To build “herd immunity” to natural hazards, channel Tony Stark.

Herd immunity to pandemics is a thing – actually, something of a human superpower.

However, herd immunity to other hazards, including weather and climate extremes, is not. No human superpowers here! But perhaps we could emulate the fictional Marvel character Tony Stark – and invent some.

Digging a bit deeper:

Humanity is more-or-less successfully coping with covid-19 in much the same way as it has handled previous pandemics over past millennia – through the buildup of:

Herd immunity (also called herd effect, community immunity, population immunity, or mass immunity) is a form of indirect protection that applies only to contagious diseases. It occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, whether through previous infections or vaccination, thereby reducing the likelihood of infection for individuals who lack immunity.

Today, we recognize herd immunity as an example of a basic biological process we call natural selection. The idea (and the label) has been around long enough that today it seems ordinary. But when Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace introduced it in 1858 it was electrifying. To recapture the feel for the early impact of that notion, let’s speak of a human superpower – one built on a three-fold foundation: 1. The pre-existing diversity in people’s immune systems allow some – perhaps many – to survive a pathogen’s initial attack. 2. Human immune systems are trainable. 3. Virtually all human beings share these traits; generally speaking, access is not (directly) restricted to a limited, privileged few. The ultimate result? Successive pathogen onslaughts encounter a more resilient population and fewer pathways for infecting any remaining vulnerable human hosts.

A key point. As the definition notes, innate herd immunity can be augmented by intentional societal action. In the covid-19 instance, researchers quickly mapped the virus genome, and drew inferences on its sources and ways of working. Others developed tests to detect the presence of the virus. The pharmaceutical industry invented vaccines to train and strengthen natural immunity at the individual level (as well as antivirals to constrain the severity of individual infections). The larger society adopted habits such as mask wearing, social distancing, teleworking, and remote learning to protect against disease transmission.

Pandemics, however, are not the only doomsday challenge we face. And when it comes to the others, we lack a built-in physiology that might help us survive. What to do? The answer differs from challenge to challenge, but let’s start with natural hazards – primarily cycles of flood and drought, and severe storms such as hurricanes, but also including climate change, earthquakes, and vulcanism. These matter because our host planet does its business through extreme events. Earth’s ecosystems and the individual plant and animal species they comprise have nearly-perfectly adapted both their structures and their behaviors to the timing and nature of these extremes – capturing their benefits, and minimizing their associated hazards.  The global migrations of birds and whales, seasonal births of many species timed to take advantage of plentiful food supplies, and hibernation are just a few examples.

Early on, the human race enjoyed a similar success, through nomadism: hunter-gatherers simply followed the migrations of wild game, and pastoralists moved their herds and flocks to productive grasslands. In this way they kept losses low and at the same time kept food on the table.

But wait! There was no table. No furniture of any kind. No shelter of any permanence. Keeping pace with migrating animals and seasonal changes required traveling light. Shelter and possessions were kept to a minimum. Nomadism had its limits; work was relentless and wealth accumulation not in prospect.

Human creativity and cleverness helped our ancestors see clear opportunities – advantages of truly marvelous consequence and scale – that would be offered by agriculture, by trade, and by built environments, if we would only root ourselves in fixed place. What we saw less clearly was that these advances would be accompanied by novel vulnerabilities to hazards[1]. An earthquake threat is magnified by building collapse. Drought poses a greater hazard to a society dependent on monoculture. And so on.

While the opportunities posed by fixed settlement, economic specialization, and technology advance were evident and immediate, it has taken time for the attendant shortcomings and vulnerabilities to manifest themselves. What’s worse, even as the risks have become more evident, continuing scientific and technical advance and social change have further mutated the vulnerability. Particularly challenging has been the rapidly growing dependence on critical infrastructure – early on, in the form of civilization’s dependence on roads, on water supplies, and waste disposal – and more recently on energy (especially electricity), and on communication; and on soft infrastructure like centralized financial, educational, and healthcare networks.

Enter the (entirely fictional) Marvel character Tony Stark, who:

…is initially depicted as an industrialist, genius inventor, and playboy who is CEO of Stark Industries. Initially the chief weapons manufacturer for the U.S. military, he has a change of heart and redirects his technical knowledge into the creation of mechanized suits of armor which he uses to defend against those that would threaten peace around the world. He becomes a founding member and leader of the Avengers.

Mr. Stark possesses no superpower. But being clever, he conceptualizes and builds some, most notably his Iron Man apparel. As a society, we need to do the same if we want to cope with weather, climate, and other geophysical threats with superpowered effectiveness.

What might that look like? More details to come.

[1] And disease as well; pathogens have historically found new opportunity in crowded urban environments.

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Existential threats, and human superpowers.

coronavirus and the asteroid Dimorphos, compared

To be human these days is to have a lot to worry about. News media play into this mindset. Joel Achenbach’s recent post, appearing in yesterday’s print edition of The Washington Post Magazine, provides a particularly thoughtful and comprehensive example. Here’s his list of existential worries, compiled under the foreboding title What Doomsday Looks Like Today:

10. Solar storm or gamma-ray burst.

9. Supervolcano eruption.

8. Asteroid impact.

7. Naturally emergent, or maliciously engineered, pandemic plant pathogen affecting staple crops.

6. Naturally emergent, or maliciously engineered, pandemic human pathogen.

5. Orwellian dystopia. Totalitarianism. Endless war paraded as peace. The human spirit crushed. Not a world you’d want to live in.

4. Cascading technological failures due to cyberattack, reckless development of artificial intelligence and/or some other example of complex systems failing in complex ways.

3. Nuclear war (may jump soon to No. 1).

2. Environmental catastrophe from climate change and other desecrations of the natural world.

1. Threat X. The unknown unknown. Something dreadful but not even imagined. The creature that lives under the bed.

Cringeworthy indeed.

The doomsday piece was short on suggestions for global fixes. Achenbach closed with a focus on NASA’s recent successful attempt to impact and redirect an asteroid. He points out that this is less of a success story than a promising start, ending with these words: Sometimes you just celebrate the win – and get ready to fight another doomsday.  

Well said! A lot of work left to do, and we need to stay on our guard. But let’s admit it. Sometimes, confronting the challenges we face in today’s world, you and I wish that – like Tony Stark, or Thor, or Hulk – we could simply and naturally bring to bear a superpower to make things right.

Well, it turns out we all can and do. You and I – every single one of us – have a truly remarkable superpower, one that we call on each and every day, one that carries us through an unending series of life-and-death battles. Fact is, we don’t contend with a single enemy, but swarms of them. And they’re comparably super-powered, superbly equipped to do us in. Among their powers? They’re invisible. They enter our bodies unnoticed. Once in, they rapidly penetrate and spread. Even as they destroy and disable, they multiply in numbers, they feed, and they gain strength. They use us as launch pads to sneak up on and attack others.  They even take up permanent residence when given the chance. And it doesn’t end there; they also mutate. They’re constantly changing shape and form in a relentless effort to render themselves unrecognizable and/or more dangerous. Give these myriad enemies a single name, like Legion, or Pandemos, and we’d have the makings of an Avengers blockbuster film.

The real-life enemy? pathogens. Our comparable, contending superpower? The human immune system.

Over the course of history, the human race has suffered many casualties from these wars – most notably in the plagues and pandemics triggered by bacteria and viruses. To date we’ve always survived, and eventually emerged the stronger for the experience.

The recent covid experience is illuminating, and rather amazing when you think about it. Covid-19 encountered a world population of eight billion people. By official counts, some 6 million people died. (By studying excess deaths over the period, most public health experts conclude this figure is a serious underestimate. The true death toll so far likely numbers between 15-30 million.)

But most people’s immune systems enabled them to shake off the disease with little apparent difficulty; for them, the typical course was not that different from common influenza. Partially as a result, monitoring proved a challenge. Global statistics of confirmed covid cases come to some 600 million, or about ten percent of the population. But we’re told undiagnosed or unreported cases were most likely three or four times that figure. (And even this trivializes covid’s impacts. Research suggests that 40% of covid survivors experience long-covid[1].)

Three attributes contributed to this success.

1.Diversity in human immune response has helped the human race survive so far. Smallpox, the bubonic plague, and myriad other threats have ravaged society over millennia, but have always left survivors. As any particular pathogen mounts successive attacks, it encounters a population of those survivors and their descendants, whose immune systems just happened to be better suited to fend it off. In that way, populations repeatedly exposed to any given infectious disease tend to build up an inherent herd-immunity, rendering pandemic threats self-limiting over time. (That’s certainly proved true of covid. The repeated waves of the disease, though more contagious, have been less severe.)

2.But covid survivors aren’t merely more immune by default or heritage. The human immune system that protects us against pathogens doesn’t consist solely of a generalized, innate component; it also has a built-in adaptable piece. The latter can be trained by prior exposure to identify and destroy specific pathogens. Individuals, once exposed, can be much more disease resistant the second time around.

In effect, our immune system learns from experience.

3.Importantly, this ability to adapt and learn from experience at the biomolecular level has been hardwired into our individual physiology over millions of years of human evolution.

As a result, it is nearly universal (essentially everyone is included) and involuntary. It’s not something we consciously control – and it’s always “on.” You and I can’t choose to opt out – anymore than we can prevent others from bringing it to bear.

This threefold combination – preexisting population diversity, learning from experience, and inclusion and unity in the face of the threat – is the key to herd-immunity. Remove any one of these three attributes, and humanity would be far more vulnerable to pathogens.

Unfortunately, humanity possesses no comparable natural immunity to other “existential worries.” Or do we? And could attention to these three attributes hold the key to reduce other risks we face?

More next time.

[1] Lingering fatigue affected more than one in five. One in eight reported shortness of breath, insomnia, joint pain, memory loss, and other problems. A smaller group develop more severe complications and conditions such as heart disease, chronic kidney disease, and even chronic fatigue syndrome.

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Long-term (covid, Fiona, Ian): a postscript.

Journalism has been artfully described as “history’s first rough draft.” Blogging is something less: perhaps “thought’s scratchwork?” Posts are certainly ephemeral – and often they deserve to be. They may be short of context: they typically contain only a single idea, and or only the germ of that idea. The ideas aren’t even guaranteed to be good. They often lack the kind of rigor enforced in science by experiment and peer review; and imposed in journalism by legwork and consultation with original (usually multiple) sources, followed by the steely-eyed scrutiny of editors. Like scratchwork, blogposts are most useful only when/if they capture, improve upon, or contribute to a larger, more deliberative thought process of the author or others.

On the positive side, that feedback process can be quick. Take Wednesday’s LOTRW post, drawing comparisons between hurricane losses and long-term covid. Less than 24 hours after posting, this email came in, containing gentle advice from a close colleague:

Meant to share a very interesting storymap with you, Bill. Here’s a link, if you haven’t seen this already —

My ignorance was even greater than she realized. Storymap? Is that even a thing? The new-to-me mashup-word sent me scurrying to the internet, to find this:

A story map is a graphic organizer that helps students learn the elements of a narrative. Learning to identify a story’s characters, plot, setting, problem, and solution prompts students to read carefully to learn the important details. There are many different types of story maps.

Closer to my colleague’s point, there is also this description from an ESRI website:

A story can effect change, influence opinion, and create awareness—and maps are an integral part of storytelling. ArcGIS StoryMaps can give your narrative a stronger sense of place, illustrate spatial relationships, and add visual appeal and credibility to your ideas.

(Okay. Yet another wondrous-but-simultaneously-humbling reminder of the marvelous advances eight billion people can and do make while our backs are turned…)

So, then, jumped to the NOAA storymap in question. Published this past June, and entitled In Harm’s Way, it tracks the impacts of last year’s Hurricane Ida (not to be confused with this year’s Ian) as it tracked across the United States.

What a remarkable piece! It starts out this way:

In the past, storms like Hurricane Ida could have simply been seen as a natural disaster, affecting both economically advantaged and disadvantaged alike. But it’s becoming readily apparent that low-income communities suffer more damage and are at greater risk from extreme events. Research shows they are less prepared for the effects of extreme weather events. 

Often, residents of low-income communities don’t have the resources to evacuate, recover, or adapt in the face of extreme events. Additionally, the effects of climate change on vulnerable populations are frequently compounded—such as the COVID-19 pandemic, inland flooding, and rising global temperatures, in Hurricane Ida’s case.

With every climate-related disaster in the nation, economic damages are measured and addressed, while the human toll is less readily assessed. Residents of the most-at-risk communities are increasingly pushed into permanent displacement, homelessness, or deeper into poverty. As disasters become more frequent in a changing climate, vulnerable communities find it more challenging to recover and too costly to try to rebuild or retreat.

Hopefully, you’ll find time to read the full NOAA storymap. Definitely lives up to that earlier promise: a story can effect change, influence opinion, and create awareness—and maps are an integral part of storytelling. But a warning! Don’t expect it to be a quick read, the way so much web-based content can be. It’s information rich – has more in common with poetry than with prose, with rich chocolate than potato chips.

A big takeaway for me in the context of yesterday’s LOTRW post? In the comparisons between hurricane and covid impacts I failed to make explicit the important role of pre-existing conditions. In the case of covid, adults and children who are immuno-compromised or suffering from chronic heart disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma or chronic lung disease, sickle cell anemia, etc., are at greater risk. What’s more, these vulnerabilities correlate with age-, income-, education-, and race-ethnicity disparities. The NOAA storymap and many other sources drive home the connection of these preexisting susceptibilities and inequalities to the hurricane case.

A final postscript on a postscript? Yesterday the Washington Post ran a story highlighting the scale and degree of the suffering and impact of Ian on those at ground-zero, especially those with preexisting vulnerabilities.


Makes it all the more important to look for ways and means to build up community-wide resilience to hurricanes and other hazards analogous to the herd immunity acquired in the face of infectious disease. That can be done! More on that in the next post.

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Long-term covid…and Long-term Fiona, Long-term Ian…

Downed trees and power lines in Bartow, FL following Hurricane Ian – 52393701499” by State Farm is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Consider this working definition of a natural disaster: disruption of an entire community, persisting after the hazard has come and gone, and exceeding the community’s ability to recover unaided.

For the moment, focus on the idea that the impacts of disasters don’t quickly fade, but linger.  

Start with the pandemic. Covid’s long-term, persisting disruption grows increasingly evident day by day and month on month. Over the past three years, one hundred million cases have been documented here in the United States. Fortunately, the great majority of these cases have proved mild, and recovery quick and seemingly complete. For most sufferers, the experience was hard to distinguish from a bad case of the flu. As a result, up to an additional 50 million cases nationwide may have gone unreported.

Of course, the fuller picture is more sobering. For a small minority the outcome of the infection was far worse – requiring hospitalization, and even proving fatal, in some cases.

What’s more, it appears that as many as one in five infected (whether severely or mildly) may experience symptoms of so-called long-term covid, that persist and are debilitating even months later. Those symptoms are both physical and mental. They vary in severity, but they include headaches, difficulty thinking or concentrating (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”), sleep problems, joint or muscle pain, dizziness when standing, shortness of breath, diarrhea, or stomach pain, and (perhaps unsurprisingly, given this list of woes) depression or anxiety. Victims may also be more vulnerable to type-2 diabetes, kidney failure, and heart problems. Long-covid, though defined only in the most general terms, and difficult to diagnose unambiguously, currently devastates millions.

In the face of these health impacts, and given the large numbers of people affected, experts have estimated the associated effect on the national economy. They’ve concluded that long-term covid:

This eye-watering figure is itself undoubtedly an underestimate. Additional covid long-term impacts include the following:

  • enduring financial and psychological, and spiritual burdens on the family members of those who died.
  • Inflation, stemming from governmental actions to ameliorate the impacts of widespread lockdowns. (Additionally, the specter of recession looms.)
  • A generation of school-age kids who have seen their educational progress impeded or even interrupted for 1-2 years, at a critical point in their maturation/development. Standard test scores have plummeted.

War – disaster by another name – imposes similar long-term losses. Some time back, economists made similar efforts to assess the cost to the United States of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They arrived at a total approaching some $3 trillion. What’s especially sobering? They have noted that only a third of this cost has already been incurred – and most of that money was borrowed, embedded in the national debt. Little of this has been pay-as-you-go. Two thirds of the expenses have yet to be experienced. The cost includes nearly $2 trillion in health care, disability payments, burial and other costs not yet incurred that will be due to 4 million veterans over the next several decades, peaking, we’re told, only around the year 2050 (!).

As the case with covid, any impacts of the wartime deaths on the families (say, the effects of the loss of a breadwinner at a critical stage in a family’s life; the grief of family members and the pervasive, continuing influence of that grief on family prospects) haven’t been factored in.

Which brings us to natural disasters. Take Hurricane Ian. On September 29, as many as 2.7 million of Florida’s businesses and homes – a quarter of the total – were without electrical power. By October 3, that figure had dropped below 600,000. On October 14, the Washington Post reported the remaining outages numbered only a few thousand. It could be argued that as has been the case with covid, the millions of people in the hurricane’s path who were homebound for a few days, or suffered a temporary loss of electrical power, were merely inconvenienced. But the same report ominously noted that

At Ian’s ground zero — places like Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel — it may be weeks, perhaps even months until the lights come back on. While many have sought refuge elsewhere as the islands are rebuilt, some vulnerable, elderly residents refuse to leave — meaning they are living without consistent access to lighting, refrigeration and, in some cases, even water.

On October 19, the New York Times reported that hundreds of people are still living in shelters following Hurricane Ian. The article contained this excerpt:

As of Tuesday, 476 people remained at two public shelters in Lee County, most of them at Hertz, an ice hockey and concert arena. The county took a direct hit, with 5,041 residential properties destroyed and 13,052 suffering major damage, records show. Many of their occupants have second homes or relatives with a guest room to fall back on, or can secure rental properties while they await federal disaster assistance, insurance adjusters and general contractors to help them begin rebuilding their lives.

But many of the people relying on shelters have none of those options. Sleeping side by side on American Red Cross cots and air mattresses are service-sector employees who are newly homeless and unemployed, retirees dependent on Social Security checks, and newcomers to the region with neither resources nor connections. Many were renters in North Fort Myers and other lower-income areas, barely making it even before Ian.

The Post article focuses on those living in shelters. But those displaced who are now living with relatives or in other rental properties are not much better off. At best their lives have been put on hold.

They’re experiencing long-Ian.

Amidst much media fanfare (occasioned by covid’s novelty), the covid virus is mutating into new variants, which in turn trigger surges of cases across the population. In the same way, hurricanes come and go, triggering surges of death, suffering, and economic loss. There’s the Hurricane Fiona variant. Go back a few years and we see the Hurricane Maria variant. The Harvey variant. The Katrina variant. The Andrew variant. Each of these has claimed its long-term casualties. Those who survived these and other natural disasters, but were severely impacted, are still alive – and many find their present circumstances, years later, still dictated by that single catastrophe. (Much as college graduates find themselves still enmeshed in college debt. However, long-term disaster survivors lack any benefit corresponding to that of the educational experience, or any political prospect of debt forgiveness.)

Some closing observations. First, the discussion here has focused solely on the hurricane “variants.” Natural hazards losses extend to flooding, drought, wildfire, tornados, and other events as well. Although definitive economic analysis of the long-term costs of natural hazards has yet to be accomplished, NOAA estimates that natural hazards losses totaled $145B in 2021, a figure roughly equal to the average for the past five years. At that rate, losses are aggregating at a rate of a trillion dollars every seven years. According to one estimate, one in ten U.S. homes (14 million!) experienced disaster loss in 2021. (That figure which primarily represents damage from winter storms, appears a bit extreme; it’s probably better characterized as “weather-related damage.”) More extensive, definitive economic analysis of these impacts would be useful.

Second – in contrast to the pandemic – the U.S. economy, its building stock, and ways of doing business have not been “vaccinated” against future losses, nor is there a buildup of any “natural immunity.” Successive weather and climate events can be expected to produce every bit as much shock and disruption as those in recent experience.

Third, and finally, the burden of these losses (covid-, military-, and hurricane-) is spread unevenly across the population. What’s more, the relatively unaffected world quickly moves on. Hurricane Ian no longer commands the headlines. For most Americans, today’s focus is on the upcoming mid-term elections, on gas prices, . But for the elderly on Sanibel island, or those families still in shelters and without jobs to return to, the nightmare is only just beginning, its full dimensions just coming into view. Just as long-covid sufferers or wounded veterans who’ve lost limbs or suffer from PTSD struggle to get medical attention, let alone actual relief, so Ian survivors experience loneliness and isolation – often leading to alienation – in the face of desperate need.  

This fraying of the nation’s social fabric may represent the greatest cost of all.

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Bootstrap World: the Climb-out.

[note added: John Plodinec has provided a quick yet quintessentially thoughtful response to this post. There’s much to like. I encourage readers to consider and reflect on what he’s had to say.]

The previous LOTRW post noted that

(1) disaster survivors and their prospects are fundamentally changed from the challenges they experience and never return to their pre-disaster condition;

(2) what we call “disaster recovery” is therefore often little more than a matter of unaffected populations entering the disaster area and displacing those (and what) that had been there before;

(3) the current impacts and scale of what are viewed as separate and perhaps localized disasters – covid, climate change, and the war in Ukraine – are really so pervasive that there is no corner of the globe and no sector of society that is unaffected. We are experiencing worldwide disaster. And;

(4)  as a result, instead of relying on any outside help, all eight billion of us must lift ourselves by our own bootstraps to “recover.”  

This explains a lot of what we learn from our own introspections, our personal encounters with each other, and our assessment of the world mood as reveal by news and social media.

Hardly anyone is in an entirely good place.

(Looking for a kernel of reality-based good news here, Bill…)

There’s an end to this tunnel, and light at the end. To see this, consider a link, and two observations. The link, which comes from the Huffington Post, provides a bit of scholarship, reminding us that the bootstrapping notion was indeed intended to be wholly nonsensical but suggesting that over time we have lost sight of those origins and allowed the expression to denote something less.

The first observation is that bootstrapping of this achievable sort has become a thing in the business world. Here the phrase is used to describe startups that don’t rely on venture capital provided by others to get going; instead, they seek and draw on venture capital only at a later stage, if at all. (The link provided here is only one of many.)

The second observation comes from the allegory of the long spoons. Versions of this allegory exist in many cultures worldwide; one version often cited is attributed to Rabbi Chaim of Rumshishok, born in 1813. The story illustrates the difference between heaven and hell. The Wikipedia link briefly encapsulates it thus:

In each location, the inhabitants are given access to food, but the utensils are too unwieldy to serve oneself with. In hell, the people cannot cooperate, and consequently starve. In heaven, the diners feed one another across the table and are sated.

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that if we brace ourselves from our own position, however low, we can lift another by their bootstraps. Paradox resolved/impossibility surmounted.

At the same time, it’s immediately obvious that this process is sustainable and therefore of some practical use only if we act out of more than our self-interest (that is, out of a selfless love), and act from a stance of trust (that others, once lifted, will turn back and elevate us… and so on).

The good news is that human beings seem to be hardwired a bit this way… we have form. Following the Black Death scourge of the mid-14th-century, for example, we cast aside the feudal society and created a more equitable, prosperous, satisfying world.

We have done it once. Chances are we can do it again. And chances are you and I are already doing that already, in myriad small ways in our day-to-day lives.

Without, necessarily, any great degree of self-awareness. So please contemplate that today. Take time to see all the ways you’re helping others. And the ways others are helping you. Affirm yourself. Allow yourself to be a bit more intentional. And show your gratitude to those around you.

And, most importantly –  keep it up.

Oh. And thanks!

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Bootstrap World.

Given present trends and recent events, it’s time to revisit and update a few notions basic to the LOTRW blog over the years as well as the book by that title. Today’s focus is on natural hazards and disasters:

  • Extremes of nature are Earth’s way of doing business. By contrast, disasters, that is community disruptions that persist after the extremes have come and gone, and exceed the communities’ ability to recover unaided, are the result of human decisions and societal actions.
  • Since disasters are socially constructed, they tend to aggravate preexisting inequities (that is, the impacts and burdens fall most severely on the already-poor and disadvantaged). Today’s social media coverage of this widening gap between the haves- and have-nots is building awareness that opportunity for advancement in society may no longer be so broadly available has it had once been. The result is diminished sense of community and trust.
  • Disasters are also continually mutating in response to social change and technological advance. One important mutagen is increasing societal dependence on critical infrastructure. Today such infrastructure takes many forms and performs a variety of vital societal functions. Infrastructures maintain energy, food, and water supplies and their non-interuptibility; maintain health care; enable government operations and corporate supply chains; underpin the financial sector; develop and disseminate news, data, and information; and more. Such infrastructures used to be local, or regional, or national; today much such connectivity is global.
  • The resulting trend is toward disasters that are fewer in number but have far greater geographic reach, impact far larger populations.
  • This matters because what has historically been termed disaster recovery is at least a misnomer if not an oxymoron. Those who experience and survive disaster, whether individuals or corporate, never really recover. They are forever changed. Only rarely are they able to “lift themselves up by their bootstraps[1].” What we call recovery is instead more often a matter of a larger unaffected population spreading into the originally impacted area and taking over.
  • As disasters increase in scope and extent, they can reach the point where they impact entire nations or exert a global influence. There are then few (or no) unaffected populations who enjoy the means to rebuild.

As recently as a few years ago, most hazards experts spoke of such worldwide disasters in the abstract – as matters of possible concern, but only in the future. They listed a few potential scenarios: an asteroid strike; nuclear war; climate change; a pandemic. Human experience with such events had been extremely limited. The K-T meteor strike responsible leading to mass extinction of dinosaurs occurred well before human beings arrived on the scene (and in fact accomplished a planetary reset in ways that allowed mammals to take over the scene). The Black Death killed a significant fraction of the world’s population during the mid-14th century AD. Two twentieth-century World Wars engaged many nations and peoples; battle zones popped up across several continents as well as the world’s oceans. This global-disaster-as-future-possibility perspective has been reflected in LOTRW posts throughout the blog’s twelve-year lifetime.

Today, however, global disaster is happening – a present reality. The covid-19 pandemic, though fortunately less lethal at the individual level than the medieval bubonic plague, encountered a global society and healthcare infrastructure unable to cope with the large numbers of people suddenly needing care at the same time. The Black Death killed perhaps as many as a third of the people living between Iceland and India over a span of a year or so, bringing the feudal economy (that had been based on a surplus of labor) to an end. Without serfs to do their work, the nobility lost power to the people, who built an emerging middle class. Though killing a much smaller percentage, the covid-19 pandemic eliminated many service sector-jobs, and led to work from home for large numbers of professionals. The breakdown of supply chains coupled with rising demand for goods following the pandemic’s peak has produced worldwide inflation not seen for 40 years. The world’s economy and labor force will never be the same.

Similarly. the intensity and pervasive extent of the season’s northern hemisphere heat waves are driving home the point that climate change is a present-day reality and not some unlikely or distant future prospect. Intermittent, localized food and water shortages and power outages are triggering massive economic shifts and migration of large populations that will accompany the transition to climate conditions of the 22nd century.

Finally, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, though limited geographically, looks like a new kind of World War – not the nuclear holocaust feared during the Cold War era (though that remains a risk today), but nonetheless global in scope, and directly and profoundly affecting large civilian, nominally non-combatant populations. Russia and the Ukraine together constitute a significant fraction of the world’s grain supply. The conflict has reduced agriculture production and compromised the grain transport, and thus created or exacerbated food shortages and massive price increases on every continent. Russia supplies a significant fraction of European energy; in response to what it sees as European interference with its sovereignty, it has reduced these flows of gas and oil, and threatens further reductions.  The developed world has weaponized its financial infrastructure in response, attempting to bring Russia to heel through a range of economic sanctions. Armament and munitions manufacture are everywhere racing ahead.

None of these measures is, strictly speaking, new. But years of globalization and stresses on food and energy supplies triggered by climate change have combined to make them more potent. Their differing impacts on countries worldwide have led to patchworked (and often inconsistent and conflicted) multinational alignments.

The simultaneous overlay of these three global catastrophes, and the weaponizing of non-military infrastructures, comes at a time when trust in institutions, particularly governments, appears to be at a low ebb. American difficulties need no elaboration here. The British have removed their leader. Italy’s leader is stepping down. Winds of political change are sweeping though South America, with leadership transitions, Chile’s struggles to write a new Constitution, and more. Public unrest is rampant throughout Asia, reaching flashpoints in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Rebel forces challenge governments across Africa. Despots in several countries have taken a different approach. They’ve made it clear they can be trusted – trusted to detect and quickly punish any dissent or criticism.

In cope with all this, eight billion of us are called to lift ourselves by our bootstraps.

(Looking for any glimmer of good news, Bill…).

Good news? Okay. One starting point is that last notion – that despots are punishing dissent and criticism from whatever quarter.

Really. Stop for a moment and contemplate the sheer scale of effort required for unelected leaders, even when supported by police (and in some cases military), to stamp out criticism during troubled times. Moreover, since such suppression is inherently bankrupt, it requires increasing vigilance, energy, and effort with time, until it ends in spectacular or whimpering failure. It’s hard to imagine a more exhausting, debilitating, unsustainable task. Worldwide, time always favors dissatisfied majorities (the element majority being key here).

This is a special instance of a more general reality: stress is responsibility without authority. If despots, with all their (supposed) levers of power, lack the authority and means to keep the lid on change, it makes little sense for the majority of us to keep kicking the barge to move it in our wanted direction. Instead we might lean on it a bit. That requires nothing more than bringing to every action and interaction our own good will (that is, favoring outcomes to the advantage of all), a commitment to keeping our word (not promising any more than we can delivery unilaterally, and keeping those promises), and a predisposition to trust others (barring continuing evidence to the contrary).

Simple. Relaxing. Guaranteed to work in Bootstrap World.

[1] People understood the expression “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” to mean “attempting to do something absurd” until roughly the 1920s, at which point it started to evolve toward the current understanding: to do something without any outside help.

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A National Climate Emergency?

Ilya Repin. Barge haulers on the Volga
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

If you want a barge to move, and you kick it, you only hurt your foot. But if you lean on it, sooner or later it has to move your way.” – Joseph O. Fletcher[1]

News reports over the past few days tell us that the White House is contemplating formal declaration of a national climate emergency. We’re told the President himself is expected to speak on this topic later today.

It’s easy to see the motivation. The climate challenge is a present reality, and dire. Average global temperatures continue to ratchet upwards. Britain saw temperatures exceeding 1000F Tuesday – temperatures unheard of throughout more than 300 years of recordkeeping (and Britain itself has declared a state of national emergency). Temperature records are also being broken elsewhere across Europe.  Here in the United States, 40 million people are under heat advisories; more than eighty wildfires are underway (more than half of these in Alaska). Congress seems stalemated on the climate issue, and the Supreme Court has recently ruled against EPA efforts to regulate carbon emissions – and all this in the face of administration promises for climate action. Invoking the National Emergencies Act allows the president to take a range of needed actions unilaterally.

If he does so, President Biden will not be breaking new ground. His predecessors had form, using the policy tool to contend with a range of issues. President Carter invoked the Act (2 times); Reagan (6); G.H.W. Bush (4); Clinton (17); G.W. Bush (12); Obama: (13); Trump (7).

In the present instance, expectations should remain low. For starters, options available to the President under the Act are limited. They’ll necessarily address only pieces of the climate change problem. Benefits and costs will impact Americans unequally. What’s more, the very nature of the Act and the circumstances typically surrounding its use hint at departures from America’s normal governance and democratic procedures. At a time when elements of one political party are calling for suspension of elections-themselves-as-usual, this might not be the best look.

Thanks to the recent (still current?) U.S. covid emergency, all these realities, both positive and negative, are fresh in the public’s mind. Emergency actions slowed the virus onset, buying precious time for America’s healthcare system, keeping it from being overwhelmed by patients in the critical early months. At the same time, accompanying Congressional action reduced household and macro- economic loss. The national emergency allowed time to develop vaccines and inoculate much of the general populace; this limited illness and loss of life and brought the crisis per se to something of an end. By these and other measures, the corresponding National Emergency declaration was a success.

But only barely. Despite the continuing (and still-evolving) threat, Americans show issue-fatigue.  They have tired of precautions. Large public and private gatherings are on the rise after a season of prohibition. For many, mask use is lackadaisical. And in hindsight, some emergency measures were counterproductive. For example, wholesale, extended school closures probably hurt the vast majority of K-12 students more than they were helped by isolation from the virus. The impact on parents of school-age children was also severe.

There’s a mismatch between a “national climate emergency” and the climate change problem in three core respects.

The first is time frame.  Climate change itself is a trend extending over decades. The actions needed to forestall it – e.g., weaning eight billion people off centuries of reliance on fossil fuels – must be sustained over a similar period. This vastly exceeds the duration over which nations and individuals can maintain a sense of urgency.

The second is scale. Fossil-fuel dependence and the reliance on trillions of dollars of investment in corresponding infrastructure can’t be unwound by the small dollar-size, fragmented efforts that can be enabled by presidential directives. Viewed against climate change, these will at best be seen as symbolic and aspirational in nature, and at worst be scorned by detractors as wholly unresponsive, given the scale of the problem. (By contrast, the current British national emergency is laser-focused on minimizing excess death rates due to heat stress, and is commensurate with the time frame of the immediate threat.)

(These mismatches fall squarely within the purview of Joe Fletcher’s “you only hurt your foot.”)

 A third and final mismatch also matters. The urgency and unprecedented nature of the covid pandemic riveted world attention. By contrast, at least here in America, climate change is currently low on the list of public concerns. People are more worried about other issues: e.g., the economy, health care, government taxes and spending, the pandemic, and education. Labels matter too; for example, a recent Gallup poll shows climate change ranking near the bottom of environmental concerns – lagging behind polluted drinking water; polluted rivers, lakes, and reservoirs; loss of tropical rainforests; air pollution; and species extinction.[2]

Fact is, climate change isn’t really even a topic of conversation for most folks. A Yale opinion poll found that only 35% of Americans admit to talking about climate change with others. even occasionally. The other 65% claim they never talk about it.

It’s only natural for those of us in meteorology or the Earth sciences to decry this. We conclude, based on what we know, that we should talk about climate change more, and more effectively convince those around us that the issue is important, even vital, perhaps even existential. After, this is our wheelhouse. We know the subject, and surely we’re most qualified to speak on subject matter we know.

Some work along these lines is certainly needed. However, by itself it will bring little joy. This is a matter of triage – well known in emergency medicine. Doctors are trained, in emergencies to quickly classify incoming patients into one of three categories:  those beyond help; those who can hang on, essentially unaided, at least for a bit; and those that can be saved but only if given immediate attention now.

But every human being, whether young or old, of whatever gender or ethnicity or nationality, does triage continually. Each hour of each day we know what can be ignored, often indefinitely; what exceeds our power to influence; and what our civic or job or family responsibilities dictate we need to do now. For me to come upon you in your thought process and suggest you drop what you’re doing and focus on climate change will be no more welcome, and no more appropriate, than looking over your shoulder and saying, unasked, “forget buying groceries; you need to pay the rent.” Or “you can’t pick up the kids from school; you need to finish your boss’ project.”

Accordingly, those of us in climate science, or climate adaptation practice, etc., should at least some of the time and maybe most of the time take as our starting point with others questions of the character “What is your greatest/most urgent problem at the moment and how can I help?”

If we’re willing “to lean on the barge,” that is, to work with others, however incrementally, to grow the economy and generate jobs, reduce the cost and improve the quality of health care, foster high quality public education, etc., we’ll over time build a public and a world more concerned and better equipped to climate change.

And that public support will make it easier for our leaders at the federal level – the President, the Congress, and the Supreme Court – work together where possible and independently where necessary to cope with climate change.

[1] I worked for and with Joe Fletcher for an extended period of years; over time he shared this particular wisdom more than once. I doubt very much he originated the saying, but a quick Google search has failed to turn up anything useful. Would welcome any reader information on proper attribution.

[2] This despite the fact that climate change aggravates all these issues.

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Acknowledge the Lorenz butterfly…but don’t blame it.

This past week the news media have been abuzz about Senator Joe Manchin and his stance on climate change legislation. Much of that coverage lays the blame for America’s struggles to cope with climate change on his shoulders.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the media laid that same blame at the feet of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. There was outrage, with this flavor: Is it right that such a small handful of unelected men and women should exert such outsized control on such an important issue?

Fact is, the media seem to flit (butterfly-like?) from narrow cause to narrow cause, fixing and isolating the blame in turn:

  • on inaction of the current president of whichever party;
  • on Republican obstinacy, or liberal Democratic over-reach;
  • on covid, or inflation, or the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and the resulting global fuel shortage, or Amazon deforestation;
  • on any of myriad other sensitivities in the climate system to human influence.

then, weeks or even just days later, recycling through this list.

Advancing human knowledge and understanding of all these problems is not just useful but necessary. So is building public awareness of these challenges across all sectors of society. But overlaying blame doesn’t appear to have been particularly helpful.

Meteorologists are well-positioned to see this. Thanks to Ed Lorenz and others, we’re well aware that the smallest details of atmospheric conditions in the right places can magnify quickly into enormous differences in weather development and outcomes. We’ve given this reality a name. We call it the butterfly effect, encapsulating the idea with a metaphor: a butterfly flapping its wings can lead to chain of events culminating at a later time in a tornado or hurricane somewhere downstream.

Meteorologists stop at recognition. We don’t blame the butterfly (or the seagull, or the breaching whale, or any other creature) for causing bad weather, or for failing to maintain favorable conditions. None is aware of their larger, longer-term impacts. Each is remaining true to its nature. We don’t say, butterflies are dangerous! We must eliminate butterflies!

Similarly, we wouldn’t blame a jogger. By the same logic, a jogger’s particular timing, or route, or speed, or arm movements, or even choice of clothing could ultimately trigger an extreme weather event – but no jogger knows that outcome. Our forecasts aren’t that good.

But, Bill, the clear difference is that Senator Manchin, the Supreme Court, and the other human players in your bulleted list are aware of their climate impacts. They have a good idea of the damage they’re causing, and they have other options open to them.

Yes and no. They’re undoubtedly aware of at least the first-order, initial impacts of their decisions. But they have little or no knowledge of the emergent consequences of their actions – how the larger society will respond over time, or even initially. And the tools at their disposal are limited. So is their so-called agency. As media coverage has made clear, Joe Manchin is ideally suited to be a Democratic Senator from today’s West Virginia in much the same way as a butterfly, or a seagull, or a whale is ideally suited for its unique role in the global ecosystem. The same holds true for the Supreme Court justices, and the other actors in the bulletized climate change roles above. And just as you and I see our influence on our circumstances to be limited, and however free we might imagine leaders to be, they likely see little more room for maneuver than you and I enjoy – in fact, possibly much less, as they’re in the media limelight. This is especially the case if they hold true to their nature – that is, the set of principles and ideals and history of action that led them to their current position in the first place. Asking or expecting them to change just because they’ve arrived in a particular leadership position might be disingenuous on our part or even irresponsible.

(By the way, we don’t hold that jogger to be entirely blameless either, do we? We don’t pick a quarrel with their exercise regime per se, but should we decide that their workouts increased their appetite for, say, corn-fed beef versus something vegetarian, or other-than-locally-sourced produce, then we start to feel free to weigh in.)

Hopefully, by now, everyone is convinced that no one person or small group is any more or less of the problem than each of us. To a lesser or greater extent we’re also shaped by and prisoners of our cultural and social context. We all hope that on net our influence on the world is positive, but we can’t ever really know.

Okay, Bill. Suppose all that is true. How then do we make progress with respect to climate change, or any of the other problems that bedevil us?

I was hoping you had the answer. Beats me. But I do know that the really difficult problems of today are all wicked. That is, they

  • are characteristics of deeper problems
  • offer little opportunity for trial-and-error learning
  • exhibit no clear set of alternative solutions
  • exhibit uncertainty, but strongly feature contradictory certitudes
  • hold redistributive implications for entrenched interests
  • yield only to coping strategies, and grudgingly at that

It’s risky to zero in on any of these in isolation; it’s the combination that’s the challenge. Furthermore, the 21st-century issue is the cocktail of such wicked problems that confront us: limited natural resources, including but not confined to food, energy, and water; environmental degradation; natural hazards, including pandemics. We need to address all these simultaneously.

Nevertheless, the root issue on this list that seems to me most problematic is “redistributive implications for entrenched interests.” At a personal level, virtually all of us feel that “we want just a little more” and “what little we do have is at risk to being stripped away by others.” But here in the United States we’re merely worried about the price of food while others are starving; about the cost of education when others, especially young women and the poor are going entirely without; about the need for fine-tuning the justice system while others are struggling to survive in failed states, where there is little or no rule of law. Paradoxically, it seems that those of us most willing to share what they have with others are the neediest – those who have the least.


In conversation on all this at breakfast, my wife pointedly asked, “so what is your solution?” To which I replied I didn’t have one. But one place I’d start? Remembering the ancient advice dating back to the Old Testament (but featured in other cultures as well) that wealth stems from generosity as much as the other way around:

One person gives freely, yet gains even more;
    another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.

A generous person will prosper;
    whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.

People curse the one who hoards grain,
    but they pray God’s blessing on the one who is willing to sell
. – Proverbs 11:24-26

On a national and international level, the United States could emulate the precedent of the Marshall Plan implemented at the end of World War II. Ten years of Depression followed by five years of conflict had drawn down US coffers, but from 1948-1951 inclusive the United States gave away something like 2% of its GDP to a host of foreign countries (including its enemies, notably Germany). Today that would be something like $400B. Difficult to imagine reviving this commitment today, given current domestic- and geo-politics. But the postwar payoff to the United States in terms of increased trade and geopolitical stability, the respect of other nations (and domestically, our respect for ourselves) quickly made this look much more of an investment than a gift. The same outcome would likely obtain today.

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The universe takes a selfie.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race.  He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yetno one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. – Ecclesiastes 3:10-11 (NIV)

This week NASA released early images from the Webb telescope, including the one above, of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 (aka Webb’s First Deep Field). The images are truly beautiful and at the same time tug at the eternity set in our hearts.

An excerpt from NASA’s accompanying description of SMACS 0723:

Webb’s image is approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length, a tiny sliver of the vast universe. The combined mass of this galaxy cluster acts as a gravitational lens, magnifying more distant galaxies, including some seen when the universe was less than a billion years old. This deep field, taken by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), is a composite made from images at different wavelengths, totaling 12.5 hours – achieving depths at infrared wavelengths beyond the Hubble Space Telescope’s deepest fields, which took weeks. And this is only the beginning. Researchers will continue to use Webb to take longer exposures, revealing more of our vast universe.

Wow. Absolutely. Breathtaking.

From the language of this NASA narrative, it’s only a small step to the metaphor of a selfie. In such an analog, it’s important to realize the human race played an important but nevertheless supporting role. We merely manufactured the (Webb) “cellphone.” Webb’s orbit itself might be considered the “selfie stick.” The selfie’s subject is of course the universe writ large.

Unlike ordinary selfies, which capture a single instant, this one also embodies a time span – a huge one, approaching the full age of the universe. Light from the distant objects originated more than ten billion years ago; light from the closest objects a mere fraction of that, much closer to the present day, but many cases still more ancient than the whole of human history.

Otherwise, there are several similarities. For example, like most selfies, this one offers a narrow field of view, only hinting at a much larger context. Most selfies are celebratory, and so is this one. It’s the culmination of decades of planning and technological achievement. (This author remembers a visit to Ball Aerospace in Colorado years ago that included quick side trip to a cavernous room where the Webb mirrors and instrument were being assembled; to be seeing Webb’s first images this week has been an exciting experience – and that’s from the viewpoint of a mere bystander. Can’t begin to imagine the profound emotions that must be running through those who actually conceptualized, built, and deployed Webb, along with the gaggle of scientists who are only just now beginning to examine and analyze the outputs. What a head rush!)

We all know from personal experience that some selfies age better than others. Many capture a special moment, are shared on social media, but we think of them no more. Others capture a moment or commemorate relationships that grow more precious with time. We revisit them frequently, re-post them on anniversaries, etc. The long-term impact of Webb’s initial images will depend on subsequent data and discoveries resulting from the research, but also, like other selfies, on the trajectory of relationships that bind the human race. Should society grow more inclusive, equitable, and generally fairer and more peaceable, these and future images will grow in power and influence. They’ll shape and ennoble our human self-image and understanding of how we fit in to the cosmos. If instead the current tears in the world’s social fabric be exacerbated by war, terrorism, economic exploitation, failures to cope with challenges such as pandemic and climate change, then any of the current wonder occasioned by this scientific and technological accomplishment will wane in the face of growing chaos.

Which brings me to the above excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes. To me it seems as relevant today as it was a couple of thousand years ago.  On the one hand, we might imagine that our view of eternity today is far more developed and nuanced than it had been back then, especially given present understanding of the age of the universe, and the physical processes at work throughout. On the other, as our knowledge has been refined, new uncertainties have emerged – and not just in the details. Today we rely on fudge factors like dark matter (some 85% of matter in the universe?) and dark energy (some 70% of the matter-energy of the universe), neither of which has been satisfactorily detected, let alone studied, to make certain cosmological sums and observed phenomena work out. It might seem that science still has some way to go.

These are large uncertainties. To see this, suppose you took your car to the dealer’s for a muffler replacement, expecting a bill for labor and parts of $300.  At jobs end, you were presented a bill for $2000. When you protested, the dealer said, “you’ve forgotten about the dark surcharges, which are 85% of the total bill.” (So of course you apologize: “silly me! I forgot all about that!”)

In this moment of scientific and technological achievement, there’s still plenty of room for humility, for a sense of wonder, and for eagerness to get to the work remaining.

Thanks again, NASA! Once again you’ve awed us, humbled us, elevated our sights, and at the same time given us reason to draw closer together.

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SCOTUS on EPA: Stephen Jascourt weighs in.

The previous LOTRW post, focusing on the recent Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia v. the Environmental Protection Agency, occasioned a bit of comment, not on the blog site directly, but rather through e-mail and on community platforms.

At one end of the spectrum, a reader saw the EPA action as “a clear case of Administrative overreach.”

Other readers saw things from the other direction.

Stephen Jascourt provided a wonderfully thoughtful, extended and wide-ranging analysis. I asked and received his permission to reprint his thoughts verbatim. He assented; you’ll find his full post here. He had some significant disagreements with what I wrote; you’ll find his main points and supporting arguments compelling. He was also gentle, polite, perhaps to a fault – as you’ll see immediately from his opening:

Dear Bill,

I know you have deep understanding of the slow and interlocking mechanisms of society and our three branches of government, but I think you sort of went off the deep end to find a silver lining in this cloud of a Supreme Court decision.

Your thesis is entirely correct and obvious, that the decision is a result of inaction by Congress. This is not an uncommon situation – Congress does not act and the Court decides either that existing vague law can apply or cannot apply to a situation in front of the Court.

[Then he opens up a bit…]

But beyond that is where I see an entirely different understanding of the dynamic.

To start with, the Kagan opinion clearly states that Congress did NOT need to act further, that the law as it exists now IS applicable to the situation at hand. The majority opinion is a major turn of the way in which the Supreme Court interprets Congressional intent and the laws as they stand. Laws are made vague in this manner for two reasons: 1. future developments that are not imagined at the time the law is passed need to be either included or not included in the scope of the law, which is largely the issue in this case, and 2. compromise in the lawmaking process results in things being made less explicit so that one side can claim that it is supportable and vote for it or be willing to not stand in the way, things that lawmakers know are right to do but don’t want the messaging coming out in a particular way that they voted for X while their support base does not support position X. The new Court argument can and probably will be used to narrow the scope of applicability of many laws that protect us and our environment and our societal systems. Matters that many in Congress believed were settled in existing legislation will suddenly be declared beyond the scope of existing law.

[Then he hits full stride… 🙂]

But that’s relatively minor detail compared to the broader dynamic at play.

Your claim that “No one is happy or complacent about this…. It holds regardless of political persuasion” is definitely not true. Corporate right wing (petroleum PACs, tobacco companies and their PACs, etc.), Koch brothers, etc. have been pouring money into politics to have their interests take control and the restricting of scope of legislation is one of their top priorities because it is how they can weasel out of responsibility and increase their profits while reducing their legal risks. And to help promote their agenda, they have advertising campaigns, they buy off legislators – which creates part of the dysfunction in Congress, and they convince people of their message via “grasstops” campaigns in order to amplify their voice or position and make it appear more popular or make it actually more popular in an uninformed populace and to help garner voter support for the candidates who will do their bidding. This is a long-term strategy that underlaid the Reagan rhetoric focused on less regulation, less government, and lower taxes in order to starve government that has been the rallying cry of the Republican Party my entire life. The reasoning behind this decision and the power to implement this reasoning (of narrowed scope of laws) by having a majority on the Court who support it is the result of this long term strategy and is clearly supported by those behind that strategy. They are rejoicing over this. The dysfunction of Congress intentionally created by this strategy and the argument that this dysfunction can be used to limit regulation is all part of this strategy. There are many who are surely rejoicing now because their decades of effort to reduce corporate accountability and risk has been achieved in this case and may be achieved more broadly as more decisions are rendered based on the same reasoning.

Your claim “High-minded, intelligent, thoughtful, dedicated men and women populate, even dominate the chambers of the Supreme Court, the halls of Congress, the headquarters and field offices of the agencies” is only partly (mostly) true and the (smaller) part that is not plays an outsized and pivotal role. You cannot honestly say after January 6, 2021 that Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley or any of their staffers who still work for them are dedicated to preserving the United States constitutional system of government and transfer of power. You cannot look in the mirror and honestly say that. And that is just the most obvious example. There certainly are and always have been many “high-minded, intelligent, thoughtful, dedicated men and women” of differing viewpoints and who may often not be able to agree on some matters, but when you put sand into the gears of the democratic machinery as we have allowed to happen by voting for people like Cruz and Hawley, it undermines the already intentionally slow and self-limiting functioning of Congress. And, turning to the executive branch, many of the Trump agency appointees clearly were not “high-minded, intelligent, thoughtful, and dedicated.”

Same for Reagan’s. The civil servants serving under them were hamstrung by orders from the appointed leadership. You can see this by the history, by the convictions, by the lies that have become exposed, by the manipulations, by the conflicts of interest and abuses of power that have been widely reported. But these appointees had the power to push government in a certain direction, and they were allowed that power by confirmation by a majority of Senators, most of that majority confirmed because they supported the agenda of the nominees and placed that agenda ahead of integrity, and some of whom confirmed because they incorrectly assumed positive intent, competence, and dedication of purpose to the public good even if they disagreed with the nominee politically. And some Senators voted to confirm some nominees whom they normally wouldn’t have in order to “pick their battles” to focus their political capital against a few even more egregious nominations.

[And shows mercy at the end…]

In conclusion, your painting of the decision as a cloud and painting a considerable silver lining in that cloud I think is not a realistic painting. Instead, I view the cloud as the way our government and society functions that has allowed things to reach a point where such a decision was possible and the decision is simply a byproduct, the rain from that cloud. Rain of course is part of the cycle of life and rejuvenation, and there is much work to do to claim or reclaim our democracy. And I would guess we are in agreement on that conclusion! 🙂 At least if I keep it that vague. Once we start talking about exactly what is involved in claiming or reclaiming our democracy, we might find some more points where we disagree, but probably many where we do agree, and working through those is the essence of democracy itself.

Best regards,

Stephen Jascourt

Thanks again, Stephen, for contributing to the discussion in this way.

By way of defense, I’ll simply note that Stephen’s response exemplifies the promise of my favorite Charles Darwin’s quote, which had appeared on the LOTRW masthead for many years (only just today noticed it’s no longer there; now puzzling as to why, and how to restore it): “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.”

Certainly I have no quarrel with what Stephen has to say; I can only admire it.

But what he has to say is itself stimulating in Darwin’s sense. Stephen recognizes this. In his followup correspondence, he asked that I correct a few typos (have tried my best). He went further:

I am a bit concerned that I made some sweeping assertions that I can support but would take many more pages of text and looking up citations etc. to support which is more work than I have time for and would go beyond the bounds of your blog. My concern is that supporting those assertions would be required for any scholarly debate or publication, and those smart people who want to challenge my assertions would probably use that lack of rigor as a hitting point.

He has stumbled on the blogger’s lament! I worry about this with every post. The problem is aggravated by the artificial deadline I give myself for every post, in an attempt to keep thoughts timely versus polish them incessantly.

Two closing comments, prompted by Stephen’s inputs, but more along the lines of that’s what I meant to say, or that’s what I should have said:

First, Stephen noted in particular that my claim that “No one is happy or complacent about this…. It holds regardless of political persuasion” is definitely not true. He adds supporting material to make this point clear.

I intended to convey a different meaning, but failed to express it well. It’s this: Stephen and I are frustrated/disappointed in the Court’s decision. We’re both unhappy with that result. But I don’t think those on the other side, though “happy” with the victory, as Stephen notes, are happy in any deeper sense. They’re exhausted by the fight they’ve been in. They’re all too conscious of the price they paid, not just in dollars but in making upcoming battles even more difficult. They’re smart enough to recognize that they may have “won” this battle, but they’re losing a larger war. At best they’re buying time. In the end they’ll lose out to inexorable realities: global change itself; growing awareness of the human causes; increased public understanding of what will be needed to restore things.

Second, Stephen notes that a minority of people who are not high-minded are playing an outsized political role. But my point is that the majority of that group are not setting out to turn the planet into a dumpsite, or destroy American values. The tragedy of Washington is that it’s populated by half a million people who were raised by mom and dad to make the world a better place, but they come to DC and instead of seeing themselves part of a 500,000-strong support group, they think they’re the only ones. They wake up every morning and instead of seeing the day as a chance to seek truth and solve problems together, they think it’s necessary to do battle. It’s only a minority of the minority who are actively, eagerly, consciously trying to do the rest of us in versus save us.

This is not a new phenomenon. The prophet Jeremiah laments (Jer. 17:9 NIV): The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? The lament is not that we deceive others. We deceive ourselves first. Perhaps Jeremiah was thinking of even old literature, this from Proverbs 21:2: A person may think their own ways are right, but the LORD weighs the heart. Whatever our side, we we’re in the right. This thinking was already familiar to the human heart before being codified by Middle East thinkers thousands of years ago. (Much) more recently, in his second Inaugural Address, Lincoln made a similar observation about the sides in the Civil War: Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other. Interestingly, Lincoln was just as mystified then as we are with respect to the present West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency decision. Lincoln went on to say:  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

There’s very little joy in approaches to conflict resolution that start with trying to convince the other side they’re in the wrong. The starting point is to build the trust needed to bridge differences, find compromise, and solve problems. Stephen Jascourt modeled that behavior in his approach to both the blogpost and the larger issue. For that:

Thanks, again, Stephen!

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