“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
As a Black man and a nurse practitioner working at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Long Beach, Walter Perez hears a lot of cringeworthy stuff from his Black patients.
Like how the forthcoming COVID-19 vaccines won’t be safe because Big Pharma is cutting corners to make more money. Or how the medical establishment wants to use Black people as guinea pigs to test those vaccines. Or how the vaccines could actually prove more harmful than getting COVID-19.
The list goes on.
“The only way I can describe it is there’s a paranoia,” Perez said. “A lot of people are just really paranoid about it.”
Indeed, across the U.S., only 32% of Black adults say they would definitely or probably take a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Pew Research Center. Another study by the COVID Collaborative and the NAACP found that most Black people don’t believe a vaccine will be safe or effective, and don’t plan to get it.
That we are here — with Black people, alongside Latinos, still disproportionately dying of COVID-19, and Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca on the verge of rolling out their lifesaving vaccines — comes as no surprise to Black people.
Many of us grew up hearing stories as children about how Black men were left to suffer during the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and, as adults, have lived out our own stories of fighting through disparities to try to get adequate care.
In my whole life, I’ve never had a Black doctor. I’m 43 years old. As of last year, only about 2.6% of the nation’s physicians and 7.3% of students in medical school this year were Black. Because of persistent inequities in education and household income, those numbers haven’t changed since I was born. Considering the many studies that show Black people tend to have better outcomes when treated by trusted Black doctors and nurses, this is a problem.
In the same way that the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis made plain how this country has never truly dealt with its history of systemic racism in policing, the COVID-19 pandemic has made plain the unaddressed history of distrust and systemic racism in the nation’s healthcare system.
Perez and his fellow Black nurses and doctors understand this better than most. And they rightfully want a reckoning.
“Is there mistrust for vaccines and for the healthcare system in Black communities? Yes. But that mistrust is very well earned,” said Dr. Tiffani Johnson, an emergency physician in the pediatric ward of UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. “So I think that we, as physicians and researchers and healthcare systems, need to take a step back and instead of saying, ‘Why won’t Black folks trust us?’ say, ‘What have we done to earn trust?’”
The disease has already killed some 266,000 Americans. Coronavirus cases are multiplying at a terrifying pace, with about 1 in 145 people infected and contagious in Los Angeles County, as of last week. Thanksgiving plans were upended and new shutdown orders and curfews have again thrown small-business owners into chaos.
So, hoping to bring this pandemic to an end sooner rather than later, California is preparing to barrel ahead with mass vaccinations, starting with healthcare workers and other first responders. In L.A., public health officials are working on ways to store and distribute doses once they become available in a few weeks.
On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom assured Californians that “an equity lens is part of our focus.” In other words, ensuring that communities of color have access to the vaccines is a top priority — which is the way it should be. But that could backfire because the problem isn’t so much access as it is trust.
Dr. Flojaune Cofer, an epidemiologist and a senior director of policy at the statewide nonprofit Public Health Advocates, describes it as “three hot takes” that add up to a no-win scenario.
The first option for counties is to roll out the vaccines to everyone at the same time, ignoring the fact that Black, Latino and Indigenous populations are getting COVID-19 at higher rates and are dying of it at younger ages than the rest of the population. That will lead to accusations that there’s “no equity because you’re just giving it to everybody all willy-nilly at the same time.”
The second option is to target Black people and roll it out in the neighborhoods that have logged the most cases. “But then,” Cofer said, “people are going to say, ‘Oh, no! You’re not gonna experiment on us like you did with Tuskegee.’”
The third option is to roll it out specifically to white people living in neighborhoods that haven’t been hit as hard by COVID-19. But then, Black people will say, “So you’re going to save yourselves and leave the rest of us to fend for ourselves?”
And all three of those hot takes, Cofer added, “are absolutely valid and correct.”
So what’s the solution then? I suspect that recommendations from a number of Black doctors who have agreed to vet federal regulators’ decisions about COVID-19 vaccines will help allay people’s fears. But, in the meantime, so will honesty and humility.
“We have to come out and say: ‘Look, vaccines have helped human history. And we want to hopefully get to the place where you feel comfortable taking a vaccine,’” Cofer said. “‘We recognize some of you are ready tomorrow, and some of you won’t be ready for several years. And that’s OK.’”
Eric J. Williams, a past president of the National Black Nurses Assn. and interim associate dean of health sciences at Santa Monica College, said he expects Black nurses and doctors to play an outsize role in persuading other Black people to get vaccinated.
One reason is they will be leading by example, as healthcare workers will be among the first to be vaccinated. They’ll be the real guinea pigs.
Another reason is that nurses, in particular, are used to teaching. Perez, for example, says he turns to facts when patients confront him with conspiracy theories, and uses examples about the importance of vaccines, such as how many Indigenous people would’ve been saved if they‘d had access to the smallpox vaccine.
“We teach every day when we do interactions with patients and their families and the community,” Williams said.
Looking ahead, though, the real solution must be about rebuilding public trust in the nation’s healthcare system, which is something that Black nurses and doctors have been calling on their white peers to do for decades.
That more than 13 million Americans have been infected with a potentially lethal virus and millions of others — of all races — would rather take their chances catching it than take a vaccine speaks volumes. That’s not a problem Black doctors and nurses can fix alone, nor should they be asked to.
“If you want patients to get vaccinated, we also need to do our part in order to kind of create trustworthiness in the community,” Johnson said. “I think that there needs to be a call to action for all healthcare providers to think about that.”
President-elect Joe Biden on Sunday named seven women to key communications roles in his incoming White House. His transition team says it’s the first time in history that the positions will be filled entirely by women.
Biden also will tap Neera Tanden to be director of the Office of Management and Budget, a source familiar with transition discussions tells NPR’s Franco Ordoñez. The Wall Street Journal, which first reported Tanden’s nomination, says if confirmed, she will be the first woman of color to oversee the OMB.
Biden has emphasized the elevation of women to key roles in his administration. His running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, will become the first female vice president, and he is set to nominate former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to be the first female treasury secretary.
Joining Yellen will be Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo, whom Biden plans to announce as deputy treasury secretary, the source familiar with transition discussions confirmed.
The Journal says Adeyemo — who is president of the Obama Foundation, and worked as an economic adviser in the Obama White House — would be the Treasury Department’s first Black deputy secretary.
Tanden is currently the president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think-tank. She’s also been an adviser to Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama.
Biden is set to unveil more members of his economic team this week.
Among the seven communications staffers Biden named Sunday are:
Kate Bedingfield: The communications director for Biden’s campaign will take on the same role in the White House. Bedingfield was also communications director for Biden when he was vice president.
Jen Psaki: Psaki will be the White House press secretary. She’s another veteran of the Obama administration, and her roles there included White House communications director. Psaki [pronounced “saki”] currently oversees the confirmation efforts of Biden’s nominees.
Karine Jean-Pierre: Jean-Pierre, who will be deputy press secretary, was a senior adviser on Biden’s campaign and chief of staff to Harris.
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Also named to the White House communications staff are: Ashley Etienne, Harris’ communications director; Symone Sanders, senior advisor and chief spokesperson for Harris; Pili Tobar, deputy White House communications director; and Elizabeth Alexander, communications director for first lady Jill Biden.
“Communicating directly and truthfully to the American people is one of the most important duties of a president, and this team will be entrusted with the tremendous responsibility of connecting the American people to the White House,” Biden said in a statement.
Psaki noted on Twitter that six of the seven women named to communications jobs Sunday are moms of young children.
The communications team was unveiled as Biden himself was at a doctor’s office.
According to a statement from Dr. Kevin O’Connor, released by the transition team, the 78-year-old Biden suffered hairline fractures in bones in his right foot, and “it is anticipated that he will likely require a walking boot for several weeks.”
His staff says he sustained the injury on Saturday when he slipped as he was playing with his dog, Major.
If you go outside on a dark night, in the darkest places on Earth, you can see as many as 9,000 stars. They appear as tiny points of light, but they are massive infernos. And while these stars seem astonishingly numerous to our eyes, they represent just the tiniest fraction of all the stars in our galaxy, let alone the universe.
The beautiful challenge of stargazing is keeping this all in mind: Every small thing we see in the night sky is immense, but what’s even more immense is the unseen, the unknown.
I’ve been thinking about this feeling — the awesome, terrifying feeling of smallness, of the extreme contrast of the big and small — while reporting on one of the greatest mysteries in science for Unexplainable, a new Vox podcast pilot you can listen to below.
It turns out all the stars in all the galaxies, in all the universe, barely even begin to account for all the stuff of the universe. Most of the matter in the universe is actually unseeable, untouchable, and, to this day, undiscovered.
Scientists call this unexplained stuff “dark matter,” and they believe there’s five times more of it in the universe than normal matter — the stuff that makes up you and me, stars, planets, black holes, and everything we can see in the night sky or touch here on Earth. It’s strange even calling all that “normal” matter, because in the grand scheme of the cosmos, normal matter is the rare stuff. But to this day, no one knows what dark matter actually is.
“I think it gives you intellectual and kind of epistemic humility — that we are simultaneously, super insignificant, a tiny, tiny speck of the universe,” Priya Natarajan, a Yale physicist and dark matter expert, said on a recent phone call. “But on the other hand, we have brains in our skulls that are like these tiny, gelatinous cantaloupes, and we have figured all of this out.”
The story of dark matter is a reminder that whatever we know, whatever truth about the universe we have acquired as individuals or as a society, is insignificant compared to what we have not yet explained.
It’s also a reminder that, often, in order to discover something true, the first thing we need to do is account for what we don’t know.
This accounting of the unknown is not often a thing that’s celebrated in science. It doesn’t win Nobel prizes. But, at least, we can know the size of our ignorance. And that’s a start.
But how does it end? Though physicists have been trying to figure out what dark matter is for decades, the detectors they built to find it have gone silent year after year. It makes some wonder: Have they been chasing a ghost? Dark matter might not be real. Instead, there could be something more deeply flawed in physicists’ understanding of gravity that would explain it away. Still, the search, fueled by faith in scientific observations, continues, despite the possibility that dark matter may never be found.
To learn about dark matter is to grapple with, and embrace, the unknown.
The woman who told us how much we don’t know
Scientists are, to this day, searching for dark matter, because they believe it is there to find. And they believe so largely because of Vera Rubin, an astronomer who died in 2016 at age 88.
Growing up in Washington, DC, in the 1930s, like so many young people getting started in science, Rubin fell in love with the night sky.
Rubin shared a bedroom and bed with her sister Ruth. Ruth was older and got to pick her favorite side of the bed, the one that faced the bedroom windows and the night sky.
“But the windows captivated Vera’s attention,” Ashley Yeager, a journalist writing a forthcoming biography on Rubin, says. “Ruth remembers Vera constantly crawling over her at night, to be able to open the windows and look out at the night sky and start to track the stars.” Ruth just wanted to sleep, and “there Vera was tinkering and trying to take pictures of the stars and trying to track their motions.” It wasn’t that everything we knew about matter was wrong. It was that everything we knew about normal matter was insignificant.
Not everyone gets to turn their childlike wonder and captivation of the unknown into a career, but Rubin did.
Flash-forward to the late 1960s, and she’s at the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona, doing exactly what she did in that childhood bedroom: tracking the motion of stars.
This time, though, she has a cutting-edge telescope and is looking at stars in motion at the edge of the Andromeda Galaxy. Just 40 years prior, Edwin Hubble had determined, for the first time, that Andromeda was a galaxy outside of our own, and that galaxies outside our own even existed. With one observation, Hubble doubled the size of the known universe.
By 1960, scientists were still asking basic questions in the wake of this discovery. Like: How do galaxies move?
Rubin and her colleague Kent Ford were at the observatory doing this basic science, charting how stars are moving at the edge of Andromeda. “I guess I wanted to confirm Newton’s laws,” Rubin said in an archival interview with science historian David DeVorkin.
Per Newton’s equations, the stars in the galaxy ought to move like the planets in our solar system do. Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, orbits very quickly, propelled by the sun’s gravity to a speed of around 106,000 mph. Neptune, far from the sun, and less influenced by its gravity, moves much slower, at around 12,000 mph.
The same thing ought to happen in galaxies too: Stars near the dense, gravity-rich centers of galaxies ought to move faster than the stars along the edges.
But that wasn’t what Rubin and Ford observed. Instead, they saw that the stars along the edge of Andromeda were going the same speed as the stars in the interior. “I think it was kind of like a ‘what the fuck’ moment,” Yeager says. “It was just so different than what everyone had expected.”
The data pointed to an enormous problem: The stars couldn’t just be moving that fast on their own.
At those speeds, the galaxy should be ripping itself apart like an accelerating merry-go-round with the brake turned off. To explain why this wasn’t happening, these stars needed some kind of extra gravity out there acting like an engine. There had to be a source of mass for all that extra gravity. (For a refresher: Physicists consider gravity to be a consequence of mass. The more mass in an area, the stronger the gravitational pull.)
The data suggested that there was a staggering amount of mass in the galaxy that astronomers simply couldn’t see. “As they’re looking out there, they just can’t seem to find any kind of evidence that it’s some normal type of matter,” Yeager says. It wasn’t black holes; it wasn’t dead stars. It was something else generating the gravity needed to both hold the galaxy together and propel those outer stars to such fast speeds.
Know of a great unanswered question in science? Tell me about it: Brian@vox.com
“I mean, when you first see it, I think you’re afraid of being … you’re afraid of making a dumb mistake, you know, that there’s just some simple explanation,” Rubin later recounted. Other scientists might have immediately announced a dramatic conclusion based on this limited data. But not Rubin. She and her collaborators dug in and decided to do a systematic review of the star speeds in galaxies.
Rubin and Ford weren’t the first group to make an observation of stars moving fast at the edge of a galaxy. But what Rubin and her collaborators are famous for is verifying the finding across the universe. “She [studied] 20 galaxies, and then 40 and then 60, and they all show this bizarre behavior of stars out far in the galaxy, moving way, way too fast,” Yeager explains.
This is why people say Rubin ought to have won a Nobel Prize (the prizes are only awarded to living recipients, so she will never win one). She didn’t “discover” dark matter. But the data she collected over her career made it so the astronomy community had to reckon with the idea that most of the mass in the universe is unknown.
By 1985, Rubin was confident enough in her observations to declare something of an anti-eureka: announcing not a discovery, but a huge absence in our collective knowledge. “Nature has played a trick on astronomers,” she’s paraphrased as saying at an International Astronomical Union conference in 1985, “who thought we were studying the universe. We now know that we were studying only a small fraction of it.”
To this day, no one has “discovered” dark matter. But Rubin did something incredibly important: She told the scientific world about what they were missing.
In the decades since this anti-eureka, other scientists have been trying to fill in the void Rubin pointed to. Their work isn’t complete. But what they’ve been learning about dark matter is that it’s incredibly important to the very structure of our universe, and that it’s deeply, deeply weird.
Dark matter isn’t just enormous. It’s also strange.
Since Rubin’s WTF moment in the Arizona desert, more and more evidence has accumulated that dark matter is real, and weird, and accounts for most of the mass in the universe.
“Even though we can’t see it, we can still infer that dark matter is there,” Kathryn Zurek, a Caltech astrophysicist, explains. “Even if we couldn’t see the moon with our eyes, we would still know that it was there because it pulls the oceans in different directions — and it’s really very similar with dark matter.”
Scientists can’t see dark matter directly. But they can see its influence on the space and light around it. The biggest piece of indirect evidence: Dark matter, like all matter that accumulates in large quantities, has the ability to warp the very fabric of space.
“You can visualize dark matter as these lumps of matter that create little potholes in space-time,” Natarajan says. “All the matter in the universe is pockmarked with dark matter.”
When light falls into one of these potholes, it bends like light does in a lens. In this way, we can’t “see” dark matter, but we can “see” the distortions it produces in astronomers’ views of the cosmos. From this, we know dark matter forms a spherical cocoon around galaxies, lending them more mass, which allows their stars to move faster than what Newton’s laws would otherwise suggest.
These are indirect observations, but they have also given scientists some clues about the intrinsic nature of dark matter. It’s not called dark matter because of its color. It has no color. It’s called “dark” because it neither reflects nor emits light, nor any sort of electromagnetic radiation. So we can’t see it directly even with the most powerful telescopes.
Not only can we not see it, we couldn’t touch it if we tried: If some sentient alien tossed a piece of dark matter at you, it would pass right through you. If it were going fast enough, it would pass right through the entire Earth. Dark matter is like a ghost.
Astronomers deduced that in the collision, much of the normal matter in the galaxy clusters slowed down and mixed together (like two cars in a head-on collision would stop one another and crumple together). But the dark matter in the cluster didn’t slow down in the collision. It kept going, as if the collision didn’t even happen.
The event is recreated in this animation. The red represents normal matter in the galaxy clusters, and the blue represents dark matter. During the collision, the blue dark matter acts like a ghost, just passing through the normal colliding matter as if it weren’t there.
(A note: These two weird aspects of dark matter — its invisibility and its untouchability — are connected: Dark matter simply does not interact with the electromagnetic force of nature. The electromagnetic force lights up our universe with light and radiation, but it also makes the world feel solid.)
A final big piece of evidence for dark matter is that it helps physicists make sense of how galaxies formed in the early universe. “We know that dark matter had to be present to be part of that process,” astrophysicist Katie Mackexplains. It’s believed dark matter coalesced together in the early universe before normal matter did, creating gravitational wells for normal matter to fall into. Those gravitational wells formed by dark matter became the seeds of galaxies.
So dark matter not only holds galaxies together, as Rubin’s work implied — it’s why galaxies are there in the first place.
So: What is it?
To this day, no one really knows what dark matter is.
Scientists’ best guess is that it’s a particle. Particles are the smallest building blocks of reality — they’re so small, they make up atoms. It’s thought that dark matter is just another one of these building blocks, but one we haven’t seen up close for ourselves. (There are a lot of different proposed particles that maybe good dark matter candidates. Scientists still aren’t sure exactly which one it will be.)
You might be wondering: Why can’t we find the most common source of matter in all the universe? Well, our scientific equipment is made out of normal matter. So if dark matter passes right through normal matter, trying to find dark matter is like trying to catch a ghost baseball with a normal glove.
Plus, while dark matter is bountiful in the universe, it’s really diffuse. There are just not massive boulders of it passing nearby Earth. It’s more like we’re swimming in a fine mist of it. “If you add up all the dark matter inside humans, all humans on the planet at any given moment, it’s one nanogram,” Natarajan says — teeny-tiny.
Dark matter may never be “discovered,” and that’s okay
Some physicists favor a different interpretation for what Rubin observed, and for what other scientists have observed since: that it’s not that there’s some invisible mass of dark matter dominating the universe, but that scientists’ fundamental understanding of gravity is flawed and needs to be reworked.
While “that’s a definite possibility,” Natarajan says, currently, there’s a lot more evidence on the side of dark matter being real and not just a mirage based on a misunderstanding of gravity. “We would need a new theory [of gravity] that can explain everything that we see already,” she explains. “There is no such theory that is currently available.”
It’s not hard to believe in something invisible, Mack says, if all the right evidence is there. We do it all the time.
“It’s similar to if you’re walking down the street,” she says. “And as you’re walking, you see that some trees are kind of bending over, and you hear some leaves rustling and maybe you see a plastic bag sort of floating past you and you feel a little cold on one side. You can pretty much figure out there’s wind. Right? And that wind explains all of these different phenomena. … There are many, many different pieces of evidence for dark matter. And for each of them, you might be able to find some other explanation that works just as well. But when taken together, it’s really good evidence.”
Meanwhile, experiments around the world are trying to directly detect dark matter. Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider are hoping their particle collisions may one day produce some detectable dark matter. Astronomers are looking out in space for more clues, hoping one day dark matter will reveal itself through an explosion of gamma rays. Elsewhere, scientists have burrowed deep underground, shielding labs from noise and radiation, hoping that dark matter will one day pass through a detector they’ve carefully designed and make itself known.
But it hasn’t happened yet. It may never happen: Scientists hope that dark matter isn’t a complete ghost to normal matter. They hope that every once in a while, when it collides with normal matter, it does something really, really subtle, like shove one single atom to the side, and set off a delicately constructed alarm.
But that day may never come. It could be dark matter just never prods normal matter, that it remains a ghost.
“I really did get into this business because I thought I would be detecting this within five years,” Prisca Cushman, a University of Minnesota physicist who works on a dark matter detector, says. She’s been trying to find dark matter for 20 years. She still believes it exists, that it’s out there to find. But maybe it’s just not the particular candidate particle her detector was initially set up to find.
That failure isn’t a reason to give up, she says. “By not seeing [dark matter] yet with a particular detector, we’re saying, ‘Oh, so it’s not this particular model that we thought it might be.’ And that is an extremely interesting statement. Because all of a sudden an army of theorists go out and say, ‘Hey, what else could it be?’”
But even if the dark matter particle is never found, that won’t discount all science has learned about it. “It’s like you’re on a beach,” Natarajan explains. “You have a lot of sand dunes. And so we are in a situation where we are able to understand how these sand dunes form, but we don’t actually know what a grain of sand is made of.”
Embracing the unknown
Natarajan and the other physicists I spoke to for this story are comfortable with the unknown nature of dark matter. They’re not satisfied, they want to know more, but they accept it’s real. They accept it because that’s the state of the evidence. And if new evidence comes along to disprove it, they’ll have to accept that too.
“Inherent to the nature of science is the fact that whatever we know is provisional,” Natarajan says. “It is apt to change. So I think what motivates people like me to continue doing science is the fact that it keeps opening up more and more questions. Nothing is ultimately resolved.”
That’s true when it comes to the biggest questions, like “what is the universe made of?”
It’s true in so many other areas of science, too: Despite the endless headlines that proclaim new research findings that get published daily, there are many more unanswered questions than answered. Scientists don’t really understand how bicycles stay upright, or know the root cause of Alzheimer’s disease or how to treat it. Similarly, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, we craved answers: Why do some people get much sicker than others, what does immunity to the virus look like? The truth was we couldn’t yet know (and still don’t, for sure). But that didn’t mean the scientific process was broken.
The truth is, when it comes to a lot of fields of scientific progress, we’re in the middle of the story, not the end. The lesson is that truth and knowledge are hard-won.
In the case of dark matter, it wasn’t that everything we knew about matter was wrong. It was that everything we knew about normal matter was insignificant compared to our ignorance about dark matter. The story of dark matter fits with a narrative of scientific progress that makes us humans seem smaller and smaller at each turn. First, we learned that Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. Now dark matter teaches us that the very stuff we’re made of — matter — is just a fraction of all reality.
If dark matter is one day discovered, it will only open up more questions. Dark matter could be more than one particle, more than one thing. There could be a richness and diversity in dark matter that’s a little like the richness and diversity we see in normal matter. It’s possible, and this is speculation, that there’s a kind of shadow universe that we don’t have access to — scientists label it the “dark sector” — that is made up of different components and exists, as a ghost, enveloping our galaxies.
It’s a little scary to learn how little we know, to learn we don’t even know what most of the universe is made out of. But there’s a sense of optimism in a question, right? It makes you feel like we can know the answer to them.
There’s so much about our world that’s arrogant: from politicians who only believe in what’s convenient for them to Silicon Valley companies who claim they’re helping the world while fracturing it, and so many more examples. If only everyone could see a bit of what Vera Rubin saw — a fundamental truth not just about the universe, but about humanity.
“In a spiral galaxy, the ratio of dark-to-light matter is about a factor of 10,” Rubin said in a 2000 interview. “That’s probably a good number for the ratio of our ignorance to knowledge. We’re out of kindergarten, but only in about third grade.”
Plan to draw up legal definition of ‘ecocide’ attracts support from European countries and small island nations
Smoke rises from an illegally lit fire in an Amazon rainforest reserve. It is envisaged that the offence would come into force in instances of mass, systematic or widespread destruction. Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty ImagesLegal affairs correspondent@owenbowcottMon 30 Nov 2020 05.12 EST
Last modified on Mon 30 Nov 2020 05.14 EST
International lawyers are drafting plans for a legally-enforceable crime of ecocide – criminalising destruction of the world’s ecosystems – that is already attracting support from European countries and island nations at risk from rising sea levels.
The panel coordinating the initiative is chaired by Prof Philippe Sands QC, of University College London, and Florence Mumba, a former judge at the international criminal court (ICC).
The aim is to draw up a legal definition of “ecocide” that would complement other existing international offences such as crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.
The project, convened by the Stop Ecocide Foundation at the request of Swedish parliamentarians, has been launched this month to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Nuremberg war crimes trials of Nazi leaders in 1945.
Several small island nations, including Vanuatu, in the Pacific and the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, called for “serious consideration” of a crime of ecocide at the ICC’s annual assembly of states parties in December last year.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has also championed the idea and the Belgian government has pledged support. The shadow justice secretary, David Lammy, has also called for ecocide to be incorporated into law.
The international criminal court, which is based in The Hague, has previously promised to prioritise crimes that result in the “destruction of the environment”, “exploitation of natural resources” and the “illegal dispossession” of land.
An ICC policy paper in 2016 said it was not formally extending its jurisdiction but would assess existing offences, such as crimes against humanity, in a broader context. There have been no formal investigations or charges of this type so far.
“The time is right to harness the power of international criminal law to protect our global environment…,” Sands said. “My hope is that this group will be able to … forge a definition that is practical, effective and sustainable, and that might attract support to allow an amendment to the ICC Statute to be made.”
Mumba, a judge at the Khmer Rouge tribunal and former supreme court judge in Zambia, said: “An international crime of ecocide may be important in that individual/state responsibility may be regulated to achieve balance for the survival of both humanity and nature.”
Jojo Mehta, chair of the Stop Ecocide Foundation, told The Guardian: “In most cases ecocide is likely to be a corporate crime. Criminalising something at the ICC means that nations that have ratified it have to incorporate it into their own national legislation.
“That means there would be lots of options for prosecuting [offending corporations] around the world.”
Mehta said one challenge for the drafting panel would be to define at what point an ecocide offence would come into force. Chopping down a single tree on a village green would not be sufficient, she explained.
“It would have to involve mass, systematic or widespread destruction,” she added. “We are probably talking about Amazon deforestation on a huge scale, deep sea bottom trawling or oil spills. We want to place it at the same level as atrocities investigated by the ICC.”
The 13-strong legal panel of experts from around the world include Tuiloma Neroni Slade of Samoa, who is also a former ICC judge. They are planning to complete their work early next year.
This digestible book is meant as a one-stop guide for people who have wondered about how to eat responsibly and ended up in the “dark, dank rabbithole of twenty-seven different browser windows” with no good answers. Sophie Egan, a journalist and director of health and sustainability for the Culinary Institute of America, isn’t interested in strict moralizing—she offers guidance for the “conscious carnivore,” for instance—but rather helping readers decipher ingredient lists and nutritional claims. She explores the phenomenon of “food fraud” (like cutting Parmesan cheese with wood pulp), points out that a bar of chocolate takes a whopping 450 gallons of water to produce and offers a list of numbered tips for reducing your reliance on single-use plastics. As evidence of the 270-page book’s practicality, each chapter concludes with a bulleted “Top 5 Takeaways” list and an appendix of other trusted resources readers can turn to for more information.
Even if you haven’t waited in the long lines for Xi’an Famous Foods’ famously spicy noodles (and you’ll find the recipe for those and many others here), this account of how a restaurant empire was born from a street stand in Flushing is engrossing. In between recipes, Jason Wang, the New York City mainstay’s now-CEO, and writer Jessica K. Chou tell a story about Xi’an, the “city of fiery desert food” Wang’s family left in the ‘90s for America, and how his impetuous father, David Shi, bounced between restaurant jobs cooking “the type of Americanized Chinese food we’d never eat at home” until he eventually opened the first XFF in 2006. Shi’s rendition of the food of Xi’an caught the attention of scores of New Yorkers, among them Anthony Bourdain. Wang’s voice is conversational, peppered with cussing, a bit of braggadocio and bluntness about the realities (unclogging grease traps; the basement apartment his family shared) of the restaurant industry and his immigrant experience. The entire book has the cadence of an assured Food Network documentary, with a liberal dose of extra-spicy chili oil on top.
There’s a lot to criticize about former President Barack Obama, his track record in office, and the liberal establishment, of which he remains a champion. Given America’s current reckoning with race in public life, his new memoir, “A Promised Land,” highlights something separate yet important: the incredible difference in ability between two individuals, Donald Trump and Barack Obama, who were both entrusted by the American people with the same immensely important job.
For all his faults, as any reader of his memoir is immediately reminded, Obama is an uncommon genius. To have risen to such heights in the United States, as a Black man with a Muslim name, no doubt required him to be extraordinary. Trump, meanwhile, a beneficiary of hereditary wealth and status, was richly rewarded with the same prestigious position, notwithstanding his obvious unfitness.
This subtext screams out throughout the pages of “A Promised Land.” The two consecutive presidents could not be more different men. And given how Trump’s political career got started — by spreading a xenophobic conspiracy theory about Obama — it also seems clear that race had something to do with it. Obama does not spend much time directly discussing his experience of race while in office, but, to the extent that he does, he makes a convincing case that the anti-intellectual populist movement now known as Trumpism began in part as a racial backlash to his own presidency — specifically, Trump’s conspiratorial campaign to establish that Obama had been born in a foreign country and was thus ineligible to hold office.
“Birtherism,” as it was called, grimly illustrated that there was something about having a Black man named Barack Hussein Obama as president, no matter how competent and capable, that simply caused a large number of Americans to completely lose their minds. It’s not clear that people who went down that rabbit hole ever came back.
The overpowering insanity of the past five years has drowned out most memories of the “birther” episode that Obama recounts in his book. Looking back, the conspiracy theory and all that went along with it feels like a disturbing early warning sign of the terrifyingly unstable course that U.S. politics had begun to chart. Beginning around early 2011, Trump began publicly questioning Obama’s place of birth, but he also went much further. Trump cast aspersions on Obama’s intelligence, suggesting that his grades, concealed in unreleased college transcripts, must have been poor and that the erudite writing of his previous book, “Dreams From My Father,” meant that a ghostwriter must have penned it.
This was ugly stuff. It was also popular, building Trump’s news media profile and kickstarting his successful political career. The media at the time mostly didn’t endorse Trump’s theories. Yet, in a pattern that would disastrously repeat during his 2016 election campaign, outlets also couldn’t get enough of his wacky sensationalism, providing wall-to-wall national publicity for the future president free of charge.“Birtherism” grimly illustrated that there was something about having a Black man named Barack Hussein Obama as president hat simply caused a large number of Americans to completely lose their minds.
At the behest of his advisers, Obama writes in his memoir that he tried to downplay potentially divisive racial issues in his rhetoric and focus on unifying messages. As the Trump-orchestrated birther frenzy heated up during Obama’s first term, the president reflected on a hostile reaction to his presidency that was no longer merely about politics. In some quarters of the American public, there was an “emotional, almost visceral” feeling, Obama writes, that “the natural order had been disrupted” by the election of a Black man like him to the presidency. Not all, or even most, conservative opponents of Obama endorsed these sentiments, but the enthusiastic response to the conspiracy theory clearly suggested something deeply troubling was taking place. The emergence of the proudly ignorant Sarah Palin onto the national political scene as John McCain’s possible vice president was an early sign that things were cracking up. Trump, though, proved best at tapping the vengeful and paranoid sentiments that were ready to erupt beneath the surface of American political life, riding them all the way to the White House.
In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s 2016 election, a grief-stricken American liberal intelligentsia began searching for a way to make sense of their repudiation by much of the public. Rather than reflecting on how their own errors, corruption, and misguidance may have contributed to Trump’s rise, some arrived at American racism as a self-exculpatory “theory of everything” to make sense of things.
In this telling, the liberal establishment was not rejected because of any major failures to uphold a just economic and social order. They lost, instead, because of the ingrained evil of much of the American population. The Obama years had seen some heady liberal fantasizing about a utopian “post-racial” America on the near horizon. With head-spinning abruptness, during the Trump years the new liberal consensus seems to be that America is in fact more racist than ever — indeed, structurally racist in every element.
Personally speaking, I’m not a fan of any of these nebulous and unfalsifiable narratives. While Trumpism may have gotten started with a racist conspiracy, mass movements tend to sweep up people for all types of complicated reasons. Some Obama voters later switched to supporting Trump against Hillary Clinton in 2016, while Trump managed to maintain a solid, and even growing, minority support base after four years in office.
Rejecting the convenient narrative that racism explains everything doesn’t necessitate going in the opposite direction to suggest that it then explains nothing. In his book, Obama never goes as far as Clinton did in writing off a vast section of the U.S. population as beyond redemption. Yet he also doesn’t shy away from stating the obvious: that more than a few people were “triggered” by his presidency into a collective nervous breakdown. “For millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House,” he writes in his book, a loudmouthed reality television host had arrived promising “an elixir for their racial anxiety.”
Birtherism was the ember of an unhinged majoritarian backlash that fanned into an inferno, consuming the Republican Party along with much of the broader conservative movement.
This is a subtext of Obama’s memoir: The story of how, starting with the birtherism episode, the embers of an unhinged majoritarian backlash to his presidency fanned into an inferno that consumed the Republican Party along with much of the broader conservative movement. A common undercurrent to conservative arguments about immigrants and minorities is that when they ask for accommodations or special recognition from society, they are inevitably eroding its intellectual and cultural standards. After watching many conservatives spend years defending intellectual train wrecks like Palin and Trump, it’s difficult to take such claims seriously. With so many people having been driven out of their minds by a Black president, there is little reason to think that Trump’s narrow defeat in the 2020 election is going to improve that condition.
Obama’s faults as a president are there for us to criticize. He failed to rein in a rampaging national security state. There were ugly compromises with Wall Street and, more generally, a perceived coziness with a corrupt ruling establishment. In a way that he does not really confront in the book, those failures helped lay the groundwork for a populist backlash now coming from both the right and the left.
There was one thing Obama, to his credit, did understand very well: how a mix of celebrity, xenophobia, and paranoia might prove a winning formula for a hostile takeover of American democracy, perhaps even putting an end to the liberal order of which he himself is a product.
“What I knew was that he was a spectacle, and in the United States of America in 2011, that was a form of power. Trump trafficked in a currency that, however shallow, seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day,” Obama writes. “Far from being ostracized for the conspiracies he’d peddled, he in fact had never been bigger.”