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Imagining a Post Pandemic World

How might a post-pandemic world look and feel? Let’s imagine a creative team at a New York City advertising agency pitching a campaign in 2050 for a new perfume (more than most products, perfumes are sold by attaching to the dreams and aspirations of their times).  The Big Apple, ...


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Deep Past
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endangered animals
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.

The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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5 Things To Expect Dick Cheney To Do As Global Warming Intensifies

Monday April 10, 2006

[Adapted from my contribution to Duck!, a new humorous anthology of advice for Dick Cheney] If climate turns out to be the weapon of mass destruction Vice President Cheney should have been worrying about, he has a problem. Let’s say in the near future hurricanes, nor'easters, dust bowls, floods, crop failures, ice storms and tornadoes are ruining the economy, and the voters are blaming Cheney because he and President Bush dismissed the science behind the threat, ridiculed conservation (one of the easiest ways to immediately lessen greenhouse gas emissions) as a “civic virtue,” and were champions of the fossil fuel industry. Cheney may think he has big business on his side, but even before Katrina, many CEOs began joining the tree huggers. Even the evangelicals, whose leaders went enviro and called for action. So when the weather changes, what will Cheney do? 1. Blame the Democrats. This is easy, it's what he always does, and they usually don't fight back. Cheney will say that he and Bush inherited the problem from the Clinton administration (not mentioning that it was a Republican- controlled Congress that torpedoed action) and that the Bush Administration actually cut oil use by the end of its second term, while it steadily went up during the Clinton years (expect him to gloss over the fact that supply disruptions due to civil war in the Middle East and a worldwide depression caused the decline). 2. He will claim that no one could have seen it coming. That strategy worked for a bit after Katrina--until those irritating videotape and emails started surfacing. And the truth is, it's entirely possible that Cheney didn't see it coming: it's unlikely that any of the “experts” his administration consulted, ranging from science fiction writer Michael Crichton to the paid lackeys of the coal industry, mentioned that it might be a problem. (Don't expect him to acknowledge that the entire scientific establishment had been warning of the threat for fifteen years.) 3. He will argue that the Kyoto Treaty would not have helped, and that he and Bush were engaged in a search for the real way to deal with the problem, one that includes India and China. This one is tricky-smart. It's true that Kyoto is vastly inadequate to the scale of the threat, but it could be made stronger. On the other hand, he will have to finesse that India and China are never going to join an effort on climate change unless the U.S., with 25 percent of world emissions, shows leadership on the issue. 4) He will say the crazy weather is natural. Why not? That's what the naysayers have been saying whenever an ice shelf collapses. It's unlikely that Cheney will mention that CO2, which has tracked temperature for millions of years, is now at higher levels than its been since homo sapiens evolved (better for him to avoid evolution anyway). 5) Expect him to move to Canada. Washington will have a climate like Khartoum, and Vancouver will be the new San Diego.

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Short Take

Relaxing COVID-19 Restrictions will Kill, not Save, the Economy


[This is a more developed version of the previous Short Take}

Those who want to relax mandates on self-isolation and social distancing to save the economy have got it exactly backwards. Reopen society too soon, and we risk destroying the economy as well as public order and our shaky democratic institutions. The reason comes down to two words: supply lines.

 Supply lines for necessities such as food are already under stress. Those going to grocery stories encounter random instances of empty shelves and vegetable bins. Smithfield Farms shut down a South Dakota plant that supplies roughly 4% of the pork in the nation after over 500 of its workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Other giant meat processors such as Tyson have also shut down plants for similar reasons. Farmers in the West are having trouble finding workers to harvest the crops now reaching maturity in the fields. And even if they manage to get the crops picked, farmers are out of luck if the truckers fail to show up, or the flow of packaging for their products get interrupted. 

Right now, these disruptions are episodic, but that should be concerning because we haven’t even seen the end of the first wave. What we have seen is that vital front-line workers such as nurses, doctors, EMT’s, and other first responders have had trouble finding protective equipment and maintaining morale. Some have staged walkouts over the dangerous conditions, and these are workers with a sense of mission.

By contrast, for most of the hourly-paid workers who keep supplies made, distributed, and sold, their work is a job that pays the bills. It would be appropriate if society recognized that they played a vital role, but mostly these workers encounter demanding bosses, monotony, and surly customers. If sick, they are not going to work – nor would we want them too. And they are not likely to risk their lives if going to work exposes them to contagion.

Disruption of one link, e.g. the trucker that delivers food the last mile, could halt a supply chain. COVID-19 is a threat to every link. Should a second wave hit before there is a readily available, cheap and effective treatment, it’s a very high probability that many supply lines will be disrupted and filling the gaps could easily overwhelm the nation’s businesses. 

Even today, on the evening news, we see images of vast caravans of cars lined up to get supplies from food banks. Imagine two weeks of empty shelves in the stores that feed our cities. How likely is it that civil order could be maintained in that situation? Will people suffer in silence if they realize that they can’t buy food for their kids because our leaders reopened the economy before a treatment was available because they wanted to prop up the stock market (which is how it will be portrayed)? If we want to look analogues for what life is like once supply chains break down, they’re readily available today in cities like Mogadishu, Kinshasa, and Port au Prince. 

 Thus far, the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic seems to be a mélange of Boss Tweed, Don Corleone and Inspector Clouseau. For the next act, the administration has a choice: Churchill, who bolstered British morale during the London Blitz, or Pol Pot, who sacrificed millions of his countrymen for a bad idea. Let’s hope those around Trump can convince him that the cure for the disease is the cure for the economy.

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