History binge

History may not repeat but it does rhyme.

The fascist philosopher behind Vladimir Putin’s Russia

Some ideas lie dormant for decades, and such is the case with Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin, whose anti-communist stance got him—along with about 160 other intellectuals—expelled from Soviet Russia in 1922 aboard the 'philosopher's ship'. So who was Ilyin, and why has Russia's President Vladimir Putin breathed new life into his writings more than 60 years after Ilyin's death? Yale University's Professor Timothy Snyder gives a crash course in three pillars of Ilyin's philosophy of fascism and explains why this worldview is so appealing to Putin: it defines freedom as knowing your set place in society, asserts that democracy is a ritual and not a reality, and maintains that there are no facts in the world—Russian nationalism is the only truth. Perhaps the most fascinating part of this is how new technology—like Facebook—is turning old fascism into political warfare. "The fundamental way that Russia works in American politics is by transmitting the idea that's nothing is real... What the fascist ideas do with the new technology is they drive [Americans] into a situation where we think the real stakes of politics are all emotional and all about enemies—usually enemies at home," says Snyder. Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. election in such a way that Americans couldn't see where the trouble was coming from. "A lot of us are still having a lot of trouble seeing what was happening," he says. Snyder's most recent book is The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.

Pablo Escobar’s hippos: Why drug lords shouldn’t play God

Lucy Cooke—an acclaimed zoologist, author, and TV presenter—talks to us about Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar's animal menagerie, which included four hippos illegally stolen from Africa. Four became eight, and eight became sixteen, and so on, and since these hippos have no other hippo competition there's a strong potential that you may have a brand new species of hippo, which Cooke refers to as "Hippopotamus Escobarus." Her latest book is The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife.

How Ernest Shackleton survived a doomed Antarctic expedition

Great leaders are few and far between but Nancy Koehn, a historian of business at Harvard Business School, has put together a compendium of anecdotes from five great leaders throughout history. It reads like a whos-who of humanitarianism, with true stories of grit and determination from the likes of explorer Ernest Shackleton, American president Abraham Lincoln, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the Nazi-resisting Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the environmental activist Rachel Carson. Here, Nancy Koehn talks to us about how Ernest Shackleton overcame some incredible odds to hold his team together on a doomed Antarctic expedition, and how we can learn from his stories. Nancy's great new book is Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.

The chronology of crazy in the USA

Since a boat of religious fanatics with buckles on their hats hit the shores near Plymouth Rock and claimed that this was their utopia, America has always been a little bit crazy. It's this kind of wide-eyed "anything can happen if you believe" mentality that, at its best, can produce incredible art. But at its worst, it can be cruel and conspiratorial. We live in a country where people refuse to believe vaccination can help you and where a White House is spinning "alternative — but Kurt Andersen is here to say that this is nothing now. At the time of the Civil War, society had become split by two sides that refused to listen to each other. Back then, the political and social divide is stoked by a hyperbolic partisan media where anyone could publish whatever they wanted in a pamphlet without fact-checking. Sound familiar? It definitely should. Kurt's latest book is appropriately titled Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.

The feats and failures of hierarchical power: Stalin, Xi Jinping, Macbeth

If you want to understand what a truly hierarchical political system looks like, just look at Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, says historian Niall Ferguson. Stalin wanted to be all-powerful and omnipresent; he tapped phones, policed relationships and spied on everything—he was totally paranoid, says Ferguson, and for good reason. Social networks are lethal to top-down hierarchies and dictatorships, which is what makes this model of governance so unsustainable. But there is an exception that has stunned observers, Niall Ferguson included: China. Under leader Xi Jinping, China's economy has soared over the last 30 years, but it is now vexed with the largest middle class in history. Can this system endure through the 21st century? That's a huge question for China's leaders, and for the world. Niall Ferguson is the author of The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook.

"Never Again?" How fascism hijacks democracies over and over

Rob Riemen — founder and president of the Nexus Institute — posits that the type and level of toxicity in today's political climate is a breeding ground for fascism. He argues that most people in fully democratic Germany in the early 1930s didn't think that by decade's end they'd be a fully fascist country, and goes further to say that perhaps history will look back on the 2016 American election in the same way. Is he correct? You be the judge. Rob Riemen's latest book is To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism.

How social networks shaped 500 years of revolutionary progress

Facebook might be the biggest social network but it's far from the first, despite what those in Silicon Valley will have you believe. Stanford University fellow and Oxford University historian Niall Ferguson argues that social networks have been around for centuries and the most prominent of which — the Freemasons — could very well be responsible for democracy as we know it. Started in the 1700s in England and carried over to what would later become America, it was a place where class and social strata didn't count and people could exchange ideas freely... and its members included none other than George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Niall's latest book is the tantalizing The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook.

A lesson in power and influence from Abraham Lincoln

Class and race: Driving American politics since revolutionary times

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  • A new report calculated how much electricity Europe could generate if it built onshore wind farms on all of its exploitable land.
  • The results indicated that European onshore wind farms could supply the whole world with electricity from now until 2050.
  • Wind farms come with a few complications, but the researchers noted that their study was meant to highlight the untapped potential of the renewable energy source in Europe.


In 2009, the European Environment Agency made a surprising claim: If Europe were to build all of the onshore and offshore wind farms it was capable of building, wind could power the continent many times over. In fact, the 2009 report said that wind farms could provide 20 times the electricity that's estimated to be demanded in Europe in 2020.

But it turns out the actual wind potential in Europe could be much higher. A new study found that maximizing onshore wind potential could enable Europe to generate 100 times more electricity than it currently does. That's enough to cover energy demand for the entire world from now until 2050, according to the researchers.

European aspirations for a 100 percent renewable energy grid are within our collective grasp technologically...

The study, published in the September 2019 installment of Energy Policy, found that Europe's untapped wind energy potential amounts to approximately 52.5 terawatts, or about 1 million watts for every 16 European citizens. To estimate the continent's wind potential, the researchers used information detailing each nation's infrastructure, buildings and protected areas to determine which areas wouldn't be suitable for onshore wind farms.

They also conducted a spatial analysis to identify areas with sufficient wind conditions for wind farms.

Enevoldsen et al.

"The study is not a blueprint for development but a guide for policymakers indicating the potential of how much more can be done and where the prime opportunities exist," study co-author Benjamin Sovacool, professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex, told the University of Sussex Media Centre. "Our study suggests that the horizon is bright for the onshore wind sector and that European aspirations for a 100 percent renewable energy grid are within our collective grasp technologically."

The researchers admit they were "very liberal" in identifying land on which wind farms might be built; for example, they included private land where citizens might have no interest in building wind farms.

"Obviously, we are not saying that we should install turbines in all the identified sites but the study does show the huge wind power potential right across Europe which needs to be harnessed if we're to avert a climate catastrophe," Sovacool said.

Wind energy — not always a breeze

Wind energy isn't completely free of problems. As Big Think wrote in July, wind is currently one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy, but there are several factors preventing it from becoming dominant in the U.S. Those include:

  • Wind variability: Put simply, wind turbines need consistent access to strong winds if they're to be efficient. That's a problem, considering some parts of the country — like the southeastern U.S. — see relatively slow wind speeds. "Wind power is very sensitive to the wind speed, more than you might guess," Paul Veers, chief engineer at the National Wind Technology Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, toldVox. However, wind variability could become less of a problem if wind power could be stored more effectively.
  • The window-shadow effect: When you add a wind turbine to a landscape, you change local wind patterns. One downside is that each additional turbine robs wind from other turbines in the wind farm. So, designers have been trying to space out wind turbines in a way that maximizes efficiency. But the problem with this sprawling solution is that it becomes increasingly expensive, both due to maintenance and land cost. Additionally, rural residents generally don't like having massive wind turbines spoiling their property values and views.
  • Local heating: Although renewable energies like wind would curb climate change over the long term, wind turbines would likely cause local heating over the short term. Why? Cold air normally stays near the ground, while warm air flows higher. But wind turbines generally disrupt that natural order, pushing warm air down. "Any big energy system has an environmental impact," Harvard engineering and physics professor David Keith told The Associated Press. "There is no free lunch. You do wind on a scale big enough [...] it'll change things." Of course, this is a temporary effect, unlike climate change.

Still, the researchers don't think these criticisms make their findings irrelevant. In the study, they addressed the intermittent nature of wind energy, and also acknowledged the impracticality of actually building dense wind farms on every exploitable piece of land.

"To both critics the response is the same," they wrote. "Realizable wind power potential studies are not to be treated as blueprints for development. Such studies help policymakers understand what is possible as a ceiling, help planners target areas of particular attraction, and help us understand where we are in terms of state of play concerning a given technology and its potential. For onshore wind power potential, our study suggests that still the horizon is bright for this particular application in the wind energy sector and that European aspirations for a 100 percent renewable energy grid are within our collective grasp technologically."

  • Cats live in a quarter of Western households.
  • Allergies to them are common and can be dangerous.
  • A new approach targets the primary trouble-causing allergen.

Many cat lovers struggle with cat allergies that range from sniffles and runny noses to more severe reaction reactions that can send a felinophile racing to the ER.

For some, anti-allergy medications suffice, though they're not without side effects — others just suffer the symptoms in exchange for the privilege of having a cat in their families. (Certainly their cats consider it a privilege.) Some people simply stay away from cats.

This is may all soon change, though. This month, researchers in Zurich published preclinical data in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology that offers a different type of solution: a vaccination. Not for you. For the cat.

Neutralizing Fel d 1

A cat playing in a yard in Beijing, China. Photo credit: Jie Zhao / Corbis via Getty Images

According to the paper, cats live in about 25 percent of households in Western countries, and allergies to them afflict about 10 percent of nearby humans. The most common cat allergen is called "Fel d 1," largely produced by a cat's sebaceous glands and found in feline saliva, anal glands, sebaceous glands, skin, and fur.

Fel-CuMVTT, to be marketed as HypoCat™ vaccine by Swiss company HypoPet, was developed through a collaboration between researchers at the Latvian Biomedical Research and Study Centre, in Riga, and the veterinary school at the University of Zürich — along with scientists at the Functional Genomics Center Zürich.

How the vaccine works

Image source: The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology

The vaccine brings together recombinant Fel d 1 with a virus-like particle (or "VLP") derived from the cucumber mosaic virus. "We are very pleased to publish this data which shows our HypoCat™ vaccine is able to produce high levels of antibodies in cats and that these antibodies can bind and neutralize the Fel d 1 allergen produced by the animals," says Dr. Gary Jennings, HypoPet CEO.

Cats treated with the vaccine were found to be less likely to trigger allergic reactions in humans exposed to them. The vaccine is also reported to have been "well tolerated without any overt toxicity" for the feline test subjects. The published data is culled from four separate studies that involved 54 cats.

A double benefit

Image source: Mettus / Shutterstock

The benefits of an effective cat-allergy treatment are two-fold. First off, these allergies are not only annoying — and sometimes much more than that — but a cat allergy in kids living with felines is understood to be a strong factor in the development of childhood asthma. A simple three-dose course of vaccine — as administered in the testing — could alleviate cat-owners' suffering and the risk to young ones.

Households with allergy sufferers, especially children, often find themselves forced to evict a beloved family member, a traumatic experience for all concerned, and a leading cause of cat abandonment. According to HypoCat, U.S. shelters take in 3.4 million cats annually — 1.4 million of these are eventually euthanized.

  • The new statement says corporations shouldn't only be concerned about maximizing shareholder profits.
  • Instead, corporations should focus on all of its stakeholders.
  • The idea that corporations need only focus on maximizing shareholder profit took hold in the 1970s and has since remained, more or less, the dominant viewpoint on Wall Street.


Since around the 1980s, most American corporations have agreed their main purpose is to maximize shareholder profits. Now, amid growing concerns about income inequality and Democratic policy proposals that call for restructuring American capitalism, some of the nation's biggest corporations are saying it's time to change the definition of corporate purpose.

The Business Roundtable, a lobbying group of American CEOs, released a statement Monday describing how the corporate world's long-held definition of purpose — often called "shareholder primacy" — "does not accurately describe the ways in which we and our fellow CEOs endeavor every day to create value for all our stakeholders, whose long-term interests are inseparable."

"Americans deserve an economy that allows each person to succeed through hard work and creativity and to lead a life of meaning and dignity," the statement reads. "We believe the free-market system is the best means of generating good jobs, a strong and sustainable economy, innovation, a healthy environment and economic opportunity for all."

The Business Roundtable updates its guidelines periodically, but Monday's update is the most explicit to date in rejecting shareholder primacy. The statement — signed by 181 of 192 current members of the Business Roundtable, including CEOS from companies such as Apple, Pfizer, Mastercard, and Ford Motor Company — says members commit to:

  • Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations.
  • Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.
  • Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions.
  • Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.
  • Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.

The statement doesn't promise any concrete changes, and it's unclear how corporations might change their practices, if at all. One governance expert said the statement actually decreases these executives' accountability.

"It limits accountability for these people to anyone, because if you have multiple stakes with whom you're accountable, you're always going to get it right on someone," Charles Elson, who directs the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, told The Washington Post. "You can always make an argument that no matter what you've done, some stake will benefit. If your watch stops, it still gets the time right twice a day."

Still, at the very least, the statement signals a symbolic change in ethos of the American corporate elite.

"It really is quite significant," Peter Cappelli, a professor who studies labor economics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, told the Post. "It sounds like what they're describing is what was the standard view before the mid-1980s — before the shareholder value idea really started to spread."

'Maximize shareholder profits'

The idea of shareholder primacy can be traced back to the economist Milton Friedman, who wrote a New York Times Magazine article in 1970 deriding the claim that corporations ought to be socially responsible, calling it a "fundamentally subversive doctrine" in a free society, adding, "there is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud."

CBPP

In short, "social responsibilities" are for individuals; corporations need only focus on making as much money as possible without breaking the law.

"That article was very well received in Wall Street," Joseph L. Bower, a professor of business administration at Harvard University, recounted to Forbes. "They loved it. You could see the change in compensation practices. The use of the phrase 'maximize shareholder value' exploded at that time."

Bower once said the idea that corporations need only "maximize shareholder value" is "pernicious nonsense." In a 2017 article for Harvard Business Review, Bower and Lynn S. Paine suggest that Friedman's essential idea "could be damaging to the broader economy," mainly because it gives extreme consideration to shareholders over a short-term timeframe, while ignoring other stakeholders, such as employees or society at large. This results in an "accountability vacuum," they write, because in this governance approach shareholders are effectively treated as owners of the company, when in fact they're not held accountable for any company decisions.

Bower and Paine suggest that a more company-centric governance approach would benefit American corporations' many stakeholders, including but not limited to shareholders. (You can read their detailed piece here.) Meanwhile, some Democratic lawmakers have proposed policy that aims to wrest some amount of corporate power from executives and shareholders and give it to other shareholders.

For example, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D–VT) wants to prohibit corporations from buying back their own stock, which drives up share prices, unless they boost employee pay and benefits. Separately, Sen. Elizabeth Warren's Accountable Capitalism Act aimed to restructure corporate decision-making, in part by mandating that corporations allow 40 percent of board members to be elected by employees, and by limiting the ways in which directors and officers sell company shares.
  • When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, many Americans jumped for joy. At the time, some believed there weren't going to be any more political disagreements anywhere in the world. They thought American democracy had won the "war of ideas."
  • American exceptionalism has sought to create a world order that's really a mirror image of ourselves — a liberal world order founded on the DNA of American thinking. To many abroad this looks like ethnic chauvinism.
  • We need to move on from this way of thinking, and consider that sometimes "problem-solving," in global affairs, means the world makes us look like how it wants to be.
  • According to new research, half of Neanderthal skulls studied had exostoses, aka "surfer's ear."
  • The condition is common in mammals that spend a lot of time in water.
  • Though today we are largely disconnected from nature, the consequences of our relationship to it are still felt.

Animals are in constant communication with their environments. This reality has largely been shielded by modern humans, with controlled indoor climate and an unbelievable assortment of foods available year-round. For most of humanity's time here this wasn't the case. We had to battle nature to win sustenance, and such battles had biological consequences.

Take a new study on a minor yet intriguing result of spending a lot of time in water: Neanderthals got surfer's ear. Of the 23 Neanderthal skulls studied, roughly half of them were affected by bony growths called exostoses. Since today few of us have to pull our dinner from the ocean, this is a rare condition, though, as the name suggests, surfers do experience this irritation to their ear canals.

The researchers note that people that live in higher altitudes and northern lands do not exhibit this condition, likely because water is too cold for them to swim around in. Yet for those closer to sea level, bony ear bumps were a common nuisance. Whereas today a quick surgery puts surfers back in the water immediately, it is likely that Neanderthals lived with this condition for life. While not existentially threatening, it does affect hearing, another important evolutionary skill.

Unless you're a fanatic, chances are you spend little time flopping around in the ocean. Trace the evolutionary chain back far enough, though, and all organic life began in this liquid. As omnipresent as it is, covering 70 percent of the planet's surface, we know startlingly little about what occurs in its depths: 95 percent of the world's waters have yet to be explored. It may have birthed us, but we have been away from home for some time.

Neuroconservation -- your brain on nature: Wallace J. Nichols at TEDxSantaCruz

That is quickly changing. In 2012, the director James Cameron broke a solo diving record by descending nearly seven miles into the Mariana Trench. New technologies are allowing us to discover unimaginable life on ocean floors. Unique creatures provide visual fodder for active imaginations, yet water was, and remains, the singular reason "we" exist.

Behavioral ecologist Clive Finlayson concocted his Water Optimization Hypothesis to explain how deeply tied to the oceans, rivers, and seas we are. While subject to critical scrutiny, Finlayson argues that our ancestors needed to adapt to ever-changing environments. Bipedalism favored us for exploring long ranges of territory to work around droughts and floods, keeping us close to water (and therefore food) sources.

Other research points out that in the "cradle of humanity"—the stretch of land now referred to as the Rift Valley, extending from Ethiopia to Mozambique—our ancestors were subjected to 23,000-year cycles of aridity and monsoons. Early human survival depended on a network of springs that kept our forebears alive when the rain gods refused to supply nourishment.

Water remains essential today, which is why our plastic problem is becoming dire. Eighty percent of the world's population lives within 60 miles of a coastline. A whopping two-thirds of the world's economy depends on water in some capacity, be it by travel or resources—a billion people rely on water-based protein for their existence. As scientist Wallace J. Nichols, author of Blue Mind, writes,

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, each person in the United States uses eighty to one hundred gallons of water every day for what we consider our "basic needs." In 2010 the General Assembly of the United Nations declared, "Safe and clean drinking water is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life."

Photo by Xavier ROSSI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Prehistorical museum in Quinson, France on May 29, 2001 - Neanderthal. Cranium and mandible of the Chapelle aux Saints (Correze).

Though we know the importance of water, its appearance on this planet remains somewhat of a mystery. As British paleontologist Richard Fortey writes, if not for Earth's gaseous atmosphere and water, life would have never occurred. Thankfully, as our planet's solid crust formed, volcanoes and vents spewed the gases and liquids necessary to create an ecosystem that plant (then animal) life could be born of and subsequently thrive in.

Roughly a billion-and-a-half years ago single-celled eukaryotes began swimming around in the soup; part of their distinguishing feature is an "eyespot," which is attracted to light. Thus began what the Australian philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith calls the "sensory-motor view" of the nervous systems of organisms to their environment. Since that critical development, every form of life has responded to and been shaped by natural forces, especially water.

For Neanderthals, this meant surfer's ear; for modern Westerners, diseases of affluence—heart disease, cancer, obesity—that occur when you cut yourself off from nature and its processes. Still, the evolutionary consequences of this longstanding relationship remain, even in the most unlikely places, such as wrinkly toes and fingers when we play in an ocean (or bathtub) for too long.

This common phenomenon too seems shrouded in mystery. The best guess we have is that it helps improve our grip in water; it's hard enough to tackle a fish without having some evolutionary advantage. Thus, our autonomic nervous system kicks in after long stretches in water, causing our blood vessels to constrict below the surface of our skin. This likely allowed our ancestors to better pick fruit from wet locales and grip the forest floor during a rainstorm.

We might not be aquatic apes, as David Attenborough and others have attested, but humans have long relied on water for survival. This relationship will continue until we destroy the very environment that made life possible, which means we're going to have to start giving back what we've been taking from for far too long. You can't be absent children without consequence.

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