The Global Public Private Partnership to Profit from Nature: “Conservation” as Commodification


In this essay, I describe the current global conservation movement for climate and biodiversity as fundamentally a means of concentrating more wealth, power, and land ownership through the commodification and privatization of nature.  The Global Public Private Partnership’s “Nature Positive” strategy centrally depends on assigning financial value to healthy, or intact nature as ecosystem services so that it can be regulated and sold through the market mechanisms they are designing through global governance.  I provide detailed examples showing the arbitrary and self-serving nature of pricing ecosystem services, as well as how businesses are starting to profit from selling them.  Because the wealthiest people already own a disproportionate amount of nature through concentrated land ownership, they will receive the bulk of profiting from it.  I also illustrate how the “Nature Positive” movement includes the interlocking components of “Nature Based Solutions,” “Sustainable Development” and “30 x 30,” the campaign to “preserve” 30% of the earth’s surface.   These combined business strategies serve as a license to appropriate land, particularly in the global south, by force in large-scale land grabs. I conclude by arguing that the central problem is not that nature is undervalued in dollars, but rather that it is not universally understood as priceless.  We must use this recognition as a foundation for systemic change.

Introduction: The GPPP poses a problem and a solution

It would be difficult to miss the increasing stridence of the global environmental movement over the last decade, especially in the last several years.  By “environmental movement,” I mean specifically the actions and advocacy of the Global Public Private Partnership (GPPP) on environmental concerns, as promulgated by the Conventions of the Parties (COP27, etc), the IUCN, foundations, international conservation and other NGOs, and their corporate partners.

The media inundates us on their behalf with desperate pleas for the climate, for biodiversity, for sustainable agriculture – with more and more “asks” from regular people such as to change our diets, own less, wash less, travel less, and go electric.  We have also seen increasingly illogical connections drawn between the dire environmental conditions and pathogens, still births, heart disease and just plain old death.

The GPPP of “sustainability” has pushed primarily to halt climate change and more recently, biodiversity loss, or mass extinction with the stated goals of net-zero carbon emissions and a “Nature Positive” world.  “Nature Positive” business activities leave the world with more nature than they take, primarily by using “Nature Based Solutions” and preserving 30% of land and oceans by 2030 (or in shorthand, “30 X 30”).  Nature based solutions manage ecosystems in a manner that recognizes nature’s contributions to maintaining a habitable planet.  For example, maintaining, creating, or restoring habitats (like forests, mangroves, or rivers) or using nature in the built environment (like green roofs) are nature based solutions.

Well, that’s how they talk about it anyway.  As we live (globally) in a plutocratically controlled neoliberal corporatocracy, in which fewer and fewer people control more and more wealth and power, old-fashioned solutions to achieve the goal of sustainability have implicitly been written off as unrealistic.  In the United States, for example, we do not have regulations that require large businesses to be nature neutral (let alone nature positive) by eliminating their pollution or restoring destroyed habitat because corporate capture of regulatory agencies and representatives is too extreme.  You know, I mean, the same corporations that are leading the “Nature Positive” movement.

We cannot preserve 30% of our land and water in the USA for low impact public recreation/conservation because the government cannot afford to buy or manage such acreage, given our funding priorities (eg. war), and, apparently, because there is not sufficient philanthropic support from the wealthiest individuals.  I’m thinking, of course, of the same people who donate heavily or even pledge all their wealth to the GPPP of “sustainability,” through international conservation organizations, their own private foundations, and public institutions. Further, while the government in the past simply took land for preservation without consent, fair compensation, or any concern for human rights whatsoever, such things are definitely frowned upon today in the USA.

Given such a dire lack of potential solutions, the GPPP has the answer!  Make “saving nature” profitable and thereby unleash the flood of capital necessary to fund their “Nature Positive” plans using market solutions.  This rhetoric is everywhere:

“While an increase in public funding would help plug some of the gap, there needs to be a significant increase in private sector investment in Nature-based solutions.”

2021 UN Environment Program

Green Growth That Works is the first practical guide to bring together pragmatic finance and policy tools that can make investment in natural capital both attractive and commonplace.”

Stanford Natural Capital Project

“WAVES is a World Bank-led global partnership that aims to promote sustainable development by ensuring that natural resources are mainstreamed in development planning and national economic accounts.” 

World Bank

“The scale of conservation challenges across the globe requires new and bigger sources of funding. Working with investors, lenders and companies to identify the economic value of nature, we can secure financing and investments that extend the impact of our philanthropic support for the benefit of people and nature.”

The Nature Conservancy

“The financial value of ecosystem services is at the heart of much of 21st century conservation, increasingly guiding economic decision-making and government policy. It is on the agenda at Davos this week in discussions about protecting the Amazon and the post-Covid economic recovery, and is likely to be a central issue in UN discussions on a Paris-style agreement on biodiversity to be negotiated in Kunming, China, later this year.”

The Guardian

The Global Public Private Partnership’s strategy centrally depends on assigning financial value to healthy, or intact nature so that it can be regulated through the market mechanisms they are designing through global governance.

From Iain Davis’ What is the Global Public-Private Partnership

Land ownership is highly concentrated; therefore, so is nature ownership

To understand clearly how saving nature can be profitable, think about what it is that makes very wealthy people very wealthy.  Is it the dollars they own?  Is it the gold they have in their vaults? Those things are nice, indeed, but they are the after effects of wealth, not its original source.  Fundamentally, wealthy people’s wealth springs from ownership of nature, as it is instantiated on their property, ie., the land they (or their corporations) own.  Unfortunately, wealth in dollars traditionally comes from transforming nature into commodities – things people buy.  So how on earth can spending money to NOT harm nature make a tidy profit?  Before answering this question, bear with me as I take a detour into the state of global land ownership, which is necessary to see the big picture of what is wrong with the “Nature Positive” movement.

As it happens, wealthy people own A LOT of nature, some “used” and some not.  Wealth inequality gets a lot of attention from would be reformers, but the underlying problem of land ownership concentration seems to get a lot less.  Yet, this concentration is quite extreme, and growing globally.  A recent investigative report by the International Land Coalition (ILC) found that land inequality has been rising in most countries since the 1980’s and has been underestimated due to not taking into account variations in land value or completely landless individuals.  Ownership concentration of agricultural land seems to be the most well documented.  As reported by the ILC, just 1% of farms operate more than 70% of the world’s farmland, including concentrated ownership in Europe (in which 3% own more than half of the farmland) and in the United States (where 7% of farms produce 80% of the food).  Most estimates of ownership inequality also don’t take into account control of the land.  For example, farmers in Vietnam may still own their tiny farms, but many serve as contract workers within a “ “small field, large farm” model … coordinated by large agribusinesses or conglomerates.”

Corporations and investors actually own most of the world’s largest farms of course, not farmers.  As the ILC report states, “Parts of the world’s farmland are now considered financial assets, with no known physical owner, subject to decision-making processes that may be external to the farm and the agricultural sector.”  The fact that land is increasingly becoming an investment also means that ownership concentration is likely to be underestimated: “… we do not always know who owns what land. Shareholding structures and other financial constructs are mushrooming in land (and do not have to be declared in any country in the world, to our knowledge, thus remaining totally invisible), and the opacity which often surrounds the finances and activities of investment funds makes it impossible to assess the full extent of their impact on land concentration and inequality.”

In the United States, the only country I could find figures for, forest ownership is also very concentrated.  A United States Forest Service survey covering 2011-2013 found that 11 million “ownerships” owned 441 million acres, which was all the privately owned forest consisting of at least 1 acre.  About 5 million of these owners own more than 9 acres, meaning the majority of the 11 million have relatively small parcels.  From these numbers, out of a national population in 2011 of 311 million, approximately 3.5% owned at least an acre of forest (just approximate because multiple people can share ownership).  Maybe that doesn’t sound too bad, but just 1.8% of the 11 million owners (which is, again, approximately 3.5% of the population) own a full 34% of all the privately owned acreage.  This 1.8% of owners are corporations, Native American tribes, NGOs and LLCs.

“Saving nature” means the commodification of healthy nature, ie. selling ecosystem services

Back to our question: how can spending money to leave nature alone or restore it make money?  If the wealthiest people want to make “saving nature” profitable for themselves, as owners already of large amounts of land, they simply need to commodify healthy, or what they can pass off as healthy, nature.  Once nature, distinct from the property it is on, has a price, it can be sold.  In sum, “Nature Positive” really means a net transfer of wealth from those of us who use ecosystem services to those who own the majority of nature.

This concentration of ownership is key to the dysfunctional nature of this movement, because without it, theoretically, the business model could essentially look like half the people making a living from the old form of commodifying nature (turning it into products) and the other half making a living restoring and preserving nature.  Instead, what we actually have is the very same, very few people profiting from doing both at the same time while most people have to get by with less and less to live on.

The process of commodification and privatization of healthy nature is at the heart of the GPPP’s “Nature Positive” movement, which involves several interlocking components: selling ecosystem services, “sustainable” development, and the “30 X 30” plan or fortress conservation (privatizing land used by indigenous and local inhabitants in a manner that keeps them out).   A tree farm provides an example of how the components overlap.   It may be an acceptable form of “sustainable” development within a “protected” area (mining is actually quite common in protected areas).  In addition to wood products, the farm may also sell ecosystem services in the form of carbon or biodiversity offsets.  It may even employ best management practices around streams and rivers, allowing it to further benefit by enrolling in a water fund (which sells clean water to those downstream).

Since land ownership is the key to sustainable, regenerative profit through selling nature, the proposal to “set aside” 30% of the earth’s surface as wilderness by 2030 to promote biodiversity and climate health serves primarily as an excuse for large scale land grabs.

30×30 is a license for the wealthy to appropriate land in the global south by force

Currently 16% of earth is in preservation with 2/3 of that in the global south.  While the 30 X 30 proposal asserts the goal is to set aside land on earth, in practice this largely means in the global south, which contains the majority of biodiversity hotspots.

Critically, land in the global south is also by far the easiest to “preserve” due to community-based, customary tenure rights rather than legally recognized ownership.  While stealing land from people through coercion or force is frowned upon in the USA today, as I mentioned, it is much easier to clear local inhabitants off of desired parcels in the global south. Indigenous people and local communities use or manage 50% of the world’s surface collectively, but legally own only between 10% and 20% of it.  Similarly, 90% of the land in rural Africa does not have documented ownership.

While lack of clear titles makes it easier for conservation NGOs and other corporations to appropriate territory, force is still required.  Despite much talk about “working with the community,” conservation in the global south is a highly militarized operation.  People are not merely evicted from their land, but shot, raped, tortured, and killed.  The scale of the problem is great enough that there is currently a bill wending its way through the US congress to halt funding for conservation agencies and projects that engage in human rights abuses.  Survival International, a key organization working for the rights of indigenous people, reports regarding the bill’s justification: ”At present much of the US$78-91 billion a year spent on biodiversity conservation globally goes towards “fortress conservation,” which evicts and excludes Indigenous and local people from their ancestral lands and employs guards who perpetrate appalling abuses.”

Survival International poetically explains in 2 minutes how 30 X 30 hurts indigenous people

NGOs are too often brokers between the wealthy, businesses and government

Some may wonder whether it is fair to equate for profit corporations appropriating land for “sustainable” development enterprises with non profit conservation NGOs seeking to preserve land.  Unfortunately, the two types of corporations are tightly interwoven at this point:

“Transnational conservation is dominated by mostly five international NGOs from the global north, with combined assets equal to the gross national product of many African countries and having strong ties to extractive industries and finance institutions. A quick look at the leadership teams of the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, and African Parks shows panels full of CEOs, billionaires, and investment bankers from financial institutions like Goldman Sachs, Merrill, and Blackstone.”

 Aby L. Sène in Foreign Policy

I used to think of conservation NGOs as philanthropic organizations. People donate to them and they spend the money to “save nature.”  Now I know that is old school.  Today, these NGOs are more like brokers between governments and corporations, working to create novel schemes utilizing new forms of financing to advance their missions at whatever cost in human life, freedom, or equality.  The NGOs themselves don’t make a profit, they just facilitate the wealth and land ownership concentration of others.

An example of a “Nature Based Solution” that concentrates wealth

For example, Conservation International plans to protect mangroves in the Philippines through the creation of an impact investment, for profit, business, RISCO, that acquires and manages mangroves.  Profit comes from the sale of so-called “blue carbon” (ocean based) carbon credits on the voluntary and hoped-for compliance based market and revenue from insurance companies and/or coastal asset owners.  Coastal asset owners and insurance companies would be paying for the ecosystem service the mangroves provide of mitigating storm surges and flooding to reduce their risk exposure, as determined through actuarial type modeling.

RISCO’s design, from The Lab

Of course, as always in these situations, RISCO pledges to acquire the mangroves and rights to the “blue carbon,” owned by the government in the Philippines, with “community support.”  Although the local community is supposed to receive revenue sharing from the sale of the credits and on going payments for conservation and restoration monitoring, enforcement, planting and maintenance, the fact remains that RISCO transfers the ownership and control of an asset that generates profit in perpetuity from the local community to a tiny band of foreign investors.

Insurance companies, of course, also stand to benefit considerably due to the availability of new markets, previously deemed too risky.  Coastal asset owners, differentiated from the “local community” in the RISCO documents, are also an illuminating “stakeholder” to think about.  Somehow, all of them managed to buy or otherwise obtain rights from the government for their coastal businesses. Given that the greatest threats to mangroves are from shrimp farms and coastal development, it sure seems the government could simply halt these practices if it weren’t functioning for the benefit of these same parties. The elites’ current coastal assets will become more valuable through less competition and increased availability of insurance due to less risk.  Meanwhile, they can shift investment into businesses like RISCO, that derive profit from protecting coastal assets, like the ones they conveniently own.

Taking action such as simply banning new shrimp farms or new coastal development that cannot accommodate healthy mangroves would certainly lower the Philippines ratings of how favorable a business climate it provides.  RISCO’s materials include such a list compiled by the World Bank of favorable and unfavorable regulatory environments for business to assess potential countries to expand to after their pilot in the Philippines. It is easy to imagine the chilling effect low marks on such lists have on investors, including those who already are coastal asset owners or those who benefit them.

Remember that, as stated above, transnational conservation NGOs are “full of CEOs, billionaires, and investment bankers.”  Some of these people, whether they are on boards or otherwise advise the NGOs or not, are the CEOs of the very same companies that form the market to buy blue and other carbon credits.  Some of them, at the very same time! are quite likely to be investors in novel businesses like RISCO, thus profiting from their initial emitting activities and again when they buy credits.  Some investors may, on the one hand, be urging the Securities and Exchange Commission to make carbon emission reporting mandatory (thus paving the way for mandatory markets in credits) while on the other hand be investing in businesses that sell credits or in property “for conservation” that forms the foundation to sell credits or other ecosystem services.

Pricing nature – with the cost of continuance of business as usual built in – is necessary to sell it

Perhaps the first step of commodification is setting a price.  Many systems and programs of valuation exist at this point, as they must for those who “save nature” to make money.  Stanford’s Natural Capital Project, for example, offers free software: “InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs), a suite of models used to map and value the goods and services from nature that sustain and fulfill human life.  It helps explore how changes in ecosystems can lead to changes in the flows of many different benefits to people.” Their core partners include the Chinese Academy of Sciences, The Nature Conservancy, and WWF.  Their “network collaborators” include the World Bank, many governments and agencies, including the US Dept. of Defense, and corporations such as Dow, Dupont and Coca-Cola.

Of course, proponents of pricing nature do not emphasize the point that that which has a price can be sold.  Rather, examples tend to point out that the value of ecosystem services outweighs their costs.  For example, this case study offered by The Capitals Coalition, a Who’s Who of apparently every large conservation NGO, finance institution and corporation in the world, found that the Euros spent to maintain a protected marine area in Mallorca were dwarfed by the economic benefits of preservation. Most of the profit comes from so-called “cultural ecosystem services” – tourism – with other services lagging far behind in value: “at a considerable distance, cultural ecosystem services are followed by regulatory services such as coastal erosion control, which contributes annually with € 772,547 (16%) and the maintenance of biodiversity (€ 447,313, 9%).”

This example I chose at random from gazillions of choices on this page and elsewhere immediately reveals the folly of assigning monetary value to ecosystem services. How could tourism ever be worth more, and much more, than keeping the coast line intact or maintaining the biodiversity on which the tourism depends? Leaving aside such quibbles, however, we are supposed to now newly appreciate marine coastal vegetation (the source of erosion control) and biodiversity since they “contribute annually.”

The full case study reveals that the study estimated the financial value of the erosion avoidance from costs incurred by other communities fighting erosion – as the cost of damage avoided, in other words.  The use of cost offsets to value ecosystem services is a commonplace method of valuation, and important to note due its role in setting up impact investment or Pay for Success (PFS) deals.  As I explained in The New Surveillance Capitalism, these deals are the Go To for impact investors in public private partnerships in the human welfare sphere.  Many of the same dynamics that apply in the human services category also apply to environmental work, including the need for surveillance to quantify impacts and the coming financialization, or speculative trading of new forms of debt backed securities.

The Mallorca study estimated the financial value of the biodiversity in the preserve with a survey of community members’ willingness to pay to preserve it as an add on to their local water bill.  This method is also common for estimating the value of an ecosystem service.   Its commonness should not prevent us, though, from noting its outrageousness.  Nature is vital, bountiful, regenerative and resilient.  And I am not using buzzwords here! I mean it.  Nature only needs to be protected from extraction and pollution when these occur at too great a spatial or temporal scale, ie. when industrialization exceeds nature’s carrying capacity.

The question of how much local people are willing to pay to preserve their biodiversity obscures the underlying question of exactly who or what they are protecting it from.  In other words, the question implicitly shifts responsibility for payment from the polluters or extractors to the public.  It is as though the biodiversity loss just happens naturally, when the opposite is the truth.  Who is getting the disproportionate lion’s share of the financial benefit from the unsustainable extraction from or pollution of everyone’s nature?  Surely it is this tiny minority who should pay to “preserve” biodiversity if they insist on the continuation of their business as usual?  In this way, the price for protecting biodiversity factors in (and renders invisible) the assumed continuance of business as usual because, otherwise, regeneration would naturally occur. The notion that the public at large should pay to restore or preserve or maintain ecosystems is a perfect example of socializing the cost of privatized benefits.

Selling ecosystem services can take many forms

The Brandywine – Christina Revolving Water Fund (the Fund), still in its pilot phase, provides a concrete example of how investors can profit from selling the ecosystem service of water purification.  As the Fund targets private agricultural land in Delaware and Pennsylvania for its interventions, it also illustrates how selling nature as a service benefits those who own large parcels.  It provides a new revenue stream for people who own large amounts of land, a small and shrinking portion of the population.

The Fund, developed in a partnership between i2Capital and The Nature Conservancy, “catalyzes conservation” by funding on-farm best management practices (BMPs), such as fencing and riparian buffers, to reduce stormwater and nutrient run off into streams that flow into the downstream urban water ways.  The Fund commodifies the improvements in watershed health due to their interventions as “Environmental Impact Units” (EIUs).  These are “sold,” via contract to municipalities and water utilities in the watershed, with actual payment contingent (ie. PFS) upon regulatory approval after the BMPs are implemented. 

The Fund’s design, from The Nature Conservancy

The municipalities and utilities hope that the EIUs will be a cheaper route to the mandatory regulatory compliance targets set by state and federal storm and drinking water standards than upgrading their treatment facilities or building new ones.  The ability to address compliance issues upstream also adds a lot of options for reducing run off pollution that are more difficult within urban areas. The business plan for the pilot specifies that the market for the EIUs could expand in the future to include departments of transportation and construction and energy infrastructure projects that must comply with mitigation and offset regulations for their stormwater and other run off.

Obviously, in this case, the public will pay for water purification with or without the Fund.  The Fund simply enables upstream changes on private property that would not otherwise be on the table to address compliance challenges.  It makes sense as a solution within the current paradigm that nature degradation just happens.  Like the Mallorca example above, little attention is given either to the status quo of suburban and urban development, with its endless impervious surfaces, or who disproportionately benefits from this form of development.  Similarly, farms in the watershed are not required to prevent run off from their properties.  If they were, food prices might rise, but in a manner that would incentivize agricultural practices that maximized production within nature’s carrying capacity.

While the pilot phase has been funded through a range of public subsidies, “philanthropic” and corporate capital, once all the kinks have been worked out and risk significantly reduced, the fund will rely primarily on impact investors.  Considerable profit should be likely eventually once the fund replicates and scales, as intended, given that the business plan envisions that the first 6 year pilot phase with 26 farms should earn 600,000 dollars/year revenue with an initial capital investment of only 1.5 million.   The fact that a few BMPs on these 26 farms is projected to result in upwards of 60 tons of sediment removal per year gives some indication of the acreage of the intended beneficiaries of the funds.

The Fund heralds itself as not only bringing new capital to watershed conservation, but also to farmers. Although the details don’t appear to be spelled out online anywhere, apparently, in return for the contractual obligation to keep the BMPs on their farms, farmers receive compensation.  The Fund, in partnership with Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, is also piloting a program to “stack water and carbon assets to produce maximum benefits for regional producers while achieving corporate sustainability objectives.”  In other words, the Fund is planning on selling carbon credits as well as the EIUs (essentially clean water credits) from the same projects and farms and the producers (farmers) will receive compensation for these.

Natural Asset Companies: A model for replicating and scaling companies like the Fund and RISCO

Many people were struck by the news last fall that the NYSE, in partnership with the Intrinsic Exchange Group, was introducing a new asset class, Natural Asset Companies (NACs) “based on nature and the benefits that nature provides (termed ecosystem services).” Excellent articles were written at the time, including clear warnings that NACs would privatize the remainder of our “commons.” However, it has not been clear how a NAC could do so or their relationship to currently existing structures.

While they sound complicated, in part because there are no publicly available examples as yet, NACs are simply an alternative form of organization for companies selling ecosystem services, exactly like the Fund does, with distinct advantages for maximizing investor access and profit.  NACs separate the rights to ecosystem services from other property rights, similar to the way that a landowner may sell mining rights but retain ownership of the property.  The Fund, while not an NAC (yet), provides a good example of how NACs will operate.  The Fund’s founders envision it as a “private debt instrument” but as a NAC that had purchased the rights to the farms’ carbon sequestration and water filtration services, investors could buy and trade equity shares on the NYSE.  This type of financial arrangement opens the door to highly profitable speculative trading of an infinite array of derivatives.

NACs are planned to operate in “working areas,” particularly “regenerative farms,” and in natural areas.  NACs clearly intend to sell carbon and biodiversity credits, as well as water purification services like the Fund.  Farm NACs can sell these ecosystem services, as well as the commodity crops raised there, since “The use of natural resources…may be … included in the rights granted to the Natural Asset Company”.  Although I hope to cover in detail the farce of “sustainable development” operations including “regenerative farms” at another time, suffice it to say that the following picture captures the Orwellian redefinition of this term:

from “Sensing the Future of Bioinformational Engineering

As agricultural chemical giant Corteva explains on their web page on “Sustainable Farming”: “The venture capital community, too, has gotten involved, ploughing a record $1.5 billion into all parts of the agriculture supply chain in 2017.  Investments are giving rise to instrumentation for monitoring microclimates, robotics and precision machinery for managing inputs, drones for survey fields, and big data analytics for maximizing yield, quality, and sustainability.”

The general idea is that “precision” application of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers allow for no till agriculture (as do other, actually regenerative practices such as deep mulching), which reduces soil erosion and sediment pollution. Plus, of course, by using precise amounts, there would be less chemical and nutrient run-off.

The more money to be made from nature, the more nature will be taken

A NAC that has purchased the rights to a natural area, for example, from a government that might not be willing or able to sell a jungle outright, is also likely to sell carbon and biodiversity credits.   The possibilities for profit, though, of owning the rights to large global biodiversity hotspots are as endless as the possibilities for exploitation.  As the Intrinsic Exchange Group’s website says, “These include provisioning services such as food, water, timber, and genetic resources; regulating services that affect climate, floods, disease, and water quality; cultural services that provide recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits; and supporting services such as soil formation, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling.” The separation of ecosystem rights from the properties provides a neat vehicle for foreign investors to control and profit off other countries’ nature.

This vehicle for enormous wealth generation clearly incentivizes large scale land grabs in the global south, where the majority of healthy nature can be found.  Whether NACs or similar enterprises form as part of a government’s pledge to 30 X 30, or a corporate pledge to “sustainable” development, the result is the same.    Indigenous people and local communities, the best stewards, lose the use of their common land, leading to impoverishment and ultimately, presumably, to a more urban relocation.


Taking their own propaganda at face value, the world’s most powerful corporations, billionaires and financial institutions are working to build a new economy that “include[s] the full value of nature in the everyday workings of our financial system.”

Doing so at scale requires the global institutional participation of the entire Public Private Partnership.  Considering only the role of national governments, we see they must make carbon and other types of credits mandatory, serve as buyers for such credits for the public (as in the municipality example with the Fund), financially subsidize the organization of new businesses “to reduce investor risk,” sell government assets to “sustainable development” corporations, create conducive financial regulations for trading, and balance “environmental” regulation perfectly such that there is enough to force the purchase of credits, but not so much that the need is obviated.

Obviously, the idea that “free” markets can solve our environmental problems if only nature can be bought and sold like every other commodity is absurd.  The very idea of pricing nature requires government cooperation! The leaders of the GPPP are in the process of strategically crafting the market place for nature through governance that will best serve their interests.  The whole system will be almost entirely self- dealing.  While their polluting and extractive corporations will have to buy credits (presuming they fail to pull off mandatory accounting at the consumer level instead), they will buy them primarily from NACs they own large shares in and that operate from land they own.

The Intrinsic Exchange Group, the Rockfeller, venture capital and development bank funded creators of NACs, says that the fact that “nature is not an asset that can directly produce income and wealth …[is] a massive design flaw built into our economic system.”

I would argue that the central problem is not that nature is undervalued in dollars, but rather that it is not universally understood as priceless.  In the past, children were routinely exploited for their labor.  Better child welfare was not achieved by creating new market mechanisms to buy and sell children.  Rather, social consciousness changed to recognize children’s lives as priceless and industrialists and others were politically forced to recognize this new reality.  Furthermore, even though many parents exploited their children due to financial necessity, the political and social shift that offered much greater protection to children did not result in greater impoverishment.

I think the solutions to the environmental problems we face could start by asking what needs to change to reify nature as priceless. Each potential solution will illuminate dysfunction in other aspects of “the system,” that in fact, includes so much more than any narrow definition of “economics.” For example, obviously, government regulation can’t work so long as government is primarily a partnership with private financial interests that replace public interests, accountability and transparency.  Similarly, countries in the global south cannot protect their natural resources at the same time they are subject to crippling foreign debt and global financial exploitation.  The problems with the “Nature Positive” movement cannot be understood or even seen in isolation – they are systemic – and so must be the real solutions to environmental degradation.

Good Manure, Fake Meat and the GPPP of Food

One Saturday recently, as I was standing on top of a pile of horse manure, shoveling more out of our pick up truck, I was struck by the absolute perfection of a system that is nourished from poop.  Feeling grateful for this gift from horse-owning friends, I felt inspired to start my new garden.  I imagined how the manure would nourish my plants for years, and ultimately myself and my family.  I marveled at the perfection of the efficient, natural cycle of nutrition, elimination, decomposition, fertility and growth from one organism to another.

Later that evening, in anticipation of receiving another load of manure from a different source, I remembered a warning in my “How to Compost Everything” book about how contaminated compost, particularly manure, can poison a garden for years.  I did some research on the main herbicide in question, aminopyralid, and learned that its ability to poison the agricultural supply chain was acknowledged by agricultural extension offices and the manufacturer itself.

Marketed under the brand name Milestone, among others, the chemical kills broad-leafed “weeds,” but leaves grasses intact, thus “improving” the quality of pastures for haying and grazing.  Many vegetables are broad leafed.  The chemical remains active in the manure of animals that have eaten the treated grass or hay for as long as 5 years.  It does not break down faster even when composted as many chemicals do.  The manufacturer, Corteva (an offshoot of Dow Chemical) heralds their herbicide’s persistence in manure as an advantage, because, as they diabolically and euphemistically explain “the residual control of Milestone reduces the number of treatments needed.”

I was deeply struck by the contrast of going from the high on top of that pile of what I knew to be pristine fertile manure to the recognition that that same stuff could be rendered poisonous through a product ostensibly “for agriculture.”  Screening future manure prospects would be difficult because it is not enough to know that the owner doesn’t spray their pastures.  Do they know whether all the sources of their hay don’t spray?  Similarly, I have no way to ensure that commercially available compost doesn’t include sprayed hay, straw, or affected manure.  Most compost makers do not screen their supply to that level because many chemicals compost out.

Still feeling outraged at industrial agriculture’s desecration of natural fertility, I saw this infographic about highly processed “plant-based” and synthesized “meat” on Face Book the next day.  From the perspective of appreciating nature as a perfect system, there really is nothing more profane than poisoning manure and replacing animal protein with lab grown meat.

Fake Food For People and the Planet?

I totally agree with Navdanya International’s take that this stuff is unhealthy for people, doesn’t meaningfully address any environmental problems, and destroys local food systems. The current movement for synthetic foods will further concentrate agriculture and its profits, impoverishing and disempowering subsistence and other farmers, and ultimately, all of us who rely on affordable food.

It seems like one has to do all kinds of mental gymnastics to believe that synthetic food is good for people or the planet as the talking points promise.  I think it’s an example of a kind of double-think people engage in frequently due to relentless propaganda.  They simultaneously hold opposite views and switch back and forth between them unless directly challenged. 

In this case, many people understand (hopefully) that there are big environmental, health and animal welfare differences between beef cattle pasture-raised on small local farms and beef cattle raised in former Amazonian rainforest that are “finished” in Concentrated Agricultural Feeding Operations in Iowa with heavily herbicided corn and soy.  The latter type of operation is a rational and just target for needed change for human health, biodiversity, microbial resistance, energy and water use and animal welfare.   The deleterious effects of industrialized meat production don’t mean, though, that meat is the problem, nor that switching to a new form of industrialized “food” production is a solution.

People know that transnational corporations have profit imperatives – that they are legally bound to maximize profits for their shareholders.  They also know that there are many instances of corporate malfeasance and misuse of “the commons.” Yet, when these same corporations engage in relentless narrative pushing toward a social outcome (changing the world’s diet), they imagine that their solutions (to a problem, note, climate change, caused by a paradigm these same corporations are steeped in) is viable or even beneficial?

It’s Not A Conspiracy, It’s Logic

A vast network of corporations and institutions works together to push the world into accepting synthetic food.  Their goals are explicitly stated or obvious, and these goals can easily be seen to have unspoken logical counterparts.  For example, the profit imperative demands the goal of consolidating market share.  An unspoken corollary is to reduce the number of food producers.  An explicit goal is to sell more synthetic food.  As this food can only be made in high tech labs with patent ownership, an unspoken goal, or consequence if you prefer, is for people to be more dependent on such producers and less dependent on food they can grow on their own or local farmers can provide.  As highly processed “plant-based” fake meat uses various commodity crops (soy, corn and canola) as its base, another unspoken goal is to increase these crops cheap production over the diversification of the food system.  It is not a coincidence that many of the corporate players involved sell all kinds of poisonous methods to more cheaply produce such commodities such as seeds genetically modified to withstand the herbicides they also sell.  It’s not conspiracy thinking, its logic.

Standing on a mountain of “black gold,” seeing in my mind’s eye the life it can enable, it seems plain as day that reducing the ability of gardeners and farmers to access manure is antithetical to food security.   Real food security cannot be separated from real “environmental sustainability” as the whole idea that we or anything else can be healthy apart from our “environment” (the word itself unfortunately implying the freedom to move in and out of it) is utter disingenuous nonsense.  The aminopyralid family of herbicides poisons the free or cheap fertilizer from informal local networks that local growers have relied on for generations.  If you can’t trust your neighbor’s manure, or the straw or compost you buy from your local farm supply store, you either have to grow less food, buy chemical fertilizer (how convenient for the agricultural chemical companies), or grow your own animals or green manure.  Each requirement raises the cost of growing your own food and will push people out.

I am reminded of so many stories and movies with evil characters.  You spot them by their promises, spoken with silky words.  Crucially, you know the protagonists should run the other direction when the villain lets slip some act or word that reveals their utter moral decay.  Don’t trust him! You scream in your mind.  How much clearer a warning can you get than from an entity offering you “food” with the one hand, and poisonous fertilizer with the other?

The Global Public Private Partnership Pushing Fake Food

It is not a coincidence, that Corteva, manufacturer of aminopyralids and a strategic partner with Gingko Bioworks (the highest valued cell based food biotech), and other agricultural chemical companies (Bayer, Syngenta, BASF) are well represented within the global public private partnership (GPPP) of government agencies, multinational corporations and think tanks that are pushing global food policy into highly technological “solutions” to food security and climate change.  This industrial agricultural global public private partnership mirrors a similar partnership in global industrialized “health,” ie. disease management.

The structure and attendees at the September 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit provides a window into the Food GPPP.  The summit was organized into 5 “Action Tracks,” all of which pushed corporate agendas to the detriment of humanitarian and environmental goals.  However, I focus in this essay on Action Track 2 to reveal (a slice) of the Food GPPP network, and particularly the role of BigAg, (with Corteva as an example of special interest since they manufacture the manure poison). The goal of Action Track 2 is to “shift to sustainable consumption habits … changing consumer behavior, creating demand for sustainably produced and healthy food, and contributing to reduced food waste.”

EAT: Billionaires, Philanthrocapitalists and Corporations

Action Track 2 was led by the founder and executive chair of EAT, a “global, non-profit startup dedicated to transforming our global food system through sound science, impatient disruption and novel partnerships.” EAT was co-founded by the Stordalen Foundation (founded by the Stordalen billionaires, whose money comes from property development), the Stockholm Resilience Centre, (a technocratic think tank that defines metrics for impact investing in the UN’s SDGs) and the Wellcome Trust. The Wellcome Trust is one of the largest funders of biomedical research in the world and the second largest (behind The Gates Foundation) “charitable” foundation in the world.  Like the Gates Foundation, they use their enormous resources to push private, for profit agendas through the shaping of global policy and strategic “gifts.”  

EAT is the organization responsible for the EAT-Lancet diet, which garnered a lot of press for “plant based eating for people and the planet.” Notice, that partnerships makes it all the way into their foundational definition. So, besides the co-founding foundations, who exactly are their partners? Perhaps all we really need to know is that the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) is listed in two of their five partnership categories.  The WBCSD is the explicitly corporate wing of the World Economic Forum, with a memorandum of understanding between them to “scale up impact on sustainable development issues.”

The WBCSD, of course, lists every major chemical company (BASF, Bayer, Dow, Dupont, Syngenta) as partners, including Corteva.  Corteva and Bayer are also specifically partners in the WBCSD’s project Food Reform for Responsibility and Health’s (FReSH) subcategory, the “Responsible Meat” (ReMI) initiative.

Even as ReMI promotes “sustainable” practices around pork as their first project, a paragraph in the middle of their press release about lab grown meat and an unanswered question regarding the definition of “responsible” meat makes it clear where they are headed:

“Providing enough protein for the 10 billion people predicted by 2050 with limited resources is an enormous challenge for the global agriculture industry. 

Science-backed start-ups in the cell-based space are playing their part in creating a whole new industry, one that is commercializing lab-grown meat, poultry, seafood and fish to circumnavigate the environmental impacts of raising and slaughtering animals for protein consumption. 

And, of course, the plant-based sector continues to grow, all the time focusing on alternative proteins needed to feed the world’s ballooning population. 

But what does responsible meat mean?”

Partners for “Food” Even Dogs Reject

Partners in ReMI include companies that make synthetic fish, other cell based meat, and insect protein.

In addition to being a project of the WBCSD (which partners with EAT), FReSH itself is also listed as an EAT initiative. Like all their initiatives, it comes complete with its own list of corporate partners. Many of the corporations listed here (including Buhler, Givaudan, Baker McKenzie, Boston Consulting Group, C.P. Group, Danone, DSM, Evonik, IFF, Quantis, Protix, Symrise and Syngenta) and throughout EAT’s partnerships are working with synthetic meats and other forms of highly processed fake meats and dairy from commodity crops or insects.

Action Track 2’s goal of reducing food waste (which is also a FReSH goal) may seem particularly innocuous and thus serves as a good example of the scrutiny that should be applied to the GPPP’s words. Nofima, listed as an EAT “ally” “envision[s] that cultured meat could be a future supplement to regular meat.” They are particularly interested in reducing food waste though:

“By-products from the food industry is an excellent source of amino acids, peptides, carbohydrates, vitamins and many other potential factors that can sustain cell growth, and the scientists at Nofima are exploring how such food-grade by-product materials can be used as inexpensive alternatives to serum in primary bovine skeletal muscle cell culture.”

I think it is pretty clear here that they are talking about the “byproducts” that don’t even make it into hotdogs or dog food.  Redefining “reducing waste” to “feeding people scraps not fit for dogs” is the kind of translation necessary to properly comprehend the words of the Food GPPP generally, and the other goals of Action Track 2 (“changing consumer behavior” and “creating demand”) more specifically — it is all about pushing fake food.

International Agriculture Funded by Gates Foundation and Partnered With Microsoft

The UN Food Systems Summit of course also included other more prominently “public” members of the Food GPPP such as CGIAR and IICA (Inter American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture).  CGIAR is like the WHO for food.  And like the WHO, their second largest donor, after USAID, is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In a typical example of interlocking interests that make the GPPP seem much more diverse than it actually is, EAT also lists CGIAR as a “knowledge partner.”

But what about IICA?  Surely, their perspective isn’t also dominated by transnational or venture funded corporate interests that profit from industrialized extractive agriculture or highly technological synthetic franken food?  IICA and Microsoft launched their “Roadmap for the digital transformation of agriculture” in 2019. This road map includes using the Internet of Things for widespread data harvesting (surveillance) and control of drones for field work and the application of “precision” synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.  Artificial Intelligence is also a key component to analyze captured data and help identify ideal genetic engineering “solutions” for plants and animals.  As an article on IICA’s site says, “The Internet of Things, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, blockchain – to mention just a few – will prove essential in digitalizing agriculture and in ensuring its evolution into a more intelligent sector.” Processed plant based and synthetic fake foods fit into this paradigm perfectly because they use industrially grown commodity crops as bases and rely on patentable, highly technological infrastructure.  The patents, technologies and laboratories are amenable to the concentration of ownership and control in a manner that localized traditional agriculture is not.

IICA also partners with Bayer, Syngenta and Corteva, as well as other technology companies. 

The press release announcing the partnership with Corteva emphasizes IICA’s high tech goals and their desire to further privatize our continents’ food systems:

“Digital agriculture will not only impact farmers, but all links in the production chain, including consumers, who are becoming more informed and more demanding…Corteva Agriscience and IICA recognize the important role played by public-private partnerships in agricultural development initiatives…The memorandum of understanding is part of IICA’s strategy to significantly increase its interaction with the private sector, in order to provide the Western Hemisphere’s agriculture sector with concrete solutions to overcome climate change, as well to tackle social and production challenges.”

The Food GPPP does its best to sell its goals in language sure to appeal to caring citizens. Save the Planet! Stop Climate Change! Be Healthy! Be Responsible! Save the Animals! The media pounds us with these messages; we hear much less about the business opportunities. Reading their marketing materials, I can almost imagine myself being lulled by the beautiful pictures of “good food” and the touted goal of “sustainable, equitable food systems,” things I want for everyone. I am not immune to propaganda. Sometimes I even find myself thinking that even though I know these same corporations almost wholly own the current industrialized, commodity based system, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be tying to do something good …

My feet in the manure helps ground me to the truth, that, quite simply, whole scale destruction of nature is not compatible with saving it. Corteva cannot simultaneously poison manure, homegrown non-toxic fertilizer, and claim the mantle of “sustainability.” Corteva, just as a relevant example of one agricultural chemical company, is embedded in the morass of corporations, foundations, and public institutions that are leading the charge for heavily processed commodity crop and lab grown fake “meat.” These new “foods” in no way reform the industrial scale or methods of the system that is poisoning our planet and people. Clearly, their definition of “sustainability” is fundamentally flawed, unless they are talking about the sustainability of their bottom line.

The New Surveillance Capitalism

Every time I talk about the Great Reset or the Fourth Industrial Revolution or the Internet of Things or Bodies to friends that are unfamiliar with these terms, I get blank stares or disbelief.  My view that we are rapidly heading into a new era of a globalized biodigital security state, in which daily life for most occurs in a panopticon of surveillance and control, seems like a paranoid stretch to many.   One reason for this dismissal is that a lot of background goes into seeing and understanding the shift, the “Great Reset” that is underway and people don’t have the background.  To many, it seems like the business models and technologies involved in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the tools for the Great Reset, have come out of thin air, and they have no context to comprehend what is happening.

The Great Reset and its tools are extensions of changes in business, technology and governance that have been underway for some time.  Specifically, in this essay I hope to show that the levels of surveillance and control that we are moving into are entirely predictable from the current dominant business model, surveillance capitalism, and the ongoing explosion of internet connected devices in our daily lives.  It has taken me two years to understand these connections better, and I hope to make it easier for others.

Surveillance capitalism is the business model that gives you stuff (apps, browsers, social media, educational software) in exchange for your data, which they aggregate, sell, analyze and ultimately use to manipulate you with.  Facebook is the best known example due to prominent news stories, including the recent “whistle blower” story, Cambridge Analytica, and “The Social Dilemma” documentary.   These high profile stories document how Facebook tracks your likes and clicks, your photos, everywhere you go and what you do on the internet and many places in the real world, and sells the data to third parties for advertising and socio-political manipulation.  They also use your data for machine learning, or artificial intelligence (AI), to improve the algorithms they use to decide what content will best control your attention.   For example, Facebook increases divisive (defined through AI) content on your feed, so they can provide better “engagement” for their advertisers.

It is an aside, but perhaps worth remarking at this point that given how Facebook and other social media platforms work, calls for them to censor “mis” and “dis” information are absurd.  Their algorithms, which promote and amplify extremist content by nature of its ability to garner attention and engagement, are central to their business model.  Their algorithms also promote news and other posts on your newsfeed that AI predicts you are more likely to share or like, meaning that you get exposed more to “friends”’ posts that are like-minded rather than diverse views. These algorithms re-enforce the echo-chambers that harden opinions and beliefs isolated from evidence, to make it easier to target advertisements or other stories to well-defined user groups.  Polarization, which makes it far harder to discern truth in a cluttered information landscape, is thus the bread and butter of social media giants, not an aberration of malignant or ignorant users.

It is crucial to realize that surveillance capitalism is the dominant model not only in Big Tech internet companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, etc. but throughout the economy.  As Shoshana Zuboff, who coined the term and wrote a ground breaking book on the subject says:

“[Surveillance Capitalism] has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy.”

Surveillance capitalists sell three levels of product – the first is the service that entraps the user, like the Google search engine or a GPS service on a phone.  The second level is the data or information that they are able to capture when you use the service, which includes both data you provide and meta-data, like where and when you used the service.  Location is highly prized real world data from your phone because so much information can be inferred from it with AI.  The captured data is analyzed in increasingly sophisticated AI in order to better predict your behavior, called predictive analytics, either by the party that collected it or by a second party that buys it.

The World Economic Forum, (WEF) a global organization dedicated to the Great Reset, shares this handy table to help you grasp the breadth of the data of interest.

As they say, “Think of personal data as the digital record of everything a person makes and does online and in the world.”  That’s all.

You, as the sum totality of everything you do within the underlying materialistic context, are the product at the second level, in other words.

The purpose of predictive analytics goes far beyond advertising to the “automation of you.” As Zuboff makes clear, surveillance capitalists “sell certainty to business customers who would like to know with certainty what we do. Targeted adverts, yes, but also businesses want to know whether to sell us a mortgage, insurance, what to charge us, do we drive safely? They want to know the maximum they can extract from us in an exchange. They want to know how we will behave in order to know how to best intervene in our behaviour.”  Of course, surveillance capitalists’ customers are not exclusively “business customers,” as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments also use their data, as well as collect their own for predictive analytics.

Surveillance capitalism goes into hyperdrive with the Great Reset because of new business models, technologies and markets coming online.  In short, these models and technologies expand surveillance capitalism’s all seeing eye and manipulative reach from the original market provided by online activities to new “markets” managing social problems and the environment.  This new business model is variously called social impact investing/bonds, social entrepreneurship, or Pay for Success (PFS) financing.  For ease, I will usually use the PFS term.  The specific problems, or markets for investment, are outlined in the United Nations’ (partner of WEF) 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are explicitly referred to by impact investment corporations.

The UN SDG logo is a stylized human iris – suggesting both the all seeing eye and normalizing iris scans.

PFS is an outgrowth of the last 50 years of the neoliberal (and WEF) agenda of erasing distinctions between public and private interests.  Just like surveillance capitalism offers a free or low cost solution (remember, the first level of the “product” discussed above) to a problem (eg. social media “increases connection”), a PFS project offers aid for social or environmental problems.   Even though internet and mobile phone usage is ubiquitous, it is more optional than schooling and healthcare for most people.  Thus, moving surveillance capitalism into the realm of social services, as PFS does, brings its predatory surveillance and control into the daily lives of many more people.  It also opens the most vulnerable populations, who need access to many more publicly funded services, to a lifetime of exploitation for profit.

Venture or philanthro capitalists invest in a PFS program, such as a specific educational intervention, and receive a return on their investment if narrowly pre-defined outcome measures of “success” are met.   For example, the intervention could be a specific social emotional learning (SEL) program and success could be defined as a particular percentage decrease in the need for school mental health services after one year.  Funders, usually the government or large NGOs, reimburse the investors with a return on their investment (a profit) determined through calculated cost offsets.  Cost offsets are the long term costs to the government or NGO that were theoretically avoided due to the PFS intervention.  For example, researchers have calculated a 13% reduction in long term social spending costs (eg. less food assistance, fewer prison terms, less substance abuse counseling) through the provision of birth-to-five early education.  PFS investors then, could receive up to a 13% ROI for funding such education, as long as agreed upon “success” metrics are met. Even if all these savings are used to pay back investors, the government saves money overall by avoiding start up costs and by paying only for “successful” programs.

Information, in the form of captured data, is key to successful PFS deals.  Investors must carefully define both interventions and outcomes to increase chances for success. PFS deals collect data not only to document the success of the present intervention, but also to set up future PFS deals.  As in the original form of surveillance capitalism focused on internet services, the second level of the profitable product in PFS deals is your data, and ultimately, you. Allison McDowell, who has written extensively about the problems with PFS, expresses how it:

“…embodies digital colonialism, the lives of the poor managed through devices imposed upon them by wealthy, often foreign, interests… the economic value of humanity, especially the humanity of black and brown people, will be less in the products they consume (because their purchasing power will have become so limited) than in the data they generate. Most of this data will come from interactions with interventions designed to “fix” them. And now with predictive analytics, algorithms can make pronouncements of “future” problematic behaviors well in advance, setting up device-wielding non-profit partners to continually enforce behavioral and psychic compliance with the structures designed to oppress and contain them. The legacy of colonization and white supremacy will continue in digital form, magnified through the actions of social impact investors.”

A recent article in The Atlantic explains one way that “you” can literally become a product.  Some “innovative” young man featured in the article decided to raise money for a business project by “creat[ing] a financial instrument known as a social token, a form of cryptocurrency whose value revolves around a person, [and] sell shares in himself. Holders of $ALEX would receive 15 percent of Masmej’s income for the next three years, capped at $100,000 overall…”  The article hails the advantages of everyone “becoming an investor,” but acknowledges: “The phenomenon has a dark side. If everyone becomes an investor, the inverse is also true: Everything—and everyone—becomes a potential investment. As part of $ALEX, Alex Masmej designed a “Control My Life” component. Token-holders could vote on his life decisions—whether he should run three miles every day, stop eating red meat, wake up at 6 a.m. Token-holders had a financial stake in his success, so Masmej followed through on their commands.” 

It should be easy to understand how surveillance and control plays a role for investors in this type of economy – it is merely due diligence.

The video below, advertising a new platform for PFS deals, also illustrates the concept of everyone and everything being an investment.  Please spend the two minutes and watch it. Did you see all those numbers around the plants, every tree, and each drop of clean water?  Where does all this “high definition” data to “measure impact” come from? The continuous nature of the data stream shown in the video is a literal representation of the planned and desired level of information required for the best predictive analytics.

The desire and need for information is not limited only to the need to measure or define success metrics for ROI in PFS deals, nor to track one’s investments in the needy or the environment.    Potential returns on investments are actually small potatoes.  The big money comes from the final, third, level of the “product,” the securitization of the debt. Just like bundling mortgage and other debts to create new financial products and trading them in the stock market led to stratospherically higher profits than trading actual assets, betting for (or against) PFS interventions raises the profit potential for these “products” astronomically.  Since PFS “interventions” could consist of all kinds of social services, for example, pre-natal care of a group of women, shorting against its success could mean literally profiting from more dead babies.  Investors in such a scenario would be highly motivated to use as much information as possible to predict participants’ compliance with protocols and likelihood for success — rendering those whom the AI deems “poor” bets less likely to be eligible for services.  Although no one is trading instruments on wall street like this yet, the IXO platform, profiled in the video above, as pointed out in this in depth paper, is set up to allow internal prediction markets in which investors can bet for or against a project’s success.

I recognize that a stock market betting on human welfare may seem far fetched to some, but in the absence of strong regulations against it, financialization is a natural end stage of commodification.  This last year has seen the introduction to the NYSE of a new financial instrument to trade ecosystem services, for example, in a move that parallels the privatization of social services for profit in the environmental realm.

In the past, the information used for predictive analytics has been limited to information captured on the internet and through our smart phones.  However, the devices that are capable of tracking our every move internally and externally through sensors are about to explode as billions of  “smart” devices come on line as the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Internet of Bodies (IoB).  The IoT currently includes our phones, smart appliances, smart meters, smart grids, and connected and “smart” cars, but may soon pervade every area of life and the economy including agriculture, recreation, retail, manufacturing, transportation, health care, and education.   The Internet of Bodies (IoB) currently mostly refers to wearables, for example, to monitor fitness, security, mental health, or disease status. Implanted and embedded devices are also part of the IoB, usually framed at this point as therapeutic devices for the paralyzed, but also for viral detection or convenience. The expansion of the IoT and IoB is contingent upon the roll out of 5G/6G small cell technology.  5G is required to support low latencies for the envisioned billions of devices communicating with each other, not to support current cell phone users internet browsing or gaming.

The IoT and IoB should not be thought of as billions of surveillance devices operating independently, but rather as the word “internet” implies as an interconnected network.  This network has the potential to automate every aspect of life it touches– think The Jetsons.  Imagine walking through a store and scanning RFID tagged items as you put them into a cart.  The cart learns from your smart fridge what you need and lets you know when you are in the appropriate location in the store. When it’s time to leave you just walk out the door after glancing into an iris reader that accesses your digital ID and digital currency.   Once out of the store, you call a self-driving car with your smart phone app and get into the car with another iris scan.   Now, imagine a couple more levels of automation, because AI can choose the items based on your profile and drones can go and get them.

Automation like this requires that disparately owned devices communicate with each other (interoperability) and perform based on authenticated and secure permissions and payment that work with no human intermediary necessary for verification.  Also, in an economy that runs on information — to advertise, to manipulate, to sell, to predict, to manage, and to bet with — as much data as possible needs to be collected from all these sensors and stored in an accessible centralized way.  Biometrically linked decentralized digital IDs connected to digital “wallets” filled with your data and currency are thus as integral to an IoT/IoB information economy as advanced (and energy intensive) telecommunications (5G/6G etc.) infrastructure is.

The WEF, not coincidentally a major proponent of digital ID’s, was envisioning digital ID linked repositories of your data as long ago as 2011:

“In practical terms, a person’s data would be equivalent to their “money.” It would reside in an account where it would be controlled, managed, exchanged and accounted for just like personal banking services operate today. These services would be interoperable so that the data could be exchanged with other institutions and individuals globally. As an essential requirement, the services would operate over a technical and legal infrastructure that is highly trusted.”

The short video below from Microsoft explains how decentralized digital IDs work within a “trust” framework.

“Trust” is an Orwellian marketing term for the technology underlying decentralized digital IDs.  These ID’s are touted as the perfect solution to privacy and security concerns because they can be “self-sovereign”’ identities, meaning that the individual “owns” and controls it and their own data through private “keys.”  Although private keys could theoretically be PINs, automaticity requires finger prints, facial recognition, or iris scans.   The problem with the logic of “self-sovereign” ID is “choice” and “control” are meaningless in the context of rapidly intensifying extreme wealth/ownership concentration and further merging of the private and public sphere.  Surveillance capitalism is already the dominant economic model — this means that already, to keep your information private, you cannot use most apps or use the internet.  Under the PFS model, though, in which public services are doled out in exchange for data, you may not be able to eat, let alone see an (online) doctor, if you choose to maintain your self agency.

However, it is a grave mistake to imagine that only those who need subsidized social services will face coercion.  The Great Reset advances a plan to “manage” the world’s problems for a reason – the global economy and environment is collapsing and shifts are necessary.   We are not far from an economy in which masses are forced into unemployment due to automation and other causes.  Providing a Universal Basic Income is the preferred solution to recirculate enough capital to keep the economy going as it allows the elite to maintain their wealth and control.  Ownership concentration, however, means that UBI will be little more than script that can be spent (in exchange for data) at the “company store” or for rent in the “company town.”

Beyond the need to exchange data for goods and services, digital ID and digital currency in an automated society are perfect means of control.  During covid times, we have been treated to front row seats of the farcical claim that digital ID’s “empower the individual” with control over their own information.  For example, the “ownership” of vaccine information in a vaccine passport does a person little good if they are barred from public life and travel if they keep it private, as has been the case in certain cities in the United States, Canada, and other countries.  We also saw how easy it is to cow government dissent without getting your hands dirty with overt violence by shutting off access to funding and credit in the Canadian Trucker Convoy protests.

While shutting off the truckers funds required an act of the Canadian government, the adoption of Central Bank Digital Currencies will formalize bankers control of your life.  Do you doubt that such control is of interest?  Listen to Agustin Carstens, the general manager of the Bank of International Settlements, (the central bank of central banks that most people have never heard of) at minute 59:50 in the unexcerpted video: “We don’t know who’s using a $100 bill today and we don’t know who’s using a 1,000 peso bill today. The key difference with the CBDC is the central bank will have absolute control on the rules and regulations that will determine the use of that expression of central bank liability, and also we will have the technology to enforce that.”

It is important to note, though, that dystopian levels of surveillance and control only require government passivity, not action nor CBDCs, once ownership is sufficiently concentrated and commerce is more fully digitally mediated.  Anonymity and self-agency is impossible with decentralized digital IDs in automated “company town” societies filled with sensors continuously gathering your information.   Thinking through the “vision” of the 4IR, even just the IoT and IoB, leads to a very different scenario than the fun and efficiency promised by telecom when they promote 5G/6G.   Similarly, on the surface, engaging corporations in the “business” of “solving” (it is really managing with no intention of solving) the world’s problems may initially sound like a good idea.   However, understanding PFS as an expansion of surveillance capitalism into the most fundamental aspects of daily life, in concert with a greatly expanded surveillance network into the physical world, reveals its predatory nature.   The planned automaticity the network enables is a final important element to consider because it requires an “interface” between the human and real, and the digital — digital IDs and currency.  Most of these implications of these parts of the Great Reset and 4IR do not involve hidden conspiracies – they are simply implications of out there in the open business and technology agendas that are generally not discussed.   Seeing the big picture is crucial to assessing the safe guards in place (or not, as the case is) to protect our society against negative outcomes as well as to make informed personal and collective choices.

A Narrative Within A Narrative

Corporate and social media cover controversies like arrows that point to interesting and important things.  Of course, the talking points, memes, and narratives cannot be taken at face value — they are likely to reflect the least true and least important aspects of whatever is going on.  In this light, months of controversy about efforts of US public schools to reduce the achievement gap between white and black students and teach history and current events from more points of view suggest an underlying story or stories that we are NOT supposed to notice.   As goals such as historical accuracy, inclusion, and providing everyone an excellent education seem beyond reproach, it is natural to wonder how the debate devolved into:

With multiple Republican led states passing bills banning teaching “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) in schools and candidates in a bell weather governor’s race fighting over it. 

In Virginia, Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin claimed CRT was widespread in Virginia schools and made his objection to it a talking point.  In contrast, Democrat Terry McAuliffe flat out denied CRT was taught in Virginia and claimed the idea was: “a right-wing conspiracy…totally made up by Donald Trump and Glenn Youngkin.”

The focus on Critical Race Theory, per se, is Distraction’s Exhibit A as it mires dialogue in an academic question – what is CRT – rather than on what people care about, which is whether these changes in schools and by extension society promote truth and justice or divisive, harmful ideology. Like with so many other issues, the corporate and social media circuses seem designed to pit us against each other, rather than to look and think more deeply about our common ground.  The divide between those shouting “communist!” at those shouting “racist!” is too wide and deep to be anything other than the product of a manufactured narrative. 

What is that narrative distracting us from noticing? We’ve seen a massive surge of interest and language around “antiracism,” in the last few years – with the rise of Black Lives Matter, one high profile shooting after another, and the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and riots that roiled numerous cities in the summer of 2020.  Corporate adoption of antiracist talking points was very noticeable around that time, as corporation after corporation put out statements of support for Black Lives Matter.  The language used in this sudden embrace of social justice – words like “equity,” “sustainability,” “inclusion” and “diversity” – is similarly near-ubiquitous in the mission statements and marketing materials of government and non-government organizations at every level from local school boards to the United Nations (UN) and World Economic Forum (WEF).  These labels are seamlessly intertwined at this point into pillars of the Great Reset, such as stakeholder capitalism, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), social entrepreneurship and impact investing.

Many people seem to think that the widespread adoption of such language really means that those in the halls of power have truly heard the call of peace and justice for all.  I’m afraid it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  The powerful know that the best way to channel real energy and pressure for change from the masses is to co-opt it by choosing to emphasize, publicize and promote certain ideas, people and actions over others, such that the end product serves their own aims.  This is exactly what I think has happened in the antiracism education movement sweeping our country.  In particular, I think certain concepts, as taught, serve to increase division, hamper communication, direct the conversation away from everything that truly threatens the status quo, lower expectations for standards of living, and promote the financialization of educational outcomes.  

A few concepts, racism vs. antiracism, white privilege, and equity, from one school’s antiracism education program illustrate these points.  A middle school in Virginia used this slide deck as part of its 8th grade curriculum this past spring.

The first slide in the deck introduces the concept of racism versus antiracism with a quote from Ibram Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist: “…our children are either going to learn racist or antiracist ideas.” Right off the bat, the curriculum conveys that race is the only correct lens through which to view and understand reality. It also suggests a “you’re with us or against us” mentality that is continued in slides 81-89 as antiracism is defined as consciously, actively and frequently making antiracist choices, with the alternative defined as “(un) consciously uphold[ing] aspects of white supremacy, white dominant culture and unequal institutions and society.”  This dichotomy explicitly divides everyone into the good and bad guys and implicitly dismisses the universe of concerns that aren’t easily categorized along a racist/antiracist dichotomy (such as environmental concerns).  It also makes thoughtful dissent and discussing ideas that may be outside of the box considerably more difficult.  Anything you say, after all, that is not “antiracist,” is defined as racist.

This ideology shuts down valuable communication, truth seeking and ultimately solutions as people strive to stay in the “antiracist” column.  For example, police have killed disproportionate numbers of black people in recent years (slides 33 and 53).  The strong implication regarding causality for these deaths in these slides is that police officers use more force with black people due to racism, perhaps unconscious or implicit racism (slide 7).  While surely individual racism is the main factor in some cases, other factors may be more important, such as drug laws or the militarization of the police.

Take the case of Breonna Taylor, who an officer shot to death in her own apartment in a middle of the night drug raid. According to social justice advocates as portrayed in the media narrative, the officer’s actions and eventual acquittal were obviously due to white supremacy, even though Breonna’s terrified boyfriend fired first and hit an officer.  A worldview that simplifies issues into racist or antiracist easily leads to certainty that the officer and the jury were racist.  This conclusion keeps anger and fear in the forefront, narrows the conversation, and diminishes the potential to change the institutionalized procedures that make such shootings likely, such as middle of the night warrants and raids. It would be more productive to understand and change the historical and social roots of a criminal justice system that prioritizes apprehending people for non-violent crimes over people’s lives than to blame “racists.”

Examining long term social patterns, their historical underpinnings and their interactions with race may be beyond an 8th grade discussion, but the level of depth regarding cause, effect and solutions laid out in this slide deck is reflected in a wider conversation that seems fixated on polarized explanations that lay blame most prominently on individuals.  Keeping the conversation focused on racism keeps it off economic, class and social causes that cut across race, even though more black people are more negatively affected by many of these issues than white people. Focusing the issue on wider social problems that don’t stereotype individuals into race based oppressors and victims like the binary of racism versus antiracism does would benefit everyone as racial enmity were replaced with common cause. 

Many of these topics are implicitly subsumed under the category identified by Kendi in the quote above as “unequal institutions and society,” often called systemic or institutional racism. Even when these terms are used explicitly and defined to cover current inequities that have resulted from historical, as opposed to current individual racism, they still emphasize individual culpability in the use of the word ‘racism.’ Despite all efforts to redefine the word, it remains stubbornly next to “nazi” as a pejorative in our culture.  They also, obviously, frame the underlying cause as racism, failing to distinguish between racism itself as a motivation and using racism to divide and conquer. We would be better off turning our attention to longstanding patterns that affect almost all of us negatively, however unequally, to the benefit of very few.

Another concept in the deck (slides 37-41) that is becoming common in this type of education is “white privilege.” In one video, a white woman and a black man compare the number of times they have encountered different situations, including being called a racial slur, being followed in a store unnecessarily, having someone cross the street or get out of an elevator to avoid them, and fearing being stopped by the police.  The word “privilege” suggests that a person has something “extra” that is not an integral birthright, which someone else has bestowed upon them and thus can take away.

If it is a “privilege,” to be treated kindly and respectfully, though, then the fundamental dignity and worth of a human being is rendered precarious, extrinsic and undeserved. Emphasis is not placed on decent treatment and conditions for all as a goal, let alone on how to get there, but rather focuses on the privilege disparity between white and black people and the obligation that white people thus incur to even the playing field. The concept of privilege, taught this way, implies that “a good life” should be thought of in some way as something special, out of the ordinary, and achievable only through taking it from someone else.  It is the direct relationship between white privilege and the lack of these benefits to black people, after all, that requires white people to be antiracist to be morally just, as though discrimination were a zero sum game.   

“White privilege” focuses attention on the need to compete with other people, scarcity of resources, lack of fundamental worth, and division. It renders the wider cultural paradigm of exploitation and domination in which the “advantage” bestowed by white privilege has meaning invisible and unquestioned.  A different viral video that aims to explain white privilege shows college students racing to a finish line, in a Mother May I type set up in which they may advance if certain conditions are met.  It is notable that even criticisms of the video fail to point out that, maybe, just maybe, our cultural conception of life and success as a race with inevitable winners and losers could be a big part of the problem.

One noticeable aspect of Great Reset propaganda is an attempt to lower expectations of what it means to lead a “good life.”  For example, the World Economic Forum published an essay on their website on the idea of an entirely renting economy, “You’ll Own Nothing and Be Happy,” which they removed after widespread condemnation and lampooning.  We are also subjected to endless articles on the “exciting” future of food (for the masses) in lab-grown and insect meat, and other technological horrors.  Then there’s the push from governments, NGO’s and corporations alike for augmented and virtual reality education.  As Unicef, says, you know, we need virtual reality education because “…there will never be enough money allocated in the budget, qualified teachers or places in schools for the population we have.”  In this context, it doesn’t seem like too far of a stretch to wonder whether “white privilege” could be part of a widespread psy-op to encourage people to more easily accept these kinds of changes.  The more people can be made to feel that they are somehow helping others by feeling guilty for and eschewing what had previously been considered their due (normal respect, kindness and a degree of ease in life), the more they can be manipulated to believe that a lower standard of living for all (except the owners) is socially just.


While the concepts of antiracism versus racism and white privilege hamper the ability to identify, let alone work on underlying structural problems and threats, “equity” has been by far the most weaponized.  The word is cropping up everywhere because it is a key lever in reframing surveillance capitalism and 4IR technology into “social justice”.  “Equity” is usually presented, as it is in slide 71, like this:

Clearly, this is a very straightforward and concrete example to explain the idea that equity is about meeting everyone’s needs, even when the needs are different or greater.  It is easy to agree that, of course, in a just society, everyone should indeed get what they need.  A family with a special needs child provides a good example of how doing so can benefit everyone in the family.  As long as a family is well-resourced (emotionally, financially, physically) they should be able to meet each child’s needs even though they give more attention and care to the child that needs more.  Typical siblings stand to benefit from the experience themselves in myriad ways.  Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to make equity work for everyone in the top down, corporate captured bureaucracies known as schools.  Someone or something must be trusted to decide and measure who needs more, who needs less, and how needs should be met.

The old education model used Individualized Education Plans for a tiny and well-delineated minority of students to meet different needs.  This model, though, is ceding to one where “equity” demands that every child be assessed and monitored continuously in order to justify potential interventions. Surveillance, data extraction and the weoponization of that information should sound familiar as the model Facebook and other tech giants use as they harvest your every move online, feed it to algorithms to predict your future engagement and sell your attention to advertisers or other interested parties. As Shoshana Zuboff, who coined the term surveillance capitalism, points out, “…surveillance capitalism is the dominant economic institution of our time… [which] draws surveillance economics into the “normal” economy, from insurance, retail, banking and finance to agriculture, automobiles, education, health care and more… predictions of human behavior are the product.”

Did she say … education?!

The groundwork to use “equity” as an excuse to monetize children was set up in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which followed No Child Left Behind as U.S. national education policy.  ESSA opened the door to wide scale privatization of education and set up conditions for monitoring and data collection through its emphasis on “pay for success,” “evidence based interventions,” and “competency based education.”  Pay for success provided a new funding stream to allow private investors to fund specific programs (evidence based interventions) and receive interest on their investment if pre-determined narrowly defined outcome metrics (competencies) are achieved.  It is rarely explicitly stated that the vast majority of interventions are through educational technology, which, of course, is also vital to assessment.  Technology scales for greater profit than can be achieved through human centered intervention.  ESSA goes a long way to promote educational technology, but what to do about parents and teachers that balk at replacing lower student teacher ratios and independent professional teachers with online “personalized” instruction from artificial intelligence?  This article praising ESSA makes it plain that that is exactly what it promotes:

“…we’ve known for decades that personalized learning is a vastly better approach.  A 1984 study led by education psychologist Benjamin Bloom found that students given one-on-one instruction consistently performed two standard deviations better than their peers in a regular classroom. That’s enough to vault an average student to the top of the class.

Until recently, technology advancements that may have seemed far-fetched a decade earlier have made this personalized approach possible. Indeed, venture funding in the edtech sector has increased from almost $400 million six years ago to an expected $2 billion this year. Powerful, adaptive edtech means that all students can have — as part of their instructional team — a digital instructor to help them learn what they need to know, when they need to know it, at their own pace and place.”

How smoothly and easily the power of human connection, attention and creativity is dismissed!

“Equity” provides an imperative to close achievement gaps by providing everyone what they need to succeed.  Yet, critical truths remain unsaid and unseen: teachers won’t be empowered with enough time or independence to meet needs creatively, underlying contributing or causal factors to need won’t be addressed and everyone cannot succeed in a culture of competition. Online personalized learning funded and controlled by for profit entities, then, becomes the obvious solution to the problem of how to meet everyone’s needs.  The narrative cycle of posing a problem – equity – then a reaction – worried parents concerned about their own kids in a hyper competitive economy, and finally providing a desired solution – personalized learning – is evident in this news story about Virginia’s new math initiative.

Under the new Virginia Math Pathways Initiative (VMPI), all kids will take the same math classes before 11th grade, after which they can diverge.  This system will replace the old one of tracking or ability grouping in which some kids accelerated through the curriculum faster than others, such that they would start more advanced math classes sooner and end up with more math under their belt.  According to the article, in response to parents’ worries that the new math plan would hold their kids back, a Virginia Department of Education spokesperson promised that “Differentiated instruction [would be] catered to the learning needs of each child (appropriate levels of challenge and academic rigor…within a heterogeneous learning environment…” but he did not say how this would occur in practice.  He may not know, but I think it is pretty clear what will happen next.

Companies like Dreambox are more than ready to make sure your child reaches his or her potential!

“DreamBox continuously assesses students to present them with targeted lessons.  The program collects 48,000 data points every hour a student uses DreamBox.  It tracks each student interaction and evaluates the strategies used to solve problems. It then immediately adjusts the lesson and the level of difficulty, scaffolding, sequencing, number of hints, and pacing as appropriate. This allows students, whether struggling, at grade level, or advanced, to progress at a pace that best benefits them and deepen conceptual understanding.”

Note that, while the Virginia Department of Education states that the new math pathways program comes from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, it’s name and ideas are strikingly similar to the Pathway initiative funded largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that have led to many changes in other states.

Concern for “equity” amply does its job by distracting some parents from noticing or critically analyzing educational changes due to the social justice rationale.  It silences others’ dissent towards greater or this specific use of technology in education by framing all concerns as racist.  Other parents are set up through fear of a competitive culture with growing scarcity to accept personalized learning as a savior that will enable their child to either “get ahead” or maximize their potential.  It completely obscures the step by step construction of an “educational” system that sells children’s futures to the highest bidder and sets everyone on a re-skilling treadmill to compete in a global digital economy.  The greater media narrative of conservatives versus liberals around the issue as a whole can be easily seen in this context as a device to make people think they understand both what is happening and what people disagree on when neither is true.

While surveillance capitalism today has as its central goal selling more stuff, it’s longer term goals are more about selling YOU.  First, there’s the necessity of selling yourself as an employee in the economy of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in which the vast majority of our current jobs are automated.  This automation will not just include the obvious cashiers and truck drivers, but also most service providers for most people, such as teachers, doctors and therapists.  Nearly every specialized online platform for these services that today gives you interactions with a person is collecting data to feed into artificial intelligence to build better algorithms so a person will no longer be necessary.  Educational technology that adaptively teaches, ie. “personalized learning,” without a human, also, of course, uses user data to improve their algorithms and thus expand their market (and profit). Note that there is no need to keep or use any personal identifiers to use your data this way, avoiding what many believe is the chief privacy concern.

As many more people will need jobs and many more people will need to work in the digital economy to keep it going, new training and assessment mechanisms become necessary to choose among the winners and losers.  Normalizing online learning for the long term is important for a near future in which “life-long learning” is required for workers to keep up with advancing technology.  “Workforce development” (formerly known as education) will train children from the beginning to earn points or badges as they meet employer-defined metrics in endless learning modules – for the rest of their lives.  At the same time, all this performance data will be kept in a real “permanent record.”

The second way that surveillance capitalism within education makes the child, quite literally, the product is through new investment vehicles and procedures.  The beginning of the financialization of students is already present in the Pay for Success and Public Private Partnerships that encourage for profit corporations to tailor educational programs and goals to maximize private profit. However as surveillance monitoring increases through educational and other technologies and algorithms improve in their predictive ability, it will become feasible for investors to not only choose educational programs to invest in (as they do already), but even individual students. This recent Atlantic article discusses this emerging economy:

“To be clear, the financialization of everything isn’t an unalloyed benefit. The phenomenon has a dark side. If everyone becomes an investor, the inverse is also true: Everything—and everyone—becomes a potential investment. As part of [offering shares in himself], Alex Masmej designed a “Control My Life” component. Token-holders could vote on his life decisions—whether he should run three miles every day, stop eating red meat, wake up at 6 a.m. Token-holders had a financial stake in his success, so Masmej followed through on their commands.”

Of course, the author of this piece pretends that everyone could also be an investor, as though the poor and rich are equally as likely to invest as they are to be invested in.

Investing in any particular individual or group could mean providing healthcare or educational or other services — if the predictive analytics indicate that they are a good bet.  These predictive analytic algorithms are being created now with data corporations collect on children through educational technology.  They don’t need to attach the data to personal information to build models.  They can use anonymized data to build models that allow early detection of likely winners and losers now, and apply them to new children in the future.  New financial instruments have recently been developed to own and trade ecosystems services – perhaps students will be next. If such financialization occurs, wall street can trade the commodities (children) as they do others, like mortgages, with all kinds of creative financial instruments that turn people’s lives into a high stakes game for profit.

Yeah, that’s a lot to get from “equity,” isn’t it? But when “equity” suddenly appears on most corporate websites, it’s past time to consider whether the term has been hijacked.  Similarly, media narratives that rely on the most simplistic objections and arguments to objectify the “other” in such strident terms as “communist” or “racist,” deserve a second look.  In the case of antiracist education and the national fervor to defend or outlaw teaching “Critical Race Theory” in schools, there’s a narrative in a narrative.  Corporate media, owned by the same handful of players that own everything else (eg. Big Tech, Big Ag, Big Pharma, and FinTech) casts the story in the most divisive terms possible, as though the story is the conflict.  They hope you will share the demonizing memes their algorithms push forward on social media rather than look deeper. At the same time, the specific character of the educational antiracist movement sweeping school districts tells its own story about modern America and what ails it.  That story casts our deepest problems as stemming from racism and suggests “evening the score” between the races as the solution.  When discussion of the rules of the game is taken off the table, though, evening the score can only lead to changes in who wins and who loses.  And that set-up, of course, leads beautifully into the oligarchs sweeping in as the biggest winners of all.

Commodification of the Commons: Bottled Water, Seeds, and Vaccines

I watched a video clip a few years ago of a small group of First Nations people facing off across a river against a couple of suited up pipeline executives.  The executives were carrying cases of bottled water, held up like a peace offering.  An elder woman told the men they weren’t welcome on the sovereign First Nation territory. Later, the elder spoke to the camera of her outrage and sorrow at the ignorance and arrogance of any who would think that bottled water could ever make the pollution of their rivers acceptable.

First Nations people are not the only ones pressured to trade good water for the plasticized product.  Fracking and pipeline companies in the U.S. don’t admit that their operations may contaminate ground water and wells, but offer a solution to calm fears. Don’t worry! We’ll make you whole!  If you can prove we damaged your water, here’s a life time’s supply of water buffalos!  They really seem to not have any grasp of why anyone would feel that losing their fresh, abundant, regenerative well water would be a loss.

The substitution of an inferior product for the real thing nature provided for free isn’t surprising or new.  Within our modern ideology of productivity and progress, inherent or intrinsic value has been purposefully overshadowed by the narrowly defined “value” conveyed when something can be bought and sold.  This commodification of what was once free to all fuels corporate economic dominance and the concentration of power and wealth.  Further, by intimating that that which has not entered the market has no value, the machine invites the pillage of the commons, whether held collectively or individually, as there can be no theft where there is no value.

While this phenomenon isn’t new, it is accelerating as commodification moves into more realms integral to life, like food.  Historically, farmers saved seeds from their crops to plant the next year.  With the advent of GMO seeds in the 1990’s though, farmers had to sign contracts that they would not keep any seeds to plant – because the corporation owned the patent on them.  The green revolution and the 2006 launched Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa included the replacement of indigenous and community seed varieties that were self-perpetuating with proprietary seeds that require small farmers to buy anew each year.

The process of commodification has been on my mind throughout the covid crisis, since I noticed very early on the world-wide dominant narrative that the only way out of pandemic restrictions would be an effective vaccine.  Vaccines, obviously, are a product that is sold to us, in this case via our tax dollars, to replace natural immunity, which is part of the invisible, implicit commons, a birthright that has no monetary value.  Covid vaccine mandates, particularly, commodify natural immunity and replace it with a product we have to buy, regularly, for life.

We know now that the covid vaccines require boosters.  The U.S. just approved them for the elderly, immunocompromised and “front-line” workers.  Israel has gone so far as to classify those without their booster shot as “unvaccinated.”  These measures are being taken, ¾ of a year since the first shots began going into the first arms because vaccine efficacy in terms of infection and transmission, especially, is waning.  It’s not entirely clear whether efficacy is waning due to Sars-Cov2 mutating with the “Delta” variant or just as a matter of time.  Either way, there is every reason to believe that the trend will continue – boosters will be needed perpetually, just as they are with the flu vaccine.  Different kinds of viruses mutate at different rates.  RNA respiratory viruses, including all coronaviruses and the flu, mutate relatively quickly, whereas measles, for example, mutates slowly, making it a better candidate for control through vaccination. Flu vaccines are updated every year, and their effectiveness still wanes by 50% over the course of a single flu season. 

An obvious major benefit of vaccines compared to natural immunity is that in order to obtain natural immunity, you have to be infected, and not everyone survives the process.  However, covid risk is not distributed evenly across the population, but rather varies very strongly with age and a few comorbidities, the most important being obesity. Such differential risk should obviate mandates apriori because risk-benefit calculations should always be central to all medical decisions.  For those in high-risk categories, vaccines may indeed be the best option, but for those at low risk of severe illness, natural immunity is superior to vaccination because it is free, robust and reliable.  It also is a “limited time offer” as it is best relied upon when young and in good health as that is when our immune systems function optimally. 

Natural immunity is safer than relying on an endless stream of booster shots in several ways.  Obviously, no matter how small a risk is, as long as there is some risk, multiplying exposures through lifetime use will increase the risk.  In the case of covid boosters, each time they are reformulated to deal with mutations or tweaked for efficacy, new potential short and long term effects are possible.  Given that the original EUA’s were granted after a mere two months of follow up and 6 months down the road the placebo group had been eliminated, only an extremely naïve optimist could imagine that the safety profile will be carefully analyzed moving forward.  Also, statistically speaking, the more reformulations, the more potential for serious unexpected side effects to occur.  Repeated exposure to the ingredients in the vaccines also increases the risks for allergic reactions. We know that PEG, an ingredient in both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, causes allergic reactions in the susceptible.  Since repeated exposure to a drug can sensitize the immune system and cause allergies or make existing allergies worse, it is clear that repeated injections increase this risk.

While the covid vaccine aims to maintain efficacy in spite of mutations and waning immunity due to time through boosters, natural immunity does the same through repeated exposures to the virus over time.  In general, our immune systems have multiple parts and layers of defenses. These different parts don’t all swing into action for every threat, but rather get involved in a tiered approach.   Generalized defenses engage first, and only if those fail to neutralize the threat do more specialized defenses come into play.  Mild illness engages less of your immune system and results in a shorter period of immunity than more severe illness.  However, even though immunity wanes and viruses mutate, frequent re-exposure to a virus provides prolonged immunity.  Re-exposure provides the immune system the opportunity to “update,” refreshing immune memory for the virus and taking into account any recent mutations.  As long as the next encounter with the virus happens before immunity fades to zero, immunity may “update” to include the new mutation and set the clock back on the immunity time line while causing much milder or even eliminating symptoms compared to the initial exposure.  This carry-over protection from previous year’s respiratory viruses to new variants is called cross-reactive immunity.

Cross-reactive immunity provides protection not only for variants of a virus caused by mutation but also to related viruses.  Ninety percent of us, for example, have some cross-reactive immunity to Sars-Cov2 from exposure to related coronaviruses, which may explain why many people only experience extremely mild or even asymptomatic infections to this “novel” virus.

The long term cross-reactive protection provided by repeated exposure in natural immunity is more robust against mutations than vaccines, and also contributes more to cross-reactive immunity for “novel” related viruses (Sars-Cov3 anyone?).  Whereas the covid vaccine teaches the immune system to recognize only one aspect of Sars-Cov2 – the spike protein, the immune system learns about the whole virus through a natural infection– making it much easier to recognize similar strains.  Natural immunity will also always be there for you, unlike the boosters, which could fail to arrive due to technological, political or economic problems.  The efficacy of boosters, furthermore, will depend on how well the scientists have been able to predict mutations – a good guess will yield greater efficacy like it does for the yearly flu boosters, which are formulated anew each year in advance of flu season.  In addition to the problem that the covid vaccines involve a life long subscription to a pharmaceutical product that you may not need or want and may have side effects, they may also cause dependency, such that once you start, you may not be able to stop. 

The booster as life support could occur in two ways.  First, as mentioned, natural immunity is a limited time offer.  Each year of your life that you depend on the boosters instead of your natural immunity increases the potential that your immune system will fail to overcome Sars-Cov2 in natural infection, as youth and good health are paramount to defeating covid.  Antibody Dependent Enhancement (ADE) represents a second potential eventuality that could lead to dependence.  ADE occurs when vaccines work just well enough to train the body to recognize a virus, but not well enough to destroy it.  In this case, the immune response triggered b y the vaccine actually increases the potential of the virus to infect and sicken the host.  ADE occurs as vaccine efficacy wanes due to mutations and time and some evidence suggests it is already occurring for the covid vaccines.  Scientists warned about the potential for ADE from the beginning of the pandemic, as it has been a well-known problem in vaccine research for coronaviruses. ADE, in fact, was responsible for the previous failure of all earlier attempts to make such a vaccine. If ADE occurs you are worse off than if you never had a vaccine – which makes you more dependent on a new “improved” vaccine or other pharmaceutical because your immune system is less likely to be able to overcome the virus naturally.

from a “Future Human” article.

The commodification of our immune systems did not begin nor does it stop with the covid vaccines.  Today, multiple labs are working on covid combo vaccines, to include ALL coronaviruses and/or flu-covid combos, chillingly heralded as “one shot to rule them all.”  People in poor health, for whom the common cold could be deadly, may want these vaccines.   However, given the ubiquitous bio-security zeitgeist, might they be mandated for all?  Because coronaviruses mutate frequently and easily, it doesn’t seem likely that there could ever be a vaccine for them that could provide “sterilizing” immunity to actually prevent infection, versus just mitigate severity.  But if scientists were to accomplish this feat, coronaviruses would change for humanity from the “common cold” to deadly killers, as the vaccines would prevent the common re-exposure that make this class of viruses relatively benign.  Because coronaviruses have animal hosts and can jump to humans, they could never be eradicated and sterilizing vaccines against them would simply leave humans in perpetual pharmaceutical dependence. 

Similarly, vaccines that simply greatly decreased the number and frequency of circulating coronaviruses could have detrimental effects for those “break through” infections that did occur.  The grave consequences of preventing frequent exposure to viruses has been demonstrated recently as children throughout the world are experiencing unseasonal and especially severe respiratory viruses.  Experts are blaming “immunity debt,” or the absence of threat-induced immune system training, built up from too much isolation through 2020, as the culprit.  As news releases proclaim the promise of more and more vaccines to prevent or treat illnesses once considered mere nuisances, it would be very reassuring to see broader discussion of long term implications and complications like this.  The total absence of such discussion is very disturbing.

Governments are imposing a long term agenda on the population with vaccine mandates which could have significant effects on life as we know it, without acknowledging that they are doing so, nor clarifying the long-term implications.  This type of top down restructuring of society is a familiar consequence of commodification, often hidden in the language of “progress.”  Products are introduced at first as voluntary benefits, but they have far ranging effects on our economic, social and political structures.  These effects are exacerbated as regulations and coercive tactics replace the voluntary nature of the product. Looking back, we can see this process with the “Green Revolution.” Were the first genetically engineered seeds sold with an entire vision of corporate control of the food supply, mass urbanization, globalization, lifetime dependence on chemical inputs and multinational corporate concentration of wealth and power all written up in the language of equity and sustainability in a glossy corporate prospectus?

The saturation of known markets with traditional products means that new aspects of life need to be brought into the marketplace for the current players to maintain their empires. New “products” can be hard to spot, because we just think of them as parts of life, like DNA and our immune systems, but if we want to move in a direction we choose, rather than being herded into a corporatist future half-asleep, we need to look out for commodification.  As incredible as it may seem, people around the world are ringing alarm bells about the commodification of human beings ourselves as human capital, ripe for investments to impact our health, education, and behavior in ways that can be measured, bet on, bought and sold in human capital bond markets.  Look for these themes in future blog posts on the Great Reset and the Fourth Industrial Revolution but if you want to know more now, this blog and this blog provide great introductions.

Mask Memes

Memes about masks on social media are like a lever that increases the toxic divisiveness so prevalent in the US today.  Some common themes that criticize so called “anti-maskers” do nothing but make people angrier at each other and solidify feelings of in-group membership, dampening the critical thinking and compassion and tolerance for others our society so desperately needs. 

One idea iconized in memes is the idea that people don’t want to wear masks out of an immature, politicized notion of freedom and liberty.  A second idea is that people object to masks merely because they are inconvenient, in the same way that wearing shoes and a shirt into a restaurant at the beach could be inconvenient.  A final predominant theme is that people don’t want to wear masks because they are selfish and don’t even care about something as important as other people’s lives.  Many memes manage to convey all three of these ideas in a few sentences.  These memes paint a deeply negative picture of a person who can’t be bothered to do a simple thing to save lives, no doubt due to being duped by fools on TV.

Now, I’m willing to concede that there are all kinds of people out there, including selfish, stupid people who can’t be bothered to do even the simplest things for even the most important reasons.  However, I have not met any of them and I have met many thoughtful, caring people whom I may have once ignorantly labeled.  I have learned to be suspect of jumping to the conclusion that people fit into any such tiny boxes.  In general, for all issues, people may SOUND outrageously ignorant or narrow-minded because they haven’t thought everything through, or because they lack the emotional or intellectual ability in the moment to articulate well.  When people are frustrated, they may react angrily or rely on the repetition of mindless slogans, but it is a mistake to assume that the position itself is captured by what you may see in the moment (especially when this moment is captured on video and repeated in every corporate media outlet as though it is representative.)

The crux of the issue is that people who think masks are a mere inconvenience or not even that believe that they are saving lives.  If they didn’t believe that, they would be more conscious of the evolutionary and cultural significance of breath and speech to life and freedom. For example, think about how these masks strike you.

Not only are the handmaids in Margaret Atwood’s tale as imagined for Hulu gagged (with masks not as restrictive as the ones we are asked to wear for Covid – her nose is showing!) their mouths are literally wired shut so they cannot speak.

As this piece on the episode that reveals this new control tactic states:

“[In D.C.], fertile women have their voices literally ripped from them as a sign of servitude to the totalitarian regime… The handmaids take “a vow of silence that’s enforced by a physical ring on the mouth,” [series creator] Miller says. The image of women in red handmaid’s uniforms unable to speak serves as a harsh reminder of the extent to which whatever is left of …  rights can still be stripped. “Like so many things, the intention is first it’s voluntary, then it’s encouraged, then it becomes required,” Miller says. “

It takes serious double think to deny the deeply disturbing nature of these ideas and imagery.  Even though the handmaids in the story have their mouths physically wired shut, the creator points out that it started as a voluntary vow of silence.  I’m sure they thought they had a good reason – as “vessels of fertility” in a dystopian infertile world, such a vow could be viewed as a public health measure, as indeed the entire concept of the handmaids is.  And even though other handmaids, like the main character of the series, can speak through their masks, the point of the mask is to symbolize subjugation and silence.  While obviously people can and do speak through Covid masks, they do make it harder to speak due to breath restriction (try giving a lecture) and to hear others.   The most important point, though, is that if the symbolism shown in the story was not real for our culture and widely felt, it would not work for “entertainment.”

Similarly, for muslim women who sincerely feel that covering their faces is appropriate for modesty or another reason, veiling may be an inconvenience.  The rest of us, however, imagining our selves in her place, see a covered woman as a sign of oppression. 

Because I do not believe that masks save others’ lives (we’ll get to that soon), I feel about mask mandates the same way I would feel if our government demanded I wear hijab.  If you didn’t believe masks worked, that’s how you would feel too.

Here’s another important image – this one from the MET Gala this past week:

Notice how she is wearing a dress about equal rights, maskless, while a row of servants behind her in plain black wear masks.  The woman is a representative from New York, a state with some of the most restrictive Covid measures, including a vaccine passport in NYC.  This scene of decision makers breathing freely while those with less power are masked was repeated throughout the gala, and in fact throughout the pandemic

Not everyone has read reams of opinions and research articles on masks, as I have, to come to the conclusion that masks don’t work.  But people who can’t point to studies feel these images I’ve posted above viscerally.  They feel the hypocrisy and control, which is very real, even if they cannot or do not articulate it.  Their feelings are not a result of stupidity – they are from being in touch with their bodies, their intuition, their inner voice -something I believe our culture needs a lot more of and should not be mocked. 

I don’t want to convince you that masks don’t work to control the spread of Covid, as no matter what facts I post, counter facts can be found.  I want to make the point very clearly that if you believe masks work and that they should be mandated, the onus is on you to read as much as you can, not on me to prove anything to you.  It is you that wants to force others to comply to your beliefs.  I am not interested in forcing anyone to comply to my beliefs.  Another meme:

This meme conveys the false idea that people opposing mask mandates have an interest in keeping other people from wearing masks.   That idea nicely obscures the imbalance in the two “sides” positions – that we are both pushing our views on others. 

However, if you would like to see for yourself why I don’t believe masks are important for public health, please know that masks have never been shown to contain viruses (except for medical-grade PPE like fitted respirators), including the flu, they don’t do anything in surgery, and cannot stop aerosol transmission.  Yes, given these facts, one can indeed wonder why medical professionals who don’t vaccinate for the flu are forced to wear masks and why surgeons still wear masks in surgery.  Please see here, here, here and here for good overviews of mask research.  But don’t believe the websites I’ve posted!  Click the links and read the sources they point to.  And, while I’d truly love to hear thought out or well founded disagreement in the comments, before you bring up the new Bangladesh study, read this and this.

Also, a brief note that the science regarding masks benefit to limit spread can by no means decide the entire issue of whether mask mandates are warrented.  All policies should be weighed for benefits versus costs.  The harms I’ve discussed here regarding masks (the diminishment of personhood and the psychological and real subjugation) are the tip of the iceberg of the harms of mask wearing, especially for children.  If interested, see overviews here and here.

Again, I have no desire to convince you to stop wearing a mask.  But, will you join me in making an effort to think before posting memes of the “other side” that present a caricature of the issues?  Memes that only function to sow greater division, make fun of people, and make it harder for people to dissent for fear of being seen like THOSE people? I used to post memes like that myself, but really try to catch myself now. 

Garden Rebound

You want to know something funny?  I wrote this post in April of last year, anticipating a new garden season with great pleasure.  It turned out to be the worst garden I’ve had since I called myself a gardener. Throughout the summer I shook my head every time I thought about that essay – who did I think I was?  Obviously I knew nothing about gardening, let alone enough to philosophize about it!  I could not keep a single cucumber nor winter squash plant alive long enough to bear fruit.  My pepper plants withered.  The eggplants only produced from a second planting in mid July, the okra was stunted and blight hit the tomatoes earlier than usual.

Nearly a year and a half later, I cannot suppress the corners of my mouth from turning up when I think about my mortification.   In response to my garden’s depleted output, I tried a lot of things throughout last summer.  I tried to hand pick and trap the hordes of cucumber beetles, squash beetles and squash vine borers to no avail.  A friend suggested nasturtiums as a valuable squash pest deterring companion plant, so I planted as many of them as I could, but it was too late.  They bloomed in October in a nearly empty garden.  I took mulch off and put it on.   I started new seeds over and over, and bought all kinds of seedlings.  I added organic fertilizers around new seedlings and plants that seemed to need it, just to have some kind of critter dig them up to eat the fertilizer. Towards the end of the summer, I planted daikon radishes in a bunch of the beds, hoping they would grow, rot the next spring, and break up what seemed to suddenly be deeply compacted, heavy soil.

As our garden is on a slope in a hollow in the shadow of the Blue Ridge nearly as low as you can get without being in the floodplain, it’s a funnel for many square miles of rain run off.  It was a very rainy spring and summer last year and we had foolishly tilled when it was too wet. It had rained so much last year through April and May that I decided on my own time table versus reality’s that we had waited long enough.  Usually, we don’t till at all because we don’t want to disrupt the soil microorganisms and we want to protect the soil structure but it seemed so much easier to till than to pull up all the weeds in the beds (which wouldn’t have been there if I had mulched deeply enough over the winter). 

Fast forward to this spring.  The radishes grew and rotted, we did not till, and it was a much drier spring and it has been a very dry summer.  We covered the beds with the litter from our chicken run before planting and did not fertilize at all afterwards to thwart the hungry digging mammal.   I also planted many more seeds directly in the garden, instead of transplanting, to help them adapt to difficult conditions.  I tried a new variety of zucchini, which I have never grown successfully, in the hopes it would out maneuver the vine borer, and many new varieties of peppers and eggplants. 

So many surprises! The nasturtiums I planted last year had gone to seed, and they sprouted early everywhere.  The chicken litter had viable pumpkin seeds from a gorgeous reddish orange variety a friend gave us last year.  I let the volunteers grow, assuming they weren’t likely to get far, but they did! The green of the widespread foliage this year spilling out of the beds is interspersed with brightly colored 2 foot plus diameter pumpkins, many yellow and orange nasturtium blooms, and big bright yellow squash flowers.  I have unbelievable numbers of butternut and spaghetti squash too! Cucumbers fill the fridge.  Eggplants, peppers, okra, green beans, tomatoes – check, check, check!  But the best has been the zucchini.  I planted it because it was supposed to have a “leaping” habit, where one plant spreads from another.  One plant spawns “babies,” which lead to other “babies”, which continue and produce, even as earlier “parents” get killed off by pests.  I keep thinking the zucchini is done, only to find another fruit bearing plant hidden among the sprawling winter squash.

I ‘m loving the increased chaos, wildness and color of the garden this summer.  I also feel intrigued and appreciative of the whole experience, the cycle of lack and plenty of this summer and last.  Clearly, the different weather patterns and tilling were major differences, but we’ve had equally super wet summers before.  I feel closer to this bit of earth in my backyard than I have. I understand more about its unique conditions within the greater context of unpredictable weather conditions.  I can’t control the weather or my garden’s intrinsic nature, but I can respond to its needs in a fine tuned way with greater attention to current conditions, patience, and knowledge of what works here and doesn’t.   These seasons illustrate the dynamic nature of the gardener garden relationship in a way that speaks to me about the difference between mechanical and living systems.  Powerful players are pushing ever more to increase what they call the “sustainability” of food production by measuring, monitoring, and precisely controlling inputs through machine learning (AI algorithms). 

I’ve only lived here for 7 years, and only really seen massive fluctuations in my garden in the last two years, teaching me what it needs.  How much more knowledge would generations of farmers on the same bit of land have about their place? While machines aim to model the farmers’ knowledge (and replace them), they will only ever be able to incorporate a fixed set of variables or conditions and responses.  The more I creatively engage with my garden, my effort as much a part of it as the soil, the more I know that there is nothing “sustainable” about replacing farmers with machines.  The garden taught me this and it will teach anyone who listens.

Gardening is Like Parenting

I’m one of those people who could always easily answer the question: do you plan to have children?  “Of course!” I’d say, though when pressed for reasons for my certainty, I was more circumspect.  I felt like children were part of life, an experience not to be missed, like finding a partner, having a career, growing old.  Nevertheless, after the decision had been made, and pregnancy occurred, I was very conscious of a feeling of jumping off a cliff, blindfolded.   Yet, I had faith in my ability to adapt, learn and persevere.  Now my sons are older teens, and you’ll be happy to know that I have, indeed, managed. 

Gardening is a lot like parenting.  In both cases, we start out as newborns ourselves, bereft of experience, yet empowered to work with the force of life itself.  When we look at our children, we see living, beautiful beings.  We know that our efforts and sacrifice to raise them, usually so great as to have permanently and sharply divided the universe into “before” and “after,” have in no way solely produced this outcome.  In the same way, gardening can feel nearly miraculous, as we realize the limits of our control and power.  We plant seeds and they come up! Flower buds develop and then open! Insects pollinate!  Rain falls! The vegetables’ colors deepen into rich reds, purples, and greens – a feast for the eyes and how much more so for the mouth!  Gardening gives great joy as we witness first hand perfection far beyond our labor, intense as it may be. 

Like parenting, you don’t have to garden perfectly, or even well; you just need to do it well enough.  I really wouldn’t want to meet a parent that never made a mistake – I’m afraid they would be an alien or robot rather than a human.  How often does a parent lose their temper or their patience? Fail to pay attention at a critical moment? Say the wrong thing or the right thing at the wrong time?  Children thrive or at worst, survive, in the face of a litany of parental failure.   In the same way, gardening can be closer to an endless misadventure than to perfection, yet still the miracle persists.  Fruits will grow even when there is not enough sun.   You may water too much or too little.  You may plant too close together or fail to support your vegetables enough.  Fortunately, gardening is very forgiving, as long as you can forgive yourself enough to persevere.  

Books and blogs on parenting tell you to focus on your connection with your child, first and foremost.   Similarly, there is no gardening knowledge that can replace your connection to your garden.  Gardening is very forgiving, but correcting your mistakes before, for example, your plant dies, requires that you notice that it’s doing poorly.  Connection is also essential to manage the curve balls nature throws like storms, pests, and diseases.  I like to look at every plant in my garden every day.  I notice the plant’s color, its “posture” or tone (firm and flimsy in the right places), and how close vegetables are to ripeness.   I look for pests and beneficial insects.  As I walk through the rows, I make mental notes of too many weeds here, needs watering, thinning or fertilizer there.  I imagine empty spaces where plants past their time sit and plan to start new seeds to replace them.  I envision delicious meals I’ll make with the produce coming soon.  My thoughts and imagination flow effortlessly with time and experience.   In the beginning, I used to just enjoy walking through the garden each morning or sitting with coffee and admiring the freshness, the colors, the buzzing, and the life.   

When you have your first child, you can’t imagine the ways that squalling imp will change your life or how much you have to learn.   As they grow, and you do your best through exhaustion and frustration, you may even think at times that you are working so hard for them.  But like so much else in life, it’s in the giving that we get, and the treasures for our own growth shine deep in the parenting box of tricks.   Gardening is like that – full of spiritual, psychological and physical rewards through the sweat.  While I used to bemoan the anxiety I felt wondering if my seeds would sprout, now I recognize the invitation from Mother Nature to trust and relax.  She has never let me down, only invited me deeper into the co-creation inherent in gardening.  I’ve harvested plenty of food from my garden, but the most fulfilling harvest has been a greater understanding of our relationship, one that clearly extends beyond the garden.  To get the good fruit, whether in parenting, a garden, or life itself, it takes a willingness to act, albeit imperfectly, with faith and intention, and a strong connection and presence to discern direction, alter course and fix mistakes.   And the fruit IS good.

You “researched” it.

Have you seen this meme?  Or posted it?

In addition to the hateful, sneering tone that makes it clear to me that I would never want to be in the same room as the writer, it captures two points of view I’ve been seeing a lot of, both of which are problematic.

First of all it presents a caricature of the opposition to the dominant covid narrative, rather than even remotely capturing the diverse reality of people who don’t want to vaccinate, don’t want to force everyone else to vaccinate, or believe there are better ways to handle the pandemic generally than we’ve seen in some or many respects. Obviously, characterizing all opposition to the dominant narrative as ideas that are, at least to most, utterly outlandish, held only by those who believe everything they see, read or hear, totally prejudices the audience towards both the ideas and more importantly, the people who hold them.  It should be obvious that this kind of polarization does not provide a healthy climate for debate of important issues but rather will shut down those in the minority, regardless of their credentials or ideas.  Furthermore, our country is more polarized now than ever before, at a time when we are faced with multiple, existential crises.  Lambasting what we imagine to be the “other side” may feel good in the moment as we solidify our in-group status with our friends, but in the long run it solidifies an “us” versus “them” mentality.   Polarization not only makes it much harder to productively address problems but also contributes to the scapegoating that aids exploitation.

While I shouldn’t have to say this, the caricature of “covid denying anti-vaxxers” being stupid, lazy, and uneducated is utterly false, as well as mean.  Case in point is this recent study from Carnegie Mellon University and The University of Pittsburgh that found that the largest demographic who doesn’t want to vaccinate is people with Ph.Ds. 

This paper from MIT researchers on “antimasker” influencers in social media (before most were all censored off) is also an important read to gain perspective on diverse viewpoints about covid. 

The researchers acknowledged the data-literacy, integrity, and expertise of the group they studied, while simultaneously failing to explain how the influencers could correctly use valid data to conclude the opposite of the “public health experts.” Here is the researchers tacit acknowledgement that the mainstream narrative is no more correct than the alternative, at best, but rather different conclusions stem from different underlying motives or ideologies:

“As science and technology studies scholars have shown, data is not a neutral substrate that can be used for good or for ill. Indeed, anti-maskers often reveal themselves to be more sophisticated in their understanding of how scientific knowledge is socially constructed than their ideological adversaries, who espouse naive realism about the “objective” truth of public health data. Quantitative data is culturally and historically situated; the manner in which it is collected, analyzed, and interpreted reflects a deeper narrative that is bolstered by the collective effervescence found within social media communities. Put differently, there is no such thing as dispassionate or objective data analysis.”

The meme also pushes a second, more subtle and even more destructive, point of view.  By mocking the idea that ordinary people can research topics of importance in a meaningful way and shaming anyone who tries to as an arrogant idiot, the meme strongly discourages people from thinking for themselves.  Even though people may, perhaps even often, make mistakes when they try to educate themselves or think critically, engaging with material is critical to receive the feedback that leads to being better informed.  There are few things I can think of that are worse for understanding anything than an apriori assumption that better comprehension is impossible.

The meme also frames unquestioning obedience to authority as a virtue, as that is, after all, the only other way to gain information – believe someone who tells you so.  In disempowering people from educating themselves, the meme advances the idea that most of us should leave important decisions that impact our lives up to the experts.  This view, technocracy, has been gaining considerable ground since the pandemic started, although it is not new.

The researchers from the paper I posted above that studied the “anti-mask” social media influencers concluded that “anti-maskers” have a fundamentally different view of democracy – one in which power belongs to the people, not rarefied experts. Did you realize that democracy as opposed to technocracy is a “heterodox,” as they called it, view?

I used to take it as a matter of course that most people would agree with the statement, “Science can give us facts about reality, but it can’t tell us what we should do,” but now I’m not so sure.  I am sure, though, that blurring the lines between science and policy and between technocracy and democracy is fundamentally an anti-human, anti-life enterprise, as doing so elevates control over freedom, reductionism over holism, and materialism over spirituality.

Freedom > Safety

A friend who is vaccinated asked how unvaccinated people could justify their right to move about freely when doing so takes away his right to do the same.  He believes that vaccine passports are a good solution to the problem of balancing the right to bodily autonomy, which he supports, in theory, with the right of others to work, learn and socialize without fear of infection.  He argued that just like the unvaccinated want the right to live in society normally, so too does he want the right to avoid situations with unvaccinated people, whom he believes increase his risk.  His phrasing obscures exactly what it is that he is claiming a right to, but a little thought indicates that he is claiming a right to safety.  Further, he sees the right to be free from risk of infection as equivalent or greater than the right to be free.

I think the idea that everyone has a “right to be safe” is a common and very destructive confusion that is growing in our culture.  We seem to be coming to a place societally that values safety over life well-lived, and certainly over freedom.  When safety is valued so highly, nearly anything can be justified with an appeal to it.  If we want to thrive as human beings, we have to keep safety in its place – in a long continuum between due diligence and recklessness, not at the apex of a decision tree for “right action.”

My husband and I went out to dinner with an old friend last Friday.  We talked about the scandal embroiling the place we met and formed our friendship, a summer camp for kids in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Several women alleged last year that when they were campers, they had experienced unwanted sexual contact with other campers.  The organization running the camp launched an independent investigation and issued findings, but victims filed a multi-million dollar suit against them. To make a long story short, the camp is no more.  Our friend told us that in speaking to people who supported the aggressive nature of the suit, she found that they felt that closing the camp for good was the only way to ensure that no child would ever be assaulted there again.  She sympathized with that idea, asking whether, she, if a director, could ever feel comfortable taking responsibility for children if she weren’t 100% certain that she could guarantee their safety to their parents.  We talked about prudent actions a camp should take to keep kids safe, but in the end agreed that it would never be possible to ensure kids were spared from sexual assault at that camp or any other. 

We were three people of many who loved this camp, and found it formative.  It operated for over 40 years in a gorgeous valley with wildflower meadows, camp fire rings, a huge garden, forest, a pond.  It is the reason I not only love nature the way I do, but also feel deeply at home outside.  I met my husband and many lifelong friends in that valley.  It made my siblings and I much closer.   It’s where I learned how to be myself.  I am a different person in many positive ways because of that camp and I know it’s the same for others.  How do you weigh gifts such as these with the harm others experienced?

People supporting the suit against the camp clearly feel that the need to keep kids safe outweighs the potential harm done by closing the camp.  I disagree.  Kids going to a summer camp are not guaranteed safety there anymore than they are guaranteed it in life – not even from sexual assault.  The fact that kids can and do die at summer camps is not a reason not to send your kids to one, even though your child, too, could die.  Your child, my child, could die at nearly any moment.  We can’t change this ultimate fact and striving too much to do so costs too much.  Keeping kids safe has to be balanced with giving them the freedom to explore, meet and connect with others, learn, and be physically active.  To do otherwise is to condemn kids to half a life at best. 

So no, I don’t think my vaccinated friend, or anyone else, has a right to be safe from infection now or ever.  Trillions of viruses floating everywhere cannot be controlled.  In contrast, we have much more control over our own defenses, whether through a healthy immune system or vaccination, than we do over what we are exposed to.  Some may feel that preventing unvaccinated people from accessing everyday places like schools and offices is simply prudent precaution, the same way that proper supervision is at a summer camp.  This argument simplifies to the belief, though, that some peoples’ right to feel safe trumps others’ right to bodily autonomy.  Do people really believe this? If they do, perhaps they are not considering the degree to which the perception of safety (an inherently vague concept) can be manipulated, nor the degree of harm done by segregating people based on the pharmaceutical products they are, or are not, willing to use. 

I think it’s clearly the other way around – society has a much stronger obligation to safeguard our right to bodily autonomy than to keep us safe.  Keeping people safe from contagious infection is not actually within society’s power, any more than it is possible for summer camps to guarantee safety.  The best we can hope for is to reduce risk, at the unacceptable cost, in the case of the covid pandemic, of creating a new group of second-class citizens.  The “right” to safety, also, should be conceived of as subsumed by the right to bodily autonomy because bodily autonomy is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for safety and not the other way around.  You may or may not be “safe” when you have an intact right to make your own medical decisions.  However, you will never be safe if you can be forced to alter your body at authority’s behest, on pain of exclusion from normal society.

Addendum: Connection requires freedom