Covid and fires and smoke, Oh My!

As if things aren’t strange enough in Covid World these days, now we have evacuations from forest fires in the mountains to the north.

We’re not threatened with fire or evacuation here, but we are getting smoke and ash fall now and then, not enough to curtail our daily walks, but noticeable.

The fires are from a late night thunderstorm that rattled in from the ocean and stabbed the forests with thousands of lightning bolts, starting dozens of fires fed by dense undergrowth resulting from decades of fire suppression.

If it were only the forests that burned, it would be normal for this part of the world. But, of course, humans have built their homes, businesses and towns within or adjacent to the forest and thus subject to to the fires that keep the forest healthy.

I suspect, or maybe it’s just hope, that some time from now this weird year will result in changes in the way local humans spread themselves about the landscape and interact with the natural world. Maybe we’ll learn that we can’t live in high density tower blocks, packed cheek by jowl in downtown canyons of glass and concrete. Perhaps we are learning that it’s not a good idea to build flammable homes in the flammable forests.

It would be good if we humans could learn from these hard lessons of disease and fire about how to live in the natural world, without destroying it or being destroyed by it.

Stranger things have happened!

Coronavirus is the voice of the Earth

This article by Satish Kumar on the Schumacher College website is so well written, I can do no better than quote from it. Emphasis is my own.

Human desire to conquer nature comes from the belief that humans are separate from nature and have superior powers. This dualistic thinking is at the root of our inability to deal with many of the natural upheavals, such as forest fires, floods and, in particular, climate change, global heating and pandemics like Covid-19.  We seem to believe that one way or the other we will find technological solutions to subjugate nature and make her subservient of human dominance.

“Rather than looking at the root causes of Coronavirus, the government’s, industrialists and scientists are looking for vaccines to suppress the symptoms. Vaccines may be a temporary solution, but we need to think and act more intelligently and more wisely. Rather than treating the symptoms we need to address the causes of this crisis.

“If we were to address the causes of Coronavirus, rather than simply the symptoms, we will need to return to ecologically regenerative agriculture; to human-scale, local, low carbon and organic methods of farming.

In order to address the causes of the Covid crisis we will need to learn to live in harmony with nature and within the laws of nature. Humans are as much a part of nature as any other form of life. Therefore, living in harmony with nature is the urgent imperative of our time and the very first lesson we, humans, collectively, need to learn from the crisis of Coronavirus. 

“Through the Coronavirus crisis nature is trying to send a strong message. It is a wake-up call, a call to remind us that we cannot go on producing pollution and waste for ever thinking that there are no consequences of our activities.

“The modern human civilisation has inflicted untold suffering and damage on nature. Now we are harvesting the consequences. We must accept the consequences of our actions and change. We must move on to build a new paradigm. If we wish to restore health to people then we have to restore health to our precious planet Earth. Healing people and healing nature is one and the same thing. So, we need to do everything for healing the Earth. only the positive actions will bring positive outcomes.”

We Live in the Natural World

two-paths

Gary Patton, a local lawyer, teacher, proponent of local limits to growth and past County Supervisor, publishes a blog called “We Live in a Political World,” which once was called  “We Live in Two Worlds.” His underlying theme is that humans live in the human created world, which is separate from the Natural World, even though humans depend on the Natural World for our survival.

My understanding is that we don’t live in two worlds, that there is only one world, the Natural World, in which humans are not only dependent, but are intricately intertwined.

Yes, humans do build an artificial world, both materially and culturally, that humans attempt to manage as if it were separate from the Natural World. But that material world is subject to all of the natural processes and principles of the Natural World, such as gravity, entropy, thermodynamics, geomorphology, plate tectonics, Cartesian and quantum physics, cycles of weather and climate, atmospheric and oceanic dynamics, evolution, population dynamics and disease.

This cultural separation of the two worlds has resulted in management of the human world on the basis of two underlying assumptions: the myth of control and the myth of unlimited growth.

At the University of Wyoming the Engineering building has the following inscription carved into its facade: “The control of Nature is not given, it is won.” I’ve written about this several times on Searching for Balance, for example, HERE, HERE,and HERE.

Recent events have brought the myth of control into sharp focus, as the Covid-19 pandemic has questioned the assumption that centralized control of the world we live in is possible or even desirable.

It seems that the harder we try to control the spread of of the coronavirus around the world, the faster it spreads and the more humans are affected by it. Government responses to the virus have caused more havoc in the lives of people around the world than the virus itself. One wonders if this pandemic had been treated as we treat yearly influenza pandemics, the disruptions to the human world would have been less severe. Humans have evolved with viruses, even to the point of incorporating viral RNA into our body cells, to the point that we are viruses almost as much as the viruses themselves. Perhaps accommodation to the reality of inevitable virus outbreaks would be a more effective and less costly alternative.

One of the contributing factors to the current pandemic is the increasing incursion of humans and their built environments into the natural world where we have come into close contact with new viruses and other diseases that have been present in non-human species unnoticed by humans, who, as a result, have no natural immunity. The myth of unlimited growth is basic to the dominant human culture, such that it is unacceptable for government officials to even consider limits to population or economic growth. Lack of constant economic growth is seen as failure, and reductions in population threaten government funding based on increasing individual consumption and increasing taxes on economic activities.

Observant humans might put 2 and 2 together and come to the conclusion that there is a better way to organize and maintain human societies. Rather than viewing humans as separate from the Natural World and natural processes, why not view humans as part of the world’s natural ecosystems, in which the human built world functions as a critical component of ecosystems that include animals, plants, mountains, plains, watersheds, rivers and streams, oceans and one continuous atmosphere that supports all life on this planet.

Why not recognize that All Lives Matter, human and not human. Why not recognize that cutting down a tree troubles the forest and all that therein lives. Why not recognize that humans are connected with every other living thing through ancient evolutionary processes through which we share the ultimate fate of all life.

Why not recognize that human health and well-being is intimately interconnected with the health and well-being of all life on this the only home for every living thing in the known Universe.

This could be the basis for an ecological human society, in which all other species have a voice in the affairs of the one species that impacts them all.

Learning What Doesn’t Work

Years ago my father told me something I’ve never forgotten. He said, “The secret to happiness in life is to find out what doesn’t work for you, and don’t do that.

In recent months, we’ve learned a big lesson on what doesn’t work. Looking at statistics for the incidence of Covid-19 around the world, two conclusions leap out with crystal clarity:

  1. Viruses thrive in areas of high human population density
  2. Viruses are deadly in humans who have existing health problems

These are two things that obviously don’t work well for humans, so according to Dad’s aphorism, we shouldn’t do dense human populations and poor health.

So, why is it then, in our local community of Santa Cruz County (as well as most of the rest of the world), local government encourages increased population density, and our culture encourages poor public health?

Population Density

The County of Santa Cruz and the incorporated municipalities in our county: Santa Cruz, Capitola, Scotts Valley and Watsonville, all have Economic Development Departments (EDDs), Planning Departments (PDs) and Public Works Departments (PWs), all of which are busily engaged in increasing population densities in our county and communities.

we’re passionate about supporting a flourishing and expansive local economy. Santa Cruz City EDD

One of the greatest challenges of living in Santa Cruz County is the cost of housing, one of the highest in the nation. Because Santa Cruz is a desirable coastal destination, our economy is based on tourism, and our housing stock is largely dedicated to second homes, vacation rentals, B&Bs, hotels and motels. During the Covid-19 shelter in place, many of our homes stand empty, while many of our residents lack sufficient housing. There is no lack of housing in the county, but there is a lack of affordable homes for the people who live here.

Local government responds to this condition by falling back on the age-old economic principle of supply & demand, that is, build more housing to lower the per unit cost. But in a tourist destination, this principle doesn’t work. There are millions of people just over the hill who want a house here to either come to on vacations or to use as an investment to make more money so they can afford to vacation in exotic places.

Since Santa Cruz is largely built out, there is little undeveloped space available to build more single family housing, so the answer is always to build up. This, of course, greatly increases population density in developed areas, thus creating an ideal breeding ground for the transmission of viruses.

In the face of what we’ve learned about spreading viruses, after months of (ineptly named) “social distancing” and mask-wearing, do the people of Santa County really want to risk our health by creating even more high population density? What would it take to not do that?

Human Health

Global Covid-19 statistics clearly show that humans with existing health problems have compromised immune systems that make them more susceptible to the virus and its resultant disease. The majority of deaths of individuals tested positive for the virus have underlying unhealth conditions, such as cardio-pulmonary disease, obesity, and diabetes all of which add to the lethality of the virus-born disease. Whether or not death is caused by the virus, or by other causes exacerbated by the virus, underlying ill health has contributed to the Covid-19 death rate throughout the world.

It obviously doesn’t work to have a large percentage of the population at risk due to general ill health. So, what would it take to not do that?

Lessons to be Learned

As we begin to contemplate an end to the Covid-19 pandemic, and lifting of government edicts on how we live our lives, now would be a good time to pause, contemplate the lessons to be learned from the pandemic, and think about how we want to live from here on out.

  • Would it be wise to continue to increase local population density?
  • Would it be wise to encourage local population growth beyond what can be sustained with local resources (think, water)?
  • Would it be wise to return to “nonessential” business and activities?
  • Would it be wise to continue to live far away from where we work and drive personal automobiles there and back every day?
  • Would it be wise to continue to encourage unhealthy diets, sedentary live styles and frenetic daily activities that interfere with sleep.
  • Wouldn’t it be wiser to encourage eating good, nutritious locally grown food, more local exercise, less travel and more engagement in local, meaningful work that supports the community?

Wouldn’t it be wiser to learn what doesn’t work and don’t do that?

Responsible Crisis Journalism

An article this morning (4/10/20) in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, titled “Virus Curve ‘among the best in state‘”, by Nicholas Iberra, contained grave errors in presenting Santa Cruz County’s current COVID-19 statistics.

The article contained the following text box:

bad numbers

Even though the text of the article contained some of the correct numbers, the highlighted statistics are incorrectly labeled, producing garbled and misleading information.

Someone apparently caught the error after the paper was printed, because the online edition of this article  contains the following corrected layout of these data:


BY THE NUMBERS

Santa Cruz County coronavirus outbreak

Cases: 80
Hospitalized: 13
Recovered: 30
Deaths: 1
Negative tests: 1,673

Source: Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency data, as of Thursday afternoon.


During a global Panic-demic such as COVID-19, it is vitally important that news sources are scrupulously accurate in the presentation of information to the public. There are far too many rumors, sources of misinformation and disinformation, innuendos and outright lies floating about as it is.

It’s an economic problem, of course, as local newspapers, driven by investor owned communications conglomerates, shed experienced writers, editors, proof-readers and production staff. Responsible journalism lays victim to the “Oh well, we can correct it online” attitude.

Whatever happens in cyberspace, this incorrect information is permanently inscribed in black and white on newspapers available throughout the region, at least until it becomes bird cage liner, fish wrap and fire starter.

As purveyors of vital information to a public on the verge of panic, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, as with all print publications, has a responsibility to its community to make every effort to insure that they present accurate, timely and fact-checked information.

The bottom line in journalism is accuracy and therefore, credibility.

Riding the Covid-19 Tiger

4:5:20 stats

 

Percentage breakdown (Percent of total tested):

Total tested = 856

Tested positive = 7.2%

Hospitalized = 1%

Deaths = .12% (Man in his 70s with an underlying health condition)

While the sample size of these data is too small to be statistically significant, they do show how limited the Covid-19 incidence is in Santa Cruz County, and they reflect growing concerns about how these data are recorded, analyzed and reported.

In a March 28 article in The Spectator, Dr. John Lee questions why death rates vary from country to country over the course of the disease spread. Most countries report any death of a person tested positive for the virus as a Covid-19 death, regardless of whether or not that person had underlying health conditions that may have contributed to or even caused the person’s death. Some countries may even report as a Covid-19 death a person who was not tested but was presumed to have contracted the disease.

Very few countries distinguish between death from Covid-19 and deaths with Covid-19.

This is the case with the single Covid-19 reported death in Santa Cruz County. We do not know, and County pathologists may not know, if this person’s death was caused by the virus or the underlying health condition.

None of this is to say that we should not take prudent steps to protect ourselves from getting sick, whether it be from Covid-19 or “normal” yearly influenza.

Unfortunately, we will never know if the Draconian social distancing measures imposed by governments have had any positive effect in slowing the spread of this disease and reducing the death rate. There’s no control, no group exposed to the virus in the absence of such restrictions.

Without such definitive information, how can we decide when to loosen and end the current restrictions? How can we decide whether or not to resume social distancing and closing of businesses during the upcoming 2020-2021 flu season?

We are riding the tiger to an unknown destination. When and how can we safely dismount and resume our journey?

Covid-19: Pandemic or Panicdemic?

There are numerous articles appearing in professional literature and other reliable sources questioning the global panic response to the supposed Covid-19 pandemic.

For example:

10 MORE Experts Criticising the Coronavirus Panic

The crux of their concern centers around the statistics of the current coronavirus epidemic, how those statistics are compiled and by whom, and how those statistics are reported in government reports and the popular press.

For instance:

This graphic is often cited as a source for Covid-19 stats:

Virus Graphic

details

Notice the use of lurid red circles to indicate the areas of “accumulative confirmed cases,” with no indication of the number of asymptomatic cases, the number of tests performed, nor the percentage relationship of confirmed cases to the number of tests performed. (Hint: this percentage has remained constant through out this epidemic, indicating that the number cited is tracking tests, not increases in transmission of the virus).

The Total Deaths column does not distinguish between those who died OF the virus from those who died WITH the virus, nor those whose deaths were due to underlying and preexisting conditions. A significant percentage of confirmation of the SARS-CoV-19 virus comes from postmortem positive test results of those who have died of other causes, yet are included in the Covid-19 results.

My concern is that government and industry responses to Covid-19 are way out of scale with the documented threat to human health, that appears to be be no more than yearly flu and cold viruses that we have survived without draconian measures restricting human activities. People are being lured into unquestioned acceptance of government restrictions that are not based on sound epidemiological data and conclusions.

This too, shall pass, of course, but as we learned with the aftermath of 9/11, it will not totally disappear down the memory hole. Policies, procedures and power shifts implemented to counter the perceived threat of a pandemic disease will not all be removed, and we have yet to see the end of official responses.

The results are not all bad news though. The world we are living in now is much quieter, cleaner, slower and convivial. Wildlife and their habitats are experiencing a break from overweening human domination. As the panicdemic subsides and a degree of sanity returns, we can, if we will, learn from this experience and work toward preserving and maintaining these positive changes, into the post-Covid-19 world to come.

The Downsides and the Upsides

upsidedownside

This year’s SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has generated enormous negative impacts on the lives of millions of people. Hundreds of thousands are sick and thousands have died. More will be sick and more will die before it has run its course. World economies have been curtailed, local businesses and jobs have disappeared, some permanently. The stock market is fluctuating wildly as public fears wax and wane.

The downsides of the pandemic are obvious. Are there upsides to such a globally traumatic experience? How will the downsides and the upsides settle out as the pandemic subsides?

Positive impacts of the response to the pandemic are clear to see. Just walk outside your home and look at the traffic on local streets. Your dog could take a nap in the middle of the street without severely blocking traffic. The air is cleaner and clearer, greenhouse gas emissions are down 25% (though the global atmospheric CO2 percentage has not dropped). Many people have publicly offered to help their neighbors, friends and families cope with restrictions on travel. We are all learning that life goes on even when we can’t go to bars, sports events, parties and other gatherings. Even though we can’t gather physically, we can run businesses, keep in contact with others and find myriad ways to live a full and satisfying life without driving in our cars to remote locations.

These restrictions on human activities have benefited the natural world as well. Though there has been a flurry of park visitation in some places, in general wildlife and the natural world are breathing easier and enjoying less disruption of their homes, dining rooms and shopping centers. When human profligacy decreases, non-human well-being increases.

Since we live in an inextricably connected world, as we have learned from the origin and course of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, an increase in the well-being of the non-human world will ultimately support an increase in the well-being of the human world as well.

What will happen when the virus has run its course and humans are free to restore our communities and economies back to what was considered normal? Will we learn something from this experience that will translate into a positive direction for human societies and civilization in general?

My practical (pessimistic) side says, no, everything will return to the way it was, maybe even stronger and more virulent to make up for lost time and opportunities. The extreme central control measures exercised to confront the pandemic will remain and become part of the status quo. Central government will become more centralized, citizens will become more accustomed to letting government pull the heavy weight and less accustomed to doing for ourselves. Impacts on the natural world will continue to increase.

My idealistic (optimistic) side says yes, when the pandemic restrictions are relaxed, some people will have learned that they can take care of themselves, that they can take part in the day to day process of government, that there is more to life than the daily commute to jobs far away from home, that family, friends and community are more important than million dollar mansions, garages chucky-jammed full of stuff, designer jeans and semi-automated electric cars.

One might realistically expect that the outcome will be somewhere between those two extremes. I just hope that at least some of the upsides are retained when the downsides are resolved and removed.

Access to Coronavirus Information

statistics-and-charts-vector5

As the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic develops in the United States, I’m noticing a disturbing trend in the publication of epidemiological data by government agencies.

We’re constantly barraged with press coverage of the growing total number of confirmed cases, and the growing total number of deaths attributed to the virus, globally, nationally and locally. Scary, huh?

But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to learn the rest of the statistics that give these two trends context and meaning, especially at the local level where they have the greatest impact.

Here in Santa Cruz County, with a population of ~275,000, we’re told there are now 23 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. But we’re not told how many county residents have been tested, why they were tested, or how those confirmed cases contracted the virus (travelers? friends or family of travelers? others who had contact with travelers? residents of other counties who have traveled here? unknown sources?). We’re not told if any of the 23 cases have recovered, or how many are still active. We’re not told where in the county these cases are located, where the individuals have interacted with other county residents, or the degree of illness expressed in these cases (no symptoms, mild symptoms, extreme symptoms?)

In other words, Santa Cruz County residents are not being given the information necessary for us to understand the significance of the total number of cases, and to evaluate our own risk of exposure to the virus.

Presumably county health officials have these data and have decided, for some reason that hasn’t been revealed, to keep this information to themselves. Perhaps they are afraid that such information will minimize public concern about the seriousness of the epidemic. Who can say, since we have not been told?

If the public is to understand the significance and risk of this epidemic, we must have the information necessary to make decisions in our lives to promote and defend the common good.

pthomas-jefferson“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves ; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”
Thomas Jefferson, Letters of Thomas Jefferson


UPDATE: The Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency is now providing a weekly update of County coronavirus data, with breakdowns for number of cases for males and females, and per age groups. We still have no data on total number of tests administered and the breakdown of positive and negative test results.

infographic

Pandemic Reflections

 

While sheltering in place (including daily walks about our neighborhood), I’ve been doing some reading about viruses, pandemics and such, from sources other than the sensationalized media. There’s an increasing amount of critical thinking about the reality and meaning of the coronavirus and it’s impact on humans and our societies.

As it now turns out, the so-called novel coronavirus, Covid-19 or, as it is now called, SARS-CoV-2, is a coronavirus similar to the SARS virus that created a pandemic during the 2003-2003 flu season. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is the name for the result of our bodies’ immune reaction to a new virus, creating fever, lung congestion and coughing as our antibodies attempt to neutralize the newcoming virus and keep it from overwhelming us.

Viruses are fascinating bits of life, tiny bundles of DNA that live to propagate in the bodies of warm blooded animals, including warm blooded humans. Viruses need a supportive environment to quickly multiply and pass themselves on to other warm bodies to continue the process. Humans are ideal for this purpose, since we are large animals who live in crowded settlements and who travel extensively around the world, spreading ourselves and our viruses everywhere.

The secret of virus success is in this rapid multiplication and dispersal. This allows the viruses to mutate as they multiply, increasing the diversity of their genome, so that, when their host develops immunity to the interloper, the mutated virus can continue on apace.

In essence, humans help viruses speed up the process of their evolution by serving both as hosts for virus population explosions and by providing natural selection for the survival and success of the virus as it mutates.

In return for this service, viruses support human evolution by contributing parts of their DNA to the human genome. About 8% of the human genome is made up of viral gene sequences that have become a permanent part of the human lineage after they infected our ancient ancestors. (https://medium.com/medical-myths-and-models/the-human-genome-is-full-of-viruses-c18ba52ac195)

The take home message of yearly virus pandemics is that viruses, as well as bacteria and other natural animacules, are an integral part of the natural world that flows through our bodies as we live, grow, multiply and die. Viruses are not a force of Nature outside ourselves that we can fight or control. Viruses and bacteria are essential parts of our bodies, responsible, at least in part, for our evolutionary success over millions of years of our species development. https://thenarwhal.ca/what-coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic-tells-us-about-relationship-natural-world/

We cannot control viruses and bacteria in the world, any more than we can control climate or the weather.

It would be a good idea to acknowledge this basic reality and recognize our close connection to the natural world as we make it a part of the way we live. We will always experience yearly virus pandemics (call them flu, coronavirus or whatever), so why not admit to it and organize ourselves such that these periodic natural epidemics don’t threaten to destabilize our cultures and economies.

If we are now restricted to essential activities, and getting along just fine, why should we attempt to revive and maintain non-essential activities?

Let’s make these recent accommodations to SARS-CoV-2 a permanent part of our cultures. Let’s give up the nonessential parts of our cultures, extensive global travel and tourism, international political and economic gatherings, just-in-time delivery of food and necessities, and excessive accumulations of unnecessary stuff to fill our homes and garages.

Let’s live as a part of the natural world, not apart from it.

Let’s live simply that all may live.

This is a learnable moment. Our grandparents and great-grandparents learned these tough lessons through past world wars, depressions and pandemics.

Now its our turn.