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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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An Apostate from the Religion of Progress

I am an apostate from the religion of Progress. I left it behind seven years ago, though in reality it is more like ten. There was a period of time when I went through the motions but no longer believed. My aim here is to declare that it is well past time for all of us to abandon this religion, but first I will tell my story.

My father was not a Progress-ite. He was, in fact, so much the opposite that he got strange looks of the type reserved for “backwards” folks, even in our rural community. We collected rainwater for bathing. We heated it on the stove for washing dishes, the water heater having failed before I was born and my father having decided it was an unnecessary and wasteful convenience. We grew much of our own food, in a labor-intensive “triple-dig” garden plot system. We cut and split our own firewood, which kept our house warm through Minnesota winter. We built a lot and purchased little. All of our trash fit in one carload for our annual trip to the landfill.

We were objectively poor, but it didn’t feel that way to me. Our joy was in the warblers, in the juncos, in the wood thrushes. Our joy was in the garden harvests, in the prairie wildflowers, in the autumn scents of fresh-fallen leaves, in the glide of skates on clear river ice. Our joy was in annual family traditions, in holiday meals, in songs sung around summer evening bonfires with fireflies a-glimmer and whip-poor-wills calling in the distance. This was a wonderful environment in which to come of age, and my spirituality became, in a sense, Earth-based. Earth-based, but with some metaphysical aspects as well that were also part of my upbringing, that I won’t go into here. I felt like I belonged, like it was enough just to be present and to fully experience life. That has always been part of me, so perhaps I have never truly been a Progress-ite. Perhaps I cannot comprehend how difficult this current crisis of faith is for those for whom Progress is their dominant religion, those who claim to believe in science, those who do not have alternative answers to existential questions, waiting beneath the surface.

Progress found me though, as it finds many people. My curiosity about the natural world drew me toward science, and science – as an institution – believes in Progress. As science and traditional religion became polarized over the last couple of centuries, scientists adopted alternative answers to existential questions, and one of the results – it seems – was the collection of existential beliefs that constitutes the religion of Progress. My scientific education led to a personal crisis of faith, as the predominant materialist atheism of the scientific community clashed with my own spirituality. This reached a sort of compromise, in which I found my own answers more satisfying in terms of understanding who I am and why I’m here, while also accepting the preeminence of science in understanding and improving our physical reality. You might say that I added a Progress overlay.

I very nearly started a career in ornithology or wildlife science, but ultimately I felt that the world needed solutions to impending problems more than it needed a better understanding of biology. I had long had an abiding interest in alternative energy, so I followed a wild idea about photosynthetic hydrogen production into a PhD program at Oregon State.

In the course of my studies, I became intimately acquainted with the state of the science of photobiological hydrogen production, as well as hydrogen energy and renewable energy more generally. I designed, funded, and executed a successful research project aiming to create a proof-of-concept metabolic switch to transition cyanobacteria from a growth phase to a hydrogen-production phase. I became the president of the OSU Hydrogen Club, built a hydrogen-powered bike, and watched children play with remote-control hydrogen cars at the town’s summer celebration. I gave presentations on hydrogen energy to various organizations.

After a year or two, however, I found that I could no longer believe that any of this had real potential to save the world. It seemed that very intelligent scientists had ideological blind spots when it came to life-cycle analysis, net energy, and economic feasibility. Some challenges, or “opportunities for future research”, seemed potentially insurmountable, likely to be outside the realm of biochemical possibility, with millions of dollars of research failing to make meaningful advances or else revealing problematic trade-offs.

Advances in our lab – and similar labs around the world – were heralded in the media as breakthroughs on the way to a clean energy future of green living solar panels and carbon-neutral cities. Meanwhile, many of the most critical and quite-likely-insurmountable barriers to implementation were not even addressed, as they were deemed economic technicalities to be considered once the basic science was figured out.

I don’t want to get too technical here, but I’ll give a couple of examples:

  1. Hydrogen is an energy carrier – like a battery – rather than an energy source. Renewable electricity is converted to hydrogen via electrolysis, and then hydrogen is converted back to electricity via fuel cells. The round-trip efficiency of this process is, at best, around 40%. This is before accounting for the energy required to hyper-compress or liquefy the hydrogen in order to store a useful amount in a reasonable volume, after which that efficiency drops to 30% or less, as well as the infrastructure build-out required to distribute hydrogen. Batteries as energy carriers achieve round-trip efficiencies exceeding 90%, but somehow hydrogen fuel cells received enough hype to be marketed as the wave of the future.
  2. The best short-term biosolar hydrogen conversion efficiencies achieved in a lab were around 1%. Biochemists theorized that this could potentially be pushed to 10%. Assuming the ultimate goal was to create electricity from fuel cells, the value of electricity produced from photobioreactors or green living solar panels at 10% efficiency would be around $0.03 per square meter per day. All of the materials, cell culture media and maintenance, hydrogen collection/purification/storage apparatus, and fuel cells would need to cost this amount in order to make any sense. This is quite clearly impossible. Standard solar panels make economic sense because they achieve higher efficiencies and require essentially zero maintenance over a 20-30 year life. A biological system would be far more complex and require frequent attention.

It took a while for this to dampen my enthusiasm; it was too easy to join in the excitement at conferences and to give hopeful interviews to journalists. And yet something inside tugged at me and said this isn’t science. Science doesn’t doggedly pursue dead ends and pour millions of dollars into researching non-solutions. Instead of the frontiers of science and engineering, I had joined a religious community more intent on bringing a Star Trek future to life than on pursuing solutions with any hope of success.

As I realized this, I began to discover scientists outside the Progress bubble. Scientists who pointed out that there would be no silver bullets. That energy-positive nuclear fusion was likely impossible. That energy research had long since entered a phase of diminishing returns, with lots of hype but minimal likelihood for real breakthroughs. That massive investments in wind, solar, and hydropower would help but that our society would ultimately need to use less energy as fossil fuels dwindled.

This was, at first, depressing. I grieved the shiny new future that I had so recently believed in, that would never come to pass. I left behind the religion of Progress, finding that I could no longer believe and at the same time that I no longer had the same level of respect for scientists. Many scientists, it turned out, were not objective seekers of knowledge. Though they envisioned themselves as such, they were instead devout believers in an ideology of Progress that blinded them to clear understanding. Their press-release promises of breakthroughs just around the bend were preventing us from confronting our real dilemma: how to transition from an age of endless progress to an age of confrontation with physical limits.

This was depressing until I considered the full implications of unlimited progress. The essay I Do Not Wish to Live on Coruscant marked a turning point for me, when I realized that unlimited progress, perhaps led by a fusion energy breakthrough, could only lead to a world that I would not want to live in. Since that time I have embraced the idea of a world of limits. Though the years ahead may be comparably more painful, I take great solace in the fact that natural resource limits will likely prevent Homo sapiens from completely destroying the biosphere of planet Earth.

With my belief in Progress shattered, I no longer had any desire to work at the cutting edge of technology, pursuing diminishing returns and marketing them to a Progress-believer populace eager to get a little closer to their Star Trek dreams. I returned to my roots for a time, working in the soil with the sun and rain on my back, growing and harvesting seeds, which would multiply themselves a thousand times over in fields and gardens around the nation and world: an evolved miracle of biology thousands of times more complex than anything our best minds could create, and yet somehow viewed as backwards and old-fashioned.

I am a tinkerer by nature, a thinker, a synthesizer of ideas. I wish to help our society adapt to an age of limits, to exist harmoniously within the constraints of Earth’s biosphere. I wish to build resilient communities, disconnecting from complex and fragile global supply chains. I wish to pursue appropriate technology rather than high technology. I feel that we need less high tech innovation and more distillation and winnowing: seeking among the vast repertoire of human knowledge for those technologies, skills, and ideas that will be most beneficial in an age of limits, an age of decline, an age – ultimately – of sustainability. Perhaps it is not surprising that I find myself building winnowers.

I am not sure yet where this intellectual exercise will lead me. I have felt called to write often over the last year. Perhaps one day I will publish it. I do wish, in a sense, to wake people up. To wake people up from neoliberal capitalism, from the fear-ridden media-driven narrative matrix, from our divided politics. But perhaps most importantly, to wake people up from the religion of Progress. From my current perspective, I see believers in Progress investing in the latest gadgetry and electric cars as infrastructure declines, as wallets grow lighter, as electricity becomes less reliable. I see other believers in Progress building bunkers and preparing for a crash that will never come, preparing to rise from the ashes and begin Progress anew. I see believers in Progress experiencing a crisis of faith as a pandemic reminds us that we are mortal animals, and that infectious disease will always be with us. And all of these choices use up scarce resources that could be used to build resilience and prepare to face the limits and challenges ahead.

I understand, though, that letting go of a belief in Progress will be hard. It was hard enough for me, even with my underlying answers to existential questions. It will be harder for those who derive meaning and identity from Progress, who see our manifest destiny among the stars, or in the digital realm, as a reason to be alive, a pinnacle of our evolution. And yet I believe it will be necessary. Because progress, small “p”, is coming to an end.

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A Crisis of Faith

For most of the past year my writings have focused on escaping from the dominant narrative, which is largely shaped by those who have wealth and power and is designed to distract and prevent the rest of us from staging a real confrontation with that power.

At the same time, I have occasionally offered my perspectives on the Covid-19 pandemic, and I am thoroughly convinced that much of the world reacted in a highly irrational manner: imposing severe restrictions on society that are almost certain to cause greater long-term harm and loss of life than the virus itself, and then doubling down on those restrictions even when it became clear that they had little to no effect on viral transmission. Furthermore, the level of fear surrounding a virus that killed at most one out of 350 people was, quite frankly, shocking to me.

The prevailing narrative among those who oppose the mainstream Covid story is that our overreaction constitutes an extreme form of disaster capitalism, as described in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. In short, governments and corporations magnify, exploit, and sometimes even create crises and states of emergency in order to consolidate power and enact legislation that curbs personal freedoms. In many ways, the shoe fits. Covid lockdowns have greatly enriched the billionaire class while resulting in the closure of thousands of small businesses. Klaus Schwab and others associated with the World Economic Forum are on tape saying that the Covid crisis represents a window of opportunity to carry out the “Great Reset,” which in many ways amounts to corporatist feudalism. Censorship is ratcheting rapidly upward, along with restrictions on movement and freedom of assembly.

All of this may be true, and yet I don’t believe that it tells the whole story. It may even be harmful, in that it gives the narrative managers more power than they deserve, and thereby can make the rest of us feel like manipulated pawns. It inspires us to blame others for fear that is ultimately within ourselves, and thereby to avoid looking too deeply at where that fear is coming from.

Looking back over the past 15 months, it is clear that the fear surrounding Covid was not entirely, or perhaps even primarily, a top-down phenomenon. This was not like Saddam’s nonexistent WMDs, where people were only afraid because they were told repeatedly by authority figures that they ought to be. When the virus began spreading in communities and countries, citizens begged their government experts to tell them what they could do to stay safe from this new threat. Those few brave epidemiologists, like Sweden’s Anders Tegnell, whose training and experience taught them that the wisest course likely was to focus on protecting the most vulnerable while allowing the virus to spread and build immunity, faced intense criticism not just from would-be controllers but from millions of everyday people. And I’m far from convinced that this happened because those everyday people were brainwashed into being fearful by powerful narrative manipulators.

Woven throughout the Covid saga has been a theme of science-as-religion. Results and even predictive modelling rapidly crystallized into dogmatic truth, at which point no amount of countervailing evidence had any effect, much to the frustration of many actual scientists. Masks Save Lives (based on a few small studies, but not well supported by epidemiological evidence or past research with other respiratory viruses). Lockdowns Save Lives (despite the fact that later comparisons found no correlation between severity of restrictions and level of illness/death). The Vaccines Are Completely Safe (even though they are based on a novel technology and have been tested less than any other vaccines in recent history). And so on…

It is this religious element that deserves more attention, because the Covid-19 pandemic represents in many ways a crisis of faith. In order to discuss this, however, we need to expand our definition of religion. We need to understand that it is impossible for human beings to exist without religion, because religion is ultimately not about belief or disbelief in God or gods. It is, rather, about the way in which we answer deep questions about the nature of our existence, and we cannot comfortably exist without answers to those questions. I have written about this before, and I offer this excerpt from my 2017 essay, Sustainable Religion and a Society in Crisis:

Religion means many things to different people.  In its strictest sense, it refers to codified systems of spiritual belief and practice.  However, each person must inevitably come to a sense of identity, regardless of whether they subscribe to a formal “religion.”  For the purposes of this discussion, I will define “religion” as a system of beliefs or vision of reality that seeks to answer the following three questions:


Who are we?
Why are we here?
Why do bad things happen?


It is important here to note that a concept of “God”, or even a concept of a supernatural force, is not required to answer these questions.  It may seem strange that I choose to lump secular philosophies in with religion, but I hold that these philosophies ultimately serve the same purpose in terms of helping believers make sense of, and choose to interact with, the world we inhabit.


Ignoring a great many traditions that do not fit this mold, I find it useful to divide answers to these questions into three main groups:  Earth-based religions, major monotheistic religions (e.g. Islam, Judaism, Christianity), and beliefs rooted in modern technology.  I will call these groups, respectively, Earth, God, and Progress.

In that essay, I also attempted to outline the way in which these three classes of religions answer these three existential questions:

It is clear to me that a significant proportion of people alive today, including many who subscribe to God-based religions, are believers in Progress. Last summer I wrote a series of essays unpacking the problems with neoliberal economics, which was made more difficult by the fact that the prevailing culture has eschewed any descriptive name for this economic system, preferring instead to simply see it as “the way things work.” Similarly, most people who believe in Progress will deny any such thing, claiming instead to be secular and to “follow the science.” It is difficult to discuss important concepts for which we do not have widely accepted language. Nevertheless, I feel strongly that much of our irrational response to Covid-19 is rooted in a widespread belief in Progress.


A few days ago, a college acquaintance posted the following on his Facebook page:

Nothing betrays an absolute inability to think like idealizing pre-modern life, yes it was very simple and idyllic and if the harvest failed half your kids died. I feel like this is kind of true for people who idealize farm life as well.

To which I replied that nothing betrays an inability to think like freaking out and shutting down society over a virus that kills at most one out of 350 people, and he responded with:

Well, I reckon anyone who wants to move to the middle of Alaska to live a pre-modern lifestyle is welcome to do it. Heck, they even got whole TV shows where they tell some Boy Scout type that he/she can have a million dollars if he can live alone in the wilderness off the grid for a month. And a lot of them don’t make it. But it is entertaining to see the poor dang fools try to earn their spurs.

I have had other interactions like this, in which someone attempts to make a moral point by stating that The Past Was Bad. It might be famine, or smallpox, or human slavery, or bloodletting, or witch-burning, or surgery without antibiotics or anesthetics, or any number of things, but the point is to inform me in no uncertain terms that I have committed a cardinal sin by suggesting that some technology or practice from the past might be preferable to one currently in use.

I might, of course, respond with a note about cluster bombs, or Mutually Assured Destruction, or climate change, or sky-high rates of depression and addiction, or consumerism, or CAFOs, or outsourcing jobs to sweatshops overseas. But this inevitably falls on deaf ears, because The Past Was Bad, period, end of story. This is not a statement of reasoned assessment; it is a statement of religious conviction, akin to “Jesus died for our sins” or “Satan is evil.”

That’s not to say that I believe the past was especially good; rather, I don’t assign morality to the dimension of time. That was then, this is now, and we are just people doing the best that we can when we happen to be alive. Sometimes going back to an older way of doing things can have benefits, sometimes modern technology has clear advantages.

With this in mind, I can add a fourth column to my comparative religion table: What is the domain of evil?

In Earth-based religions, evil lurks in particular physical places: in dark forests, in deep lakes, in treacherous swamps. There are places where one ought not to go, or ought to tread very carefully.

In God-based religions, evil lurks in our thoughts, or in a spiritual dimension accessible to our thoughts. Those who are evil have succumbed to the temptation of the devil, or have made choices to ignore the will of God.

In the religion of Progress, evil exists primarily along a temporal dimension. The Past Was Bad, the present is better, and the future will be awesome.

It is perhaps not surprising that many affirmations that The Past Was Bad are medical in nature, because it is through treating and preventing formerly fatal conditions that technological progress has been most god-like. Prayer typically failed to prevent smallpox and polio, but vaccines could. Prayer failed to prevent death from an infected wound, but antibiotics could. It is indisputably true that advances in medical science – mostly in the post World War II era – prolonged human life and reduced physical suffering.

Although I have not read a historical analysis of belief in Progress, my impression is that it is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to the 1940s-50s. Prior to that time, people appreciated technological advances – steamships, railroads, electricity, personal vehicles – but they did not, on the whole, believe in them or allow technological progress to give meaning or value to their lives. That has changed in recent generations. Belief in traditional religions declined, and belief in Progress exploded. Antibiotics and vaccines were heralded as reasons to believe, praised by those who preached the gospel. Historical timelines were conveniently rearranged and cherry-picked to progress linearly from the barbaric past to the civilized future, from ape to cave man to farmer to office worker, from cannibal to slaver to proponent of human equality. As any scholar of history knows, this simplistic vision brushes aside the rise and fall of many great civilizations, with repeated movements toward and away from societal complexity and human equality.

In place of heaven, Progress-ites constructed a Star Trek vision of the future, with humans moving into space, across the Solar System, and ultimately across the galaxy, communicating instantly across vast distances, tapping into effectively infinite energy sources, curing any disease, and ultimately overcoming death itself through medical technology, or cryogenics, or uploading consciousness to a digital brain.

In place of hell, Progress-ites constructed a disease-ridden, barbaric past in which life was nasty, brutish, and short, and to which we must never, ever return. Those who chose not to follow the latest technologies, who preferred a simpler, more rural lifestyle, were regarded as “backwards” unbelievers and therefore unworthy of respect.

In the seventy years or so since this vision unfolded, we have made it to the moon a few times, not yet in-person to Mars (which, it turns out, would be a rather boring and inhospitable place to live), and we have more or less concluded that interstellar travel violates the laws of physics. We got the Internet (instant global communication), but not the infinite energy, and in fact it is becoming clear that available energy will be declining in the near future. We got life-extending medicine, but so far no hope of overcoming mortality, and at the cost of devoting almost 20% of our economic output to the medical industry while also ensuring that a greater proportion of people live to a ripe old age, thereby experiencing a greater proportion of our lives in a state of decrepitude. In short, we got technological progress, but dictated more by the limits of physical reality than by our grandiose religious vision.

As a result of the widening schism between the future we have been promised and the future we are actually getting, the religion of Progress is experiencing a crisis of faith on a massive scale. This can, from my perspective, help to explain many problematic aspects of our current existence, from Trumpism to growing wealth inequality to irrational decision-making to censorship. That will be the focus of another essay. For now, though, I want to examine the Covid-19 pandemic through the lens of a crisis of faith in the religion of Progress.

Covid-19 is the first major pandemic of the age of Progress. As pandemics go, it is relatively mild, killing at most one out of every 350 people and increasing all-cause deaths by 5-15%. From an epidemiological perspective, global pandemics are inevitable, as viruses continually evolve and cross species boundaries. The natural recurrence interval for a pandemic of this magnitude appears to be somewhere on the order of 50 years.

From the perspective of Progress-ites, however, this disease is quite literally a bat-virus-out-of-hell – hell being, in this case, the evil past inhabited by deadly infectious diseases that have been tamed by modern technology. Therefore we must Do Something. We must create a vaccine as quickly as possible, and we must all do our part to stop the spread until that point. This perspective helps to explain the level of fear. It helps to explain the level of religious commitment to actions – like wearing cloth masks – which we firmly believe are effective even in the absence of convincing scientific evidence. It helps to explain the level of vitriol hurled at Anders Tegnell and other epidemiologists who suggested that working carefully toward natural population immunity would be the wisest course of action. Asking a Progress-ite to allow an infectious disease to spread is akin to asking a Christian to welcome a Satanic temple to their town, or asking a pagan to move to Mirkwood Forest. To do nothing, in the face of an infectious disease, is blasphemous. It is anathema to the core of their beliefs. It Must Not Be Allowed. Those who suggest otherwise must be silenced.

This perspective also helps to explain the narrative of how horribly horrible Covid deaths are. The numbers are compared, with no sense of irony whatsoever, to deaths from terrorist attacks, mass murder, and war. They are never compared to deaths from cancer, or heart disease, or dementia. The virus, from within the Progress narrative, is evil, and anyone who knowingly allows it to spread, or fails to take largely faith-based precautions, or – heaven forbid – infects someone else, is evil by association. Unforgivably evil like terrorists or murderers. As an apostate from the religion of Progress, I find this all very strange. Most deaths are prolonged and unpleasant, and Covid is nowhere near the top. I watched my father wither away, in severe pain, from metastatic bone cancer over six months. I watched my grandmother slowly lose her ability to recognize her family, her husband, even to move or feed herself from Alzheimer’s over six long years. I would wager that if I could ask either of them, in the afterlife, if they would have preferred to die of a 2-3 week respiratory infection, they would probably say yes in a heartbeat.

This perspective further helps to explain who is especially concerned about Covid and who isn’t. There is a significant overlap between self-styled “progressives” and Progress-ites. And indeed fear has been highest in the places that have most deeply embraced the religion of Progress: the liberal cities, the “blue” states, academia, the tech industry. Meanwhile fear has been lowest in the rural hinterlands, in working-class neighborhoods, in (God-based) religious communities. People who do not subscribe to the ideology of Progress are, it seems, much more able to rationally weigh the risks and to make decisions accordingly. It is possible, in this context, to view the culture wars between the Covid-afraid and the Covid-unafraid as a sort of ideological crusade pitting the righteous (who perform the appropriate banishing rituals in public) against those who would invite the devil into their homes, who see no evil and fear no evil. That might be taking the analogy a bit far, but I think it is important to understand the role that belief plays in shaping our individual Covid reactions, and the role that the religion of Progress plays in shaping that belief.

This isn’t to say that the disaster-capitalism approach to understanding Covid is wrong. Personally I find it equally compelling. It is entirely possible that a belief in Progress leads to an irrational fear of evil infectious disease and a demand for savior vaccines, and also that this fear is exploited by governments and corporations wishing for greater influence and control. It seems likely that the media are intentionally choosing to promote fear, as they nearly always do, while at the same time they are acting more as fear-enhancers than fear-creators, with the fear already latent within Progress-ites. It also seems likely that the elite, the ultra-wealthy, the Davos crowd are themselves devout believers in Progress, in which case their authoritarian lockdown recommendations may be rooted as much in their own fear as in a conscious desire to manipulate society for their ends.

The religion of Progress has a fatal flaw, which is that its heaven and hell (future and past) are entirely within the physical world, and therefore (unlike, say, Christianity) disprovable by physical events. In brief, Progress requires underlying progress. And as progress stutters to a halt, energy availability declines, and pandemics continue to circulate, Progress-ites will experience increasing cognitive dissonance and ongoing crises of faith. They will likely engage in panicked, irrational, and sometimes violent behavior. Eventually they will abandon Progress and seek other answers to life’s existential questions. And depending on what answers they find, the world may or may not be a saner place. But regardless of what comes next, I think it is safe to say that belief in Progress will be an increasingly untenable choice moving forward.


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Covid-19, Ideological Truth, and Moving Beyond Fear

It is time for me to once again talk about Covid-19. Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that it is a real and sometimes harrowing illness that can and does cause death and lasting damage. I would not wish it on anyone. When I question the official fear-narrative, it is not because I value the economy over human lives, or my personal freedom over others’ personal safety. Those are narratives projected onto me and others like me by the official narrative, in order to discredit us and subject us to judgment.

When I question the official fear-narrative, it is because I feel strongly that it does not stand up to careful scrutiny. The measures prescribed to stop the spread do not, on the whole, appear to be effective. This is immediately clear when comparing states and countries which have and have not adopted these measures for periods of time, and it is a topic that the official narrative carefully avoids. Furthermore, the metrics used to publicize mortality and risk seem designed to vastly inflate the danger. In surveys, nearly everyone exhibits a level of concern out of proportion to their personal risk.

I don’t listen to mainstream news, nor do I read their websites. Their fearmongering put me off from the beginning. Instead, I follow pandemic data directly: published summaries of deaths and hospitalizations from Covid-19 from states and the CDC. I follow independent analysts who examine trends in Covid deaths, all-cause deaths, and deaths likely attributable to lockdowns (loneliness, mental illness, suicide).

Personally, I mostly stopped worrying about Covid-19 after it passed through my godmother’s senior living complex without major incident. Out of 36 women mostly in their 80s, eleven tested positive, three had symptoms, and one was hospitalized and recovered. Perhaps they were lucky, but those odds seemed a lot closer to the flu than to the Black Death, and they also matched the statistics I was seeing. Even among vulnerable groups, Covid is still largely survivable and often not even severe.

That’s not to say that no precautions are warranted, but it is worth questioning at what level these precautions should be determined. Federal? State? Local? Maybe even the residents of a senior living complex should be allowed to decide for themselves how careful they want to be? During the last major pandemic, in 1918-1919 (which was several times worse than Covid-19 and also killed many children and young adults), people had many of the same debates regarding masks and business closures, but nearly all of them happened at the local level. Then-president Woodrow Wilson never even mentioned the pandemic, focused as he was on national defense during World War I.

It seems to me that one’s level of comfort with disease risk is a personal decision, and when that risk extends to others (in interpersonal interactions, or in terms of hospital capacity) it becomes a community decision. A city-level decision. A county-level decision. In the beginning, perhaps, when there is a chance of keeping a new disease out of a nation, then it should be a federal matter, but once it is firmly entrenched with no real hope of eradication then it becomes a personal and local matter. A useful federal government would seek to support its citizens in making personal choices to stay healthy – perhaps by deploying the military or national guard during outbreaks to fill essential service roles while offering paid vacation to vulnerable elders who normally work those jobs. An authoritarian federal government – like many around the world and increasingly our own – would instead enact a bunch of emergency laws and criminalize or stigmatize citizens who break them, while doing little of substance to support vulnerable or impoverished people in their own health choices.

The whole Covid saga is full of ideological truths that are either oversimplifications or are largely unsupported by real-world evidence. It’s worth asking exactly how that occurred – is it some sort of conspiracy or is it simply what happens when a new virus appears and spreads rapidly around the globe, with an apparently-high mortality rate (due to only testing the most seriously ill), and the panels of experts at the WHO and CDC need to make decisions with insufficient information? Perhaps these “experts” know that they over-reacted, but given the level of fear in the population and their need to keep their “expert” status they can’t admit that now? I don’t really need to know how it happened. I just want it to end.

It seems certain to me that if we had understood the full risk profile of Covid-19 from the beginning, our governments would never have enacted the suite of emergency measures begun last spring. In particular, we now know that governments that never imposed lockdowns on their citizens (e.g. Sweden) did not experience significantly more illness and death than countries with strict lockdowns (e.g. Spain, UK), and also that states that relaxed all pandemic measures early (e.g. Florida) did not experience a higher rate of illness or death in the ensuing wave than states that maintained and strengthened such measures (e.g. New York, California). We also know that no state or country, regardless of control measures, has yet experienced an overall Covid mortality rate greater than 3000 per million – or three out of every 1000 people, or one out of 350. Most places have been closer to half that number – one out of 700.


Take a minute, if you will, to set aside all of the events and news stories of the past year and a half. Imagine that you live in a small town in the pre-Internet age, population 350, with a tight-knit community and people of all ages. As the town is gathered for their annual summer celebration, an official government vehicle drives up and a man gets out, demanding an urgent audience with the entire town.

He faces the crowd of 350 people solemnly and begins to speak.

There is a new and deadly virus among you.

If you do not act, one among your number will likely be dead by the time a year has passed, in addition to the four or so people who will die of natural causes during that time. In all likelihood, the one who succumbs will be elderly and already seriously ill.

More than half of you will be infected. Some will not even know it. For some it will be like a mild cold. For many it will be rather unpleasant – like a bad flu that lasts 1-2 weeks. Around five of you will develop pneumonia and require medical treatment. Up to ten of you may experience longer-term symptoms after recovery – fatigue and a changed sense of smell are most common – and for one or two these symptoms may become chronic.

In order to prevent this death and disease, you must change your lives effective immediately. All school buildings will be closed for a year, and children will learn at home. All restaurants must transition to take-out only. All nonessential travel is strongly discouraged. All work that can be done remotely must be done from home, with offices closed. Thirty of you will be out of work effective tomorrow.

All public events must be cancelled. There will be no celebrations like this one, no sporting events, no dances, no big weddings, no funeral gatherings for a year. People from different households must remain six feet apart whenever possible, and masks must be worn over the mouth and nose in all indoor environments away from home. In-home gatherings must be limited to two households, wearing masks.

All close contact with people outside your immediate household, including hugs, kisses, sex, holding hands, dancing, and singing will be strongly discouraged or prohibited.

Hands should be washed as often as possible, or sanitized with alcohol. Avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes.

Visits to elder care facilities and hospitals will be strictly prohibited. All who are ill and dying in this time will have those experiences alone. This is unfortunate but necessary for your safety.

We assure you that if you take these actions you will be safe. We make this assurance despite evidence that communities that take all of these actions often experience comparable levels of illness and death to those who simply adhere to standard flu season hygiene recommendations.

After a year we will return with a vaccine. We assure you that this vaccine will be safe and effective. However, we will still discourage vaccinated people from resuming normal activities because some level of viral spread remains possible. Furthermore, this vaccine will utilize a new technology not previously deployed in vaccines, and will have been tested in a small group of volunteers for around six months before we are confident that it is safe enough to be given to everyone on the planet.

We trust that you find this approach reasonable, and we kindly request your cooperation, for your own safety. Good night.

At which point the crowd probably erupts in a mixture of laughter and anger, picks up their pitchforks and canes, and chases the poor fellow back to his car, with a stern message that any government which dares to impose such madness has no authority in this town.


The disconnect between the narrative and reality here is so extreme that I find it difficult to operate in both worlds. I understand that most of these actions were initiated at a time when we thought we might be dealing with a much more dangerous virus, and when we thought that a lockdown could drive cases to zero in a few weeks at which point we could more or less return to normal. But it turned out that we were dealing with a virus that killed around 1 in 200 people it infected, that it primarily killed those who were already approaching natural death, and furthermore that no amount of lockdown could drive cases to zero, and reopening didn’t seem to result in a sudden case spike either.

We realized all of these things, but we were still afraid. A few small studies showed that masks might be effective, so we made them mandatory as a condition of reopening businesses. When later studies and comparisons between masked/unmasked communities revealed little to no effect on a larger scale, we pretended that didn’t matter and continued to believe that our masks were keeping us safe.

The amount of ideological truth in play here is immense, to the point where I imagine the cognitive dissonance must soon begin to break under the strain. This is not unprovable ideological truth regarding the existence of God or when exactly during fetal development human life begins. This is ideological truth that is directly contradicted by observable physical reality. And yet somehow it persists.

Ideological truth: Covid-19 is a uniquely dangerous virus with a catastrophic death toll.

Physical truth: Covid-19 is substantially less deadly than the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, which was itself vastly less deadly than earlier smallpox and bubonic plague pandemics. It is true that in the vaccine and antibiotic era we are no longer willing to accept large death tolls from infectious disease. That said, the way that deaths have been reported (as raw numbers for a country of 330 million people), and the way that these numbers have been compared to wars and terrorist attacks, seems unnecessarily designed to inspire fear. A nationwide death count of 550,000 can be equally represented as 1 out of every 600 people, which better matches most people’s lived experience of knowing one or two people who have died of Covid-19 over the course of the pandemic. It is also true that only one out of nine people who died in the US in 2020 died of Covid-19 – a 13% increase in all-cause mortality.

Ideological truth: Covid-19 deaths would be much higher if we hadn’t locked down.

Physical truth: This is possibly true for places that used a temporary lockdown as part of an early and effective strategy to prevent the virus from becoming widespread, including New Zealand and Australia.  It is almost certainly untrue for places that experienced a significant outbreak including New York, California, and the UK.  The primary evidence for this is simply that places that did not lock down (e.g. Sweden) or that lifted restrictions entirely (e.g. Florida) did not end up with runaway case growth, overflowing hospitals, or even comparably higher death rates.

Ideological Truth: Masks prevent transmission.

Physical Truth: Small studies have shown that masks should be effective in preventing transmission, but epidemiological data have failed to reveal a consistent and dramatic difference in viral transmission and prevalence between locations with and without mask mandates. If masks do have a real-world effect, the magnitude of that effect is likely small, in the range of 20% or less. Which means that while they may not be useless, masks are hardly the magic shields that we believe them to be, nor are maskless people the walking biohazards that religious mask-wearers believe them to be.

Ideological Truth: There is no effective treatment or prevention for Covid-19.

Physical Truth: There are several promising options which have – for inexplicable and quite likely profit-oriented reasons – never been examined in sufficient depth to be endorsed by the WHO or FDA. A constantly-updated meta-analysis of small studies and clinical reports reveals, for example, that ivermectin treatment is correlated with a 76% reduction in Covid-19 mortality while hydroxychloroquine treatment, if applied early, is correlated with a 64% improvement in mortality. It has also been observed that people who have adequate to high vitamin D levels very seldom suffer from severe illness, and that treatment with vitamin D appears (based on small studies) to reduce mortality by around 69%. These are dramatic and repeatable effects that warrant the same level of investment being applied to designer drugs and vaccines, in order to establish whether and under what circumstances these treatments are effective. Instead, the response of the medical establishment has been to identify at least one study showing no effect which is then cited as definitive proof and a reason to avoid further investigation. In the case of hydroxychloroquine, there was even a study purportedly showing no effect published in a leading journal that was later retracted for using questionable data. Clinical trials are complete or ongoing for a wide variety of “repurposed” medicines (developed for other conditions and used to treat Covid-19), and several show preliminary mortality reductions in the 90% range – rivaling the reported effectiveness of vaccines.

Ideological Truth: Covid-19 vaccines are safe and effective.

Physical Truth: This could well turn out to be true (and I certainly hope it does), but it is being marketed with a level of confidence that borders on religious faith and is far from justified by the science. All three of the vaccines released in the US so far utilize novel technologies (mRNA and viral vectors) that have not been previously employed in widely-available shots. While clinical trials (and emerging real-world data) have found them to be effective at preventing severe disease and also reasonably well tolerated (albeit with substantially stronger side effects than most vaccines to the point that recipients are advised to take a day off of work), we do not yet know anything about their long-term safety or effectiveness because no human being has yet lived for more than a year since receiving the vaccine. A typical vaccine development timeline requires 5-10 years before receiving FDA approval. The Covid-19 vaccines are not FDA approved via the normal process but were instead released under an “emergency authorization.” To claim that these vaccines are as safe as any other vaccine is to claim that the standard 5-10 year testing and approval timeframe is totally unnecessary, which would be absurd. The only honest statement here is that the vaccines proved to be safe and effective in limited short-term clinical trials, but that the level of certainty remains low particularly with regard to long-term immunity or long-term adverse effects.


As we become mired in ideological truth, our societies become less able to respond to the crises of our time, even as an effective response becomes increasingly critical. We remain one small radar error or human miscalculation away from a global nuclear war that would threaten all lives, and yet we confidently scrap our nuclear treaties while cowering in fear and shutting down society over a virus that will be a barely-observable blip in the mortality tables of our history books. Fifty years from now, historical journalists will be much more likely to write about “The Covid-19 Panic of 2020” than “The Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020.”

Global capitalism continues to drive the planet and the working classes into the ground, and Covid-19 has given us another great distraction – a reason to hunker down and fear for our personal safety, a reason to ask the corporate experts for protection rather than to demand their resignation, a reason to shift our buying habits from small-town businesses to multinational online retailers. Whether produced intentionally or not, the fear narrative surrounding Covid-19 serves the interests of the corporate elite – in distraction from grassroots campaigns, in eliminating competition, in moving us away from democracy and toward an authoritarian state.

I have come to believe that if we are going to break free from this madness, we must reclaim control of the narrative. The corporate media – whether left or right – has effectively become propaganda that seeks to keep us afraid, keep us wishing for protection and willing to support emergency measures to achieve it, prevent us from looking within ourselves and becoming the people we wish to be, prevent us from mounting effective opposition to the disempowerment, wealth inequality, and ecological destruction wrought by global capitalism.

We must stop looking outward for truth. If we continue looking for truth out there somewhere, when we give up on NPR and CNN we become vulnerable to InfoWars and QAnon. I would not be at all surprised to learn that QAnon was an intentional dead-end cleverly devised to lure would-be truth seekers away from confrontation with real power.

We need to start trusting in ourselves, in our communities. Linking those communities together to rebuild democracy from the ground up. To put candidates on the ballot who are not beholden to corporate dollars, and who will put the interests of ordinary people first.

We need to stop seeing each other as biohazards, as potential threats. That, in and of itself, is immensely distancing and immensely destructive to the sort of community-building that is needed to enact change. This can’t just be a carefully managed reopening, along the lines of “fully vaccinated people may now meet in groups of up to 25 without masks.” At some point it must instead be a wholesale rejection of the fear mentality – “we are going to live our lives as we choose, thank you very much, rules and guidelines be damned.” We cannot enact the change we need while we are afraid – especially if we fear each other more than we fear the corporate authoritarians making the rules.

It always comes down to fear, it seems. Fear drives us apart, makes us open to suggestion. Trust brings us together, builds strong movements from the ground up. If we are to change this crazy world for the better, we must somehow let go of fear and rebuild trust. And we must do this in the face of manipulative systems that are doing their level best to keep us afraid. That’s a tall order, yet somehow I remain hopeful.

Into a new day I go. Into a new day we go. Together.

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