Lessons from the Little Ice Age

Climate change will challenge our ability to survive and our world view. Business as usual will not be an option.

Image: National Post

Our survival skills are already being tested in Europe. In 2003, heat killed at least 30,000 people and caused 13 billion Euros in financial damages -the hottest summer since the 16th century.

We inherited our current world view from the seventeenth century. Climate change had a profound effect on European agriculture, philosophy and religion during the Little Ice Age from 1570 to 1684, argues Phillip Blom in his book Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present as reviewed by Nathaniel Rich.

During the Little Ice Age, Europe was two degrees Celsius colder than historical averages. It doesn’t seem like much until you consider the effect.

The sun dimmed. Birds fell from the sky, frozen midflight. Wine growing regions moved 400 kilometres south. Seas were packed with so much ice that ships couldn’t enter or leave London. Imperial armies marched across the frozen Danube. Forty sperm whales died on the Dutch coast.

The Thames hasn’t been hasn’t been frozen for two hundred years but during the Little Ice Age the river froze so thick that merchants set up huts on its surface. Taverns, brothels, open fires were built on the ice. Whole oxen roast on spits.

It might sound like a winter carnival but the effect on humanity was devastating. “Every moment,” observed John Evelyn back then, “was full of disastrous accidents.” The poet Henry Purcell wrote “I can scarcely move or draw my breath/Let me, let me freeze again to death.”

The Little Ice Age pushed Europeans to change the way they produced food. Faced with declining harvests, farmers experimented with growing potatoes, tomatoes and corn. They consumed more beef and milk as sources of calories.

Feeding people affected commerce. Nations relied more on foreign trade which, in turn, gave rise to a merchant class requiring expertise in finance. The need for expertise created a demand for education. The rise in the merchant class propelled growth in the middle class. Now a substantial sector of the population could afford to send their children to school.

Religion was affected. Before the Little Ice Age, the Church was the pillar of philosophical thought and education. The notion of rational thought and scientific investigation was heresy. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for speaking of parallel worlds and an infinite universe.

The power of an educated merchant class began to rival the religious hierarchy. The ability to feed the minds and bodies of the populace had shifted. The new religion was the marketplace.

Even now, we are not surprised to hear the new religion described in mysterious ways as when Adam Smith referred to the “invisible hand” of the marketplace.

Climate change will challenge the way we move through the world and the way we think about it. The faith in globalization is already being tested by the 99 per cent who see the injustice of a rigged system.

Who knows what the new world order will rise from the ashes of a heated, chaotic planet?

We’ve evolved to move

Herman Pontzer’s discovery defied common sense. He found that exercise doesn’t result in weight loss.

image: Best Health Magazine Canada

Defying logic, upsetting the plans of many to lose weight through exercise, and threatening exercise industries -there is no connection between exercise and calories burned.

Pontzer, an anthropologist at Duke University, lived with the Hadza people of northern Tanzania. He wanted to find out how many calories these hunter-gathers burned. It’s a grueling, energy-intensive lifestyle. He compared the calories burned by the Hadza with those burned by average adults in the US and Europe. They were the same. Even comparing average and sedentary adults of the Western world, they were the same. Pontzer was astonished:

“When the analyses came back from Baylor [university], the Hadza looked the same everyone else. Hadza men ate and burned about 2,600 calories. Hadza women about 1,900 calories as day -the same as adults in the US or Europe, We looked at the data every way imaginable, accounting for effects of body size, fat percentage, age, and sex. No difference. How was it possible? What were we missing (Scientific American, February, 2017)?”

I was astonished, too, when I read the article two years ago. Isn’t the obesity epidemic caused by lack of exercise? Can’t I eat that piece of cake and work it off in the gym? If exercise doesn’t reduce weight, why bother exercising?

I’m no anthropologist but both the fuel and the exhaust of our bodies are basic -oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. If we can measure CO2 output, that’s a measure of calories burned. A clunky way of measuring CO2 would be to have subjects wear a mask that collected CO2 while they exercised or sat around: not very practical.

Pontzer used a simple but elegant method employing “doubly labelled water.” This otherwise ordinary water has two tags, one isotope of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Subjects simply drink the special water and pee in a cup later. They are not confined in any way; they go about their daily business. Their urine now contains both isotopes in different amounts. The number of hydrogen isotopes is used as a reference. The number of oxygen isotopes indicates the amount of CO2. Subtract the two numbers and you have calories burned. The results were confirmed later using a device similar to a Fitbit.

Two years later, Pontzer wrote another article with some answers. (Scientific American, January, 2019).

This time he wondered how our close relatives, the apes, can live a sedentary lifestyle and not suffer from the the diseases we get from lounging around all day. In the wild and in zoos, apes sit around most of the day but don’t get carido-vascular and metabolic diseases. Humans who lounge around as much as apes suffer from type 2 diabetes, heart and brain disease.

Using doubly labelled water on apes (they are surprisingly cooperative in the collection of urine), he found that apes had evolved so that their calorie consumption matched their activity. They had evolved to lounge around.

Long ago when we were hunter-gatherers, our calorie consumption matched our daily activity. Now we don’t have to exercise and so we don’t. The problem is that calories not burned in exercise gum up the works. When we don’t exercise, calories are burned anyway. In a way not understood, calories not burned in exercise lead to an unhealthy outcome: carido-vascular disease and poor brain health.

Pontzer’s message is clear: “Exercise is not optional; it is essential.”

How Russia uses social media to stir conflict

Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed an army of trolls and bots. His bad intentions go beyond revenge and interference in U.S. elections. Recently, postings from his motley crew have resulted in deaths due to a measles outbreak in Europe.

image: Rantt

Putin never forgave Hillary Clinton for the mass protests against his government in 2011. He was convinced that Clinton was seeking a “regime change” in Russia. Hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email server threw the Clinton campaign into disarray. Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Moscow until early 2014, commented: “One could speculate that this is his moment for payback.”

Canada is not immune. Putin doesn’t like Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. As a reporter, she called him an authoritarian, an autocrat and “really dangerous.” Months after she became minister, Putin banned her from Russia. Canadians have been targeted through Facebook. Russian trolls befriend unsuspecting users to spread their propaganda.

To be clear, I like Facebook and use it daily but I’m very careful about friend requests. I personally know most of my contacts and others are friends of people I trust. But Facebook admits that hundreds of millions of others have been sucked into the Russian vortex. If you’re not sure, check your Facebook account here for any Russian agents. If the box is empty, it doesn’t mean that you weren’t exposed, it just means that you didn’t engage them.

The motive of Russian trolls is to agitate and divide countries with the hope that governments will be thrown into chaos. That’s easily done in the U.S. with a president that refuses to admit what everyone knows: the Russians interfered in his election.

Russian trolls are responsible for the public health misinformation that led to a measles outbreak in Europe this summer where cases doubled over 2017 and 37 people died.

Heidi Larson, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told CBC Radio’s The Current about her research. Here’s the exchange between CBC host Piya Chattopadhyay and Dr. Larson:

Piya: “And specifically I want to ask you about Facebook because as you know Facebook has been accused of contributing to misinformation — in other arenas, in other contexts. How has Facebook contributed to misinformation about vaccines?

Heidi: Oh I think it has contributed significantly. But these new tools: social media, Facebook, they are organizational tools, they’re not just about spreading information — they’re empowering groups of people not even geographically local across different locations to organize into groups. And that kind of organizational power that these tools have given some of these anti-sentiments is I think as concerning as the negative sentiments.”

The malicious posts have been traced back to the Russian troll farm, Internet Research Agency.

Researchers found that trolls were 22 more likely to tweet using a hashtag referencing vaccines than the average user. Echo chambers embolden Facebook users into thinking their bizarre thoughts are valid. It turns out that when just 25 per cent of people in your social media network are against vaccination, it can delay or prevent vaccination –even for those who previously were ready to vaccinate their children.

Facebook and Twitter are working remove agents who want to undermine democracy. Meanwhile, we need to be vigilant.

Leisure time at work

The promise of technology was that leisure time would increase. That hasn’t happened, at least not in the manner expected.

  image: CNBC

The number of hours at work has decreased over the decades but not at the rate expected. Europe has seen a significant drop but the U.S. and Canada are relatively steady at about 34 hours per week.

Why is the promise of technology realized in Europe and not North America? In a word: unions. When the Great Recession of 2008 hit France, instead of laying people off, workers shared jobs as negotiated by their unions. In Canada and the U.S., the choice was stark: either you had a job or didn’t. Once the recession eased, French workers continued to share jobs.

The French work fewer hours with greater productivity. France has 29 per cent greater productivity than Canada and the French work 16 per cent fewer hours. The French are more productive when they are on the job.

Canadian and American workers have increased leisure time in an unexpected way –they relax on the job. In a survey, Salary.com found that that 89 per cent of workers admitted to wasting time at work. An increase in productivity due to technology is offset by goofing off on the job.

Of those who admitting to time theft, one-third wasted 30 minutes, one-third admitted to one hour, and one-third to up to 5 hours a day. The top time-wasters were talking and texting on the phone, gossiping, internet and social media, breaks, distraction of noisy co-workers, meetings, and email.

Examples of what employees were caught doing are: caring for a pet bird smuggled into work, laying under boxes to scare people, wrestling, sleeping while claiming to be praying, and shaving legs in the women’s washroom.

When these hours are subtracted from the time spent at work, the actual time spent working is only 29 hours per week. Because the work is being done in fewer productive hours, productivity is actually up by 2.3 per cent.

But you can’t say that workers who goof off at work are actually relaxing. If I’m hiding under a box waiting to scare passersby, I’m aware that I could be caught and disciplined, even fired.

Importing European solutions, like shortening the work day, is not easy. North American individualism creates a different work ethic and Corporate America has exploited that ethos. There is a sense that hard work and long hours are the key to success. And where the Puritan Work Ethic fails, corporations instil the fear of job-loss when workers try to organize.

As evidenced in Europe, productivity can improve when hours of work are reduced. Employees are more focused on the job at hand when the hours to do the job are reduced

North Americans resist job-sharing even though they would have more quality leisure-time if they did, not just hours stolen at work. The dilemma that many workers now face is having time or money, but not both. In my first column ever for the Kamloops Daily News in 2000, I wrote: “Now, productive leisure time is a luxury of the idle rich, or, a necessity of the destitute poor, but beyond the grasp of most.”