Dogs are being enlisted in the fight against the novel coronavirus. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are testing a pack of eight Labrador retrievers to find out if their sensitive snouts can detect the pandemic virus by scent, Karin Brulliard reports for the Washington Post.
Humans have trained our canine friends’ finely tuned noses to sniff out other deadly diseases, including malaria, diabetes, some cancers and Parkinson’s disease, reported Ian Tucker for the Guardian in 2018. Other research has shown that viruses give off a particular smell, Cynthia Otto, director of the Working Dog Center at UPenn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, tells the Post.
If the dogs’ 300 million scent receptors can be trained to smell the novel coronavirus they could eventually be used in public places such as airports, businesses or hospitals to quickly and easily screen large numbers of people. Because this diagnosis by dog would depend on the smell given off by people infected with COVID-19 it should have no problem picking out asymptomatic carriers.
The yellow, black and chocolate labs will be trained for three weeks using a process called odor imprinting. Miss M., Poncho and six other dogs will be exposed to COVID-19 positive saliva or urine collected from hospitals and then rewarded with food when they pick out the correct samples, according to a statement from UPenn. When the dogs have the scent, they’ll be tested to see if they can pick out COVID-19 positive people.
“We don’t know that this will be the odor of the virus, per se, or the response to the virus, or a combination,” Otto, who is leading the project, tells the Post. “But the dogs don’t care what the odor is. … What they learn is that there’s something different about this sample than there is about that sample.”
Dogs are also being trained for this purpose in the United Kingdom by the charity Medical Detection Dogs in collaboration with Durham University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reports the BBC.
“This would help prevent the re-emergence of the disease after we have brought the present epidemic under control,” Steve Lindsay, public health entomologist at Durham University, tells the BBC.
The U.K. trial expects to start collecting COVID-19 positive samples in the coming weeks and will train its dogs shortly thereafter, per the Post. If the trial is successful the group aims to distribute six dogs to be used for screening in U.K. airports.
“Each individual dog can screen up to 250 people per hour,” James Logan, epidemiologist at Durham University and collaborator on the project, tells the Post. “We are simultaneously working on a model to scale it up so it can be deployed in other countries at ports of entry, including airports.”
Otto tells the Post that the trial could inspire an electronic sensor that could detect COVID-19 which might be able to rapidly test thousands of people. But if the dogs’ olfactory prowess can’t be replicated, then the ability to scale up could be limited by another issue: the U.S.’s shortage of detection dogs.
The list of fabulous skills that dogs have and their ability to help us humans out is practically endless.
To be more to the point, if dogs really can make a difference in determining who has got COVID-19, especially at airports, then this is a step to eventually returning to a more open and normal lifestyle.
Put another way, dogs can detect some odors in parts per trillion. What does that mean in terms we might understand? Well, in her book Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College, writes that while we might notice if our coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth. Another dog scientist likened their ability to catching a whiff of one rotten apple in two million barrels.
I really should have written having a pet in your life because the following story is about cats and dogs. Plus, it’s been copied from The Guardian Newspaper so I fully expect that it will be taken down fairly soon.
But here goes!
Sometimes a dog can be better for a patient than hospital
Suffering patients may need to just be asked ‘tell me about your pet’
‘I wonder how often doctors are cognisant of the silent distress of patients who are separated from their pets?’
An elderly patient is admitted to hospital after a fall at home. He is stunned after the fall but, thankfully, uninjured. It takes him a few days to recover but as soon as he is able, he wants to go home. The physiotherapist wants to work with him, the social worker wants to examine his support system, but all he wants to do is go home. We feel he is not yet safe. He acknowledges that a worse event could happen but still, he wants to go home. Theories are posited as to why.
Maybe the concussion is worse than we first thought. Maybe he is cognitively impaired and unable to make decisions about his safety, in which case a state-appointed guardian may be needed. Maybe he doesn’t like the other patients, in which case he could be placated by moving him to another room. It is the beginning of a month of medical rounds for me and he is the handover without a plan.
He is sitting out of bed, dressed and sipping his tea. He looks up at a new face with interest.
“I am the specialist taking over your care,” I say.
“Look, love, please just let me go home. I’m begging you.”
Something about his desperation moves me and I am struck by the imbalance of power between me and my patient twice my age.
“I really want to, but help me understand why you’re so eager.”
I expect to hear about the incessant noise in the hospital, the bad food or the lack of clear communication but instead, to my complete surprise, tears start rolling down his face.
“It’s my cat. I want to see my cat.”
The cat is a link to the years he shared with his late wife. Now it snoozes in his wife’s chair and responds to his reminiscences, as if to say it knows he is hurting. In the twilight of his life, when his children are too busy to visit and the residents in his retirement village keep falling sick, his cat is the constant in his life.
“You can’t fix an old man,” he pleads. “But send me back to my cat.”
“I am going to do just that,” I say.
Outside, his story touches a nerve. People band together, set up community services and get him home quickly. In the end, he turns out to be a simple discharge. Reuniting an old man with his cat turns out to be the best medicine, which leaves me wondering how often doctors are cognisant of the silent distress of patients who are separated from their pets. Not often, I suspect.
The very next week, the distress of another patient announces itself loudly and heartbreakingly. She is 50, her dog was 18. She was divorced and lonely. He was old and slow. When her work turned her out and her friends moved on, the dog proved her anchor.
Amid all the shifting circumstances of her life, he never stopped loving her and greeting her with delight every morning. He needed nothing more than a walk and a few biscuits to send him into raptures of delight. Suddenly he fell very ill and the vet suggested the kindest thing to do was to let him go. So she did. Then she came home and took an overdose. How could she face life without her dog?
The postman spotted her through the window and called an ambulance. She was successfully resuscitated and now she is on the medical ward, awaiting psychiatric intervention. When I meet her she is pleasant and remorseful, particularly for being a burden on the overstretched mental-healthcare system.
A psych consult won’t help her, she pleads, another dog will. In fact, she has found just the right one and even thought of a name. She just hopes it won’t be gone before she is cleared. I tell her that all my sympathies still won’t add up to a hasty discharge because she really does need to see the psychiatrist. She begins to sob.
I have an insightful resident with me.
“Tell me about your dog,” she asks brightly. “I love dogs.”
The patient pulls out a photo from under her pillow.
“He is so happy,” I remark as I start jotting some notes.
“He was all I had. I went months without talking to people.”
Her loneliness will need attention but that’s a topic for another day, easy to identify but difficult to fix.
“What was his favourite thing to do?” the resident smiles, leaning forward.
“He loved to walk, even as an old thing.”
We go back and forth, the standard questions about headache, pain and immobility replaced by an interest in a departed dog that was the life of his owner.
It feels intuitively right but somehow misplaced, as if we are breaking some established protocol that says we should be asking about the number of pills she took and whether there was alcohol involved and what she would do if her new dog got sick. We should be checking her vitals, ensuring her bloods are fine, that the drug screen is clear. And watching our every word in case something inopportune brings her grief crashing back and we are to blame.
Except, in that moment, it is clear that while the medical questions have merit, the most important thing for this patient at this time is to cast them all aside and create a common understanding to make her feel less lonely in her experience. I count 10 minutes spent at her bedside. In those 10 minutes, we watch her mood lift and fresh hope enter her tone. There are people who love dogs, she thinks. There are people who understand my grief. Why, they are even interested in my old dog.
Our time is limited, and we must move on apologetically. With dry eyes and genuine gratitude, she says, “Thank you for asking about my dog. It’s the nicest thing anyone has done.”
Really? Could it be this simple?
Amid the trappings of modern medicine, it’s hard to believe that the inexpensive 10 minutes spent at her bedside might have proved to be the most useful and cathartic treatment of all. All her tests turned out fine. A day later, she is deemed safe for discharge and is overjoyed at the reprieve.
The next time we meet an upset patient, I suspect we will be tempted to ask the same question as always, “What’s the problem?”
But with a better history and a little luck, these experiences will shape a more nuanced approach to the suffering of patients. For many of them, the best question may be a request. “Tell me about your pet.”
It’s both a beautiful story and a powerful one. It explains how for many people having a pet in their lives is more than a nice thing, it’s the reason for living.
Thank you Margaret for sending me the link to this news item.
I stopped and pondered whether I should share this with you but then I decided to so do. Reason is that this is …. well, let me put it in the words of the essay: “Dark money is among the greatest current threats to democracy. It means money spent below the public radar, that seeks to change political outcomes. It enables very rich people and corporations to influence politics without showing their hands.”
You Want It Darker?
10th December 2018
The remarkable story of how the hard-right Koch brothers funded a Trotskyite splinter group.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 7th November 2018
Dark money is among the greatest current threats to democracy. It means money spent below the public radar, that seeks to change political outcomes. It enables very rich people and corporations to influence politics without showing their hands.
Among the world’s biggest political spenders are Charles and David Koch, co-owners of Koch Industries, a vast private conglomerate of oil pipelines and refineries, chemicals, timber and paper companies, commodity trading firms and cattle ranches. If their two fortunes were rolled into one, Charles David Koch, with $120bn, would be the richest man on Earth.
In a rare public statement – an essay published in 1978 – Charles Koch explained his objective. “Our movement must destroy the prevalent statist paradigm.” As Jane Mayer records in her book Dark Money, the Kochs’ ideology – lower taxes and looser regulations – and their business interests “dovetailed so seamlessly it was difficult to distinguish one from the other.”
Over the years, she notes, “the company developed a stunning record of corporate malfeasance”. Koch Industries paid massive fines for oil spills, illegal benzene emissions and ammonia pollution. In 1999, a jury found that it had knowingly using a corroded pipeline to carry butane, which caused an explosion in which two people died. Company Town, a film released last year, tells the story of local people’s long fight against pollution from a huge papermill owned by the Koch brothers.
The Koch’s chief political lieutenant, Richard Fink, developed what he called a three-stage model of social change. Universities would produce “the intellectual raw materials”. Think tanks would transform them into “a more practical or useable form”. Then “citizen activist” groups would “press for the implementation of policy change.”
To these ends the Kochs set up bodies in all three categories themselves, such as the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the Cato Institute and the “citizens’ group” Americans for Prosperity. But for the most part they funded existing organisations that met their criteria. They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a network of academic departments, thinktanks, journals and movements. And they appear to have been remarkably successful.
As researchers at Harvard and Columbia universities have found, Americans for Prosperity alone now rivals the Republican party in terms of size, staffing and organisational capacity. It has pulled ”the Republican party to the far-right on economic, tax, and regulatory issues.” It was crucial to the success of the Tea Party Movement, the ousting of Democrats from Congress, and the staffing of Trump’s transition team. The Koch network has helped secure massive tax cuts, the smashing of trade unions and the dismantling of environmental legislation.
But their hands, for the most part, remain invisible. A Republican consultant who has worked for Charles and David Koch told Jane Mayer that “to call them under the radar is an understatement. They are underground.”
Until now, there has been no evidence that Charles and David Koch have directly funded organisations based in the UK. But a few weeks ago, a reader pointed me to one line he found in a form submitted to the US government by the Charles Koch Foundation, which showed money transferred to a company that appears to be the US funding arm of a UK organisation. Once I had grasped its significance, I set up a collaboration with the investigative group DeSmog UK. We could scarcely believe what we were seeing.
The organisation the Charles Koch Foundation has chosen to fund is at first sight astounding: a US organisation established by an obscure magazine run by former members of a tiny Trotskyite splinter group. Some of its core contributors still describe themselves as Marxists or Bolsheviks. But the harder you look at it, the more sense the Koch donations appear to make.
The name of the magazine is Spiked. It emerged from a group with a comical history of left factionalism. In 1974, the International Socialists split after a dispute over arithmetic in Volume 3 of Das Kapital. One of the new factions formed the Revolutionary Communist Group. In 1976, it split again, and one of the splinters became the Revolutionary Communist Tendency. It was led by a sociologist at the University of Kent called Frank Furedi. In 1981 it changed its name to the Revolutionary Communist Party.
In 1988, the party launched a magazine called Living Marxism (later LM). By then, it had abandoned many of its former convictions. Among the few discernible traces of its revolutionary past was an enthusiasm for former communists in the Balkans, such as Slobodan Milošević. In 2000, it closed after losing a libel case: it falsely claimed that ITN had fabricated evidence of Serb atrocities against Bosnian Muslims. But as soon as the magazine folded, a network of new groups, with the same cast of characters – Frank Furedi, Claire Fox, Mick Hume, Brendan O’Neill, James Heartfield, Michael Fitzpatrick, James Woudhuysen – sprang up to replace it. Among these organisations were the Institute of ideas, the Academy of Ideas, the Manifesto Club and a new magazine, Spiked. It had the same editor as LM (Mick Hume) and most of the same contributors.
We found three payments over the past two years from the Charles Koch Foundation. They amount to $170,000, earmarked for “general operating support”. The payments were made to Spiked US Inc. On Spiked’s “Donate” page is a button that says “In the US? Donate here”. It takes you to the PayPal link for “Spiked US, Inc”. Spiked US, in other words, appears to be its American funding arm. Beyond a postal address is Hoboken, New Jersey, it is hard to see what presence it has in the US. It appears to have been established in 2016, the year in which the Koch donations began.
When I asked Spiked what the money was for and whether there had been any other payments, its managing editor, Viv Regan, told me that the Charles Koch Foundation has now given Spiked US a total of $300,000, “to produce public debates in the US about free speech, as part of its charitable activities.” She claims the foundation supports projects “on both the left and the right”. The Koch Foundation has funded “a free-speech oriented programme of public debates on campus titled the Unsafe Space Tour” and four live events, the first of which is titled ‘Should we be free to hate?’. She told me “We’re very proud of our work on free speech and tolerance, and we are proud to be part of the programme.”
The Koch brothers are famously careful with their money. According to Jane Mayer, they exert “unusually tight personal control over their philanthropic endeavours”. David Koch told a sympathetic journalist, “If we’re going to give a lot of money, we’ll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent. And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things we don’t agree with, we withdraw funding.” So what might have attracted them to this obscure organisation?
It repeatedly defends figures on the hard right or far right: Katie Hopkins, Nigel Farage, Alex Jones, the Democratic Football Lads’ Alliance, Tommy Robinson, Toby Young, Arron Banks, Brett Kavanaugh, Viktor Orban. They are portrayed as victims of “McCarthyites” trying to suppress free speech. It demands the hardest of possible Brexits, insisting that “No Deal is nothing to fear”, as it would allow the UK to scrap EU regulations.
Bizarrely, Spiked still uses Leon Trotsky to justify its positions. It claims to have built its philosophy on his objective of “increasing the power of man over nature and … the abolition of the power of man over man”. This means, it says, that “we should fight for greater human dominion over the natural world”, and that regulatory power should not be used to prevent anyone from exercising their agency. The result appears to turn Trotsky’s objective on its head: without constraint, those with the greatest agency can exercise uninhibited power over others.
Its enthusiasm for Trotsky is highly selective. As one of Spiked’s writers noted in 2002, his central message was that “the retreat behind national boundaries is a recipe for reaction”. Yet the magazine’s defence of both Brexit and Viktor Orban, Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, is founded on the notion of national sovereignty. Spiked seems to have remembered everything Leon Trotsky wrote that could be recruited to the cause of corporate capital and the hard right, and forgotten all his, shall we say, less enthusiastic musings about those forces.
Above all, its positions are justified with the claim to support free speech. But the freedom all seems to tend in one direction: freedom to lambast vulnerable people. The Unsafe Space tour that the Charles Koch Foundation financed was heavily slanted towards this line. Yet, when I exercised my freedom of speech in sending my questions to Spiked, I was denounced on the front page of the magazine as a “McCarthyite”. This is its favourite insult, which it uses prolifically to dismiss legitimate inquiries and critiques. The usual term for asking awkward questions about powerful interests is journalism. Open information and transparency are crucial to free speech: the more we know, the freer we become. Spiked has also called for schools, universities and governments to be “cleansed” of “the malign influence” of green NGOs, which it denounces as “the environmentalist enemy within.” Some friends of free speech, these.
Is this the extent of the Koch brothers’ funding of groups based in the UK? Who knows? I have not yet had a response from the Charles Koch Foundation. But I see these payments as part of a wider pattern of undisclosed funding. Democracy without transparency is not democracy.
I have prostate cancer, but I’m happy. Here’s how.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 14th March 2018
It came, as these things often do, like a gunshot on a quiet street: shocking and disorienting. In early December, my urine turned brown. The following day I felt feverish and found it hard to pee. I soon realised I had a urinary tract infection. It was unpleasant, but seemed to be no big deal. Now I know that it might have saved my life.
The doctor told me this infection was unusual in a man of my age, and hinted at an underlying condition. So I had a blood test, which revealed that my prostate specific antigen (PSA) levels were off the scale. An MRI scan and a mortifying biopsy confirmed my suspicions. Prostate cancer: all the smart young men have it this season.
On Monday, I go into surgery. The prostate gland is buried deep in the body, so removing it is a major operation: there are six entry points and it takes four hours. The procedure will hack at the roots of my manhood. Because of the damage that will be caused to the surrounding nerves, there’s a high risk of permanent erectile dysfunction. Because the urethra needs to be cut and reattached to the bladder, I will almost certainly suffer urinary incontinence for a few months, and possibly permanently. Because the removal of part of the urethra retracts the penis, it appears to shrink, at least until it can be stretched back into shape.
I was offered a choice: radical surgery or brachytherapy. This means implanting radioactive seeds in the parts of the prostrate affected by cancer. Brachytherapy has fewer side effects, and recovery is much faster. But there’s a catch. If it fails to eliminate the cancer, there’s nothing more that can be done. This treatment sticks the prostate gland to the bowel and bladder, making surgery extremely difficult. Once you’ve had one dose of radiation, they won’t give you another. I was told that the chances of brachytherapy working in my case were between 70 and 80%. The odds were worse, in other words, than playing Russian roulette (which, with one bullet in a six-chambered revolver, gives you 83%). Though I have a tendency to embrace risk, this was not an attractive option.
It would be easy to curse my luck and start to ask “why me?”. I have never smoked and hardly drink; I have a ridiculously healthy diet and follow a severe fitness regime. I’m 20 or 30 years younger than most of the men I see in the waiting rooms. In other words, I would have had a lower risk of prostate cancer only if I had been female. And yet … I am happy. In fact, I’m happier than I was before my diagnosis. How can this be?
The reason is that I’ve sought to apply the three principles which, I believe, sit at the heart of a good life. The first is the most important: imagine how much worse it could be, rather than how much better.
When you are diagnosed with prostate cancer, your condition is ranked on the Gleason Score, which measures its level of aggression. Mine is graded at 7 out of 10. But this doesn’t tell me where I stand in general. I needed another index to assess the severity of my condition, so I invented one: the Shitstorm Scale. How does my situation compare to those of people I know, who contend with other medical problems or family tragedies? How does it compare to what might have been, had the cancer had not been caught while it is still – apparently – confined to the prostate gland? How does it compare to innumerable other disasters that could have befallen me?
When I completed the exercise, I realised that this bad luck, far from being a cause of woe, is a reminder of how lucky I am. I have the love of my family and friends. I have the support of those with whom I work. I have the NHS. My Shitstorm Score is a mere 2 out of 10.
The tragedy of our times is that, rather than apply the most useful of English proverbs – “cheer up, it could be worse” – we are constantly induced to imagine how much better things could be. The rich lists and power lists with which the newspapers are filled, our wall-to-wall celebrity culture, the invidious billions spent on marketing and advertising, create an infrastructure of comparison that ensures we see ourselves as deprived of what others possess. It is a formula for misery.
The second principle is this: change what you can change, accept what you can’t. This is not a formula for passivity. I’ve spent my working life trying to alter outcomes that might have seemed immovable to other people. The theme of my latest book is that political failure is, at heart, a failure of imagination. But sometimes we simply have to accept an obstacle as insuperable. Fatalism in these circumstances is protective. I accept that my lap is in the lap of the gods.
So I will not rage against the morbidity this surgery might cause. I won’t find myself following Groucho Marx who, at the age of 81, magnificently lamented, “I’m going to Iowa to collect an award. Then I’m appearing at Carnegie Hall, it’s sold out. Then I’m sailing to France to pick up an honour from the French government. I’d give it all up for one erection.” And today there’s viagra.
The third principle is this: do not let fear rule your life. Fear hems us in, stops us from thinking clearly and prevents us from either challenging oppression or engaging calmly with the impersonal fates. When I was told that this operation has an 80% chance of success, my first thought was “that’s roughly the same as one of my kayaking trips. And about twice as good as the chance of emerging from those investigations in West Papua and the Amazon”.
There are, I believe, three steps to overcoming fear: name it, normalise it, socialise it. For too long, cancer has been locked in the drawer labelled Things We Don’t Talk About. When we call it the Big C, it becomes, as the term suggests, not smaller, but larger in our minds. He Who Must Not Be Named is diminished by being identified, and diminished further when he becomes a topic of daily conversation.
The super-volunteer Jeanne Chattoe, whom I interviewed recently for another column, reminded me that, just 25 years ago, breast cancer was a taboo subject. Thanks to the amazing advocacy of its victims, this is almost impossible to imagine today. Now we need to do the same for other cancers. Let there be no more terrible secrets.
So I have sought to discuss my prostate cancer as I would discuss any other issue. I make no apologies for subjecting you to the grisly details: the more familiar they become, the less horrifying. In doing so, I socialise my condition. Last month, I discussed the remarkable evidence suggesting that a caring community enhances recovery and reduces mortality. In talking about my cancer with family and friends, I feel the love that I know will get me through this. The old strategy of suffering in silence could not have been more misguided.
I had intended to use this column to urge men to get themselves tested. But since my diagnosis, we’ve discovered two things. The first is that prostate cancer has overtaken breast cancer to become the third biggest cancer killer in the UK. The second is that the standard assessment (the PSA blood test) is of limited use. As prostate cancer in its early stages is likely to produce no symptoms, it’s hard to see what men can do to protect themselves. That urinary tract infection was a remarkably lucky break.
Instead, I urge you to support the efforts led by Prostate Cancer UK to develop a better test. Breast cancer has attracted twice as much money and research as prostate cancer, not because (as the Daily Mail suggests) men are the victims of injustice, but because women’s advocacy has been so effective. Campaigns such as Men United and the Movember Foundation have sought to bridge this gap, but there’s a long way to go. Prostate cancer is discriminatory: for reasons unknown, black men are twice as likely to suffer it as white men. Finding better tests and treatments is a matter of both urgency and equity.
I will ride this out. I will own this disease but I won’t be defined by it: I will not be prostrated by my prostate. I will be gone for a few weeks but when I return, I do solemnly swear I will still be the argumentative old git with whom you are familiar.
It appears to be a unique aspect of the human mind. I am referring to our ability to worry about the future, to struggle to break away from ‘habitual’ responses to unanticipated crap coming along, to see the glass as half full as opposed to half empty, and so on, and so on.
For just two days ago I published a post under the heading of Meat is Heat. It featured an essay by Michael Greger. He of the website NutritionFacts.org. That essay promoted the message:
What we eat may have more of an impact on global warming than what we drive.
Just cutting out animal protein intake one day of the week could have a powerful effect. Meatless Mondays alone could beat out a whole week of working from home and not commuting.
Many of you read that post.
On the same day that I published that post, George Monbiot published an article in The Guardian newspaper that offered the same message, albeit coming at it from a different place but nonetheless just as critically important.
Here it is republished with Mr. Monbiot’s very kind permission.
We Can’t Keep Eating Like This
This is the question everyone should be attending to – where is the food going to come from?
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th December 2017
Brexit; the crushing of democracy by billionaires; the next financial crash; a rogue US president: none of them keeps me awake at night. This is not because I don’t care – I care very much. It’s only because I have a bigger question on my mind. Where is the food going to come from?
By mid-century there will be two or three billion more people on Earth. Any one of the issues I am about to list could help precipitate mass starvation. And this is before you consider how they might interact.
The trouble begins where everything begins: with soil. The UN’s famous projection that, at current rates of soil loss, the world has 60 years of harvests left, appears to be supported by a new set of figures. Partly as a result of soil degradation, yields are already declining on 20% of the world’s croplands.
Now consider water loss. In places such as the North China Plain, the central United States, California and north-western India – among the world’s critical growing regions – levels of the groundwater used to irrigate crops are already reaching crisis point. Water in the Upper Ganges aquifer, for example, is being withdrawn at 50 times its recharge rate. But, to keep pace with food demand, farmers in South Asia expect to use between 80 and 200% more water by 2050. Where will it come from?
The reason is that high temperatures at night disrupt the pollination process. But this describes just one component of the likely pollination crisis. Insectageddon, caused by the global deployment of scarcely-tested pesticides, will account for the rest. Already, in some parts of the world, workers are now pollinating plants by hand. But that’s viable only for the most expensive crops.
Then there are the structural factors. Because they tend to use more labour, grow a wider range of crops and work the land more carefully, small farmers, as a rule, grow more food per hectare than large ones. In the poorer regions of the world, people with less than 5 hectares own 30% of the farmland but produce 70% of the food. Since 2000, an area of fertile ground roughly twice the size of the United Kingdom has been seized by land grabbers and consolidated into large farms, generally growing crops for export rather than the food needed by the poor.
While these multiple disasters unfold on land, the seas are being sieved of everything but plastic. Despite a massive increase in effort (bigger boats, bigger engines, more gear), the worldwide fish catch is declining by roughly 1% a year, as populations collapse. The global land grab is mirrored by a global seagrab: small fishers are displaced by big corporations, exporting fish to those who need it less but pay more. Around 3 billion people depend to a large extent on fish and shellfish protein. Where will it come from?
All this would be hard enough. But as people’s incomes increase, their diet tends to shift from plant protein to animal protein. World meat production has quadrupled in 50 years, but global average consumption is still only half that of the UK – where we eat roughly our bodyweight in meat every year – and just over a third of the US level. Because of the way we eat, the UK’s farmland footprint (the land required to meet our demand) is 2.4 times the size of its agricultural area. If everyone aspires to this diet, how do we accommodate it?
The profligacy of livestock farming is astonishing. Already, 36% of the calories grown in the form of grain and pulses – and 53% of the protein – are used to feed farm animals. Two-thirds of this food is lost in conversion from plant to animal. A graph produced last week by Our World in Data suggests that, on average, you need 0.01m2 of land to produce a gram of protein from beans or peas, but 1m2 to produce it from beef cattle or sheep: a difference of 100-fold.
It’s true that much of the grazing land occupied by cattle and sheep cannot be used to grow crops. But it would otherwise have sustained wildlife and ecosystems. Instead, marshes are drained, trees are felled and their seedlings grazed out, predators are exterminated, wild herbivores fenced out and other lifeforms gradually erased as grazing systems intensify. Astonishing places – such as the rainforests of Madagascar and Brazil – are laid waste to make room for yet more cattle.
Because there is not enough land to meet both need and greed, a global transition to eating animals means snatching food from the mouths of the poor. It also means the ecological cleansing of almost every corner of the planet.
The shift in diets would be impossible to sustain even if there were no growth in the human population. But the greater the number of people, the greater the hunger meat eating will cause. From a baseline of 2010, the UN expects meat consumption to rise by 70% by 2030 (this is three times the rate of human population growth). Partly as a result, the global demand for crops could double (from the 2005 baseline) by 2050. The land required to grow them does not exist.
When I say this keeps me up at night, I mean it. I am plagued by visions of starving people seeking to escape from grey wastes, being beaten back by armed police. I see the last rich ecosystems snuffed out, the last of the global megafauna – lions, elephants, whales and tuna – vanishing. And when I wake, I cannot assure myself that it was just a nightmare.
Other people have different dreams: the fantasy of a feeding frenzy that need never end, the fairytale of reconciling continued economic growth with a living world. If humankind spirals into societal collapse, these dreams will be the cause.
There are no easy answers, but the crucial change is a shift from an animal to a plant-based diet. All else being equal, stopping both meat production and the use of farmland to grow biofuels could provide enough calories for another 4 billion people and double the protein available for human consumption. Artificial meat will help: one paper suggests it reduces water use by at least 82% and land use by 99%.
The next Green Revolution will not be like the last one. It will rely not on flogging the land to death, but on reconsidering how we use it and why. Can we do this, or do we – the richer people now consuming the living planet – find mass death easier to contemplate than changing our diet?
As many of you know Jeannie and I changed our diet to a vegan diet some four weeks ago. It was done more for personal health reasons than from an awareness of the difference that it made to the future of the planet. But over the last few weeks we have had our eyes opened to the broader benefits of not eating meat. George Monbiot spells out the urgency of change for all of us, especially the richer people in the richer countries.
Am I hopeful that there will be a mass awareness of the need to change? I truly just don’t know. I will close be repeating Mr. Monbiot’s closing sentence.
Can we do this, or do we – the richer people now consuming the living planet – find mass death easier to contemplate than changing our diet?
(Please note that I am letting this post run until Sunday, 15th Oct.)
For many years I have both read George Monbiot’s writings, especially those published by The Guardian newspaper, and deeply respected his insight, intelligence and analysis of the world in which we now live.
So when I heard of his latest book, published by Verso Books both sides of the ‘pond’, it was ordered immediately. It was a book I badly wanted to read. I was not disappointed.
So what is Mr. Monbiot’s message?
To answer that question let me lean on a forthcoming talk being given by him in Edinburgh in eight days time. For he is speaking at a Scottish Green Party event on October 20th.
Here’s the thrust of what is to be covered at that meeting:
What does the good life—and the good society—look like in the twenty-first century?
A toxic ideology rules the world – of extreme competition and individualism. It misrepresents human nature, destroying hope and common purpose. Only a positive vision can replace it, a new story that re-engages people in politics and lights a path to a better world.
Join us for an evening of discussion with George Monbiot as he talks about his new book: ‘Out of the wreckage: a new politics in an age of crisis‘. New findings in psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology cast human nature in a radically different light: as the supreme altruists and cooperators. George argues that we can build on these findings to create a new politics: a ‘politics of belonging’.
So what does this mean for social and environmental justice campaigning in Edinburgh? How do we create a politics of belongings here in Scotland? There will be plenty of opportunity for George Monbiot and the audience to share their insights.
Doors open: 6pm
George Monbiot will speak from 7-7.30pm and there will then be a Q&A, plus a chance buy books, mingle and browse stalls.
This event is jointly hosted by Global Justice Now and the Scottish Green party.
To my mind, this book not only addresses, full on, the madness (my word) of these present times but also offers strong, positive recommendations as to how we, as in the societies of all the major nations, can turn it around and offer a decent future for future generations. That’s why I am so strongly recommending it.
For George Monbiot, neoliberalism should best be understood as a “story”, one that was conveniently on offer at precisely the moment when the previous “story” – namely Keynesianism – fell to pieces in the mid-1970s. The power of stories is overwhelming, as they are “the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals”. The particular story of neoliberalism “defines us as competitors, guided above all other impulses by the urge to get ahead of our fellows”.
It should be said at once that we are desperately in need of new ideas for a society and a democracy where trust in all established institutions is at a record low and even a Tory prime minister admits the country doesn’t work for everyone. Monbiot’s ideas are clear, well-reasoned and sometimes compelling. Many will mock his attempt at a “story of hope and restoration”; even some of his Guardian colleagues call him “George Moonshine”. Human beings, his critics will say, are inherently selfish and self-maximising. Give them the opportunity to freeload off others’ efforts and they will take it.
Such objections are easily dismissed. Yes, there’s a self-interested streak in all of us but, as Monbiot observes, we also have instincts for co-operation and sensitivity to others’ needs. Think of the hundreds who volunteer to run food banks and of the thousands more who donate to them. Think of those Europeans who, at great risk to themselves, sheltered Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War. The altruistic instinct can be kindled in almost anybody. It is suppressed, however, in a society that rewards the selfish but penalises – and brands as “mugs” – those who are more mindful of our needs, and the planet’s. That society has led to loneliness, high levels of mental illness and increasingly discordant political discourse. Shouldn’t we at least try developing a society that does more to nurture the better angels of our nature?
Better still, settle down with a cup of tea, put your feet up for fifteen minutes and listen to this:
This book struck me as the most important book I have ever read in my lifetime. Why? Because it gets to the heart of what is happening today. But it offers even more than that. For instead of a shrug of the shoulders or eyes turned skywards from a friend when one mutters about the fact that we are living in ‘interesting times’, George Monbiot offers hope and guidance.
Take the very last two paragraphs from the final chapter of his book.
Coming Home to Ourselves
Through restoring community, renewing civic life and claiming our place in the world, we build a society in which our extraordinary nature – our altruism, empathy and deep connection – is released.
When we emerge from the age of loneliness and alienation, from an obsession with competition and extreme individualism, from the worship of image and celebrity and power and wealth, we will find a person waiting for us. It is a person better than we might have imagined, whose real character has been suppressed. It is one who lives inside us, who has been there all along.
“- our altruism, empathy and deep connection -”
I see these persons every day of my life. Via the pages of this blog.
Yes, I am referring to all of you who wander in and out of this place, who demonstrate your compassion, your love and your dedication to the dogs and all the other animals of this world.
The smoke from the forest fires in Oregon and California has been thick in the air here in Merlin for days.
As can be seen in the photograph below. The photograph is as it was captured by the camera at 7:15 am yesterday morning. No changes by me made at all. The middle tree line is at the Eastern end of our property about a 1/4 mile away.
We are fed up with the smoke and the terrible air conditions.
But what drew me to grab the camera and take the photograph was that the image had some sort of, Oh, I don’t know, some sort of end of the world feeling about it.
The media avoids the subject of climate breakdown – to do otherwise is to bring the entire infrastructure of thought crashing down
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 29 August 2017
It is not only Donald Trump’s government that censors the discussion of climate change; it is the entire body of polite opinion. This is why, though the links are clear and obvious, the majority of news reports on Hurricane Harvey have made no mention of the human contribution.
In 2016, the United States elected a president who believes that human-driven global warming is a hoax. It was the hottest year on record, in which the US was hammered by a series of climate-related disasters. Yet the total combined coverage for the entire year on the evening and Sunday news programmes on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News amounted to 50 minutes. Our greatest predicament, the issue that will define our lives, has been blotted from our minds.
This is not an accident. But nor (with the exception of Fox News) is it likely to be a matter of policy. It reflects a deeply ingrained and scarcely conscious self-censorship. Reporters and editors ignore the subject because they have an instinct for avoiding trouble. To talk about climate breakdown (which in my view is a better term than the curiously bland labels we attach to this crisis) is to question not only Donald Trump, not only current environmental policy, not only current economic policy, but the entire political and economic system.
It is to expose a programme that relies on robbing the future to fuel the present, that demands perpetual growth on a finite planet. It is to challenge the very basis of capitalism; to inform us that our lives are dominated by a system that cannot be sustained, a system that is destined, if it is not replaced, to destroy everything.
To claim that there is no link between climate breakdown and the severity of Hurricane Harvey is like claiming that there is no link between the warm summer we have experienced and the end of the last ice age. Every aspect of our weather is affected by the fact that global temperatures rose by around 4° between the ice age and the 19th Century. And every aspect of our weather is affected by the 1° of global warming caused by human activities. While no weather event can be blamed solely on human-driven warming, no weather event is unaffected by it.
We know that the severity and impact of hurricanes on coastal cities are exacerbated by at least two factors: higher sea levels, caused primarily by the thermal expansion of seawater, and greater storm intensity, caused by higher sea temperatures and the ability of warm air to hold more water than cold air.
Before it reached the Gulf of Mexico, Harvey had been demoted from a tropical storm to a tropical wave. But as it reached the Gulf, whose temperatures this month have been far above average, it was upgraded first to a tropical depression, then to a category 1 hurricane. It might have been expected to weaken as it approached the coast, as hurricanes churn the sea, bringing cooler waters to the surface. But the water it brought up from 100 metres and more was also unusually warm. By the time it reached land, Harvey had intensified to a category 4 hurricane.
We were warned about this. In June, for example, Robert Kopp, a professor of earth sciences, predicted that “In the absence of major efforts to reduce emissions and strengthen resilience, the Gulf Coast will take a massive hit. Its exposure to sea-level rise – made worse by potentially stronger hurricanes – poses a major risk to its communities.”
To raise this issue, I’ve been told on social media, is to politicise Hurricane Harvey. It is an insult to the victims and a distraction from their urgent need. The proper time to discuss it is when people have rebuilt their homes, and scientists have been able to conduct an analysis of just how great the contribution from climate breakdown might have been. In other words, talk about it only when it’s out of the news. When researchers determined, 9 years on, that human activity had made a significant contribution to Hurricane Katrina, the information scarcely registered.
I believe it is the silence that’s political. To report the storm as if it were a entirely natural phenomenon, like last week’s eclipse of the sun, is to take a position. By failing to make the obvious link and talk about climate breakdown, media organisations ensure that our greatest challenge goes unanswered. They help push the world towards catastrophe.
Hurricane Harvey offers a glimpse of a likely global future; a future whose average temperatures are as different from ours as ours are from those of the last ice age. It is a future in which emergency becomes the norm and no state has the capacity to respond. It is a future in which, as a paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters notes, disasters like Houston’s occur in some cities several times a year. It is a future that, for people in countries such as Bangladesh, has already arrived, almost unremarked by the rich world’s media. It is the act of not talking that makes this nightmare likely to materialise.
In Texas, the connection could scarcely be more apparent. The storm ripped through the oil fields, forcing rigs and refineries to shut down, including those owned by some of the 25 companies that have produced over half the greenhouse gas emissions humans have released since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Hurricane Harvey has devastated a place in which climate breakdown is generated, and in which the policies that prevent it from being addressed are formulated.
This is not, however, a story of mortal justice. In Houston, as everywhere else, it is generally the poorer communities, that are least responsible for the problem, who are hit first and hit worst. But the connection between cause and effect should appeal to even the slowest minds.
The problem is not confined to the United States. Across the world, the issue that hangs over every aspect of our lives is marginalised, except on the rare occasions on which world leaders gather to discuss it in sombre tones (then sombrely agree to do almost nothing), whereupon the instinct to follow the machinations of power overrides the instinct to avoid a troubling subject. When they do cover the issue, they tend to mangle it. In the UK, the BBC distinguished itself in customary fashion this month, by yet again inviting the climate change denier Lord Lawson onto the Today programme, in the mistaken belief that impartiality requires a balance between correct facts and false ones. They seldom make such a mess of other topics, because they take them more seriously.
When Trump’s enforcers instruct officials and scientists to purge any mention of climate change from their publications, we are scandalised. But when the media does it, without the need for a memo, we let it pass. This censorship is invisible even to the perpetrators, woven into the fabric of organisations that are constitutionally destined to leave the major questions of our times unasked. To acknowledge this issue is to challenge everything. To challenge everything is to become an outcast.
Dear people, I sat staring at the screen for 10 minutes and then went off when Jeannie called lunchtime. Returned to the screen a little after 2pm yesterday and still couldn’t come up with a closing thought that merited being shared with you all.
Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.
Those words above are attributed to Mother Teresa and I have no reason to doubt that.
I selected them because they seemed to capture the mood that flowed out at me from a recent essay by George Monbiot.
Many will know George for he is a British writer very well-known for his environmental and political activism. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian, and is the author of a number of books.
Way back in the early days of this blog I was moved to republish some of GM’s essays and sought his permission to do just that. He responded promptly giving me blanket permission to republish any of his essays.
Now it’s a long time since I have availed myself of that permission for the simple reason that so very often George writes about matters that are tough to read and I choose not to share with you because there’s no shortage of tough commentaries about today’s world. That’s no criticism, actual or implied, into George Monbiot’s integrity as a reporter and writer.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 3rd October 2016
Two years ago, I wrote a column for the Guardian in which I argued that what distinguishes our age from those preceding it is an epidemic of loneliness. Throughout human history, we have been hyper-social animals, dependent on each other for both physical and psychic survival. Thomas Hobbes’s claim – that our natural state is a war of “every man against every man” – is a myth proposed by someone whose understanding of human evolution was confined to the book of Genesis. But the myth is now being realised through the religion of our time: a celebration of extreme individualism and universal competition. The resulting loneliness, I argued, is a deadly condition, which kills as many people as smoking or obesity.
To my astonishment, the article exploded, and the ripples can still be felt today. A documentary it inspired, called the Age of Loneliness, aired recently on BBC1. Several publishers asked me to write books on the topic, but I could think of nothing more depressing than spending three years sitting on my backside, documenting social isolation. There was plenty I wanted to say on the topic. But how?
A few weeks later, I dashed out to buy some screws from a hardware shop. Ahead of me in the queue was an elderly woman. She lent on the counter, dithering about what she wanted and trying to engage the sales assistants in a riveting conversation about her state of health. Stuck behind her, I quietly fumed: it seemed as if she would never leave.
But as I cycled home, and my frustration ebbed away, I saw what should have been obvious: here was a person who seemed desperately lonely. “Where’s your empathy?”, I asked myself. “Isn’t that what you were writing about?”. What if that conversation was the only one she would have all day? I felt guilty about my feelings in the shop.
When I returned to my desk, I began dashing out a rough poem about a woman living with little to keep her company but memories, who goes to the shops in the hope that she might talk to someone, but discovers that the tills have been replaced with automatic checkouts. As I wrote, it seemed to me that it was trying to become something else: a ballad. Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do with the topic: I wanted to write an album.
There were just a couple of minor hitches. I can’t read music, I don’t play an instrument and my singing is banned under international law. But I knew who to ask.
I first heard Ewan McLennan while listening to Late Junction on Radio 3, in 2011. I was transfixed by his voice, his playing and what seemed to be an almost supernatural ability to find the heart of a song. He was just 25. I bought his first album, Rags and Robes, and listened to it over and again. Three years later, I heard him interviewed by Mary Ann Kennedy, whose programmes I’ve followed since she began broadcasting on Radio Scotland. He spoke with the same ease of expression I had heard in his music. He was relaxed and funny, politically engaged and plainly fascinated by the roots and text of songs and poems. He came across as a cracking bloke.
I did something I have seldom done: I sent him a fan letter. I invited him to a talk I was giving in his home city, Bristol. He came, and over dinner afterwards we clicked. So, a few months later, with some trepidation, it was to him that I sent my idea of collaborating on a themed album.
To my delight, he agreed. I would start by thinking up a story and writing a rough sketch, which might incorporate some potential hooks, rhymes and choruses. I would send it to him on the understanding that he could do whatever he liked with it. I did not try to write to his style, as I knew he would take from each sketch what he wanted and make the song his own.
I wasn’t wrong. A couple of weeks after I emailed the first sketch to him, I found an audio file in my inbox, and opened it with the excitement of a child at Christmas. It was wonderful – he had turned my base metal into gold. The songs he sent back to me were riveting and heart-wrenching, capturing sensations I have long struggled to express.
The album is a mixture of dark shades and light: sad ballads and stirring anthems. We want to use it as a means of not only talking about loneliness, but, in a small way, addressing it. With advice from charities working on the issue, we are designing our gigs to try to bring people together. I will talk about the themes and Ewan will perform the songs. We will encourage people in the audience to talk to each other; then it will end up with a party in the nearest willing pub. Music naturally makes connections; we want to take it a step further.
In one respect, the album is already succeeding, as the collaboration has relieved the usual solitude in which we both work, making our lives less lonely. I hope it has the same effect on other people.
Breaking the Spell of Loneliness, by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot, is released on October 14 by Fellside Records.
Here’s a short video about the project, featuring some of the music:
This remarkable collaboration between author George Monbiot and musician Ewan McLennan seeks to address the curse of our age: a crowded planet stricken by loneliness. Using music and the written word, it seeks to make connections in a splintered world.
Now, dear reader, you would be disappointed if I didn’t close today’s post without reference to the value of a dog or two in one’s life, and I have no intention of delivering such disappointment!
From the dozens of pictures that have been presented here over the years I chose this one.
Because I have this notion that one can never be truly alone if there is a dog in one’s life.
What is happening in beautiful Indonesia is beyond imagination.
I am indebted to John Zande for introducing me to the word kakistocracy, that he explained means: “government by the worst persons; a form of government in which the worst persons are in power.”
For what is happening in Indonesia could well be an awful example of kakistocracy in action.
Like numerous others I knew that there were fires burning in Indonesia and that it was all somehow caught up in illegal logging, but knew little over and above that. And that is the crux of the title of a recent essay from George Monbiot: Nothing to See Here. It really is a “must read” essay and is republished below with Mr. Monbiot’s very kind permission. As with most of his essays, they are published in the Guardian newspaper. In this case, the Guardian version includes photographs that vividly underline the terrible situation out there. I agonised about copying them from the Guardian article, without explicit permission to so do, but have nevertheless done so on the basis of this story needing to make the maximum impact on readers. The photographs are inserted in Monbiot’s essay very closely to the format that is presented in the Guardian article.
Nothing to See Here
30th October 2015
In the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st Century (so far), Indonesia has been blotted out by smoke. And the media.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 30th October 2015.
I’ve often wondered how the media would respond when eco-apocalypse struck. I pictured the news programmes producing brief, sensational reports, while failing to explain why it was happening or how it might be stopped. Then they would ask their financial correspondents how the disaster affected share prices, before turning to the sport. As you can probably tell, I don’t have an ocean of faith in the industry for which I work.
What I did not expect was that they would ignore it.
A great tract of the Earth is on fire. It looks as you might imagine hell to be. The air has turned ochre: visibility in some cities has been reduced to 30 metres. Children are being prepared for evacuation in warships; already some have choked to death. Species are going up in smoke at an untold rate. It is almost certainly the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st Century – so far.
[NB: The video that is embedded in the Guardian version is without sound. I have added one that is also a Greenpeace video, with sound, further on in the post.]
And the media? It’s talking about the dress the Duchess of Cambridge wore to the James Bond premiere, Donald Trump’s idiocy du jour and who got eliminated from the Halloween episode of Dancing with the Stars. The great debate of the week, dominating the news across much of the world? Sausages: are they really so bad for your health?
What I’m discussing is a barbeque on a different scale. Fire is raging across the 5000-kilometre length of Indonesia. It is surely, on any objective assessment, more important than anything else taking place today. And it shouldn’t require a columnist, writing in the middle of a newspaper, to say so. It should be on everyone’s front page.
It is hard to convey the scale of this inferno, but here’s a comparison that might help: it is currently producing more carbon dioxide than the US economy. In three weeks the fires have released more CO2 than the annual emissions of Germany.
But that doesn’t really capture it. This catastrophe cannot be measured only in parts per million. The fires are destroying treasures as precious and irreplaceable as the archaeological remains being levelled by Isis. Orang utans, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons, the Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran tiger, these are among the threatened species being driven from much of their range by the flames. But there are thousands, perhaps millions, more.
One of the burning islands is West Papua, a nation that has been illegally occupied by Indonesia since 1963. I spent six months there when I was 24, investigating some of the factors that have led to the current disaster. At the time, it was a wonderland, rich with endemic species in every swamp and valley. Who knows how many of those have vanished in the past few weeks? This week I have pored and wept over photos of places I loved, that have now been reduced to ash.
Nor do the greenhouse gas emissions capture the impact on the people of these lands. After the last great conflagration, in 1997, there was a missing cohort in Indonesia of 15,000 children under the age of three, attributed to air pollution. This, it seems, is worse. The surgical masks being distributed across the nation will do almost nothing to protect those living in a sunless smog. Members of parliament in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) have had to wear face masks during debates. The chamber is so foggy that they must have difficulty recognising each other.
It’s not just the trees that are burning. It is the land itself. Much of the forest sits on great domes of peat. When the fires penetrate the earth, they smoulder for weeks, sometimes months, releasing clouds of methane, carbon monoxide, ozone and exotic gases like ammonium cyanide. The plumes extend for hundreds of miles, causing diplomatic conflicts with neighbouring countries.
Why is this happening? Indonesia’s forests have been fragmented for decades by timber and farming companies. Canals have been cut through the peat to drain and dry it. Plantation companies move in to destroy what remains of the forest to plant monocultures of pulpwood, timber and palm oil. The easiest way to clear the land is to torch it. Every year, this causes disasters. But in an extreme El Niño year like this one, we have a perfect formula for environmental catastrophe.
The current president, Joko Widodo, is – or wants to be – a democrat. But he presides over a nation in which fascism and corruption flourish. As Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing shows, leaders of the death squads that helped murder around a million people during Suharto’s terror in the 1960s, with the approval of the West, have since prospered through other forms of organised crime, including illegal deforestation.
They are supported by a paramilitary organisation with three million members, called Pancasila Youth. With its orange camo-print uniforms, scarlet berets, sentimental gatherings and schmaltzy music, it looks like a fascist militia as imagined by JG Ballard. There has been no truth, no reconciliation; the mass killers are still greeted as heroes and feted on television. In some places, especially West Papua, the political murders continue.
Those who commit crimes against humanity don’t hesitate to commit crimes against nature. Though Joko Widodo seems to want to stop the burning, his reach is limited. His government’s policies are contradictory: among them are new subsidies for palm oil production that make further burning almost inevitable. Some plantation companies, prompted by their customers, have promised to stop destroying the rainforest. Government officials have responded angrily, arguing that such restraint impedes the country’s development. That smoke blotting out the nation, which has already cost it some $30 billion? That, apparently, is development.
Our leverage is weak, but there are some things we can do. Some companies using palm oil have made visible efforts to reform their supply chains; but others seem to move slowly and opaquely. Starbucks, PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz and Unilever are examples. Don’t buy their products until they change.
On Monday, Widodo was in Washington, meeting Barack Obama. Obama, the official communiqué recorded, “welcomed President Widodo’s recent policy actions to combat and prevent forest fires”. The ecopalypse taking place as they conferred, that makes a mockery of these commitments, wasn’t mentioned.
Governments ignore issues when the media ignores them. And the media ignores them because … well there’s a question with a thousand answers, many of which involve power. But one reason is the complete failure of perspective in a deskilled industry dominated by corporate press releases, photo ops and fashion shoots, where everyone seems to be waiting for everyone else to take a lead. The media makes a collective non-decision to treat this catastrophe as a non-issue, and we all carry on as if it’s not happening.
At the climate summit in Paris in December, the media, trapped within the intergovernmental bubble of abstract diplomacy and manufactured drama, will cover the negotiations almost without reference to what is happening elsewhere. The talks will be removed to a realm with which we have no moral contact. And, when the circus moves on, the silence will resume. Is there any other industry that serves its customers so badly?
A quick web search will offer endless pictures of this great tragedy but I will leave you with three; two showing the extent of the smoke and one that is much more an intimate photograph of the suffering animals.
Monbiot wrote: “Those who commit crimes against humanity don’t hesitate to commit crimes against nature.”
One cannot avoid reflecting that this would not have happened if there hadn’t been, “government by the worst persons; a form of government in which the worst persons are in power.”
This is not some intellectual exercise; far from it!
As often happens, a number of seemingly disconnected articles and reports seem to have provided a common theme. A theme that has previously been aired on Learning from Dogs yet a theme that always needs to be in the front of our faces: integrity.
The revelation that humanity’s dominant characteristic is, er, humanity will come as no surprise to those who have followed recent developments in behavioural and social sciences. People, these findings suggest, are basically and inherently nice.
The architecture of inequality must be carefully constructed. As the founding fathers of the United States clearly understood, democracy must be kept in check. For this purpose, they invented the Electoral College to prevent the president from being elected by popular vote.
To ensure an effective electoral system, an obsequious media must be skilled in drowning the public with a flood of misinformation to maintain a constant level of fear to make them more likely to side with the CS (corporate system).
If there is ever one example of how that lack of integrity manifests itself in our world it is through inequality. Professor Perelman’s essay is clearly written “tongue-in-cheek” but that doesn’t lessen the impact of his essay. Try his closing paragraphs: (CES = a subset of CS; WEM = The Wondrous Efficiency of Markets)
Regulators are not the only ones to see the benefits of working with the CES. Politicians who resign or are defeated are almost inevitably destined to enjoy the benefits of their dedication to the WEM with the returns from taking a rewarding position with a major corporation, lobbying, or even a lucrative contract to write a book that virtually no one would want to read.
When done correctly, this system works magnificently, although it periodically it seems to fall apart until the detested government apparatus rescues it. In the meantime, huge amounts of wealth and income fall into the hands of the top 1%, the people of greatest importance, while the rest of the public can enjoy watching the spectacular performance of the CES, a reward worthy of their place in society especially because envy of the wealthy brethren will obviously make them work harder to succeed, adding to WEM.
All power to WEM!
Does this have anything to do with dogs?
Let me steal a little from Chapter 16: Community from my forthcoming book:
When dogs lived in the wild, their natural pack size was about fifty animals and there were just three dogs that had pack status: the mentor, minder and nanny dogs, as described in Chapter 5. [Pharaoh: the Teaching Dog] As was explained in that chapter, all three dogs of status are born into their respective roles and their duties in their pack are instinctive. There was no such thing as competition for that role as all the other dogs in that natural pack grouping would be equal participants with no ambitions to be anything else.
Anyone who has had the privilege of living with a group of dogs will know beyond doubt that they develop a wonderful community strength. Let’s reflect on the lessons being offered for us in this regard by our dogs.
To reinforce the fact that this is not a new phenomena, at the time I was drafting my book last November, a new report was issued by the Center of Economic Policy Research (CEPR) on the latest (American) Survey of Consumer Finances. It painted a picture very familiar to many: the rich becoming richer while those with less wealth are falling further and further behind.
David Rosnick of the CEPR, and one of the report co-authors, made this important observation:
The decline in the position of typical households is even worse than the Consumer Finances survey indicates. In 1989, many workers had pensions. Far fewer do now. The value of pensions isn’t included in these surveys due to the difficulty of determining what they are worth on a current basis. But they clearly are significant assets that relatively few working age people have now.
Sharmini Peries, of The Real News Network, in an interview with David Rosnick, asked:
PERIES: David, just quickly explain to us what is the Consumer Finance Survey. I know it’s an important survey for economists, but why is it important to ordinary people? Why is it important to us?
ROSNICK: So, every three years, the Federal Reserve interviews a number of households to get an idea of what their finances are like, do they have a lot of wealth, how much are their house’s worth, how much they owe on their mortgages, how much they have in the bank account, how much stocks do wealthy people own. This gives us an idea of their situations, whether they’re going to be prepared for retirement. And we can see things like the effect of the housing and stock bubbles on people’s wealth, whether they’ve been preparing for eventual downfalls, how they’ve reacted to various economic circumstances, how they’re looking to the long term. So it’s a very useful survey in terms of finding out how households are prepared and what the distribution of wealth is like.
PERIES: So your report is an analysis of the report. And what are your key findings?
ROSNICK: So, largely over the last 24 years there’s been a considerable increase in wealth on average, but it’s been very maldistributed. Households in the bottom half of the distribution have actually seen their wealth fall, but the people at the very top have actually done very well. And so that means that a lot of people who are nearing retirement at this point in time are actually not well prepared at all for retirement and are going to be very dependent on Social Security in order to make it through their retirement years.
PERIES: So, David, address the gap. You said there’s a great gap between those that are very wealthy and those that are not. Has this gap widened over this period?
ROSNICK: It absolutely has. As, say, the top 5 percent in wealth, the average wealth for people in the top 5 percent is about 66 percent higher in 2013, the last survey that was completed, compared to 1989. By comparison, for the bottom 20 percent, their wealth has actually fallen 420 percent. They basically had very little to start with, and now they have less than little.
PERIES: So the poorer is getting poorer and the richer is getting extremely richer.
ROSNICK: Very much so.
To my way of thinking, if in the period 1989 through to 2013 “the average wealth for (American) people in the top 5 percent is about 66 percent higher” and “for the bottom 20 percent, their wealth has actually fallen 420 percent” it’s very difficult not to see the hands of greed at work and a consequential devastating increase in inequality.
In other words, the previous few paragraphs seemed to present, and present clearly, the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, comparatively speaking, and that it was now time for society to understand the trends, to reflect on where this is taking us, if left unchallenged, and to push back as hard as we can both politically and socially.
I wrote that shortly before another item appeared in my email ‘in-box’ in the middle of November (2014), a further report about inequality that, frankly, emotionally speaking, just smacked me in the face. It seemed a critical addition to the picture I was endeavouring to present.
Namely, on the 13th October, 2014, the US edition of The Guardian newspaper published a story entitled: US wealth inequality – top 0.1% worth as much as the bottom 90%. The sub-heading enlarged the headline: Not since the Great Depression has wealth inequality in the US been so acute, new in-depth study finds.
The study referred to was a paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, based on research conducted by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. The paper’s bland title belied the reality of the research findings: Wealth Inequality in the United States since 1913.
As the Guardian reported:
Wealth inequality in the US is at near record levels according to a new study by academics. Over the past three decades, the share of household wealth owned by the top 0.1% has increased from 7% to 22%. For the bottom 90% of families, a combination of rising debt, the collapse of the value of their assets during the financial crisis, and stagnant real wages have led to the erosion of wealth. The share of wealth owned by the top 0.1% is almost the same as the bottom 90%.
The picture actually improved in the aftermath of the 1930s Great Depression, with wealth inequality falling through to the late 1970s. It then started to rise again, with the share of total household wealth owned by the top 0.1% rising to 22% in 2012 from 7% in the late 1970s. The top 0.1% includes 160,000 families with total net assets of more than $20m (£13m) in 2012.
In contrast, the share of total US wealth owned by the bottom 90% of families fell from a peak of 36% in the mid-1980s, to 23% in 2012 – just one percentage point above the top 0.1%.
The report was not exclusively about the USA. As the closing paragraphs in The Guardian’s article illustrated:
Among the nine G20 countries with sufficient data, the richest 1% of people (by income) have increased their income share significantly since 1980, according to Oxfam. In Australia, for example, the top 1% earned 4.8% of the country’s income in 1980. That had risen to more than 9% by 2010.
Oxfam says that in the time that Australia has held the G20 presidency (between 2013 and 2014) the total wealth in the G20 increased by $17tn but the richest 1% of people in the G20 captured $6.2tn of this wealth – 36% of the total increase.
I find it incredibly difficult to have any rational response to those figures. I am just aware that there is a flurry of mixed emotions inside me and, perhaps, that’s how I should leave it. Nonetheless, there’s one thing that I can’t keep to myself and that this isn’t the first time that such inequality has arisen; the period leading up the the Great Depression of the 1930s comes immediately to mind.