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Smerconish: Coronavirus is proving our resiliency
CNN's Michael Smerconish says the coronavirus pandemic is creating displays of ingenuity across the US.
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Americans' Fears About COVID-19 Rise as One-Third of Households Report Job-Related Losses, Survey Finds
Nearly half of Americans think a recession will occur due to the outbreak. Jobless claims have already skyrocketed to unprecedented levels at an unimaginable pace.
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Will Trump put his signature on relief checks?
As Smerconish predicted, President Trump hopes to put his signature on the Coronavirus relief checks being sent to Americans. What are the political ramifications?
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Future Tense Newsletter: Welcome to the Zoom Normal
Stories from the recent past of Future Tense.
Severe weather outbreak expected today
A moderate risk, level 4 out of 5, has been issued across areas of the Midwest where strong, long-track tornadoes are possible this afternoon and through the evening hours.
How do you help a couple celebrate their 70th anniversary during coronavirus crisis? Happily and carefully
Harry Polakow was surprised when he heard a knock on his front door.
A brisk walk with Nancy Giles
“Sunday Morning” contributor Nancy Giles is, like most of us, self-isolating because of the coronavirus pandemic. But that’s not an excuse to miss out on some exercise, and a helpful distraction. Giles takes us on a walk around Weehawken, N.J. for some fresh air and spectacular views.
LACMA demolition moves forward, but coronavirus pauses Academy and Lucas construction
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art stirs some controversy as construction continues amid coronavirus.
$2 Trillion Coronavirus Relief Bill Presents A Reckoning For Libertarians
In years to come, how will fiscal conservatives who voted for $2 trillion attack the cost of budget items that will now look like rounding error or "decimal dust?"
I’ve Been Social Distancing for Years. Here’s What I Learned.
Lessons from a woman practiced in the art of self-quarantine.
The missing puzzle piece for getting to 100% clean power
A natural gas power plant — perhaps not evil? | Shutterstock It’s about using renewable energy to make gas. Across the country, dozens of cities and states have passed laws or resolutions targeting 100 percent carbon-free electricity — most recently 20 communities in Utah and the state of Virginia. But is it even possible to power a modern economy with a carbon-free grid? And if so, what are the best energy sources and technologies for getting there? These questions have been the source of raging debate among energy wonks for many years but have moved closer to mainstream political discourse since the introduction of the Green New Deal. (For a brief introduction to the terms and players involved in the debate over 100 percent clean electricity, see here and here.) Now there is a growing list of jurisdictions that face stringent emissions targets in years ahead and urgently need to figure out answers. We’ll discuss the most notable such jurisdiction, California, and a cool new(ish) technology that it may help it reach its 100 percent target, in a moment. First, though, let’s look at the problem to be solved, the dilemma that comes with an energy grid run mostly on renewable sources of energy. Renewable energy needs dispatchable generation and long-term storage The core issue is variability. Whereas fossil fuel power plants can be turned up or down to meet demand (they are “dispatchable,” in the lingo), the big sources of renewable energy — sun, wind, and water (hydropower) — cannot. They come and go on nature’s schedule. Sun disappears each night and on cloudy days. Wind and precipitation vary daily and seasonally. All three show longer-term variations over years and decades. All these variations in supply cannot be controlled by power grid managers, so they must be accommodated. To some extent, sun, wind, and water balance one another out; where it is not sunny, it is often windy. With a good national transmission system, renewables could supply up to 60, maybe 80 percent of electricity in the US, but after that, things get expensive and something else is needed to fill the gaps. CAISO The “duck curve” of demand created by renewable energy on the grid. But what? Coal plants emit carbon, so they can’t be part of a clean grid. Nuclear plants are not very good at gap-filling — they are big, relatively slow, and expensive to ramp up and down. (Though nuclear proponents argue they are better than they’re given credit for.) In practice, most places in the US with high penetrations of renewable energy (like California) fill the gaps with natural gas plants, which are smaller and more nimble than coal or nuclear plants. But natural gas is a fossil fuel, and if its emissions are not captured and buried, it can’t be part of a net-zero-carbon grid either. Is there a carbon-free way to fill the gaps? This is where the debate comes in. Some renewable energy advocates argue that the gaps can be filled with energy storage, what at least at the moment mainly means batteries. But getting to 100 means covering for any foreseeable seasonal or even decadal dip in renewable sources, which means a lot of batteries. Without some other, cheaper form of energy storage, which can hold more energy for longer, that gets expensive. Some people take this to mean that 100 percent clean electricity can’t be done. Some use it to argue that small nuclear plants will be necessary. Some argue that coal or natural gas plants should stay online, with their emissions captured and buried, or that biomass electricity generation (which can conceivably be carbon-negative) should scale up. And that’s where the debate typically gets stuck. But there’s a new(ish) energy technology on the scene these days that promises a neat and satisfying resolution to the variability dilemma. It’s called power-to-gas, or PtG. A new study argues that PtG could help California, and by implication other jurisdictions aiming for clean grids, reach ambitious clean energy targets without spiking electricity costs. If that’s true — and to some extent, whether it is true depends on policy choices made in coming years — it could make the 100 percent target safer, luring other jurisdictions to jump on board. Let’s take a look at PtG, what it is and how it could help. Shutterstock Natural gas storage and pipelines. Renewable energy can make its own dispatchable generation and long-term storage Remember the dilemma at the heart of renewable energy: variability. As a place like California puts more solar and wind power onto the grid, the grid begins experiencing more short- and long-term swings — more gaps that must be filled by energy resources that are dispatchable. Ideally, what a renewables-heavy grid needs is a source (or carrier) of energy that can sit idle for long periods but jump in at a moment’s notice to supplement a flagging supply of sun or wind. A clean grid needs backup energy that can be stored for long durations, in large quantities, but can be quickly available. There is one technology that perfectly fits that bill: natural gas, i.e., methane. Methane is itself an extremely stable form of stored energy. Unlike the chemical energy stored in lithium-ion modules, which leaks over time, natural gas can be stored indefinitely. The system of natural gas storage reservoirs and pipelines in the US is thus akin to a giant, distributed battery. And natural gas power plants are (to continue the electricity metaphor) the inverters that convert the stored energy into useful electricity. A sprawling battery with enormous capacity that can produce electricity at a moment’s notice: That’s perfect for renewable energy. Except for the whole carbon-emissions thing. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a carbon-neutral form of gas, so that California could make use of its massive gas “battery” to back up renewable energy without adding any carbon to the atmosphere? That’s where PtG comes in. Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons, and hydrocarbons are just hydrogen and carbon. If you can gather hydrogen and carbon dioxide separately, you can combine them through “methanation” to produce synthetic natural gas. The carbon intensity of the synthetic gas depends on where the hydrogen and carbon dioxide come from. Currently, most hydrogen is produced through steam reforming of natural gas, which is energy- and carbon-intensive. But it can also be produced through electrolysis, which uses electricity (ideally generated by wind and solar) and a catalyst to free hydrogen directly from water. About 4 percent of current hydrogen is made through electrolysis. Nuclear power plants can also be used to make hydrogen — it’s one avenue being discussed to give existing nuclear plants stable markets and enable them to stay running — but that’s not happening yet at any scale. The carbon dioxide can be dug up from natural reservoirs, but digging carbon out of the earth is hardly carbon-neutral. CO2 can also be captured from the waste streams of industrial facilities and power plants, or captured from the ambient air itself through direct air capture (DAC). Carbon Engineering A direct air capture (DAC) plant. If the hydrogen comes from hydrolysis powered by renewable energy or nuclear power, and if the carbon dioxide is captured from waste streams or the ambient air, then the synthetic methane produced is carbon-neutral. Carbon is pulled out of the air and returned to the air when the methane is burned — no net gain or loss. And the process is driven, ultimately, by renewable energy. It is a way for renewables to create their own long-term energy storage and dispatchable generation, their own backup, which they can leverage to ratchet up and grow further. If PtG takes off, there are many ways the resultant gas could be used — heavy industry, residential heating, and transportation will probably be first in line — but let’s focus here on what it could do for the electricity system. PtG reduces the cost of an all-renewables electricity system The global energy services company Wärtsilä, headquartered in Helsinki, Finland,recently released a white paper arguing that California could reach its ambitious goals for the electricity sector — 60 percent renewable energy by 2030, 100 percent carbon-neutral by 2045 — more quickly and cheaply through PtG. Using the same Plexos energy simulation software used by California regulators, Wärtsilä modeled three scenarios for the future of the state’s grid. The first is the state’s current plan, as reflected in its integrated resource planning (IRP) process through 2030 and then using “high electrification” projections through 2045. This scenario relies heavily on solar, wind, hydro, and batteries. Notably, the current plan does not reach full carbon neutrality by 2045 (more details on that later). The second is the “optimal path.” In the early years, it builds out solar, wind, and batteries somewhat faster than the current scenario, but post-2030, it relies more heavily than the current plan on thermal plants, i.e., plants that burn stuff to generate electricity. It retires existing natural gas plats more slowly, keeping the more flexible ones open, and it builds out a lot of small, fast natural gas power plants. All these natural gas plants are converted to synthetic methane when it is available from 2030 forward. The optimal path reaches full carbon neutrality by 2045. The third scenario is an extension of the first; it is the current plan on steroids. Relying purely on renewables and batteries, it banishes all thermal plants from the grid and reaches total carbon neutrality by 2045. Spoiler: the second scenario, as its name would suggest, wins. The use of PtG makes the 100 percent target cheaper and reduces more carbon emissions along the way. Using a small number of PtG plants avoids the need for a whole bunch of extra renewables California’s current scenario relies on overbuilding renewables, which requires a lot of land for all those solar and wind farms.That is no small thing, as California, like all states, is beset with NIMBYs and bureaucracies that make siting and building renewable energy plants endlessly difficult. By using a small number of natural gas plants (eventually burning synthetic methane) to fill the gaps rather than overbuilding renewables, the optimal scenario requires less total built capacity: 237 gigawatts in 2045, versus the current plan’s 263. Wärtsilä By reducing the amount of solar capacity needed, the optimal scenario reduces the new land needed by a third, from 900 square miles to 600. That represents hundreds of NIMBY battles avoided and hundreds of new grid hookups that won’t need to be approved. The optimal scenario also reduces costs relative to the current scenario. In 2045, the current scenario would result in a levelized cost of electricity of $51 per megawatt-hour; in the optimal scenario, it’s $50. That’s not a huge gap, but over the years it adds up to an almost $8 billion cumulative difference. Wärtsilä Yearly costs. One other benefit of keeping a few gas plants around is that they reduce the amount of wind and solar power that must be “curtailed,” i.e., wasted. First, they reduce the need for overbuilding. Second, PtG can serve as a load for all that excess renewable energy. When wind and solar are producing more power than the state can consume — a more and more common occurrence as they expand — all the surplus power can be channeled into making synthetic methane. From 2020 to 2045, the optimal scenario makes use of over 500 terawatt-hours of power that would have been wasted in the current scenario. Wärtsilä Curtailment. So the optimal scenario seems somewhat more efficient and cleaner that the current scenario. But here’s the most revealing part. Getting to 100 percent without dispatchable thermal plants is hella expensive Recall that the current scenario does not quite get to full carbon neutrality by 2045. California law requires that all power bought and sold in the state be carbon-neutral by 2045. But there are also transmission losses. An average of about 8 percent of energy is lost as it is carried around the state, so for customers to receive 100 MW, a utility must generate 108 MW. That extra 8 percent does not have to be carbon-neutral. The state’s current plan envisions it being supplied by natural gas plants, leaving California about 4 or 5 percent carbon-positive. That’s why, overall, the optimal scenario, which reaches true carbon-neutrality by 2045, reduces 124 million tons more CO2 than the current path. Wärtsilä Carbon emissions. This raises the question: What would it take to boost the current scenario so that it did get all the way to net-zero carbon? That’s what the third scenario is about. It models a California electricity system with no thermal power plants at all, relying entirely on renewables and batteries. The results are pretty eye-popping. It’s technically possible, but damn is it expensive. If the current scenario relies on overbuilding solar, the third scenario relies on overbuilding batteries. Really overbuilding them. Check out how much capacity would have to be installed through 2045. Wärtsilä This is what critics have been saying: If all you have to work with is renewable energy and batteries, filling that final gap from 95 to 100 percent carbon-neutral requires installing tons and tons of batteries. You need enough battery capacity to cover even the most unlikely, once-a-decade extended shortfall of wind and sun, but most of the time, in ordinary circumstances, most of that capacity won’t be used — the battery “capacity factor,” or frequency of use, falls to 3 percent by 2045 in the third scenario. Energy assets that spend most of their time sitting there, unused, make for dismal economics. Recall that the optimal scenario would have California electricity at $50/MWh in 2045. In the third scenario, it would be $128/MWh, well more than double. Installing all those batteries is expensive. PtG is still fairly speculative, but it sure looks like it could help Power-to-gas is a rapidly developing and endlessly interesting area. It’s been around for a long time — various forms of synthetic gas (“syngas”) date back 180 years; it was popular during World War II when gasoline became expensive — but the carbon-neutral versions developing today, explicitly designed as tools for decarbonization, are relatively new. Power to Methane with 76% efficiency (HHV) in a container-sized demo, potential to rise to 80% efficiency: the EU @fch_ju HELMETH project (@KITKarlsruhe and others) paper dishes all the details— Tom Brown (@nworbmot) November 16, 2018 There have been lots of PtG studies and pilot projects, especially in the EU, but the pieces have not come together for it to start scaling up in earnest. The Wärtsilä modeling uses performance and cost numbers for PtG drawn from the renewable fuels group at the Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland, but it’s worth emphasizing that all such numbers are somewhat speculative. The ultimate costs of PtG depend on the costs of direct air capture of CO2, the costs of green hydrogen, and the costs of renewable energy itself. The first two, in particular, are under furious development and difficult to predict. It’s also worth noting that there is a school of thought that says the extra step of converting hydrogen into methane isn’t worth it — that instead, hydrogen should be stored and combusted in power plants directly, without the intermediary syngas step. “My prejudice is that, in the long-term, switching to hydrogen will be easier and make more economic sense,” Tom Brown, leader of the energy modeling group at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, told me, “and we should limit methane to sustainable biogas resources.” There is already a network of hydrogen pipelines, worldwide and in the US, and natural gas pipelines can be converted to carry hydrogen. Germany, for instance, is planning for a nationwide hydrogen network: Germany's gas transport companies, including 5 #GasforClimate members, plan to establish a pipeline network of 5,900 kilometers to enable the large-scale use of hydrogen in the country. Would largely use existing gas pipelines.— Kees van der Leun (@Sustainable2050) January 28, 2020 And companies like GE are already investing in gas turbines that can run on either methane or hydrogen. Given that only a comparative handful of thermal plants are required to stabilize renewable energy, perhaps they should just burn the green hydrogen directly. (“Hydrogen was not considered as a direct fuel source,” the Wärtsilä folks told me, “because there is no way to estimate the cost of hydrogen infrastructure needed.”) It’s too early in the game to predict which “firm” (always available) resource will prove to be the best carbon-free complement to renewable energy. It could be syngas or hydrogen, small nuclear, advanced geothermal, biomass with CCS, natural gas plants using the Allam cycle to capture their emissions, or some mix. What Wärtsilä has convincingly shown, as echoed in previous academic research, is that some firm resource will be necessary, or at least extremely helpful, to get to a fully carbon-neutral electricity system. A renewables-heavy grid needs backup resources that are always available and can be quickly turned on or off, up or down, as needed. For now, batteries can’t store enough energy or hold it long enough to serve as sole backup for a large system like California’s — at least not without breaking the bank. Other firm and flexible resources are needed to complement renewables and batteries. The grid doesn’t necessarily need a ton (look how small the orange “flexibility” bar is on the graph above), but having even a small amount ends up avoiding the need for tons of overbuilt capacity. It’s difficult to know at this stage which firm, low-carbon resources will be cheapest when they become more necessary post-2030. It is worth researching and developing every form that has even a plausible chance of success. Different ones may prove to be more or less competitive in different geographic areas. But hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels like synthetic methane are my favorites, the ones I believe warrant the most intense research, development, and deployment. For the most part, that’s based on expert research and current developments in the field, but I will confess that at least some part of it is, for lack of a better word, aesthetic. There is just something satisfying about the thought that, to make electricity in the 21st century — a century to which electricity will be absolutely central — we no longer need to dig anything up or cut anything down. We don’t need fossils, we don’t need plants, we just need the wind, sun, and water. Insofar as a system based on renewable energy needs firm resources, it can make its own, through green hydrogen or PtG. It is a closed loop, based on Earth’s present-day energy budget, with zero net carbon emissions and radically less air pollution. Wärtsilä Wärtsilä’s study should, at the very least, awaken California legislators and regulators to crucial role that green hydrogen and/or PtG could play in holding down the costs of a fully carbon-neutral electricity system. If hydrogen and hydrogen fuels are to play that role, they need aggressive policy support to accelerate their progress down the cost curve. To begin with, Wärtsilä suggests allowing sustainably sourced PtG to qualify as renewable fuel, and power generated from it as renewable energy, under California law. And it recommends that the only new thermal generation permitted be small (under 100MW) and nimble, able to start or stop quickly multiple times a day, while consuming no water. These and what remain of existing natural gas plants could be converted to synthetic methane when it becomes available; by 2045, when the state hopes to be carbon-neutral, only synthetic methane (and perhaps some biomethane) would remain in the pipeline system. Meanwhile, to support hydrogen and hydrogen fuels, the federal government should plow money into R&D, pilot projects, and deployment subsidies; institute market-pull policies like a national renewable fuel standard (RFS); and support their growth through government procurement. The puzzle of a carbon-neutral power grid has been missing a puzzle piece, a firm resource that can reliably and cost-effectively back up large amounts of renewable energy. Power-to-gas just might fit.
Civil rights leader Joseph Lowery dies age 98
The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery fought to end segregation, lived to see the election of the country’s first black president and echoed the call for “justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” in America.
Republican governors could be at odds with President Donald Trump on coronavirus response
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MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Responds to Trump's Interview Praise: 'Did Anyone Show You The Rest of the Show?'
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Pregnant teacher with coronavirus couldn’t convince NYC to close school
A pregnant teacher who was hospitalized for COVID-19 says the city refused to close her Brooklyn school — even after she turned over positive lab results — while five colleagues also fell ill from the virus. Frightened for her unborn child, Raquel Iacurto, 32, begged school officials to shut PS 199 Frederick Wachtel in Midwood...
Coronavirus scare as doctor arrested, charged with coughing on nurses
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Mental toughness expert shares tips for communicating with kids under threat of coronavirus
Kids living at home under threat of the coronavirus (COVID-19) health crisis deserve accurate information based on their current level of understanding, former U.S. Marine and mental toughness expert Eric Rittmeyer advised Saturday.
Photos: Italy's coronavirus medical heroes
The doctors and nurses on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic in Italy
Coronavirus is spreading so quickly that our brains can't keep up. Experts explain.
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‘Succession’ & ‘Barry’ Delay Production At HBO Amid Coronavirus Pandemic
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Tributes Pour in for the Late and Celebrated Civil Rights Activist Joseph Lowery
Lowery, who died at the age of 98 on Friday, was often dubbed the "Dean" of the civil of the civil rights movement.
Shakespeare's advice on isolation
For the first time in 200 years, Shakespeare is not being performed anywhere in the world. James Shapiro, author of "Shakespeare in a Divided America," tells Amanpour why this matters.
Trump OKs use of National Guard, veterans to fight coronavirus
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Enjoy weekend culture while social distancing: Terrence McNally, LACO, Michelangelo
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‘Come As You Are in the Family Car.’ Drive-In Church Services Are Taking Off During the Coronavirus Pandemic
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Coronavirus, anxiety, and the profound failure of rugged individualism
A man walks across an empty street in Esslingen, Germany, March 25, 2020. | Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images The coronavirus is making us all more anxious and depressed. Here’s what we can do about it. I never had serious problems with my mental health before the coronavirus hit. But over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself struggling: the constant sinking feeling in my stomach, difficulty falling asleep at night, crippling mental and physical fatigue out of nowhere. I had heard all of these symptoms described to me by depressed and anxious friends before, but this is the first time in my life I’ve truly felt them for extended periods of time. And I’m not the only one. Usage of mental health apps and chatbots has gone up in recent weeks, as have mental health-related social media posts — and dozens of friends and colleagues have relayed similar experiences. Through it all, the book that’s been at the front of my mind is Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope (audiobook) by Johann Hari. Drawing on interviews with dozens of neuroscientists, biologists, and social scientists, the book advances an argument that is both radical and obvious: Depression and anxiety are more than just chemical imbalances in the brain; they are also products of our distinct social environments — social environments that have left our core psychological needs unmet. Over the last few weeks, there have been — and will continue to be — some fundamental shifts in the social landscape within which we live our lives. Unemployment applications have reached record highs. Small businesses are shuttering by the day. Entire cities are being told to “shelter in place.” Social distancing has become the new normal. And there’s no telling when any of it will end. I wanted to speak to Hari about what these changes in our social environment could mean for our mental health, whether reactions like mine are normal, how our hyper-individualistic culture could be contributing to our collective angst, why policies like UBI should be considered antidepressants, and much more. But there’s an important caveat I want to make first. In no way is this conversation intended to deny either that depression and anxiety have distinct biological components or that chemical antidepressants are extremely important for some people — it does and they are. While the direct social causation of mental health issues is fairly clear in the context of coronavirus, that logic does not necessarily apply to all cases. I spoke with Hari over the phone. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length, follows. Roge Karma The premise of your book is that depression and anxiety can be a reflection of social conditions, and thus problems we individualize often demand collective solutions. Can you walk me through that argument at a high level? Johann Hari There are biological causes of depression and anxiety, like your genes, which can make you more sensitive to these problems. There are psychological causes like trauma and how you think about yourself. And there are social causes in our environment like loneliness or financial insecurity. All of these factors are real and they interact in complex ways in any depressed or anxious individual. The problem is we often ignore the social ones. It helps to think of it like this: Everyone knows they have natural physical needs — obviously you need food, water, shelter. If I took those things away from you, you’d be in real trouble real fast. But there’s equally strong evidence that all human beings have natural psychological needs. You need to feel you belong. You need to feel your life has meaning and purpose. You need to interact with the natural world. You need to feel that people see you and value you. You need to feel you’ve got a future that makes sense. I think in a twisted way that insight is easier to see today than it was two weeks ago. It would be odd for someone who was anxious or depressed today in response to what’s just happened to all of us to think they are suffering from a purely biological problem. Today, it’s far easier to see that these issues are a reaction to the environment. For instance, we’ve had a big increase in financial insecurity in the United States and there’s been a huge increase in anxiety and depression in response. I think it’s really problematic to say that those people are experiencing a disorder. If you are really financially insecure, it’s not a disorder for you to be anxious. In fact, it would be a disorder if you weren’t anxious. The solution isn’t to tell everyone they’ve got an individual pathology in their brain — although some of them will have some biological components that make them more vulnerable to it. The solution is for us to deal with that financial insecurity. Roge Karma I think that’s a good jumping-off point to talk about coronavirus. Almost overnight, huge swaths of the American workforce have been thrown into a precarious financial situation. Unemployment has risen to unprecedented levels. Local businesses are in dire straits. How should we be thinking about these changes from a mental health perspective? Johann Hari It massively depends on what political action happens. I’m very frustrated that whenever I turn on the news and they’re talking about what people should do about anxiety and depression, you have these mental health professionals who exclusively say things like “meditate” and “turn off the news.” Now, that’s all fine — I’m doing that stuff. But the single biggest thing that will affect people’s anxiety is not knowing if you’re going to be thrown out of your home next month or how you’re going to feed your children. And I think there’s an element of cruel optimism in telling a country of people living paycheck to paycheck that they should be responding to the anxiety they’re experiencing this moment primarily by meditating and switching off the news. That’s not going to solve the problem. The single most important thing that has to be done to deal with people’s depression and anxiety is to deal with the financial insecurity they’re facing. And this isn’t some pie in the sky thing. El Salvador, one of the poorest countries in the world, has canceled everyone’s utility bills and canceled their rent for the next three months. If El Salvador can do it, America can do it. Roge Karma What you’re saying is that these shouldn’t just be thought of as economic policies, but mental health policies as well? Johann Hari Yes. We need to radically expand our idea of what an antidepressant is. Anything that reduces depression and anxiety should be regarded as an antidepressant. For some people, that includes chemical antidepressants, but we need to radically expand that menu. I would argue that a high minimum wage is an antidepressant. A universal basic income (UBI) is an antidepressant. In one of the first UBI experiments ever in Dauphin, Canada, you saw an 8.5 percent decrease in hospitalizations due to mental health issues over three years — you won’t find any drug with that kind of effect. Roge Karma Some of the other social causes of depression that you discuss in the book don’t have quite as clear and immediate policy solutions. You have entire chapters on the importance of things like nature and human-to-human connection, but being disconnected from nature and other human beings is essential to meeting the public health crisis we face. So where does that leave us? Johann Hari Depression and anxiety are signals telling us that our needs are not being met, and I would say the single most helpful thing we can do going forward is to allow ourselves to hear the signal. What we’ve done for a really long time in our culture is either insult those signals by saying depressed and anxious people are just weak or feeble. Or we’ve pathologized the signals by saying they’re purely biological malfunctions. What we need to do is hear and respect the signal. Once you hear the signal and you respect it, you’ll start to think differently. First, it means that your pain makes sense. So don’t judge yourself. Don’t shame yourself. There is nothing “wrong” with you. And secondly, it means that when we begin to rebuild after coronavirus, we’ll have learned something really valuable about the kind of society we want. How could we redesign our education system with the understanding that nature is of the utmost importance to mental health? How could we redesign the health care system with the understanding that loneliness poses huge health risks? We can learn positive lessons about how to redesign our society to reduce depression and anxiety going forward if we allow ourselves to hear this signal. Roge Karma I think that’s such an important point. And it makes me wonder if the extent to which our culture places responsibility and blame solely on individuals amplifies our depression problem. If we are individually responsible for everything that happens to us, then there’s no reason to change the social conditions around us. This myth of the solitary individual seems central to why we feel so depressed and helpless to do anything about it. Johann Hari One of the things that really I found most revolutionary in my research was something discovered by Dr. Brett Ford, a psychologist now at the University of Toronto. She and her colleagues wanted to answer a simple question: If you try consciously to make yourself happier, will you actually become happier? They studied this in four countries: the United States, Russia, Taiwan, and Japan. They found that in the United States, those who consciously tried to make themselves happier didn’t become happier on average. But in the other countries, those who tried to make themselves happier did become happier How could this be? When they did more analysis, they discovered that in the United States, when you try to make yourself happier, you generally do something for yourself: you work harder to get a promotion, you treat yourself by buying something — we could all think of a list of things. In the other countries, when you try to make yourself happy, you do something for someone else: your friends, your family, your community. We have an instinctively individualistic idea of what happiness means; many other cultures have an instinctively collectivist definition of what happiness means. And it turns out individualism just doesn’t work very well — we’re not that species. A species of individualists would have died out on the savannas of Africa. We survived as a species because we banded together into tribes and cooperated. So there’s a reason we get anxious and depressed when we are separated from the tribe — we couldn’t survive that way. We only make sense socially. Roge Karma I think that the lesson of human interdependence is one we’re learning very painfully right now because of coronavirus. Johann Hari When I was a child, Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There’s no such thing as society.” And I think one of the reasons we have been so blind to the overwhelming evidence that there are huge social causes of depression and anxiety is because Margaret Thatcher won. Those ideas have become part of the common sense of our culture. One of the things we’re going to learn in this crisis is that there is such a thing as society —and there always was. We are a social species. We stand or fall together. A viral outbreak in Wuhan, China, can lead to the Strip in Las Vegas being shut down. You can tell yourself that you’re John Wayne riding across the horizon if you want, but you’re just as vulnerable to the effects of social transformations as anyone else. Roge Karma Here’s my last question: What would you say to people who are feeling depressed and anxious right now? What advice do you have for them? Johann Hari In a society where people are not heard, the greatest gift you can give is to actually genuinely listen to someone and be present with them. Now, we can’t go and physically see each other at the moment, but you can show up digitally and you can listen and be present and let people know that you care. And, paradoxically, that is the single best thing you can do for yourself. One of the things that correlates very tightly with depression is a lack of a sense of agency. If you feel there’s nothing you can do, you’re much more likely to become depressed. People need to know there’s a lot we can do to support each other in these circumstances. There’s a lot we can do at the political level as citizens and there’s a lot we can do at the personal level to support each other and love each other. It’s going to be hard but we absolutely have agency and power. Related listening Johann Hari and Ezra Klein discussed Lost Connections back in April 2018. You can listen to the podcast by streaming it below or subscribing to The Ezra Klein Show wherever you get your podcasts.
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