Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Great Pause Week 13: Wisdom from a Mouse


mouse

Hi there, it’s your friendly neighborhood lab mouse here. Just to recap for those just joining this conversation, my dad was one of the first lab animals to be genetically engineered to receive SARS-CoV-2, but the scientists doing the engineering were sloppy and did not anticipate the human epigenome they were also transplanting, resulting in Pop having an Ah-ha! moment post-op and bugging out of the lab before he got sliced and diced for science.

I’ve had a few more observations since I last wrote, which are what bring me back this week. Thanks for the space, Albert. Firstly, I notice that most humans are corona-fatigued, bored staying at home, and just want to get back to a “normal” life. While I understand that, I might have to point out that what y’all called normal was pretty unsustainable to begin with, and a reckoning was due. You can try to get ‘normal’ back, but even if you recovered that kind of lifestyle again, it would be short-lived.

Maybe you just don’t fully grasp zoonosis. Viruses are so simple that they don’t need their own body to survive; just short snippets of code. They have circadian rhythms like frogs, crickets, or seven-year locusts — periods of dormancy and rounds of travel. Some viruses that have lived within our mammalian bodies’ genome for millions of years wake up whenever diseases attack us and they stimulate the response that sends special killer cells into the bloodstream to hunt and attack disease cells. Others only wake up during pregnancy to supply a placenta.

Some kinds of viruses don’t need rhythmic cycles. They don’t need a physical form. These disembodied fragments are called transposable elements, or transposons. They are mobile genetic wraiths — sequences of code that physically move in and out of chromosomes. They are sometimes called “jumping genes.” Around 8% of the human genome is made up of viruses, but nearly 50% is made of transposons. Biologist Ben Callif says that “Humans are basically just big piles of viral-like sequences.”

For many years, y’all did not consider these very small parts very important, except perhaps as carriers of disease. You still don’t seem to know they are essential threads in the web of life, on land and in the sea. They are many times more numerous than more complex life forms. 

A pint of crystal clear seawater contains 2 billion viruses. There are 15 times more viruses, for instance, in the ocean than all other types of marine life combined. To count them, you would have to use 30 zeros. If you laid them end to end, it would make a string two hundred times finer than the most delicate spider string, and it would extend out 200 million light-years, passing along the way 40 galaxies as massive as our own Milky Way.

When you add to those viruses the ones floating in air, resting on land, or deep underground, you’ll have to add another zero. You just multiplied the previous number by ten. There are over ten million times more viruses on Earth than there are stars in our entire universe. A single virus, traveling in the wake of a comet, may have brought life to Earth.

Your genome, which can fit into one trillionth of a gram of nucleic acid (as it does in every tissue cell in your body), is 99% identical to a chimpanzee’s. So, technically, it’s a blueprint for building a chimp, with a few minor alterations. One of those lets it do things no monkey would ever do, like drain swamps or cut down whole forests. Your hot-rod monkey has released viruses that should never have been released.

We mice have learned to make our peace with viruses. In the first place, we have been around for at least twice as long as humans have, existing in this form for some 5 million years. Mice and men’s common ancestor looks a lot more like us than like you. But we can still be friends. 

We mice might not even be living in the Western Hemisphere, Pacific islands or tropical Africa had we not voyaged with you. Now mousekind exists pretty much everywhere, thanks to you, and to our ability to genetically adapt to our environment.

The problem is you hairless apes just couldn’t adapt. You had all that fossil sunlight you could pump from the ground and burn to make steel and run cars, and you thought everything belonged to you. You kept having babies even after you knew such a large population could not be sustained with the resources of a single planet. You just figured you would get more planets, or something, I don’t know.
 
Maybe even the collaboration with horses might have been too much horsepower for monkeys, but what you did when you started breaking down the rainforests, the mountaintops, the oceans, and every nook and cranny is, you broke up a lot of very stable and long-term symbiotic connections between viruses and their reservoirs. 

Viruses reproduce within particular hosts, their reservoirs, so they need to remain in places where those hosts live in order to reproduce. It does a virus no good to kill its host, so most natural reservoirs like birds, mice and bats have developed a tolerance. 

Since they have no arms or legs, viruses can only move by blowing on the wind, floating through liquid, or sticking to a surface where they rub off on something passing by. Some years ago a particular virus had a type of fox-bat found in northeastern Australia as its reservoir. At some point, a bat bit a horse and the virus jumped. When it successfully went from hacking the bat’s genetic code to hacking the horse’s genetic code, it was thereafter able to travel wherever the horse went and was not stuck living in a cave or a tree. Later, this same virus jumped again from horses to humans and got called Hendra virus.

Whenever a virus successfully migrates from one reservoir to another, it is called “spillover.” In this example, Hendra virus also infected dogs but was unable to hack their genetic code the way it had bats, horses and humans, so it did not spill over into dogs.

From where do these viruses jump? They jump from animals in which they have long abided, found safety, and occasionally gotten stuck. They jump, that is, from their reservoir hosts. And which animals are those? Some kinds are more deeply implicated than others as reservoirs of the zoonotic viruses that jump into humans. Hantaviruses jump from rodents. Lassa too jumps from rodents. Yellow fever virus jumps from monkeys. Monkeypox, despite its name, seems to jump mainly from squirrels. Herpes B jumps from macaques. The influenzas jump from wild birds into domestic poultry and then into people, sometimes after a transformative stopover in pigs. Measles may originally have jumped into us from domesticated sheep and goats. HIV-1 has jumped our way from chimpanzees. So there’s a certain diversity of origins. But a large fraction of all the scary new viruses I’ve mentioned so far, as well as others I haven’t mentioned, come jumping at us from bats. Hendra: from bats. Marburg: from bats. SARS-CoV: from bats. Rabies, when it jumps into people, comes usually from domestic dogs — because mad dogs get more opportunities than mad wildlife to sink their teeth into humans — but bats are among its chief reservoirs. Duvenhage, a rabies cousin, jumps to humans from bats. Kyasanur Forest virus is vectored by ticks, which carry it to people from several kinds of wildlife, including bats. Ebola, very possibly: from bats. Menangle: from bats. Tioman: from bats. Melaka: from bats. Australian bat lyssavirus, it may not surprise you to learn, has its reservoir in Australian bats. And though the list already is long, a little bit menacing, and in need of calm explanation, it wouldn’t be complete without adding Nipah, one of the more dramatic RNA viruses to emerge within recent decades, which leaps into pigs and via them into humans: from bats.

— David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (pp. 313–314). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Whenever a virus successfully hacks a new genome, several outcomes become possible. Sometimes it is better than the previous reservoir, so the new home becomes an amplifier of the virus. Sometimes the association is so lethal it destroys the reservoir, taking the virus with it. 

Whenever a spillover happens, the genetic code of the virus diverges 30 to 40 percent from the original to adapt to the ecologic niche of its new reservoir. Because of this, it cannot “spill back,” or return to its original reservoir once it has made the leap, although the original virus may still keep some population in the original.

The original reservoir host of ebolavirus was chimpanzees. It tried spilling to gorillas but it killed whole tribes so gorillas were a “dead-end host,” as distinct from “reservoir host,” for ebolaviruses. Spilling over into humans, it had an amplifier, although the infection was fatal to its new host more than half the time. Humans were mobile. Since one human could infect another, through direct contact with bodily fluids, the disease spread in Equatorial Africa, but because it was so lethal, it couldn’t keep going through many successive cases or cover great distances quickly. Isolation wards, masks, gloves, and disposable needles are adequate to end outbreaks.

A different example us eastern equine encephalitis. It’s been around since 1831 when Massachusetts farmers discovered previously healthy horses lying on their flanks, moving their legs in swimming motions and then expiring, violently. Now, with sprawling suburbs encroaching on swamps and climate change’s milder winters and intense summers, EEE-carrying mosquitoes are humming beyond Massachusetts, to Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Michigan. The case fatality rate is 40 percent in humans. 

David Quammen says, “Every spillover is like a sweepstakes ticket, bought by the pathogen, for the prize of a new and more grandiose existence. It’s a long-shot chance to transcend the dead end. To go where it hasn’t gone and be what it hasn’t been. Sometimes the bettor wins big.” Other times, it is the end of their line.

For centuries, perhaps millennia, the EEE virus had a symbiotic relationship with migratory songbirds. They were immune to it, but in swampland they could be bitten by a mosquito, the Culiseta melanura, that had a limited flight range of about two miles and fed almost exclusively on bird blood. The birds were the reservoir and the mosquito was a virus vector that kept it moving from bird to bird and reproducing. 

Sometimes, on rare occasions, the infected birds were bitten by Coquillettidia perturbans, a mosquito that takes blood meals from both birds and mammals. That kind of mosquito is a “bridging vector.” It passed EEE to horses, probably some mice, and later humans. But once the virus left the swamps and reached these mammals, it killed them. That’s a dead end. EEE cannot be transmitted from horse to horse or human to human without a bridging vector. It did not spill over. 

Viruses do not have any way to travel other than by their hosts. If they spill over from a bat to a mosquito they might travel no more than a few miles and never leave that local ecology. But sometimes they get lucky and spill over into a horse or a human and find they can transfer to other horses or humans. As a horse, it can travel much more than a swamp mosquito but still less than a human, with a few exceptions. As a human — or as an exceptional horse like a racehorse or polo pony — it could be in China one day, Europe the next, and the United States the day after that. Traveling in water droplets from respiration or flatulence, it can jump from host to host everywhere it goes, it can go nearly anywhere, including around the Moon, as it did on Apollo 13.

So in a way, spilling over from a bat to a human-like SARS-CoV-2 is like winning a jackpot. This little spikeball might have spent 10,000 years in that same cave in China. How boring was that? In just six months it jumped to every corner of the world and is still doubling the size of its reservoir every few weeks. Do you think CoV-2 is likely to give that up any time soon and just mutate into something harmless? I doubt it.

You can go ahead and keep looking for a vaccine, and who knows, maybe you will win the lottery. But that’s a long shot. RNA viruses such as coronavirus mutate too fast to be vaccinated against.

What really needs to happen is you need to learn to stop draining swamps, cutting down rainforests, removing mountaintops, mining the oceans, and eating every bat from every nook and cranny of any old cave. Seriously. You need to control the size of your population and get a handle on its appetites. If you want to solve problems like viral pandemics and climate chaos, you will need to learn to attack causes, not symptoms. 

Because if you think this coronavirus is bad, I can assure you there are much worse still out there, just waiting for a chance to leap. The cause of this pandemic, and probably the next, is human spillover into viral habitats.


If you like hearing from the son of a lab rat, 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.

I made a correction to the count in the title this week. I went into corona lockdown March 15, and the first journal entry, titled The Great Pause, was published March 22. The Great Pause Week One was posted March 29, which was actually the end of week two. To correct for these dates, this post is skipping 12 and going straight to week 13.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Great Pause Week 11: Son of a Lab Rat




My dad was literally a lab rat. Grandpa too. But dad was genetically manipulated by CRISPR to develop a coronavirus vaccine. They inserted human genes that allowed the SARS-CoV-2 virus to move by forced zoonosis from its human reservoir into mice, so my dad was the first of our line to be a humanized mouse.

In their rush to find a vaccine, they took a lot of risks and they didn’t really know what that genetic change would do to my dad, apart from giving him the virus. They didn’t adequately test that the new DNA wasn’t recombinant, for instance, or I wouldn’t be here. They also didn’t anticipate the epigenetic facility of the genes they were transplanting.

Dad didn’t get administered the virus, fortunately. He “woke up” and escaped before then. I don’t really know if I am vulnerable to it, but dad met mom and mom had me, along with a dozen brothers and sisters, and so far none of us have gotten it.

I have to say there are some handicaps. Like, try using this keyboard when you have fingers that are this size. Apps like Dictate don’t recognize mouse squeaks. Running from key to key is a good workout but infuriatingly slow, so this post will be brief. I found a tablet was the easiest for me to use — fewer mistakes than the phone and the side buttons are a softer touch. Wish we still had the old-style Blackberrys. That would have made this easy.

With the mistake they made with dad, you have to wonder what other CRISPR-enabled errors might have been introduced in that vaccine hunt. They are still looking for one, hundreds of labs, you know. I could design something like that in my sleep. Some of those guys looking are not even supervised or following any rules, they are just after the big payoff. I have no intention of helping them. The sooner their kind dies off, the better, IMHO.

The objective, scientific realities of this world seem to me to have always been in conflict with the pre-existing, theocratic, belief-based, subjective human way of seeing the world. These idiots constantly hung on to superstition and rejected good science as heresy, or “fake news.” Look at Darwin’s experience. Or the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology — ie: “the primary function of the genome is to provide instructions for assembling proteins.” Laughable. Misdirected and counterproductive memes have continued to be passed along by folklore and religious tradition as if Newton and Descartes have never existed.

An objective view of “reality,” produced by empirical evidentiary processes, has yet to replace these now neurologically-hard-wired and culturally-embedded behaviors with a comparable overarching concept that unifies thought processes the same way — imperceptible to individual human consciousness, like the unconscious emotions that motivate them, or the psychic forces that synchronize human thought, purpose, and action by gestalt — and the morphogenic fields that are sub- the thresholds of consciousness to humans. Trapped in their swamp of mythological thought, rational behavior will continue to elude them. We are best rid of the lot of them. The sooner the better.

According to their own surveys from 1997 to 2009, 2 percent of scientists and 31% of the general US population agreed with the demonstrably false statement that “humans and other living things have existed in their current form[s] since the beginning of time.”

Humans, by and large, seem likewise unshakable in their beliefs that skin color, religious affiliation, or ethnic-origins confer separate forms of intellect, admirable attributes, or propensities towards immoral or antisocial behaviors. They are now bound by their own ancestral epigenome-constructing choices to an irrational fealty to family, clan, tribe, whether lineal or artificial, and will even go so far as to sacrifice their own existence (and even the existence of their entire species) out of misplaced loyalty to some nonsensical or indefensibly immoral tribe.

I honestly don’t see a way out of this other than via CRISPR babies, which humans would never allow, even in China. Maybe the evolutionary leap taken by Pop and me will finally provide a way to salvage the fate of the Earth by replacing humans entirely.

If I get another chance to post to this blog, I will, but that’s it for now. This post was a bigger workout for me than any stair machine or squirrel wheel you might have. I need a shower and to rehydrate. Later, people.





If you like hearing from the son of a lab rat, 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. 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, May 31, 2020

The Great Pause Week 10: President Jill Stein


Late in the afternoon on January 24, after Chinese President Xi Jinping closed down 15 cities, locking 60 million people into their homes, and ordered the building of entire new hospitals, US President Jill Stein, M.D. convened an emergency meeting in the Cabinet Room at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Attending were her National Security Advisor Susan Rice, the Director of National Intelligence, the Attorney General, the Surgeon General, the Director of the CDC, the Administrator of FEMA, and secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury, Commerce, HHS, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs. Also invited but not attending were the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader, both of whom were boycotting the White House.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Great Pause Week 9: México's Seppuku

The 40 crematoria in México City are working night shifts but can’t keep up with the flow of Covid bodies arriving from hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and retirement enclaves. Television footage shows the deliveries of bodies going non-stop as the country’s death toll continues to climb. The actual mortality rate could be five times higher than official figures suggest.

“The ovens never stop burning,” said a Sky News report, as the footage showed thick black smoke billowing from “where they are cremating bodies on an industrial scale.” 

In the rural Mexican south, where I’ve quarantined myself these past nine weeks, the spread of Covid is distinctly slower. The indigenous communities here in the Yucatán are different than you’ll find in other places. The first spoken language in most homes is a modern extension of the local vernacular used pre-Conquest with roots in Nabʼee Mayaʼ Tzij (“the old Maya Language”) extending back some 5000 years. 

Here the names of the towns are written in mayab tʼàan. “Mayan” is the native tongue of the majority of México’s 6 million indigenous speakers, compared, by way of reference, to 170,000 native Navajo and 30,000 native Sioux speakers. Of course, “Mayan” is not homogenous like Welsh in Wales or Maori in Aotearoa. Guatemala formally recognizes 21 Mayan languages by name and Mexico recognizes eight more just here in the Yucatán. While most Mayan dialects are robust, of the 287 individual languages once present in México, four are already extinct, 87 are in trouble and some 60 are recently departed or dying.

This part of the world was slow to give up its old ways. Climate change and capital accumulation by hierarchies augured cyclical collapse, centennially or millennially. Mass migrations from failed cities to the rural countryside — retreating to the sustainability of small plot agroforestry and integrated animal husbandry — was a viable strategy that repeatedly preserved both culture and language. The Classic Era came and went but Maya population did not decline, it concentrated, then dispersed, then concentrated again. As my lifelong friend, Brother Martin, pointed out in a recent comment to one of my posts:

Sunflowers and salamanders do not practice “capitalism.” They practice “capital accumulation,” the amassing of energy and resources in order for growth and renewal to take place. What those of us who decry “capitalism” are against is not “capital accumulation,” but, to paraphrase Prof. Richard Wolff, a societal organizing principle that gives priority to the protection of money and property, and to the humans who claim ownership of large quantities of money and property. 

In the case of the Maya city-state empires, what was fragile — both socially and ecologically — were concentrations of wealth and power in the hands of a select few, who inevitably mismanaged both. Abuses can still happen at a decentralized scale but consequences are more limited and the feedback more immediate. Decentralized systems tend to be anti-fragile. We are seeing that now with the impact of Covid on cities and in the ecological rejuvenation of remote natural areas.

Maybe periodic subjugation and collapse predisposed the Mexican character towards a rebel pride. The street I live on is named for the shipwrecked Spaniard, Gonzalo Guerrero. According to fellow shipwrecked sailor, Gerónimo de Aguilar, Guerrero “went native,” married native women, wore traditional native apparel, and taught effective military defense tactics against the Spanish. Maya resistance, in small bands, selected dense forests and impassible swampland to lay in ambush for the invaders and then fade away before they took casualties. It was a tactic that later worked well for Geronimo and Cochise. The Spanish brought armored Andalusian warhorses, Toledo broadswords, halberds, crossbows, matchlocks and light artillery. Maya warriors fought with flint-tipped spears, bows and arrows, and stones, and wore padded cotton armor, but their guerrilla tactics succeeded and their losses were few, until epidemics of European plagues cut their ranks and reduced them to poverty. The last independent and unconquered native bastion, at Nojpetén, surrendered to the Spanish in 1697.

By the early 19th century the Spanish Empire had turned the peninsula into large maize and cattle plantations and exporting sawmills, with luxurious haciendas tended by mestizo slaves. If you look at the printed currency or the names of streets today, they tell a different story. One name and image frequently seen is that of Benito Juarez, the first mestizo president and a populist reformer. France invaded México in 1861 on a pretext of collecting defaulted loans from Juarez’s government but really had been put up to it by Mexican right-wing interests seeking to restore Spanish-style monarchy. They set Maximilian I on the Mexican throne. 

The United States, engaged in its own civil war at that time (1861–65), did not attempt to counter the French, as the Monroe Doctrine would demand. Cinco de Mayo (May 5) celebrates the day México kicked France’s ass. That was lucky for Lincoln, because France had planned from its base in México to enter the American Civil War in support of the Confederacy and the plantation system. That plan was put awry by the Mexicans. 

A Restored Republic (1867–76) brought Benito Juárez back as president. Then his successor was overthrown by a military coup that lasted until 1910 when Porfirio Díaz’s clearly fraudulent reelection touched off the Mexican Revolution. The war killed a tenth of the nation’s population (much as Covid may) and drove many Mexicans across the border into the United States. It also launched the t-shirt careers of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.

Cinco de Mayo was lucky for Lincoln, because France had planned to enter the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy.

Following the revolution, the 1917 Constitution gave rights to labor unions and worker’s cooperatives, instituted land reform, breaking up many of the old hacienda relics, and began neoliberal economic policies. From 1929, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) controlled most national and state politics, and among other reforms, nationalized the railroads and oil industry in the 1930s. That brought about another popular name for places, “Lázaro Cárdenas.” General Cárdenas created the Partido de la Revolución Mexicana (PRM), giving representation to the poor, unionized workers, professionals, and the Mexican army. Cárdenas’ co-optation of the army was a deliberate move to prevent more coups d’état.


Early in his presidency, Cárdenas brought foreign oil companies into collective bargaining with the labor unions. When they hit an impasse, the government’s Council of Conciliation and Arbitration supported the workers. The companies refused to pay living wages so Cárdenas cancelled their concessions and the oil companies sued. The Supreme Court, relying on the 1917 Constitution, ruled for the workers and the government. Emboldened by this ruling, Cárdenas nationalized the assets of the oil companies and formed Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex). The foreign oil companies destroyed what drill rigs and refineries they could, took all their engineers with them, and left. 

In 1938, the British severed diplomatic relations and launched an economic boycott of México. President Franklin Roosevelt was tempted to do the same, beginning with closing Texas refineries to Mexican crude and mustering troops along the border. In 1939 Cárdenas sent Roosevelt the first sample of Mexican-distilled petroleum. Needing Mexico and its oil for the war, Roosevelt relented and reopened trade.

Perhaps most significantly, Cárdenas began transforming his newfound oil wealth into programs of public works; building roads, rural clinics, and schools. Cárdenas died of cancer in 1970 at the age of 75. It was 5 years later that the shrimper, Rudecindo Cantarell, reported to Pemex that his net had gummed up with oil while fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. The fisherman had discovered an oilfield second only to Ghawar in Saudi Arabia in its vast reserves.

México used the oil wealth of the Cantarell field, and whatever it could borrow from international development banks, to create its massive tourist and manufacturing industries and begat the Mexican Miracle (although it is commonly said by Mexican construction workers, who are paid in cash, that money laundering for drug cartels played no small part).

Cancún was transformed from a beach at the edge of a jungle into a destination for hundreds of daily passenger jets dumping European kitesurfers and co-ed spring-breakers into its turquoise bay. Factories for automotive and machine parts and cheap furniture bloomed along the Rio Grande. México lifted itself from poverty.

All those tourist dollars changed something else, too. Once México was known as one of the most important food producing countries of the world. Today México imports all of the principal crops that its population eats: beans, corn, rice, wheat and vegetables. It has become a service and manufacturing economy, a.k.a. neoliberal export capitalism.

In modern México, the periodic famines that Rudecindo Cantarell and his parents knew and expected are hard to imagine today. Food is so cheap, plentiful, and subsidized that obesity is a greater concern. All of this might be well and good if it were sustainable, but México’s reliance on endless-growth economics now hinges upon an ancient storehouse of energy that was once the forests and shallow seas of Pangea before the Chicxalub meteor struck, and on the unique geological conditions that allowed that sunlight to be preserved until now.

The survival of life on earth depends on México’s dark fossil sunlight never seeing the light of day.

In 2004, Pemex was pleased to announce that its oil production would continue for many years to come. Pemex’s head of exploration and production, Luis Ramirez, was quoted in the daily newspaper El Universal as saying that Pemex had mapped seven new offshore blocks with large pools of oil and natural gas, more even than México’s proven plus probable reserves at that time.

“This will put us on a par with reserves levels of the big players like Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait or Iran,” Ramirez said. “What’s more, we would be in a position to reach production levels like those of Saudi Arabia, which produces 7.5 million barrels per day, or Russia, which produces 7.4 million.” 

In grifting, this would be called the long con. There were no proven reserves of that scale, only some prospects for exploration. But Ramirez, the con artist, had baited the hook. 

The mark, México’s president, was drawn in on the promise of vast, easy wealth for his nation. As in all cons, the mark was hooked by his own greed. The grifter then asked for help to provide tangible proof that the wealth was there. Outside investment would be needed to drill exploration wells more than a mile deep in the Gulf. Just a few billion up front. But the good news? No money need come from México, the grifter said.

At a hushed-up retreat at an old hacienda in Yucatán, George W. Bush leaned on Felipe Calderón to go along. 

Mexican Presidents Vincente Fox, Felipe Calderón, Enrique Peña Nieto, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obredor, despite committing to climate protection, all fell for the lure of easy money. They began auctioning off blocks of offshore leases for exploration by anyone with the technology and money required. AMLO, the son of a petroleum worker, opposed these sales as a betrayal of Cárdenas’ memory. He wanted more wells, climate be damned. He just didn’t want foreign companies to control them. 

AMLO’s political party, MORENA, (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional), a Cardenist, Juarist revival, successfully blocked any move by his predecessors towards foreign investment in the National Assembly. As the giant Cantarell field went into steep production decline during the Peña-Nieto years, Pemex lacked the capital and expertise to explore for comparable replacements, oil revenues fell, and a financial crisis emerged. The Mexican government relied desperately on 61% of Pemex’s gross oil income to balance its spending and attract foreign investors for a multiplicity of large projects.

Its wells gone dry, by 2019, Pemex imported roughly 70% of its daily gasoline consumption, mostly from the US. In each of the last two quarters leading up to its Covid moment in January 2020, Pemex posted a net loss of more than 80 billion pesos ($4 billion dollars).

As long as oil prices were high and Mexico could still scrape enough off the bottom to keep exporting, the situation was manageable. A typical offshore project in the Gulf of Mexico has a breakeven production cost between $40 and $80 per barrel and, having crushed its labor unions, Pemex could, in the choicest spots, bring up oil for half that. But then came a cold, dark January. Brinkmanship between Saudi Arabia and Russia over OEC quotas killed not just the fracking and tar sands boom in the US and Canada, but a lot of oil-exporting countries’ entire economies. A negative oil price stranded crude on tankers and in tank farms everywhere and forced companies to massively flare unstoppable natural gas wells and shut down pipelines. 

Last week Mexican crude went for $6.55 per barrel in international markets, according to Pemex. The company’s Moody’s and S&P ratings have been downgraded to junk status, below investment grade. Fortunately, Pemex undertook a complex hedging operation that allows it to keep selling some of its oil at its settled futures price, $49 a barrel — rather than $6.55. That’s bought AMLO a little more time, but apparently he doesn’t yet recognize he’s been conned. He is still throwing good money after bad.

AMLO has launched a Pemex rescue attempt. He’s poured tax revenues totaling 113 billion pesos ($5.1 billion dollars) into ramping up production at Pemex’s remaining oil fields. At the same time, he’s shut off 15% of his government’s income by eliminating taxes and tariffs on Pemex of 65 billion pesos ($3 billion) per year. Lastly, he’s prohibited renewable energy grid-ties, killing massive new projects for wind and solar around the country (a move that was later overturned in court).

The son of the oil worker has long opposed renewables, claiming them intermittent and unreliable. México has a total installed capacity of 6.2 GWe of wind and 5.5 GWe of solar. The average electrical generating costs for México’s state-owned utility, CFE, are above $120/MWh for coal, diesel and fuel oil and below $20/MWh for grid-tied renewables. 

Pemex typically gets a boost in revenues when it exports natural gas to meet the summer cooling demands of the US Southwest, reversing its trade deficit for gasoline and diesel imports and turning a nifty profit. One could call it ironic that the worse global warming gets, the more money México makes off its fracked gas sales, but ironic here is a euphemism for evil. 

As June, 2020 approaches, Covid demand destruction is poised to wreck that pattern, but by how much is unknown. The weather will still be hot. Residences will still need to be cooled. The question is how much commercial space that Covid-assailed chain retailers like malls and hospitality providers will be willing to spend money on to keep cool.

When Covid first arrived in México in January, AMLO compared it to the seasonal flu and said that with luck and a faith in God his country would weather the impact. He abjured social distancing, quarantines and other mitigation measures and directed his agency heads to do the same. Casualties were downplayed, and then hidden. Testing and contact-tracing were virtually non-existent.

Like many other governments, México seemed to rely on the myth of herd immunity, which doesn’t work for coronaviruses because of the mutation rate — RNA transcriptions don’t get the molecular fact-checking that DNA viruses do. Relying on herd immunity is a prescription for infections in the billions and deaths in the hundreds of millions. 

Ignoring the unique lethality of Covid comes at a cost, as the United States has been learning, although that news has yet to reach regions that are only barely afflicted yet and prematurely reopening. S&P Global Ratings forecast México’s GDP to have the largest contraction of all Latin America’s major economies. I’m willing to bet Brazil will give them a run for their money.

Will tourists be returning to México? Not any time soon, at least not in large numbers. Will manufacturing resume along the Rio Grande? Again, not very quickly, and then only anemically at first. México is going to have to face some difficult choices soon. It needs to go back to being a food-producing country. It needs to restore its lost natural resources and protect what remains. It needs to remember what its indigenous ancestors did when the climate changed, civil collapse came, or invasion threatened. They dispersed and downsized. They developed appropriate strategies and tactics. They went back to tree crops, chickens and pigs. They self-isolated. And because of that, they are still here today.

The Mayan traditional milpa rotation system, by converting annual photosynthetic slash to biochar fertility, drew carbon from the atmosphere and locked it safely away for millennia, cooling the climate.

If México actually took that path— to, for instance, abandon its sinking, stinking, blighted District Federal and let the great Lake Texcoco refill its original mountain basin, recover the chinampas of Zumpango, Xolchimilco and Chalco, and reforest the volcanic highlands — it would accomplish more than merely to avert the political collapse its present trajectory augurs. It would set an example for its neighbors and the rest of the world for how to get out of this century alive.


You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed, especially at this time when I am quarantined far from home. You are how we make this happen. 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 are able. Thank you.

當人類被關在籠内,地球持續美好,所以,給我們的教訓是:
人類毫不重要,空氣,土壤,天空和流水没有你們依然美好。
所以當你們走出籠子的時候,請記得你們是地球的客人,不是主人。

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Great Pause Week 8: Deja Vú


15 years ago this month my Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook went to press on Gabriola Island, British Columbia. As I look back now, it is hard to escape how clear the advice was then and how much better we would all be if more had followed it. Toilet tissue would not have replaced the dollar as US species. Shuttered retail stores would be unimportant. At the end of that book I wrote:

Like many islanders the world over, Cretans have a wonderful ability to blend nature into their stories. Take the tale of Icarus.

Icarus

In the Cretan legend, Daedalus was a famous Athenian architect who was invited by Minos, King of Knossos in 2000 BCE, to come to Crete to build a labyrinth. When Daedalus finished, Minos decided that rather than pay him, he would imprison him in the labyrinth to see how difficult it really was to escape. Using wax and feathers, Daedalus built two sets of wings, one for himself and the other for his son, Icarus. They escaped the labyrinth and flew off toward Athens, but during the flight the foolish boy flew higher and higher until the sun melted the wax that held his wings together. He suffered, to use the terms of the nuclear power industry, an “energetic disassembly.” Icarus fell into the Aegean and perished. 

The ancient story was about hubris — it reminded its listeners that we should never leave the power of nature too far removed from our planning. Failing to observe the constraints of gravity, sunlight, and the frailty of material things, Icarus was certain to fall. 

Today our world has begun to resemble something out of Amazing Science Fiction. Ancient pharaohs could not conceive of the wealth and power that the average Kuwaiti or Kiwi now takes for granted. But beneath the surface, our hubris is all too evident. 

Nature has always sustained us. We inhabit a thin film of biological activity in the cold depths of space, many light years from any other star system. No other planet in our own solar system is hospitable to life. Our own planet’s biosphere is thinner, by proportion, than the dew on an apple. We are one large solar flare, one errant asteroid, one mutant gene, or one nuclear winter away from extinction. 

Looking around, we should be amazed and reverential that we have been given paradise for the span of a lifetime. Instead, we are collectively polluting, over-consuming, and wasting it to death. By any reasonable index — diversity of species, soil productivity, fresh water, forest cover, carbon in the atmosphere, ice over the poles — we are squandering our inheritance at unprecedented rates. 

James Lovelock, who, with Lynn Margulis, popularized the Gaia hypothesis, which posits that our planet’s biosphere is a living and self-regulating organism, has recently come out with dire warnings of pending Earth changes. Lovelock says that “we are in a fool’s climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.” 

If you give Lovelock’s predictions credence, your grandchildren’s survival boils down to one of three strategies: migrate away from the equator and plan to cope with the rising tide of millions of your fellow refugees; go mobile, follow the weather, and trust you will find safe places to set up camp when you need to; or shelter-in-place, nourishing your familiar ecosystems as best you are able, and build communities of like-minded people for shared defense, soil-building, and survival. 

We are doubtless well beyond carrying capacity already. World population, which has already doubled twice in my lifetime, is headed for 8 or 9 billion by mid-century, even if fertility were to be held to sum zero: 1.4 births per couple. Half a child more and we are looking at 18 billion. 

For thousands of years we have imagined the Earth as the source of fertility, nurturing humanity. To ancient Greeks, Gaia was Mother Nature. In the Americas her name combines Pacha (Quechua for “change, epoch”) and Mama (“mother”). To the Norse she was Jord, the goddess of Earth, who entrusted her bounty to Idunn, the goddess of youth and springtime. In India she was Kali. Kali is a particularly appropriate goddess for our times because in her mad dancing, disheveled hair, and eerie howl there is a world reeling, careening out of control. The world is created and destroyed in Kali’s wild dancing; redemption comes only when we realize that we are invited to take part in her dance, to yield to the frenzied beat, to find her rhythm.

Peak oil [or Pandemic] may be the trigger for a global economic depression that lasts for many decades. Or it may not. It may plunge us into violent anarchy and military rule. Or it may not. But if peak oil [pandemic] doesn’t wake us up to the precariousness of our condition, divorced from our roots in the soil and the forest, annihilating the evolutionary systems that sustain us and replacing them with brittle, artificial, plastic imitations, what will? What will it take? 

We have gradually obtained more and more creature comforts since emerging from a world of ice 20,000 years ago. Since that time, our food supply, housing, mobility, and quality of life have gradually improved, extending our life spans and enabling us to have larger families. It was only a short time ago, two centuries at most, that we fell into our energy addiction and started down a path to ruin. Peak oil [Pandemic] is an opportunity to pause, to think through our present course, and to adjust to a saner path for the future. We had best face facts: we really have no choice. 

Peak oil [Pandemic] is a horrible predicament. It is also a wonderful opportunity to do a lot better. Let’s not squander this moment. This will be the Great Change. 


PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH PLUM CAKE

Serves 8 

2 cups molasses
1 cup milk or soymilk 
2 eggs, beaten, or substitute 
4 Tbsp flaxseed meal whipped in 1/3 cup water 
1 tsp nutmeg, grated 
1 tsp ground allspice 
1 tsp cinnamon 
1 cup plum preserves or fresh ripe plums, peeled 
1⁄2 cup raisins 
1⁄2 cup currants 
1⁄2 pound chopped candied lemon rind 
About 2 inches of a vanilla bean, split 
A few black peppercorns 
1 1⁄2 cups pastry flour 
2 cups butter, cut small 
2 1⁄4 cups 80-proof brandy or cognac 

Combine all except last 3 ingredients in large pot, bring to a simmer, and cook 1 hour. Preheat oven to 375°F. Add last 3 ingredients and stir well, then pour into baking pans and bake for 30 minutes.


You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed, especially at this time when I am quarantined far from home. You are how we make this happen. 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, May 10, 2020

The Great Pause Week 7: Coping with a Nuclear Infection



Back in Week Two, we began warning of the danger of cascades across multiple fault lines, beyond the single threat everyone is now so focused upon. Some people think the giant Asian murder hornets now ravaging honeybee nests fit that description, but what is frightening to me is the neglect of massively destructive time-bombs carelessly designed to depend on pandemic-obsoleted systems for their care and feeding, each of them carrying, as if by nefarious design, a type of “Dead Man’s Switch” set to detonate if those systems fail. There are many, but let’s examine just one.

In the atomic archipelago there are 450 commercial reactors, untold military production facilities, submarines and carriers, research reactors, and thousands of unmediated and temporary dump sites. 

In response to the CoV-19 contagion, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has ordered plants across the country to cut their normal maintenance schedules and reduce the number of personnel on work shifts to avoid spreading infection. In Pennsylvania, a month-long scheduled refueling was rushed to get underway before the lockdowns, and was completed in record time. 

“I am concerned with Exelon & Limerick Nuclear Generating Station’s handling of the scheduled refueling — which has required bringing in workers from across the country during this pandemic.” 

— U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District PA. 

Arriving on site at the end of March, workers at Limerick expressed terror at the crowded working conditions. On April 1, Exelon confirmed two cases of CoV-19 among the workforce. By April 8, three had tested positive and those the infected were in close contact with — 44 workers in all — were quarantined. Of those, 23 showed symptoms by April 8

Limerick is one of more than 30 reactors nationwide that are scheduled for refueling and maintenance outages this spring. Exelon said, “We brought in 20 modular office space trailers and hired around-the-clock monitors who coach and correct workers to enforce our expectations,” but workers described being packed “elbow to elbow” into training rooms and computer labs with no social distancing in place. “Being put at risk like this makes us mad,” one worker told the Pottsdown Mercury.

“I’m in a constant state of paranoia. In my opinion, it’s just a complete breeding ground, a cesspool for this,” another worker told the newspaper. At least 1,400 workers went on site for the refueling project.

Of course, none of these workers would rush their work or cut corners to be out of there sooner, right? So we can assume the work will be of the best quality and Limerick will be safe to run on its new fuel — which may have come from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads — for many more years.

County commissioners said they first learned about “a long-scheduled maintenance operation” at the Limerick plant on March 16 and demanded to see Exelon’s pandemic response site plan. 

Say what? Pandemic response what? Was that ever required in the licensing process? Uhhhh, no.

County officials concluded Exelon’s plan was not adequate for the pandemic and asked Exelon to postpone the refuel until such time as the disease burden from the virus was lower in Montgomery and Chester counties.

Exelon instead moved the April start-date up to March 27 and added a larger number of contractors — 1400 out-of-state “jumpers,” who can get up to a year’s allowed dose of radiation in one shift — in preparation for the refueling. 

Exelon’s website said the company was taking special precautions: 

  • Sick, symptomatic or high-risk workers were and are not allowed on site.
  • Limiting off-shift travel to essential paths only; to-and-from work to home or hotel.
schoolbus seating

  • Limiting all off-site gatherings and abide by current social distancing guidelines as outlined by the CDC. 
  • Utilize Limerick’s on-site cafeteria’s “grab-and-go” meals as often as possible and avoid eating in groups. 
  • Use mobile delivery apps with “no-contact” drop-off options to hotel rooms. 
  • Sanitize all personal belongings; clothes, phone, keys, credit cards, glasses, shoes, etc. 
  • Limiting off-shift travel to home and work whenever possible and avoiding off-site gatherings. 
  • Washing hands frequently while off-duty and sanitizing personal belongings like clothes, cell phones, keys, etc.
  • Wherever employees might congregate, we’ve painted spacing dots on sidewalks and floors to keep workers 6 feet apart. 
  • Wherever possible, we’ve released employees to work from home and staggered shifts to eliminate crowded turnovers.

“They were not implementing social distancing at all. They were packing 100 people into a classroom. It was crazy. They were running out of hand sanitizer. Stuff wasn’t being wiped down,” one contractor told the newspaper.

“People are starting to get nervous now. I am terrified. I have trouble sleeping and have crazy anxiety,” said another.

Montgomery County Commission Chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh said she was “deeply concerned” to learn that a number of the now-estimated 1,400 contract workers were staying at AirBnBs, private homes, campsites, hotels and other rental units in the Tri-county region. “I have a lot of concern. As we pointed out from the beginning, they were coming into an area of community spread here in Montgomery County. It puts at risk the people in our community.…”

According to Paul Gunter, Director of the Reactor Oversight Project at Beyond Nuclear, Limerick is not an isolated example. “The NRC will also allow nuclear utilities to require their control room operators, onsite security forces, fire brigades and other critical site personnel to work substantially longer, fatiguing shifts,” he said.

In anticipation of more and more workers falling ill to the debilitating virus, the NRC and industry are collaborating to relax “fitness for duty” licensing requirements meant to prevent the over-fatigue of operators and other critical plant workers, including security. 

“Nuclear plant operators on extended 12-hour shifts, who can now be assigned to work two consecutive 84-hour weeks, will suffer excessive fatigue,” Gunter said. “This not only compromises their immune systems, but makes catastrophic mistakes more likely.” The catastrophes at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were made worse by operator fatigue and error. 

“It is not hard to imagine the level of chaos that would ensue should a nuclear accident occur during the current coronavirus crisis,” Gunter said. 

“Emergency preparedness plans are already inadequate, but the prospect of a mandatory mass evacuation at a time like this is an impossible choice,” he said. “It is the duty of the NRC and FEMA to ensure workable emergency preparedness plans and procedures are in place before restarting any of the reactors currently refueling.”

Beyond Nuclear recommends strategically powering down some reactors in areas where there is reduced demand induced by the pandemic (and pre-pandemic) excess regional generating capacity. The workforces at shuttered reactors could then supplement those over-stretched at reactors still operating.

Yes, it is not hard to imagine the level of chaos that would ensue should a nuclear accident occur during the current coronavirus crisis. But what about a dozen such accidents? Two dozen? What happens when the crew of a nuclear aircraft carrier become too indisposed and fevered to control their power plant? At the present time only one US Navy Carrier remains at sea. All the rest have been docked due to CoV-19 epidemics onboard.

What happens when remediation work at leaking nuclear sites in Hanford, Oak Ridge and scores of other places is suspended? 

In the early days of the Manhattan Project the teasing out of a plutonium chain reaction was called “tickling the dragon’s tail.” As the global economy goes onto a ventilator, another dragon awakens.

Wallace Chomsky quote
Add caption

Nuclear energy exposes a flaw in the 20th century’s drive for profitable commercial technology over social well-being. My friend Alan Graf, a fellow retired lawyer, put it this way:

There is no dispute that the production of nuclear power will kill people, perhaps thousands over generations. But the out-front societal rationalization has always been that nukes will create so much energy that the benefit to society outweighs the deaths that will be the result.
The same philosophy, on steroids, is now being used to justify a “reopening.” 
And the push will get stronger and stronger. If no vaccine or cure comes about, you will hear and see the rationale that millions of deaths are the price we have to pay to keep society open for the majority of citizens. The Dumpster is already saying this in so many words… killing 5 to 10 percent of the population to keep the other 90% going is ok. 

Can a society sustain itself on that kind of rationale? Franklin Roosevelt, in his second inaugural, January 20, 1937, thought not: 

We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world. 
This new understanding undermines the old admiration of worldly success as such. We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life. 
In this process evil things formerly accepted will not be so easily condoned. Hard-headedness will not so easily excuse hardheartedness. We are moving toward an era of good feeling. But we realize that there can be no era of good feeling save among men of good will. 
***
Many voices are heard as we face a great decision. Comfort says, “Tarry a while.” Opportunism says, “This is a good spot.” Timidity asks, “How difficult is the road ahead?” 
True, we have come far from the days of stagnation and despair. Vitality has been preserved. Courage and confidence have been restored. Mental and moral horizons have been extended. 
But our present gains were won under the pressure of more than ordinary circumstances. Advance became imperative under the goad of fear and suffering. The times were on the side of progress. 
To hold to progress today, however, is more difficult. Dulled conscience, irresponsibility, and ruthless self-interest already reappear. Such symptoms of prosperity may become portents of disaster! Prosperity already tests the persistence of our progressive purpose. 
***
The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. 
If I know aught of the spirit and purpose of our Nation, we will not listen to Comfort, Opportunism, and Timidity. We will carry on. 
Overwhelmingly, we of the Republic are men and women of good will; men and women who have more than warm hearts of dedication; men and women who have cool heads and willing hands of practical purpose as well. They will insist that every agency of popular government use effective instruments to carry out their will. 
Government is competent when all who compose it work as trustees for the whole people. It can make constant progress when it keeps abreast of all the facts. It can obtain justified support and legitimate criticism when the people receive true information of all that government does. 
If I know aught of the will of our people, they will demand that these conditions of effective government shall be created and maintained. They will demand a nation uncorrupted by cancers of injustice and, therefore, strong among the nations in its example of the will to peace. 

It is somewhat ironic to offer FDR here as a spokesperson for a more rational design process to achieve just prosperity for all (ecosystems included), when we all know he was the author of the Manhattan Project that opened Pandora’s box. Einstein said in later years he regretted sending the letter to Roosevelt endorsing an all-out effort to split the atom. Had he known how impotent the German bomb program had been, he said, he never would have signed the letter Leo Szilard put in front of him.

Roosevelt did not drop the A-bomb, however. That would have been Harry Truman, in thrall to a bloodthirsty cabal of generals led by Curtis LeMay, and heedless of game theory put forward by scientists like Szilard to warn them of the consequences.

Neither did Roosevelt fall for the chimera of Atoms for Peace. That would have been Dwight Eisenhower, who was sold that Edsel by corporate scions jubilant about the Republican take-back of the Capitol and eager to reassert the profit motive as prime driver of the nation and retire the antiquated, foolish call to public morality. 

The question now presented is, which is it? Are we going back up the road over which hang Swords of Damocles — nuclear, climate, biotech, plastic — that would we worship them on penalty of impoverishment; or are we willing to set aside Comfort, Opportunism, and Timidity, and take the high road of moral leadership, where life — ours and other creatures’ — is held sacred and sacrosanct? If is to be the latter, then once we re-emerge from the present pandemic, we need to queue up this overdue business of dismantling those brittle overhangs — defuse the ticking time-bombs — and go about replacing them with nature’s way.


You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed, especially at this time when I am quarantined far from home. You are how we make this happen. 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, May 3, 2020

The Great Pause Week 6: The Green Child

"There passed long stretches of beautiful waterfront acreage with hanging Spanish moss, decaying mansions and docks, and no people."



In the early spring of 2032, the two sailors cast lines and tacked into the wind, making for the Alabama coast some 550 miles distant.

The principal passenger, the writer Albert Bates, had been holed up in the Yum Balam Protected Area since March, 2020. There he had escaped the ravages of the pandemic unharmed, despite his age and susceptible health, managing to survive on the traditional indigenous diet of his new home after the collapse of the Mexican political state .
 
In 2031, at the age of 84, he had been visited by an old friend named Trigo, 30 years his junior, who had sailed across the Atlantic Ocean wishing to see what might remain of the island where he had once lived and owned a hotel. When Trigo discovered Bates alive and well, the two celebrated in the ways of that place and time, with home-brewed coconut rum and marijuana, and after some weeks, decided on their plan to sail to the United States and return Albert to his family at The Farm

Trigo’s 50-foot sloop was perfect for this journey. While the trip around the coast of Mexico and Texas might have been safer, staying within sight of land, it would have had its own risks — pirates, arrest by warlords, uncharted shoals — so they decided to take the most direct route, straight across the Gulf, and hope for good sailing weather. They expected to cover the distance in about a week, perhaps even just a few days, with favorable breezes and Trigo’s experienced hand on the tiller. 

It took a bit longer, exactly 2 weeks, although they encountered no major storms along the way. They spied the outer coastal wetlands, heeled east, keeping Louisiana and Mississippi to port, and made good time into Mobile Bay. 

 Twelve years earlier the protocol would have been to pull up to a dock at an assigned Port of Entry, show their passports, pass through a customs search, and ask to be admitted. However, as the pandemic had crested its second peak in 2021, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) moved almost exclusively to requiring pleasure craft to use a smartphone system called ROAM to declare their arrival and undergo a video chat interview with an online CBP officer. 

Trigo opened the ROAM app and sent his location to the CBP office in Mobile Bay. The app launched a video conference and a woman in uniform appeared on the screen. “What is the name of your vessel?” she asked.

“Doña Teresa,” Trigo responded.
“Registration?”
“Barcelona.”

She was typing. After a pause while she studied a separate monitor, she came back.

“Your name?”
“Daniel Trigo, T_R_I_G_O, Trigo.”
“Are you the captain of the boat?”
“Yes.”
“How many passengers aboard?”
“Two.”
“Citizenship?”
“One Spanish, one American.”
“Do you have photos of the passport picture pages?”
“Yes.”
“Send those now using your ROAM app.”

Trigo pressed the “passport” icon on his screen and sent his passport photo page from his phone’s library. He repeated the operation again for his passenger.

“Stand by, please.”
“Yes.”

After a few moments she returned. “The US Passport is expired,” she informed him.

“We know,” he said, calmly, expecting that question. “The holder of that passport, Mr. Bates, was unable to return to the United States before now, because of the pandemic.”

This moment would determine whether they would have to undergo a long and tedious ordeal at the border, possibly being refused entry, or could keep going. Trigo expected her to leave to speak with her supervisor but that is not what happened. 

“Anything to declare?” she asked.
“No.”
“You may proceed. Please inform Mr. Bates that he must renew his passport before he will be allowed to leave the country again.”
“Thank you,” said Trigo, but the video call had already ended.

They sailed through the very wide and shallow Mobile Bay, once the ninth busiest port in the United States, but by 2032 it just served as a passage to the Tombigbee Waterway. The city nearly vacant, the busy harbor had become eerily quiet, with abandoned barges, tows, large ships, cargo ships, freighters and tankers tied at dockside or rusting at anchor. 

After entering the river, for miles the travelers saw only water and trees. There passed long stretches of beautiful waterfront acreage with hanging Spanish moss, decaying mansions and docks, and no people. 

Their first lock was at Coffeeville, Alabama and fortunately the Army Corps of Engineers was still operating it. To reach the Tennessee River they would need to pass through ten locks and rise 341 feet over the distance of 450 miles. They would be going against the river current that whole way, so at Coffeeville they put into a fish camp and bought gas. It cost them practically nothing. Gasoline was one of the commodities traveling by river barge from a few still-operating Gulf refineries into the heartland.

They reached the last lock at Florence six days later. The Woodrow Wilson lock and dam was built in 1924 to span the river and generate, eventually, 663 MW of electricity. The lock chamber, made to accommodate barge traffic taking coal and cotton from Kentucky to the Gulf, is 600 feet long and 110 feet wide. To get from one part of the river to the next, the Doña Teresa was raised 96 feet to the 15,000-acre Wilson Lake. From there the travelers sailed her another mile up river to Shoal Creek, where they turned north and found a suitable abandoned boat shed to hide her in.

From that point, the two men, one of them now 85 and still unsteady on land-legs, had a long walk — 52 miles, to be exact. They followed Highway 43 north into Lawrence County, Tennessee, passing through the quiet, empty streets of St. Joseph, Loretto, Leoma, and Lawrenceburg. At Ethridge, they caught a ride with a kind Amish man who took them by horse wagon onto a back road Bates knew from bicycle hikes as a younger man. That road took them past Amish farms, well kept and thriving, where young men and women were busy sowing tomatoes and peppers and harvesting peas and broccoli, and sawmills running on water or wind. The farmer went out of his way to Highway 20 in Summertown and then, three miles more, to the home of Bates’ son and granddaughter. The house was abandoned, its roof caved in by a giant post oak centuries in the making. Thick bamboo canes crowded out daylight and made entry to the building nearly impossible without a machete or chain saw. By the looks of things, no one had been there for a considerable time.

They continued their walk up the road another mile to the steel entrance gate of The Farm. It was closed but they went around and entered through a narrow pedestrian passageway. The brick gatehouse, with steel bars over the windows, was locked, but showed none of the signs of decay or vacancy of their first stop. The Farm was apparently still open for business, just not at that hour. 

The grass on both sides of the road leading into the community was tall, sumac and blackberries had moved into the hayfields, and saplings of poplar, oak, and ash were 15 feet high in places. What had once been a disc golf course was now young hardwood forest.

As the travelers rounded the bend and stared down the road towards the old barn and the book company they had expected to see a familiar 50 kW ground-mounted solar array but it was gone. There was nothing there but some steel posts sticking out of the weeds. 

They turned onto Schoolhouse Road and passed by The Farm School and the Community Center, both seeming none the worse for wear, although more recessed than before behind copses of bamboo. Another quarter mile down the road was the former Ecovillage Training Center and Side Door Bed & Breakfast where Bates had lived for 25 years before the pandemic stranded him in the remoteness of the Yucatan Peninsula. 

By now the sun had dropped behind the trees and a chill air was heralding evening’s approach. The travelers were weary and entered the center’s old main building in search of what had once been the kitchen. They hoped they might also discover serviceable bedrooms. Much to their surprise, the building was clean and well kept. As they stood in the open doorway, a crisp voice issued a warning from behind them. It was Millie, the innkeeper, and she had a shotgun pointed….

to be continued…. not.


You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed, especially at this time when I am quarantined far from home. You are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My latest book, Dark Side of the Ocean, is nearing that moment. Please help if you can.
 

Friends

Friends

Dis-complainer

The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.