Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Great Pause Week 21: Coronation Part II

"How do you undo in a short time what has been inculcated into a culture over half a century?"


 “It will go away like things go away.”

— Donald Trump

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”

 — Bhikkhuni Pema Chödrön

Last week we looked a the physical side of Covid. This week we’ll explore the mental side. According to a study published in Lancet Psychiatry, 39 of 125 hospitalized Covid patients in the UK had altered mental status, although only 16 showed brain inflammation or swelling. Of those with no physical signs of brain damage, 92% were new psychiatric diagnoses: 43% had new-onset psychosis, 26% had a neurocognitive, dementia-like syndrome, and 17% had an affective disorder. While most of those who experienced a stroke were over the age of 60 (82%), about half with an altered mental state were under 60 (49%). About 26% of patients with new-onset neuropsychiatric disorders were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.

In another study in Spain neurologic manifestations were seen in 57.4% of 841 patients hospitalized in March and 4.1% of their deaths listed neurologic complications as the primary cause. Disorders of consciousness (hallucinations, loss of senses, or cognitive deterioration) were nearly twice as high (38.9%) among patients with severe Covid-19. 14.9% had delirium and 9.4% went into coma. While coma and stroke emerged in later stages of the progression, decaying neurologic symptoms emerged throughout all phases of infection.

The Economist reported: 

The mere fact of being in an ICU can also lead to cognitive impairment. The effect of more than a week in intensive care is comparable to that of a major head injury. The problems are linked to the delirium people often fall into when severely ill and heavily sedated in an unfamiliar environment. Delirium is a particular problem with Covid-19, says Dale Needham of Johns Hopkins University. Patients spend a long time in the ICU during which they see no one they know — and the strangers caring for them in heavy-duty protective wear “look like aliens.”

The mental impairment brought on by Covid compounds the problems of coping with the pandemic, and also with the many other crises that pre-existed Covid. It is similar to the compounding problem of lead poisoning in Ancient Rome that reduced mental capacity at a moment when the Empire was increasingly under siege. High-born Romans sipped beverages cooked in lead vessels and channeled spring water into their homes through lead pipes that likely increased lead body burdens by hundreds of times. This disproportionately struck the wealthy, Senators, courtiers, and others of elevated social rank. By making their leadership stupid, the Romans essentially decapitated themselves. From about the first century BC, the culture lost its progressive edge and fell into wine, orgies, and watching cooking show reruns on TV.

In the United States in 2020, Covid struck a population in which fewer than half of the 47 million adults with a mental illness—22 percent of all women and 15 percent of all men over the age of 18—were receiving treatment. The severity of a mental illness often depends on social circumstances, which can limit access to treatment, counseling, and medication. Social support failures and institutional shortcomings can aggravate individual and collective psychiatric conditions, producing effects of greater severity, including comorbidity to infectious disease and widespread social disorder.

Various cultural critics have associated the start of the USA’s social collapse with Ronald Reagan’s dismantling of the fairness doctrine at the FCC, allowing Fox Corp, MSNBC, and other agenda-driven “news” outlets to ramp up fake news into ubiquity. How often have you had to endure a propaganda stream worthy of North Korea while sitting in the waiting room of your dentist or a public health clinic?

Other historians have flagged Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America that brought scorched earth policies to the Grand Old Party and replaced collegial compromise with Mitch McConnell. Costly government shutdowns for no apparent reason apart from a test of wills became de rigueur rituals of manliness. Governance by uncompromising partisanship was, to governance, “as miniature golf is to golf,” a senior congressional reporter said at the time. 

For my part, I’d place the USA’s descent into the present internecine bloodbath squarely along the timeline of any post-classic civilization at that precise point where a gentle glide path from complexity to simplicity becomes Lord of the Flies.

Enter the plague. How an organized, well-educated, science-based culture deals with a relentless zoonotic outbreak is very different from how a pack of gibbering Spring Breakers or Xanax-swigging couch potatoes do.

The seeds of American dysfunctionalism were planted when English settlers arrived in Jamestown and Plymouth and later took the remaining parts from the Dutch, French, Spanish and Russians, oh, and not to mention the indigenous peoples. Their perverted strain of brutal exceptionalism has been described with an equal measure of admiration and horror by historians from Alexis de Tocqueville to Sarah Vowell. 

But the cancerous product of digital media we see today is not confined to the US. It’s spreading seen and unseen everywhere, even to Wuhan. Social media, going back to the Zuckerberg/Winklevoss origin story from Harvard in the 00s, is based on remorseless, non-human algorithms that exploit confirmation and normalcy biases, tribalism, discount factors, and hunger for approval, to generate ad-revenue-generating page-views. 

Positive feedback mechanisms are always dangerous because they can and will spiral out of control. Pandemics, defense budgets, and climate change share this attribute with Twitter, Face, WeChat, WhatsApp, Instagram, and all the rest. They are gremlins that should never be fed after midnight. But clandestine social engineering, intended or unintended, corrupts the foundations of the growth that sustains it. It gnaws away at human potential and faith in empiricism the way acid rain erases hieroglyphs in Egypt.

Covid is swarming with positive feedbacks. A dearth of tests allowed unconfirmed cases to create still more cases, defeating contact tracing and flooding hospitals, which ran out of beds, masks, and protective gowns. Social media amplified Trump/Johnson/Lopez-Obrador/Bolsonaro misleading messages, which elevated fear and anxiety, which caused people to spend more time scouring for information on social media, much of it false or misleading.

In some warped sense, digital mass communication might be viewed as a balance nature has supplied that will eventually restore the proper order of things: an over-arching negative feedback. Whether it ends the world by zoonosis or by a nuclear exchange based upon divergent readings of the footnotes in the Mueller Report is not yet knowable.

Ed Yong, in “How The Pandemic Defeated America” in The Atlantic, wrote:

Clear distribution of accurate information is among the most important defenses against an epidemic’s spread. And yet the largely unregulated, social-media-based communications infrastructure of the 21st century almost ensures that misinformation will proliferate fast. “In every outbreak throughout the existence of social media, from Zika to Ebola, conspiratorial communities immediately spread their content about how it’s all caused by some government or pharmaceutical company or Bill Gates,” says Renée DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory, who studies the flow of online information. When COVID‑19 arrived, “there was no doubt in my mind that it was coming.”
Sure enough, existing conspiracy theories — George Soros! 5G! Bioweapons! — were repurposed for the pandemic. An infodemic of falsehoods spread alongside the actual virus. Rumors coursed through online platforms that are designed to keep users engaged, even if that means feeding them content that is polarizing or untrue. In a national crisis, when people need to act in concert, this is calamitous.

Now add to that mix unemployment, eviction, medical bills, anguishing loss of loved ones, anger at growing inequity, a latent belief in aliens and angels, and those alien strangers standing over your bed in surreal plastic wear, and you have assembled the ingredients for collective hysteria.

Hysteria and pandemics go together like witch trials and moldy bread. In 1900, health officials in San Francisco strung a rope around Chinatown to contain the bubonic plague. Only non-Chinese people (and rats and fleas) were allowed to enter or leave. During the cholera epidemics from the 1830s to 1860s, people attacked Irish immigrants. In the 1918 influenza, they blamed Spaniards. Syphilis was termed the “French disease” by Neapolitans, but the French called it the “Italian disease,” the Dutch called it Spanish, the Russians pointed the finger at Poland, and the Turks decided it was a “Christian disease.” When polio arrived in the 1950s, African Americans and the poor were targeted. In the 1980s, HIV/AIDS was blamed on gays, junkies, and prostitutes. 

Thanks to the communications revolution, false stories about CoV-2 coming from a Chinese bioweapon lab or masks causing coronaviruses to spread could race around the world before the truth had its foot in the stirrup. 

Anne Applebaum, in Twilight of Democracy, argues that autocrats with radically simple beliefs are inherently appealing. All the more so when the populace has been dumbed down and craves only simple choices. Applebaum describes how political parties use conspiracy theory, polarization, cognitive triggers, and nostalgia to school their base like dogs being trained to fetch a newspaper, heel, or beg.

Yong continues:

Science famously self-corrects. But during the pandemic, the same urgent pace that has produced valuable knowledge at record speed has also sent sloppy claims around the world before anyone could even raise a skeptical eyebrow. The ensuing confusion, and the many genuine unknowns about the virus, has created a vortex of fear and uncertainty, which grifters have sought to exploit. Snake-oil merchants have peddled ineffectual silver bullets (including actual silver). Armchair experts with scant or absent qualifications have found regular slots on the nightly news. And at the center of that confusion is Donald Trump.
During a pandemic, leaders must rally the public, tell the truth, and speak clearly and consistently. Instead, Trump repeatedly contradicted public-health experts, his scientific advisers, and himself. He said that “nobody ever thought a thing like [the pandemic] could happen” and also that he “felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” Both statements cannot be true at the same time, and in fact neither is true.
A month before his inauguration, I wrote that “the question isn’t whether [Trump will] face a deadly outbreak during his presidency, but when.” Based on his actions as a media personality during the 2014 Ebola outbreak and as a candidate in the 2016 election, I suggested that he would fail at diplomacy, close borders, tweet rashly, spread conspiracy theories, ignore experts, and exhibit reckless self-confidence. And so he did.
No one should be shocked that a liar who has made almost 20,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency would lie about whether the U.S. had the pandemic under control; that a racist who gave birth to birtherism would do little to stop a virus that was disproportionately killing Black people; that a xenophobe who presided over the creation of new immigrant-detention centers would order meatpacking plants with a substantial immigrant workforce to remain open; that a cruel man devoid of empathy would fail to calm fearful citizens; that a narcissist who cannot stand to be upstaged would refuse to tap the deep well of experts at his disposal; that a scion of nepotism would hand control of a shadow coronavirus task force to his unqualified son-in-law; that an armchair polymath would claim to have a “natural ability” at medicine and display it by wondering out loud about the curative potential of injecting disinfectant; that an egotist incapable of admitting failure would try to distract from his greatest one by blaming China, defunding the WHO, and promoting miracle drugs; or that a president who has been shielded by his party from any shred of accountability would say, when asked about the lack of testing, “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”
Trump is a comorbidity of the COVID‑19 pandemic.

But Trump is just a single virion. Infectious messenger RNA is carried by Bolsonaro, Modi, Putin, Johnson, Lopez-Obrador and others. Political populism is borne of the same kinds of confirmation bias and tribalism as the resistance to vaccination and masks. The formula cited by Applebaum or Yong now spreading a pandemic beyond control — dishonesty, xenophobia, racism, and narcissism — is the same elixir that drove Hitler, Mussolini, Napoleon, Alexander, and Caesar. 

When I said the US social capital decline likely began with the Vietnam War, I was placing it at that point when the Cold War could have turned and ended but instead pressed the nitro button and went ballistic. In his Cross of Iron speech on the death of Stalin, President Dwight D. Eisenhower urged:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

That speech echoed his homecoming address to Abilene Kansas in 1945, when he said:

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is difficult to recall when the US military budget could still be measured in millions, not millions of millions. The cost of a new Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) is today 3,660 modern brick schools or 1,000 state-of-the-art hospitals.

When Kennedy won election on a faked missile gap, when Johnson and Nixon expanded the (secret) War in Indochina, using anti-civilian napalm, cluster bombs, bouncing Bettys, and Agent Orange, and when every Congress after them basically doubled down, you get an exponential function. The exponent on the ascent is guns, warships and rockets. The exponent on the descent is schools and hospitals. And so, the US set up its health care system to be irrationally surge-vulnerable. It set up its school system to produce a population where just under half of USAnians believe aliens from outer space are living among them and a quarter say they would not be vaccinated for Covid under any circumstances. 

Stanford researchers examining middle school, high school and college students in 12 states were “shocked” by how many students failed to effectively evaluate the credibility of information. The students displayed a “stunning and dismaying consistency” in their responses, the researchers wrote, getting duped again and again. They weren’t looking for high-level analysis of data but just a “reasonable bar” of, for instance, telling fake accounts from real ones, activist groups from neutral sources, and ads from articles.

What do you do when an entire county is too big to confine for its own protection? How do you undo in a short time what has been inculcated into a culture over half a century, if not longer?

The cure for discontent is contentedness. The cures for dishonesty, xenophobia, racism, and narcissism are truthfulness, openness, empathy, and selflessness. We have that capacity. We have to believe we have not abandoned it altogether.

Only after learning our lesson will all this pass. 

This is the 2d of multiple parts.


Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My winter book, Dark Side of the Ocean, is shipping now. My next book, Plagued, should be out in a few months. Please help if you can.



Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Great Pause Week 20: Coronation Part I

Life is change
How it differs from the rocks.
I’ve seen their ways too often for my liking;
New worlds to gain.
My life is to survive
And be alive
For you.
You are the crown of creation
And you’ve got no place to go.

— Jefferson Airplane, 1970.

This week a young friend wrote to ask what’s the big deal about the virus. “More people die of other things,” she said. Gosh, I thought, maybe I should stop the presses on my latest book, Plagued, due out in October. After all, this pandemic is no big deal.

In the Maya Mountain foothills in early March, closing out a Belizean permaculture course and having meetings of experts about our plans for a Cool Lab microenterprise hub, I stayed up nights scouring the internet for then available science on the novel coronavirus. Based on that research, I put on mask and gloves, observed personal distancing while traveling, and quarantined myself for two weeks when I reached this island in Mexico, where I have been weathering the pandemic these past 20 weeks. I completed the Dark Side of the Ocean galley proofs and began work on a new book, specifically addressing what I was then learning — how best to have a decent life during a pandemic.

My research on Plagued gave me both a deeper understanding of this particular coronavirus and also better insight into the strange nature of the global response to it. In this multi-part essay, I will try to dissect some of those discoveries.

So how deadly is SARS-CoV-2? We still don’t know, but the more we are learning, the deadlier it appears. It is never a good idea to anthropomorphize a non-living snippet of nucleotides in a spiky protein shell, with no ability to eat, breathe, grow on its own, or make choices, but come on, this little guy really lends itself to the embodiment of some kind of malevolent monster.

Let’s review some of the new findings. We’ve known since January that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 disease is transmitted by tiny liquid droplets containing virus particles — a protein capsid enclosing a virion of serpentine, single-stranded RNA. These droplets, which may contain thousands of such virus particles, typically derive from the exhalations of infected people, but they might also come from toilet flushes, sweat, tears, blood, or any bodily excretions that can be aerosolized. 

The finer the droplets, the longer they can linger in the air, and enclosed spaces like restaurants, public toilets, and elevators quickly become kill zones. Fomites, the droplets that land on surfaces, can also be picked up and ingested or absorbed, so it is good preventive practice to wash hands, launder masks, disinfect tables, chairs, phones and handles, and leave a UV-C light on when you are out (exposure to 250–270 nm UV-C light kills CoV-2 but also destroys endogenous microbial flora and can cause skin cancer).

Studies are showing now CoV can spread from people to animals and from dogs and cats (particularly cats) to other animals and potentially back to people. It does not (yet) infect farm animals including pigs, chickens, ducks, horses, sheep, and cattle. For dogs and cats, the primary symptoms are gastrointestinal rather than respiratory. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the CDC recommend that sick pets should be kept in quarantine, just as you would with people. If you are sick with Covid, or your pet is, avoid petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food. If you must come in contact with a sick pet, mask and wash your hands. They will likely recover, but in the meantime, they could be superspreaders (although no pet-to-human transmission has yet been confirmed). They should leave the home only on a leash or in a carrier.

Salunke, et al. The SARS-CoV-2 Virion and its Proteins

CoV-2 droplets infect by being inhaled or swallowed, where they attach to the linings of the respiratory system or the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and following along those routes, the virus attaches itself to healthy cells (its spiky protrusions act like a key to unlock ACE2 receptors), cracks the cell nucleus, and rapidly reproduces itself by inserting its RNA virion into the cell’s DNA code. As cells die, they clog the lungs and other organs with necrotic tissue and fluids, leading, in the lungs, to Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), as evidenced by low blood oxygen levels, difficulty breathing, and pneumonia-like cough, chest pain, and fever.

Induced inability to breathe is what makes waterboarding such an ineffective and sadistic torture. People will say or do anything to get it to stop. CoV-2 is a virus that has learned to waterboard.

By April, doctors around the world well understood that Covid was not just a lung disease. Many of the infected had lost their senses of taste and smell; in others, toes or fingers darkened as if bruised; hearts swelled; blood clotted; immune systems attacked organs they were meant to be saving. But because lessons were learned too late, doctors had been killing some of the patients they were trying to save. The virus employed some treatments used against it to strengthen its attack, like aikido. Intubate and turn up the airflow and viroids went deeper into the lungs. Flush fluids from the body in order to prevent lungs from filling and the virus crashes the kidneys.

The only surprise was that we were surprised. I write much of that off to Sinophobia, something both US political parties are comfortable superspreading. Nobody wanted to listen to Chinese doctors on the front line and many excellent early research findings were completely ignored until they had been replicated in the West months later: nasal swabs; putting patients on their bellies; administering remdesivir and anticoagulants; shutting down whole cities; mandatory masking.

Initially, WHO, CDC, and others said not to wear masks. The WHO made two mistakes. First, they didn’t realize scaling: if the probability of infection is p, if both people wear masks it becomes p squared. For example, if p=0.50, both people wearing a mask would lower p to 0.25. Second mistake: if I reduce the viral load by half, I don’t decrease probability of infection by half — I may decrease it by 99%. That’s because the probability of infection is nonlinear — it’s an S-curve. In addition, they lied because they were worried about a mask shortage.

Mortality rates from the first quarter of 2020 left epidemiologists scratching their heads about how deadly CoV-2 is. The Case Fatality Rate was nearly 14 percent in Italy, but only 0.5 percent in Iceland. Germany and Spain were 4.5 percent, and South Korea half that. The United States mortality rate is currently 6 percent, but because testing is so poor, it could be lower. Or, because hospitalization requires insurance, which is tied to employment, it could be higher. The global average now is 6.8 percent, with a median of 4.2.

Lethality depends on a whole host of factors that vary from country to country, city to city, and person to person. We can see by comparing total deaths in a given city over the past several years that the first half of 2020 made a sharp mortality-by-all-causes spike, geographically mirroring local outbreaks. Total anomalous deaths are well above confirmed Covid deaths, leading to a suspicion that most Covid deaths go unreported. Extrapolating from those numbers, 150,000 deaths in the US could actually be 1.5 to 3 million. Epidemiologists have predicted one million US Covid deaths eventually. One million could have been surpassed last month.

In January, Chinese scientists mapped Covid’s attack route into vascular endothelial cells through the Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme #2. ACE2 is found as a coating on cells in the upper respiratory tract and lungs, as well as on the heart, kidneys, and intestines. When a CoV-2 virus particle hacks a cell’s genome, it instructs the host to sprout sticky filopedia that extend out into the bloodstream like flypaper, glomming more virus particles passing by in the blood. CoV-2 devastates its target by concentrating firepower.

Filopedia microscopy by Dr. Elizabeth Fischer of NIAID/NIH

In a healthy person with few co-morbidity indicators, the virus may get no further than the ACE2-coatings in the nose and throat, and perhaps the lungs, before the body’s defenses eliminate it. Tests that look for genetic material from SARS-CoV-2 in swabs from the nose and throat frequently find it present in people who are asymptomatic. Up to 70% of those testing positive are asymptomatic.

We know that ACE2 receptors are also in cells of kidneys, pancreas, gallbladder, intestines, testes, and in the nose’s olfactory cells. While Covid patients were 2.6 times more likely to have fever or chills, 2.2 times more likely to have trouble breathing or be coughing, and twice as likely to have muscle aches, they are 27 times more likely to have lost their sense of smell. That’s all about ACE2 receptors.

The diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal pain that about one-third of Covid-19 patients experience is a viral attack on cells of the lower GI tract. Last month, scientists studying 1,000 Covid-19 patients at a New York City hospital reported that 78% of those in intensive care developed acute kidney injury. A quarter of covid-19 patients in British ICUs had kidney problems severe enough to require dialysis

We now see the virus attacks platelet-producing cells, called megakaryocytes, in the lungs. This can cause extensive clotting in the veins and other small blood vessels of patients’ hearts, kidneys, liver, and lungs. Black and brown skin as a higher co-morbidity indicator may not be entirely a function of social injustice. Inherited red blood cell irregularities such as sickle-cell anemia can be exploited by Covid to starve the blood of oxygen.

Seven to 31% of patients with severe Covid have a high incidence of cardiac arrest and arrhythmia. In part that is due to the extreme inflammatory response, but in part it is because ACE2 receptors line the inside walls of capillaries, which CoV-2 can clot, causing blue extremities, too little blood flow to the gut, and cardiac arrest.

With the number of Covid patients closing in on 20 million, epidemiologists hope the virus has no more surprises in store. But they’re not counting on it.

Cytokine Storms

The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed young healthy people more than children or the elderly because it caused an overreaction of the immune system to the infection. As the body’s own killer cells attacked healthy cells the condition quickly became fatal. Same with HIV/AIDS. Same with Covid.

George Freeth from Wikicommons and Lynn Shelton by Stuart Isett NY Times

My friend and mentor the “lunatic farmer” Joel Salatin spouted on his blog for months that Covid could be beat just by building a good immune system through a nutrient-dense diet and regular exercise. Others have said the same, but they are wrong. I recall the death of Irish Hawaiian George Freeth who introduced surfing and lifeguarding to California 100 years ago. It is difficult to think of a healthier human specimen, and yet he was felled at age 35 by a cytokine storm from the Spanish flu. I can’t help but wonder whether Marc Maron’s romantic partner, filmmaker Lynn Shelton, who died suddenly at age 54 in May of “acute leukemia” was in fact the victim of a Covid cytokine storm — a white blood cell tsunami — and how many like her are similarly misdiagnosed.

When infections occur, they activate two parts of the body’s immune response — “call to arms” genes and “call for reinforcement” genes. The first group produces interferons that act like mountaintop signal fires. They cue neighboring cells to activate defenses. These neighbor cells buy time for the second group of genes to produce proteins called chemokines that emit a biochemical “help!” alarm. When distant antibody-making B cells and virus-killing T cells — the immune system’s hunter/killers, the cytokines — sense that alarm, they race to the site and start shooting down viruses like a video game of space invaders.

But here is where Covid gets scary. Children might want to leave the room now. SARS-CoV-2 blocks the neighborhood watchtower gene while at the same time overstimulating the call for reinforcements. Once it hacks the genome of its first cell, it makes a protein that blocks that cell from warning its neighbors. It fells the watchtower. There are no limits to replication for at least the first few days. When cytokines do arrive, they come in such panic numbers that they produce a storm of inflammation at the infection site. That induces a runaway cell destruction that kills the patient.

Think of it as similar to an asymmetric warfare tactic used in Baghdad or Kabul. A small device detonates in a busy market, killing and injuring many civilians. First responders and police rush to the scene and then a larger device detonates.

New Normals

Writing for the online journal MedPage on July 27, Dr. Fred Pelzman, a recovering Covid patient himself, said:

Many patients who suffered severe pneumonia are still in the recovery phase, with prolonged fatigue and ongoing dyspnea. They tell us they are still “not themselves,” and have a sense of constriction and pulling to their breath. More than likely, as symptoms persist, we will start to evaluate these patients further, with repeat chest imaging and pulmonary function tests.
We may as yet discover what kind of lung disease this is, this residual damage, and whether it responds to medications for asthma or COPD or maybe something else. Or maybe just gradually resolves. Or maybe leaves some people with chronic damage and deficits.
I’ve seen a few patients who have residual loss of their sense of taste or smell. For me, while for a few weeks there I could barely smell or taste anything, now 4 months out I’ve noticed that some of my favorite foods just don’t taste the same, that many foods have lost the depth of flavor I’m used to tasting, and that certain smells, from my aftershave to my morning cup of coffee, are even bordering on the newly unpleasant.
I’ve had patients tell me their OCD has ratcheted up, their anxiety medicines are not working, they find themselves crying all the time without any other symptoms of depression. One patient told me that she’d noticed that she could no longer do math in her head. Something as simple as calculating the tip at a restaurant, which used to be incredibly easy for her, now was something she had to slowly and methodically work out.
Another interesting type of clinical presentation that I and a few colleagues have seen, although we’re not sure if this is a definitive syndrome or not, has been patients, several months out from recovery from their Covid-19, calling up with a panic that they now feel the exact same symptoms they had when they became sick initially. We’ve seen a few patients who’ve had the exact same clinical presentation as before, feeling feverish, diffuse body aches, cough, even a few patients who feel they’ve noticed a change in their sense of taste or smell.
As we evaluated them, we feared that we were seeing that thing we all dread so much, the definitive evidence that patients can get this disease twice. Luckily, all of the repeat swabs on these few cases we’ve seen have come back negative, and interestingly, once the swab results came back, the symptoms rapidly abated in most of these patients. Is this some form of post-traumatic stress response, or some underlying residual inflammatory process that may get reawakened, or reactivated as antibody levels drop off?

Virologists cannot yet say that CoV-2 antigen immunity, once established, persists, which is to say we don’t yet know if you can get Covid a second time, or a third; whether it is worse the next time; whether blood-derived vaccines would work in that case; or therefore, whether there is even the possibility of “herd immunity” or vaccination. 

A survey of the Spanish population published July 6 in The Lancet found that 95% were seronegative to SARS-CoV-2 infection (had no antibodies), even in hotspot areas, despite many of the same individuals having tested positive before. It found that 14% of persons who had previously developed antibodies no longer had them a month later. Ian Jones, a professor of virology at the University of Reading, said, “Anyone who tests positive by antibody test should not assume they are protected. They may be, but it is not clear.”

“But these concerns are confused and mistaken,” protested Yale immunologists Akiko Iwasaki and Ruslan Medzhitov in a July 31 New York Times Opinion, “… finding that naturally occurring antibodies in some Covid-19 patients are fading doesn’t actually mean very much for the likely efficacy of vaccines under development.”

That antibodies decrease once an infection recedes isn’t a sign that they are failing: It’s a normal step in the usual course of an immune response. Nor does a waning antibody count mean waning immunity: The memory B cells that first produced those antibodies are still around, and standing ready to churn out new batches of antibodies on demand.

Since no-one, not even the Chinese, can answer the basic question of immunity persistence yet, the only thing that can be said for sure is that Covid will be around for a while. This is not a second wave. It is not even the second inning of the first wave. This will not be going away by September. It will not likely be gone by the September after that. Covid could be something more like the Black Plague that showed up in 1346 and ended in 1353 after killing 30% to 60% of Europe’s population of the time. Or maybe it will be like the San Francisco plague of 1900–1904, which was followed by an aftershock in 1907–1908. Worst case: it is with us for the rest of the century, as Bubonic Plague was for the Ottoman Empire for the whole of the 18th Century.

If outliers like the USA, Russia, and Brazil were to follow the advice of other nations and take common-sense public health measures, even they could have Covid under control enough to resume much of the old normal in 6 to 8 weeks, according to epidemiologist Larry Brilliant

That’s a moot point, though, because the United States will not begin behaving rationally any time soon. Next week we’ll look more at the implications.

This is the first of multiple parts.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My winter book, Dark Side of the Ocean, is shipping out now. My next book, Plagued, should be out in a few months. Please help if you can.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Great Pause Week 19: The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

Thirty years ago The Futurist magazine named my book, Climate in Crisis, to their 1990 top ten books list. I liked that much more than when I made the Village Voice Heroes of the Revolution list because while revolutions may come and go, the passing of the Holocene will change our future like no other event in history.

In these intervening three decades, I have been forced to live, like many, as an amphibian, caught between two worlds. In the Old World people get born, go to school, become socialized to modernity, go to work and make a home, maybe have a 9-to-5 job and a 40-year mortgage, maybe pay off student loans and manage to keep their health insurance or pension, grow old if they are lucky, pay taxes and die. In the New World, few to none of those things may happen.

Perhaps you were midway through high school and looking towards college and a career. That future might be gone now. We don’t even know if the college system will survive another year. Perhaps you were employed in a comfortable, medium-skilled job related to the tourism industry. Gone. You had savings. Gone. You had a home. Gone. Shit happens. An advanced civilization from Alpha Centauri, never mind your own government, is not coming to rescue you. Your future is a story you were told like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

As an amphibian, my lizard eyes see alternative futures. Some are transpersonal. We all get ported into the cloud and live in avatar bodies, powered by robot mini-nukes. Sounds like the stuff of Vedas and sagas, doesn’t it? You could have it that way if you like: become Lord Krishna. Perhaps you prefer Captain Jean-Luc Picard? Some of them are dystopian — nuclear or geomorphic holocausts; zombie-movie-like war zones and death camps; slow death by suffocation and sweat, as Earth’s atmosphere dies.

I also partake in the occasional hopium orgy; ecovillage bioregions joyously performing ecosystemic revitalization with biochar terra preta and milpa agroforestry. Como no?

In these posts, I’ve often stared into the psychobiology of tribalism and generally conclude it has a bigger downside than upside, such that it could be a fatal flaw for our species, as consequential as say, the MORT gene, or opposable thumbs. At times we have used the trait to advantage — “The Union forever, hoorah boys hoorah;” kibbutzniks making aliyah; the Suffragettes — but most of the time it is a rallying cry for all manner of division, from anti-judaism and Deutschland Über Alles to Keep America Great against Black Lives Matter. You are with us or you are against us. You are woke or you are irrelevant.

Wokeness in its anti-intellectualism and disrespect for historically repeating patterns is merely itself a pattern identified by historians such as William Catton, Joseph Tainter, and Jared Diamond. It is a moving-out phase from the high degree of complexity that exemplifies an apex in civilization into the post-classic devolution phase that comes next, where systems lose complexity, cities are abandoned, and a dark age descends upon the land. Science and inquiring, liberal culture get tossed onto the bonfire.

In the collapsitarian genre, one of the standard texts assigned to freshmen has always been Dmitry Orlov’s The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivor’s Toolkit (2013). As Orlov later summarized:

Ideally, it would start off with a global financial collapse triggered by a catastrophic loss of confidence in the tools of globalized finance. That would swiftly morph into commercial collapse, caused by global supply chain disruption and cross-contagion. As business activity grinds to a halt and tax revenues dwindle to zero, political collapse wipes most large-scale political entities off the map, allowing small groups of people to revert to various forms of anarchic, autonomous self-governance. Those groups that have sufficient social cohesion, direct access to natural resources, and enough cultural wealth (in the form of face-to-face relationships and oral traditions) would survive while the rest swiftly perish.


Our best-case scenario would go something like this: a massive loss of confidence and panic in the financial markets grips the planet over the course of a single day, pancaking all the debt pyramids and halting credit creation. Commerce stops abruptly because cargos cannot be financed. In a matter of weeks, global supply chains break down. In a matter of months, commercial activity grinds to a halt and tax revenues dwindle to zero, rendering governments everywhere irrelevant. In a matter of years, the remaining few survivors become as Captain Cook saw the aboriginal Australians: almost entirely inoffensive.

Orlov recognized that too many Black Swans floated about to make this sequence entirely reliable. Later he added a sixth stage, eco-collapse:

And so it seems that there may not be a happy end to my story of The Five Stages of Collapse, the first three of which (financial, commercial, political) are inevitable, while the last two (social, cultural) are entirely optional but have, alas, already run their course in many parts of the world. Because, you see, there is also the sixth stage which I have previously neglected to mention — environmental collapse — at the end of which we are left without a home, having rendered Earth (our home planet) uninhabitable.

In particular, Orlov said global warming in collusion with its evil twin, global dimming, could accelerate near term human extinction although the process would be a slow one, lasting centuries, he thought. He also considered the potential effects of plastic in the environment as under-appreciated although that might destroy enough ecosystem health to doom us, but again not very quickly.

The book did not consider viral pandemic resulting from zoonosis, although that might be placed in the eco-collapse category. If we track the sequence we seem to be following, we, meaning our global human population, have had enough political collapse to withdraw people’s faith in a culture of science and thereby to allow, and accelerate, an ecological collapse bringing pandemic upon us and with that financial and commercial collapse, leading next to widespread starvation and social collapse, and in due course to even more rapid climate change auguring near term human extinction.

“You cannot pass,” he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.

— Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm”

On January 15, 3019, the Fellowship of the Ring came to the Bridge of Khazad-dûm pursued by Orcs and a Balrog of Morgoth. Gandalf stopped on the Bridge, standing in the middle of the span, allowing the others to escape. He leaned on the staff in his left hand and held the sword Glamdring, gleaming cold and white, in his right. The Balrog stepped onto the Bridge, facing Gandalf, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised its whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm and declared that the Balrog could not pass. They fought, and the Balrog’s sword was destroyed. Then the Balrog leaped full upon the Bridge, and Gandalf lifted his staff and smote it upon the bridge. His staff shattered, but the Bridge cracked at the Balrog’s feet. The stone broke and fell, taking the Balrog with it into the abyss, but the thongs of its whip snared Gandalf about his knees, and he too plummeted with the Balrog into the depths of the mountain.

— The One Wiki to Rule Them All, Bridge of Khazad-dûm

Of course, nothing goes as quickly as most doom writers predict. I watched the devastation wrought upon the former Soviet Union when I visited my friend Volodya Shestakov in St. Petersburg in 1991. High rise apartment houses were being abandoned on the upper floors because the electric service for elevators could not be relied upon. City blocks on the outskirts got more food than those near the center because rural producers need only get that far, open their trucks to customers, and sell retail. They would sell out in minutes, no matter what the commodity. Outside subway stops, people stood in long ranks three deep to sell family heirlooms or a single bottle of Pepsi. If someone bought theirs, they could leave to stand in a longer line outside a bakery, and the next person behind them in the subway column, who had perhaps been waiting since dawn, would move up to the front rank. Untold thousands drank themselves to death on rotgut vodka or froze in the winter. And yet, when I visited again three years later, the city was still there. It went on to become more prosperous than before and today is quite a trendy metropolis with clean streets and healthy citizens wearing the latest European fashions, sipping green tea in cyber cafes while peacefully hacking the servers of political parties in distant countries on their late-model laptops and iPhones. While they sip their tea they stop the war. 徐行踏断流水声

The Russian experience reflects what John Michael Greer has described as a catabolic collapse. Rather than a Seneca Cliff and Olduvai Gorge, there is a gradual stair-step down. Crash. Recovery at a slightly reduced standard. Crash. Recovery at a more reduced standard. Crash. The inertia of accumulated wealth and technology slows the fall. The inertia of disassembling systems — political, social, financial, ecological, climate — propels it along.

While I was composing this essay on Thursday, Dmitry Orlov was writing his own, updating his 6 stages theory. He wrote:

It has been 12 years since I published my essay “The Five Stages of Collapse” in which I first proposed a taxonomy of collapse, teasing it apart into financial, commercial, political, social and cultural collapses, together with what I conceived of as a canonical collapse sequence, where each stage of collapse triggers the next. It worked well enough, in hindsight, for the USSR and, as a thought experiment, for the US, but now, in 2020, in the harsh light of actual collapse that is unfolding in many parts of the West and especially in the formerly United States, it appears that my initial assessment was based on an overly positive view of human nature, at least as far as the nature of the humans who inhabit these parts.


I have been predicting since 2006 that the USA will follow the same collapse trajectory as the USSR, and have been drawing analogies between the two in order to make specific, detailed predictions about the collapse of the US. In light of current events, my method has been vindicated and my predictions were prescient. However, there is one area where I need to issue a correction: the canonical collapse sequence does not apply to the US, and it may apply only partially or not at all to other Western countries.

I first developed an inkling that this would be the case two years ago, in May of 2018, when I published the article Cultural Collapse is in the Lead. In that essay, I listed the many techniques being used to destroy culture in the West, with the US by far in the lead and described “…an attempt to undermine and destroy cohesive society and common culture ahead of the coming financial, commercial and political collapse”:

“It may seem like an odd thing to strive for, but consider this: if society and culture are destroyed ahead of time, then when collapse comes there is no intact community of humans left to observe it and understand what is happening. With everyone’s reasoning abilities sufficiently hampered, it will be trivial to diffuse blame when the rest of the collapse sequence occurs, to get the people to blame themselves or to scapegoat each other, or to simply ignore it because most of the people have bigger problems than collapse, be it their dysfunctional families, their various addictions, their religious zealotry or their extremist politics.”

This has turned out to be true enough: currently, plenty of people in the US are running around blaming their collapse the not-terribly-lethal virus (pretty much not lethal at all for those below retirement age) or racism (which has been a fixture of American life for centuries, so far with few adverse effects for white people) or Donald Trump (who, sure enough, has few skills beyond hogging the limelight), or the Russians, or the Chinese, or… None of this ridiculous blame-a-thon would would have been possible had a strong and cohesive culture remained in place.

He then made a long, elegant foray into the Russian concept of Rodina (Родина; kinship with motherland) and concluded that the US’s worship of wealth above all else, going back to its colonial founding, bore the seeds of its cultural collapse which Facebook and Twitter have merely fertilized or perhaps genetically modified. Without culture, as he said in the extended quote above, there will be no chance for the USA to reconstitute after financial and political collapse the way Russia had. We are all witnessing that in the moment as it unfolds in slow motion, whether it is to be climaxed in a Trump administration or a Biden one.

There is great suffering in this lingering death by 1000 cuts, which cannot be torniqueted at the US border. The UN’s refugee relief staff says it has never faced a greater crisis than it faces in 2020. Hundreds of millions may die of starvation and disease.

This week, 75 percent of one US border detention facility in Virginia have active Covid cases. They did not have any cases there until US Immigration and Customs Enforcement transferred in Covid-infected detainees from Florida and Arizona after the fashion of American colonials giving smallpox blankets to the Indians. Germ class warfare.

Lest we forget, the only reason for these victims’ imprisonment, including children and elderly, was not because they had committed any crime, but rather it was because they fled starvation and oppression and knocked at the door of what they mistook to be a free country, and asked, respectfully, for sanctuary. When Virginia refugee concentration camps become death camps, Virginians should ask, is that snow in summer or are those the ashes from human incineration falling from the sky?

Standing up against our seemingly ordained future, on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, raising our staffs to the Balrog and chanting, “You cannot pass!” we find ourselves, a small rag-tag lot of earthlings, hopelessly outgunned, rallying the eagles, dolphins, and elephants to our call. Where there is yet science, if only an ember, hope yet lingers. The dystopian shall not pass.


If you like reading this sort of outlook, help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get my latest book off its first press run. The Dark Side of the Ocean is nearing that moment. Please contribute if you can.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Great Pause Week 18: Midwinter Down Under

As difficult as coming to terms with living through an all-out global pandemic is, the looming near-term human extinction event that is rapid climate change has not gone away. We have to still keep our eye on the ball.

This pandemic will eventually pass into history. After all, we have had worse years. A volcanic eruption in Iceland in early 536 cast so much ash that the world went into 24-hour darkness for two years, with failed crops and spreading famine, and then a decade of record cold, and an outbreak of bubonic plague carried by fleas from starving rats that took almost half of the Byzantine Empire — 100 million dead.

Earth’s changing climate will forever change our future. And that assumes we can survive it. But like the pandemic, our best hope lies in prevention. Once it takes on a life of its own and gets beyond mere human control, that’s when things get bad. Joe Biden, who hopes to be the next POTUS, says we have 9 years to turn it around. That is childishly optimistic, but on the other side, his opponent says the threat is not even real; another Chinese hoax like the Kung Flu.

Tomorrow, July 17, I will be giving a talk in Cairns, Queensland, at the Australia New Zealand Biochar Initiative’s 4th Annual Conference and 2d Annual Study Tour. I won’t be teleporting there, needless to say, and bandwidth here in rural Mexico is too limited to depend upon for a live presentation via web, so I made a short video and biked over to a hotel yesterday to upload it.

The video begins with a short walkabout through the construction zone that is my present home. Two weeks ago I started replacing my roof in anticipation of a stronger than normal hurricane season and the likelihood I may have to shelter in place rather than evacuate to some dangerously overcrowded hall of cots in an inland city.

I have taken off the aged palm thatch and replaced it with biochar-enriched superferrocement. As I write this, we are painting the new roof and applying a marine varnish. My home also serves as my office, and before the pandemic struck my attention was centered on our prototype Cool Lab in Belize, where I was working until March 15. When borders started to close, I had three choices where to spend these coming quarantine years: Maya Mountain Research Farm in Belize; Isla Holbox, Mexico; or The Farm ecovillage in Tennessee. I threw the Ching and here I sit.

Let me say a few more words about the Cool Lab. This is the pitch I am giving in Australia. Our Cool Lab project will attempt to demonstrate a carbon-dioxide removal (climate positive) microenterprise hub for the economic development of a rural Maya community in Belize’s Southern Toledo District, bordering Guatemala’s Petén region. The village is in mountain foothills along a river, and for many years has been receiving a steady influx of refugees from neighboring Guatemala, where a combination of bad governance and rapid climate change is uprooting many people in the highlands. They are leaving to avert starvation.

Our Cool Lab is a biorefinery. It will use hydrolysis and pyrolysis to turn woody wastes from local agroforestry (and also potentially dried biosolids from a village-scale sewage plant) into products and services we call a carbon cascade. The cascade might include leaf-protein fractionation from leafy wastes, electric production from coconut coir, rice husk, nut shells, and cacao pods, and novel drawdown commodities like wood vinegar distillates, and biochar in various forms fit for purpose. We might make densified wood shipping containers from bamboo, infused with home-brew bio-oil preservative. We might produce outdoor furniture and biochar-infused roofing tile from a separated stream of plastic waste.

Because we have social and ecological goals, we are in the stage now of detailed surveys of the region — biodiversity, economic and demographic metrics, environmental issues, and cultural norms and preferences — to later serve as our baseline metric. And, because drawdown and climate change reversal are overarching goals, we will need to chart the carbon footprint of all phases of the program, with special attention to the long-term operational phase. Just the measuring of the process will consume millions of donor dollars.

We think that scale investment in monitoring is worth it because in coming years as the responses to the climate catastrophe grow increasingly frantic, trillions will be thrown at poorer solutions like BECCS, DACCS, solar radiation management, and ocean remineralization. Some fools may even throw more money down the nuclear rat hole.

Our objectives are low-tech, anti-fragile, and human-centered. By using tools of permaculture design, we place humans within a new context that will regenerate and sustain natural ecosystems. Humans are not a separate ecosystem, they exist within all the other overlapping ones and must meet their own needs with that in mind. 

When we consider social goals we have to meticulously measure how those will impact on natural systems and the planet. In the next short while we will be moving from a polluting economic model to capturing more than our own emissions and ecosystem restoration. Any industries that can fit into this new paradigm will be welcome. Any that can’t will become obsolete.

Biochar offers many strategies that function at the gigaton scale to draw legacy carbon from the atmosphere and ocean. Rather than think in terms of one to four gigaton drawdown potential from agricultural applications for biochar, we need to start thinking in terms of 50 to 100 gigaton CO2 removal annually using biochar in all its versatile, socially and ecologically responsible ways. Global human greenhouse gas pollution today is around 40 gigatons annually in CO2-equivalent (although Covid is predicted to bring a 2 Gt reduction). So, we need to start thinking of drawing twice that much down each year, and putting it somewhere productive, not just down a well.

When most governments and think tanks talk of development today, they try to measure it in terms of economic growth, jobs, stock market highs and lows, gross domestic production, electrical generation, or resource extraction. Some of the more far-sighted use metrics like inclusion, intergenerational equity, longevity, and happiness. Yet, just as all politics is local, all economics is local. It comes down to how well any community — be it rural cluster of farms or an urban neighborhood — fends for itself. We are all going to witness this first hand during the economic recovery phase of the Covid crisis. Just as the infection was spotty at first, so the recovery will be one of pop-up successes and failures.

Our plan is to begin with some of the resource-poorest people on the planet — climate and political refugees — and help them to perform ecosystem regeneration. We will encourage and seed forward-thinking, community-based, regenerative microenterprises to meet their needs into the indefinite future.

We want to reverse climate change and build a new prototype for equalitarian, cooperative, human society at the same time. And, we appreciate your help.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My latest book, The Dark Side of the Ocean, is nearing that moment. Please help if you can.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Great Pause Week 17: Toppling Mount Rushmore

President Cobblepot and his handlers have such an uncanny knack for finding tripwires they could, after the Fall elections, enter successful careers as mine detectors in former war zones. Not merely content to have awakened international support for Black Lives Matter and restored kneeling to popular sporting events, they enlarged the population of aggrieved to include the justice system-abused and Covid-martyred masses of Native Americans, and, by extension, all the indigenous peoples of the world.

There he stood in his pride and glory, Cobblepot at Rushmore for Independence Day, grinning with three scalper, slaver, rapist and jingoist former presidents and a murdered emancipator, telling his faithful — packed shoulder to shoulder in chairs zip-tied together — that protesters are trying to “end America” by engaging in a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” Chug-a-lug.

He was in the Pahá Sápa (Cheyenne: Moʼȯhta-voʼhonáaeva; Hidatsa: awaxaawi shiibisha); the heart of the Earth Mother. He carried neither pipe nor skin, nor was he humble in mien. 

After last week’s post here caused some readers to wonder just how large a chain might be required to topple the Washington Monument (as big as the cross-river chain at West Point, perhaps?), and how many protesters it might take to pull it, we began to consider what kind of demolition might erase four faces from a South Dakota mountain’s skyline.

The oldest mountain range in North America is not the Appalachians. Not the Sierra Nevada. Not the Tetons. It’s the Black Hills. Paha Sapa is relatively small as mountain ranges go — 125 miles (201 km) by 65 miles (105 km). Its stratigraphy is laid out like a dartboard, with an oval dome in the bullseye and rings of different rock types dipping away from the center. The core dome rises 7,244 feet (2,208 m) at Black Elk Peak, with various rock outcrops ranging from 1.8 billion years old near the center to 2.8 billion years old at Bear Mountain. Some high elevations are covered by eroding limestone bearing dinosaur fossils, 20-million-year-old camel bones, and shark’s teeth. Some of the trout stream beds are 10,000 years or younger, formed by glacial melt after the last Ice Age.

Long before the Lakota, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Kiowas and Kiowa-Apaches were pushed westward in the late 18th century by colonial expansion in the East and knock-on migrations of indigenous nations out of the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes, the ultimate masters of Plains warfare, the Sioux, had annually pilgrimaged to the Black Hills like Muslims to Mecca, Jews to the Wailing Wall and Christians to the Vatican for Easter. Amy Corbin writes in her report on the Black Hills for the Sacred Lands Film Project that, “four thousand archaeological sites spanning 12,000 years attest to a long relationship with native people.”

To the Sioux it was too sacred to inhabit. It was the womb of the Earth. It was where the original inhabitants had weathered the last Ice Age, and possibly others before it, living in hundreds of large caves within the mountains. It was where, according to the ancestors, the original people of Earth descended from the spirits of the sky — the star people. This is where in July and August every year hundreds of falling stars each hour link the dual universes of star people riding Comet Swift-Tuttle and humans on the perpendicular orbit of Earth. Each of our peoples, going around the same star, occupy analogous and sometimes interchangeable roles — like Bizarro World in Superman Comics (Htrae, which is “Earth” spelled backwards). We are probably the Bizarro World in this analogy, but the more relevant point is that the Lakota see, in the sacred landscape of the Black Hills, corresponding constellations that join us to the heavens. 

As Leonard Little Finger relates for Cultural Survival Quarterly: 

My grandfather and I are from a sub-band of the Teton, a member of the Nation of the Seven Council Fires. We are called the Mniconjou, or People Who Plant Near the Water. In the 1500s, one of our villages was the location of present day Rapid City along the streams of Mniluzahan Creek, or Rapid Creek, which is today’s northern gateway to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Our family has had a spiritual relationship with this special land for over 500 years.
The Black Hills were recognized as the Black Hills because of the darkness from the distance. The term also referred to a container of meat; in those days people used a box made out of dried buffalo hide to carry spiritual tools, like the sacred pipe, or the various things that were used in prayers or to carry food. That’s the term that was used for the Black Hills: they were a container for our spiritual need as well as our needs of food and water, whatever it is that allows survival.

The story of broken treaties should by now be a familiar one for students of US history. Writing for The National Geographic in 2012, Alexandra Fuller refreshes our memory this way:

Fort Laramie Treaty
The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty guaranteed the Sioux possession of the hills, but after gold was discovered there in 1874, prospectors swarmed in, and the U.S. government quickly seized the land. The Sioux refused to accept the legitimacy of the seizure and fought the takeover for more than a century. On June 30, 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an award of $17.5 million for the value of the land in 1877, along with 103 years’ worth of interest, together totaling $106 million [the amount now exceeds $1.3 billion-ab]. But the Sioux rejected the payment, insisting that the Black Hills would never be for sale.
And then White Plume asked me to consider the seemingly calculated insult of Mount Rushmore. “The leaders of the people who have broken every treaty with my people have their faces carved into our most holy place. What is the equivalent? Do you have an equivalent?” I could offer none. 

But we do have an equivalent response after the toppling of statues to Confederate war heroes. We could carve out the faces the way you remove that tattooed heart with the name of your ex-boyfriend who ran off with your best friend and your favorite party dress. With dynamite.

Little Finger concludes:

The desecration of the Black Hills is indicative of the violation of the sacredness of who we are as a people. The insides of Grandmother Earth are being taken; the atmosphere, the area that’s there to protect us and all things is being destroyed. Earth is our grandmother, as animate as we all are, because she provides us with all of our needs to live. From the time of birth until now I look at that relationship as sacred. When our life ends here on Grandmother Earth, we become as one. This sacredness means that we walk on our ancestors. As Indigenous Peoples we are guided by the spiritualism of greater powers than we humans. We don’t seek equality, we seek justice. This is who we are, and this is where we come from.

There is a phenomenon at play in the social fabric of the world now, brought upon us by the stress of endured quarantine from a nasty, insidious, ubiquitous virus. Many would choose to see this as crisis but I prefer it as opportunity. We are being schooled in the deficiencies of human neurobiology. As apes swinging between trees we could not consider too many branches ahead lest we we lose sight of that required grip immediately next. We have a finely honed discount factor, borne of many encounters with hard ground, and perhaps the lions and tigers waiting there for just such an error of short-term judgment.

But threats like coronavirus force us to extend our horizons by at least a few more chess moves. If it takes from two to twenty-four days for symptoms of Covid to appear after inhaling the CoV-2 virus, we can’t expect to sit in zip-tied chairs and emerge unscathed, even if after a week or more it seems like we just did. Similarly, we cannot avoid looking into the latest pig virus on the oft chance it will not jump to humans. We cannot avoid stockpiling more PPE, or even to begin developing vaccines to it, on that remote prospect. Our horizons have to reach out to more distant branches. They have to do that earlier than we did this time.

The same applies to other threats we have discounted as somehow too distant or vague. The nuclear plant 200 miles from your home melting down and raining fallout into your neighborhood; Siberian wildfires melting so much permafrost that coasts move inland by miles centuries earlier than expected; superstorms borne of your air-conditioner’s refrigerant fluids cascading tornadoes through the Midwest and flooding-out your principal food supply.

Returning the Black Hills to the first nations would do more than tick the anti-racism box. Santee Sioux scholar John LaVelle has proposed a Greater Black Hills National Wildlife Protected Area for the Northern Plains region that could eventually encompass the 58 million acres (23 MHa, or 89,000 square miles, a larger land area than that of 111 present-day countries) ceded in perpetuity to the Sioux by the Ft Laramie Treaty of 1868. This area is of sufficient dimension, if ecologically restored, to recover and repopulate the great North American mid-continental grassland ecosystem managed by wolves, bison, and prairie dogs sequestering vast tons of carbon taken directly from the atmosphere each year and layered into meter-deep topsoil by prairie fire, dung beetles, roots and fungi.

When innovations come along that change the structure of society there is a period of rejection, followed by grudging acceptance, followed by accelerated growth, and then a plateau of accepted normalcy. Children born after the innovation had firmly rooted can barely fathom what it must have been like before then.

Monuments like Mount Rushmore seem to inhabit a safe space of normalcy and acceptance. Annual biker rallies, Harley t-shirts, souvenir mugs. And then, suddenly, the paradigm shifts. Racism is no longer cool. Stomping on indigenous culture is not something to be tolerated. And so, in the blink of an eye, a culture changes. 

For our climate predicament, our biodiversity cataclysm, our population fecundity dilemma, this is a very hopeful and necessary moment. A Great Reset is in the wings. Witness this and tell your grandchildren. You were there at the moment of change. It was the very last chance you were given, and your generation took it.

It starts by giving back the Paha Sapa.


Fifteen issues of Adventure Comics from writer Jerry Siegel and artist John Forte, running from issue #285–299 (June 1961–Aug. 1962).

Corbin, Amy. “History of the Conflict.” Sacred Land Film Project: Black Hills. N.p., 01

LaVelle, John, Rescuing Paha Sapa: Achieving Environmental Justice by Restoring the Great Grasslands and Returning the Sacred Black Hills to the Great Sioux Nation, P., 5 Great Plains Nat. Resources J. 40 (2001)

Little Finger, Leonard, We Walk on Our Ancestors: The Sacredness of the Black Hills, Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, March 2014. — Leonard Little Finger is a respected Lakota elder and the founder-director of Sacred Hoop School, a Lakota language school in Ogalala, South Dakota:

Fuller, Alexandra. In the Shadow of Wounded Knee, The National Geographic, Aug. 2012. 03 Nov. 2012. 

Sundstrom, Linea. Mirror of Heaven: Cross-Cultural Transference of the Sacred Geography of the Black Hills, World Archaeology Sacred Geography 28.2 (Oct 1996): 177–189. JSTOR. Web. 01 Nov. 2012.

If you’d like hearing more, help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My latest book, The Dark Side of the Ocean, is nearing that moment. Please help if you can.




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