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.

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.

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.