Musings on Asymptomatic Transmission

Last week on the Ecosophia discussion board, someone asked a question about whether asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 is real, and my response was that yes it is real but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we ought to behave as though it is real. Since writing that response, I have realized that this concept is at the core of the social panic that has gripped the world for the past two years, and that it deserves a great deal more unpacking.

It is important to understand that the idea that someone can be sick but not sick – which is to say infectious but not symptomatic – is rather new among human societies. Prior to antigen and PCR tests, one was either sick – in which case it was advised to maintain isolation – or healthy – in which case there was no concern. Disease carriers were recognized – as in the story of Typhoid Mary – but this was seldom extended to the point of suspecting that anyone might be infectious and ought to be regarded as such.

In the developing science of evolution, there was a spirited debate between the theory of “inheritance of acquired characteristics”, espoused by Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, and the theory of natural selection espoused by Charles Darwin, which was eventually integrated with modern genetics. In the former, traits acquired by an individual, such as giraffe’s neck stretched a bit longer by a lifetime of reaching for leaves, would be directly passed on to offspring. In the latter, outcomes were determined only by genes, which were randomly reshuffled by sexual reproduction and which had nothing to do with traits acquired during an individual’s lifetime. Gene theory ultimately won this debate, but in recent years evidence has emerged in support of Lamarck’s ideas. The science of epigenetics has revealed that the experiences of parents directly influence the development of their offspring, by regulating patterns of gene expression such that – for example – children born into famine are physically different than children born into plenty.

In the world of infectious disease there has been a similar debate. “Terrain theory” or “host theory” postulates that the primary determinants of disease are internal – overall health, nutritional status, biochemical balance – and that pathogens will only cause illness in unhealthy bodies. “Germ theory” postulates that the primary determinants of disease are the pathogens themselves, and that health and lifestyle have a relatively small role to play.

Prior to the advent of PCR and antigen testing, our understanding was a sort of compromise: those who were ill were regarded as harboring germs and were advised to avoid contact with those at risk of severe illness. In the past forty or so years, however, culminating with Covid-19, germ theory has reigned supreme. Most people are now confident saying that someone is “sick” if they test positive for a disease, regardless of whether or not they feel ill, and furthermore that they are not sick if they test negative, even if they have significant symptoms. Research that would partially validate terrain theory – such as studies showing that severity of Covid-19 is strongly correlated with low vitamin D levels – is largely suppressed or ignored.

All of the Covid-19 control measures – the lockdowns, the mask mandates, the vaccine mandates – are predicated on the idea that anyone could be infectious at any time, which is to say that asymptomatic transmission is important and should be minimized at all costs. Regardless of whether one feels these measures are justified, it should be clear that the resultant fear of human contact and self-imposed isolation is not conducive to a joyful life or a healthy society. This then leads to the oft-asked question of whether asymptomatic transmission is real, but I want to propose that that is the wrong question to be asking.

In order for the last two years of Covid-prevention measures to be justified, three questions must be answered in the affirmative, and in our obsession with scientific reductionism we have focused only on the first.

(1) Is asymptomatic transmission real?

The answer to this question is quite clearly yes. Someone who tests positive for SARS-CoV2 but who is not showing symptoms can, on occasion, pass the virus on to others, some of whom become ill.

(2) Do efforts to reduce asymptomatic transmission improve public health outcomes?

In other words, does a focus on testing and contact tracing, social distancing, and masking of healthy individuals actually lead to a world in which fewer people get sick and fewer people die? The evidence here is much less clear. It seems, at least with this respiratory virus, that it spreads regardless of our interventions, and those places which have enacted strong measures do not, on the whole, have significantly lower rates of infection and death than those places which enacted few or no measures.

(3) Do the health benefits of behaving as if asymptomatic transmission is real offset the social costs?

This is more of a question of values than of science, but it is the responsibility of science to provide a reasonable estimation of the health benefits. By and large science has attempted to do this by providing a reductionist affirmative answer to Question 1 while largely ignoring the more holistic Question 2. Those who would speak for “The Science”(TM) furthermore insist on distorting the values involved, portraying this as a conflict between the value of human life, on the one hand, and selfish desires for individual freedom or greedy desires to keep the economy moving, on the other.

The truth is that we don’t have solid evidence that restrictive Covid rules lead to better health outcomes, in which case the reality of asymptomatic transmission becomes more of a biological curiosity than a driving factor for moralizing and political action. On the values side, the reality is that the conflict between individual freedom and collective safety, or between economic profit and employee well-being, fails to adequately describe the trade-offs. What is the cost of isolation for elders in nursing homes, in assisted living, in hospitals, who are not able to see their loved ones? Did anyone ask them whether they would prefer a decreased short-term risk of death over a continuation of their human connections? What is the cost to our society and to ourselves when we begin to see our fellow humans more as potential disease vectors than as friends, as dance partners, as loved ones, as family? Is this possibly offset by the longer lives we might have if we choose to isolate, to cancel the concerts and dances, to put off seeing our family for a year, and then another, and then another?

Facts do not, on their own, tell us anything about how we ought to live. We often pretend that they do, and thereby fail to consider the values, the stories we tell ourselves, that fill the space between the facts and the conclusions that we come to. Too often we claim that our differences are about facts vs. lies, when in fact they are about different value systems that make sense of the facts in different ways. When one side – usually the “Follow the Science” side – insists that its policy positions are based only on facts and not values, is it any surprise that many on the other side respond by denying the facts? Perhaps this is why we have climate deniers and Covid deniers. If we could begin to discuss our value differences, then it would be easier to agree on the facts.

————————-

Let’s consider some examples of different stories that can be told based on the same facts. These are far from the only stories that can be told based on these facts, but they represent some of the more common stories that we tell ourselves.

Fact: All human beings eventually die.

Story 1: Because we will eventually lose everyone we know, it is best not to get too close to people. Loving others leads inevitably to pain and loss.

Story 2: Because our time on Earth is limited, we should live fully and love freely, as if each day might be our last or the last time that we see our friends.

Facts: 1% of humans are sociopaths, 6% of men are rapists, 25% of women experience abusive relationships.

Story 1: Anyone could be an abuser and no one can be fully trusted. It is best to keep to oneself, or to settle for an unsatisfactory life because the alternative could be far worse.

Story 2: Pain happens, our hearts and intuitions can fail us, and the world is not as we wish it might be, but it is still worth it to dive in, to trust others, to love, to heal and grow, even after abuse or betrayal.

Fact: We are descended from ancestors who have conquered and oppressed other humans, or who have been conquered and oppressed. This historical injustice remains a factor in distribution of resources and opportunities.

Story 1: This should understandably lead to feelings of guilt on the part of the privileged and resentment on the part of the oppressed. We must actively seek to compensate for historical injustice, and we must cast judgment on those who are not fully committed to this work.

Story 2: The past should be acknowledged, but the path to a more harmonious coexistence lies not through reopening of old wounds but through a commitment to acknowledge all humans as equally valuable and equally worthy of dignity and respect moving forward. Compensation for historical injustice may be pursued voluntarily but must not be coerced or enforced.

Fact: SARS-CoV2 and other infectious diseases (e.g. flu) can be transmitted by asymptomatic people.

Story 1: Because avoidance of disease and death should be prioritized over all other values, we should behave as though we, and anyone we encounter, may be infectious at any time. It is therefore reasonable to demand behavioral compliance from others and to enact public health regulations – gathering restrictions, occupancy limits, mask mandates, vaccination requirements – with the aim of minimizing disease transmission.

Story 2: Although there are environments (e.g. hospitals) in which minimizing the risk of disease transmission makes sense, we cannot live fulfilling lives in a world in which we view ourselves and others as disease vectors. It is therefore reasonable to reject the entire paradigm of fear, of asymptomatic testing, of contact tracing, of public health measures. In the novel world of genetic testing it is widely respected that most people would prefer not to know that they are likely to die of a particular condition earlier than normal. Similarly, perhaps it is better to simply accept that sometimes we will get sick, and some of us will die, and more of us will die in pandemic years, than to accept the isolating and anxiety-inducing consequences of behaving as if we might accidentally kill someone simply by breathing or singing or dancing together. It is better to stop asymptomatic testing and stop assigning blame or responsibility to chains of transmission that can only be uncovered by the new technologies of PCR or antigen testing.

————————-

I was more or less on board with the imposition of public health measures for the first two months – March and April of 2020. It seemed that we might have a chance of driving the virus to zero, like SARS-1 before it, and thereby have our sacrifices pay off. But I was also aware that viral extinction might not happen, and that if it didn’t happen we would need to make an important choice.

I’ll close by quoting from that post written May 13, 2020, which included one of my father’s original songs:


In the morning the sun so gloriously greets the day
Brings the light, ends the night
And in the streets the people go the same old way
Without sight, without light
 
And how many days just pass us by
When we never really live and we never really die
And we never really laugh and we never really cry
And we never really know the reasons why
 
In the evening all the colors gather
In the sky, the western sky
Yet in the streets the people all would rather
Just get by, just get by
 
And how many days just pass us by
When we never really live and we never really die
And we never really laugh and we never really cry
And we never really know the reasons why

Ed Stone, sometime around 1980

In this case we know the reason why, and we are accepting a lesser life in the hope that doing so will lead to lesser death.  But perhaps that is always the reason why.  Perhaps we don’t really live and really laugh because our fear stops us short, tells us stories that keep us small, keeps us confined to the past and future, the virtual and the distant, while neglecting the miracle of the here and now. 

The latest guidance says that we won’t be singing together again, dancing together, crowding into stadiums again, until we have effective treatment or a vaccine.  That wording concerns me, precisely because it is conditional and not at all time-bound.  We might have a vaccine next year, or we might have one that is 40% effective like for the flu, or we might not ever have an effective vaccine at all, like for HIV.  It’s not like waiting until Christmas.  It’s more like staying in an unpleasant living situation because your scary roommate tells you they are probably moving out sometime in the next few years, and it feels safer and easier to stay put. 


Nearly two years and five billion injections later, Covid-19 cases are higher than ever and it is clear that we’re in the “might not ever have an effective vaccine at all” situation. Even as the public health narrative crumbles, many people cling to the idea of safety, wishing for the exhausted and flailing experts to tell them how to avoid catching or spreading a virus which – for most – will cause only a mild and brief illness. It is clear that asymptomatic transmission is real, but it is high time that we considered it an acceptable risk of being alive, that we stopped testing healthy people and identifying chains of transmission, that we stopped condemning ourselves and others for unknowingly spreading disease, and that we returned to physical closeness with our friends, our families, and our dance partners. It is time that we consciously erased the insidiously divisive and isolating concept that any of us might be lethally contaminated at any time.

Parts of the world are well on their way, and others have a long way to go. Unfortunately I’m in a “long way to go” community, but I see signs of recovery.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

2021 Weather Summary

Like 2020, this past year will not be remembered by many people primarily for its weather, although it was an extreme weather year in many places.

The most unusual weather event of 2021, by far, in the Pacific Northwest was the late-June “heat dome” which effectively moved the climate of Phoenix a thousand miles north for a few days. Sinking air aloft led to compressional heating, generating temperatures of 90 degrees up at 5,000 feet. Even the summer sun was insufficient to mix these temperatures down to ground level without the help of atmospheric winds. For this reason, Corvallis avoided the most extreme heat, topping out at 107.5 instead of the 117 reached at Salem or the incredible 121ºF reached at Lytton, BC, a day before the town caught fire in the raging winds that finally ushered in cooler air. Many all-time high temperature records were broken by ten degrees, and native trees not adapted to this level of heat were scorched and may struggle to recover.

Although this was another extreme fire season in California and BC, we were lucky in this area both to get some late-season rain in June that dampened fuels and to avoid the summer winds and lightning storms that characterized 2020. Although we could smell smoke in the air on a few days, air quality mostly remained in healthy ranges.

Temperature trends

In keeping with recent trends, 2021 featured a warm January, a cold start to spring, and a hot summer. The summer featured 26 days above 90 degrees – a record for my 13 years of record keeping, and a second exceptional heat wave in August that topped out at 102.5ºF, which made few headlines after June. Despite weather models suggesting single digits possible in late December, cloud cover held the lowest temperature to 23.5ºF which was our lowest of the year. Like other recent years, it was not one to challenge the winter hardiness of crops.

Precipitation trends

Despite precipitation totals only marginally below normal, the combination of a dry spring, a hydrologic deficit carried over from previous years, and a hot summer led to this part of Oregon being classified as severe drought by late summer. For all of the news of drought, the rivers kept flowing here, and it was largely a good season for farmers who escaped direct heat damage. As of December the drought classification persists, but I have to assume it will be amended soon, as twelve inches of precip (including 10″ of snow) in December left us with an above-average total for the year for the first time since 2017. As I write this, we are in another flood watch with 4-5″ of rain possible in the days ahead. So I am hopeful that 2022 will not be a drought year.

Monthly notes

January was largely warm and wet, and it featured at atmospheric river on the 12th that dropped 2.24″ of rain – the wettest day of 2021 – and briefly raised the Marys River to its second highest flood on gauge records. Rain fell on 22 out of 31 days, with a total of 8.4″ for the month, and a brief cold snap brought a low of 24.6ºF on the 23rd before warm rain returned.

We just barely missed out on high-impact weather in February, when a stable arctic boundary set up directly over our area for several days from the 11th through the 13th. The Seattle area saw cold snow, and the northern Willamette Valley from Portland to just five miles north of Corvallis saw ice accumulations up to 1.5 inches that decimated trees, left forests looking like a hurricane had passed through, and left some areas without power for two weeks. Here, we had hours of rain at 31.6 degrees, which left a light glaze on twigs but melted as fast as it froze, causing no damage or power outages. Aside from that storm, February was cool and wet but mostly seasonal.

March had the year’s largest cold anomaly, at 2.9 degrees below normal, despite only 50% of normal precipitation. It didn’t feel especially cold, as many days had freezing nights and 55-65 degree highs with sunshine. The spring drought would continue.

April was exceptionally dry, with rain on only five days totaling 0.60″ or 23% of normal. Our last frost came on the 12th, and we reached 80 degrees on April 17th.

May continued the spring drought, with 0.80″ of rain or 40% of average. Temperatures were seasonable, with some 80-degree days but also plenty of 60-degree days. We came close to having a late-season frost on the 8th (32.9ºF), but early-planted tomatoes and peppers survived.

June – usually a rather nondescript month weatherwise – was full of extremes this year. The month started with a high of 95.7, which was followed by a cold spell with a low of 35.8 on the 9th. Coming out of the cool weather we had an unusually strong late-season low pressure system which dropped 1.5″ of rain on the 12th and 13th, contributing to a monthly total of 1.85″ (50% above normal) which delayed fire season but unfortunately was too little too late to offset the spring shortfall. The rain gave way to a week of July weather (highs 80-90), which was followed by the heat dome event, with 102.7 on the 26th and 107.5 on the 27th. The sea breeze front that shoved out the hot air on the 28th brought some of the year’s strongest winds, breaking branches off of oak trees and knocking out power to my shop. June averaged 4.6 degrees above normal – the largest temperature anomaly of 2021.

After the wildness of June, July was a mellow month, if still hot. We had ten days at 90 or above, but none above 100, averaging 2.5 degrees above normal with almost 100% sunshine and zero rainfall.

The first half of August continued the summer of heat, topping out at 101.4 on the 11th and 102.5 on the 12th. This is the first time I have recorded four days above 100 in one year; parts of eastern Oregon and Washington had many more as the hot pattern remained in place from late June through mid August. Mid-month brought a surprising and most welcome break from the heat, with most days for the rest of the month in the 70s and low 80s, and a few drops of rain (0.07″ total) on the 25th and 26th.

September was a month of beautiful weather, with substantial rain on the 17th-19th and again on the 27th bringing the monthly (1.82″) total a bit above normal and allaying fears of a repeat of the September 2020 firestorms.

October brought a resounding first frost (29.0ºF) on the 12th, which would prove to be the only freeze of the month. That made the growing season of 2021 exactly half of the year, from April 12th to October 12th. The second half of the month shifted into a cool, wet, November-like pattern, making it feel like we mostly missed out on autumn this year. Total rainfall, at 3.28″, was again just a bit above normal.

The first half of November continued the rainy pattern, with rain on each of the first 12 days. The latter half of the month brought a mix of brief cold snaps, intermittent rain, and 60-degree days after Thanksgiving. It can be tough to reach normal rainfall in usually-soggy November, and the total of 5.75″ was a bit shy.

December began with a clear 65-degree day – the only such day that I can remember in any Oregon December. That would be followed by precipitation on 26 of the following 30 days, ultimately totaling 12.01″ or 68% above normal even for the typically-wettest month of the year and bringing the annual total to 42.79″, hopefully putting an end to our long-standing drought. The 11th and 19th brought atmospheric rivers, with the 19th-20th bringing another flood to the Marys River. Arctic air arrived on Christmas night, with around 10″ of snow falling over the next two days – ending a long drought without significant snowfall dating back to February 2014. The cold air stuck around with the snow melting gradually over the next few days, but nighttime clouds prevented radiational cooling, keeping lows in the 20s instead of the teens and single digits predicted by weather models.

As I write this, southerly winds have put an end to the cold snap, with a wind advisory posted for tonight and a flood watch out for another atmospheric river tomorrow. I am grateful that we are headed into 2022 with a rainfall surplus and a healthy snowpack in the mountains. We shall see what the next year brings.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Covid-19 Vaccines: A One-Year Assessment

A year ago, when the first three Covid-19 vaccines received emergency approval to much collective hope and fanfare, I made a promise to myself that I would wait one year to decide whether to be vaccinated myself, based on the body of evidence of efficacy and short- and long-term safety.

That year has now passed, and I have made my decision: I am going to remain unvaccinated, and I feel like that decision is scientifically justified.

While I expected that vaccination would become a contentious issue, I would never have predicted in late 2020 that governments would be mandating these vaccines a year later, or that the official government and media narrative would become so strident and so devoid of nuance.

I have long lamented the societal tendency – which has been ongoing for at least two decades but which really accelerated following the 2016 election – to divide the world into Good People and Bad People. Good People supported Hillary. Bad People supported Trump. Good People posted black squares on their Instagram pages to signal their support for racial justice. Those who deemed this to be a rather silly and ineffectual means to support racial justice were deemed Bad People. This divisive poison has now even penetrated into the small world of organic seed production. The Good People seek to break down “dominating” constructs, to “decolonize” the seed community, to center and elevate those voices which have been marginalized. There is nothing wrong with this work per se, but it comes with a certain self-righteousness, in which many of the elders of the community – those who have fought to establish a foothold for small organic seed production against the machinations of ruthless global corporations – are called out as part of the problem, as egotists, as Bad People. It refuses to acknowledge our common humanity, our common dedication to the sacredness of seed and of life on this planet.

This has been a difficult year for me; 2021 was the year in which I – thanks to my opposition to the vaccine narrative and my unwillingness to be vaccinated – became a Bad Person. I don’t do well with that. For better or worse, I am one who looks outward for validation and respect, and even in normal times I am socially awkward and I often feel that I am being pre-judged negatively by those who I meet. I am most grateful for the online community that author John Michael Greer has established for open discussion, and also for all of those in my personal community who have maintained respect for me even as their own perspectives hew closer to the mainstream.

I feel grateful to be self-employed in a small town in the United States right now, and not in Chicago, New York City, Canada, Australia, Austria, Germany, or any number of places where basic rights are becoming contingent on vaccination status. Although I am not currently free to leave the country, I am grateful that few of my opportunities have been constrained, and that it seems that further ratcheting of restrictions is unlikely at this point. At the same time, I have to admit that in all likelihood I owe many of those continued freedoms to angry right-wingers with guns, who honestly believe that the drive for vaccination is driven by a malicious globalist agenda for social control. I do not agree with the opposite pole on most issues, but I guess if I am going to survive in a polarized society it is helpful to live in a place where both of the poles – however dogmatic and misguided their beliefs may be – hold some degree of influence. I have to hope, though, that this progressive increase in polarization will begin to give way to renewed communication, to healing, before it gives way instead to armed insurrection and violence.

I should reiterate here what I actually believe is going on, which is most definitely not that we have excellent and safe vaccines available that would end the pandemic if only those stupid and ignorant unvaccinated people would get their shots already. It is also definitely not that Bill Gates and Klaus Schwab and cronies are using vaccination to roll out a worldwide digital identity and social credit system that will create a Matrix-like world in which we are all subservient to the global capitalist Machine. Certainly if the latter were even partially true, vaccine cards would not be cheap and easily forged cardstock, and there would already be some nationwide database of vaccination linked to passports or drivers licenses. Instead, I perceive that the majority of modern humans are believers in Progress – the set of beliefs that includes the mastery of human ingenuity over nature and over the evils of the past, among other things – and that vaccination is a core sacrament within that belief system. It is simply assumed, in the face of a global pandemic, that a vaccine will be developed and will put an end to suffering and death, and any who would question that assertion are backwards heretics who must be discredited and silenced.

In my quest to better understand the science of Covid-19 and vaccination, I have now read well over a hundred scientific publications, and I continue to monitor the latest research that appears on preprint servers each week. I feel like I have a solid understanding of where the science stands, which I will attempt to present here. I’m not going to fill this with citations and footnotes – in part because I am presenting an overall mindset shaped by reading multiple studies – but I can provide additional references upon request to back up any particular claim.

Are the vaccines safe?

No.

Most of the time when people hear this question they mentally convert it to “Are the vaccines safer than infection by a virus that has claimed 800,000 American lives?” which is a very different question which I will address below, but “safe” ought to imply actually safe. Boarding a plane is safe, in that it does not meaningfully increase one’s chance of death as opposed to staying at home. By the same metric, driving cross-country is significantly less safe, although still safe enough that few people hesitate on that basis alone.

This graph tells the story:

Reported vaccine-associated deaths from the CDC Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, 1990-present. Reported Covid vaccine-associated deaths prior to 2020 are due to erroneous date entries on reports. From https://vaersanalysis.info

Contrary to frequent debunking attempts, these are not meaningless data. Submitting to VAERS takes about a half hour and requires the submitting doctor or patient to affirm under penalty of perjury that they have solid reason to believe the death or other adverse event was caused by a vaccine.

We can argue about to what degree these deaths might be under-reported or over-reported, but even if the tally is off by a factor of ten in either direction, the take-home message remains the same: these are the most dangerous vaccines in modern history, and they carry a real risk of death and other life-altering adverse effects. This is affirmed by the existence of survivors’ movements like Real Not Rare, which seek to draw medical and political attention to the very real experiences of harm and loss that a growing number of people have experienced following vaccination.

Occasionally I still see the argument that it is OK to lie about safety because the net benefit of mass vaccination would exceed the net harm. I no longer believe that that cost-benefit ratio of mass vaccination favors the vaccines, but even if this were true I cannot stand behind any argument that says it’s OK to lie “for the greater good.” This is not “just a little poke”. It carries very real risks along with real benefits, and the decision to be vaccinated should be a carefully considered one – along the lines of prophylactic surgery to offset a high genetic risk of cancer.

Is vaccination safer than infection?

It depends.

The risk stratification of Covid-19 infection is immense, with elders with comorbities around 1,000 times more likely to die if infected compared with healthy children and young adults. At least in the near term, vaccination of high-risk groups clearly carries a lower risk to life and limb than infection. However – and especially given that the risk of some adverse effects is higher in the young – the opposite is quite clearly true for children and healthy young adults.

One of the most morbidly befuddling aspects of the past year has been watching what could have been a heroic victory of modern medicine – releasing a vaccine that reduces the risk of death by 75-95% in vulnerable elders – turn into a tragedy as we increasingly marketed, coerced, and even mandated these same beta-version products to everyone regardless of pre-existing risk or natural recovered immunity. Rather than acknowledging that the first vaccines to market are likely to be less-than-ideal and continuing development of safer vaccines with more rigorous testing, we have committed ourselves to the same options and many countries have already ordered enough doses to provide their citizens with four or more injections. Whether or not one is in favor of mass vaccination, this failure at the cost of human life should be unforgivable.

Do the vaccines reduce transmission?

Not by much, and perhaps not at all since Omicron arrived.

We have known for months that vaccinated people, when infected, carry identical viral loads to unvaccinated people, and that the virus can readily spread through fully-vaccinated schools, hospitals, and workplaces. Thus the primary basis for vaccine passports and mandates has been very weak, and in venues that require a negative test only for unvaccinated people, it will actually be the vaccinated people who are more likely to bring in and spread the virus.

We have also known, based on population-level data, that there is no significant inverse correlation between the proportion of the population vaccinated and the number of reported Covid-19 cases, which further suggests that vaccines do not meaningfully reduce transmission.

With Omicron, the vaccinated proportion of infections has been equal to – or in some cases even greater than – the proportion of vaccinated people in the population. Boosters might help for a few weeks to a few months, but it is high time that we let go of the idea that vaccines reduce transmission.

Was it ever reasonable to assume that vaccination would drive the virus to extinction?

No.

The closest analog we have to SARS-CoV2 is not smallpox or polio but another respiratory retrovirus: influenza. Flu vaccines reduce infection rates and disease severity to various degrees, but they do not prevent infection altogether (because the type of antibodies generated by the vaccine have a limited presence in the respiratory tract), and the virus mutates continuously to get around them. The current outcome, with transmission continuing despite vaccination and increasing levels of vaccine resistance in new variants, was always the most likely one.

Do Covid-19 vaccines reduce hospitalization and death from Covid-19?

Yes.

Although plenty of people on the opposition side try hard to pretend this isn’t true, the signal is quite clear in the data. The effect is also quite durable, with vaccine-induced protection against infection fading after a few months while protection against severe infection remains. This is likely due to priming of T-cell immunity, and similar protection against severe infection is observed following recovery.

This remains a strong argument in favor of vaccination for high-risk groups, and the idea that increasing vaccination rates will reduce strain on hospitals is also worthy of consideration. However, as conventionally presented without nuance, the argument fails to note that those with natural immunity will receive a much more limited (if any) benefit from vaccination, and for some groups (especially young men) there is growing evidence that vaccination actually causes more hospitalizations (due to myocarditis and other adverse reactions) than it prevents.

Are long-term effects still a concern?

Yes.

Until a full two years have passed – and possibly up to five – we cannot rule out the possibility of Antibody-Dependent Enhancement – a situation in which vaccine-induced antibodies lead to enhanced, more severe infection by a future variant of the virus.

There is also a possibility that spike protein exposure or immune dysregulation as a result of vaccination could lead to shortened lifespans or increased occurrence of illnesses or medical conditions. Of course the same is true for infection; some people experience long covid, and the rate of cardiovascular and neurological problems appears to be elevated for some time after recovery. So this is a trade-off with unknowns on both sides.

Are continuing boosters safe?

We have no idea, but I’m betting on “no”.

There is certainly no reason to believe that they will be safer than the original injections, which we already know are more dangerous than any other vaccine in common use. And given that protection against severe illness and death following vaccination remains robust beyond six months, and an ever-increasing number of people have experienced breakthrough infections which act as a natural “booster” and confer strong immunity, it would seem that the cost-benefit ratio looks worse for the boosters than for the primary series.

One thing to keep in mind here is that these are genetic vaccines – an entirely different technology than the conventional vaccines which inject antigens directly – and we have effectively no studies regarding the short- or long-term safety of injecting them three, four, five, or more times.

Genetic vaccines provide instructions for human cells to produce viral proteins, which then generate an immune response. This immune response unavoidably targets human cells, which could easily interfere with the delicate balance between autoimmunity (a failure state in which the immune system attacks its own tissues) and tolerance (a failure state in which the immune system recognizes pathogens or cancer cells as its own tissues and fails to attack them). Repeating this process multiple times per year strikes me as a dangerous idea, made more so by the fact that we have almost no prior data and we are conducting this experiment in real time on millions or perhaps billions of people.

Furthermore, we now know that the spike protein is itself biotoxic, directly causing blood clotting and possibly also amyloid formation. Repeated internal exposure to this protein through continuing boosters could lead to cumulative harm.

Is natural immunity equal to vaccination?

Yes.

Although some studies have found that hybrid immunity (infection AND vaccination) is superior, it remains true that the protection against infection and severe disease provided by previous infection is comparable to, and in some cases superior to, that provided by vaccination. There is no solid justification for requiring or even recommending vaccination for those who have already recovered from Covid-19.

What does the future hold?

Covid-19 will become endemic in the human population, and in a number of animal populations as well. It will likely follow a similar path as coronavirus OC43, which is thought to have entered the human population from cattle in 1890 and to have caused waves of illness and death – with symptoms quite similar to Covid-19 including loss of smell – of decreasing severity over 5-10 years before it faded into the background to become just another seasonal cold virus that is still with us today.

All of us will get infected at some point, or our immune system will be trained to recognize the virus by subclinical infection such that we acquire immunity without detectable antibodies. Vaccination could easily help to reduce the death toll, but applied as a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel it could also greatly increase the death toll – through adverse effects of the vaccines or by driving viral evolution in an unnatural way that selects for increased virulence.

At the moment we are still very much in sledgehammer mode, and for that reason I am increasingly concerned that the net effect of our vaccination campaign on human life will be negative, and perhaps dramatically so.

Into a new year we go. I hope the news at the end of 2022 is more positive, and that we can begin to step back from the polarization, “othering”, and dehumanization that has been accelerating in recent years and that represents an existential threat to our society.

Posted in Uncategorized | 24 Comments

Fear is Tearing Us Apart

Vaccine Mandates are a Terrible Idea


I wrote early on in the pandemic that if our control efforts didn’t work, or if their consequences proved too great to bear, we were going to need to consider the possibility of surrender, to accept a new disease among us. It seems that we may finally be reaching that surrender point, recognizing that the virus will eventually become endemic – but what I didn’t anticipate was our collective ability to pretend that our control measures were effective long after evidence emerged to the contrary. Our governments claimed that lockdowns worked, even when neighboring states with and without restrictions had similar levels of infection and death. Then our governments claimed that mask mandates worked, even when neighboring states with and without mask mandates had similar levels of infection and death. Now our governments are doubling down on vaccination, increasingly requiring it for employment and participation in everyday life, even as it becomes clear that our current vaccines are not capable of ending the pandemic.

In all cases, rather than rethinking whether the control measure in question was really as effective as claimed, the response to apparent failure was to cast blame on those who refused to comply. So a rise in infection was the fault of the partiers, the fault of the anti-maskers, the fault of the anti-vaxxers. This has had the effect of further inflaming an already divided society while promoting “public health” measures that quite possibly, in the balance, do more harm than good.

As the Biden administration pushes forward with ratcheting vaccine mandates and officially-sanctioned demonization of the unvaccinated, I think it’s time for a reasoned assessment of what we actually know about these vaccines nine months in to an unprecedented global rollout.

What do we know about the Covid-19 vaccines?

1. They don’t prevent infection and transmission (after a brief grace period)

The vaccines have always been sold primarily on their ability to prevent severe illness and death, but it was also initially assumed that they would reduce infection and transmission – and thereby reduce disease prevalence in the population. They were pitched as our ticket out of the pandemic, to return to normalcy.

We now have data to the contrary. While there is a protective effect for the first few months following injection, this effect is never stronger than 70% or so, and by 4-5 months it may disappear entirely. In the US, differing testing requirements for vaccinated and unvaccinated people ensure that we detect more cases among the unvaccinated. The UK appears to be doing a better job of monitoring vaccine effectiveness, and their most recent report actually reveals a slightly higher rate of Covid-19 infection among vaccinated vs. unvaccinated people for those age groups that were injected more than 3-4 months ago.

We can also compare population-wide disease prevalence between high-vax and low-vax areas, which oddly reveals that some of the most-vaccinated countries – like Israel and the UK – have some of the world’s highest infection rates. This is most definitely not the pattern we would expect to see if vaccination reduced infection and transmission, and indeed it seems possible that mass vaccination might be increasing transmission on a population level.

If vaccines don’t meaningfully prevent infection or transmission, then the primary logic in support of vaccine mandates is fatally flawed. Very intelligent people who ought to know better keep talking about “protection from exposure to unvaccinated people” despite an onslaught of evidence that vaccinated people are also contracting and transmitting the virus. In environments that require weekly testing only of unvaccinated people, it is in fact likely that the unvaccinated people are safer to be around in the context of avoiding infection.

2. Vaccine immunity wanes over time

While the vaccines do provide a transient protection against infection, this protection fades to essentially zero after five months, according to this study, even as protection against severe illness is maintained – although a similar study in Israel found some level of fading protection against severe illness over time as well. We do not yet have data on whether booster shots might be able to counteract this effect.

3. Natural immunity is superior

The dominant narrative in the US has been that the vaccines provide superior immunity relative to natural infection with Covid-19. This claim has persisted despite being contrary to immunological logic – most illnesses provide stronger immunity than their respective vaccines – and despite being consistently disproven by real-world data. This study of Cleveland Clinic employees found no significant reinfection among those previously infected with Covid-19, and this news article provides a good example of how contrary evidence is neutered and twisted to fit within the dominant narrative.

Natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity may be comparable during the brief peak of vaccine protection, but as vaccine protection wanes natural immunity becomes far superior. In Israel, people vaccinated in February were 13 times more likely to acquire Covid-19 in August than people who were naturally infected in February.

4. Adverse reactions are common and can be severe

Adverse reactions to the Covid-19 vaccines are much more common than reactions to any other vaccine in current use, and it is accepted that many people will need to claim 1-2 sick days after their second shot. More serious events requiring hospitalization, causing lasting effects, or even leading to death have been observed with some regularity, and the VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) database has been inundated with reports at a rate 10 to 100 times higher than following flu shots or childhood vaccinations. Those who have experienced adverse reactions often find doctors unwilling to accept a connection to the vaccine and unhelpful in diagnosing and treating their symptoms, and online communities have formed as support groups and to advocate for those injured by the injections.

Even using only “official” reports of adverse reactions, it is now becoming apparent that vaccination carries a greater risk for teenage boys than natural infection with Covid-19. Given that so many reactions are unrecorded, it seems possible that this negative risk-benefit tradeoff could extend well into young adulthood. The mechanism of adverse events appears to involve biotoxicity of the viral spike protein; this Substack article does a good job of covering what we know so far while also examining the possibility of lasting damage or longer-term effects.

5. Vaccines provide protection against severe illness and death

Even as protection against infection fades to zero over time, the Covid-19 vaccines continue to provide a significant level of protection against severe illness, hospitalization, and death. It remains true that hospital ICUs and covid wards are predominantly filled by unvaccinated people – and also predominantly by people over age 50. This remains a strong argument in favor of vaccination, but if protection is primarily personal rather than societal it is also a strong argument against mandatory vaccination.

I accept the validity of the argument that if hospitals are full, people are less able to receive needed care for any reason. This is an argument for increasing vaccination among elders and vulnerable groups. It is most definitely not an argument for mandating vaccination of children and younger adults. Although a small minority of younger people will be hospitalized, these groups are not contributing to hospital overcrowding in a significant way.

Protection against severe illness alone could have been a cause for celebration, had we simply sought to protect the most vulnerable groups with the goal of minimizing suffering and death. But instead we were promised that the vaccines would prevent infections and drive case numbers to zero, and their failure on this account is driving a great deal of fear and unjustified scapegoating.

What don’t we know about the Covid-19 vaccines? – risks for increased transmission and worsened outcomes

We have released vaccines in the midst of influenza pandemics before, but they have simply been updates of existing vaccines. Even then, there were surprises such as reported cases of narcolepsy following the Pandemrix Swine Flu vaccine. It is often said that we have not previously encountered long-term problems with a vaccine, so we shouldn’t expect any this time. That claim ignores the fact that such problems have not infrequently appeared in animal trials and early human trials of novel vaccines. We have never before released a vaccine against a novel virus using novel technology within a year of its initial development, so we are truly in unprecedented territory here.

1. Genetic vaccines may induce immune tolerance

All three of the Covid-19 vaccines in use in the United States are “genetic vaccines.” This means that in contrast to traditional vaccines which inject inactivated virus or other inert particles containing the protein that elicits an immune response, these vaccines supply genetic instructions – in the form of mRNA or viral-vectored DNA – to human cells which then produce the immunogenic protein. Aside from the Ebola vaccine which has seen limited use, no genetic vaccines have been previously deployed in humans.

One obvious concern with genetic vaccines is that since our own cells are producing the novel proteins, our body might be expected to activate the mechanisms that typically prevent our immune system from attacking our own cells – a complex assemblage of biochemical pathways collectively known as immune tolerance. Along these lines, an RNA vaccine under development is specifically designed to induce tolerance in order to treat an autoimmune disease. If tolerance is activated, the immune system still produces antibodies, but it becomes less apt to attack and kill the cells producing the spike protein, and by extension the SARS-CoV2 virus should it make an appearance.

Interestingly, immune tolerance is strongly protective against severe Covid-19, because the life-threatening pneumonia form results not from viral replication but from a dysfunctional immune overreaction. Thus it is entirely possible that the vaccines are highly protective against severe disease precisely because they induce immune tolerance.

Induction of tolerance can be a useful tool, but it would also be expected to increase the likelihood of infection once antibody levels decline. Tolerance, if it is occurring, may result in higher viral loads and increased risk of vascular problems caused directly by the virus, and it may also result in increased risk of infection by other viruses through a down-regulation of the innate immune system.

So far we have indirect evidence suggesting that tolerance may be occurring – namely durable protection against severe illness in the absence of any durable protection against infection, and we also have evidence that the vaccines reprogram the innate immune system – the first line of defense – to some degree. However, we don’t yet have solid evidence that immune tolerance mechanisms are being activated by these vaccines.

2. The vaccines could train the immune system to get stuck in a rut – “Original Antigenic Sin”

In some cases, when the immune system mounts a strong antibody response to a pathogen or a vaccine, it fails to update its response when exposed to a new variant of the pathogen but instead produces more of the original and no-longer-effective antibodies, thus allowing the pathogen to replicate unchecked. This phenomenon is known as Original Antigenic Sin (OAS) and it is hypothesized to have played a major role in the severity of the 1918 flu pandemic for certain age groups.

The risk here is that by inducing a very strong antibody response to one form of one viral protein – the spike – we may reduce the agility of the immune system to respond to variant viruses with modified spikes – and this could could actually put vaccinated people at a disadvantage relative to unvaccinated people or people with natural, more broad-based immunity.

3. Vaccine-induced antibodies could enhance infection of future variants – “Antibody-Dependent Enhancement”

Antibodies serve two purposes. They neutralize a pathogen by blocking its active sites, and they mark it for destruction – usually by big gobbling cells called macrophages. When viruses mutate, some of the antibodies still bind but no longer have a neutralizing function. Furthermore, some of the original antibodies may actually cause the mutated virus to be more infectious – either by facilitating a protein conformation that is better at infecting cells or by allowing the virus to remain active and to replicate inside of the gobbling macrophages. This phenomenon is known as Antibody-Dependent Enhancement (ADE), and worryingly it cropped up in a number of animal vaccine trials for the original SARS coronavirus.

We have no clear evidence of ADE occurring to date, but several studies have indicated that vaccine-induced antibodies may facilitate infection by SARS-CoV2 variants. Should ADE make an appearance as a result of waning immunity or following the emergence of a new variant, it could easily lead to a situation in which disease outcomes are worse in vaccinated people than in unvaccinated people.

These three possibilities – tolerance, OAS, and ADE – are not mutually exclusive and are in fact potentially reinforcing, and it is entirely possible that this unholy trinity could rise up to bite us in the months ahead. Or these concerns could prove unfounded, and we may be left with just vaccines that protect against severe illness while not protecting against infection and carrying a significant risk of adverse reactions.

What is clear, however, is that at this point most people who have elected not to get vaccinated are unwilling to change their minds. Many have already recovered from Covid-19 and therefore have perfectly good immunity. Many have observed both covid infections and vaccine reactions within their community and have decided that risking infection is the better choice. Many are simply fed up with the coercion and dehumanization increasingly aimed at “The Unvaccinated” and have decided to dig in their heels. Against this backdrop, we now have the Biden administration – and many state governments as well – attempting to mandate vaccination for healthcare workers, for teachers, for government employees, and now for all employees of medium-to-large businesses. It is patently clear that whatever happens, this isn’t going to end well.

Why vaccine mandates are a terrible idea

1. They aren’t supported by science.

I covered most of this already, but I should note that it isn’t exactly difficult to find science that contradicts the logic of vaccine mandates. Anyone who is vaccine-hesitant can type a few words into Google Scholar and instantly discover reputable articles revealing that natural immunity is superior to vaccine immunity, or that vaccine-induced protection against infection is incomplete and transient. This will lead to increasing distrust of government and the media.

2. We can’t afford to lose workers, especially in healthcare

The officials declaring mandates don’t seem to be aware that a great many workers would rather lose their jobs than submit to vaccination. With hospitals already at capacity, even losing 5% of nursing staff would lead to unacceptable wait times and a reduction in quality of care. I would hope that, faced with such a choice, most people would rather receive care from an unvaccinated (and regularly tested) nurse than receive no care at all. All across the workforce, attempts to enforce vaccine mandates are all but guaranteed to result in mass firings or walkouts that will disrupt essential services, exacerbate ongoing shortages, and quite possibly send the economy into a tailspin.

3. Society can’t handle much more division without breaking

I am tired of living in a perpetually divided society. In my younger years it seemed like the two American tribes fought perpetually and somewhat good-heartedly over the same perennial issues: abortion, environmental protections, taxes, government spending, social welfare. For the past two decades the situation has been deteriorating. It took a step downward in in the Bush I era, and another during the Tea Party response to the Obama presidency. Trump ramped up divisions and hatreds on both sides, and it seemed that every new issue became immediately politically polarized. Protests, virus responses, ivermectin, vaccines. As Charles Eisenstein eloquently pointed out, the dehumanization of “The Unvaccinated” appears to be tapping into the same patterns of thought and behavior that have historically led to pogroms and genocides. If we wish to avoid actual violence, insurrection, secession, and civil war, we absolutely need to reverse the trend toward ever-increasing division within society, and Biden’s push for vaccine mandates is Very Much Not Helping.

4. Mandates raise the stakes of failure substantially

If it turns out that the vaccines do have serious unforeseen problems that lead to disproportionate illness and death among the vaccinated, those who were coerced against their will will be the most incensed and prone to outbursts of violence. Had we simply offered the vaccines to the most vulnerable groups and to anyone willing to participate in the experiment, the consequences of failure would have been minor – mostly a sense of sadness and loss. Once we started to incentivize shots for teenagers with ice cream cones and to issue “jab or job” mandates, we raised the stakes. If the “safe and effective” mantra proves even partially false over the long run, our nation will experience the sort of political convulsions and crisis of authority that often lead to revolution and chaos. And it will all have been totally unnecessary.


I have never been so unhappy with my government as I was listening to Joe Biden push his vaccine mandate plan last Thursday. Not even under the childish ad hominem outbursts of Donald Trump or the pre-Iraq warmongering of Bush I. The UK, recognizing that vaccines don’t stop transmission, just announced that it is abandoning its vaccine mandate plan. Denmark, following Sweden’s lead, is relaxing all covid restrictions. These are countries that we used to look up to.

Covid has become like the blue flower of Batman, a curse of fear that is tearing our postmodern Gotham apart. I am sad for my country which has weathered much worse but may not survive this storm. I am angry at those officials who would impose their “expert” will over the individual choices and survival instincts of their citizens. I am upset that science seems to matter only inasmuch as it supports a particular predefined narrative, and that anyone who dissents can be smeared regardless of their credentials. I am hopeful that when the dust settles we might finally begin to build a different world beyond neoliberal consumerist crony capitalism. But first we must weather whatever is ahead. Winter is coming. May your pantry be well stocked, and may we all find love in our hearts to support each other in times of need.

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

A Sacrament of Progress

If you are a human alive in the world today, you have probably had occasion to think about the Covid-19 vaccines. Perhaps you were first in line to get your shots. Perhaps you are waiting for them to reach your corner of the planet. Perhaps you have grave doubts about them. Perhaps you are facing judgment for your choices, perhaps having to decide between keeping your job and following your heart.

I want to discuss the rapidly-evolving science and remaining unknown risks of Covid-19 vaccines, but first I want to propose a hypothesis for exactly why this has become such an emotionally-charged topic. Charles Eisenstein has done an excellent job of outlining the dangerous mob morality at work – the same phenomenon that has led to some of the darkest episodes in human history – but that leaves the question of why vaccines? Why has society not divided to this degree over smoking, or alcohol, or climate change, or gun rights? Why has this medical decision created a level of discord matched only by religious divides?

I offer this hypothesis: Vaccination is a sacrament of the religion of Progress.

I have written previously about the religion of Progress, and the basic premise is as follows: Human identities are fundamentally composed of stories and beliefs. The idea that we can reject religious belief in favor of “objective” modern science is therefore false. To the extent that modern science informs beliefs about the nature of existence, collective worldviews, and morality, it inevitably takes on the role of a religion. The religion of Progress comprises all beliefs, values, stories, and rituals based around the concept that advancing human technology defines a linear trajectory from a dark, primitive, disease-ridden past to a bright, modern, safe future in which humans have mastery over the vagaries of nature and ultimately over all of planet Earth.

Over the past century or so, humans around the globe – but especially in the “developed” world – have increasingly become believers in Progress. A cancer patient of today feels the same hope and admiration for an oncologist and the latest chemotherapy as their counterpart 500 years ago would have felt for a village healer and the prescribed herbal tinctures. The fact that the oncologist probably boasts a higher patient survival rate has no bearing on the narrative and ultimately religious dimensions of the experience on a personal level. We all have hopes, dreams, and fears – and whether we seek answers from shamans, priests, or scientific experts we are still ultimately all believers.


Vaccination is a method of preventing infectious disease by training the human immune system to recognize pathogens prior to exposure. It has proven extremely effective against deadly diseases like smallpox and polio. Thanks to vaccination, a bite from a rabid dog or bat is no longer a sentence to a miserable death but rather carries almost no risk if treated promptly.

The human immune system is extremely complex, and is still not completely understood. It is faced with the daunting task of identifying and destroying pathogenic microbes while steering clear of reactions with the millions of molecules that comprise our cells and that appear in our bodies as a result of the foods we eat and the air we breathe. Immunity is not merely a matter of developing antibodies. It is a matter of maintaining ratios of neutralizing to non-neutralizing antibodies, avoiding cross-reactivity, storing disease signatures in memory cells, activating T-cells, B-cells, and macrophages, and much more. Furthermore, there is a very high level of immune system diversity in the human population. Most people, upon being stung by a bee, will develop antibodies that recognize bee venom and reduce inflammation from future stings. A few people will instead develop large numbers of reactive antibodies that set off a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction upon future stings. There is no clear way to predict in advance which people will develop such an allergy.

The history of vaccine development is one of trial and error – mostly error. Vaccine candidates may not work, or immunity may be short-lived, or they may generate nasty side effects in some people, or in some cases they can even provide negative protection – rendering an illness more deadly rather than preventing infection. This is referred to as Vaccine-Associated Disease Enhancement (VADE) or Antibody-Dependent Enhancement (ADE). Sometimes vaccines appear to work but then cause problems months or years down the road. For this reason, vaccine development is typically a long, slow process – and even then vaccines are not uncommonly withdrawn or updated following unanticipated problems.

Vaccines are, at their most basic level, a medical intervention. Like surgery or antibiotics or cancer drugs, they can save lives, but if applied unnecessarily or without sufficient testing they can cause harm. They can interact with each other and with other medications in unpredictable ways, and they can potentially have effects on long – even evolutionary – timescales that are impossible to predict in advance.


All religions have a need for sacraments: ritual actions that serve to affirm belief, to ward off harm, and to distinguish believers from nonbelievers. In Christian traditions, the most significant of these are baptism at birth and the Eucharist – the Holy Communion. Without much thought or intention, vaccination seems to have taken on a sacramental role within the nascent religion of Progress. If prayers to God failed to stop children from dying of smallpox and polio, but vaccination succeeded, then it makes sense that the rite of vaccination would take on a sacred value. Vaccination was a way to partake directly not of the blood of Christ, but of the potion of human Progress, to baptize a child into this new faith with wards of protection against the evil diseases of the past.

Certainly vaccines did (and do) save lives, but as the religion of Progress has blossomed they have taken on a psychological – almost mystical – importance that dwarfs their medical value. Even before Covid-19, those who refused vaccines for themselves or their children were viewed not merely as unhealthy or irresponsible – like smokers or drug addicts – but as heretics deserving of the harshest condemnation. Vaccines began to acquire a special status as beyond reproach. They are perhaps the only product on the market for which manufacturers are granted immunity from liability. Researchers are discouraged from investigating potential vaccine harms, and any problematic results are rapidly debunked, denounced, or retracted. Doctors are discouraged from associating medical diagnoses with vaccination, and people who believe they or their children have been injured by vaccines are ignored, gaslighted, and – if they gain too much attention – censored.

The sacramental status of vaccines is problematic because it creates an environment in which truth-seeking science is discouraged and evidence of harm is suppressed. This is analogous, in a sense, to the manner in which rampant abuse of children by Catholic priests was suppressed for decades; those who had been abused dared not speak up against men regarded as holy in their wider community, and those within the church dared not speak out lest they fracture the faith of their followers. As we pass the peak of industrial civilization overshoot and move into decline in the face of hard resource limits, believers in Progress are clinging ever harder to their sacraments, ramping up rhetoric against “anti-vaxxers” as contemptible enemies.

Enter SARS-CoV-2. A novel and highly contagious virus that causes respiratory and vascular illness (Covid-19) that can be deadly, particularly in the elderly and immunocompromised. A century ago, the virus would have been viewed as a minor ordeal in comparison with World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic. In the era of Progress, however, death from infectious disease is a relic of the evil, pre-technological past and must be prevented at all costs. Within the already-fragile religion of Progress, this created a crisis of faith, and so we had to Do Something.

Over the past year and a half, we have done a lot of somethings – lockdowns, social distancing, business closures, mask mandates – few of which had any clear impact on viral transmission despite endless expert assurances to the contrary. We willingly accepted disruptions and sacrifices that would have been unthinkable a year prior, all in the name of stopping a virus that killed around one out of 300 people it infected.

From the first day of lockdown it was a foregone conclusion that our ticket out of this mess – our return to normalcy – would be a vaccine. The virus would bow down beneath the gods of Progress – the holy trinity of Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J. The world cheered when the first injections were approved after nine short months, and folks and whole nations jostled for their place in line. When it became clear that far from everyone wished to share in this particular sacrament, an enormous propaganda machine sprang into action, promising lottery tickets, donuts, ice cream cones, appealing to our sense of morality, criticizing objections as political or uninformed, and seeking to make vaccination mandatory for travel, for employment, for recreation.

Conspicuously missing from all of the media coverage is any mention of the real reasons why most dissenters are avoiding this vaccine. Limited testing, novel vaccine technology, declining efficacy, and reports of severe adverse effects and deaths leaking out, whispered between friends and posted anonymously by nurses and doctors in fear for their jobs. I will grant that it is possible to make an argument that everyone ought to accept a personal risk for the good of the whole, but this must be done openly, with a solid understanding of risks and benefits, and with a guarantee of support for anyone suffering harm from that choice. It cannot be done coercively, while attacking straw man objections and shoving the most important concerns under the rug.

It is worth noting that prior to 2020, no coronavirus vaccine had been approved. Multiple attempts to create a vaccine for the closely-related SARS virus resulted in vaccine-associated disease enhancement (VADE) in animal trials – rendering vaccinated animals worse off than unvaccinated animals following infection. In some cases the vaccines worked initially but later caused severe issues. Scientists involved in developing Covid-19 vaccines were aware of this problem and sought to avoid it by specifically targeting antibodies against part of the spike protein, but their success is far from guaranteed. The religion of Progress demanded a worldwide vaccine rollout posthaste, but our collective sacramental trust in the goodness of vaccination in no way protects us against a confrontation with hard-knock reality should this experiment fail.

As I write this, in late August of 2021, the Covid-19 vaccines still appear to provide protection against severe illness, as evidenced by hospital censuses, but:

  • Covid-19 vaccines no longer provide strong protection against infection and transmission of the Delta variant.
  • Covid-19 cases are surging in some of the most vaccinated parts of the world, including Israel, Hawaii, Iceland, and Gibraltar.
  • Vaccine-induced immunity appears to wane rapidly after as little as five months, with Israel already recommending booster shots.
  • The incidence of severe adverse reactions – including deaths – following vaccinations appears to be 1-2 orders of magnitude higher than for most vaccines.
  • Natural immunity appears to be equally effective and longer-lasting than vaccine-induced immunity.
  • Molecular modeling suggests that vaccine-induced neutralizing antibodies might actually facilitate infection by the Delta variant, meaning that we may be seeing the beginning of antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE).

Despite clear emerging evidence of vaccine failure, an ongoing rise in infections is being blamed solely on unvaccinated people, and pressure to accept the injections is steadily mounting. Never mind that vaccine passports make no logical sense when vaccinated people are also spreading the virus. Never mind that the risk/benefit assessment of vaccination for children and young adults may well be negative, even without considering longer-term risks.

The best possible outcome of our vaccination campaign at this point would be to blunt the end of a historically-minor pandemic, preventing illness and saving lives. The worst possible outcomes would rank among the largest mistakes ever made by humankind, right up there with profligate burning of fossil fuels and deployment of nuclear weapons. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that a new variant or waning immunity could trigger VADE with the result that vaccinated people are more vulnerable to Covid-19 and the death rate rises from 0.3% to 3%, or 10%, or 30%. Or our leaky vaccines could drive viral evolution to create a disease that is more harmful to vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike.

Nothing is certain with regard to the future of Covid-19 or the vaccines, but what is certain to me is that we are in the grip of a collective insanity driven by the last desperate gasps of the religion of Progress in the face of resource limits and impending decline. I do not wish for the vaccines to cause harm to those I love, but I do in a sense hope that they fail just enough to break the power of the sacrament, to deal a mortal blow to the religion of Progress.

We live in a time when technological progress is stuttering to a halt, when the latest gadgets are buggier and shorter-lived than the older ones and when standards of living are declining for a majority of people. In the years ahead we will have less oil, less money, more climate disruptions, and more human migrations. The religion of Progress would have us pursue massive buildouts of alternative energy, electric cars, nuclear power, geoengineering, artificial meat, and energy-intensive cryptocurrency. It would have us seek to consume our way out of this predicament that we consumed our way into. That is, quite simply, impossible, and the longer we follow that path, the more difficult the inevitable transition will become.

When the stranglehold of Progress is finally broken perhaps we will be able to focus on living more simply, to accept death when it comes in lieu of ever-more-complex and energy-intensive medical interventions, to build bioregional agrarian communities, to place a real value on owning less stuff, using less energy, leaving lighter footprints on the Earth. I am hopeful that we can get there eventually, but I suspect that the months and years immediately ahead will be tumultuous. May we all find love and support amidst the fear and chaos.

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

A Strong Case for Covid Vaccine Hesitancy

Why clinical trials cannot be safely shortened

The human immune system operates over long time scales. This is essential so that it can remember pathogens encountered during childhood for a lifetime, while also continually adapting to new microbes – both good and bad – and accurately distinguishing between human cells and invaders.

We like to think of an immune response as a simple process. Get exposed, develop antibodies, become immune. Such is the basis for both vaccination and natural immunity. In reality, however, the process is much more complex. I came to understand this personally ten years ago when as a new beekeeper I developed an allergy to bee stings.

Bee venom is irritating but not especially toxic to humans; in the absence of an immune dysfunction people can survive several hundred simultaneous stings without lasting harm aside from pain and swelling. Furthermore, no one will have an allergic reaction upon their first exposure to bee venom. However, following a bee sting or a series of stings, some people will begin to develop antibodies that trigger immune overreaction, which come to dominate over the more typical antibodies that tell the body this is nothing to worry about. It turns out that getting stung weekly or monthly favors the development of helpful antibodies (leading to minimal swelling over time), while getting stung once or infrequently can occasionally lead to the development of harmful antibodies, as happened in my case.

My reaction, while covering my body in hives, was thankfully not life-threatening, and an allergist prescribed a series of frequent injections of ever-increasing amounts of bee venom, in order to rebalance the levels of helpful and harmful antibodies. This proved successful, and since that time I have received hundreds of stings with no ill effect. For those interested in the immunological details of bee allergy, this link is very helpful: https://wncbees.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Bee-Stings-Immunology-Allergy-and-Treatment-Marterre.pdf

I bring this up because allergies are an example of a broader phenomenon known as Antibody-Dependent Enhancement (ADE): in which the presence of antibodies against a particular agent leads to worse, rather than improved, outcomes.

Antibody-Dependent Enhancement is a known risk during vaccine development, and it tends to occur with particular viruses. In human vaccine trials it has been encountered with measles, dengue fever, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). If you Google “antibody-dependent enhancement vaccines”, this page is the first result, and it provides both a helpful summary of the issue and synopsis of relevant sources.

I recommend opening that page in another tab as you read this, as I will be referencing it below. While the cited information is accurate, the logic as applied to Covid-19 vaccination is dangerously flawed, and the basis for that failure is the importance of time.

The article discusses past instances of ADE occurring during vaccine trials – or soon after more widespread vaccine use – for measles, RSV, and dengue vaccines. Here are some relevant quotes, with emphasis added:

“Regarding safety, children vaccinated between 2 to 5 years of age in Asia were shown to have an increased risk of hospitalization secondary to dengue three years after the first vaccine dose compared with children who received placebo.” (link)

“In this case series, the authors describe seven patients aged 12 to 19 years who developed atypical measles 10 to 13 years after receipt of formalin-inactivated measles vaccine (FIMV).” (link)

“In this follow-up case series, the authors described 10 children who were hospitalized at the ages of 6 to 8 years with an atypical severe presentation of measles, five to six years after receipt of FIMV.” (link)

Antibody-dependent Enhancement can be quite severe. In one trial of a RSV vaccine, the hospitalization rate for this usually-mild childhood illness rose from 5% to 80% in vaccinated patients, with two deaths reported. (link)

With regard to the Covid-19 vaccines, the article offers the following assurance: “Neither COVID-19 disease nor the new COVID-19 vaccines have shown evidence of causing ADE. People infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have not been likely to develop ADE upon repeat exposure. This is true of other coronaviruses as well. Likewise, studies of vaccines in the laboratory with animals or in the clinical trials in people have not found evidence of ADE.”

Moving on to the citations, we see the following statements, with emphasis again added (note that “Th2 response” essentially refers to antibody-dependent enhancement here):

“To determine whether mRNA-1273 (Moderna) vaccine induced Th2 responses, researchers immunized macaques with two doses of either 10 mcg or 100 mcg of mRNA vaccine at four-week intervals and challenged the animals eight weeks later with SARS-CoV-2.” (link)

Seven days after the second dose, a robust Th1 response was observed, but only a minute Th2 response, consistent with the unlikely occurrence of vaccine-associated enhanced respiratory disease, which is associated with Th2 responses.” (link)

After vaccination, macaques were challenged with SARS-CoV-2 without observable antibody-dependent enhancement of infection or immunopathological exacerbation.” (link)

What is clear to me, in reading this, is that the authors are confident that ADE is not a problem with the Covid-19 vaccines based on studies lasting at most a couple of months, while actual problematic ADE in past vaccination efforts only became apparent after a much longer observation period of multiple months up to 10+ years. Given the potential severity of ADE, I consider this to be a dangerous failure of scientific and precautionary thinking.

Adding to the concern here is the fact that vaccine animal trials for the closest-known relative of SARS-CoV-2, the original SARS(-CoV-1) virus, often encountered ADE. As noted in an analysis paper published in early 2021:
“Antibodies to the SARS-CoV-1 spike protein can mediate viral entry via Fc receptor-expressing cells in a dose-dependent manner (54). Jaume et al. (34) point out the potential pitfalls associated with immunizations against SARS-CoV-1 Spike protein due to Fc mediate infection of immune cells. This leads to the prediction that new attempts to create either SARS-CoV-1 vaccines, MERS-CoV vaccines (81), or SARS-CoV-2 vaccines have potentially higher risks for inducing ADE in humans facilitated by antibody infection of phagocytic immune cells. This potential ADE risk is independent of the vaccine technology (82) or targeting strategy selected due to predicted phagocytic immune cell infections upon antibody uptake.” (link)

It is true that, when animal trials of SARS-CoV-1 vaccines encountered ADE, this usually occurred the first time the vaccinated animals were infected with the virus. It is also true that this sort of immediate-term ADE has now been ruled out for the emergency-approved Covid-19 vaccines. However, we know that ADE *can* be a problem with SARS-family coronaviruses, and also that ADE can take months to years to appear and can be triggered by encountering new variants of the virus, or by waning immunity (i.e. higher antibody levels can be protective while lower levels can lead to enhanced disease).


There is a reason why vaccine trials typically last 5-10+ years, and there is no way to shorten this time period without significantly reducing confidence in long-term safety and effectiveness. This is doubly true when working with novel viruses, with viruses known to exhibit ADE, and with novel vaccine technologies. A rushed vaccine for a new pandemic strain of influenza, modeled after current flu vaccines, would carry a much lower level of risk and uncertainty than the current crop of Covid-19 vaccines.

This is all to say that I offer no personal apology to those who loudly insist that everyone must be vaccinated and those who refuse are selfish, ignorant, misanthropic, or misinformed. I see a very real risk that these vaccines could ultimately enhance the severity of Covid-19 through ADE such that we are no longer dealing with a virus that kills one out of 300 people infected but maybe one out of 100, or one out of ten. I understand the risk-benefit analysis for elders and vulnerable groups, but I cannot understand the push to vaccinate younger adults and *especially* children, given that these groups nearly all make a full recovery.

Furthermore, the vaccines are “leaky” – with vaccinated people still becoming infected and transmitting the virus, which negates the possibility of driving the virus to extinction through vaccination – and vaccine-mediated immunity also appears to wane rapidly, with people in Israel who were vaccinated back in January and February now catching Covid-19 at much higher rates than those vaccinated more recently.

I intend to stand strong against the social pressure to take these vaccines, which has long since deviated from the realm of science and is taking on concerning psychosocial dimensions. For others who are feeling this pressure and perhaps drawing concerning parallels to historical pogroms or childhood bullying, I highly recommend this perspective by Charles Eisenstein.

I am not anti-vaccine, and I hold no judgments against those who choose to be vaccinated. I may, in time, choose to receive one of the vaccines myself, if a sufficiently long time passes without evidence of ADE or immunity loss, or possibly if a viral mutation arises that is not just more infectious but also carries a much-elevated risk of disability and death. In this moment, though, I wish to convey that there remains more uncertainty (and potentially life-altering uncertainty at that) than most are willing to admit, and I find it deeply unethical that these vaccines are being promoted through coercion (“no jab, no job”) and shallow incentives like ice cream cones and lottery tickets rather than through carefully crafted, reasoned arguments. I think there is a good reason why PhDs are the most hesistant group in terms of Covid-19 vaccine acceptance, and the least likely to change our minds over the short term.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Current thoughts on the Covid vaccines

I can’t claim to know 100% where the truth lies, but I want to share my current thought process.  Given that my perspective is in conflict with most media, government, and people that I know, this is something that I think about often, research daily, and do my best to approach from a scientific, unbiased angle.

I hope that – even if you don’t find my arguments convincing – you can accept that I have both a strong scientific mind and a solid moral compass and you can respect my thoughts and positions on these issues.

As I have written before, much of our society is in the grip of what I would call the religion of Progress – a faith in technology and industry to solve our problems – including those problems directly created by technology and industry.  I experienced this directly during my time as a PhD student, when a vast majority of researchers in my field studiously ignored the obvious fatal flaws that would preclude real-world implementation of their research, while a few courageous folks – mostly nearing retirement or otherwise outside of institutional environments – were willing to address reality more honestly.  Since then, I have been on the lookout for these “heterodox” voices – those scientists willing to prioritize the pursuit of truth and the scientific method over a religious commitment to pursuit of Progress.

There are many topics to address here, but I would like to specifically consider:

  • Fundamentals:  What is going on, and what should we expect?
  • Adverse effects – prevalence, reporting, and societal treatment of those affected
  • Spike protein biodistribution, longevity, and health concerns
  • Duration of immunity
  • Vaccine-resistant mutations
  • Politics: the “anti-vax” buzzsaw
  • Politics: the debasement of dialogue
  • The impossibility of truth-seeking

Fundamentals

Vaccine development is a process that generally requires at least five years, and often up to 12 years or more.  When considering vaccines using novel technologies or targeting novel pathogens, fewer than 5% of candidate vaccines make it through this development process to ultimate approval.  Therefore we should assume that vaccines rushed through development in the absence of long-term safety and effectiveness studies will likely be inferior to fully-researched and evaluated vaccines.  This doesn’t mean they will definitely be bad, just that we shouldn’t be surprised if they fail to live up to initial expectations.

The current crop of vaccines, and especially the mRNA vaccines, confer a high level of short-term immunity against symptomatic and (especially) severe Covid-19.  Data are less clear with regard to long-term immunity and protection against asymptomatic infection and spreading of the virus to others, although there is some evidence of a protective effect.

Adverse Effects

It is well-accepted that these vaccines have a higher level of adverse effects than any other vaccines in common use – to the point that it is common practice to take a day off of work after getting the second shot.  More significant effects – up to and including lasting disability and death – have been not infrequently recorded.  In the absence of an ongoing scientific study tracking vaccinated and unvaccinated cohorts (which does not exist), these can all be written off as anecdotal and probably unrelated to the vaccine.

The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System exists to document adverse reactions to vaccines.  In a typical year there are fewer than 500 deaths reported following administration of all vaccines.  This year, so far, the total stands at 11,405 deaths reported following the Covid vaccines alone (https://www.openvaers.com/covid-data).  This number is frequently “debunked” based on the fact that there is no proven link between vaccination and death, and indeed some of the reported deaths are almost certainly coincidence.  That said, the magnitude of increase is a red flag worthy of investigation.  In addition to the deaths a large number of hospitalizations (36,000), heart attacks (4400), and urgent care visits (62,000) have been reported.

There is also a large and growing community of vaccine-injured people online, seeking greater recognition for their symptoms and experiences.  Perhaps unfortunately they have only been able to attract attention from conservative-leaning politicians and media, which has paradoxically reduced their credibility in more liberal circles.  Facebook and Instagram have repeatedly removed groups set up for sharing side effects and adverse reactions.  Most of these people report that their doctors refuse to accept that their symptoms are vaccine-related, despite the fact that they began shortly after vaccination in otherwise-healthy people and that they group into common syndromes.  Most doctors are also reluctant to report their patients’ experiences to VAERS, which leads to the possibility that the VAERS numbers are a significant undercount.  For some examples of personal experiences, see https://www.c19vaxreactions.com/

Of course, it is also fair to look at these numbers in comparison to 625,000 Covid deaths.  It is quite likely that – at least for vulnerable groups and people above a certain age – the vaccine carries a much lower risk than the disease.  This, however, presents a messaging problem.  If, to use a war analogy, the battle will have casualties, then it is essential that we treat those casualties as heroes rather than ignoring them, denying their very real suffering, and sweeping them under the rug.  To date, our treatment of those suffering long-term effects from the vaccines has been more akin to our unfortunate societal abandonment of injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan than to the hero’s welcome given to injured soldiers returning from World War II.  Speaking personally, I would be much more willing to take a personal risk to potentially benefit the whole of society if I knew that society would honor and take care of me if I were injured.  In the current situation – in which vaccine manufacturers are legally protected from liability and doctors are unwilling to acknowledge real vaccine reactions – I don’t have that assurance.

The Biotoxic Spike Protein

Much of the damage caused by Covid appears to be connected to the biotoxic effect of the spike protein on vascular tissues, as opposed to being caused by virus-mediated cell death or the human immune response.  Researchers at the Salk Institute recently confirmed this effect by injecting inert nanoparticles covered in spike protein into animal models and noting significant tissue damage in response.  This raises concern with regard to spike-protein-based vaccines.  In theory, if the spike protein is limited to the muscle where it is injected, this risk should be minimal.  However, very limited biodistribution studies were carried out, and those that were are concerning, showing the vaccine nanoparticles and resultant spike protein expression spread throughout the body and concentrated in certain organs. 

I have also not seen a comparison of the level of spike protein expression following vaccination vs. that experienced in the sort of mild Covid infection that is the most common manifestation of the disease.  It is often asserted that the disease causes lasting damage while the vaccine does not; however I have yet to see conclusive science to back up this claim, and I have read plenty of personal accounts of long-Covid-like syndromes following vaccination.

Duration of Immunity

“Genetic vaccines” – in which the human body produces a viral protein to generate an immune response – are significantly different from conventional vaccines in which the body is exposed to complete but non-infectious versions of the pathogen.  One of the risks is that a full immune response – including both short-term production of antibodies and long-term establishment of “memory” T and B cells – may not be achieved.  There is already some concerning evidence in this direction from Israel, the first country to carry out mass vaccination.  Those vaccinated prior to late February are currently twice as likely to catch Covid as those vaccinated later, after correcting for age and other factors.  https://www.timesofisrael.com/hmo-those-who-inoculated-early-twice-as-likely-to-catch-covid-as-later-adopters/

This is concerning because if the vaccines require boosters every six months, the overall rate of adverse effects will likely be much higher, and there will also be a risk of cumulative effects following re-administration of the same or a closely related vaccine.

Vaccine-resistant Mutations

One of the most common arguments for mass vaccination is that it will reduce the ability of the virus to evolve vaccine-resistant mutations.  This could be true, but it is also worth considering the opposite hypothesis:  that mass deployment of a vaccine in the midst of a global pandemic could easily generate vaccine-resistant mutations, in a manner akin to the development of antibiotic-resistance following widespread use of antibiotics.  One prominent voice giving this warning is Dutch vaccine researcher Geert Vanden Bossche, who has immaculate credentials in this regard: https://www.geertvandenbossche.org/

If we are going to use this argument to advocate for mass vaccination, we should first be sure that it is actually scientifically valid.  It is quite possible that a more limited rollout targeting vulnerable groups and healthcare workers might actually help to slow the development of vaccine-resistant mutations, when compared to a population-wide vaccination campaign.

The Anti-vax Buzzsaw

The “buzzsaw” is a concept developed by Dr. Bret Weinstein, in his analysis of the breakdown in dialogue in modern society.  A buzzsaw, in this context, is a term that encompasses a group of people regarded as bad or unworthy of respect, and that can be used as a weapon to discredit more reasonable views.  One example is the way that “racist” has been defined as KKK-level bigotry but has been expanded at will to include anyone who questions the importance of black squares on Instagram, or who has ever used the N word in any context at any age. 

It has been clear to me, over the past decade, that “anti-vax” has been groomed for use as a buzzsaw.  Those who opposed standard vaccinations – many for rather hokey reasons – were increasingly smeared, vilified, and legally targeted in an effort to shore up childhood vaccination rates.  The phrase anti-vax is now a ready bad-person category to be lobbed at anyone who hesitates to accept the Covid vaccines, or even those who oppose giving them to children who are at very low risk from Covid.  Importantly, labeling someone as anti-vax says nothing at all about the validity of their argument, the truth of their claims, the reality of their lived experience of vaccine injury, or the integrity of their character.  It saddens me greatly that within the mainstream media it seems to be sufficient to simply use that label to discredit opposing views.

 The Debasement of Dialogue

Every mainstream media article I read these days on the vaccination issue says a lot about Republicans and conservative strategy and disinformation, as if the only reason one might have to question the Covid vaccines is a childish opposition to Democratic leadership and the Biden administration, or a lingering loyalty to Trump.  And I will say this for certain.  Anyone who refuses to be vaccinated because they are a Republican is stupid, but so is anyone who believes the vaccines are totally safe and ought be mandated simply because they are a Democrat and stand behind President Biden.  As I occasionally check out conservative media, I can say that much of the vaccine-questioning coverage is indeed political, but it also covers very real concerns and case studies regarding severe adverse effects, the ethics of vaccinating young children, possible withholding of informed consent regarding risks, and the moral dimensions of mandating an emergency-authorized vaccine for which the full risk profile is not yet understood.  The response from the left is simply to brush all of this aside as political misinformation, with no substantive engagement with the issues. 

An environment in which truth is more political than scientific is a dangerous environment in which to encounter true uncertainty and potential risk.  We must ask ourselves:  exactly how many deaths or adverse effects would need to occur before a medical, political, and media establishment that is committed to the safe vaccine narrative would begin to pay attention? 

My current thoughts

I made a commitment early on that I would not make a decision regarding vaccination for myself until a year had passed.  I very nearly reneged on that commitment back in May, when all of my friends were getting their shots, but then the J&J was paused for clotting concerns the day after I decided I would probably get that one, which served as a reminder that there are still too many unknowns and solidified my commitment.

On a societal level, I am moderately confident that the benefits of vaccination exceed the risks for anyone at high risk of severe Covid-19.  I am much less confident that this is true for lower-risk groups, and I strongly suspect that it is false for children under age 18. Even though long-Covid is a real concern and there can be lingering effects, I feel that we collectively continue to vastly overestimate the risk of the virus to ourselves and our communities.

At present I am leaning toward remaining unvaccinated given emerging science regarding limited duration of immunity, biodistribution of the vaccine, and biotoxic effects of the spike protein.  I will still wait until at least November-December to make a decision.  Should the Novavax vaccine be approved I would be more willing to take that one, as it is based on injected spike-containing particles rather than genetic instructions for my own cells to produce the spike, and thereby likely to be more dose- and distribution-regulated.  But it still contains the spike protein, and it has accordingly been linked to some of the same heart complications in trials.

The current campaign to incentivize vaccinations and shame those who are choosing not be vaccinated is, if anything, hardening my position for the moment.  None of that rhetoric contains any of the science which would inform my decision, and it also contains inherent contradictions (such as recommending vaccinations for previously-infected people when real-world studies indicate strong and lasting natural immunity) which lead me to believe that it is more ideology-driven than science-driven. 

I do not judge anyone who chooses the vaccines for themselves, and I encourage everyone to make a decision based on their own weighing of the risks and benefits.  In turn, I would ask others to resist the pressure to divide the world into “good” vaccinated people and “bad” unvaccinated people, aided by preexisting political fault lines. 

We will know in a year or two whether the vaccines were a good idea.  I certainly hope that the more serious concerns are unfounded.  Until then, let us please not find one more reason to sow distrust, judgment, and division among ourselves.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Grieving the End of Progress

A Social Theory for Strange Times

This is a synthesis of sorts. It may represent a profound insight about the nature of reality, or it may just represent the way my mind constructs a framework to understand the world. But then again reality is in many cases nothing more than our collective frameworks of thought.

In this essay I want to move beyond first-level thinking. If white nationalism and belief in falsehoods are on the rise, I wish to move beyond condemnation and reaction (“Trump is Bad”, “Believe in Science”) and seek a deeper level of understanding. To change the world, or to accurately predict how the world is likely to change, it is necessary to comprehend not just current events, but also the underlying causes.

As I have been examining the world through the lens of the religion of Progress, I have increasingly felt that many of the events and conflicts unfolding in the world can be understood through this lens. Among these are:

  • The cult following of Elon Musk
  • The Great Reset
  • Scientific dogmatism
  • A “post-truth” world
  • Covid panic and botched response
  • Social justice mania
  • Trumpism
  • The rise of white nationalism

Before I can discuss the way in which the religion of Progress could possibly inform all of these disparate issues, I need to put to rest the idea that the “religion of Progress” is simply a linguistic convenience to describe belief in a modern world. If we understand that modern industrial society has provided alternative answers to existential questions for a majority of human beings in the so-called “developed world”, then it becomes clear that belief in Progress cannot simply end once the underlying progress comes to a halt. To one who believes in Progress, the end of progress is impossible, inconceivable, unthinkable, unacceptable.

When confronted with a loss so profound that it shakes our identities to the core, human beings do not simply adapt. Instead, we grieve. Grief is a well-understood process, as all of us must at some point come to terms with the loss of loved ones as well as our own inevitable death. Those who work with the grieving process understand that it typically involves five phases, not always in this order:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

In my last post, I argued that we are collectively transitioning from a long phase of societal growth/progress to one of decline, hopefully culminating in sustainability. Furthermore, I posited that different groups of people are at different stages of that trajectory, with lower classes well along into decline while the middle classes are starting downward and only the elite continue to progress.

What if, then, we posit that our society is moving through the process of grieving the end of progress, and that different groups within society are at different stages based on when progress ended for them? That was an insight that “clicked” for me, as much of the strangeness I have been observing started to fit into place.

The model looks something like this:

Within this framework, the political right is substantially further along on this process, and indeed positioning along this axis seems to be actively reorienting the political spectrum. This is apparent when noting that regions in decline – timber towns, mining towns, agricultural areas, manufacturing hubs – lean strongly right. These areas in general have much poorer prospects than in years past, low and declining housing values, high rates of poverty, and lower life expectancy. Meanwhile areas where progress continues – cities, college towns, tech-industry-dominated communities – lean strongly left. These areas have better prospects (but still lower than the prior generation), high and rising housing values, and lower rates of poverty. This is also apparent when noting that the working classes have largely moved rightward on the political spectrum while the affluent, traditionally-conservative suburbs have moved leftward.

I remember watching the political right descend into denial and anger in the early 2000s. At the time I was confused, because from my liberal perspective I couldn’t see anything to be angry about. But looking back, I can see this as a grief response to a decline of the agricultural, manufacturing, and resource-extraction sectors of the economy brought about in large part by neoliberal economics and globalization.

In 2017 I wrote this about Trump’s election:

Trump, despite all of his failings and inconsistencies, won the presidency by admitting that progress had stopped while his opponents kept up the pretense.  He assembled a coalition of those who had suffered the most in the past decade, squeezed by layoffs, pay cuts, and ever-rising costs.  He pledged to “make America great again.”  He has ushered in an era when truth itself is vulnerable to attack, when facts and “alternative facts” compete for airtime.

Trump managed to gain broad support on the right in part because he was willing to use the taboo d-word – “decline” – in speaking frankly to angry and downtrodden people about their experiences over the past 20-30 years. But rather than offering wealth redistribution or promoting acceptance of decline as inevitable, he espoused a series of divisive non-solutions along with a sort of brand loyalty, of success-by-association. Thus began the bargaining phase, the low point of the grieving process when people cannot yet accept their loss and will try anything, based on the flimsiest of hopes, to regain their lost belief and avoid coming to terms with their loss.

Bargaining is the most dangerous phase, as emotions run hot and self-preservation trumps morality as a motivation. White nationalism – long a fringe viewpoint – rapidly gained prominence as Trump and the alt-right blamed the end of progress on immigration, on multiculturalism, on diversity. We are lucky, I think, that Trump was a mere arrogant narcissist playing reality TV with the presidency, as opposed to a true Hitler-type ideologue intent on driving a genocidal agenda.

We may need to confront the bargaining of the right again in the future, but my sense is that that demographic is largely moving on, through depression to acceptance, and that the next bargaining-phase threat will arise from the left.

As a former Democrat and one who still holds left-leaning ideals, I have watched with horror as the political left, over the past few years, started down the same road of denial and anger that the political right followed twenty years earlier. Journalist Matt Taibbi captured this transition well in a recent opinion piece titled “Rachel Maddow is Bill O’Reilly.” The article is full of examples of Maddow’s outrage-inducing headlines that later proved to be false or unsupported, with no apology or retraction but choosing rather to move on to the next bombshell allegation. I have similarly watched in startled surprise as left-leaning states clung to and strengthened their Covid restrictions, even as it became clear both that the restrictions have minimal effect on viral spread and that the disease was not nearly as dangerous as originally feared. I wrote a whole essay on that topic, so I won’t discuss it further here. I have been equally surprised, at the same time, to see voices of science and reason emerging on the right, in some cases from the very same mouths that spouted constant outrage and falsehood ten years ago.

It seems that the time has come when self-styled progressives must face their own reckoning with the end of progress. The political left is largely a younger crowd, and this is taking the form of a student debt crisis, of insufficient jobs to justify expensive degrees, of housing prices putting homeownership increasingly out of reach and making rental tenuous, of children living with parents well into adulthood, of generally poorer prospects than the previous generation, of decaying urban infrastructure, of associated depression, addiction, and mental health crises.

Even as billionaires extract wealth, thereby exacerbating decline, they maintain a cult of celebrity among those who wish to believe we are still progressing. So we cheer Elon Musk’s limited-lifespan, resource-intensive electric cars and his explosion-prone rockets that replicate 1970s accomplishments to great futuristic fanfare. We celebrate his totally unnecessary swarm of StarLink satellites that pollute the night sky with crawling lights and risk creating enough space junk to render low Earth orbit unusable. We bid up his stocks to make him the richest man on Earth. We would rather, it seems, see progress continue for an ever-shrinking elite group than admit that progress is coming to an end.

The increasingly shrill voices of social justice warriors, eager to cancel anyone who has ever spoken out of line, are in my view also an outgrowth of the denial and anger phases. If we can define progress as a social phenomenon, and we can achieve increasing acceptance of marginalized identities in our communities, then it is easier to pretend that we are still moving forward even as we earn less money and pay more for basic needs. If we can change acceptable language such that books and films from even twenty years ago seem racist or biased by today’s standards, then we can feel that the present is still an improvement over the recent past.

The left seems to be moving through the phases at a comparably faster clip, likely because the rate of decline is accelerating and it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe in Progress. At the same time, I am not yet seeing anything approaching acceptance in blue states and cities. We are entering the bargaining phase, the time of pursuing non-solutions in the belief that they will restart progress and thereby restore faith in Progress.

Instead of nativist or nationalist resentments being promoted largely by fringe groups, we have the Great Reset, the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” with the backing of the World Economic Forum and thereby a majority of corporate and government elites. We have “Build Back Better”, the Green New Deal. We have visions of a shiny Star Trek future made possible by global interconnected technology, the Internet of Things and soon perhaps the Internet of People with cloud-connected biometric sensors and augmented reality.

It is important to recognize that the Great Reset constitutes nothing more than decline marketed as progress. It is a markedly-reduced quality of life with markedly-constrained personal freedoms that happens to look superficially more like Star Trek. If we can let go of our obsession with new-and-improved technology, then the “utopian” visions appear much less enticing. Take, for example, the oft-cited “Welcome to 2030” vision published by the World Economic Forum:

Welcome to the year 2030. Welcome to my city – or should I say, “our city”. I don’t own anything. I don’t own a car. I don’t own a house. I don’t own any appliances or any clothes. It might seem odd to you, but it makes perfect sense for us in this city. Everything you considered a product, has now become a service.

……

Shopping? I can’t really remember what that is. For most of us, it has been turned into choosing things to use. Sometimes I find this fun, and sometimes I just want the algorithm to do it for me. It knows my taste better than I do by now.

……

My biggest concern is all the people who do not live in our city. Those we lost on the way. Those who decided that it became too much, all this technology. Those who felt obsolete and useless when robots and AI took over big parts of our jobs. Those who got upset with the political system and turned against it. They live different kind of lives outside of the city. Some have formed little self-supplying communities. Others just stayed in the empty and abandoned houses in small 19th century villages.

Once in awhile I get annoyed about the fact that I have no real privacy. No where I can go and not be registered. I know that, somewhere, everything I do, think and dream of is recorded. I just hope that nobody will use it against me.

All in all, it is a good life. Much better than the path we were on, where it became so clear that we could not continue with the same model of growth. We had all these terrible things happening: lifestyle diseases, climate change, the refugee crisis, environmental degradation, completely congested cities, water pollution, air pollution, social unrest and unemployment. We lost way too many people before we realised that we could do things differently.

We are on the wrong path, they say – a path of decline that can be averted by embracing a life in which we own nothing and have no privacy. Which means, of course, that the corporate-government conglomerate owns everything and knows everything about everyone. And pity those poor people who choose not to go along.

It is important to recognize, in this moment, that – short of a heretofore-unknown-and-extremely-unlikely breakthrough source of cheap energy – nothing can forestall the end of progress. The Great Reset will fail over the long term, and it will almost certainly never be implemented in the hinterlands where people are already rejecting the religion of Progress and choosing to remove technology from their lives. In cities, though, it could produce a world of hurt – an authoritarian dystopia designed ultimately to prolong progress for the world’s elite by converting all products to services and thereby extracting wealth from all aspects of life. Once we purchased software; now it is all by subscription. Imagine if the entire economy operated on this model. For this reason I sincerely hope that people will see through the hope and hype and firmly reject this vision, moving onward ultimately to acceptance of the end of progress, and letting go of the associated religious beliefs.

We still have some tumultuous years ahead, and a post-progress, post-Progress world will be in many ways more difficult than the world we are accustomed to. Many paved roads will revert to gravel. We will downsize, simplify. We will travel less and value our local communities more. Some supplies will be increasingly difficult to find, and electricity and medical care will likely become less reliable.

At the same time, it will become much easier once a majority of us accept that we are living in a post-progress world, instead of executing all manner of mental gymnastics to believe that we are still progressing or working messily through the process of grieving. Perhaps then we can begin to make wise decisions, like reinvesting in a robust passenger rail network to replace resource-intensive driving and flying, or reserving our Department of Defense for exactly that purpose instead of attempting to bully the entire planet into submission at the risk of igniting nuclear war, or building resilient local food webs to replace fragile global supply chains.

Perhaps once we let go of our belief in Progress, we will no longer idolize the wealthy and willingly transfer our hard-earned wealth to them. Perhaps we will put an end to the extractive nature of housing, education, and medical costs, among others. Perhaps we will be able, at least on a local or regional level, to build an economy of, for, and by the people.

There are many who never believed in Progress – or who were never invited to believe – who can provide guidance when we are ready. It is time to once again value our elders, our Indigenous peoples, our traditional knowledge, as our brief fossil-fueled season of imagined godhood comes to its inevitable end and we once again seek to live sustainably on this ancient, living planet Earth.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

The Shape of Our Future

Within the religion of Progress, infinite growth is assumed by default. The world has been growing and improving since at least the Middle Ages – which by Progress reckoning is far enough into the evil past that it’s not worth thinking about earlier times – and therefore it is safe to assume that growth will continue on indefinitely into the future.

Suggest to a Progress-ite that infinite growth is impossible, or that climate change will wreak havoc with food-growing regions, or that we are running out of oil with no ready replacements, and they will default to this model:

Author and blogger John Michael Greer calls these “tweedle-dee” and “tweedle-doom”. One is relentlessly optimistic, the other is apocalyptic, and both have positive-sloped lines. “Onward and upward,” as they say. Aside from motivating some “prepper” behavior, the crash model doesn’t really demand a different outlook on life, because we never know when the crash will arrive, and we can assume that progress will continue on as before right up until the point at which it occurs.

In reality, we know that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet, that space travel is unlikely to change that on any reasonable timescale, and furthermore that fast crashes are extremely uncommon. Perhaps the last one to occur on a global scale happened 65 million years ago, when an asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs and a great many other species.

In the normal course of events, civilizations do not crash overnight. Instead, they reach a peak, decline, and ultimately give rise to new civilizations. The Roman Empire was not built in a day, but neither did it fall in a day. Over a century passed between the first signs of decline and the sack of Rome, and it would be another 75 years after that before the ruling Roman Emperor was deposed.

This cyclic nature of human civilizations is predicated on resource availability, and any attempt to model the future based on these constraints inevitably yields a peak followed by a decline. The first well-known model, released in 1972 when progress had not yet slowed, was published in a book called The Limits To Growth:

The Limits to Growth, 1972

This is, of course, just a model. As my environmental modeling professor used to say, “All models are wrong, some models are useful.” In reality, the peaks are proving to be more prolonged, because “resources” are not simply there until they are gone. Rather, as easily-accessed resources run out, we exploit previously-uneconomical resources like shale oil and lower-grade ores. The advent of fracking did not prove Peak Oil wrong; it just moved the peak onward by 10-15 years. Tar sands may do the same, but at a higher cost which will put a damper on progress even as the peak becomes wider and the early phases of decline are slowed.

We can argue about specifics, but the general conclusions are unavoidable. We have drilled and burned all of the easy oil. We have mined all of the easy ores. Nearly all of the world’s arable land is in agricultural use. Any additional gains will be incremental, and depletion never sleeps. Thus the age of progress has come to its inevitable end, and we just happen to be alive at the beginning of an age of decline.

The slope of decline is, in many ways, up to us. The more we pour limited resources into prolonging progress over the short term, the steeper the downslope will be (though it will still be nothing like the fast crash that doomers imagine). On the other hand, if we can shift to a less resource- and energy-intensive lifestyle, then the slope will be more gradual. The ultimate goal – most likely beyond the lifetime of anyone now alive – is sustainability: a way of life that can be maintained indefinitely, and that neither perpetuates progress nor precipitates future declines.

Last summer, I wrote at length about growing economic inequality: the ever-rising gap in wealth between the highest and lowest classes in society. It is worth revisiting that in the context of the end of progress, because the effect has been that progress has ended at different times for different people based on their position on the socioeconomic spectrum. Standard of living (ratio of income to costs) has been declining for the working classes since around 1990, and increasingly for the middle classes as well since the recession of 2008. Meanwhile, the upper classes have maintained a solid progress trajectory.

This has profound implications for where these groups are at in the process of letting go of the associated religion of Progress, which will be the focus of the next essay. It also reveals a fundamental and extremely harmful shift in the nature of the economy: as overall progress has ground toward a halt, the elites have shifted from profiting more than the lower classes to profiting directly at the expense of the lower classes. Trickle-down theory, which never worked as claimed anyway, is valid only when the entire economy is growing. Once growth stops, the wealthy can only gain through parasitism.

The nature of this shift is quite straightforward: as economic growth slows, returns on direct investment in this growth (e.g. stocks, bonds) shrink. This causes investment money to move toward real estate, land, and loan-backed securities. The “dividend” from these investments is derived not from overall growth, but rather from a direct transfer of wealth out of the pockets of the lower classes in the form of rent or interest. As investors drive up the price of land, commercial buildings, and homes, a greater proportion of farmers, businesses, and residents are locked into a lifetime of rental with no hope of ownership: their would-be profits siphoned off to maintain progress for the investment class.

As older generations were able to purchase homes and real estate at much more reasonable prices and are now cashing in on the increased value, this has increasingly become a generational wealth gap, with “successful” younger people being by and large those lucky enough to inherit wealth or property. This extraction is exacerbated in other ways, such as through pension plans that unwisely guaranteed a set annual rate of return which the market can no longer fulfill, leaving the difference to be made up by a younger generation of workers and taxpayers.

We need to change that – to ensure that progress ends for everyone including the wealthy classes and that everyone is able to reap the rewards of their labor – but first, it seems, we need to ride out the societal shockwaves associated with coming to terms with the end of progress, with the death of the god of Progress. That is proving to be a wilder ride than I expected.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Sustainable Growth is Impossible

What Does the Religion of Progress Really Believe?

“Sustainable growth” was all the rage a few years ago. I don’t hear the phrase so much anymore, which can only be a good thing. It should be patently obvious that growth cannot be sustained. Something can either be growing, or sustaining, but not both. “Sustainable growth” is a futile attempt to bring the concept of sustainability into a world that believes in infinite, indefinite growth, and that stubbornly refuses to contemplate the end of growth. A world, in other words, that believes in Progress.

The word “sustainability” has been neutered by Progress-ites to mean something like “nice”, but I wish to reclaim its original meaning. Sustain-ability. The ability to be sustained. Indefinitely. Sustainability in this sense is effectively the opposite of growth or progress. No matter how much we might wish otherwise, it is impossible to achieve infinite growth on a finite planet.

My goal here is to flesh out the religion of Progress a bit more than in my original table.

The religion of Progress provides answers to existential questions, but it also dictates an approach to life that is best elucidated, I feel, in contrast to a worldview based on true sustainability. Based on my time within both worldviews, I have a fairly good idea of some of these differences, which are expressed in the table below.

Progress

Sustainability

Value of history

The Past Was Bad.
We need not look to
the past for lessons or answers.

The past has much to tell us about what
works well over the
long term and what is ultimately
unsustainable.

Cost/benefit analysis

The benefits of a new technology are assumed to exceed the costs based on simple short-term safety tests, unless or until unequivocally proven otherwise.

The costs of a new technology are assumed to exceed the benefits until all conceivable mechanisms of short-term and long-term harm have been ruled out.

Problem solving

Problems represent opportunities to develop new technology. Technological solutions are prioritized over simpler solutions, especially if the simpler solutions require abandonment of technology.

Problems are usually best solved by addressing their causes, even if this requires cessation of an activity or abandonment of a technology. Technological solutions are likely to cause additional cascading problems.

Decision-making timescale

Implications of decisions are assessed no more than 25-50 years into the future, with the assumption that new technologies will be developed as needed.

Implications of decisions are assessed for at least seven generations.

Product durability

Functionality and cost are prioritized over durability, with the assumption that most buyers will choose to upgrade before a product wears out.

Durability is prioritized to minimize energy input and waste. Many products are passed down from generation to generation.

Medicine

Modern medicine represents a triumph over a dark, disease- and pain-ridden past. Medical interventions should be encouraged whenever possible.

Modern medicine represents rather clumsy tinkering with an incredibly complex system that we do not fully understand. Natural health and wellness should be prioritized whenever possible.

Vaccines

Vaccines are sanctified wards between civilized modern life and the evil, disease-ridden past. As such they are trusted based on limited testing and granted immunity from liability.

Vaccines, like any new technology or medicine, shall not be assumed to have a net benefit until they have been fully tested, alone and in combination, over short- and long-term time-spans.

Externalized costs

Externalized costs of a land-use practice or new technology may be ignored, within the bounds of human and environmental laws.

Externalization of costs is not allowed. All costs must be included in a cost-benefit analysis,

Bioregionalism

Geography does not meaningfully inform culture. Global trade and connectivity can bring any product or idea to any location.

Humans must be rooted in land and community to build reciprocal relationships that can be sustained indefinitely.

Value of elders

Elders possess largely obsolete knowledge, skills, and ideas. They should be safely cared for and visited occasionally.

Elders possess essential wisdom gleaned from a lifetime of experience. They should be respected and consulted when making decisions.

It is clear to me that the religion of Progress is not merely reaching the end of its useful life; it is actively preventing us from building a more sustainable world. Just as sustainable progress is impossible, so too is sustainability within the religious framework of Progress. The values are too often at odds. Should we wish to move toward sustainability, we will need to find new answers to our existential questions. Answers rooted not in the egoic godhood of human intelligence but in reciprocal relationships with the living world we inhabit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment