Until I was 34 weeks pregnant, I only considered the act of childbirth in blurred, vague terms, and this meant I was unusually impressionable. Hence, the entrée in week 35 of one Ina May Gaskin, legendary midwife, and successful deliverer of eleventy-dillion babies at what definitely didn’t seem like a very creepy commune in the middle of Tennessee. “You must read Ina May,” explained my friend Charlotte (not her real name), who’d recently driven 80 miles across state lines to push out her second child in a midwifery center. “She will make you SO CONFIDENT about what your body can do,” all caps in original. I was intrigued — and, a few hundred pages deep into Spiritual Midwifery and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, equal parts tentative and enamored.
Both books consisted primarily of first-person accounts of sublime natural birthing. “The ecstasy of birth was so wonderful,” wrote one mother, named Kim, after her daughter simply “slipped out.” Another went for a two-hour hike in the middle of labor. “I could feel my baby move me open, and when the intensity of the rushes increased, I just leaned on a tree.” First-time mother Celeste, furthermore, wouldn’t call labor painful — she’d call it “INTENSELY NATURAL,” all caps, once again, in the original. Then there was my favorite, Mary, who “visualized [her] yoni as a big, open cave beneath the surface of the ocean,” and “surrendered over and over to the great, oceanic, engulfing waves. It was really delightful — very orgasmic and invigorating.”
The article goes into fascinating geological detail about what science knows about this cataclysmic volcanism. Although the title, “When Will the Earth Try to Kill Us Again?” makes the process sound maliciously anthropomorphic, the idea of a hateful Earth, sick of humanity’s meddling, does add some welcome levity to a grave vision of our future.
Some scientists claim LIPs occur cyclically every 15 million years, and they think we’re overdue for one. Others admit we don’t understand them well enough to predict. Lee compares human activity on the earth’s surface to an LIP: We are filling the atmosphere with CO2, causing global warming and oceanic dead zones at a faster pace than LIPs. Although nobody can accurately predict when an LIP will destroy our species, we do know this: That vintage wine you’ve been saving in the basement for a rainy day? This is the rainy day. Pop the cork.
Even if LIPs are the “smoking gun” behind most mass extinctions, that still doesn’t tell us how they killed animals. It wasn’t the lava. Despite the moniker—flood basalts—these are not raging torrents. You could probably out-walk the lava from a Large Igneous Province. As vast as they were, they flowed in much the same way as lava in Iceland or Hawaii flows today, with glistening orange and grey lobes swelling, stretching, and spilling to make new lobes. An advancing front will typically move at about a kilometer or two in a day (the average person can walk that distance in 30 minutes).
Unfortunately, gas is deadlier than lava.
The 1783-4 Laki eruption in Iceland gave us a tiny taste of what to expect from a LIP. It bathed Europe in an acid haze for five months, strong enough to burn throats and eyes, scorch vegetation and tarnish metal, to kill insects and even fish. That may be a killer, but, as far as science can tell, the haze from a LIP on its own is unlikely to be sufficient to cause a mass extinction. The climate effects of volcanic gases are deadlier still. Stratospheric sulfur from Laki cooled the planet by 1.3 degrees Celsius for three years, triggering one of the most severe winters on record in Europe, North America, Russia, and Japan. Famines ensued in many parts of the world, and that may have planted the seeds for the French Revolution five years later.
A decade-long LIP eruption could cool the planet by about 4.5 degrees Celsius, although the climate would recover in 50 years. This would no doubt cause geopolitical and financial chaos, but it’s unlikely by itself to eradicate a significant percentage of species from the sea, given the time it takes to mix the oceans (about a thousand years) and their huge thermal inertia.
For many, it seems like an easy choice: You check the donor box on your driver’s license and feel a vague sense of philanthropy. “If anything happens to me, at least what’s left will be used in a meaningful way.”
Outside Southern Nevada’s suburban warehouse, the circumstances were far from comforting. In the fall of 2015, neighboring tenants began complaining about a mysterious stench and bloody boxes in a Dumpster. That December, local health records show, someone contacted authorities to report odd activity in the courtyard.
Health inspectors found a man in medical scrubs holding a garden hose. He was thawing a frozen human torso in the midday sun.
This is the “body broker” market. It’s different from the federally regulated tissue and organ donor market — the market that provides, say, a liver to a waiting patient.
The body broker market is a for profit industry selling body parts for medical training. Brokers often source those bodies — body parts, really — from the poor, offering partial cremation in exchange for the opportunity to sell off what’s left.
The industry’s business model hinges on access to a large supply of free bodies, which often come from the poor. In return for a body, brokers typically cremate a portion of the donor at no charge. By offering free cremation, some deathcare industry veterans say, brokers appeal to low-income families at their most vulnerable. Many have drained their savings paying for a loved one’s medical treatment and can’t afford a traditional funeral.
“People who have financial means get the chance to have the moral, ethical and spiritual debates about which method to choose,” said Dawn Vander Kolk, an Illinois hospice social worker. “But if they don’t have money, they may end up with the option of last resort: body donation.”
Few rules mean few consequences when bodies are mistreated. In the Southern Nevada case, officials found they could do little more than issue a minor pollution citation to one of the workers involved. Southern Nevada operator Joe Collazo, who wasn’t cited, said he regretted the incident. He said the industry would benefit from oversight that offers peace of mind to donors, brokers and researchers.
“To be honest with you, I think there should be regulation,” said Collazo. “There’s too much gray area.”
Who gets to decide if a disability is bad? This is one of the fundamental questions raised by a recent STAT feature on the genetic testing of embryos, which also looks at how that decision is reached. Andrew Joseph follows two women who knowingly pursue a pregnancy with an embryo that has a mutation that would put their child at a higher risk for certain cancers. It was the only viable embryo the couple had, so if they wanted a baby they didn’t have much of a choice.
A robot produced by Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories on display at the Science Museum in London. (Ben Stansall /AFP/Getty Images)
Hiroshi Ishiguro has spent a lifetime in pursuit of the perfect robot. He has modeled his creations on those closest to him — his wife, his child, himself — but he admits to feeling lonely while surrounded by his family, both human and inhuman. At Wired, Alex Mar unravels the depths of Ishiguro’s passion for robots, and what he means when he tries to make them lifelike. However, Mar finds that after a lifetime of considering what it means to be human, Ishiguro may not truly understand the basics of human interaction himself.
He has spent a lot of time talking to himself through his androids, testing them, imagining their effect on other people. Hiroshi (who by now has asked me to call him by his first name) tells me he’d like to record himself saying “I love you” and then program an android to repeat it back to him in a female voice. He is kidding when he says this—but maybe it’s another of his half-jokes. At the very least, he believes the need for such an exchange exists. It would be, he says, “a real conversation.” A conversation with himself.
“A conversation is a kind of illusion,” he says. “I don’t know what is going on in your brain. All I can know is what I’m thinking. Always I am asking questions to myself, but through conversations.” Over the years of operating his androids, communicating through them or with them, he has found that he isn’t really concerned about the other person’s thoughts. “Always I am thinking of myself. I need to understand your intention, but it is not a priority. Before that, I want to make clear something in my brain. Otherwise, what is the motivation to talk?”
In other words, he can only imagine using conversation with others as a means to better understand himself—and nothing is more pressing than that. He turns to the conversation the two of us are having. “We don’t know how much information we are sharing,” he tells me. “I am always guessing, and you are always guessing, and through our conversation patterns, we can believe that we exchange information. But I cannot access your brain directly.
“What is ‘connection’?” he asks. “Other person is just a mirror.”
Julie Rinaldi, left, and Lynn Locascio, right, both of Tampa, Fla., react as names are read of people who have died from OxyContin abuse. Rinaldi's daughter, Sarah, died at 17 from taking OxyContin. (AP Photo//Bristol Herald Courier, David Crigger)
The Sackler family funds top-tier museums (the Met, the Tate, the Smithsonian), universities (Princeton, Cambridge), and scientific research institutes (the Mayo Clinic, the National Academy of Sciences). Where does their cash come from? Writing in Esquire, Christopher Glazek tells us: pharmaceuticals — these days, largely OxyContin, which generates over a billion dollars in sales each year on the back of a campaign built on misleading both doctors and the public about its addictive potential. Over 200,000 people have now died of OxyContin overdoses, and many more from heroin after first becoming addicted to opioids via Oxy.
The Sacklers have experience turning an addictive drug into a household name. In the 1960s, family patriarch Arthur Sackler did it with benzodiazepene:
In the 1960s, Arthur was contracted by Roche to develop an advertising strategy for a new antianxiety medication called Valium. This posed a challenge, because the effects of the medication were nearly indistinguishable from those of Librium, another Roche tranquilizer that was already on the market. Arthur differentiated Valium by audaciously inflating its range of indications. Whereas Librium was sold as a treatment for garden- variety anxiety, Valium was positioned as an elixir for a problem Arthur christened “psychic tension.” According to his ads, psychic tension, the forebear of today’s “stress,” was the secret culprit behind a host of somatic conditions, including heartburn, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, and restless-leg syndrome. The campaign was such a success that for a time Valium became America’s most widely prescribed medication—the first to reach more than $100 million in sales. Arthur, whose compensation depended on the volume of pills sold, was richly rewarded, and he later became one of the first inductees into the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame.
Later, the company would do the something similar with OxyContin and pain, when it “rebranded pain relief as a sacred right: a universal narcotic entitlement available not only to the terminally ill but to every American.”
The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Photo: Getty Images.
Ashley Dawson | Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change | Verso | October 2017 | 17 minutes (4,461 words)
This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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An utter transformation of human habitation across the globe within one generation.
Milestones on the road toward climate chaos are all too frequent these days: in 2015, the Manua Loa Observatory in Hawaii reported that the daily mean concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere had surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time; each year Arctic sea ice levels grow lower and lower; permafrost in areas like Siberia and Alaska is melting, releasing dangerous quantities of methane into the atmosphere; and each year brings more violent storms and more severe droughts to different parts of the world. Indeed, news of apocalyptic climate-related events is so manifold that it can feel overwhelming, producing a kind of disaster fatigue. One recent announcement merits particular attention, however: in the summer of 2014, a team of NASA scientists announced conclusive evidence that the retreat of ice in the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica had become unstoppable. This melting alone, they concluded, will drive global sea levels up by over 1 meter (3 feet). As the Pine Island, Thwaites, and other glaciers of the Amundsen Sea sector collapse into the ocean, the effect is expected to be like a cork removed from a bottle of champagne: the ice the glaciers held back will rush rapidly into the sea, and the entire West Antarctic ice sheet will collapse. Sea levels will consequently rise 3 to 5 meters (10–16 feet). In addition, it was recently discovered that the same process that is driving this collapse, the intrusion of warmer ocean water beneath the glaciers in West Antarctica, is also eroding key glaciers in East Antarctica. The East Antarctic ice sheet contains even more ice than the western sheet: the Totten glacier alone would account for 7 meters (23 feet) of sea level rise. As if this weren’t bad enough news, a similar process of melting is also taking place in Greenland, where fjords that penetrate far inland are carrying warm water deep underneath the ice sheet.
These reports overturn long-held assumptions about the stability of Greenland’s glaciers: until recently, scientists had predicted that Greenland’s ice sheet would stabilize once the glaciers close to the warming ocean had melted. The discovery of ice-bound fjords reaching almost sixty-five miles inland has major implications since the glacier melt will be much more substantial than anticipated. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets combined contain over 99 percent of the Earth’s glacial ice. If they were to melt completely, they would raise global sea levels a virtually inconceivable 65 meters (200 feet). Although it remains unclear exactly how long the disintegration of these ice sheets will take, the implications of such melting for the world’s coastal cities are stark, and still almost totally unacknowledged by the general public. As Robert DeConto, co-author of a recent study that predicts significantly faster melt rates in the world’s largest glaciers, points out, we’re already struggling with 3 millimeters per year of sea level rise, but if the polar ice sheets collapse, “We’re talking about centimeters per year. That’s really tough. At that point your engineering can’t keep up; you’re down to demolition and rebuilding.”
Shockingly, few orthodox scientific predictions of sea level rise have taken the disintegration of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets into consideration. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, projects a high of three feet of sea level rise by 2100, but this prediction does not include a significant contribution from the West Antarctic ice sheet. Like the IPCC’s projection for Arctic sea ice collapse, which has moved up from 2100 to 2050 in the latest report, this prediction is clearly far too low. What explains such gross miscalculations? The protocols of scientific verifiability provide a partial explanation. The general public has urgently wanted to know, after city-wrecking hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy, whether the devastation was caused by climate change. But unfortunately scientists have until quite recently been unable to make direct links between particular extreme weather events and climate change in general. This, as environmental philosopher Dale Jamieson puts it in Reason in a Dark Time, would be like saying that a specific home run is “caused” by a baseball player’s batting average. If scientists are becoming less reticent to make these links, as the science of attribution grows more sophisticated and able to track the causes of weather extremes, the change is still occurring slowly.
Nevertheless, the IPCC’s failure to account for the destruction of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets can only add to skepticism toward their predictions, especially after they were widely attacked for their 2007 calculations about the speed of Himalayan glacial melting. Further fueled by the climate change denial industry, the IPCC’s own excessively rosy predictions for the future will only increase skepticism. In their 2000 report, for example, the body assumes that nearly 60 percent of hoped-for emissions reductions will occur independently of explicit mitigation measures. As the urban theorist Mike Davis has pointed out, the IPCC’s mitigation targets assume that profits from fossil capitalism will be recycled into green technology rather than penthouse suites in soaring skyscrapers. The IPCC projects a market-driven evolution toward a post-carbon economy, a set of assumptions that, as spiraling levels of greenhouse gas emissions since 2000 demonstrate all too clearly, are dead wrong. These projections concerning sea level rise and the vulnerability of coastal cities will have to be radically revised, especially after spectacular urban disasters hammer home the inadequacy of current projections. But these world-changing transformations will not take place in the distant future. Citing evidence drawn from the last major ice melt during the Eemian period, an interglacial phase about 120,000 years ago that was less than 1ºC warmer than it is today, climatologist James Hansen predicts that, absent a sharp and enduring reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, global sea levels are “likely to increase several meters over a timescale of 50 to 150 years.” Should they prove accurate, Hansen’s forecasts spell an utter transformation of human habitation across the globe within one generation. Read more…
Nations have long done battle with one another in different ways. These days, they spy from satellites, send viruses to corrupt government software, poach scientists and infiltrate academia. At The Guardian, Daniel Golden describes how international intelligence agencies send operatives to scientific conferences to gather intel, and how the U.S. has worked to convince foreign nuclear scientists to defect.
Scientific conferences attract people from all corners of the world and facilitate the exchange of information. Conferences are also one of the few opportunities for nuclear scientists from Iran to leave the country, so they function as what Golden calls “a modern-day underground railroad” for potential defectors. U.S. intelligence agencies routinely create their own sham conferences through an intermediary in order to isolate their targets and engage them one-on-one. The system has worked on many scientists. It’s fraught with many dangers: how to blend into a relatively small academic community and impersonate a scientist with actual scientific knowledge? How to get the target away from his guards without attracting attention? The larger question is whether this billion-dollar industry keeps the world safer.
“From the Iranian point of view, they would clearly have an interest in sending scientists to conferences about peaceful uses of nuclear power,” Ronen Bergman told me. A prominent Israeli journalist, Bergman is the author of The Secret War With Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power, and is working on a history of Israel’s central intelligence service, the Mossad. “They say, ‘Yes, we send our scientists to conferences to use civilian technology for a civilian purpose.’”
The CIA officer assigned to the case might pose as a student, a technical consultant, or an exhibitor with a booth. His first job would be to peel the guards away from the scientist. In one instance, kitchen staff recruited by the CIA poisoned the guards’ meal, leaving them incapacitated by diarrhoea and vomiting. The hope was that they would attribute their illness to aeroplane food or an unfamiliar cuisine.
With luck, the officer would catch the scientist alone for a few minutes, and pitch to him. He would have boned up on the Iranian by reading files and courting “access agents” close to him. That way, if the scientist expressed doubt that he was really dealing with the CIA, the officer could respond that he knew everything about him, even the most intimate details – and prove it. One officer told a potential defector: “I know you had testicular cancer and you lost your left nut.”
Matt Giles | Longreads | October 2017 | 1,800 words (7 minutes)
As a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology at Penn State, Jason De León spent a decade in Mexico studying debris left behind thousands of years ago by indigenous peoples crafting simple tools out of obsidian. The goal, he says, was to learn about ancient political economies, but he ultimately felt his future career path was too niche. “I looked at 40,000 little shiny pieces of rock and tried to say something meaningful,” he tells me. “I don’t know if I actually succeeded, but I definitely got to the point where I felt like that wasn’t the best use of my time.”
Last week, De León was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” grant, $625,000 doled out in installments over the next five years with no strings attached. I spoke with De León, now an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, about the origins of his Undocumented Migration Project, how border crossings have changed in the decade he’s been in the field, and how he’ll use the MacArthur funds.
When you first founded the Undocumented Migration Project, what was your end goal as you were getting it up and running?
I had some pretty simple goals: How can we learn about what border crossing looks like without physically being with migrants crossing the desert? Are there other ways to study that behavior? Is archeology one of those ways?
People have some pretty strong opinions about border crossing. Based on accounts of journalists who have talked to migrants, you tend to get black or white kinds of discussions. So I thought, what would the archeology tell us? Is there a way to study this process? At that point, I was naively thinking, ‘Oh I’m gonna be a scientist and study this process and it’ll be this apolitical kind of endeavor.’ It turned out to be an incredibly political endeavor, but it’s definitely science.
Was that something you were fascinated with while you were doing your undergrad and getting your Ph.D. or did this evolve?
I’m a classically trained archeologist. I spent about ten years in Mexico before I began this project. The migration stuff came incredibly late, which is surprising given the fact that I grew up on the U.S.–Mexico border and I have many family members who were immigrants and have undocumented family members. It wasn’t until I started having really deep conversations with people who worked on archaeological projects in Mexico, and hired laborers who told me about their immigration experiences. That’s when I really started getting interested in this as a topic of study.
Archeology uses artifacts from the past to explain the present. But this is archeology as it happens. Has it been difficult to address what you’re finding in terms of how it forms your opinion of what migration means in this 21st century?
All archeology really means is we’re studying the past through material traces. We tend to think these must be ancient things. But what happens if you think about the archeology of the recent past, as recently as this morning in some cases? Is that still archeology, or is that something else?
I’ve had to be really defensive when people would say to me, “you’re not an archaeologist.” I’m now at the point where I use archeology to understand border crossings, but that’s not the end of it. I have to draw on other things.
One of the cautionary tales that I tell students is that people love to talk about these migrant objects: the backpacks, the water bottles. It’s very easy for them to empathize with shoes and baby bottles and to be emotionally impacted by a giant wall of backpacks. It becomes more difficult for them to take those feelings and put them in the context of a real individual. It’s okay to think these objects are powerful, but you have to remember they are only powerful because of their connection to these people.
Items left behind by undocumented immigrants on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande River, 2014. (John Moore/Getty Images)
It’s forming a connection, it’s forming a bond to something that you’re powerless over, or that you find hard toaddress.
Archeology that happens this morning, or yesterday, is a difficult and murky territory. Our interpretations of these materials become very complicated. If you find these things in the desert and you use archeology to try to understand it, you’ll have your own opinions about it. Then a migrant comes by and blows your opinions out of the water; it can become very troubling for some archeologists. If we can’t even figure out what this shit means yesterday, how are we going to understand what these things meant five thousand years ago?
It’s interesting too because history is subjective.
It’s okay to be uncomfortable with this stuff, and it’s okay to embrace ambiguity and subjectivity. I’d rather talk about the diversity of interpretations of the past, or multiple types of explanations for an observed behavior, than to just give you my one expert opinion.
I think that people want definitive answers because they erroneously think about archeology as a truth-finding mission where the artifacts don’t lie. Of course artifacts lie all the time. Think about the manipulation of the past through monuments., There are active, purposeful adjustments to material culture that will subsequently impact the way things are interpreted later.
We’ve been collecting this stuff in the desert for a long time, whereas other objects that were left have been taken away and thrown in the trash. But if someone cleaned up the desert, and then we went back in a hundred years or in five hundred years, you wouldn’t even know the border crossing ever happened. This active destruction of the archeological record that’s occurring in real time really hints at the fact that the archaeology is not always going be truth finding. We’re manipulating it as we go.
In the decades that you’ve been doing this, have the objects that people have brought with them changed over time? Soes that help you sketch out a narrative of how migration is changing?
The technology evolves. Water bottles and clothing come in and out of style. The preferred objects to get through the desert have evolved and adjusted. In the beginning of this project, we would find a lot of personal items, a lot of heirlooms, things that people thought they were going need that were not very useful, so they ended up losing or discarding them.
Over 25 years, people crossing the border have become well informed about the dangers of the journey. The material culture in the aarchaeologicalrecord has become much more focused and more strategic. It’s really about survival, physical survival, mental survival.
People will say ‘I didn’t bring anything with me because I know I’m gonna lose it.’ I’d rather leave it at home or leave it in my home country than risk taking stuff to the desert. And what we’re also seeing now, with this increase in Central American migrants, are people showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border with nothing. They have to cross Mexico first before they can to the border, and they have been robbed so many times that they have literally no personal effects when they finally make it to the border.
(John Moore/Getty Images)
Has your project changed to study the archaeological record of Central American migrants?
We’ve definitely been focusing much more attention on Central America since 2015. We’ve done some archeology in Mexico, on the train tracks and other places where migrants are crossing and trying to look at that artifact assemblage as well. I have been working with smugglers as well.
I think the smugglers are an overlooked and misunderstood piece of this puzzle. Everybody, from migrants to law enforcement, loves to scapegoat the smuggler. So if a migrant dies in the desert, it’s because it’s the smuggler’s fault. Clearly, that’s not always the case. Smugglers don’t take migrants through the Arizona desert because they love nature. They’re taking people through the desert because of this border enforcement policy.
Looking at the smugglers, I’m trying to fill in some blanks and really humanize this group of people who obviously are doing some horrible things. At the end of the day, they are complex humans.
Are there are challenges to undertaking this project in the current political climate?
It’s not any more harder now in the Trump era than it was before. It has always been difficult dealing with the politics of the project, and people’s reactions to it. There are also the emotional difficulties of doing this type of research, working with people who are in the midst of so much trauma.
I just saw a report about a professor at UNLV getting called out by the Trump administration for bad-mouthing him in a classroom. We’re in this era where our civil liberties and free speech are being directly attacked by the people in charge. As someone who is committed to this issue, I’ve had to do some real soul searching about what my role would be. Am I gonna get quieter and try to protect myself? Or do I keep doing what I’m doing because I believe that it’s right?
I’ve got a lot of colleagues who didn’t think it was that important to be in the public or to engage with media. They are now trying to translate their work for a general audience. There are a lot of folks now who are so worried about what’s going on in this country that they are getting active and vocal.
What do you plan to use the MacArthur money for?
For many years I’ve wanted to have a research compound in southern Arizona, so we will buy some property in this little town called Arivaca, which is I think the greatest place on earth. I’ll probably start by putting a double wide on there so we have a permanent home base and then we’ll just start building facilities.
Part of this money will also go to buy a truck so I can stop renting vehicles all the time. We’re working on a new exhibition so some of these funds will be used to develop this multi-media traveling exhibition that we hope to launch next year.
The truck, the archeologist’s greatest tool.
You know, I’ve never owned a truck in my life. When I found out about the grant, I knew I could finally get my truck!
When I was 15, a teacher I was very close with killed himself over winter break. I found out about it in an AOL chatroom the night before school resumed. My friends were talking about how the elementary school science teacher had died. “The one from when we were kids?” I typed into the chatroom, sitting on the couch between my parents, as the Jennifer Garner show Alias played on our television. “Shit,” one of my classmates typed. “We weren’t supposed to tell her,” another wrote.