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Airlines are trying to resurrect the Concorde era
Boom Supersonic wants to bring back supersonic flight, but experts have their doubts. | Boom Supersonic Is there such a thing as a green supersonic jet? American Airlines on Tuesday announced that it would purchase a fleet of 20 planes from Boom Supersonic, a startup building aircraft that can travel faster than the speed of sound. The order came after United Airlines announced last year that it would buy 15 of the company’s Overture planes. Passenger flights aren’t expected until the end of the decade, but if everything goes according to plan, commercial supersonic flight could return for the first time since the age of the Concorde. Boom says its planes are designed to go at speeds twice as fast as a typical flight. That would be fast enough to get someone from Newark to London in just three and a half hours, and from Los Angeles to Honolulu in just three hours. The first of these flights is scheduled for 2026, and the company plans to start carrying passengers by 2029. If all works out, United has the option to buy at least 35 more planes from the startup; American has the option to buy another 40. But there’s another twist. Boom also wants to make these flights environmentally friendly, promising that these planes will be “net-zero carbon from day one,” and rely completely on sustainable aviation fuel, which is repurposed from waste or organic sources. Boom’s deals with United and American come as the high environmental costs of flying face growing scrutiny. The movement to more stringently regulate airplane emissions is now worldwide, and airlines have increasingly advertised plans to reduce their impact on the environment. Activists like Greta Thunberg have been pushing the idea that people should give up flying entirely. And the airline industry is currently inundated with a surge in summer travel, cancellations, and flight delays. “Investing in today’s operation should be management’s sole focus,” Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for American’s pilots union, told the Associated Press. “If there aren’t any changes to how management schedules this airline and its pilots, these will just be supersonic cancellations.” The idea of supersonic flight is appealing because it’s extremely fast and would shave hours off of transoceanic flights. That’s not to mention that it would be pretty cool to travel faster than the speed of sound. But as the Concorde, the world’s first and last supersonic commercial passenger jet, showed years ago, the prospect of an environmentally friendly supersonic flight is not just a highly ambitious (and potentially impossible) goal. It’s also one that comes with its own set of challenges, from regulatory hurdles to solving noise pollution. Making supersonic flight economically feasible amid concerns over climate change is a difficult feat. Some experts say that the idea of green supersonic flight is almost self-contradictory. The Concorde, they note, was pretty terrible in terms of emissions. “One of the big problems with the Concorde was it was considered very bad for the environment,” Janet Bednarek, a University of Dayton professor who studies aviation history, told Recode last year. “It burned a lot of fuel, but it also polluted at the upper levels of the atmosphere.” The history of supersonic passenger planes actually dates back decades. Operated by British Airways and Air France, the Concorde was capable of flying just over twice the speed of sound: Mach 2.01. The jet famously helped Phil Collins perform concerts in London and Philadelphia (via New York)in the same day. But despite its impressive speed, the Concorde had big problems. Supersonic flight requires an enormous amount of jet fuel, and the engines are notoriously loud inside the cabin. The flights also historically extremely expensive: A roundtrip ticket on the Concordefor the three-and-a-half-hour flight between New York and London could cost about $10,000. After a crash in 2000 that killed more than 100 people and increasingly insurmountable economic problems, the final commercial flight of the Concorde was in 2003. In recent years, a slew of startups has been working to make supersonic flight happen again. At the forefront is Boom, which already has at least $270 million in funding, an agreement with the Air Force, a prototype jet, and plans for a manufacturing facility in North Carolina. Atlanta-based Hermeus and Virgin Galactic are developing their own designs for a supersonic jet. In 2021, however, one of the leading companies trying to build supersonic planes, Aerion Supersonic, announced that it would shut down, citing a “hugely challenging” economy that would delay production of its first jet. There’s also growing work on solving the sonic boom, the startling sound supersonic aircraft produce when they break the sound barrier. NASA is working with Lockheed Martin on a supersonic research aircraft, and the agency told Vox back in 2016 that a “quiet supersonic airplane” could be possible, potentially resolving a major hurdle for these high-speed flights. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced in January 2021 final rules for testing supersonic aircraft, creating a framework for these startups to move forward with flight testing. To reduce environmental impact, Boom planes will use sustainable aviation fuels; United is reportedly investing in fuel made from “cellulosic feedstock” and “municipal solid waste.” But the limited supply of that might be better used on other planes. Research suggests that supersonic planes would require multiple times more fuel per passenger than a typical plane trip, according to Dan Rutherford, director of the International Council on Clean Transportation’s aviation program. “American wants you to believe that it’s going to earmark really expensive fuels for super inefficient planes,” Rutherford told Recode. “More likely, they’ll just burn the cheapest fossil fuel they can get.” A Boom spokesperson previously told Recode it was working with United to avoid adversely impacting the supply of sustainable jet fuel available to other aircraft. There are other challenges ahead that make Boom’s, American’s, and United’s goals questionable. For one thing, it’s not clear how much more passengers would be willing to pay just to save a few hours. While the companies have not said how much tickets on its supersonic jets would eventually cost, they would likely be more expensive than a typical economy seat (Delta CEO’s has expressed skepticism that these planes could “generate a reliable return”). There’s also the sonic boom challenge and the prospect of noise pollution around airports. And then there’s the fact that Boom is still working on its engine, though it’s collaborating with Rolls-Royce on one design. Tom Cooper/Getty Images for Boom Technology Boom’s XB-1 Supersonic Demonstrator aircraft sits in the company’s hangar at Boom headquarters in Denver, Colorado. Others are more optimistic, saying improvements in technology that didn’t exist during the age of the Concorde could make supersonic flight a success, despite faltering in earlier decades. “Supersonics could connect major cities as never before, vastly extend global business networks, boost American competitiveness, and enliven an industry that has been stagnating for decades,” Bloomberg’s editorial board wrote in March of 2021. “Down the road, ultrafast travel for the masses isn’t implausible.” The impact on the environment, the editorial board added, needs to be studied, and supersonic flights should meet international rules about carbon offsets — which are controversial, as Vox’s Umair Irfan has explained. According to Bednarek, the airline historian, the future of flight needs to be focused on being energy efficient and less damaging to the environment, not on speed or size. “If they do it — God bless them — they’ve really accomplished something,” Bednarek said. “It’s going to prove to be a lot more challenging than some of the celebratory advertising that’s coming out right now would seem to suggest.” Update, August 17, 2022, 12:45 pm: This piece was originally published on June 3, 2021, and has been updated to note American Airlines’s newest contract with Boom Supersonic.
Why does the WeWork guy get to fail up?
WeWork’s Adam Neumann is trying to disrupt real estate, again. | Angus Mordant/Bloomberg via Getty Images Adam Neumann burned billions. Now investors are giving him more money. Housing in the United States has a problem. And Adam Neumann, the charismatic founder known for successfully rebranding shared office space as WeWork, and unsuccessfully running it, thinks he has a solution: Flow. This residential real estate startup wants to address a wide variety of issues, including housing availability, a lack of social interactions in a remote world, and the inability of renters to gain equity. The housing shortage is certainly a big deal. The US was short nearly 4 million housing units as of late 2020, and the problem is spreading across the country. The inability to buy a home has huge repercussions on everything from Americans’ quality of life to their ability to create wealth. The problem is big enough that venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) is writing its biggest check to date — $350 million, valuing the company at $1 billion — to invest in Flow with the hope that the company can disrupt residential real estate through technology. In a blog post, a16z co-founder Marc Andreessen wrote that Neumann is returning to “the theme of connecting people through transforming their physical spaces and building communities where people spend the most time: their homes.” Andreessen added that solving housing problems “requires combining community-driven, experience-centric service with the latest technology in a way that has never been done before to create a system where renters receive the benefits of owners.” What any of that means is not exactly clear. What we do know is that Flow plans to operate more than 3,000 apartments that Neumann recently acquired, and that the company will likely add community features and provide the opportunity for renters to gain equity. The big open question here is whether this failed founder and the veneer of technology will actually do anything to help the housing crisis in the US. It’s notable that one of the main problems with US housing is there’s not enough of it. While the issue there stems from exclusionary zoning, private equity’s mad dash to buy rental homes — like the thousands of apartments Neumann and friends gobbled up — is not making things better. While offering people the ability to gain some sort of equity stake in their apartments could help people build wealth, Flow’s rentals are probably for those who are already relatively rich. The Nashville property Neumann bought, for instance, features a saltwater pool, valet trash pickup, and a dog park. Add on top of that all the premium services and community-building aspects Neumann’s properties will supposedly offer, and things get even pricier. It also looks like the project will involve the blockchain. There are a few clues that suggest this, including several trademark applications uncovered by the Wall Street Journal. The filings for an entity related to Flow mention real estate development, co-living space management, and cryptocurrency trading services.We also know that both Neumann and Andreessen recently teamed up on a similarly named project, Flowcarbon, which aims to apply blockchain technology to the market for carbon credits. Additionally, it’s likely Flow will have to use some sort of nascent tech to justify its billion-dollar valuation before the startup has done a thing. When WeWork filed to go public, many pointed out that the real estate company was going out of its way to convince people it was a tech company — and, by extension, to justify its sky-high valuation. This time around, you can almost see the wheels turning in Neumann’s head. What’s more cutting edge than Web3? The rebranding of crypto and blockchain could purportedly change the internet as we know it, wresting control of the web away from big tech companies, like Facebook and Google, and giving it back to creators. Sure, that sounds great. But what does that have to do with real estate, community, and giving renters equity? Arpit Gupta, a real estate expert and professor of finance at NYU’s business school, surmises that Flow might try to combine a number of existing things and market them into one. Those include timeshares (flexibility!), co-ops (equity!), layaway financing (access and equity!), and luxury buildings in trendy areas (well-heeled millennials). Perhaps, Flow wants to offer short-term apartments with company-provided financing where you could grow your ownership stake the longer you live there. “It’s like WeLive 2.0 combined with some sort of rent-to-equity system,” Gupta imagined. Oh, and they will probably launch a token — for finance and fun — that would allow more people an ownership stake in the business and create a lot of buzz. Flow would by no means be the only company trying to bring technology to bear on real estate. Venture capital-funded tech startups are tackling everything from real estate investing to helping finance renters into becoming owners. Web3 real estate companies, specifically, tend to involve putting property rights on the blockchain and tokenizing equity shares in buildings, according to Gupta. We also don’t yet know the full scope of Neumann’s latest plans. In addition to Flow and Flowcarbon, a search of related trademark applications turns up Flow Life (investment and crypto trading services), Workflow (workspace design), Flow Village (online professional networking) and Kibbutz (educational services and social networking platform). Of course, just because you file for a trademark doesn’t mean you’re actually going to do something. But as we know from the fate of WeWork’s one-time umbrella organization, the We Company, Neumann’s ambitions don’t exactly hew to what’s possible. In addition to running an ever-growing portfolio of coworking spaces, the We Company also branched out into seemingly unrelated businesses, including a school and an engineering firm that makes wave pools. Neumann is also well known for being a profligate spender and a poor manager of money — behaviors that ended up contributing to the downfall of his company. Nevertheless, Neumann’s reputation and wild ambitions still haven’t curbed his ability to raise money. “In Silicon Valley, there is always money for the repeat founder,” Eliot Brown, Wall Street Journal reporter and author of WeWork tell-all The Cult of We, told Recode. “Failure doesn’t seem to stop people.” That’s particularly the case here. Andreessen is partially responsible for the cult of the founder, a term that refers to the mythical status given to founders who are thought to do no wrong. Now, his VC firm is funding Neumann’s return to glory. “One of the ironies is that the big fuel behind the rise and fall of WeWork was this fetishization of the founder,” Brown said. “Adam became sort of the paragon of the founder gone wild and that was a creation, in large part, of the mystique that Andreessen put out about founders.” For Andreessen, however, Neumann’s experiences and failures are a virtue. “We understand how difficult it is to build something like this and we love seeing repeat-founders build on past successes by growing from lessons learned,” Andreessen wrote in his recent blog post. “For Adam, the successes and lessons are plenty.” Presumably that means Flow will have no wave pool. This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!
Anal and oral sex spread monkeypox. Let’s talk about it.
Dion Lee/Vox; Getty Images Why it’s spreading like an STI through gay men’s sexual networks, why women are at risk — and why condoms might help. The global monkeypox outbreak is now a public health emergency both in the US and globally, with more than 38,000 cases currently reported across 93 countries as of August 17. Health authorities worldwide are still struggling to get it in check: According to the World Health Organization, cases increased by more than 19 percent in the past week. They’re also struggling to figure out how to talk about what it takes to transmit the infection. During an Infectious Disease Society of America press briefing last week, the director of a large LGBTQ health clinic delivered what’s become a standard talking point among health authorities: “Skin-to-skin contact is causing transmission of this virus” in the context of sex, he said. He wasn’t wrong, per se: The virus does spread most readily when one person’s skin is exposed to another’s open sores. But many officials seem hesitant to talk in detail about the role of penetrative sex between men — that is, body part-in-orifice sex, like anal and oral sex — in the current outbreak. It’s part of a larger trend of health officials across the country being mealy-mouthed when it comes to clear risk communication. A story in the Washington Post referenced one state health department official who argued that “urging people to have less sex unfairly places the onus on individuals to end the outbreak,” which seems to minimize the options people have for reducing their infection risk. The official also argued that urging people to have less sex “distracts from other potential sources of transmission, such as dancing in packed clubs.” Similarly, a New York City health department epidemiologist wrote of his employer’s unwillingness to publicly recommend sexual behavior changes that “we seem paralyzed by the fear of stigmatizing this disease.” Many health officials’ reluctance to speak frankly might be coming from a well-intentioned place. As other journalists have noted, some of the vague-speak may be an effort to avoid giving ammunition to people who’d use gay and queer men’s sexual practices to demonize same-sex sexual contact and justify discrimination. But unclear communication won’t stop this outbreak: People can’t take action to keep themselves safe from infections if they don’t know how they’re spread, and which behaviors appear most risky according to the latest data. Gay and bisexual men — and the health organizations run by them, for them — have been at the forefront of offering clear communication about monkeypox risk reduction. It’s time for public health officials and the medical leadership who serve the general public to do the same. Although clinicians and scientists in sexual health are engaged in a heated debate over whether monkeypox is a sexually transmitted infection, this is a semantic argument, and one that’s ultimately less important than helping people keep themselves safe. Making clear statements about the sexual behaviors most likely to spread monkeypox can help people across the spectrum of anatomy and sexual orientation understand how to protect themselves. Let’s break it down. Connecting the spots: Why scientists think sex is spreading monkeypox As more data about this outbreak comes in, scientists are getting a clearer picture about how monkeypox infections start. Scientists theorize that in people infected with monkeypox who develop a rash — as the vast majority of them do — the first spots turn up at the body site where the virus first made its way in. This “inoculation site” theory is in part based on the way monkeypox infections have historically played out: For many infected people, the first symptom is a rash localized to one part of the skin or mucous membranes, which are the moist linings of openings like mouths, noses, vaginas, and anuses. Several days afterward, these rashes are frequently followed by fever and aches. After that, a more widespread rash affecting other skin surfaces often develops. In both the first and third phases, the lesions of the rash are “chock-full” of virus, said Donald Alcendor, a virologist at Meharry Medical College. Most experts believe the inoculation-site theory to be true, among themChloe Orkin, an infectious disease doctor at Queen Mary University of London whose research group conducted a study describing 528 monkeypox cases in the United Kingdom. “We and others have speculated that the main site of the first lesion is likely to represent the point of inoculation,” Orkin wrote in an email. A caveat: Some people involved in the current outbreak have had somewhat different experiences with monkeypox than the inoculation-site theory would predict. In one study, a third of cases did not report fever, and in some cases, the rash present in the third phase of infection has been pretty mild. These differences in the usual pattern of the disease make it harder to pinpoint the virus’s entry point, and it’s not clear what’s causing them. However, cases in which the virus’s entry point can be identified paint an emerging picture: People are first getting infected during sex involving penises, mouths, and butts. Most current monkeypox transmission is currently happening during sex Before 2019, body parts involved in sex were not front and center in reports of monkeypox outbreaks. Then a publication describing a Nigerian outbreak noted large numbers of patients turning up with genital rashes. That study didn’t offer specifics of the exact location of genital rashes — but more recent studies have. These studies get specific: They suggest that contact involving men’s mouths, penises, and anuses is responsible for the lion’s share of monkeypox spread right now. Nicolas Maeterlinck/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images A screen advertising a monkeypox info line is displayed at the 2022 Antwerp Pride Parade in Belgium on August 13. For example, in a recent Spanish study of 181 monkeypox cases, nearly all of whom were men, 55 percent of patients had genital lesions, 25 percent had lesions in or near their mouths, and 36 percent of patients had rashes around the anal area. (Many people in the study had lesions in more than one area, and were counted in more than one category.) Orkin’s similar study of cases in the UK found 73 percent had a rash in the “anogenital area,” which includes both the anus and the genitals. A US study found that 25 percent of patients had lesions near their mouths. Across all three of these studies, 14 to 25 percent of patients have had proctitis, an extremely painful condition in which the tissues of the rectum — the part of the large intestine beyond the anus — get irritated and inflamed. Reports of symptoms involving the anus, the mouth, and other mucous membranes have been particularly surprising, as they had rarely been reported with monkeypox infections during past outbreaks, said John Brooks, chief medical officer of HIV prevention division and the monkeypox response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “This real concentration in the anogenital region, which is where sexual contact occurs, and mucosal lesions — this is unusual,” he said. Why are scientists so suspicious these rashes represent the places on the body where patients first became infected, implying sexual transmission? After all, the currently circulating monkeypox virus is genetically distinct from previous strains. Isn’t it possible one of its new features is a predisposition to causing genital rashes after first exposure elsewhere on the body? They’re suspicious because of how commonly those rashes follow sexual activity involving the place where they appear. In the Spanish study, for example, 91 percent of people with proctitis due to the virus said they had been on the receiving end of anal sex, and 95 percent of people with symptoms in the mouth or throat said they’d given oral sex. Again, what this suggests is that contact during anal and oral sex — potentially including “rimming,” or oral-anal sex — is responsible for the majority of monkeypox spread right now. Sex can spread infections fast — and more sex can spread infections faster The rapid spread of monkeypox seen during this outbreak is unusual for this virus. For example, Nigeria — the country with the highest burden of this monkeypox strain prior to the current outbreak — reported 915 suspected and confirmedcases in totalbetween September 2017 and mid-June of this year. As many global cases are now recorded each day. But for a sexually transmitted infection within interconnected sexual networks, where lots of people have sex with the same people, it’s not particularly surprising. “The more sexual partners one has, the higher the risk of exposure and transmission,” wrote Orkin. Cases in her group’s study reported a median of five sexual partners in the preceding three months. Again, this suggests that the current spread is not due to any old skin-to-skin contact, but due to sexual contact happening between people who have multiple sex partners. It’s also not particularly surprising to see a lot of the spread happening at events and venues where sex is happening on site. At many of these venues, it’s not uncommon to have multiple partners in the course of hours at one event. And while overall, a minority of men who have sex with men use drugs during sex, that practice — often called “chemsex” — is more common at sex-on-site venues, and often leads to having more sexual partners. A third of people with monkeypox in the UK study said they’d gone to a sex-on-site venue in the past month, and the same proportion of cases in the Spanish study reported using recreational drugs during sex. So it’s not a stretch to speculate that drug use is a contributing risk factor here. Even if attending these events is something only a small percentage of the world’s men who have sex with men do, it’s something that monkeypox cases have disproportionately reported doing, suggesting it’s an important risk factor. So should these sex events be canceled? There’s some disagreement among public health experts about the benefits of doing so, with some arguing it’s unhelpful at best and stigmatizing at worst to tell people — especially gay and bisexual people — not to have sex. That said, people who want to avoid monkeypox will find it easier to do so if they avoid group-sex situations, at least until other precautionary measures are in place. “We hate to say it, but it might be time to hang up the group sex and saunas until we all get shots one and two of the vaccine,” wrote the authors of a men’s safer sex guidance document, all of them public health practitioners. Both the World Health Organization and the CDC have recommended that people temporarily reduce their number of sexual partners. Few women are getting monkeypox right now — but that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t Most monkeypox transmission in the current outbreak has happened between men — but women can still catch the virus. Even though most men who have sex with other men don’t also have sex with people of other genders, a subsegment does: 11 of the men in the Spanish study reported vaginal intercourse, and six of the 181 patients in that study were heterosexual women. Although the study didn’t report the number of female cases who gave oral sex to men, there’s no reason that could not also result in monkeypox transmission from a man to a woman. Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images A couple embrace after being vaccinated against monkeypox at Open Door Health, a Rhode Island Public Institute initiative and the state’s leading LGBTQ+ primary care and sexual health clinic. Although most of the transmission recorded so far has been between men, it’s probably not because the virus is better at infecting men. More likely, it’s a feature of how rarely gay men’s sexual networks include women. “I would just be very careful about characterizing this as something unique to the kind of sex that men who have sex with men have,” said Brooks. Early in the HIV crisis, he explained, people thought that virus wouldn’t make many inroads with heterosexual people in the way it did with gay men. But in sub-Saharan Africa, HIV is now largely a disease that affects heterosexual people, he said. Philip Chan, an infectious disease doctor at Brown University’s public health schoolwho is medical director at the largest STI clinic in Rhode Island, agrees. He’s heard hypotheses that straight people don’t have lots of overlapping sexual partnerships the way gay and queer men and their sexual networks do, making heterosexual sex less likely to spread the disease broadly. “I’m not sure that’s entirely true,” he said. Although monkeypox has not been transmitted at the same speed outside gay and queer men’s sexual networks as it has within them, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. “If the virus is introduced into dense and active heterosexual networks,” like those involving commercial sex workers or swingers, “I think it would spread quickly,” wrote Orkin. Using condoms — and temporarily changing sexual behaviors — could help prevent some of monkeypox’s worst symptoms Many monkeypox studies now being published include photographs of the characteristic lesions in the many places where they’re appearing. Those photos often depict rashes on mucous membranes (inside mouths, throats, or anuses) — but many also show rashes around the openings to those spaces. In other words, in many people with monkeypox rashes on their penises, the lesions spread well beyond the parts of the genitals that would be covered by a condom. It’s reasonable to imagine a barrier that only covers the shaft would do very little to prevent transmission from a person with a rash around their penis or around their anus. Indeed, condoms haven’t been front and center among monkeypox prevention recommendations: Although the CDC’s guidance does mention condoms, many other messaging sources don’t. But leaving condoms out of the conversation might mean neglecting an important strategy for preventing proctitis, one of the most severe monkeypox outcomes. If the inoculation-site theory is correct, this condition — which involves inflammation of the deep tissues of the anus — is more likely to happen when sores on a penis (or any virus in semen) have direct contact with those tissues. Using that logic, putting a condom on a penis before anal sex theoretically makes that contact — and therefore proctitis — less likely, even if no scientific studies have supported that theory yet. (Rectal tissue is particularly fragile and the anus lacks natural lubrication, making the area especially vulnerable to tears and abrasions that create entry points for certain infections.) During penis-in-vagina sex, condoms could also theoretically reduce the risk that an infected penis would cause lesions within the vagina. In a press conference on August 11, Mary Foote, an infectious disease physician who directs emergency preparedness at the New York City health department, said there probably is a role for condoms in preventing some disease: “In a completely data-free zone,” she said, “I would say that using condoms certainly may help reduce the worst of it.” Foote also noted that a significant proportion of newly diagnosed monkeypox cases are also being diagnosed with other sexually transmitted infections like syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea — nearly a third of those described in the UK study, and 17 percent of those in the Spanish study. At a minimum, condom use could help prevent the transmission of those infections. Monkeypox alone is bad enough. Monkeypox plus an STI likely means more symptoms — and definitely means more antibiotics. In addition to getting vaccinated, people can also reduce their risk by avoiding close sexual contact like kissing and oral, anal, and vaginal sex, especially with new sexual partners, wrote Debby Herbenick, a sexual health researcher and professor at Indiana University’s public health school, in an email. Nobody wants to be telling people not to have sex right now. “It’s difficult timing, coming at a point in the pandemic where many people are vaccinated, boosted, and wanting to reconnect with others,” said Herbenick. But she emphasized that changes in sexual practices wouldn’t have to be a new normal. “This is not about changing behavior forever — it’s for some limited period of time,” she said.
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The ovarian “biological clock” and other reproductive health metaphors that have led science astray
A three-dimensional model of the structures of the clitoris, demonstrating that it is much more than a simple “nub.” | Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images And why even the phrase “reproductive health” might be kind of misleading. There is a lot scientists still don’t know about the female reproductive system. They don’t know enough about how to treat the most common vaginal infection, bacterial vaginosis. They don’t have good solutions for many people suffering from endometriosis, a common and sometimes incredibly painful condition where tissue similar to what grows inside the uterus grows elsewhere in the body. They still have a lot of questions about what menopause does to a body. So a few years ago, Rachel Gross, a science reporter who focuses on reproductive health, set out to write a book about the mysteries of the female reproductive system. But as she dove into the research, she started to wonder about the phrase she was using — the phrase “female reproductive system.” The ultimate product of Rachel Gross’s work, Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage. First, not everyone with the organs she was researching was female. She was speaking to nonbinary people, intersex people, trans people; all people for whom this anatomy was relevant and intimate. Also, the idea that these organs — the clitoris, the vagina, even the ovaries — were only playing a role in reproduction started to feel reductive. Of course, these organs are involved in baby-making, but, she says, “I was finding that they were doing so much else, not just sexual stuff, which is huge and often overlooked, but they were participating in immunity and protection and regeneration.” On Unexplainable — Vox’s podcast that explores big mysteries, unanswered questions, and all the things we learn by diving into the unknown —Gross talks about one of these organs: the ovaries. She tells us a familiar story: that the ovaries are “biological clocks” that only lose eggs, without ever gaining any back. But then, she walks us through new research that questions that idea, suggesting that the ovaries may be able to generate new eggs using stem cells. And, as Gross explains, this new way of understanding and imagining the ovaries might lead to new fertility treatments — but also, potentially, new ways to treat some of the health effects associated with menopause, like loss of bone density. n her book, Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage, Gross finds many examples of metaphors like the ovarian “ticking clock,”or even whole stories about various pelvic organs, that have stymied science and maybe even kept scientists from solving some of the big questions about these organs. “When you study the human body, even though the human body is not changing, you really see what you expect to see … and you kind of just blur out the rest,” she says. I asked Gross to walk me through some more examples from her book. What follows is our conversation, edited for clarity and length. Byrd Pinkerton What’s an example of an organ we’ve told an incorrect story about and how it misguided science? Rachel Gross So one big example is the clitoris. It has been called a minuscule phallus or an underdeveloped penis or a tiny nub for hundreds and hundreds of years. And science has sort of minimized it in many ways, from literally omitting it in anatomical textbooks to just not studying 90 percent of it, which is under the surface. It took a female urologist to say, “Wait, the research on the female side is a lot less rigorous than the male side. We haven’t looked at all the nerves, the erectile bodies.” She found out that the clitoris has these roots and these bulbs that actually hug the vagina and swell with blood and become erectile just like the penis. So you have the exact same erectile tissues, you have the head — or the glans clitoris — which is the part you can see and touch. But then you also have a shaft that goes back into the body and you have bulbs and kind of arms that flow back into the pelvis. And all of these are made up with the same erectile tissues as the penis. These things are super important for women undergoing surgery in this area who don’t want their nerves cut off. If you look at it [the clitoris] as a homologous organ [to the penis], you come to such a different conclusion than it’s a tiny phallus or a little nub that’s hard to find. This video digs into another misleading story scientists told for decades — this one about the role the sperm and egg play in fertilization. Byrd Pinkerton [At the beginning of her book, Rachel Gross describes a personal experience. She got a persistent vaginal infection, and her gynecologist recommended that she put boric acid in her vagina. The poison would kill a lot of the organisms in her vagina, including, hopefully, the one causing her problems. Boric acid is also used as a rat poison, however, so the harshness of the treatment surprised Gross. And as she dived into the research, she realized that a new way of imagining the vagina might lead to more effective, less poisonous treatments.] You talked about putting this boric acid pill into your vagina. Is that treatment based on any outdated story or a metaphor around the vagina that people are reconsidering? Rachel Gross So I think there’s been a strong attitude toward the vagina of like ... it should be pure, it should be clean, it should be sterile. And from that you get all of these vaginal cleansing products. What blew my mind was looking at the vaginal microbiome as this teeming ecosystem of protection instead. Byrd Pinkerton What is the vaginal microbiome? Rachel Gross So, you’ve heard of the gut microbiome, the specific bacteria that help maintain digestive health. Byrd Pinkerton Yep. Rachel Gross Well, your vagina also has a microbiome, and it’s actually really unique to humans. It’s a mildly acidic environment created by mostly bacteria called lactobacilli, but also other bacteria, some viruses, and fungi. And they all live in harmony and protect you from invaders and kind of keep this liminal space between you and not-you healthy. It’s up against whatever gets up there, whether that is tampons, semen, birth control, jade eggs, other stuff you put in there ... like your vagina is responding, protecting you and reaching a new equilibrium. Byrd Pinkerton Interesting. So if you’re thinking of that space as like a garden that fends off invaders, it does feel like you would reimagine putting rat poison in the middle of your garden. Rachel Gross Exactly. If you reimagine it as a garden and it’s fine to have weeds and different species in a garden, then it’s not about stripping it of life, which is what the rat poison does. It’s about cultivating the right mix. And that has led to innovations in vaginal microbiome transplants or probiotics that could kind of terraform the vagina. All these different ideas, it’s not clear that all of them will work, but there’s just so many smarter and more imaginative ways to think of having a healthy vagina. Byrd Pinkerton So, do we know anything about our bodies? Or is it all just sort of stories we’re telling ourselves that are shaping the directions that we’re taking? Rachel Gross I do think that we know a lot about bodies and we use that knowledge very practically in medicine to heal them and make things better. But there’s a lens of language that just directs the questions we’re asking and what we consider interesting and worthwhile. So could you swing that lens a little to the left, to the part that’s all blurred out, and focus on that? And what would you see? Byrd Pinkerton How do you swing the lens and reshape what we know about the reproductive system? Rachel Gross By introducing new people with new backgrounds into science and having them ask their questions and be interested in what they’re interested in. And for a long time, we’ve had a very similar lens. You had people that were centering the male body as representing something and looking at the female body as an afterthought or as something that was mainly involved in reproduction. That’s mainly the interesting difference between types of bodies. So yeah, my whole book is about how once you get new voices and people in science, the whole lens changes in really exciting ways.
4 h
TikTok is great for spreading political messages — and conspiracy theories
AFP via Getty Images Democrats are trying to win TikTok with facts and nuance. Its algorithm rewards the opposite. A man sets his tactical gear bag next to the assault rifle on his bed, above which hangs an American flag. “Don’t mind me,” he says, “I’m just getting ready for my IRS audit.” This, pulled from a viral Twitter thread, was just one of the many TikTok videos that, explicitly or implicitly, threatened civil war after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. “It’s go time,” he continues. “Everybody knows exactly what I’m talking about.” (He’s talking about fighting IRS employees who are supposedly coming to seize his guns. The IRS is not doing that.) Most or all of the videos on the thread have since been removed from TikTok, but it’s no accident that this sort of inflammatory political discourse proliferates throughout the platform. In the past four years of its existence in the US, TikTok has become the most effective platform for any single user to communicate to the largest possible audience in the shortest amount of time. And despite the company’s attempts to be viewed as apolitical, it’s now one of the most widely consumed sources of discourse, political and otherwise. The right is prepping for civil war. I’d report them all to the @FBI, but I literally don’t have time to sit report the hundreds of videos like this I’m seeing on my alt tiktok. (And they didn’t check Twitter.) so here’s a /1— Michelle (@LivingBlueTX) August 9, 2022 The Republican Party has made great use of this, relying on the work of charismatic right-wing influencers to spread its messages on platforms big and small. Democrats, meanwhile, haven’t made the same inroads with the creator economy, but their most recent efforts have tried to keep up. Earlier this year, the Democratic National Committee built an online organizing hub where TikTok and other social media influencers can find party-approved talking points and repostable content on topics from abortion rights to gun control. So far, the committee has recruited nearly 1,000 people to the hub, according to The Verge, and has generated more than 83 million social impressions. This isn’t the first time the DNC has partnered with influencers; during the lead-up to the 2020 election, the Biden campaign hired a firm to help with its outreach to influencers, some of whom were invited to interview Biden on Instagram Live, and when Russian forces invaded Ukraine earlier this year, the White House briefed a group of TikTokers on how to best inform their followers. As Nell Thomas, chief technology officer for the DNC,told Recode’s Peter Kafka, the Democrats are trying to meet the people where they spend the most time. (According to Sensor Tower, American TikTok users spent an average of 82 minutes a day on the platform during the second quarter of 2022, which is twice as long as they spent on Instagram or Facebook.) There are a few reasons TikTok is so uniquely powerful at one-to-many communication. The first is that most TikToks are short. You can consume dozens of TikToks, for instance, in the time it might take to watch the average YouTube video, which means view counts for viral videos are massive. The second is that, thanks to its algorithm, you can go extremely viral without having a single follower on your account. There is little to zero gatekeeping on TikTok; in theory, anyone’s idea can become the next day’s discourse. Third is the fact that TikTok is a Platonically perfect social media app for generating parasocial relationships. As I’ve written previously, it’s far easier to feel connected to what someone is saying when you can see their face and when it feels like you’re FaceTiming with them. YouTube, itself an incredibly powerful tool of political messaging, is also very good at this, but the difference is that creating a TikTok requires far less effort, skill, and established influence. As the White House tries to get its message to a new generation of voters, it will have to compete with the hundreds of millions of other videos that are uploaded to TikTok all the time. Rumors, conspiracy theories, and clickbait-y or visually captivating videos often rise quickly to the top of users’ algorithms, and because they’re made up of video and audio files, they’re even more difficult for moderation algorithms to detect. Instead, TikTok’s thousands-strong army of content moderators, who are subject to the internet’s most vile content as well as draconian productivity measures, are essentially playing an infinite game of whack-a-mole to keep the platform safe and free from, say, threats of civil war. Despite these efforts, election misinformation still spreads rapidly on TikTok in the US and elsewhere. Culture-war discourse is also a constant feature on TikTok, and it’s been particularly disturbing to see messaging that demonizes trans people and sex workers or promotes Puritanism in the name of moral superiority go mainstream on the platform. But this is what happens when the same mechanisms of virality apply to meaningless week-long fads and deep-seated political divisions: Anything that is novel or compelling attracts more attention than, say, accurate depictions of what average people actually think. As the government tightens its focus on TikTok’s Chinese ownership, the more immediate threat to American political discourse isn’t secretive disinformation campaigns or security leaks; it’s a system in which clarity and nuance are abandoned for sensationalism. Whether they want to or not, the Democrats will have to find their own way to keep people’s attention. This column was first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.
4 h
With I’m Glad My Mom Died, Jennette McCurdy lays bare the horrors of child acting
I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy. | Simon & Schuster The former Nickelodeon star burns her bridges in her new memoir. The new memoir from former child star Jennette McCurdy has an attention-grabbing title: I’m Glad My Mom Died. Over the course of the book, McCurdy, who built her name on Nickelodeon’s iCarly and Sam and Cat, more than makes her case, detailing years of her mother’s mental and physical abuse. The result is a detailed look at a very specific and individual childhood of horrors, but it also points to a major systemic problem. I’m Glad My Mom Died doubles as a damning indictment of the child star system. McCurdy became a working actress at age 6, when, she writes, her mother asked her, “You want to be Mommy’s little actress?” She started as an extra, then graduated to work on commercials and guest star roles on shows like Malcolm in the Middle and CSI. In 2007, at age 15, she was cast in a supporting role on the Nickelodeon kid’s sitcom iCarly. Five years later, she got her own spinoff, Sam and Cat, co-starring Ariana Grande. Throughout the process, McCurdy says, she existed in a state of misery, struggling with eating disorders and substance abuse issues. McCurdy’s mother Debra died of breast cancer in 2013, but it would be years longer before McCurdy was able to understand her mother as abusive, and to grasp that she herself had never really wanted to act. The child star system, though, is what enabled McCurdy’s mother and worsened McCurdy’s mental health. Working as an actress from a young age taught McCurdy to understand her body and her emotions as commodities — commodities on which her family depended because she was their breadwinner. Early on in I’m Glad My Mom Died, McCurdy’s agent tells her that she didn’t score a callback to Because of Winn Dixie because “they’re looking for an ethereal beauty, and Jennette reads more homely.” On the other hand, she doesn’t land the guest starring role of a hermaphrodite on Grey’s Anatomy because she’s too pretty. Child acting as an industry teaches McCurdy to understand her appearance on a scale of attractiveness. McCurdy first develops anorexia as an 11-year-old, when she’s beginning to grow breasts. Hitting puberty, McCurdy understands, is a liability in her line of work: She is more employable because she is undersized for her age and can play younger, meaning she can stand in for children younger than herself who are worse at taking direction and legally entitled to more break time. Frantic, she goes to her mother for advice on how to stay small, and her mother introduces her to the world of calorie reduction. Meanwhile, the intense dysfunction of McCurdy’s home life means she’s become an expert at crying on command; between her mother’s abuse and her father’s neglect, she’s got plenty of fuel for tears. This ability is, McCurdy writes, “the skill you want in child acting” and makes her highly in demand. McCurdy’s emotional reaction to her own abuse is, like her body, a commodity, one she is determined to sell in order to look after her family. After McCurdy lands her role in iCarly, she’s put under the wings of Nickelodeon’s hitmaker, Dan Schneider. (McCurdy refers to him on the page only as The Creator.) Schneider would be pushed out of Nickelodeon in 2018 amid reports from former co-workers that he was verbally abusive and internet rumors questioning whether he may have been sexually abusive to the young actors he worked with. Schneider has denied all allegations of inappropriate behavior, and McCurdy doesn’t tell any stories about him that are as lurid as some of the internet rumors would suggest. What she does recount is consistent with her professional sense of her body as being a commodity no longer entirely under her control — now in slightly sexualized ways. McCurdy describes being pushed into wearing a bikini on the set of iCarly at age 15 even though she begs to wear a one-piece. “I hate this feeling, the feeling of so much of my body being exposed,” she writes. “It feels sexual to me. I’m ashamed.” She has her first kiss in a kissing scene filmed for the show, with Schneider screaming at her to move her head more. When he pitches her on her own spinoff, he goads her into drinking spiked coffee and massages her back. “I want to say something, to tell him to stop, but I’m so scared of offending him,” McCurdy writes. Perhaps most striking is McCurdy’s clear-eyed realism when it comes to the kind of career her child stardom can grant her. She knows that Nickelodeon kids almost never make it to the big time and that her co-star Ariana Grande’s flourishing pop career is the exception that proves the rule. Her mother is convinced she’s a future Oscar winner, but McCurdy doesn’t kid herself. “Who’s gonna wanna hire me when I’ve spent almost ten years on Nickelodeon?” she writes. But the business has also left her without escape routes. “I never went to college and have no real-life skills, so even if I wanted to get a profession outside of the entertainment industry, I’m years away from that being a realistic option.” This is the end of the line for McCurdy’s acting career, and she has to fight to find a way to pivot herself out of it. She asks the Sam and Cat staff to let her direct an episode so that she can get some TV directing credits under her belt. They agree at first, then tell her they can’t do it: Someone they “can’t afford” to lose has threatened to quit if the producers let her direct. Today, McCurdy has managed to pull herself out of the child star trap. She’s in treatment for her eating disorders, and she has a career writing and directing short films and hosting a podcast. But in I’m Glad My Mom Died, she paints a vivid picture of child stardom as a system in which children find themselves turned into walking piles of other people’s cash, and summarily dismantled when they lose their value. It’s damning both for the horrors she experienced as an individual and the systemic failures to which her story points.
5 h
You don’t need to look perfect to work out
Aspirational fitness content can create unrealistic expectations. Here’s how to tune it out. | Shanée Benjamin for Vox Don’t focus on aesthetics — fitness is a feel-good ritual. You’ve probably seen her before, all over your TikTok feed. She likely woke up before sunrise in a tastefully but minimally decorated apartment. By 7 am, she’s putting on a matching workout set and slicking her hair back into a sleek bun. After her workout, which was probably pilates or a weight-lifting session, she contorts her body into the perfect pose for the mandatory post-workout mirror selfie. She often proclaims to be “that girl,” and her online aesthetic is a moment of fleeting perfection. She’s stunning. She’s fit. She has the look. “That girl” hasn’t strayed far from its original status as a way to hype up your girlfriends. But now, that badge of honor has morphed into a ubiquitous health and wellness archetype that panders to Western beauty ideals, especially on TikTok. (It’s also dominated by thin white women.) To date, the hashtag #thatgirl has accrued more than 5.7 billion views on the platform. Online fitness is becoming more and more intertwined with performing pleasantness — and, by extension, being perceived as beautiful at all times. Whether this is positive or negative depends on the person consuming the content. It could inspire some consumers to pursue healthier habits or to organize their days in a way that makes more sense for them. And believing oneself to be an it girl can serve as a confidence booster. But for others, aspirational content can exacerbate pre-existing insecurities. “There are certain people who are more susceptible to being influenced by others,” explained Joe Phua, a social media expert and professor at the University of Georgia. “They may feel like they need to live up to those standards that are seen in the video in order to be liked or to feel good about themselves.” As more people post this type of content, it can become a convention. Those social codes can create unrealistic expectations and potentially cause people to think if their workout doesn’t fit into the bounds of that pattern, it’s not real. It enunciates the fine line between aspirational content and the reality of working out, which often results in looking a mess once the hard work is done. But since social media is a highlight reel of someone’s life, what does it mean to post this content online and uphold it as an aesthetic to hundreds or thousands of impressionable followers? And what are the effects of it becoming a trend? I took this context into my conversation with Dr. Michele Kerulis, a former fitness instructor who is now a professor of counseling at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, specializing in sport and exercise psychology. During our conversation, we discussed what it means to uphold a look over health, the negative aspects of community building online, and how anyone who wants to post their content can do so honestly. What are the pitfalls of uplifting an aesthetic in terms of exercise? Do you think this is an extension of externally derived gratification that’s commonly seen in fitness spaces? While a lot can be controlled about the way we look, there is also a lot that we cannot control about our looks. A pitfall of focusing on aesthetics is that people might become preoccupied on some of these factors we can’t change. This can lead to a dangerous downward spiral of low self-confidence and high social comparison. Another pitfall is that focusing on aesthetics can distract you from the point of exercise — to maintain a healthy mind and body. Additionally, some people spend a small fortune on workout gear and clothes, so if people don’t budget well, they might overspend trying to keep up with others. Before I was a professor, I was a group fitness instructor and I worked diligently to choose my language carefully as a way to uplift my exercisers’ confidence in their own unique abilities. I worked with people from a variety of ages and physical abilities, and it was important to me not to comment on their physical looks. After I demonstrated an exercise and watched the exercisers perform their reps, I would say things like, “Your form looks great!” or “Awesome technique!” I avoided phrases like, “You look great” because I wanted them to focus on the physical feeling of the movements, not on their aesthetic during exercise. What are the potential issues with focusing on how someone looks during or after a workout? Many people are concerned about how they look and often compare themselves to others. This is called social comparison theory, and it is seen frequently in the gym and other fitness spaces. During exercise, people look at others to see how easy or challenging workouts might be. This can be especially true in group fitness classes. If someone looks very put together and poised at the gym, others might think the workout that person is doing looks easy, when actually it could be quite hard. Focusing on aesthetics can distract you from the point of exercise — to maintain a healthy mind and body. Looking good is subjective. We all have a different idea of what attractiveness is and what we can do to enhance our own attractiveness. It can be hard to maintain what one defines as looking amazing during a workout, depending on the level of exertion and type of workout. For example, a person who takes a restorative yoga class might conclude class looking really good, and that same person might take a hot yoga class and end class looking like a hot, sweaty mess. Restorative yoga is meant to be relaxing in body and mind, and hot yoga is intended to increase heart rate and strengthen muscles in a high heat and humidity temperature-controlled room. We can assume this exerciser achieved the intended fitness goals during different workouts — relaxation in restorative class and an intense workout in hot yoga. With this example in mind, it is hard for us to tell others’ fitness goals based only on how they look. I encourage people to focus on themselves during workouts so they can be in tune with their bodies and minds. When people constantly look at others for comparison — with the exclusion of your personal trainer or group fitness instructor — they not only put themselves at risk of becoming physically hurt by using improper technique, but they also could be negatively impacting themselves. Potential issues include decreased self-esteem by comparing yourself to others, the possibility of injury by not focusing on yourself, decreased focus on your own goals, and the inability to “mind-read” someone else’s goals just by looking at them. How can this play out online? Almost everything is amplified online due to the nature of the internet, and I see different types of interactions between people, specifically when we’re looking at fitness. But one thing that we know is having other people be aware of someone’s goals helps people stick to their goals. When you’re creating that kind of community around your fitness, that could be extremely positive. It can be negative when people are posting for more harmful psychological purposes, such as boosting their self-esteem, as opposed to their true fitness goals. And other people might make negative comments and start trolling and really misinterpret the original poster’s intention. It’s perfectly okay to have confidence and want to put our best foot forward. But we have to make sure that that’s for ourselves and not for others. So much of the fitness content we consume online is about achieving a certain body type. Do you think this trend is supporting that endeavor? The trends we see on Instagram and TikTok definitely encourage certain body goals. For some, this can be motivating, but for others, this can lead to problems like eating disorders. We used to watch workouts on VHS and DVD to try to achieve our body goals, and that has evolved to streaming and social media. Motivational examples include Peloton instructors whose literal job it is to look good and motivate others, people who have overcome challenges related to illness and chronic disease, healthy weight loss success stories, and people who have healed from amputations. All of these people have different body types, and we can find many social media accounts that fall into these categories that encourage people to try their best to reach their own fitness goals. This might or might not include a specific body type. It is okay to admire someone else’s physique and to be motivated by their social media accounts. This becomes problematic when someone thinks there is only one acceptable body type. We also must keep realistic expectations for our body type and body shape. There’s this beautiful curvy look that’s in right now. It’s okay to want to look curvy, but what does curvy mean for your own body? It’s okay to want to look strong. So what does strong look like for your specific body? But I am pleased to see so many different body types, physical abilities, ages, and health conditions represented in positive ways on social media, and their aesthetic is a part of what makes their accounts successful and motivational. What’s the difference between focusing too much on an aesthetic and having a feel-good ritual? For instance, I wear all black when I go to the gym because it gets me in the right head space. How is that separate from “I wanna look a certain way during and after this workout so that I’m conveying a specific message to my followers”? Getting into that mindset and following your rituals is definitely important, and that’s for you. So as the exerciser, you’re saying, “I feel good when I have a new pair of shoes, when I’m in all black, or when I have my lucky headphones.” That’s an internal motivation for you. Wanting to look good before or after the physical workout is more of an external validation where people are looking for others to confirm that they’re worthy or good enough. With external validation, somebody might be looking for more comments, more followers, or more likes for a self-esteem boost and not necessarily for the passion of sharing exercise and fitness. Someone getting into their routine and posting that might encourage other people to find rituals that would be helpful for internal motivation. It’s also fine for people to want to look good. It’s perfectly okay to have confidence and want to put our best foot forward. But we have to make sure that that’s for ourselves and not for others. When it starts being more for others than yourself, that’s when we notice some red flags. And sometimes, after a great workout, you might not look as good, but that’s okay too. You’re sweating! Julia Craven is a writer covering anything she thinks is cool, and she’s the brain behind Make It Make Sense, a wellness newsletter.
5 h
What could a nuclear war do to the climate — and humanity?
A nuclear test on the Bikini Atoll. | Getty Images A new study on “nuclear winter” estimates that as many as 5 billion people could die from starvation. It may feel as if the world is ending, but it’s already happened — five times over the planet’s 4.5 billion-year history, to be precise. From the Ordovician-Silurian extinction event 440 million years ago to the dinosaur-killing Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction 65 million years ago, the Earth has experienced five mass extinction waves when more than 75 percent of the species on the planet were snuffed out. Forget threatened species — these were the moments when the lights almost went out on all life on Earth. What nearly all of those extinction events have in common is severe climate change on a geologically rapid time scale. During the End Permian event 251 million years ago — when an estimated 96 percent of species on Earth were killed off — a colossal volcanic eruption near what is now Siberia blasted vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. It led to a spike in global temperatures and climate disruption that most species couldn’t endure. When it comes to extinction — including our own — we should be worried about sudden climate change that occurs too rapidly for us to survive. Human-caused climate change will cause unprecedented suffering, but even under the worst-case scenarios it seems unlikely to unfold fast enough to definitively wipe us out. But as new research demonstrates, there is something else that may: nuclear winter. The long night In a study published Monday in the journal Nature Food, researchers led by Lili Xia and Alan Robock at Rutgers University modeled the climatic impacts of a nuclear war, and then attempted to quantify the effects on global food production. The results were grim: a full-scale nuclear war between the US and Russia with their current number of warheads could lead to as much as 150 million tons of soot being injected into the atmosphere, thanks to massive fires ignited by the explosions. All that soot would quickly spread around the globe and block incoming sunlight, putting the equivalent of a shade over the planet and leading to drastic global cooling. In the cold and dark, crops would wither and die, as would the livestock that depend on them. As a result, the researchers project that global calorie production could drop by as much as 90 percent, leaving an estimated 5 billion people dead from famine in what is now known as nuclear winter. “This would produce climate change that is unprecedented in human history,” Robock told reporters in a briefing on Monday. “In a US-Russia nuclear war, more people would die [from starvation] in India and Pakistan alone than in the countries actually fighting the war.” While the length and severity of the projected nuclear winter is related to the number of warheads used in an exchange, the researchers find that even a “limited” nuclear war between India and Pakistan — two nuclear-armed countries that have repeatedly clashed over the past 75 years — would have global effects on the climate. The fires from such a war could release as much as 47 million tons of soot into the atmosphere, with a worst-case scenario causing global calorie production to drop by as much as 50 percent and leading to 2 billion deaths around the world. The new study took advantage of recent computational progress in the latest climate models, only forecasting what would cause rapid cooling rather than long-term warming. Models of soot-forced cooling were fed into the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Community Land Model. That allowed the researchers to estimate the effect that cooling and the severe damage to the atmosphere’s ozone layer caused by nuclear explosions and soot would have on major crops like rice and wheat, as well as livestock pasture and global marine fisheries. “We were able to quantify how much food would be available for every country,” said Robock. It’s important to note that these numbers are estimates of the unimaginable, with significant uncertainty. Even with the best computer models, it’s difficult to know exactly how the climate would respond to nuclear war, harder to predict how cooling would precisely impact food production, and even tougher to say how human society would respond to what would be the most catastrophic event our species would have ever experienced. But we do know from the past that we would likely see significant cooling in the event of a nuclear firestorm. A massive volcanic eruption on Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815 — the largest such event in human history — led to cooling so extreme that the following year was known as the “year without a summer,” as crop failures and famines led to global starvation. More recently, the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines injected 15 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, causing a temporary reduction in average global temperatures of 0.5 degrees Celsius. The return of nuclear winter — and nuclear fears The Nature Food research is the latest paper in a long-running series of studies to examine the possibility of “nuclear winter.” While scientists were concerned about the effects that nuclear war would have on the climate from the earliest days of the Cold War, the term was first raised in studies published in 1983 by a team of researchers including the celebrity scientist Carl Sagan. Even before the research had come out — though after the studies had been accepted for publication — Sagan published an article in the popular magazine Parade hyping the threat from nuclear winter. The original nuclear winter research had enormous political influence, and was enormously controversial, as the historian Jill Lepore described in a 2017 piece in the New Yorker. While his administration pushed back against the research, President Ronald Reagan was largely persuaded by the argument, as was then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev; Reagan noted that a nuclear war “could just end up in no victory for anyone because we would wipe out the earth as we know it.” Within a few years of the publication of the original studies, the number of nuclear warheads in the world began to decline, from over 60,000 to around 10,000 today — and, with it, the fears of nuclear war. But as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year demonstrates, we may have forgotten about nuclear war, but nuclear war hasn’t forgotten about us. More countries possess nuclear weapons now than during the Cold War. International arms control treaties have begun to crumble, even as philanthropies have withdrawn from the nuclear realm. Delegates have been meeting this month at the United Nations in New York for the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, the cornerstone of the nuclear arms control regime, but little progress is expected even as global military spending is reaching a record high and international tensions have tightened. If the threat of nuclear war isn’t as high as it was during the worst days of the Cold War, it is worse than it has been in years — and any risk of a disaster as horrific as the one outlined in nuclear winter research is too high to endure. Earlier this month, the Future of Life Institute, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based think tank on catastrophic risks, gave its annual award to the scientists behind the original nuclear winter theory, and warned that this threat was not yet behind us. “The latest nuclear winter research confirms that Reagan was right when he said that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” said Max Tegmark, a physics professor at MIT and one of the founders of the Future of Life Institute. “In these turbulent times, the more decision-makers understand about nuclear winter, the less likely they are to make reckless decisions that may cause it.”
6 h
House of the Dragon is coming to HBO. So is the Netflix Chill.
HBO’s House of the Dragon does indeed feature a dragon. | HBO HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel rolls out as the streaming industry reconsiders ... everything. It’s just like old times at HBO — plenty of scheming, betrayal, blood-letting. Oh! And they have that on screen too: House of the Dragon, better known as The Sequel to Game of Thrones That’s Really a Prequel But Whatever It Is, It’d Better Work, debuts this Sunday. I’ve seen the first episode and, without breaking any embargoes, I can tell you that it features at least one dragon. But it’s the behind-the-scenes drama at HBO and Warner Brothers Discovery, the company that owns the programmer plus CNN and Warner Bros. studio, that has people in medialand chattering. What exactly is happening to some of the world’s most storied media brands? And for the rest of us, all of this matters, too: What’s going to happen to all the stuff we like to watch on our screens? We got the newest chapter earlier this week, when HBOMax — the streaming service that includes HBO as well as a bunch of other programming — let go of 70 people. That’s 14 percent of its staff, and it’s the first of multiple waves of layoffs throughout Warner Brothers Discovery that sources tell me will extend through the fall. And it comes on the heels of several moves — like killing off CNN+ days after it launched, mothballing the finished Batgirl movie before ever showing it to the public, and pulling made-for-HBOMax movies like Seth Rogen’s An American Pickle and Anne Hathaway’s The Witches off HBOMax — that indicate the company formerly known as WarnerMedia, once one of the most powerful media companies on the globe, is now trying to shrink itself to survive. It’s a nearly complete turnaround from the playbook WarnerMedia’s previous owners were using, and we can discuss the details in a minute. But the big picture is this: Remember the Netflix Chill I told you about earlier this year — Hollywood’s uneasy fear that the problems that brought Netflix to a halt would show up in the rest of the media world, too? That’s officially happening. And it means that the endless stream of movies and shows we’ve gotten used to isn’t going to go on forever. Streaming isn’t going away — as much as some execs might like — but the endless budget that Big Media has been throwing at it does turn out to have an end after all. Case in point: Demimonde, a Big Deal sci-fi series from J.J. Abrams — the producer/director who brought you Lost and the latest round of Star Wars reboots and lots of other stuff you like and Hollywood values — was supposed to be an HBO show. But now it’s not because HBO doesn’t want to pay for its reported “mid-$200 million” budget. Quick history lesson: The main idea behind AT&T’s acquisition of what was then-called Warner Media — first announced in 2016 but not finished until 2018 — was that the phone company could turn HBO into its own Netflix and that Wall Street would reward AT&T for owning its own Netflix. So in 2021, when it became clear that investors didn’t care about AT&T’s media foray, the company flipped a switch and dumped its entertainment assets to Discovery, the cable TV programmer best known for reality shows like 90 Day Fiancé. But now Discovery has multiple problems. For starters, it has $53 million in debt, much of it taken on with the Warner deal. Which means instead of spending aggressively to take on Netflix and Disney, it has to look under couch cushions for change, and David Zaslav, the CEO of the newly combined company, has promised Wall Street he’ll find $3 billion in cost savings ... somewhere. But the bigger problem is one that everyone in streaming — including Netflix — is grappling with now: Wall Street no longer likes Netflix. Netflix’s stock, which got as high as $700 last fall, is now down 50 percent because Netflix’s 10-year record rocketship growth appears over: During the first six months of this year, it actually lost subscribers. So now Wall Street, which had encouraged media companies to adopt Netflix’s growth-first, profits-maybe-later strategy, wants them to change course. (One important exemption from this: Amazon and Apple, which are tech companies dabbling in media, so they can basically spend whatever they want on programming: See Amazon’s Rings Of Power — a gazillion-dollar Lord of the Rings prequel that is very much supposed to be Amazon’s Game of Thrones. Not coincidentally, it will debut a couple weeks after House of the Dragon.) At Netflix, that means layoffs, an unprecedented move to add ads to a lower-priced tier of its service, and an end to ever-increasing content budgets. And at Warner Brothers Discovery, it means cuts everywhere — jobs, first and foremost, but also expensive bets like CNN+, the streaming service that Discovery canceled just weeks after launch. It also means Discovery is unwinding other projects undertaken by Warner’s previous management. Remember during the pandemic, when Warner put all of its movies on HBOMax the day they debuted in theaters — and then, post-ish pandemic, said that some movies would still stream right away but others would show up 45 days later? That’s gone: Zaslav has said that if Warner makes movies they should show up in movie theaters — and Elvis, which would already be streaming under the previous 45-day plan, is still not on HBOMax. Just as big a deal, at least in the eyes of former Warner execs: Under Zaslav, the company is preparing to start selling HBOMax via Amazon again — undoing a deal the previous regime made to stop working with Amazon, which it viewed as a competitor that would ultimately undermine the company’s ability to sell directly to consumers. The vitriol over this stuff between Warners’ new and old management is entertaining for professional media watchers like me. But it matters beyond industry gossip because it represents two very different ideas about how to run a media company: Discovery CEO David Zaslav and his team have gone out of their way to portray their predecessors, led by former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, as starry-eyed technologists who caught the streaming bug and couldn’t think about anything else. And former Warner people I’ve talked to think the Discovery guys (yup, mostly guys) only know how to merge, cut, and hope someone else buys them sooner than later, not how to grow a business for the long term. The truth is probably a little bit of both. “We got to be a little crazy,” a former WarnerMedia executive concedes. “But we knew we weren’t going to do it forever. I do think it’s right to pull back a little now.” Or, as HBO programming boss Casey Bloys diplomatically told me this week: “We’re at a time where [you have] the cable bundle, which is still a good business but is declining, and the streaming business, which is ascendant but people haven’t made much money on. So you’re trying to find a balance.” And despite what you may have read or heard, HBO’s new owners aren’t radically shrinking HBO, says Bloys, the executive who brought you all the HBO shows you’ve liked for the last several years — and who not coincidentally recently renewed his contract there. “Our budget is going to continue to grow,” he said. But Bloys — and everyone else managing businesses at Warner — is going to be asked to make less stuff and hope that the stuff he does make really breaks through — hence the increased stakes of House of the Dragon. HBO’s first attempt to build on its Game of Thrones success would be a big deal under any circumstances. But now? It’s going to be a really big deal, even as Bloys attempts to manage expectations. And yes, Discovery plans to merge its streaming service with HBO Max sometime next year. Which means that at some point you’ll have the ability to subscribe to something that includes both House of the Dragon and Dr. Pimple Popper, a Discovery reality show that’s just what you think it’s about. You can turn up your nose at that pairing — or you can acknowledge that it’s a lot like TV used to be, when in order to subscribe to HBO, you also had to get a package of cable channels that were nothing like HBO. Streaming’s not going anywhere, but the cable TV model is going to stick around for a while longer, too.
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Liz Cheney pays the price for taking on Trump
A campaign sign for Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) in Laramie, Wyoming. | Alex Wong/Getty Images Cheney’s predictable Wyoming loss frees her up to focus on taking down Trump and his GOP allies. Liz Cheney lost on Tuesday night. The question is whether it was a battle or a war. The immediate political fate of the three-term Wyoming Congress member had been a foregone conclusion; public polling consistently had Cheney lagging her Donald Trump-backed opponent Harriet Hageman, and the big margins — 65 to 31 percent with 59 percent of the votes reporting — also came as no surprise. Instead, Cheney had sought to characterize her race as part of an existential struggle for American democracy that pitted her against Trump. Her closing ad featured her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking straight to camera and insisting that “in our nation’s 246-year history, there has never been an individual who is a greater threat to our republic than Donald Trump.” In her remarks after her defeat on Tuesday, Cheney returned to this message, showing her willingness to target Trump and the Republicans who abet him. “Two years ago, I won this primary with 73 percent of the vote,” she said. “I could easily have done the same again. The path was clear. But it would’ve required that I go along with President Trump’s lie about the 2020 election. It would’ve required that I enable his ongoing efforts to unravel our democratic system and attack the foundations of our republic. That was a path I could not and would not take.” Cheney repeatedly referenced the Civil War and drew comparisons to the current political climate in the United States. “Our nation is barreling, once again, toward crisis, lawlessness, and violence,” she said. She went on to seemingly declare war on much of the Republican Party — which has nominated candidates who have echoed Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election across the country — by adding, “No American should support election deniers for any position of genuine responsibility.” Cheney got her loudest applause toward the end of her remarks when she told the crowd, “I have said since January 6 that I will do whatever it takes to ensure Donald Trump is never again near the Oval Office. And I mean it.” In contrast, a Trump spokesperson released an edited video on Twitter of the former president dancing to the late 1960s hit “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” A long-running internal conflict between factions of the Wyoming Republican Party deeply colored how voters in the Cowboy State made up their minds about Cheney’s race. But it captured national attention as a referendum on Trump’s standing and pull within the GOP. After all, Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president and former chair of the House Republican Conference, had seemingly impeccable conservative credentials — save, of course, for her vocal and virulent opposition to Trump in the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. She was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach the former president, and became a total apostate when she became the vice chair of the January 6 committee. Through this lens, Cheney’s loss is certainly a setback for the Never Trump forces within the Republican Party but leaves the Wyoming Congress member’s ongoing fight to make Trump persona non grata within the GOP unresolved. Cheney will have five more months to pursue her work on the January 6 committee without a campaign hanging over her head. Then, as Ahab pursued Moby Dick after leaving the Pequod for a whaling boat, she will be able to continue to target Trump as a private citizen even without her seat in Congress. Cheney has further built up her national profile in the past two years as the leading Republican opponent of Trump and will be able to draw on an array of major donors opposed to Trump as well as a formidable campaign war chest with over $7 million still on hand only weeks before the primary. Whether via a super PAC or a kamikaze presidential campaign or something else, Cheney has more options than the typical anti-Trump Republican who leaves Congress for a cable news gig. While Cheney reaffirmed “I am a conservative Republican” in her remarks on Tuesday, she pitched herself to a nonpartisan audience of all Americans opposed to Trump. “Let us resolve that we will stand together, Republicans, Democrats, independents, against those who would destroy our republic.” Local factors mattered in Tuesday’s race. Wyoming has seen a long-running internal conflict between a more traditional GOP establishment and a more ardently conservative new guard within the party. Cheney, as the daughter of a former vice president, was destined by birth to be in the first camp. She had personal baggage as well. Her crusade against Trump alienated Wyomingites not just because they were die-hard MAGA loyalists but because it seemed like her neglecting key local and parochial issues for the national spotlight. Hageman’s ads didn’t just hit Cheney for being anti-Trump; they also used that as a way to indicate that the three-term incumbent was out of touch with voters. Cheney had also raised the ire of local Republicans in 2013 when she launched an abortive primary campaign against incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi that was heavily focused on her family legacy. Cheney is the first federal incumbent in Wyoming to lose a primary since another political scion, William Henry Harrison III, lost his primary for Congress in 1968. While Harrison did have a notable political genealogy (his grandfather and great-great-grandfather both served as president), he had little else in common with Liz Cheney. Former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, a Democrat, recalled him as “sort of a weak link” and didn’t think there was “any comparison” to Cheney, for whom he changed his party registration to vote on Tuesday.
4 underrated parts of the Inflation Reduction Act
Employees of NY State Solar, a residential and commercial photovoltaic systems company, install solar panels in New York. Beyond tax credits for solar, the Inflation Reduction Act pays some utilities to help retire coal. | John Minchillo/AP The new climate law is more than just tax credits. President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law today, making it official that the US will spend a historic $370 billion to tackle climate change over the next decade. The extra cash for clean energy, electric vehicles, efficient manufacturing, and pollution cleanup will go a long way to nudging the US closer to sustainable climate targets. Most of the focus has been on the new law’s billions in clean energy tax credits and electric vehicles, a mix of which will go to consumers and to utilities and manufacturers. In terms of emissions cuts, boosting zero-carbon energy from its 20 percent of the grid will pack the biggest punch of the IRA’s emissions reductions. Other investments in electrified transportation and industry energy efficiency stand to pay off in the longer term. But the law also covers a lot of ground, including some policies and programs that are fascinating in their own right but are usually lumped together under the law’s broad “climate” category. Here are fourthat shouldn’t be missed. 1) $3 billion for highway removal and community cleanup One of the most damaging legacies of the intersection between racism and fossil fuels is how highways were built to cut through Latino and Black communities. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 alone displaced more than 1 million people, according to the Department of Transportation. People who remained near these roads, overwhelmingly communities of color, were exposed to more fine particulate matter from the tailpipes of cars and trucks. That legacy lingers today. A mountain of research has shown how Black people nationwide are exposed to more damaging pollution from construction, power plants, roads, and industry than white people. The Inflation Reduction Act includes a federal infusion of cash for community projects aimed at addressing some of the harmful effects of these projects. There is $3 billion marked for Neighborhood Access and Equity Grants, in addition to the $1 billion already approved under the bipartisan infrastructure law last fall. The money can be used for many things, including improving walkability, capping wells, installing noise barriers, and reducing the urban heat island effect. But one way communities could use the funding is to just remove a road, highway, or other types of damaging infrastructure. They can also reconnect communities divided by highways in other ways: “multi-use trails, regional greenways, or active transportation networks and spines.” George Rose/Getty Images Traffic moves along I-5 in Seattle, Washington, in November 2015. A grassroots effort is underway to “lid” I-5 to help reduce noise and runoff pollution, to provide more greenspace, and to reconnect the street grid. Highway removal is already underway in some parts of the country, and the biggest limitation tends to be funding. In Rochester, NY, the city is already removing part of its Inner Loop expressway to reconnect neighborhoods to a street grid with support from New York state. Grassroots advocates are working to draw national attention to impassable roads in New Orleans and Seattle. Demand for program funds will surely outstrip what Congress has appropriated. How far the $4 billion total for communities will stretch will depend heavily on Biden’s (or a future administration’s) implementation strategy. And the US’s priorities are still firmly behind building more lanes — the infrastructure law has $350 billion more for highway construction. 2) Direct payments to retire coal right under Manchin’s nose Slashing climate emissions requires doing two things at once: electrifying things like cars and stoves that typically run on fossil fuels while alsocleaning up fossil fuels in the power sector so that pollution doesn’t just come from another source. That’s the reason the US will have to shut down the last 172 coal plants within the decade to finally make good on its climate promises. One surprising policy to help with this transition made it into the final bill, even though it needed Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) sign-off: $10 billion in direct payments to rural electric co-ops that pay for the cost of a clean energy transition. The USDA will administer direct payments for these co-ops to retire coal-fired power plants. Many of the last coal plants standing are serving rural communities. E&E News noted that “32 percent of the power that supplies co-ops nationwide came from coal in 2019.” Investor-owned utilities, by contrast, generated 19 percent of their electricity from coal in 2020. These rural co-ops, which are collectively owned and governed by the communities they serve, have moved away from coal slowly more for economic reasons than political ones. These coal plants tend to be newer, and the communities they serve may be more risk-averse to transitioning to renewables because they have to pay directly for the cost of the transition. Aaron Ontiveroz/Denver Post via Getty Images Rural electric co-op United Power installs Tesla batteries at their battery station near Longmont, Colorado, in October 2018. But before rural communities can even think about transitioning to solar and wind, first they have to shut down the coal plants. And that can be expensive because it includes paying off any debts. (A separate $5 billion Department of Energy program in the bill offers loans that lower debts and costs for privately owned utilities to transition to renewables.) 3) Big influx to states to clean up climate emissions however they want A program called “Climate Pollution Reduction Grants” doesn’t sound too exciting. But Sam Ricketts, co-director of the group Evergreen Action, who advised Democrats on the bill, argues that the $5 billion in block grants should get its due. Each state is eligible to compete for one grant to cut carbon pollution, administered by the EPA. And it doesn’t have to be the governor who applies. This can make a major difference despite partisan differences. For example, Georgia’s independent public utility commissions could end up applying for this funding even if the governor was opposed. In blue states, the funding could help realize their 100 percent clean energy goals. In red states, one of the best uses for this money may be just to beef up state environmental agencies responsible for enforcement (Texas has an abysmal record of enforcing its own environmental rules against natural gas leaks). The beauty is in its flexibility, but a lot will depend on how EPA prioritizes funding. “This bill has a lot of really important carrots to drive forward decarbonization with investments,” Ricketts said. “We’re also going to need sticks. Some of those sticks are going to be the Clean Air Act and the federal government. Some are going to be states through their legislatures and through the public utility commissions.” 4) Tackling climate change the natural way through forests and soils The more controversial part of the bill is its funding of carbon capture for oil, coal, and industrial sites. Typically, these technologies have been used to just pump CO2 back in the ground for more drilling, rather than to do anything about the climate crisis. Still, prevailing climate science shows that some of this technology is probably needed to address the harder-to-decarbonize parts of the economy. So the federal funding for scaling new technologies could manage to go a long way over the long term. According to Princeton University REPEAT modeling, it could be about a fifth of the bill’s total impact on emissions in a decade. Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images A bulldozer drives on a coal mound at the NRG Energy Inc. WA Parish generating station in Thompsons, Texas, in February 2017. The plant was home to the Petra Nova Carbon Capture Project, which was shuttered in 2020. But there’s a more natural way to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and it’s right under our noses: trees and soil. As Benji Jones explained, the act includes $20 billion for “climate-smart” agriculture, which could help farmers store more carbon in their soil and plants. Part of that money, for example, will go toward an initiative called the Conservation Stewardship Program, which essentially pays farmers to make their land more environmentally friendly, such as by planting cover crops. Cover crops, which are planted when the ground would otherwise be fallow, are one way to increase a farm’s potential to store carbon (and can also help avoid emissions). Another $5 billion of the bill goes toward preventing wildfires and protecting old-growth forests, which are rich in carbon. This is critical because the US is expected to lose more of its natural carbon sinks over time under business-as-usual scenarios. “Helping slow and reverse that trend is a critical part of emissions reductions,” said Jesse Jenkins, head of Princeton’s REPEAT Project. The forest and agriculture land policies in the bill are enough to suck up emissions equivalent to the annual emissions from 19 million cars by 2030, based on Princeton’s modeling. An investment in agriculture and forestry “significantly broadens the reach of the bill,” Jenkins said, adding that these provisions are “important pieces of the path to net-zero emissions.”
How US corporations poisoned this Indigenous community
These invisible chemicals changed the Mohawk way of life. They’re probably already in you, too. In the 1950s, the US and Canada embarked on a massive project to widen the St. Lawrence River, transforming the region to facilitate commerce, attract industry, and boost both nations’ economies. But there was a third nation in the region whose people were not consulted, and whose lifestyle was completely transformed by the project: the Mohawk of Akwesasne. The St. Lawrence River has been central to Mohawk culture in the region for thousands of years. The river’s fish form the central part of their diet. But for the Mohawk, the fish aren’t a “resource” to be used. They’re an equal partner in a relationship in which both humans and wildlife have sacred responsibilities to one another. These relationships are central to the Mohawk worldview, and they mirror similar ways of understanding the natural world in other Indigenous communities. But the bid to lure industry to the region worked. Two major manufacturers built factories close to Akwesasne, and by the 1980s, the Mohawk learned that General Motors and Reynolds Metals had been poisoning the river for decades with cancer-causing chemicals called PCBs. Fish in the river were found to have extremely dangerous levels of PCBs. It presented the community with a devastating choice: continue to fish and risk health problems like cancer and thyroid disorders, or stop fishing and lose the connection with the river, and with their ancestors. The full statement we received from Alcoa, owner of Reynolds Metals, is as follows: Today, Reynolds Metals Company and the U.S. EPA continue to monitor the various remediation solutions related to the St. Lawrence River and the historical operations from Reynolds Metals Company near Massena. The remediation work was designed in 2000, after public input and consultation, to protect human health and the environment. The work included dredging and capping portions of the river. In 2021, the U.S. EPA completed its fourth, five-year review of the remediation project. EPA confirmed that the remediation work is effective and that it continues to protect human health and the environment. Alcoa Inc., the former parent company to Alcoa Corporation, acquired Reynolds Metals in 2000. In November of 2016, Alcoa Inc. separated into two companies, Arconic Inc. and Alcoa Corporation, and Reynolds was assigned to Alcoa Corporation. You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube.
Salman Rushdie and the enduring risk of political art
Author and social commentator Salman Rushdie speaks at the Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson, Mississippi, in August 2018. | Rogelio V. Solis/AP Did Americans forget the risks of free speech? Novelist Salman Rushdie walked on stage at a summer festival atthe Chautauqua Institution in New Yorkto speak on Friday and was stabbed 10 times by an assailant. The violent attack on free speech has left Rushdie in the hospital and revived concerns around the perils facing artists who take risks. Rushdie has faced death threats for more than three decades, since the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie in 1989 and called for his death over purported blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses, which satirized Islamic histories and mythologies with magical realism. For a decade following, Rushdie lived underground as the book caused a firestorm. Khomeini’s condemnation led to booksellers in Europe and the United States being firebombed and publishers receiving persistent bomb threats. The Japanese translator of the novel, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered in 1991. The threats against Rushdie never went away, but fell into the cultural backdrop. His books are taught in universities and sold in bookstores. The Satanic Verses has “become a symbol of freedom of speech,” said Tope Folarin, author of A Particular Kind of Black Man. And on a craft level, he said, Rushdie “is a master of doing this sprawling, big-picture fiction that includes a host of characters, and is really about showing your virtuosity.” In the recent decades, Rushdie reemerged into social life. Though the reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called the affair “completely finished” in 1998, the fatwa was not formally rescinded. Asked by the comedian Larry David about how the fatwa weighed on him, Rushdie replied in a 2017 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, “It’s there, but fuck it.” The attack on Rushdie is a striking reminder that fiction — along with art, poetry, and comics — can be dangerous tools that hold real power and risks. Iran’s role here is not clear. Rushdie’s alleged attacker Hadi Matar is 24 years old; that is, younger than the novel that spurred the fatwa. He’s currently held in custody, and his attorney emphasized to the Daily Beast “the presumption of innocence,” but didn’t comment further. Intelligence sources told VICE that Matar, whose family is from southern Lebanon, may have links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. But rather than focus on the perpetrator or what role, if any, Iran played, this is a moment to appreciate Rushdie’s multifold living legacy. That Rushdie remains a source of inspiration says perhaps even more about the ubiquity ofthose countering forms of repression — either subtle or violent, from individuals or the state. “He was instrumental in showing me what a writer ought to be, and that is fearless and in opposition to power, wherever power gathers in culture, society, or politics,” novelist Zia Haider Rahman, the author of In the Light of What We Know, told me. “When I look around at the world of letters in the Anglosphere, what I see missing today is the fearlessness of the young Rushdie.” The controversy over The Satanic Verses, briefly explained Rushdie, who was born in Bombay before the British Empire’s partition of India and later worked in London as a copywriter, was a celebrated author even before The Satanic Verses. His second novel, Midnight’s Children, earned him the prestigious Booker prize. He brought South Asian characters into the anglophone literary scene and a post-colonial consciousness into global literature. As historian Juan Cole notes, “Ironically, the early 1980s translations of Midnight’s Children and Shame into Persian caused Rushdie to be admired in Iran for his anti-imperialism.” Then came 1988. That year, Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. Its intellectual origins can be traced to Rushdie’s undergraduate coursework in Cambridge when, as the novelist Laila Lalami notes, he studied a disputed set of verses spoken by the Prophet Muhammad that early Islamic scholars argued about (and later scholars rejected). From the contested text and its subtext, Lalami explains that Rushdie took away a key theme: “The incident of the Satanic verses is essentially a case of prophetic testimony inspired by Satan, then corrected by God — a fascinating exchange between what is profane and what is divine, between the politically expedient and the religiously authentic,” she writes in The Nation. Mirrorpix/Getty Images A protest against Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in Derby, UK, on March 15, 1989. Georges De Keerle/Getty Images A policeman stands guard outside the offices of the publisher Penguin Group in London, UK, on February 24, 1989. Rushdie’s reworking of that story in the dreamscapes of his protagonist first stirred controversy in India, then back in the British press, and then the grand sheikh of the influential Al-Azhar institution in Cairo called it blasphemous. In February 1989 came the Ayatollah’s fatwa. (Two days before, Pakistan’s riot police fired on demonstrators outside an American cultural institution in the country and killed at least five.) As the book was banned in many Muslim and Arab countries, protests multiplied, with tens of thousands of people holding inflammatory signs and chanting slogans against Rushdie. Death threats confronted publishers, booksellers, and translators associated with the author, even as many rallied behind him. Rushdie went into hiding. Homi Bhabha, a senior scholar of literary criticism who teaches at Harvard, remembers reading early proofs of The Satanic Verses. Rushdie “never mentioned the possibility of this kind of outrage,” Bhabha told me. “It was terrifying.” The book is now caught up in religious controversy, but Bhabha — who was due to host a discussion with Rushdie this coming week as part of an ongoing series — explained that the novel is fundamentally about “displaced peoples and displaced geographies” in the time of Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing British government. “It’s very much a book about the way in which migrant communities — largely South Asian, but he is also interested in Afro-Caribbeans and others — constitute themselves as a community,” Bhabha explained. It’s about “the way in which they confront issues to do with identity, to do with history, to do with the past, to do with the future, and the way in which, particularly in Thatcherite Britain, they are treated as second-class citizens.” Rushdie’s status as an immigrant writer who made it big in London made him a symbolic mentor to a generation since. “I am a direct beneficiary of somebody like him stepping forward and saying, ‘I can write as ambitiously and as gorgeously as any writer can,’” Folarin, a Nigerian American novelist who also directs the Institute for Policy Studies think tank, told me. Raised in a devout Pentecostal family, Folarin recalled the thrill of reading the novel in graduate school, a book whose very title was subversive. “The one thing that I’m really sort of disappointed about, in the midst of all this stuff, is that The Satanic Verses is a really good book,” he told me. Rahman described coming into political awareness in the ’80s in London as an immigrant from Bangladesh “with a subaltern consciousness,” andhow Rushdie presented to him a new way of thinking. “He also made us acutely aware that we were pawns in another person’s game, that we were objects of political discourse,” Rahman said. Writers, it might be said, are a lot easier to attack than politicians and religious leaders. And the fatwa on Rushdie led to a wave of writers being threatened and targeted — an assassination attempt on the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz in 1994 and a series of attacks on writers in Algeria in the 1990s. Around that time, Rushdie put forward the idea of a “City of Asylum” for writers at risk from around the globe. When speech offends It’s easy to forget how dangerousand complexsome speech can be — but it’s a theme that I’ve been reporting on for over a decade. Perhaps most in places where free speech is not protected, artists bend whatever rules exist and take risks, creating more space for expression in the process. In January 2015, two gunmen burst into the Paris offices of the French comic magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12, including five of the magazine’s rabble-rousing cartoonists. I covered that tragedy from my base at the time in Cairo, Egypt, where as a journalist I wrote widely about cultural currents, focusing on how cartoonists and satirists grapple with the red lines of acceptable speech in countries with a repressive state and conservative religious politics. Many Arab cartoonists I interviewed had experienced censorship from state-aligned editors and death threats from religious extremists. They all staunchly supported the right of Charlie Hebdo to draw controversial topics related to Islam. But cartoonists simultaneously criticized Charlie Hebdo for “punching down” at marginalized communities in Europe. It was, in some ways, a more subtle debate than what was happening in France or the United States, in which a kind of black-and-whiteness prevailed; you were either with the artists (“Je Suis Charlie” was the slogan of the moment) or against them, rather than asking why and how such a situation arose. Godong/Corbis via Getty Images A portrait of killed cartoonist Georges Wolinski at the center of a vigil in memory of the Charlie Hebdo victims in Paris. When the free speech advocacy group PEN America set out to honor Charlie Hebdo for its annual award, six prominent writers took a stand against it — reviving a line that the late Marxist critic John Berger and others put forward about Rushdie around the time of the fatwa — that the work was incendiary and problematic. Rushdie, a longtime PEN advocate, rejected the detractors and called them “horribly wrong.” Another incident that comes to mind is that of the Egyptian author Ahmed Naji. A private citizen had accused him of “disturbing the public decency” for the gonzo novel Using Life, with some salacious scenes that, after a turn of unfortunate events, landed him in prison for 10 months. The beat authors Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs had faced obscenity trials in the United States in the postwar years, but I never imagined I would find myself in the courtroom of a peer who was on trial for transgressing public morals. While in prison, Naji was recognized with PEN’s Freedom to Write Award, and Rushdie wrote him a note — “I send you all of my solidarity and administration” — which meant a tremendous amount to Naji while incarcerated. When I was in prison, I received this message from him, which uplifted me and gave me dazzling light during the prison's dark nights. For the last four years, I have been supported by BMI through the City of Asylum fellowship program, which he helped to inspire and co-founded.— Ahmed Naji (@AhmedNajiTW) August 12, 2022 Funnily enough, Naji had taken up reading Rushdie in prison. He had always wanted to read Rushdie’s novels, he said, but they are big, long books, and he remembers telling his friends that he never had the time. So Naji’s friend sent him Midnight’s Children in prison, and then four more of Rushdie’s novels. “I always felt there is a kind of connection and relation between us,” Naji told me. Now, Naji is a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas, a literary center that is part of the City of Asylum network that Rushdie had envisioned. That refuge might seem unnecessary in 2022. But30 years after the publication of The Satanic Verses, risks to writers endure. Some of those hazards come from violent extremists. Last month, the terrorist group al-Qaeda, in one of its publications, issued a death threat against the Egyptian journalist and novelist Ibrahim Eissa. States, too, engage in violent censorship, and a review of PEN’s Writers at Risk Database include those who have been murdered, jailed, or disappeared in repressive countries across the world. Authors are detained in Bangladesh, China, Myanmar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and many other countries. Journalists, of course, confront violence as ever. Some critics and scholars question whether Satanic Verses could be written today. Rushdie himself posited as much in 2012. But looking around the world at all of the writers at risk who continue to work against unfathomable challenges, I think it could. “Writers have been in terrible situations and have yet managed to produce extraordinary work,” Rushdie said in 2012. “[T]he history of literature is full of moments in which writers in dreadful situations have produced great stuff. “And I thought to myself, ‘OK, well, if this is your turn, if you find yourself in the latest of that line of people, don’t make excuses.’”
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Recreating The Simpsons in the post-apocalypse
Britney Nicole Simpson as Marge and Merritt Janson as Bart in the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s 2022 production of Mr. Burns. | T. Charles Erickson. Anne Washburn, the playwright behind Mr. Burns, explains herself: “It’s about the comfort of looking again.” Anne Washburn’s play Mr. Burns begins with a striking image. A group of four people sits around a campfire. They are tense, watchful, carrying guns. A woman apparently mute with trauma crouches on the outskirts of the firelight. The group is trying to remember the details of an episode of The Simpsons. Mr. Burns takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, one now oddly more familiar than it was when the show was first staged in Washington, DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre in 2012. Humanity has been decimated by a pandemic. In the aftermath, the electrical grid has failed, which in turn has led to the meltdown of the world’s nuclear reactors. Now, just months after civilization has been utterly destroyed, a few scattered survivors are trying to pass the night by reconstructing the 1993 Simpsons episode “Cape Feare,” which sees ex-convict Sideshow Bob setting out on a murderous campaign to kill Bart Simpson. In the second of Mr. Burns’s three acts, we see the post-apocalyptic world advanced seven years into the future. Now, the survivors we met in Act 1 have formed an acting troupe. They travel what’s left of the US performing old episodes of The Simpsons, complete with interludes for commercials and a medley of the biggest pop hits of the 2000s. In the final act, which takes place 75 years later, things have changed yet again. Now, “Cape Feare” has become a kind of epic poem that a new society uses to mourn the loss of the old. It’s Homer meets Homer (the other one). Mr. Burns is now onstage again at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Garrison, New York. It’s the first major revival of the work since it became a cult sensation at New York’s Playwrights Horizon in 2013, which means it’s also the first major revival since the pandemic hit in 2020. And now that we’ve all lived through lockdown and what felt like at least one minor apocalypse, we know that Washburn was correct about what you do at the end of the world: you sit down and you try to lose yourself in some good old-fashioned comfort television. To find out more about what Mr. Burns has to tell us about stories, how they change, and why we need them, I called Washburn up over Zoom. Highlights from our conversation, lightly edited for length and flow, are below. I want to start with the creation of this idea. I’ve read that you said you were interested in seeing what would happen if you pushed a TV show past the apocalypse. Did you always have in mind the same ending point, with the TV show becoming a piece of classical tragedy? Yes. What I knew about it when I started was that the first act would be right after the fall of civilization. The second act would be five or seven years later, and then the end would be 75 years later. There would be a few old people around who could still remember what it had been like before, but mostly it would be a new generation. Talk to me about the development process for this show. How did you build out the three acts? I wanted to start with getting a few actors in a room to remember a Simpsons episode, because that language of trying to remember something is so specific and wonderful and delightful. But I didn’t want to inconvenience my friends, the actors, for more than a day without paying them, and I didn’t know how long it would take. So I kind of sat on this idea for a couple of years. And then I was talking with Steve Cosson, who is AD [artistic director] of The Civilians, this investigative theater group that I’m part of. He asked if I wanted to apply for a commission. So we [proposed Mr. Burns] for that, and the commission came with some development money. So then we plunked this group of actors together in this weirdo rehearsal space in a bank vault underneath Wall Street, which was a free space that summer that was getting passed around. Very post-apocalypse. It was very post-apocalypse. Our cellphones didn’t work in there. We were in a literal bank vault, with a huge door to it. The lights flickered. It was incredible, kind of great and horrifying. I knew I wanted to start with that language [of remembering], so we sort of had them remember Simpsons episodes, and we had them do it many different times. I had a transcript of it, and then I sat on it for two years until Steve began to bug me, because I didn’t think it was a show anyone would do. I transcribed their multiple versions and put it into one version, and that was how it started. And then I just basically wrote it. The episode you landed on, “Cape Feare,” is really a perfect episode of The Simpsons for this project because it’s so referential. It’s built around the Robert De Niro movie Cape Fear from 1991, which itself is a remake of the 1962 movie Cape Fear and also heavily drawing from the 1955 movie Night of the Hunter. And both of the Cape Fear movies are based on a novel. Did you ever have a moment of being like, “Yes, this referentiality is going to be one of the big themes of this show, and it’s all coming together”? I didn’t have that train of thought. But it seemed perfect. Even before we got the actors together in the room, the show was still called Mr. Burns. So I didn’t know how it was going to end or what was going to happen at the ending, but I knew that Mr. Burns was a central figure of it somewhere, the central villain. We were really taking a chance on them remembering episodes that would have been good. I love to think what would have happened if we’d had a different episode. How differently would the play have gone? It might not have gone differently. I think the moment you come up with an idea for a play, in some weird way you’ve already structured it in your head. But then so much of the play depended on that. All of which is to say it felt quite perfect in many ways. It’s deeply referential, but it’s also just such a deeply primitive story: It’s a family on a river, with a killer. So it’s horrifying in that way, and also in a post-apocalyptic time of poor societal control, it would really feel right. I had a conversation after I had written it with Jon Vitti, who was the lead writer on that episode. He came to see it in DC, which we hadn’t considered as a thing that might happen. I thought, “Oh, The Simpsons is created by this phalanx of Harvard men.” Suddenly I realized, “Oh, there’s a writer who wrote this.” I was sort of terrified that he wouldn’t like it and would feel violated, but he loved it. One of the things he said to me that I thought was really interesting was that it was the practice of [The Simpsons] that you couldn’t reference any one source very particularly. It was mixed and mashed up so that any audience member coming in who might not have seen one particular thing wouldn’t be left at sea. But this episode was written at the very end of season five, when that initial writer’s room was just about to go. They kind of figured, “Fuck it.” They wanted to do an episode that centered more around one movie. A lot of people really remember that episode very well, and I think it’s because it’s a more intact story, and a more intact set of references. It references a million other things as well, like any of them do. But it’s easier to put together in your head, because it retains this kind of ancient lineage of the remake of Cape Fear and the original Cape Fear and Night of the Hunter. It has this core running through it. I want to zoom out a little now. In the first act, we see the survivors of this apocalypse sitting around the campfire, trying to retell this Simpsons episode from memory. It feels very true to what life was like at the beginning of lockdown, when so many of us were spending time watching nostalgic old TV shows. Why do you think this kind of pop culture comfort food can feel so important in times of deep disaster? It seemed to me that if you had a group of people who didn’t know each other around a campfire, they would want to tell the stories they have in common. Because when you’re anxious, you look for stories you already know. And the stories that we all have in common at this point are TV shows. I mean, they used to be. It’s not the same anymore. I would write it differently if I were writing it now, honestly, because we’re much more divergent. But at that time, everybody had seen The Simpsons. Also, it’s funny. It’s a place you would want to go if everything around you was dark and unholy. In the same way that I was about to watch what I am told is an uncommonly fine television series, Chernobyl, and then the pandemic hit. And I was like, “That’s on hold. I will not watch this program, however wonderful, anytime soon.” I think of this play — and I didn’t think of it in this way when I wrote it — but I think of it as being in many ways a 9/11 play. It was written about 10 years afterward, and it takes about that long to digest something. I’m sure there’s going to be all sorts of stuff about the pandemic coming out soon, but it’s going to be longer before it really starts. But something I thought was really interesting about 9/11 was the way that, because it was a shared group crisis in New York, there was this etiquette. People instantly cottoned onto ways of behaving or ways of giving information, and everybody did it very quickly. I’d never seen the formation of etiquette or group process happen that quickly. I felt a similar way in the pandemic. Nobody was masking, nobody was masking, nobody was masking, there was a mandate, and then suddenly everybody was masking. Everybody suddenly began panicking and running for the beans. There was this whole elaborate thing of wearing a mask in the park when no one was there, or taking it off the moment you saw someone in the distance. We all obeyed the same rules at the same time. So in that way it felt recollective to me of groupthink, or the ways we all operate as animals when we’re in crisis and decide to do the same thing. In the second act, we see this acting troupe recreating not just the Simpsons episode, but also a long commercial segment. We learn that they pride themselves on the strength of their commercials as being what sets them apart from other troupes. The commercial isn’t really selling anything in particular, but it’s sort of an invocation of brand names and various capitalist creature comforts. What led you to including that segment in the second act? Commercials are kind of incredible. They’re an incredibly useful way to create suspense within a narrative. This is something we don’t experience in the same way anymore, but it used to be you’d be experiencing your drama or your comedy, and then you’d be bopped out of it. And it’s irritating, but then you’d see one commercial, and then another commercial, and then another commercial. They’re actually an incredibly weird, creative thing to have in the middle of other stories. Like vaudeville in the middle of the drama. It’s about the comfort of looking again. It’s about the deeply bittersweet comfort of looking at where we were when we had all this food, and the problem was someone in your office taking food from the fridge. But it’s also the place where they [the actors within the play] could stretch a little bit, in ways they might not even understand as being creative. It’s not the way that we handle commercials now. We talk about commercials satirically, so I think even the fact of watching people handling commercials not satirically signals to the audience, in a very quiet way, that this is a very different society. Even if you can’t quite put your finger on it. We also learn in the second act that there are a bunch of other acting troupes out there, and they’re all vying for control of various Simpsons episodes to perform. How did you decide that copyright would outlast the apocalypse? Any creative group has monitored, if they could, their version of things. As long as art is worth something, people want to know that their version is protected, and in the absence of a copyright office you turn to different methods. If something’s worth something you’re going to be protective of it, and art is always worth something. You mentioned earlier that you knew from the beginning that Mr. Burns was going to be a central character, and then you ended up building the play around “Cape Feare,” which is a Sideshow Bob episode where Mr. Burns doesn’t appear. I really love the way that in the final act, we see that Sideshow Bob has become conflated with Mr. Burns as the great mythic villain who the Simpsons must fight. How did you come to the decision that this transformation would have to happen? Villains swap out easily, as we see in Batman and Spider-Man. The hero’s always the same and the villain’s always different. That doesn’t take much. Without getting too far into it, I felt like the villain in the third act would be a figure which would reflect the fears of that world, would articulate the dangers which aren’t going away. In Night of the Hunter, he’s a force who’s noncivilized. Robert Mitchum who becomes Robert de Niro who becomes Sideshow Bob: he’s uncontainable. He can’t be controlled by society. If you expand that to all the forces who can’t be controlled in Act 3, that’s what that figure can circle around. It’s social stuff, it’s violence, it’s everything that can’t be regulated by law. It’s environmental damage. All of the darknesses which are invisible. Okay, time for us to wrap up. It’s the end of the world and you’re sitting around the campfire, telling stories. What stories are you telling? I think it would happen much the way it happened in the bank vault: you’d have a group of people canvassing each other and riffing off of this and riffing off of that, and then something would catch fire in the group. And people would figure out what kind of story they wanted to hear together. So the story comes from the group and from our shared communities? I think it comes from our need, right? And we don’t necessarily know what we need until we touch on something that starts to fulfill that.
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How the Western drought is pushing the power grid to the brink
Lake Mead, impounded by the Hoover Dam, reached record lows this year, leading to cuts in electricity production. | George Rose/Getty Images The megadrought is costing us megawatts. It takes a lot of water to make power. From spinning turbines to hydraulic fracturing to refining fuel, the flow of water is critical to the flow of electrons and heat. About 40 percent of water withdrawals — water taken out of groundwater or surface sources — in the United States go toward energy production. The large majority of that share is used to cool power plants. In turn, it requires energy to extract, purify, transport, and deliver water. So when temperatures rise and water levels drop, the energy sector gets squeezed hard. The consequences of water shortages are playing out now in swaths of the American West, where an expansive, decades-long drought is forcing drastic cuts in hydroelectric power generation. At the same time, exceptional heat has pushed energy demand to record highs. As the climate changes, these stresses will mount. The United Nations Environment Programme warned this month that if drought conditions persist, the two largest hydroelectric reservoirs in the US — Lake Mead and Lake Powell —could eventually reach “dead pool status,” where water levels fall too low to flow downstream. Lake Mead fuels the Hoover Dam, which has a power capacity topping 2,000 megawatts while Lake Powell drives generators that peak at 1,300 megawatts at the Glen Canyon Dam. National Integrated Drought Information System Power plants across huge swaths of the Western United States are under drought conditions. “Water supplies for agriculture, fisheries, ecosystems, industry, cities, and energy are no longer stable given anthropogenic climate change,” Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, told Congress in June. With hydropower production falling in recent months, natural gas plants are filling the void in the United States, leading to even more greenhouse gas emissions that heat up the planet. This isn’t just a problem in the US. Extreme weather around the world, worsened by climate change, is causing all sorts of stresses to power grids. France has had to curb output from its nuclear power plants because the water they use for cooling warmed up too much. French nuclear plants have also received allowances to discharge hotter water back into rivers to meet energy demand. Low water levels in the Rhine River are threatening to disrupt coal and gasoline shipments in Germany. As average temperatures continue to rise, many parts of the world will see energy demands grow and supplies constrained, with water as the key factor on both sides of the equation. The good news is that the energy sector is learning to do more with less water. In the US, the overall water use per unit of energy has been declining in recent years. But that trend will have to accelerate in order to keep people cool and slaked in a warmer world. How drought is drying up energy production The energy sector uses water differently than households, farms, and factories, because while it requires a lot, much of that water isn’t used up but instead goes back into reservoirs, rivers, and lakes. A dam can release water to spin a turbine to generate electricity and that water can be used again by another dam downstream, for instance. In the US, 90 percent of electricity comes from thermal power plants. They use a fuel — coal, gas, nuclear — to boil water into steam to spin a turbine that turns a generator. That water is contained in a closed loop. To condense the steam, however, these plants often draw on water sources to cool down. Most US power plants also use a closed loop for cooling, recirculating water with minimal loss, but 36 percent of plants use “once-through” cooling, taking in water from a source and then discharging it back into the lake, river, or ocean it came from. “The [thermal] power plants may withdraw a lot of water, but they return 98 percent of it, at a higher temperature,” said Bridget Scanlon, a senior research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas Austin. “They don’t ‘consume’ a lot.” Coal, gas, and nuclear plants don’t necessarily require freshwater, either, and can draw on brackish water or other sources that aren’t fit for drinking. That way, they don’t have to compete with cities and farms for fresh water. But drought still affects power generation directly in several ways. For hydroelectric plants, lower water levels in a reservoir means there’s less energy available to produce electricity. Reservoirs like Lake Powell, behind the Glen Canyon Dam, store so much water that they can continue providing steady power even through drought years. But the long-term drying across the Western US has managed to drink up these reserves. RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/Denver Post via Getty Images Lake Powell, impounded by the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, sits at record low water levels. “Those are such large reservoirs that it does take multi-year droughts to put a significant dent in hydropower production, but that’s starting to happen,” said Jordan Kern, an assistant professor of forestry and environmental resources at North Carolina State University. “There is concern, not this summer, but potentially next summer and moving forward, that water levels could be so low that Hoover Dam might not be able to produce electricity.” For thermal plants, droughts mean there is less water overall, including the marginal water sources that they can use. That’s compounded during heat waves, where water temperatures rise and lower water levels allow sources to heat up faster. Drawing on hotter water makes power plants operate less efficiently, reducing the amount of electricity they can make. Power plants heat up the water they use for cooling before it’s returned to the source. Too much of this hot water pumped back into nature can harm wildlife, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency regulates this “thermal pollution.” During heat waves, power plants face limits on how much water they can return to nature, or they must receive special permits to continue operating as normal. Drought also hampers fuel production for power. Hydraulic fracturing, the technique that provides the most oil and gas in the US, requires enormous quantities of water pumped underground to fracture rock and release fossil fuels. On average, a fracking well uses about 4 million gallons of water. Refining oil also uses a lot of water: it takes 1.5 barrels of water to process 1 barrel of crude oil. With less water to go around, all of these energy operations become more difficult and expensive. That said, the Western US so far hasn’t seen major power cuts or plant shutdowns like those in Europe this summer. A big reason is that the region is vast, with hundreds of power plants connected through a massive power grid, including more than 600 hydroelectric dams. While many power plants face production shortfalls as a result of the drought, there are enough other generators that can fill the gap, and it’s much easier to shunt electricity around the country than water. “The loss of those projects doesn’t mean lights out for ordinary people,” said Sean Turner, a water resources modeler at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. And while some basins like the Colorado River are running low, other regions like the Pacific Northwest have had a surfeit of water this year, bolstered by robust snowfall this past winter. That has helped boost hydropower from the region to above-average levels. “If you take an overall picture of hydro over the whole West, the story is different to what you would consider if you just look at those isolated cases where drought is really making its impact,” Turner said. Citizens of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images A well is drilled to supply water to a fracking site in San Joaquin Valley, California. However, the situation has been dicier in Texas. Much of the state is covered by its own power grid that largely doesn’t integrate into the wider network across the West. As a result, Texas can’t easily buy power from elsewhere and has to meet its own demand within its borders. Drought coupled with record demand this summer led ERCOT, the state’s grid operator, to issue requests to Texans to conserve electricity and water. While the grid has so far held up, the threat from drought to energy production is only growing, exacerbated by climate change. “In the future, drought and severe heat waves will continue to pressure electricity generators, particularly hydropower and large thermal facilities,” said Kelly Twomey Sanders, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California, in an email. The long, dusty road to making energy less thirsty Fortunately, there are ways to use less water to produce energy. In the US, the amount of water needed for power has fallen from 14,928 gallons per megawatt-hour in 2015 to 11,857 per MWh in 2020. That’s due largely to shifting toward natural gas-fired plants that generate electricity more efficiently and require less water for cooling. The proliferation of wind and solar power, both of which require minimal water, has also reduced water demands. Some power plants are now using dry cooling, a technology that requires 95 percent less water than conventional methods. The trade-offs are that dry cooling systems are more expensive to install and require more energy to operate, which makes power plants less efficient. So a dry cooling system on a coal or gas power plant could end up saving water but lead to more greenhouse gas emissions. US Energy Information Administration Most US power plants use a closed loop of water for cooling, but a growing number are using dry cooling technology. However, to truly prepare for a hotter, drier future, planners will have to think and act beyond individual power plants. The West needs a diverse mix of energy sources to ensure that the strengths of one can compensate for the weaknesses of another. Preparing the energy sector for future water shortages also requires rethinking some of the policies that helped create the situation. Water in the Colorado River basin is infamously overallocated, with more water claims than there is water to go around, creating a system that could lead to faster water depletion. On the demand side, many of the fastest growing regions in the US are in places facing extreme water stress and higher temperatures. US Census Bureau Populations are growing rapidly in the Southwestern US, a region also facing water stress. Mitigating this demand spike will require more efficient cooling systems, urban planning designed to reduce heat, and stricter water conservation. Otherwise, the West is poised for even more energy supply shortages worsened by water constraints and surging power demand from the hottest regions, especially along the drought-parched Colorado River. “Without significant change to water management and demand from the basin, it’s likely that this type of situation is going to continue to reemerge,” Turner said.
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What the new $80 billion for the IRS really means for your taxes
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images The Inflation Reduction Act includes nearly $80 billion in funding for the IRS, which is supposed to help the underfunded agency hire more staff and collect unpaid taxes from wealthy Americans. Democrats’ new climate, health care, and tax package — known as the Inflation Reduction Act — includes nearly $80 billion in new funding for the Internal Revenue Service, which is supposed to help the chronically underfunded agency staff back up and boost enforcement measures to collect unpaid taxes from wealthy Americans. The funding has become a political flashpoint in recent days among conservatives and some business groups, who have falsely claimed that the IRS will use the money to hire an “army” of 87,000 new agents who will target average taxpayers. Sen. Mike Crapo, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said the new funding would be used to “squeeze more revenue” out of Americans who make less than $400,000 because they’re “easy targets.” Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, said the money would be used to “harass the middle class.” The National Federation of Independent Business called the enforcement efforts an “indirect tax” that would burden small businesses with more audits and examinations. Treasury Department officials say all of those claims are false. Administration officials have reiterated that they will focus enforcement efforts on wealthy Americans and large corporations. The $80 billion in funding for the IRS is a small fraction of the Inflation Reduction Act, which is expected to include more than $400 billion in spending. It’s meant to begin reversing more than a decade of decay and budget cuts at the agency. The IRS’s budget has been cut by nearly 20 percent since 2010, impacting the agency’s ability to staff up and modernize half-century-old technology. In 2010, the IRS had about 94,000 employees. That number dipped to about 78,000 employees in 2021. Some of the agency’s computers still run on COBOL, a programming language that dates back to the 1960s. Since 2010, the agency’s enforcement staff has declined by 30 percent, according to IRS officials, and audit rates for the wealthiest taxpayers have seen the biggest declines because of years of underfunding. The new bill is an attempt to change that. What the bill means for most people who file taxes The new funding is intended to help reduce the “tax gap,” or the difference between what people pay in taxes and what they owe in taxes, which the Treasury Department estimates is about $600 billion annually. The new money could help the IRS increase revenue by about $200 billion over the next decade, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate, although the exact amount is hard to calculate and highly uncertain. Natasha Sarin, a counselor for tax policy and implementation at the Treasury Department, said that for Americans making less than $400,000 a year, their chances of being audited wouldn’t increase from typical levels in recent years. Instead, Sarin said, average taxpayers should have an improved experience filing their taxes because the funds would allow the agency to staff up. In the first half of 2021, there were fewer than 15,000 employees available to answer nearly 200 million calls, which is one person for every 13,000 calls, according to Treasury Department figures. “For regular taxpayers, for small businesses, for low-income taxpayers, the only shift that they are going to realize is there is going to be an IRS employee that can answer the phone when they call,” Sarin said. As a result of reduced staffing at the IRS, audit rates of individual income tax returns decreased for all income levels from 2010 to 2019, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. Audit rates decreased the most for taxpayers with incomes of $200,000 or more. In 2019, the audit rate for taxpayers with income between $25,000 and $200,000 was .17 percent, according to the report. For those making $5 million or more, the audit rate was 2.35 percent in the same year. A 2018 analysis by ProPublica found that while audits had declined most dramatically for the wealthy, the IRS continued to audit the poorest filers — recipients of anti-poverty tax credits, including the Earned Income Tax Credit — at relatively high rates. Over the last decade, audit rates for multimillionaires have decreased by twice as much as audit rates for the lowest-income families who receive the EITC because it requires more resources to go after top earners, Sarin said. The funding should allow the IRS to better target wealthy earners who aren’t paying their taxes because the agency will be able to upgrade its technology, Sarin said, reducing the chances that compliant taxpayers would be audited. Janet Yellen, the Treasury secretary, reaffirmed similar commitments in a letter to the IRS commissioner last week. “Contrary to the misinformation from opponents of this legislation, small business or households earning $400,000 per year or less will not see an increase in the chances that they are audited,” Yellen wrote. Bill Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center who focuses on economic policy, said improving these aspects would help make it more efficient for average earners to file their taxes, since they could more easily get information to help fill out their tax forms. Budget cuts and reduced capacity have led to a significant backlog of unprocessed tax forms. As of the beginning of August, the IRS had a backlog of 9.7 million unprocessed individual 2021 returns. “The long story short here is that the average American should not be threatened by this, but should be thankful that they are putting money into taxpayer services that have dwindled tremendously,” Hoagland said. Janet Holtzblatt, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, said in general, she believed the IRS was committed to upholding its goal of focusing enforcement efforts on wealthy Americans and large corporations. But she said that depends in part on the IRS’s ability to determine people’s “actual” incomes. “The kinds of taxpayers who fall in that category where there might be some uncertainty are going to be the self-employed, it’s going to be partners, it’s going to be people who are receiving income that’s not subject to a W-2,” Holtzblatt said. “It’s the ones whose income are not independently reported that become more of a challenge to identify.” Sarin said the IRS would focus on hiring employees who have experience working with complex tax filings from large corporations and high-net-worth individuals. Audits of average taxpayers follow a significantly different process, she said. Is the IRS really going to hire 87,000 auditors? Of the nearly $80 billion for the IRS in the bill, more than half, or roughly $46 billion, will be used to improve enforcement measures. The IRS hasn’t yet released estimates for how many new employees the agency could hire with the new funding in the Inflation Reduction Act. The agency is expected to release the final numbers and breakdown in the coming months. The 87,000 figure appears to come from a report the Treasury Department published in May 2021, which outlined the impact of tax compliance measures in the Biden administration’s American Families Plan proposal. The report estimated that the IRS could hire 86,852 employees by 2031 with nearly $80 billion in additional funding. But Sarin said the new funding would also be used to hire other types of employees, such as customer service representatives and IT specialists, and not just new auditors. She also said many of the new hires would fill positions left open by employees who are projected to leave the agency over the next decade. At least 50,000 of the agency’s current employees are expected to leave over the next five years because they’re eligible for retirement, Sarin said. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the president of the conservative American Action Forum and former director of the Congressional Budget Office, said the additional funding didn’t guarantee that the agency would be able to significantly narrow the tax gap since wealthy people typically have lawyers that can draw out the auditing process. But the new funding would still help reverse the agency’s decline, he said. “The workforce is down about 20 percent,” Holtz-Eakin said. “So anything that reverses that has to be considered very significant.”
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Hidden inside the Inflation Reduction Act: $20 billion to help fix our farms
A tomato farm in Winters, California, in August, facing severe drought. | David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images Farming destroys the environment. Biden’s inflation bill could help blunt the impact. The single greatest threat to the environment isn’t hunting or suburban sprawl or invasive species. It’s farming. Farms cover roughly 40 percent of the country, and they’ve replaced countless ecosystems with vast fields of soybeans, corn, and cattle. Agriculture also accounts for about 11 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. The Inflation Reduction Act could help blunt some of those impacts. Alongside more headline-grabbing investments in clean energy and health care, the bill — which President Biden is set to sign into law this week — includes nearly $20 billion to make farmland more environmentally friendly. The funds are designed, in part, to help farmers create more habitat for pollinators like bees, store more carbon in the soil, and make farms more resilient in the face of extreme weather. Mario Tama/Getty Images Farmers working in a strawberry field near Ventura, California, during a drought in August. Funding for farms is just a fraction of the $437 billion bill — and it only goes toward existing government programs — but it’s still a huge deal, experts say. “$20 billion is still a big investment, the largest since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s,” Karen Perry Stillerman, a deputy director at the research group Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a recent blog post. “It’s $20 billion more than we had two weeks ago,” she wrote. And this investment is especially important today. Climate change is threatening crops by making some droughts and flash floods more frequent and severe. Many of the programs funded through the IRA don’t just target carbon emissions but could also help make our food system more resilient. Ultimately, that would benefit us all. What the bill means for farmers The biggest chunk of money — roughly $8.5 billion — will go toward a program run by the US Department of Agriculture called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. It pays for projects that restore the ecosystem or reduce emissions on farmland. Farmers often use the money to buy and plant cover crops. These are plants, such as clover, radishes, or rye, that are rooted in fields that might otherwise be fallow to improve the health of the soil and prevent erosion. The idea is that the ground is always “covered” with something. Cover crops also have a range of other superpowers, said Rob Myers, director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at the University of Missouri. During a drought, for example, they can lock moisture in the soil; during a flood, meanwhile, they help water more easily penetrate the ground. These plants also provide habitat for important critters above and below ground, such as spiders, beetles, and fungi — many of which provide services themselves, like pest control. Generally, more plants mean more animals. Courtesy of Rob Myers On the left is a field with cereal rye, a cover crop, and on the right is a field with no cover crop. “The soil on the left with cover crop will be healthier and more resilient in the face of weather extremes such as droughts or excessive rainfall,” according to Rob Myers, director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at the University of Missouri. Although just a small fraction of farms currently use cover crops, Myers said, programs like EQIP are making the practice more common. Planting them can be costly, and they take about three years to start paying off (such as by reducing the amount of fertilizer a farmer needs to buy), he said. That’s why government investment is so important, he said. 3 other important programs the bill funds The IRA will also funnel more than $3 billion into another USDA initiative known as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Similar to EQIP, CSP pays farmers to make their lands more sustainable, but it typically provides funding over a longer period and for a larger suite of conservation-related projects, said Cathy Day, climate policy coordinator at a nonprofit called the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. What does that actually look like? Through CSP, a farmer could transform an industrial farm, with rows and rows of the same crop, into something that resembles a more natural landscape, Day said. Such a farm might have a handful of different crops, including fruiting trees and plants that enrich the soil, and require fewer fertilizers and pesticides. That’s a best-case scenario, anyway. There’s money in the act for two additional programs, both of which are worth knowing: the Regional Conservation Partnership Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. The regional partnership program — which will receive $4.95 billion — is similar to those above but relies on partners, such as environmental nonprofits, to help make farmland more sustainable. Another $1.4 billion will go towards the easement program. It ensures that farmland won’t be replaced by roads, cities, or other developments. Is this really good for the climate? These programs are, by design, meant to help fight climate change as part of Biden’s broader climate agenda. And some of them almost certainly will. Cover crops, for example, can pull carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in the soil, as long as farmers don’t dig up the roots, Day said. Yet it’s tough to say whether, on the whole, $20 billion in funding will make a dent in farm-related emissions. As Vox’s Kenny Torrella argues, the bill will do little to change meat and dairy production, the largest contributor of carbon emissions in the agriculture sector. Historically, about half the money from EQIP has gone toward livestock farms including confined animal feeding operations, Day said. Funding from IRA might help those farmers cut emissions to a degree, but it will also help prop up a polluting industry, she said. “It’s inherently supporting systems that are highly environmentally unfriendly,” Day said. Other provisions of the bill also direct money toward biofuels, which some experts have criticized for fueling environmental destruction and doing little to lower emissions. Remarkably, about a third of the corn in the US (most of which is grown in vast, largely lifeless monocultures) goes toward making ethanol. Ultimately, slashing emissions from farmland will require more fundamental changes to our food system and a major investment in plant-based meats and other lower-carbon alternatives. But in the meantime, this bill presents an opportunity to restore some farmland — to bring back certain natural features of the landscape that make it more resilient. “The average person might think that what farmers are doing is unrelated to them,” Myers said. “But it is important because we all need a stable supply of food.”
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