We got another grand decision today. The Supreme Court decided in favor of a public school football coach who pushed Christianity in his games. After all, it was just “quiet prayer” and a “brief thanks” at his games.

Nothing wrong with that! I have no objection to anyone expressing their faith privately, or in church. The problem is leading a group in prayer, but if Coach Kennedy wasn’t doing that, no problem.

Photograph of Coach Kennedy’s “quiet”, “brief” prayer:

OK, that’s one and done. Now we await the courts decision to gut the Environmental Protection Agency. Anyone want to guess how that one will go?

But he’s right.

That’s exactly what the Supreme Court is trying to do, impose a Catholic Taliban on us…although the “Taliban” part is totally redundant. This is exactly what a purely, strictly, orthodox, traditional Catholicism wants, we don’t need to blame the Muslims for it.

You know, the Founding Fathers would have been horrified at the thought of women and Catholics on the court. It’s odd how these fanatical Originalists can ignore that.

Getting into an argument on Reddit might be worse than arguing on Twitter. Some day I’ll learn.

Anyway, here was someone trying to claim that sperm aren’t alive, and that human life begins at conception.

When I agreed with the second quote and also pointed out that that 95% number is a made-up statistic, I got this insightful comment.

Well human life certainly does begin at conception…

You’re not a biologist, btw.

No one argues that a human zygote is something other than a human zygote. Unfortunately, I engaged with the clown claiming I’m not a biologist, and pointed out that those are also human sperm and human oocytes.

They were having none of that.

The question I always ask people who raise the claim that human life begins at conception…are human zygotes not the product of the fusion of human gametes? I

Yes… That’s what we call fertilization. Before conception the egg isn’t fertilized and only contains half of a human’s dna and only 23 chromosomes…

Human reproductive cells aren’t whole human organisms/human beings like a zygote is.

In biology, the zygote is called the cell of life because it usually is the first cell of a new organism. (since it’s basically a fertilized ovum.)

gametes are just the haploid stage of the human life cycle.

Yes… they are reproductive cells. Ofc, they’re haploid… Lol.

Are you sure you’re a biologist ’cause you sure don’t sound like one. Lmao.

I think I just got biologist-splained.

I also think they tripped over themselves. The whole argument rests on how we define what whole human organisms/human beings are. I agree that a sperm cell isn’t a human being. Neither is a zygote, or a blastula, or a gastrula, and neither is a fetus with an undeveloped nervous system and non-functional lungs and an inability to survive without its placenta. “Human” is a modifier used to designate the ancestry of a cell, and is not synonymous with “human being.”

But what do I know? I’m not a biologist!

This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to patreon.com/rebecca! Transcript: Okay friends, what do you want first: the good news, the bad news, the second good news, or the second bad news? You know what, let’s just take them in that order. THE GOOD …

I was sure today would be the day. As soon as I got out of PT, I rushed over to the lab, confident that finally my Steatoda triangulosa spiderlings would be emerging. Yesterday, I saw that they were getting dark hairs on their legs, although their bodies remain pale, and were making occasional feeble twitches, so I figured they’d be getting on with it shortly.

No such luck. The legs are getting darker, and the movements are much more robust. They’re packed tightly into the egg sac, so when you see one wiggle, there’s a wave of activity all across the sac. Any time now, he says again, as he has for the last several days.

Part of the reason for my eagerness is that I’m used to Parasteatoda — the spiderlings of that species emerge after less than 10 days, while these S. trangulosa eggs/embryos have been sitting there developing for 26 days so far. And P. tepidariorum will hatch out as many as a 100 babies at onces, while this species’ egg sacs will produce maybe 20 spiderlings. No wonder P. tep is the popular model system!

It makes me wonder how they can compete. P. tep is ubiquitous in houses; S. tri I find in houses, but also in ‘wilder’ environments. Maybe they’re simply being outcompeted for the most stable environment, or maybe S. tri spiderlings are better adapted, somehow, for more marginal spaces. I don’t know. I’m going to have to hatch out some P. tep and have them wrestle.

I’m also going to have to get some S. borealis egg sacs for comparison, but they’re turning out to be harder to breed in the lab.

I’m recording some day-by-day videos, and when the whole batch finally pops out, I’ll compile them all together and post them on YouTube…but I’ll be releasing them to my Patreon first.

The combination of an early morning physical therapy session and the need to go in to the lab as soon as that is done (today might be the day a big egg sac opens up and a spider swarm emerges — cross your fingers) means I’m going to be out of the blogging game for a while — I should be back later this morning. Until then, enjoy the Spider, illustrated with a picture of a cephalopod.

This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to patreon.com/rebecca! Transcript: Let me begin by saying I am not a constitutional lawyer. I know, I know, it’s shocking. Me? NOT a lawyer? Who would have thought? I DID do mock trial in high school though …

Sounds Wild and Broken

Sounds Wild and Broken (Faber & Faber) by David George Haskell

Humanity has always been a noisy animal. As long ago as 1700 BC, a Babylonian god was complaining that the “noise of mankind has become too much./I am losing sleep over their racket.” Cities, where more than half of us now live, have only got louder. A New York subway train clocks in at 98 decibels; even the background hum of a busy office can rise to 65 decibels. We live immersed in a world of human sound.

But not only is human noise a new thing in the world, all communicative sound is new. Life existed on the planet for three billion years before the first intimations of hearing and sound-making, and the late evolution of those faculties gives us a kinship with all other listening things.

More than that, David George Haskell argues in his exhilarating new book Sounds Wild and Broken, evolution and sound-making go hand in hand. Sound, he argues, is history. The first sounds on Earth – of water, of wind, of thunder, and so on – are those we can still hear today, a kind of sonic ground beneath the infinitely varied palette of living voice and movement. When a bird sings, he writes, “the combined experience of thousands of ancestors flows to the air”. If you stop to listen to the music of the cricket, the oldest singing animal, you are hearing the sound of the supercontinent Pangaea, because that is where they first evolved. The larynx, common to all modern vertebrate animals, first developed in the lungfish; we hear with modified fish ears.

On one level, this is all truism: everything we experience is a product of evolution. But, as Haskell shows, our experience of the planet’s sonic phenomena is so circumscribed that its full majesty is an undiscovered world for us. Some of this is due to what he calls the “perceptual box”: evolution is a process of specialisation, and has left us simply unable to hear much of life on Earth. Technology is changing that: we can now listen to everything from whale song to insects chewing wood.

But there is also the issue of our sheer inattentiveness – in the modern West at least – to the sound of life. Haskell writes eloquently about the paucity of our language – “hobbled by weak verbs” he says – when describing what we hear. He compares it unfavourably to the abundant
vocabulary available to conjure up motion. It follows that one of the many joys of the book is his ability to cajole language into evoking unknown sounds in the mind of the reader; some of the writing is breathtaking. It is at its strongest where it not only makes the case for listening better, but privileges the sense of hearing itself. It might be subtitled “Towards an Aesthetic of Sound”.

This inattentiveness matters, Haskell says, both because of the auditory riches we are missing, and because it is leading us to destroy or degrade that plenitude. And, as he makes clear, sound and hearing have been instrumental to evolution in manifold ways, allowing species to refine their adaptiveness to specialised habitats through mating and predation, among other things. The katydid (an insect related to the cricket and grasshopper), for example, has learned to mimic the mating sounds of female cicadas, luring amorous males to their doom. In this, the katydid seems to sum up the centrality of sound to life and death on earth in one free lunch.

Individual sounds are as fragile a phenomenon as there is. Every natural sound has loss in-built. By definition transitory, a sound emerges from silence and returns to silence: a synecdoche for life itself. Recording, Haskell writes, “is an anchor against the tide of forgetting”, but the tide is rising fast. All the more reason why we should pay attention, and protect the planet of sound even as sounds themselves wither and decay into oblivion. We need to ensure those silences don’t become permanent.

Haskell makes an eloquent, often beautiful, and powerful case for the importance of listening – and of listening before it is too late. Reading Sounds Wild and Broken is a deeply rewarding experience, and its message will resonate with and enrich the lives of all those who read it.

This piece is from the New Humanist summer 2022 edition. Subscribe here.

James Joyce

Anyone buying a copy of the first edition of Ulysses, hot off the presses in 1922, would not have had to progress far in the book before coming across its first blasphemy.

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

Introibo ad altare Dei.”

The Latin means “I will go unto the altar of God” and is, or was, said by the priest at the beginning of the former Latin Mass. Mulligan is dressed in a parody of a priest’s vestments except that he is not only in a dressing gown; the dressing gown is undone. Is he actually naked beneath it? “Come up, you fearful Jesuit,” he says to Stephen Dedalus, whom attentive readers of Joyce will recognise as the hero of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, plunged, in that book, into terrifying descriptions of the torments of Hell. “Fearful” is about right: fear was what was meant to inspire the people to faith.

Mulligan continues with his parody: “Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head.” He then says: “For this, O dearly beloved, is the genuine Christine: body and soul and blood and ouns.” (“Ouns” means wounds, as in God’s wounds.) This is funny, but for a believer not funny at all: a parody of the Mass is, essentially, a Black Mass (a Satanic ritual). We are only three-quarters of the way down the first page and the Catholic reader will be having an attack of the vapours. Later on we will hear Dedalus being taunted by his own conscience for having caused his mother’s death by refusing to pray for her. This mirrors Joyce’s own life, as Richard Ellmann sets out in his classic 1959 biography:

“[His mother’s] fear of death put her in mind of her son’s impiety, and on the days following Easter she tried to persuade him to make his confession and take communion. Joyce, however, was inflexible; he feared, as he had Stephen Dedalus say later, ‘the chemical action’ which would be set up in his soul ‘by a false homage to a symbol behind which are massed twenty centuries of authority and veneration’. His mother wept, and vomited green bile into a basin, but he did not yield.”

It is perhaps hard to imagine the outrage with which Ulysses was greeted when it first became available to the general public a century ago. But this outrage was such that it became, very quickly, unavailable to readers. Before Ulysses had even reached book form, the editors of the American literary magazine the Little Review, which first serialised the text, were prosecuted for obscenity.

Nowadays this story of one day in Dublin in June 1904 – as seen through the eyes of three people – is hailed as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century; even, perhaps, as the greatest novel ever written (this is more or less my position). How could something written with such astonishing craft be considered offensive? So Leopold Bloom is depicted in his privy, or contemplating his genitalia in the bath. Big deal: this is something we do every day. True, the number of people who masturbate to the sight of a young girl leaning backwards to look at the fireworks on Sandymount Strand is, I suspect, very close to zero (unless one is very dedicated to homage). But blasphemy? Perhaps “sacrilege” is the better word. In this episode on Sandymount Strand, from a nearby church comes the smell of “fragrant incense. . . and with it the fragrant names of her who was conceived without the stain of original sin”.

There is still an awful lot of sacrilege in the book. It is almost hag-ridden by religion. But the parodies and mockeries are also part of the fabric of any observant society. In private, people mock what they are told to believe. I think of the Irish comedian Dave Allen’s countless skits on the Catholic Church, or the Italian superstition that it is bad luck to run into nuns or priests in the street. These examples, and countless others, demonstrate a deep ambivalence about religion and its trappings, which can also be seen in Ulysses and its author. Asked, some years after the book’s publication if he had left the Catholic Church, Joyce replied: “That’s for the Church to say.”

But it remains the case that Ulysses is the great humanist tract, the first and greatest example of the counterculture, which achieved this not only by mocking religion but also by concentrating on what it is to be human – to have not only a body but a mind through which thoughts and impressions stream unstoppably. It is humanist in the largest sense of the word, and in case we don’t get the moral message, it is made very clear to us in the episode known to scholars as “Cyclops”, in which the wandering Jew, Bloom, runs into the bigoted loudmouth known as “the citizen” in Barney Kiernan’s pub. To general mockery, Bloom says: “And I belong to a race too. . . that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very instant.”

“Are you talking about the new Jerusalem?” asks the citizen. Bloom replies: “I’m talking about injustice . . . But it’s no use … Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life . . . Love. I mean the opposite of hatred.” It is very easy to imagine the scornful tone of the citizen’s answer to this: “A new apostle to the Gentiles. Universal love,” he says, as if such a thing were either impossible or delusional.

Still, I believe that is what Ulysses is trying to achieve, or at least hold up as an example of a better life. After this exchange comes the following passage, which has always fascinated and moved me:

“Love loves to love love. Nurse loves the new chemist. Constable 14A loves Mary Kelly. Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle. M. B. loves a fair gentleman. Li Chi Han lovey up kissy Cha Pu Chow. Jumbo, the elephant, loves Alice, the elephant. Old Mr Verschoyle with the ear trumpet loves old Mrs Verschoyle with the turnedin eye. The man in the brown macintosh loves a lady who is dead. His Majesty the King loves Her Majesty the Queen. Mrs Norman W. Tupper loves officer Taylor. You love a certain person. And this person loves that other person because everybody loves somebody but God loves everybody.”

The notes of the Oxford World’s Classic edition ofUlysses (the best edition) tell us at the back that this is “parody”. I am not so sure. It could indeed easily be read out or imagined in a sarcastic, sing-song whine. But then it could just as easily be considered as an innocent, if naive, exhortation to the universal love that the citizen laughs at.

Whose voice is this? There is no way in the text to tell if it is Bloom’s internal monologue, the citizen’s, someone in his audience’s, or Joyce’s. And that “. . . but God loves everybody”? I like to think that it is not so much the God of the priesthood that is being evoked, but a simple principle, a God “refined out of existence”, to use Joyce’s own term.

That is what Ulysses tells us: to love one another. Whether this has anything to do with any particular God is immaterial. And what could be more humanist than that?

This piece is from the New Humanist summer 2022 edition. Subscribe here.

Time's Monster by Priya Satia

Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire (Allen Lane) by Priya Satia

Priya Satia begins Time’s Monster with a statement: historians, she says, are above all storytellers. At first glance this might not seem to be particularly controversial. History books are, after all, some of the biggest non-fiction best-sellers, with narratives that hold readers as spellbound as any novel. And as writers like Hilary Mantel have proven, the best historical novels can be as meaningful in crafting an image of the past as any scholarly tome.

But for many, the idea that history is merely a story might rankle. History, as an academic field, was constructed as a kind of science that sought to establish objective facts. As Satia sets out in her introduction, this professed goal to capture the truth of the past has made history the perfect subject for study among those with political ambitions. She cites Winston Churchill as an example. Having never actually studied history, he still went on to write several influential history books of events in which he himself had been a prominent figure. Hardly objective, they were still regarded in his day as authoritative texts.

Satia uses this sense of history as authority – not just in terms of its documenting of facts, but in its ability to provide “an ethical idiom for the modern period” – to examine the role that history and historians played in determining the course of British imperialism. She maintains that historians and historical arguments, from the Enlightenment onwards, not only controlled the way that the British viewed their imperial past, but also firmly delineated the possibilities for its future.

The conquest of India, for example, was justified in part through the use of historical narratives that emphasised Britain’s heroic purpose, and hence its right to commit the violent acts deemed necessary to fulfil its national destiny. Thinkers like Thomas Paine, who emphatically believed that “the past need not constrain the future” and that every generation “had the agency to make their own history”, were sidelined in favour of those who argued that history supported the imperial status quo. The popularity of Edward Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in the late 18th century against a backdrop of revolution in America and France, was rooted in a historical imagination that saw history as a story of progress, with Britain at the helm. As Satia notes, the six volumes came to be seen as a guide for the British Empire to avoid such pitfalls as beset the Romans before them.

A diverse range of anti-colonial thinkers – from Mahatma Gandhi to the historian E. P. Thompson – challenged these narratives of progress and destiny, prompting more imaginative thinking about possible futures. But imperial thinking still prevailed in the metropole. In fact, a key element of this attitude was the idea that the peoples being oppressed were inherently lacking in history themselves. The eminent historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1963 famously described the entirety of African history as simply the “unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant parts of the globe”, which would therefore be pointless to study in an academic context.

Time’s Monster begins by accusing historians of long providing a cover story for the imperial establishment, but it ends by establishing the historian today as the new “critic of government”, and the field of history as embracing its task to “expose the scandal of empire”. This is undoubtedly true of some, but it is a leap to claim that all historians are now part of an anti-establishment order – traditionalists as well as radicals still stalk the archival stacks, as the author later acknowledges.

Satia finishes by worrying that the adoption of a more disruptive politics by some historians has proved to be a double-edged sword: once you are no longer telling a story that is useful to politicians, why would they continue to listen to what you have to say? But historians don’t only influence governments directly. As the book shows, campaigns like Rhodes Must Fall, and the call for reparations for slavery in Britain, America and the Caribbean, show how communities can take history from the pages and use it to push for change from the grassroots. As Satia says on the final page, “we need history to understand how we got here”. How we tell these stories of the past will continue to be a powerful political tool for people of all ideological stripes, whether we like it or not.

This piece is from the New Humanist summer 2022 edition. Subscribe here.

Smithfield Market

The sight of pre-packaged animal flesh wrapped in cling film was familiar and disturbing in equal measure. As a vegetarian, it had been a while since I had entered a butcher’s shop, but I had gone in seeking answers to my questions: where does beef come from these days? Where were the cattle raised, and how far had their carcasses travelled? The first answer I received was short and snappy. All the meat that’s sold in this country comes from Smithfield Market, the butcher said. “It’s the most famous meat market in the world.”

I had not intended to be critical or to pass judgement on his business. Meat has long played a key role in the human diet due to the high quality of its protein, which contains essential amino acids, minerals and vitamins. The butcher supplies many local restaurants, and later I overheard him say that his clients had no choice but to pass on the recent price increases to their customers. Yet the steep rise in food and fuel prices – partly as a result of the war in Ukraine, but also because of the cumulative effect of Brexit and the pandemic – is overshadowing other problems with our diets.

According to the World Resources Institute, our global food systems contributed between a quarter and a third of annual greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade. A huge proportion of this is produced by the beef industry. The combination of land use and agricultural processes (including waste as well as animal feed) means that emissions from beef are seven times higher than from chicken and 20 times higher than beans per gram of
protein.

I spotted the blackboard behind the counter: “We stock British beef, Irish beef, Argentinian beef, Australian beef, Uruguayan beef, Brazilian beef.” As I wondered how anyone could justify all those food miles, the butcher informed me that the Argentinian beef was his favourite. And even if we choose to eat cattle farmed closer to home, intensive farming requires vast quantities of feed, using fertiliser sourced from raw materials found elsewhere.

While the fertile plains of South America, the famous Pampas, are known for their cattle ranches, the production of lucrative animal-food crops – notably soy – wreaks havoc in other parts of the continent. The area most affected is the Cerrado in Brazil, a savannah the size of the UK. Land-grabs and deforestation continue to destroy its complex ecosystems, displacing many indigenous communities in the process.

The UN has issued recommendations that beef-producing countries tackle their emissions, but levels of meat consumption continue to rise globally. The prospects for meeting globally agreed climate goals are not good. And the truth is that we are all implicated in the environmental harm caused by food production, whether we consume meat or not.

***

Environmental journalist George Monbiot is convinced that the sooner we liberate the land from farming the better. “We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years,” he wrote shortly after the airing of his 2020 documentary Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed the Planet. “Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life.” The success of this biotech revolution will inevitably hasten the end of the livestock industry, he argued. Might this be the way to go?

Modern systems of food production have been largely driven by scientists aiming to make farming more efficient, regardless of the toll this might take on the environment. Some of these developments also promised revolutionary changes, whether by increasing yields or saving huge labour costs. At the same time, many scientists have been motivated by the need to address poverty, inequality and public health. Perhaps we can learn from earlier examples of momentous change in the way our food is grown, prepared and consumed; this history might offer some insight into the roots of our current crisis.

The humble Oxo cube is a good place to start. A product originally sold as a convenient and affordable way to consume beef, the story of its invention, production and consumption illuminates many aspects of modern history.

The story begins in the 1840s, with the brilliant German scientist Justus von Liebig. He was concerned with the meagre diets of people forced to move away from the land into Europe’s growing industrial towns. Liebig, whose ideas and methods influenced contemporary philosophers and economists, including Marx and Engels, saw that food preparation placed a particular burden on women. In 1847 he concocted “a thick, dark brown liquid with a powerful beef aroma,” that he marketed as Liebig’s Extract of Meat, hoping to provide a cheap protein that was available to all.

However, the dubious benefits of Liebig’s Extract of Meat were largely confined at first to wealthy households and armies on the move. Beef farming on a large scale was simply not feasible in Europe. In 1863, Liebig, who never patented his invention, went into business with George Giebert, a young German engineer building railways in Brazil. Acting as scientific adviser, Liebig consented to the plan to purchase 28,000 acres of land at Fray Bentos on the banks of the Uruguay river. Machinery was shipped across the ocean and the company assembled a largely European workforce to manufacture the extract, using the flesh of thousands of cattle that would otherwise have been killed for their hides and hooves.

The year that Liebig died, in 1873, the company also began to produce tinned corned beef, sold under the label Fray Bentos. In 1910, the beef extract, now renamed Oxo, was manufactured in solid form, and the trademark hand-wrapped cubes became an essential component of every kitchen cupboard and soldier’s ration pack throughout the 20th century.

Today, the globally recognised brand is owned by a UK-based firm. Still a household staple, the Oxo cube survives as a reminder of what can happen when an innovative scientist joins forces with an ambitious entrepreneur. Meanwhile, the revolutionary changes that the Liebig company introduced played a key role in globalising the European beef market, laying the foundations for the trade to this day.

This venture also accounted for the industrial revolution in Uruguay and neighbouring countries in Latin America. The original processing plant in Fray Bentos is now the Museo de la Revolución Industrial, and Uruguay competes with Brazil, Argentina and Australia to sell beef to the world’s most famous meat markets.

***

The history of the Oxo cube can help us understand the way that the beef industry has transformed regional and global economies, driven by European nations’ insatiable need for new colonies to source raw materials, control trade routes and fend off starvation at home. Food, war and colonialism are entangled in ways that are often overlooked, and it is important to recognise that radical scientists could not always predict the long-term implications of their revolutionary proposals.

For this reason it seems prudent to give extra scrutiny to the scenario welcomed by Monbiot. Might his faith in Silicon Valley’s ability to solve the ecological crisis effectively sever the link between food and the soil? This would surely run counter to the agroecological principle of supporting social and cultural communities in conjunction with sustainable farming.

The success of Monbiot’s proposed biotech revolution would inevitably hasten the end of the livestock industry, with predictable consequences for jobs. He suggests that “Instead of pumping ever more subsidies into a dying industry, governments should be investing in helping farmers into other forms of employment, while providing relief funds for those who will suddenly lose their livelihoods.”

Standing in the butcher’s shop, the vague idea of governments providing “relief funds” for people suddenly losing their livelihoods seemed dangerously tokenistic. Replacing farming with biotechnology overnight would disrupt ways of life and fracture deep ties to place and community. The politics of food is always about more than what we choose to eat.

***

I suggest instead that we pay more attention to those advocating alternative food systems that take social and cultural needs into account, as well as repairing and healing the environment. In many parts of the world today, agroecologists are working to change the basis of food production by addressing the harms caused by human exploitation of the planet – whether flooding, drought, soil degradation or biodiversity collapse – viewing these harms as intrinsically connected to human problems such as malnutrition, obesity and disease.

By making the relationships between plants, animals, people and their environments the basis of a sustainable food system, agroecologists demonstrate that livestock can play a crucial role in regenerating the soil. Animal manure, for example, is rich in nutrients and organic matter, which are both key to the physical, chemical and biological properties of healthy soils.

The climate crisis cannot be addressed simply by changing consumer habits: choosing between animal or lab-grown meat, vegan or dairy. Nor is abolishing agriculture going to save us, not in our lifetimes anyway. It’s true that we desperately need a revolution, but it must be one that demands a reparative relationship to the land, not its abandonment.

Extending human life on this planet, free of dependence on fossil fuels and soil-poisoning chemicals, demands a greater knowledge of how our food systems work, as well as how they might be uncoupled from geopolitical power struggles. As the glare of war illuminates the vulnerability of all living things, educating ourselves about alternatives, whether agroecological or biotechnological, has never been more urgent.

This piece is from New Humanist summer 2022. Subscribe here.

This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to patreon.com/rebecca! Transcript: I’ve been disturbed over the past several years to notice that more and more often when someone in my circle of friends or people I follow on social media mention the name “Matt Walsh,” …
This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to patreon.com/rebecca! Transcript: This week, the Washington Post dropped a bombshell article about a Google engineer who claims the chatbot he works on, called LaMDA, is sentient. Though I am not a philosopher nor an artificial intelligence …

For decades, we’ve been sold an idea that taking action on climate change is simply about making the world a better place. It’s that old 2009 USA Today cartoon: a crowd at a climate conference listens to a speech on green jobs, clean water, energy independence and healthy children, and asks: “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”

Climate campaigners play to this, stressing the “co-benefits” of climate action: reduced meat intake and travelling by foot or bicycle are good for your health, electric vehicles cut air and noise pollution, the oil industry has too much power anyway. They’re not lying to you – there are plenty of reasons to quit fossil fuels, quite apart from global warming. But this vision of a cleaner, fairer world hides two other truths which will dominate climate politics as we move further into the middle of the 21st century.

Firstly, there are multiple ways to tackle climate change. As more people become engaged with the climate crisis,we’re not all going to agree on everything. A greater diversity of ideologies will shape how we confront the issue. Secondly, at this point, even the most heroic of mitigation efforts can only limit warming up to a point. We can build better defences against the coming storms, but they are coming either way. In many parts of the world, they have been more than obviously present for decades already.

Too many still approach the climate crisis with a sense that we can solve it. But you can’t solve a problem like the climate crisis. Recognising this is still a long way from “doomism” – giving in – because it’s not game-over either. Climate change isn’t a win-or-lose event; it happens by degree. Not just degrees of warming, but of risk, pain, courage. We need to get used to calculations in those in-between places, taking time to recognise what’s been lost and damaged whilst remembering there is still so much we can save; so many ways we can limit suffering and protect each other. It’s going to be hard, but how hard, for whom, and how well we help each other survive, is still very much up for grabs.

The right kind of climate action

Calling out “bad” climate action, as opposed to just something you disagree with, can be slippery, especially when so much of the decision-making is a matter of weighing up relative risks and is coloured by political position. One campaigner’s “false solution” is another’s sensible choice. Still, we can and should be actively questioning whose lives climate policies are being built for, and who profits from them. The climate crisis was birthed in inequality and exploitation. We mustn’t let our reaction to it play out in such a context too.

As climate justice campaigners have argued for years, the poorest half of the global population contributes just ten per cent of global emissions, but overwhelmingly bears the brunt of climate change impacts. There’s an inequality when it comes to studying those impacts too. One of the most important areas of climate research in recent years has been attribution studies: work to identify links between specific extreme weather events and climate change. Most of these studies have focused on weather events in Europe and North America, due to long-standing inequalities of data collection and global media attention. As climate scientist Sjoukje Philip told Climate Home News last year: “I don’t think we’ve ever done a heatwave attribution study over Africa because we never hear about it.”

Meanwhile, eco-capitalism has already reached the dystopian sci-fi heights of luxury “green” airship tours to the North Pole being sold to look down on polar bears before their habitat melts entirely. And all the time, in the background, global climate policy continually gets stuck in debates over “climate finance”; policy-wonk speak for fights over how much (or rather, how little) richer countries will give the rest of the world to help tackle the climate crisis.

In 2010, rich nations pledged $100 billion per year at the Cancun UN climate talks. The figure might seem large, but it was always way below what’s needed, and despite all the promises, these nations have continually failed to stump up the cash. Moreover, as Jocelyn Timperly noted in a feature for Nature ahead of the 2021 Glasgow talks, such “climate finance” tends to be weighted towards profit-making projects, like solar farms or electric cars, rather than work to protect frontline communities from the impacts of climate change.

But even if climate studies remain skewed to the rich, we have made important strides in our understanding. Perhaps most remarkably, humanity has built a whole system for collecting research on climate change and sharing it with politicians, via the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the reports they publish every three to seven years. As one of their latest reports, published in February, made clear, we should be worrying more about “maladaptation”. Broadly, this refers to projects designed to help people “adapt” to the impacts of climate change, but which have backfired in some way. Such maladaptation might have been caused by policy-makers forgetting or ignoring social and political contexts, not
listening to local expertise – or, in some cases, creating a false sense of security.

In their explainer for the Carbon Brief website, a group from the University of Oxford give the example of a flood barrier project around the Jamuna River in Bangladesh, which ended up encouraging greater development in flood-risk areas and increasing mortality rates. They also describe agricultural modernisation in the island of São Tomé and Príncipe, which was only offered to those who had land, ignoring the landless – thus causing a group already especially vulnerable to climate change to be further marginalised.

Climate and energy writer Ketan Joshi suggests that we should talk about “mal-mitigation” too (though both problems need a better name): these are projects aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but that similarly backfire. Take the case of hyperscale data centres, which help store information in the cloud or stream video and music. These centres are often built in states like Arizona, because solar and wind resources provide cheap low-carbon electricity. The data centres’ intense thirst for water, to help cool equipment, is further drying out already parched land.

Then there is “greengrabbing”. Guardian journalist John Vidal coined the term in 2008 to describe aggressive interests taking land, using the justification of environmental protection. Vidal refers to wealthy Americans buying up acres of Patagonia, and the case of the Bambuti Ba’twa tribe, who lived in forests on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo until the 1990s, when their lands were designated a national park in order to protect gorillas. He could easily have pointed to the history of National Parks in the United States too, where Indigenous Americans were actively removed. More recently, Morocco has been accused of greenwashing colonialism, building renewable energy developments on contested land in Western Sahara.

Development scholars Ian Scoones and Camilla Toulmin raise similarly sceptical eyebrows over the “Great Green Wall”. In many respects, the Wall is an awe-inspiring project. Launched in 2007 by the African Union, it aims to grow a stretch of forest across 8,000 km and 22 countries over the widest part of the African continent – acting as a symbol of environmental action and, more practically, protecting against desertification and creating millions of green jobs, while sequestering hundreds of millions of tons of carbon.

However, Scoones and Toulmin argue that the very idea of desertification in the area has shaky roots, based on faulty colonial science and framed by doomsday ideas of environmental degradation. Moreover, as is the case with many other large-scale forest projects, the glamour of planting new trees risks overriding the preservation of existing trees and shrubs, and could be used as an excuse to keep polluting elsewhere. As Scoones and Toulmin emphasise, if massive projects such as these are going to work, they need to listen to local needs and expertise.

Climate campaigners can be defensive when it comes to discussing such problems. Negatives can be seized by those who want to delay climate action, blowing up critiques way beyond what is fair or necessary. But we do still need to talk about the cons as well as the pros.

Take renewable energy. For decades, solar in particular has been pushed as a symbol of the bright new future that could be ours, if only we grasp the opportunity. It’s brilliant, space-age science. We’d be running directly on sunshine. But while often paraded as “clean”, no energy tech is without its risks and impacts.

The earliest attempts in the 1870s were tangled in colonialism, with French solar-preneur Augustin Mouchot sent by his government to Algeria to experiment with the abundant sunlight found there. Nearly a century later, the US Army would take solar power into space, with the launch of Vanguard 1 in 1958. Military research and development helped pave the way for domestic solar, but was ultimately rooted in Cold War displays of power.

When solar technology finally made its way to Earth, it was initially used by the oil industry, providing power to remote oil rigs. Today, glistening solar panels are often featuredin oil industry adverts, despite the fact that these companies invest a tiny percentage of their capital expenditure in green tech. More troublingly, last summer, an investigation found forced labour from China’s Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province being used in the production of panels. This follows years of concern from human rights groups over the supply chain for batteries – technology that renewables like solar rely upon.

None of this is to dismiss solar, any more than raising concerns over tree-planting is a reason to dump those projects. No technology is a neutral good, and denying the problems won’t help us solve them. The challenge is to avoid replicating the political and economic problems of fossil fuels as we decarbonise the energy system. We must use the opportunity of change to reform so much more.

An ideological battle

People often put Margaret Thatcher’s climate campaigner moment in the late 1980s down to her scientific training, but it’s just as likely she grasped the politics before most others. She knew that to tackle climate change seriously would require a massive economic shift, and didn’t want to concede that space to the left. So she got in early, telling the UN in November 1989, “We must resist the simplistic tendency to blame modern multinational industry for the damage which is being done to the environment. Far from being the villains, it is on them that we rely to do the research and find the solutions.”

Fast forward to the 2020s, and many worry about a potential rise in something much further to the right: eco-fascism. This is not a new problem. As historian of eugenics Garland Allen argues, several founding fathers of the American conservation movement weren’t just racist and environmentalist, but saw the two as intimately connected. Madison Grant is perhaps the most extreme example. His 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race is often described as the “bible” of scientific racism (Hitler certainly saw it as such, saying so when he wrote to thank Grant for writing it). Grant was also a leading conservationist, convincing friends like Rockefeller, the Vanderbilts and J. P. Morgan to help fund his dream project of the Bronx Zoo.

For Grant and many of his friends, conservation and eugenics were part of the same project. He once said to his friend and co-conspirator, Henry Fairfield Osborn (the man who named both the Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor) that both were “attempts to save as much as possible of the old America”. Post-war environmentalists would distance themselves from overt fascism, including Fairfield Osborn’s son, Jr, whose foundation
organised the first international climate change conference in 1963. But that doesn’t mean that this politics disappeared entirely, or that it doesn’t continue to exist in parts of the environmentalist movement today.

As the windows of opportunity for climate action close, we might also predict an increase in violence. Notwithstanding the recent vogue in Britain for slashing and deflating SUV tyres, thus far environmentalists have tended to stick resolutely to non-violence. Extinction Rebellion (XR) has built a movement based strongly on the rhetorical appeal of disobedience and disruption, controversially championing the idea of arrest. Still, although they’ll happily annoy people by stopping a tube or blocking a road, they draw an important distinction between damaging property and hurting people.

Back in early 2001, the FBI named the environmental group the Earth Liberation Front as the leading domestic terrorist threat in the US. An action in 1998 wracked up an estimated $26 million of damage – however, like XR today, they never threatened violence towards other people. Political attitudes to the word “terrorism” would change dramatically following 9/11. Still, we now know that state concern over climate activists hardly disappeared.

Take Mark Kennedy, the Metropolitan police officer employed to spy on environmental activists in the UK between 2003 and 2010. By the time of the 2008 Climate Camp by Kingsnorth power station in Kent, some activists had started to call him “detective” behind his back. Meanwhile, the Climate Campers were acutely aware that they were being falsely depicted to the public as violent – not just to property but to people. At one point they marched behind a banner declaring: “We are armed only with peer review”, copies of the latest IPCC report stuck to their hands.

UK ministers had justified spending £5.9 million on policing the Kingsnorth protest by saying that 70 officers had been injured. However, a freedom of information request later showed that of the 1,500 officers deployed at the camp, there were only 12 reportable injuries, none came from direct contact with the protesters, and all were of the lowest level of seriousness. Reported injuries included “stung on finger by possible wasp”, heatstroke, and “used leg to open door and next day had pain in lower back”.

More extreme iterations of protest may well become part of the future of climate politics, but we should ensure that fear-mongering doesn’t get used to limit climate protest, or distract from the very real and pressing violence of climate change politics as it already exists – be that water scarcity in Syria, maladaptation projects in Bangladesh or the multitude of ways in which the legacies of colonialism continue to skew the global response.

The climate crisis as a security issue

One of the challenging things about climate change is that it creeps up gradually over time, squeezing already squeezed systems, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities and inequalities, heating up everything from gentrification to domestic violence. In California, it intertwines with the prison-industrial complex, as prison inmates are sent to fight wildfires at a fraction of the minimum wage. This has been happening since the 1940s, but as wildfires get worse, the state relies increasingly on this cheap, captive workforce.

In December, the UN Environment Programme warned that Isis was exploiting water shortages in Iraq and Syria. Climate change isn’t the cause of conflict there, but can easily help sustain it. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it, “Climate change is not the source of all ills, but it has a multiplier effect and is an aggravating factor for instability, conflict and terrorism.”

The intelligence community is well aware of the problem. In 1974, the CIA penned a report on “climatological research as it pertains to intelligence problems”, which warned of new geopolitical risks coming with the emergence of a new climatic era, especially with regards to food shortages and migration. The report argued this new era was well underway, but had started in parts of the world that tended to be ignored. It predicted that soon, these poorer countries wouldn’t just be paying attention, but would try to fight back with weapons aimed at returning the weather to how it was. Crucially, the report warned, the weather doesn’t keep to lines drawn on a map. Once modified by one nation, weather events might spill over to
another country and ignite conflict.

The idea that people could find ways to deliberately change the weather has been around for centuries, enjoying particular popularity just after the Second World War. As Jacob Darwin Hamblin notes in Arming Mother Nature, by the mid-20th-century military scientists had weaponised medicine, chemistry and even nuclear physics, so why not use the Earth itself against your enemies?

Several high-profile attempts have been made at changing the weather. In 1945, secret research went public when a team at General Electric led by Nobel Prize-winner Irving Langmuir appeared to make it snow in Massachusetts, after “seeding” clouds by throwing dry ice into them. Five years later, Langmuir made the cover of Time with work using silver iodine to create rain. It made such an impact on the public imagination that when, in the early 1950s, mainstream media like the New York Times and Scientific American started to discuss early signs of what we would now call the climate crisis, they were keen to stress that man-made climate change wasn’t just Irving Langmuir at it again.

Today, although stories of cloud-seeding still circulate on a small scale, the CIA report reads as ageing sci-fi. But they weren’t alone in their analysis. In 1975, anthropologist Margaret Mead also got an early bout of climate crisis anxiety, and pulled together a group to develop a social science perspective on the issue. Her report suggested developing countries should be given support to set up their own weather modification programmes.

And the idea hasn’t gone away. In 2018, a letter in the journal Nature echoed Mead’s concern, arguing that developing countries must take the lead on geoengineering research. Just this spring, a paper in Nature Communications explored how solar radiation management (reflecting more sunlight away from the planet) could impact not just global temperatures but transmission of malaria, warning that in some scenarios, a billion extra people could be at risk of malaria in a geoengineered world.

Greenpeace’s Doug Parr once famously described geoengineering research as “an expression of political despair”; what you do when you’ve given up all the other options. But it’s worth being politically prepared. We don’t always make the best or fairest decisions when we’re scared.

A fairer future

As we’ve seen, climate change doesn’t only impact us directly. It is also a threat multiplier. This will continue to be the case, even as temperatures rise and impacts become more violent. This doesn’t mean we can’t build a better world while we also tackle climate change. Indeed, if anything, it’s precisely why we have to get to work removing those threats. If you’re worried about climate change, join a climate campaign, sure, but we must also prepare by supporting migrants’ rights groups and mental health charities; fight to unravel legacies of colonialism and gender inequality; build a world where everyone can have access to the greatest advances in science and technology – be that luxury airships, a life-saving drug, solar-powered heating or the best flood defences.

Or, to put it another way, caring about climate change alone won’t build a safe, fair world; fighting for a safer, fairer world will. Could rising climate impacts lead to an increase in eco-fascism? Undoubtedly yes, and we should fight that as we would any other kind of fascism. Could we build a decarbonised world that not only replicates but exacerbates inequalities and human rights abuses endemic in our current fossil fuel economy? Again, it’s all too easy to imagine, and again, we should not allow a veneer of
environmentalism to justify malign behaviour.

We can’t win when it comes to the climate crisis. That (coal-powered) ship sailed a long time ago. But we can win plenty of other fights: fights that will help us to avoid maladaptation, prevent climate change from being used as an excuse for violence, and help us survive the coming storms. It’s not just high time we saved “the planet”, but ourselves.

This piece is from the New Humanist summer 2022 edition. Subscribe here.

I started this post back on the 20th of May, my dad’s birthday. It took me this long to be able to come back to it. I have always prided myself on being the epitome of stability. A rock that people could rely on when they were falling apart. I’m cool in an emergency. I’m …
This thread has been created for thoughtful, rational discussion on subjects for which there are not currently any dedicated threads. Please note that our Comment Policy applies as usual. There is a link to this at the foot of the page. If you would like to refer back to previous open discussion threads, the most …
Earlier this year, Twitter suspended the account of Atheist Republic (@AtheistRepublic) for unspecified violations after complaints from the Indian government. In the letter below, Robyn Blumner, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, and Richard Dawkins, CFO board member and founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, write to request that …
In an essay exclusive to Free Inquiry, Richard Dawkins responds to the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the roots of anti-abortion fanaticism found in Catholic dogma. Why are they so fanatical about this one issue, eclipsing, as it does, all others? It is because they really think abortion …
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Do you know how best to cut your carbon footprint?

I recently invited people to take an online survey about sustainable lifestyle changes and over 800 people kindly responded. The work was conducted with Prof Mike Page from the University of Hertfordshire and Edinburgh Science, and the results are now in!

Everyone were asked to estimate how many kilograms of carbon dioxide would be saved by taking a range of actions. Many of the ratings were hugely inaccurate, with people generally overestimating the effects of less impactful changes, such as unplugging appliances, but underestimating the contribution of larger lifestyle changes such as following a vegetarian diet. For example

….unplugging a mobile phone charger saves around 2kg of CO2 emissions per year; yet one third of respondents thought that it saved five times that (100kg or more).

….leaving a television on standby emits around 15kg of CO2 per year, but a third of respondents estimated that it was far more significant (125 kg or more).

….becoming a vegetarian can save over 600kg, yet half of the respondents thought that it only saved 300kg or less.

…buying a blue jumper rather than a red one has no impact at all, but, on average, people thought that it would save 37kg.

The good news is that other estimates about, for example, the impact of flying, were more accurate. Every little helps, and people should consider doing whatever they can to cut emissions. However, these results suggest that there are many widely believed myths about sustainable behaviour. There’s a real appetite to make changes, which is great, but many of us may need clearer information on how make the biggest impact.

Many thanks to everyone who was kind enough to take part.

This thread has been created for thoughtful, rational discussion on subjects for which there are not currently any dedicated threads. Please note that our Comment Policy applies as usual. There is a link to this at the foot of the page. If you would like to refer back to previous open discussion threads, the most …

I have teamed up with Edinburgh Science to conduct a short survey into your thoughts about climate change and sustainability. It only takes a few minutes and it would be lovely if you could take part. All you need to do is click here. Thank you!

IMG_1433I have been interested in magic since I was 8 years old.  Early on, I became fascinated with the history of this strange performing art, and when I was 13 years old I wrote a school project entitled ‘The Art And History Of Conjuring’.

One section of this 34-page extravaganza was devoted to contemporary magicians and included the cover of a magic magazine featuring the legendary David Copperfield.

A few years ago, I was in Las Vegas with my friend and fellow magician, Massimo Polidoro. We went to see David Copperfield’s amazing show and he kindly invited us to his secret museum of magic. This stunning collection is housed is a large building on the outskirts of Vegas and contains a jaw dropping collection of apparatus, posters and books. It is the Smithsonian of magic and explores how magic shapes society, inspires technology, and creates a sense of wonder.

IMG_1435Due to the nature of the exhibits, David is only able to show a few people around the museum at any one time. Afterwards, David and I spoke about producing a book that provides readers with a personal tour of this magical space. Excited by the idea, we enlisted the help of brilliant magician David Britland and amazing photographer (and co-director of David Copperfield’s shows) Homer Liwag. Together, we put together a pitch document and were delighted when Simon and Schuster agreed to publish the book. Not only that, but the wonderful Priscilla Painton agreed to act as our editor.

IMG_1409Three years on and our vision has become a reality. This 270-page glossy book is our love letter to magic. Filled with Homer’s stunning photographs, it celebrates a group of outsiders who bring a much-needed sense of magic into the world, including the man who fooled Houdini, the woman who caught bullets in her bare hands, and the illusionist who made himself vanish. Along the way we encounter a sixteenth-century manual on sleight of hand, stunning French automata, and even some coins that are said to have magically passed through the hands of Abraham Lincoln.

Over forty years ago, 13 year-old Wiseman write a school project on magic and referenced David Copperfield. Today, I am honoured to have worked with this legendary performer and co-authored a beautiful book on the topic. To me, that feels like real magic.

For information on how to purchase in the USA, click here and for the UK, click here.

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I am delighted to announce that Issue 4 of our magic comic, Hocus Pocus, is out now. This one is all about whether it’s possible to predict the future. As ever, it contains 28 full colour pages about magic, mystery and the mind. This issue also has lots of interactive demonstrations and illusions. Mother Shipton predicts your future , Nostradamus uncovers the secret of publishing profitable predictions and Paul The Psychic Octopus reveals all.Amazing work by Jordan Collver, Rik Worth and Owen Watts. Enjoy! Available now from Prop Dog

papers2I have just co-authored a new research paper suggesting that learning to perform magic tricks makes children more creative.

During the experiment, a group 10 to 11-year-old children completed a creativity test that involved coming up with multiple uses for an everyday object. They were then taught how to perform a simple trick in which they showed someone a cube with different coloured sides, asked the person to secretly choose a colour, and then magically revealed their person’s choice. Finally, they all completed the creativity test a second time. Compared to another group of children who took part in an art lesson, learning the trick significantly boosted the children’s creativity scores.

Magic tricks often involve lateral thinking and we suspect that learning to perform the illusions encouraged children to think outside of the box.  There is a  need to enhance creative thinking from a young age. Learning magic tricks would be a cost effective, practical, and fun way of teachers and parents boosting children’s creativity. Maybe in the future, magic will become part of the school curriculum!

The peer-reviewed work was carried out in collaboration with  Amy Wiles and Professor Caroline Watt (Edinburgh University), and published in the academic journal PeerJ.

You can read the paper for free here, and a general review on magic and education here.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”

There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.

I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).

One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.

But why Higher Ed?

As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?

Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.

*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.

 

Hello everyone! Many apologies for my long absence, but things got a little busy for me when I went back to school (yes, again) to actually officially study Higher Education!

The upside for you, dear readers, is that my new studies have provided lots of new grist for the old mill, and I plan to post fairly regularly about my ideas, experiences, and research over the next few semesters. This will include everything from day-to-day experiences in the programme itself to discussions of the existing literature on higher ed to summaries of my own research in the field (and possibly links to full papers for the true masochists among you).

Here’s a list of the topics I plan to address in the next few weeks, most of which derive from seminar papers I will be writing:

 

Is the Human Capital Model a Myth? Signalling, Credentialism, and Rent-Seeking in Higher Ed

The Idea of a Stoic University (Or: How to Un-coddle the American Mind)

Transnational Mobility in the Academic Labour Market for the Humanities

Graduate School as the Structural Model for the Theory of Emerging Adulthood

 

I’m looking forward to bringing you all along with me on this new journey!

[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]

After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.

Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?

Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.

Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?

In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.

What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?

Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.

Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.

First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.

Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?

Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.

So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?

Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?

Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.

This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.

*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).

Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.

Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.

Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):

Dear Chairs,

I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.

Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.

These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.

The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:

· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.

· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.

The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.

Thanks,

Michael


MICHAEL R. MOLINO
Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research

COLLEGE OF LIBERAL ARTS
MAIL CODE 4522
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
1000 FANER DRIVE
CARBONDALE, ILLINOIS 62901

mmolino@siu.edu
P: 618/453-2466
F: 618/453-3253

In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.

For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.

But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.

At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.

Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.

And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.

[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]

Dear [STUDENT],

Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.

This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.

The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.

Let’s begin, shall we?

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If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.

If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.

2. Is the answer to your question on the course syllabus, which we went over in detail on the first day of class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:

When and where does our class meet?

What assignments do we have and when are they due?

When are exams and what will be on them?

How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?

3. If your question is about a specific assignment, is it answered on the assignment sheet, which we went over in detail in class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.

4. Is your question answered on our course FAQ page, which currently lists 127 commonly asked questions and is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.

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Such questions might include but are not limited to:

How much wood a woodchuck can chuck

The sound of one hand clapping, trees falling in the woods, or other Zen koans (try this book instead)

Whether or not Bernie would have won

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Please contact your TA for assistance.

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@davorg / Monday 27 June 2022 17:37 UTC