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Oil execs should be tried for crimes against humanity, essayist Kate Aronoff argues
Climate change is a dire threat, perhaps it is time to put the people who created and denied the problem on trial?
- A new essay published in Jacobin argues that the time has come to try the executives of oil companies for crimes against humanity as a result of their actions promoting climate change.
- There is a legal precedent, as the heads of several German companies were tried for such crimes after WWII.
- Even if it never comes to pass, discussing the idea could give us a sense of what steps to make the world a greener place are possible.
The threat posed by climate change is planetary in scale and deadly serious. Four hundred thousand people die each year from climate change-related causes. Natural disasters are getting worse because of it. The last five years have been the hottest ever recorded.While there is a tendency to put the problem in terms so dark that people think the situation is hopeless, we're not doomed just yet. If dramatic action is taken now, we can keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050 and avoid the worst-case scenarios that climate scientists keep showing us. What form that action will have to take is still being debated.
One of the boldest suggestions for necessary action in the name of saving the planet was recently put forward by Kate Aronoff in an essay published in Jacobin magazine in which she argues for trying the executives of all the major oil companies for crimes against humanity.
The argument is intriguing, and the essay is written in a way that both properly handles the gravity of the problem while giving a glimmer of hope. While the idea it presents may seem shocking, it is presented with strong reasoning and should at least be considered.
It begins by reminding us that the 100 largest fossil fuel companies are responsible for 71 percent of all the greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. As mentioned above, 400,000 people die each year as a result of the climate change that these emissions cause, and the other side effects of burning fossil fuels, such as air pollution or cancer, may kill up to 5,000,0000 people a year.
The companies in question have known about the dangers posed greenhouse gas emissions since at least the late '80s. Understanding the risks and environmental damage their business model creates, they have spent millions upon millions of dollars to discredit climate science and prevent regulations designed to limit the damage they cause. The resulting damage has already been astronomical and could soon become uncalculatable.
Their actions could qualify as a crime against humanity under the broad definition of the term; which merely requires knowledge of and involvement with actions which systematically attack a civilian population. The idea of a company's executives being tried for such a thing isn't as crazy as it sounds since the people who made gas for the Nazis were tried for their part in the Holocaust after WWII.
Given the seemingly obvious point that the companies that have done these things to deny climate change and prevent strong environmental regulations probably can't be trusted to fix the problem themselves. Ms. Aronoff, therefore, calls for legal action against the companies and the people who are running them as a way to not only halt the destruction they are wreaking upon the environment but also to break the power they often hold over policy-making through litigation and public denunciation.
Even if this never comes to pass, which the author admits is probable, the mass public movement that would be needed to even place this option on the table could bring other environmental policies into play. This is the long-term goal anyway, she argues, and the discussion of whether oil company executives committed crimes against humanity might be enough to reduce their influence even without indictments.For those who would like to read the essay in its entirety, it may be found here.
Cutting out influence
Tobacco companies aren't allowed anywhere near World Health Organization meetings for reasons that should be obvious. However, oil and gas companies have their fingers all over the regulatory codes and international treaties that are supposed to limit their activities. According to Ms. Aronoff:
"At COP 24 last year in Poland, GasNaturally cohosted a cocktail hour with the European Union, and Shell bragged about its influence in grafting a whole section onto the Paris Agreement. The Polish coal sector was a main sponsor of the whole event….. Stateside, advocates of certain forms of carbon pricing…. have boasted of garnering support and funding from the likes of Exxon and BP, apparently a marker of their respectability."
She calls this "an atmosphere of impunity for atrocity" and argues that we should at least be keeping fossil fuel companies out of such meetings and policy discussions if we aren't prosecuting them.
The time corporate executives were tried for crimes against humanity before
Believe it or not, there is a precedent for the idea that a company's executives can be tried for crimes against humanity.
The heads of the German chemical conglomerate IG Farben were tried at Nuremberg for participation in the Holocaust with their production of Zyklon B- the gas used to carry out the Holocaust. They were also tried for the use of slave labor and for preparing to wage an offensive war.
The results of trying them were mixed, only half of them were found guilty of any of the various crimes they were tired for and the worst any of them were sentenced to was eight years minus time served. Even more disappointingly, most of them returned to cushy executive jobs in critical sectors of the German economy when they got out. However, the convictions demonstrate the legal precedent of viewing a company as being every bit as capable as a state when it comes to crimes against civilian populations.
Two other trails were held for German industrialists who made the crimes of the Nazi regime possible, the results were again mixed and the sentences often limited.
The oil wars: America's energy obsession
Name and Shame
Ms. Aronoff argues that many of the major players in fossil fuel companies are relatively unknown. She sees this as a problem because it makes the issue abstract and more difficult to conceptualize. By dragging real people into courtrooms, a face is given to the problem and real people are punished for actions which harm millions of people.
Even if such trails were to lead to limited convictions or the convicted were able to still hold cushy jobs after serving their sentences, the fact that executives could be tried and sent to prison for various crimes could be an excellent motivation for anybody working in the energy sector who wants to avoid being convicted of crimes against humanity to start behaving themselves. After all, how much profit is worth being dragged to The Hauge over?
Sometimes you don’t need to win to win.
The various legal difficulties of accomplishing this are described in the article, not the least of which is that the United States is not a signatory to the Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court. However, this might not be terrible.
Ms. Aronoff argues that the real goal of any mass environmental movement should be the decarbonization of the economy. While trying oil executives might be a way to achieve this, it is not the end itself. Any mass movement that was able to apply such pressure on governments to put the idea of trying these executives for crimes against humanity on the table would likely be able to bring other bold ideas on how to make the world greener to the table.As neuroscientist David Eagleman explains, putting out an idea that might never catch on is a great way to figure out what ideas can work. Even if the idea of putting the c-suites of major corporations on trial never takes off, just discussing it can help us determine what could.
How realistic is any of this anyhow?
Therein lies the problem.
As the author explains in the essay, several institutional issues pop up when discussing the question of just how to carry out the idea; not the least of which is that the ICC is designed to go after state actors, not corporations. While it is possible that individual countries could carry out the task, this is also a legal minefield.
The question of political will is also important, given that many of the largest oil companies in the world are also primary revenue sources or owned by states that depend on them doing well. The idea that the Saudi government would go after the executives of their national oil company, which is reasonable for 3.5 percent of all carbon emissions since 1995, is absurd. The potential for a mass movement in a democratic society demanding the executives be brought to justice is possible, but it would face a wall of opposition from the people who both deny climate change is happening or oppose bringing corporate executives to trial over it.
In any case, the mere introduction of this idea to the public debate should have far-reaching consequences on how we consider correcting for a century of greenhouse gas emissions. While we may never see Rex Tillerson standing trial for egregious pollution, we could still manage to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. In the end, isn't that what matters?
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So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
The distances between the stars are so vast that they can make your brain melt. Take for example the Voyager 1 probe, which has been traveling at 35,000 miles per hour for more than 40 years and was the first human object to cross into interstellar space. That sounds wonderful except, at its current speed, it will still take another 40,000 years to cross the typical distance between stars.
Worse still, if you are thinking about interstellar travel, nature provides a hard limit on acceleration and speed. As Einstein showed, it's impossible to accelerate any massive object beyond the speed of light. Since the galaxy is more than 100,000 light-years across, if you are traveling at less than light speed, then most interstellar distances would take more than a human lifetime to cross. If the known laws of physics hold, then it seems a galaxy-spanning human civilization is impossible.
Unless of course you can build a warp drive.
Ah, the warp drive, that darling of science fiction plot devices. So, what about a warp drive? Is that even a really a thing?
Let's start with the "warping" part of a warp drive. Without doubt, Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity ("GR") represents space and time as a 4-dimensional "fabric" that can be stretched and bent and folded. Gravity waves, representing ripples in the fabric of spacetime, have now been directly observed. So, yes spacetime can be warped. The warping part of a warp drive usually means distorting the shape of spacetime so that two distant locations can be brought close together — and you somehow "jump" between them.
This was a basic idea in science fiction long before Star Trek popularized the name "warp drive." But until 1994, it had remained science fiction, meaning there was no science behind it. That year, Miguel Alcubierre wrote down a solution to the basic equations of GR that represented a region that compressed spacetime ahead of it and expanded spacetime behind to create a kind of traveling warp bubble. This was really good news for warp drive fans.
The problems with a warp drive
There were some problems though. Most important was that this "Alcubierre drive" required lots of "exotic matter" or "negative energy" to work. Unfortunately, there's no such thing. These are things theorists dreamed up to stick into the GR equations in order to do cool things like make stable open wormholes or functioning warp drives.
It's also noteworthy that researchers have raised other concerns about an Alcubierre drive — like how it would violate quantum mechanics or how when you arrived at your destination it would destroy everything in front of the ship in an apocalyptic flash of radiation.
Warp drives: A new hope
Credit: Primada / 420366373 via Adobe Stock
Recently, however, there seemed to be good news on the warp drive front with the publication this April of a new paper by Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martre entitled "Introducing Physical Warp Drives." The good thing about the Bobrick and Martre paper was it was extremely clear about the meaning of a warp drive.
Understanding the equations of GR means understanding what's on either side of the equals sign. On one side, there is the shape of spacetime, and on the other, there is the configuration of matter-energy. The traditional route with these equations is to start with a configuration of matter-energy and see what shape of spacetime it produces. But you can also go the other way around and assume the shape of spacetime you want (like a warp bubble) and determine what kind of configuration of matter-energy you will need (even if that matter-energy is the dream stuff of negative energy).
Warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested.
What Bobrick and Martre did was step back and look at the problem more generally. They showed how all warp drives were composed of three regions: an interior spacetime called the passenger space; a shell of material, with either positive or negative energy, called the warping region; and an outside that, far enough away, looks like normal unwarped spacetime. In this way they could see exactly what was and was not possible for any kind of warp drive. (Watch this lovely explainer by Sabine Hossenfelder for more details). They even showed that you could use good old normal matter to create a warp drive that, while it moved slower than light speed, produced a passenger area where time flowed at a different rate than in the outside spacetime. So even though it was a sub-light speed device, it was still an actual warp drive that could use normal matter.
That was the good news.
The bad news was this clear vision also showed them a real problem with the "drive" part of the Alcubierre drive. First of all, it still needed negative energy to work, so that bummer remains. But worse, Bobrick and Martre reaffirmed a basic understanding of relativity and saw that there was no way to accelerate an Alcubierre drive past light speed. Sure, you could just assume that you started with something moving faster than light, and the Alcubierre drive with its negative energy shell would make sense. But crossing the speed of light barrier was still prohibited.
So, in the end, the Star Trek version of the warp drive is still not a thing. I know this may bum you out if you were hoping to build that version of the Enterprise sometime soon (as I was). But don't be too despondent. The Bobrick and Martre paper really did make headway. As the authors put it in the end:
"One of the main conclusions of our study is that warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested"
That really is progress.
The Black Death wasn't the only plague in the 1300s.
- In a unique study, researchers have determined how many people in medieval England had bunions
- A fashion trend towards pointed toe shoes made the affliction common.
- Even monks got in on the trend, much to their discomfort later in life.
Late Medieval England had its share of problems. The Wars of Roses raged, the Black Death killed off large parts of the population, and passing ruffians could say "Ni" at will to old ladies.
To make matters worse, a first of its kind study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology has demonstrated that much of the population suffered from another plague — a plague of bunions likely caused by a ridiculous medieval fashion trend.
If the shoe fits, it won't cause bunions
The outlines of a leather shoe from the King's Ditch, Cambridge. It is easy to see how these shoes might be constricting. Copyright Cambridge Archaeological Unit.
The bunion, known to medicine as "hallux valgus," is a deformity of the joint connecting the big toe to the rest of the foot. It is painful and can cause other issues including poor balance. The condition is associated with having worn constrictive shoes for a long period of time as well as genetic factors. Today, it is often caused by wearing high heeled shoes.
The medieval English didn't care for high heeled shoes as much as modern fashionistas, but there was a major fashion trend toward shoes with long, pointed toes called "poulaines" or "crakows" for their supposed place of origin, Krakow, Poland.
This trend, already silly-looking to a modern observer, got out of hand in a hurry. According to some records, the points on nobleman's shoes could be so long as to require tying them to the leg with string so the wearer could walk. At one point, King Edward IV had to ban commoners from wearing points longer than two inches. A couple years later, he saw fit to ban the shoes altogether.
But, just knowing that people back in the day made poor fashion choices doesn't prove they suffered for it. That is where digging up old skeletons to look at their feet comes in.
Beauty is pain: the price of high medieval fashion
To learn how bad the bunion epidemic was, the researchers looked to four burial sites in and around Cambridge. One was a rural cemetery where poor peasants were buried. Another was the All Saints by the Castle parish, which had a mixed collection of people that tended toward poverty. The Hospital of St. John's burial ground contained both the poor charges of a charity hospital and wealthy benefactors. Lastly, they considered the cemetery of a local Augustinian friary, home to monks and well-to-do philanthropists.
The team considered 177 adult skeletons that were at least a quarter complete and still had enough of their feet to make studying them possible. The remains were classified by age and sex by observation and DNA testing. Each was examined for evidence of bunions and signs of complications from the condition, such as falling.
Those buried in the monastery's graveyard were the most affected. Nearly half, 43 percent, of the remains found there had bunions. This includes five of the eleven members of the clergy they found. Twenty-three percent of those laid to rest at the Hospital of St. John had bunions, though only 10 percent of those at the All Saints by the Castle parish graveyard did.
The rural cemetery had a much lower rate of instances, only three percent, suggesting that these peasants were able to avoid at least one plague.
Overall, eighteen percent of the individuals examined had bunions, with men more likely to have them than women. Those at cemeteries known for exclusivity were more likely to have them as well, though it is clear that the condition also affected members of other classes. This makes sense, as it is known that these shoes had mass appeal.
The authors note that the rural cemetery having fewer cases is partly because that cemetery "went out of use prior to the wide adoption of pointed shoes, and it is likely that those residing in the parish predominately wore soft leather shoes, or possibly went barefoot."
Those skeletons with evidence of bunions were more likely to have fractures indicative of a fall. This was more common on those estimated or recorded as having lived past age 45.
In our much more enlightened times, 23 percent of the population currently endures having bunions, most of them women, and one of the leading culprits behind this is the high heeled shoe.
Some things never change.