politics


The Covid-19 case count in the US has reached 1.4 million. Hey, remember those long-ago days when it was under 1000?

Some fun facts about death tolls, for some very queasy values of “fun”:

  • Covid-19 deaths in the US as of today: 83,700
  • US deaths in Vietnam War: 58,220
  • All US gun deaths in 2018, including suicides: 39,221
  • Automobile deaths last year: 38,800
  • Flu deaths 2018-19 season: 34,200
  • US deaths due to terrorism since 1995: 3,658

The coronavirus toll is likely significantly higher than the above figures. E.g. a recent survey of New York City alone found 24,200 excess deaths (those above the normal amount, 7900, from previous years). 5300 of those were not officially linked to Covid-19. There’s no other particular reason for that many deaths, so they are probably untested cases, or emergencies that turned into deaths due to hospitals being overstressed by the virus.

I took worldometer’s by-state figures and found the number of deaths in states won by Trump and by Clinton in 2016:

  • Blue states: 58,600
  • Red states: 22,600

Now, 62% of the blue state total is New York + New Jersey. Still, these figures alone are obviously part, though just part, of why the GOP doesn’t take the virus seriously.

22,600 deaths is still a lot. If the red states were a separate country, they’d still be #6 in the world for total deaths, just behind France. But only three red states (MI LA PA) have more than 2000 deaths.

The GOP logic is “The parachute has slowed our fall so far, so that proves we don’t need it.” So it’s pressing to “re-open the economy”. It’s not hard to predict what’s going to happen: a disaster.  Maybe if it hits some red states hard, it’ll finally knock some sense into them.

Once again, it’s a false choice, indefinite lockdown vs. killing millions.  Other countries are actually mastering the virus. Perennial comparison: in all of April, the US had 62,000 Covid-19 deaths. South Korea had 85.

Grimly amusing: Trump has everyone near him tested constantly. But he doesn’t see the need for testing the rest of the country, because he doesn’t fucking care.

The sad thing is that it’s hard to see things improving before the end of the year.  That could be a lot of deaths, and a Depression’s worth of financial destruction. All because Donald J. Trump doesn’t have a fuck of a clue, and the GOP is terrified of standing up to him.

 

So, good news and bad news about the pandemic.  The good news is that the number of new cases may have peaked in the US. The bad news is that the GOP has become a full-on death cult.

We’re at 740,000 cases and 39,000 deaths.  Hey, that’s more than the flu deaths in the 2018-19 season, maybe Republicans could take it seriously now?

No, the new Republican obsession is “re-opening the economy.” Trump first wanted this to happen by Easter, but was somehow dissuaded. Some governors want to try, and GOP pundits are test-driving ideas like “the cure is worse than the disease” and “closing businesses is tyranny” and “God will keep us safe” and “why keep old people around anyway.”

To be clear, here’s what happens when you stop social distancing early.

St._Louis_social_distancing

That’s the excess death rate in St. Louis in 1918-19, during the flu pandemic.  Note the timeline of the social distancing measures.  The city seemed to be doing better, deaths were down, and the city responded by ending restrictions.  Deaths shot up to twice the previous peak.  Oops.  Social distancing had to be resumed. The same thing happened in every city that tried “reopening” and in none of the ones that didn’t.

(What’s the “excess death rate”? Deaths above the normal level in a particular place and time. That’s the best way to measure the real effect of a pandemic, since But deaths are recorded far more accurately than causes of death. The numbers we have now, scary as they are, are probably way under the real values, because we’re still not testing enough.)

So, to be clear, what the Republicans are demanding is that people die in large numbers.  And suffer in even greater numbers.  Recall that up to 20% of all cases are severe, requiring hospitalization.  Under GOP plans, that means up to 20% of the population, or 65 million people.  Most but not all of them will be older people, meaning their own voters.

Here’s what a severe case is like: you have trouble breathing, so they stick you on a ventilator to force air into your lungs. You may get pneumonia or, worse, acute respiratory distress syndrome, which makes oxygenation extremely difficult. You get fluid instead of air in your lungs: you’re essentially drowning in those fluids. You may try to pull out the ventilator tube because you feel like you’re choking, so they’ll restrain you.  (That’s if you have a ventilator at all, since Trump is playing games with the states and hijacking shipments of supplies.) Through all of this, for the month you’re in intensive care, you can’t see family and barely see care workers; if you die you won’t be able to say goodbye. Oh, and while all this is going on, good luck if instead you have a garden variety heart attack or other emergency condition: the ICU is full.

That’s what the “protestors” are asking for: for tens of millions of people to suffer like that, with many of them dying. They’re clamoring to get the illness themselves, infect their workers and church members and families and the general public. Because… jesus christ who knows why, to own the libs.

Back in the Spanish civil war, supporters of Franco had slogans like ¡Viva la muerte! ¡Muera la inteligencia! — “Long live death! Death to intelligence!” That was their response to anything or anyone they didn’t like.

How did the GOP get to this point? Didn’t they call themselves “pro-life” once?

There is probably a lot to learn from the history of European fascism… but it’s really a logical development of home-grown, all-American trends.  American conservatism is the result of two basic facts:

  • Rich people are terrified of high taxes.
  • Rich people are a tiny minority of voters.

See my liberalism page for what they’re afraid of– especially the chart of tax rates. For half a century, from Roosevelt on, marginal taxes on the richest were twice what they are today. For the rich, the one and only purpose of the Republican Party is to keep tax rates down.

The rich generally get what they want, but it’s a lot trickier when they have to deal with a democracy. They need votes; therefore they need allies. But very few potential allies really care about other people’s taxes.  The best the rich can do is to co-opt movements that are popular enough to win elections.

During the liberal period (Roosevelt to Carter), they didn’t find the winning formula. In the 1980s they did: a potent mixture of religious reactionaries, bigots, and libertarians. Each of these had a grudge against liberalism, and that provided enough zealotry to win elections. Mostly their grudges were too unpopular to become law, but by God they got taxes as low they could and kept the 90% from sharing in increased productivity.

(Old history: The bigots used to be in the Democratic Party. They were by no means liberal, but they liked redistribution, so long as it didn’t go to colored people. But they switched sides, in a long process that finished with Reagan.)

So, the Nixonian model was that GOP politicians would make use of this potent but unstable coalition, and keep it from doing too much damage. Then came the ’90s, for which the formula is: talk radio + losing the Presidency = GOP loses its mind. Talk radio meant that power moved from elected officials who retained some interest in real governing, to unelected entertainers whose only interest was in riling things up. And the defeat of Bush I meant that moderate Republicans were seen as failures. Clinton had already raised taxes, so the rich were OK with a program of anything goes to oppose the Democrats.

It still took 25 years to get to ¡Viva la muerte!  But the groundwork was laid, by going through ¡Muera la inteligencia!

It’s been remarked that we have two elites in this country: one financial, one cultural/educational. The money is of course far more powerful. But rich people lack charisma; frankly, they’re often stupid and venal. They would love to have the soft power of universities, newspapers, and Hollywood, but they can’t buy them, mostly.  (They own a lot of them, of course, but it turns out that when you let the rich guy dictate the content, its popularity plummets. So they have to let the creative people actually produce it.)

But the cultural elite insists on a more or less liberal message, and the scientific world is even worse, pointing out little problems like the threat to Earth’s ecosphere caused by industry. What’s the solution here?  Why,  ¡Muera la inteligencia!  Attack science and attack government when they’re inconvenient for the rich; and if that the base embraces every other anti-science fad it can, well, remember Goal #1.  (Did you forget? It’s “low taxes.”)

The nice thing about climate change– for the GOP– is that it’ll bite people in the ass only in decades to come, after the chief perps are dead. The problem with a pandemic is that it makes expert advice, good health care, and government help a necessity right now.

But they can’t turn off the propaganda machine.

  • One, that might mean people would vote for the other party, and taxes would go up.
  • Two… well, the rich no longer have control of the off button.
  • And three, too many people are inside the con. Without a steady diet of fear, lies, and outrage, how could the talk radio people keep their public? How could the new generation of GOP politicians stay in power? How could the late-capitalist hucksters keep profiting by making crappy Internet products or bankrupting old businesses or inflating drug prices? How could the sellers of guns and Bitcoin and dubious alternative investments or medicines stay in business?

Which isn’t to say that they have a plan for success. What would they even do if the liberals all disappeared and they had to run the country without an enemy to hate?  Turn on each other in about five minutes, of course.

The thing is, when you actually despise expertise and competence of all kinds, and as a topping on the cake elect a narcissistic thug, and you win, you do not get the long centuries of conservative dominion of, say, the Spanish Empire, or even Franco’s decades. Fascism crashed and burned. The Confederacy crashed and burned. George W. Bush, whose control was so total that conservatives were writing self-congratulatory tomes on how conservatism was going to be in power forever, crashed and burned. (Scant consolation, I know. These people all caused a hell of a lot of damage going down.)

OK, a few people have read this far and are jabbing their hands up, eager to ask, “Yes, but when can we reopen the economy?”

And you know, the infuriating thing about this whole mess is that there is another path. The alternatives are not “stay on lockdown forever” vs. “accept tens of millions of dead Americans.” Option three is to handle the damn virus as well as South Korea has.

Vox has a good article on this.  In short: test, test, test. We’re testing maybe 160,000 people per day, and that number isn’t even growing. We need at least four times that level– and maybe 40 times that level. We can’t reopen businesses while not knowing who has the virus.  And once we know, we have to trace contacts zealously.  (Recall: Covid-19 spreads extremely easily at a point when the carrier has no symptoms. One person can literally infect a thousand.)

I wish I could say the GOP will come round to this. But they made the choice long ago to politicize everything, which means saving lives is now evil Democratic tyranny. 

Do you think a few of them wonder how they got to this point?  Did anyone look at, say, the landslide election won a few days ago by South Korea’s Democratic Party, and wonder if maybe just once, they should do the right thing and maybe even get rewarded for it? But that’s crimethink; they just watch Fox News long enough to make the feeling pass.

It’s been just 18 days since I last wrote about the coronavirus. Since then, numbers have gone boom.

18 days ago, the US had just under 1000 cases. Today it’s 120,000. Deaths are at 2000.

The Financial Times has had the best charts on the spread. Here’s today’s:

rona-3.28

Now, Lesson One is still it can be worse. Exponential growth will hit you in the ass like that. What if we have another 18 days at that rate?  Quick calculation: 14.4 million cases.

Lesson Two, however, is the cross-country comparison.  The US is way out on top in terms of cases and rate of growth. (USA NUMBER ONE!) The European nations (including the UK) are clustered together. The East Asian countries in cyan have already flattened the curve.

The FT helpfully captions these: “South Korea: huge test-and-trace programme”, “Japan: strong social norms around civil obedience and mask-wearing”, “Singapore: strict quarantine rules & contact tracing”.

Somehow these things work better than Republicans running around denying the virus, comparing it to the flu, gathering in groups, and suggesting that old people should die for the sake of the Dow Jones.

A case in point: Landon Spradlin, a musician/evangelist, posted two weeks ago about how the virus was “mass hysteria” designed to impugn Trump, and said the “Spirit of God” would protect against germs.

He died from the virus on Wednesday.

And this isn’t atypical. Republican governors in the South are countermanding cities’ stay-at-home orders; Sen. Rand Paul, who has the virus, was until his test results came back socializing with other senators and swimming in the Senate pool. (Which is still open, because surely the virus wouldn’t dare infect a Congressman? Five so far are infected.)

I’ve been writing for years about US rightism, and each crisis we go through shows what they don’t believe and what they do. The Reagan era (and every GOP presidency since) showed that they don’t actually care about the deficit, only about low taxes. The Bush era showed that they couldn’t competently run a government. Trump’s election showed the continuing dominance of overt white supremacy. And Covid-19 has shown them happily courting death for themselves and their own constituents.

At the end of my “last century” piece, I predicted “collectivism will come back in a big way… but not for another generation.” That was 20 years ago, and right on time, laissez-faire individualism is imploding and the kids are clamoring for socialism.

I’m not promising that the GOP will collapse.  Far from it: outraged, scared authoritarians are capable of even more sociopathy than usual. But there is nothing magic about Trump’s GOP. It’s been unpopular almost since the inauguration. And more broadly, right-wing states always go too far, indulging themselves till they engineer broad social revulsion. The Depression discredited plutocracy for nearly fifty years. Bush II presided over Katrina and two recessions, and got himself and his party solidly kicked out of power. When things go badly wrong, people don’t descend into Lord of the Flies; they suddenly value community, helping one another, making things work.  A party that has spent the last forty years mocking those things suddenly looks very bad.

(Possible counter-argument: the threat of nuclear war, or climate change, doesn’t seem to do this. Yes, because until they happen they’re abstract and far in the future. People aren’t good at abstract threats.  They respond, however, to direct hardship that affects themselves and their communities.)

Trump has been exceedingly lucky: despite his narcissism and incompetence, the economy has continued growing and he stopped short of going to war. He was never going to perform well in a real crisis, and now we have one and he won’t or can’t.

For a few days Trump seemed to take the virus seriously; and then he made a series of noises about “re-opening the economy” by Easter. Dutifully, the right-wing media amplified this into a new litany. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested that old people should die off to protect the economy.  He phrased it as if it was a personal choice and somehow noble, but jesus, people, throwing your old people into the ICU ward to die is not noble, it’s genocidal. Suicidal, too, since those are his party’s key voters.

Less apocalyptically, people have worried about how the crisis ends… we can’t keep cooped up at home for months on end, can we?  Well, the direct answer is, yes we can— we just passed a $2 trillion bill to keep people and more importantly corporations going, and as Matt Yglesias likes to say, we can make the money machine go brr. But it can be useful to go over once again why we’re at home.

  • To slow the spread of the virus. If you’re at home, you’re not catching it or passing it on. (The really insidious thing about Covid-19 is that it can be spread for days by asymptomatic people.)
  • To keep the health care system from imploding. We don’t have enough ICU beds, enough ventilators, enough frigging face masks. Doctors and nurses are worn ragged in Lombardy and Seattle and New York. And when the ICU is filled up with Covid-19 patients, that can be fatal to anyone coming in with a regular old heart attack.
  • To buy us time. We need tests in huge quantities. We need a contagion tracing regime. We need to build up health care capacity. We need to look at possible cures.

I distrust any piece of punditry that ends “…and therefore we must suffer a few million deaths.”  Just don’t go there, even if you’re really concerned about the Dow Jones. And even more so, don’t go there just because you can’t see an alternative.

The alternative is staring us in the face, in that chart above: control the freaking virus, as South Korea has, using South Korea’s methods.

The Financial Times has stumbled on something that doesn’t just explain a few data points, but the crises and opportunities of the next decades: that little point about “strong social norms.” Ultra-individualism and predatory capitalism aren’t working out so well. Maybe we should try some of those strong social norms.

Those norms might prove useful in other areas, you know, like climate change. Slate has an article that points out that the virus is making people do away with a lot of bullshit: being unable to carry 12 oz. bottles of things on planes; jailing people for minor offenses; using the police for evictions; turning off the water for hardship; throttling the Internet to motivate tiered pay plans. If it turns out that bullshit isn’t necessary in a crisis… why was it ever necessary?

There’s a million things to say, but I’ll just add one more.  People work hard to avoid a repeat of a disaster they themselves experienced. So, world wars were avoided for a century after Napoleon; plutocracy was discredited for 50 years after Hoover; Naziism was universally condemned for 50 years after Hitler. As soon as the people who experienced a disaster are dead (or in nursing homes), however, people are ready to repeat the errors.

We had a global pandemic— a century ago. The influenza epidemic ended up killing 50 to 100 million people, far more than World War I did directly. A lot of the same measures were used, such as school closures and prohibitions on large gatherings. And a lot of the same mistakes were made: many cities lifted the prohibitions, only to see a huge spike in deaths.

So: the basic situation isn’t new, it’s just forgotten. And a lot of people are misreacting because they just don’t have a framework for this. Some people think we need to defy the virus, go out and mingle, because that’s what we were supposed to do after 9/11. The virus isn’t 9/11; it’s not a terrorist who wants to cause fear and disruption. It doesn’t care about your fear or defiance. What it wants is large gatherings of victims; don’t indulge it.

Anyway… stay safe, stay sane, take walks, good luck when you have to go out. If you’re wondering what to do with yourself, may I suggest creating a conlang?

 

It turns out that a global pandemic is one situation where you really don’t want a narcissistic thug as president– a man whose first instinct is to lie, and whose second and third instinct is to lie again, differently.

The basic situation is that the Covid19 coronavirus is highly infectious even when people don’t show symptoms, and has a fairly high mortality rate, especially for people over 65. That means things can go south extremely quickly. Three weeks ago, Italy had 3 cases; now it has over 10,000, with 600 deaths, hospitals are overwhelmed (80% of hospital beds are virus victims) and the entire country is quarantined.

You can have a success story with coronavirus: Taiwan, which has extensive contacts with China and yet just 45 cases.  Or even South Korea, which has had 7500 cases, but is managing to reverse the tendency for new cases to skyrocket. Both countries were prepared for pandemics, took contract tracing and social distancing seriously, and were honest to the public.

By contrast, what has Donald Trump, darling of the GOP, done?

  • Two years ago, fired the person in charge of pandemic readiness, and his team, and never replaced them.
  • Cut the CDC’s global epidemic prevention budget by 80%.
  • Kept testing catastrophically low.  As of March 8, South Korea had tested 189,000 people; the US, 1700. Test kits are in short supply and test labs are backed up. When you hear that the US has had 971 cases (as of today), bear in mind that we just don’t know the total number of cases because we’re barely testing.
  • Lied about the severity of the disease.
  • Lied about it being contained.
  • Encouraged people with the virus to go to work, spreading it further.
  • Lied about the number of tests available.
  • Lied that the coronavirus is just like “the flu.” Coronavirus’s mortality rate is about 20 times that of the flu. (The flu’s rate is 0.1%; WHO has estimated coronavirus’s at 3.6%. But in China, it was 14.8% for people 80 or older.)
  • Misled people about how quickly a vaccine can be produced. (It could take a year or more.)
  • Been more concerned about “the markets” and his own popularity than in combating a public health crisis.

Add to all this the economic world the GOP’s plutocracy has created, in opposition to every other advanced nation: poor health care, limited or nonexistent sick days, a gig economy where people can’t afford to stay home. All of this suddenly matters very much when there’s a dangerous, contagious virus running around.

See here for a good interview with an outbreak preparedness expert on why the president needs to step up in a crisis like this, as Obama did, as Trump is unable or unwilling to.

None of this denial is necessary, or makes sense at all. A national emergency can actually prop up a president– just ask Dubya Bush after 9/11. Democrats would not be somehow enabled if the president had beefed up rather than gutted preparedness, made tests available, told the truth about how to contain the disease.

The rest of the GOP propaganda engine, of course, is falling in line behind the lies. Fox News is downplaying the virus; the online idiots are contributing conspiracy theories. The conspiracy theories are just stupid froth, but they’re a symptom of the underlying disinformation: it no longer matters where the virus came from, and they don’t even realize it. That ship has sailed. When Ted Cruz is in quarantine because he’s been exposed to a conservative American at a conservative conference in America– it’s just beside the point to indulge in anti-Chinese racism, or talk about closing the borders. The virus is now inside the house. Also, inside the House.

The irony is that the people most at risk from the GOP’s lies are the GOP supporters themselves.

  • Older people, who strongly skew GOP, are the most at risk of dying from coronavirus. If you want to keep your elder relatives alive, keep them from gathering in groups, and turn off their damn Fox News.
  • GOP loyalists get most of their news from Fox, Rush Limbaugh, or others spreading the lie that the virus is mild and nothing to be afraid of– and therefore they will be failing to wash hands, failing to avoid crowds, going to work when sick, and spreading the disease among themselves.

The large point about authoritarianism is simply that this sort of stupidity is not an accident. It’s what authoritarianism naturally produces. When a party rejects experts, rejects the ordinary functions of government, rejects everything the opposition says, it makes itself stupid. And eventually it causes this sort of incompetent meltdown.

Authoritarians see themselves as efficient and tough, and when luck is with them they can make other people think the same thing. But when you prize loyalty to the Leader over the truth, and persecute the messengers bearing any other message… well, eventually the truth wins.

That isn’t to say that authoritarians aren’t dangerous. They’re supremely dangerous. But their own system undermines itself, and leaves the system unprotected when a really severe crisis occurs. It’s up to fate whether that gets them kicked out of office in a few years like Dubya, or hung from a tree after causing millions of deaths, like Mussolini, or dying in a pool of their own urine after exiling all the competent doctors, like Stalin.

Edit: I don’t want to liveblog the pandemic, but the stupid keeps coming. Just today, Trump’s budget guy is still proposing a 15% cut to the CDC, and Trump lied that “the Wall” would prevent the spread of the virus.

I also should mention why we do all this “social distancing” (keeping people at home as much as possible). The goal isn’t necessarily to prevent all exposure, though it helps. It’s to spread out the cases, so the health care system can take care of them. When huge numbers are sick all at once, the system is overloaded and burns out.

Trump is regularly appalling, dangerous, and petty. There’s the whole impeachment thing going on, which is by turns corrupt and comic. It’s bad enough that Trump is trying to shake down Ukraine in hopes of providing some dirt on a political opponent; it’s sad  how foreign officials have learned to buy access by staying at his hotels; it’s baffling that a huge part of this mess is an asinine conspiracy theory: Trump seems to believe that CrowdStrike, an American security company used by the DNC, is Ukrainian.  (One of its founders was born in Russia… you’d think that’d be a point in his favor for the Putin-loving Trump.)

But, well, that’s merely completely corrupt, and so it’s no big surprise. What’s absolutely infuriating is Trump’s betrayal of the Syrian Kurds.

If anyone doesn’t know… these are our allies, the people who did most of the fighting against ISIS, losing 10,000 of their own fighters, and safeguarding nearly 100,000 ISIS combattants and family members. Trump abandoned them to a Turkish invasion, which the White House fucking celebrated:

Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial “Caliphate,” will no longer be in the immediate area.

Before anything else, this is sick.  Trump’s disgusting comments about the Kurds only twist the knife he pushed into their back. Who on this planet can ever trust Trump again?  Oh wait, there is a way to buy his respect: let him build a goddamn hotel in your country, as Turkey has.

Beyond that, it’s the action of an idiot. The action does nothing for the US, and plenty of things against us:

  • It plays into Russia’s hands, as they’re left to do as they like in Syria.
  • It plays into Assad’s hands, as the Kurds rushed to make a deal with him. With one less enemy, Assad can further reduce the remaining resistance to his rule.
  • It encourages Turkey to use the Syrian crisis to kill Kurds, and of course to enmesh itself more in Syrian affairs.
  • It adds to the number of Syrian refugees that have already stressed out Europe (and Turkey).
  • It has already freed a bunch of ISIS prisoners and may well free more, as the Kurds shift from guarding prisoners to trying to stay alive.
  • It’s shown the world that allying with the US is a quick path to betrayal and death.

Against all this Trump apparently saw one benefit: he could get a few hundred troops out of Syria. Only to immediately send a greater number, 1800 troops, to Saudi Arabia.

That’s what you get when you put a narcissistic toddler in charge of foreign policy.

Republicans try not to remember this, but perhaps this week will give them a reason to learn: they could end this, all on their own, in 24 hours.  And it doesn’t even require asking the Democrats for help or giving them any more power than they have. The Constitution has a way to get rid of an insane idiot as president: the 25th amendment.

 

I just finished this; it’s by Clive Ponting, and it was published in 2007. Immediate reaction: Human beings suck. I really wish there was a better species to belong to.

ponting

You may get an idea of its depressiveness from the fact that just one chapter is devoted to global warming. Yeah, that might destroy our civilization, but we were already headed that way. Also, if you think the culprit is manufacturing, or oil, or capitalism, think again. The problem goes way back, at least to the beginnings of agriculture.

And that may be letting the hunter-gatherers off the hook too easily. Humans are not only frighteningly efficient hunters, they’re death for other large animals. When humans reached the Americas, they quickly eliminated 75% of all large animal species.

As for agriculture, the main problems are these:

  • Soil erosion. Exposing the soil means that much of it is blown or washed away. This in turn silts up the rivers and causes flooding. The process is particularly deadly in the tropics, because rain forests have very poor soil— after a few crops are grown the land turned into baked clay, good for almost nothing.
  • Salinization. Irrigation in poor soils creates waterlogging and brings up salt, which impedes crops. Sumerian culture basically destroyed itself this way: by 1700 BCE crop yields were 1/3 of what they were when civilization began. (Sumer itself never fully recovered— political power moved north to Babylonia.)
  • The extension of agriculture to more and more marginal terrain.
  • Deforestation. Forests are cut down for building and for fuel. Over six thousand years, almost all of China and all of northern India have been converted into cropland. The current appearance of Mediterranean countries— semi-desert with occasional stands of olive trees— is man-made; forests once covered most of the land.
  • Poor diet. Most peasants survive almost entirely on grain and beans. Hunter-gatherers are far healthier. Plus, living with animals we get all their diseases.
  • These days, the unsustainable and polluting high usage of fertilizers and antibiotics.

Basically, Malthus was right: any increase in productivity is soon eaten up (literally) by increased population. 90% of human beings lived in starvation-level misery well into the 1800s. And that’s before you consider epidemics, war, or slavery.

There’s just one civilization that had a sustainable model, due to its geography: Egypt. The flood of the Nile brought a new coating of soil every year, so salinization wasn’t a problem. The valley is surrounded by desert, so there was no forest to cut down and no temptation to use marginal land. Egypt basically farmed the same way from 4000 BCE till the 19th century. It’s in trouble today, largely because of the Aswan Dam. The dam stops the silting process, so the Nile delta is shrinking, salinization is now a problem, and soil fertility must be supplemented by chemicals. Irrigation has spread schistosomiasis and fresh water is scarce.

Then there’s overhunting and overfishing. The chapter on fishing is particularly depressing. Humans just cannot seem to figure out that fish stocks are finite, even as they exhaust one after another. The fishing industry naturally resists any form of regulation, but again: we don’t just use fish species, we use them up. Once the fish are gone, you don’t have a fishing industry any more.

If you have an early-industrial conworld (as I do), some observations from Bernardino Ramazzini, an Italian doctor. He noted a number of industry-specific diseases in 1700:

  • potters got trembling and paralysis from lead poisoning
  • glass-makers got ulcerated lungs from antimony and borax
  • gilders and hatters got mercury poisoning (thus the Mad Hatter)
  • coal miners got lung diseases
  • cotton mills also produced lung problems, due to lint in the air; people who worked with wood had similar problems due to wood dust
  • coal and oil products caused cancer

Next— colonialism. Here at last the Europeans get to be the clear villains. I’ll just tell one story, which was new to me. In Kenya, whites stole all the good land. But they needed cheap labor for their plantations, so they couldn’t just let the natives continue to use traditional methods on what land remained to them. They instituted a poll tax and a hut tax, paid in cash, to force the Africans to work for them. When this didn’t produce enough labor, they raised the taxes, appropriated more land, and put import duties to raise the cost of living. This “worked” in the sense that the plantations got their labor. It also killed off nearly half the population.

The kicker: this happened, not in the 1720s, but in the 1920s. This is part of why stupid articles about how the American revolution preserved slavery drive me up the wall. The British were evil to the people they ruled… and not much better to their own descendants. (Not to get into too much of a digression: the British were able to outlaw slavery in their own colonies only because they’d lost the biggest slave-owning population, in British North America. And they supported the Confederacy in our civil war. They sold warships and blockade-running ships to the CSA— for which they had to pay the US reparations afterwards. No, they weren’t more benign than any other unelected overlords. And no, monarchy is not cuddly.)

The USSR did its fair share of devastation. They purposely drained the Aral Sea, which was supposed to provide good cropland but instead created a salty desert. Attempts to use Kazakh steppe as cropland was a disaster, resulting in losing 50% of the cropland in Kazakhstan. Collectivization killed millions of peasants and reduced food consumption even in the cities. Most industrial sludge was dumped untreated into rivers… several times rivers caught on fire. A nuclear accident in  Siberia released radiation equivalent to 3000 Hiroshima-sized bombs, and made Lake Karachai the most radioactive place on earth: you’ll get a lethal dose if you just stand on the shore for 30 minutes.

Another big mistake? Cars. Cars use 20% of world steel production, 35% of zinc, 50% of lead, 60% of rubber, 1/3 of oil. Car accidents kill a million people a year worldwide. In car-based Los Angeles, 2/3 of the center city is devoted to roads, garages, freeways, and parking areas. Yet street traffic is actually slower in modern cities than it was in 1900.

As for global warming… not much of this is news by now, but prospects are bad. Temperatures are up 0.85° C on average, and rising 0.2° C per decade. But it’s not uniform: the change in temperate areas is about 150% of that, and even higher at the poles. The goal of limiting warming to 2° C is optimistic. Worrying signs:

  • Polar ice is already starting to melt. That could raise the sea level significantly and, by removing all that reflective white ice, accelerate warming.
  • As the tundra melts, huge amounts of methane are released. And methane is a far more powerful warming agent than carbon dioxide.
  • Ironically, reducing industrial pollution could accelerate warming, by removing dust from the air.
  • The oceans absorb CO2… but there’s a strong possibility (based on examining climate change from millions of years ago) that this doesn’t continue indefinitely.

Predictions are tricky, but if these processes take off, warming by 2100 may be more in the range of 10° C. (That’s 18° F in case you’re rusty on Celsius. And recall, it’s higher in temperate latitudes. So Chicago’s average summer day of 85° F might be 112° instead.) And note, if we haven’t done anything, temperatures continue rising.

I’m naturally an optimist, but it’s hard to maintain that reading this book. At least let me emphasize that all this is a crisis of humanity’s own making. If we keep going as we’re going— well, we get ecological collapse with massive population die-off. But like Scrooge’s ghosts, the message is that we could pick another path. But it will require a hell of a lot of painful change, rethinking our civilization from the ground up. And at precisely the moment we need to make changes, we’re ruled by reactionaries who want to accelerate the collapse.

So, any other species need recruits? Gnolls? Half-orcs maybe?

 

 

 

 

Tonight we saw The Death of Stalin, the film. It’s based on the graphic novel I reviewed a few months back. It’s a great film.

stalin-dies

Standing: Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale

The overall plot is the same, but it feels like there’s a lot more material– scenes of Khrushchev and his wife, scenes of Beria in his hellish HQ, scenes about planning the funeral, a recap of Stalin’s dinner and movie night with his colleagues just before his death. Some subtle differences:

  • Marshal Zhukov comes in later, and is treated far more reverentially. In the book he was an ugly, stiff bastard; here, he’s loud and no-nonsense and the only person not afraid of Beria.
  • There’s no open sex (which is just as well), but an unsettling number of on-screen murders.
  • The comeuppance of Beria is telescoped: rather than three months after Stalin’s funeral, followed by an actual trial (though of the kangaroo type), it’s presented as happening on the day of the funeral, followed by immediate execution.
  • Though everyone gets screen time, the story becomes far more focused on the power struggle between Khrushchev and Beria.
  • You’d think the comic version would be more cartoony, but in many ways the movie is. There’s a good deal more slapstick involving the puddle of urine around Stalin’s body, and the Central Committee awkwardly carrying him to his bed.
  • At the same time, though the graphic novel is dark, the film is darker.  This mostly, I think, comes from the handling of Beria. The graphic novel allows him a little comedy; in the film he’s just pure evil– 0% approval rating, as TV Tropes puts it.

A lot of reviews treat the film as a comedy or satire, but don’t expect it to be Blazing Saddles. A lot of it is not funny at all: the dreaded midnight knocks on the door, Beria’s torture chambers, his savage end. But there is a rich dark humor to be found when morality is of little use and competence is far less valued than loyalty.

The other thing the film has, of course, is actors. It’s very well served here. Simon Beale is a great villain. I wouldn’t have thought Steve Buscemi would fit the role (isn’t he always a lizardy low-life?), but he does great, and he manages a convincing arc from buffoon to top dog. Jeffrey Tambor is perfect as the hapless Malenkov; he gets across the plaintive air of a stupid man who is aware that he looks stupid and resents it enormously.

Though it was written and filmed before Trump’s election, the film surely sheds a good deal of light on how a corrupt, narcissistic, traitorous buffoon can hold such a grip on the Republican Party. You don’t actually need a canny old dictator or a secret police to hold the party in line: the threat of a primary, or the wrath of Fox News, is sufficient.

If you see it, you’ll probably want to know more about the real history; this page is a good place to start on untangling what’s true or not. (The absurdity of the event is not a clue.) The movie hints that the intrigue didn’t stop, and this is quite true– Khrushchev’s allies mostly turned on him four years later, and failed; a relative newcomer, Brezhnev, forced him out in 1965.

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