabilidade apenas sobre o indivíduo, perde-se de vista o conjunto de práticas compartilhadas inclusive numa perspectiva histórica e intergeracional. Reconhecimentos públicos de perdão cumprem esse papel: ainda que não seja o chefe de Estado enquanto indivíduo o culpado, o gesto de reconhecimento de injustiças históricas traz um importante significado simbólico de elaboração da memória. É por isso que, até mesmo para libertários como Robert Nozick, é legítimo o reconhecimento de dívida históricas —o que, apesar de não querer indicar uma culpa individual, significa reconhecer que práticas institucionalizas do passado são causas de injustiça no presente.

Robert Nozick

Enquanto volta-se às estruturas sociais, a crítica tem a vantagem de pensar quais são as condições sociais de realização da liberdade individual, compreendendo aí também o que podemos confrontar e não determinar de maneira identitária.

A fixação essencialista e unilateral em condições de identidade acaba por reduzir o pensamento à identidade. Ela encapsula a reflexão, ditando tanto quem pode e quem não pode refletir sobre determinadas questões quanto assumindo uma espécie de relação dada a priori entre identidade e pensamento — como se houvesse um bloco homogêneo determinado identitariamente e não pessoas que podem ter posições diferentes. E não só: se se fragiliza a dimensão de nossa possibilidade de escolha justamente além da condição na qual nascemos, retira-se o sentido de responsabilidade individual. Somos sujeitos com responsabilidade moral justamente porque podemos nos posicionar diante da condição identitária em que nascemos.

O pensamento, a reflexão ou a crítica nunca estão dadas, senão se encontram sempre em disputa, e é isso que permite com que — individual ou coletivamente — confrontemos as instituições, nossas hábitos e práticas sociais. Voltar o foco à crítica estrutural significa reconhecer que, afinal, podemos pensar — ou seja, assumir a responsabilidade que temos pelas nossas escolhas e por aquilo que nos cabe dentro do horizonte e do vocabulário de nossa liberdade.

(Getty Images)

Filipe Campello é professor de filosofia da Universidade Federal de Pernambuco e pesquisador do CNPq. É Doutor em Filosofia pela Universidade de Frankfurt (Alemanha) e realizou pós-doutorado na New School for Social Research (Nova York).