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Untangling Threads

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Back in the fall, I wrote a series of posts on a particularly horrific episode in Meta’s past. I hadn’t planned to revisit the topic immediately, but here we are, with Threads federation with the ActivityPub-based fediverse ecosystem an increasingly vivid reality.

My own emotional response to Meta and Threads is so intense that it hasn’t been especially easy to think clearly about the risks and benefits Threads’ federation brings, and to whom. So I’m writing through it in search of understanding, and in hopes of planting some helpful trail markers as I go.

What federation with Threads offers

Doing a good-faith walkthrough of what seem to me to be the strongest arguments for federating with Threads has been challenging but useful. I’m focusing on benefits to people who use networks—rather than benefits to, for instance, protocol reputation—because first- and second-order effects on humans are my thing. (Note: If you’re concerned that I’m insufficiently skeptical about Meta, skip down a bit.)

Finding our people

Back in July, I did some informal research with people who’d left Mastodon and landed on Bluesky, and one of the biggest problems those people voiced was their difficulty in finding people they wanted to follow on Mastodon. Sometimes this was because finding people who were there was complicated for both architectural and UI design reasons; sometimes it was because the people they wanted to hang out with just weren’t on Mastodon, and weren’t going to be.

For people with those concerns, Threads federation is a pretty big step toward being able to maintain an account on Mastodon (or another fediverse service) and still find the people they want to interact with—assuming some of those people are on Threads and not only on Bluesky, Twitter/X, Instagram, and all the other non-ActivityPub-powered systems.

On the flipside, Threads federation gives people on Threads the chance to reconnect with people who left commercial social media for the fediverse—and, if they get disgusted with Meta, to migrate much more easily to a noncommercial, non-surveillance-based network. I’ve written a whole post about the ways in which Mastodon migration specifically is deeply imperfect, but I’m happy to stipulate that it’s meaningfully better than nothing.

I’ll say a little more about common responses to these arguments about the primary benefits of federation with Threads later on, but first, I want to run through some risks and ethical quandaries.

The Threads federation conversations that I’ve seen so far mostly focus on:

  • Meta’s likelihood of destroying the fediverse via embrace-extend-extinguish”
  • Meta’s ability to get hold of pre-Threads fediverse (I’ll call it Small Fedi for convenience) users’ data,
  • Threads’ likelihood of fumbling content moderation, and
  • the correct weighting of Meta being terrible vs. connecting with people who use Threads.

These are all useful things to think about, and they’re already being widely discussed, so I’m going to move quickly over that terrain except where I think I can offer detail not discussed as much elsewhere. (The EEE argument I’m going to pass over entirely because it’s functioning in a different arena from my work and it’s already being exhaustively debated elsewhere.)

Unfolding the risk surface

(A tiny piece of Jo Nakashima’s excellent origami unicorn instructions.)

The risks I’ll cover in the rest of this post fall into three categories:

  1. My understanding of who and what Meta is
  2. The open and covert attack vectors that Meta services routinely host
  3. The ethics of contribution to and complicity with Meta’s wider projects

I want to deal with these in order, because the specifics of the first point will, I hope, clarify why I resist generalizing Threads federation conversations to federating with any commercial or large-scale service.”

Who Meta is

The list of controversies” Meta’s caused since its founding is long and gruesome, and there are plenty of summaries floating around. I spent several months this year researching and writing about just one episode in the company’s recent history because I find that deep, specific knowledge combined with broader summary helps me make much better decisions than summary alone.

Here’s the tl;dr of what I learned about Meta’s adventures in Myanmar.

Beginning around 2013, Facebook spent years ignoring desperate warnings from experts in Myanmar and around the world, kept its foot on the algorithmic accelerator, and played what the UN called a determining role” in the genocide of the Rohingya people. A genocide which included mass rape and sexual mutilation, the maiming and murder of thousands of civilians including children and babies, large-scale forced displacement, and torture.

I wrote so much about Meta in Myanmar because I think it’s a common misconception that Meta just kinda didn’t handle content moderation well. What Meta’s leadership actually did was so multifaceted, callous, and avaricious that it was honestly difficult for even me to believe:

Combine all those factors with Meta leadership’s allergy to learning anything suggesting that they should do less-profitable, more considered things to save lives, and you get a machine that monopolized internet connectivity for millions and then flooded Myanmar’s nascent internet with algorithmically accelerated, dehumanizing, violence-inciting messages and rumors (both authentic and farmed) that successfully demonized an ethnicity and left them without meaningful support when Myanmar’s military finally enacted their campaign of genocide.

As of last year—ten years after warnings began to appear in Myanmar and about six years since the peak of the genocide—Meta was still accepting genocidal anti-Rohingya ads, the content of which was actually taken directly from widely studied documents from the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, examining the communications that led to the genocide. Meta continues to accept extreme disinformation as advertising all over the world, in contradiction to its own published policies and statements, as Global Witness keeps demonstrating.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that according to whistleblower Sophie Zhang’s detailed disclosures, Meta—which is, I want to emphasize, the largest social media company in the world—repeatedly diverted resources away from rooting out fake-page and fake-account networks run by oppressive governments and political parties around the world, including those targeting activists and journalists for imprisonment and murder, while claiming otherwise in public.

Meta’s lead for Threads, Adam Mosseri, was head of Facebook’s News Feed and Interfaces departments during that long, warning-heavy lead-up to the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar. After the worst of the violence was over, Mosseri noted on a podcast that he’d lost some sleep over it.

In 2018, shortly after that podcast, Mosseri was made the new head of Instagram, from whence he comes to Threads—which, under his leadership, hosts accounts like bomb-threat generating money-making scheme Libs of TikTok and Steve Bannon’s dictatorship fancast, War Room.

Knowing the details of these events—most of which I couldn’t even fit into the very long posts I published—makes it impossible for me to cheerfully accept Meta’s latest attempt to permeate the last few contested spaces on the social internet, because touching their products makes me feel physically ill. 

It’s the difference, maybe, between understanding plastic pollution” in the abstract vs. having spent pointless hours sifting bucketfuls of microplastics out of the sand of my home coast’s heartbreakingly beautiful and irreparably damaged beaches.

My personal revulsion isn’t an argument, and the vast majority of people who see a link to the Myanmar research won’t ever read it—or Amnesty’s reporting on Meta’s contribution to targeted ethnic violence against Tigrayan people in Ethiopia, or Sophie Zhang’s hair-raising disclosures about Meta’s lack of interest in stopping global covert influence operations, or Human Rights Watch on Meta’s current censorship practices in the Israel-Palestine war.

Nevertheless, I hope it becomes increasingly clear why the line, for some of us, isn’t about non-commercial” or non-algorithmic,” but about Meta’s specific record of bloody horrors, and their absolute unwillingness to enact genuinely effective measures to prevent future political manipulation and individual suffering and loss on a global scale.

Less emotionally, I think it’s unwise to assume that an organization that has…

  • demonstrably and continuously made antisocial and sometimes deadly choices on behalf of billions of human beings and
  • allowed its products to be weaponized by covert state-level operations behind multiple genocides and hundreds (thousands? tens of thousands?) of smaller persecutions, all while
  • ducking meaningful oversight,
  • lying about what they do and know, and
  • treating their core extraction machines as fait-accompli inevitabilities that mustn’t be governed except in patently ineffective ways…

…will be a good citizen after adopting a new, interoperable technical structure.

Attack vectors (open)

Some of the attack vectors Threads hosts are open and obvious, but let’s talk about them anyway.

Modern commercial social networks have provided affordances that both enable and reward the kind of targeted public harassment campaigns associated with multi-platform culture-war harassment nodes like Libs of Tiktok, who have refined earlier internet mob justice episodes into a sustainable business model.

These harassment nodes work pretty simply:

  1. Use crowdsourced surveillance juiced by fast social media search to find a target, like a children’s hospital, schoolteacher, a librarian, or a healthcare worker. (To give you a sense of scale, Libs of Tiktok named and targeted two hundred and twenty-two individual employees of schools or education organizations in just the first four months of 2022.)
  2. Use social media to publicize decontextualized statements from targeted individuals, doctored video, lies about policies and actions, and dehumanizing statements calling targeted individuals and groups evil cult members who groom children for sexual abuse, etc.
  3. Sit back while violence-inciting posts, right-wing media appearances, lots and lots of bomb threats, and Substack paychecks roll in, good teachers’ and librarians’ lives get absolutely wrecked, and anti-trans, anti-queer legislation explodes nationally.
  4. Repeat.

As I noted above, Threads currently hosts Libs of TikTok, along with plenty of other culture-war grifters devoted to hunting down private individuals talking about their lives and work and using them to do what Meta calls real-world harm.”

Maybe none of those vicious assholes will notice that they’re now federating with a network known as a haven for thousands of LGBTQ+ people, anarchists, dissidents, furries, and other people the harassment machines love to target as ragebait.

And maybe none of the harassment nodes will notice that Mastodon is also used by very real predators and CSAM-distributors—the ones mainstream fedi servers defederate from en masse—and use that fact to further mislead their froth-mouthed volunteer harassment corps about the dangers posed by trans and queer people on the fediverse.

Maybe none of that will happen! But if I were in the sights of operators like those, I’d want to get as far from Threads as possible. And I’d take assertions that people who don’t want to federate with Threads are all irrational losers as useful revelations about the character of the people making them.

Attack vectors (covert)

I’ve written a lot about the ways in which I think the fediverse is currently unprepared to deal with the kinds of sophisticated harms Meta currently allows to thrive, and sometimes directly funds. Please forgive me for quoting myself for my own convenience:

I think it’s easy to imagine that these heavy-duty threats focus only on the big, centralized services, but an in-depth analysis of just one operation, Secondary Infektion, shows that it operated across at least 300 websites and platforms ranging from Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube (and WordPress, Medium, and Quora) to literally hundreds of other sites and forums.

The idea that no one would make the effort to actually conduct high-effort, resource-intensive information operations across smaller social platforms remains common, but is absolutely false. We’ve seen it happen already, and we’ll see it again, and I’d be shocked if next-generation large-language models weren’t already supercharging those campaigns by reducing required effort.

To believe it can’t or won’t happen on fedi—and that Threads won’t accelerate it by providing easy on-ramps and raising the profile of the fediverse more generally—seems naive at best.

Unfortunately, this isn’t something that simply suspending or blocking Threads will fix. I don’t think any action server admins take is going to prevent it from happening, but I do think the next twelve to eighteen months are a critical moment for building cross-server—and cross-platform—alliances for identifying and rooting out whatever influence networks fedi administrators and existing tooling can detect. (Especially but not only given the explosive potential of the upcoming US Presidential election and, thanks to US hegemony, its disproportionate effect on the rest of the world.)

On the pragmatic side, small-scale fedi would benefit hugely from the kind of training and knowledge about these operations that big commercial platforms possess, so if I were a fedi admin who felt fine about working with Meta, those are the kinds of requests I would be making of my probably quite nice new friends in terrible places.

How much do you want to help Meta?

Meta’s business model centers on owning the dominant forums for online human connection in most of the world and using that dominant position to construct dense webs of data that clients at every level of society will pay a lot of money for so that they can efficiently target their ad/influence campaigns.

Amnesty International has an exceptionally trenchant breakdown of the human-rights damage done by both Meta and Google’s globe-circling surveillance operations in English, French, and Spanish, and I think everyone should read it. In the meantime, I think it’s useful to remember that no matter how harmful the unintended effects of these corporations’ operations—and they’ve been immensely harmful—their corporate intent is to dominate markets and make a lot of money via ad/influence campaigns. Everything else is collateral damage.

(I’m going to blow past Meta’s ability to surveil its users—and non-users—outside of its own products for now, because I don’t have the time to get into it, but it’s still pretty gruesome.)

As moral actors, I think we should reckon with that damage—and fight to force Meta and Google to reckon with it as well—but when we look ahead to things like Threads’ next moves, I think we should keep market domination and behavior-targeted ad and influence campaigns foremost in our minds.

With those assumptions on the table, I want to think for a moment about what happens when posts from, say, Mastodon hit Threads.

Right off the bat, when Threads users follow someone who posts from Mastodon, those Masto-originating posts are going to show up in Threads users’ feeds, which are currently populated with the assistance of Meta’s usual opaque algorithmic machinery.

I find it difficult to imagine a world in which Mastodon posts federated into Threads don’t provide content against which Meta can run ads—and, less simplistically, a world in which Threads’ users’ interactions with Mastodon posts don’t provide behavioral signals that allow Meta to offer their clients more fine-grained targeting data.

Threads isn’t yet running ads-qua-ads, but it launched with a preloaded fleet of brands” and the promise of being a nice, un-heated space for conversation—which to say, an explicitly brand-friendly environment. (So far, this has meant no to butts and no to searching for long covid info and yes to accounts devoted to stochastic anti-LGBT terrorism for profit, so perhaps that’s a useful measure of what brands consider safe and neutral.) Perhaps there’s a world in which Threads doesn’t accept ads, but I have difficulty seeing it.

So I think that leaves us with a few things to consider, and I think it’s worth teasing out several entangled but distinct framings at work in our ways of thinking about modern social networks and our complicity in their actions.

Tacit endorsement

A lot of arguments about consumer choice position choice as a form of endorsement. In this framing, having an account on a bad network implies agreement with and maybe even complicity in that network’s leadership and their actions. It boils down to endorsement by association. This comes up a lot in arguments about why people should leave Twitter.

In some formulations of this perspective, having an account on Mastodon and federating with Threads implies no endorsement of Meta’s services; in other formulations, any interconnection with Threads does imply a kind of agreement. I’ll walk through two more ways of looking at these questions that might help reveal the assumptions underlying those opposing conclusions.

Indirect (ad-based) financial support

There’s also a framing of consumer choice as opting into—or out of—being part of the attention merchants’ inventory. (This is the logic of boycotts.)

In this framing, maintaining an active account on a bad network benefits the network’s leaders directly by letting the network profit by selling our attention on to increasingly sophisticated advertising machines meant to influence purchases, political positions, and many kinds of sentiment and belief.

In the conversations I’ve seen, this framing is mostly used to argue that it’s bad to use Meta services directly, but ethically sound to federate with Threads, because doing so doesn’t benefit Meta financially. I think that’s somewhere between a shaky guess and a misapprehension, and there’s a third way to frame our participation in social networks that helps illuminate why.

Social networking as labor

There’s a third perspective that frames what we do within social networks—posting, reading, interacting—as labor. I think it’s reasonably well understood on, say, Mastodon, that networks like X’s and Meta’s rely on people doing that work without really noticing it, as a side effect of trying to [connect with friends or network our way out of permanent precarity or keep up with world events or enjoy celebrity drama or whatever].

What I don’t think we’ve grappled with is the implications of sending our labor out beyond the current small, largely ferociously noncommercial version of the fediverse and into machinery like Meta’s—where that labor becomes, in the most boneheaded formulation, something to smash between ads for flimsy bras and stupid trucks and $30 eco-friendly ear swabs, and in more sophisticated formulations, a way to squeeze yet more behavioral data out of Threads users to sell onward to advertisers.

(Just knowing which Threads users are savvy and interested enough to seek out Mastodon accounts to follow feels like a useful signal for both internal Meta work and for various kinds of advertisers.)

Okay so what

When I started trying to talk about some of the likely technical behaviors we’ll see when Mastodon posts show up inside Threads—by which I mean they will be part of the ad machine and they will be distributed in Meta’s usual algorithmic ways”—I got a lot of responses that focused on the second framing (financial support via ad impressions). Essentially, most of these responses went, If we’re not seeing ads ourselves, what’s the problem?”

An honest but ungenerous response is that I don’t want to contribute my labor to the cause of helping Meta wring more ~value from its users—many of whom have no meaningful alternatives—because those users are also human beings just like me and they deserve better networks just as much as I do.

A better response is that when we sit down to figure out what we want from our server administrators and what we’re going to do as individuals, it’s useful to acknowledge externalities as well as direct effects on our” networks, because ignoring externalities (aka other people somewhere else”) is precisely how we got the worst parts of our current moment.

On pragmatism

Compared to the social internet as a whole, the existing fediverse is disproportionately populated by people who are demonstrably willing to put their various principles above online connection to friends, family members, and others who aren’t on fedi. That’s not intrinsically good or bad—I think it’s both, in different situations—but it shapes the conversation about trade-offs.

If you think anyone who uses Threads is unredeemable, you’re probably not going to have much sympathy for people who miss their friends who use Threads. More broadly, people who feel lonely on fedi because they can’t find people they care about get characterized as lazy, vapid dopamine addicts in a lot of Mastodon conversations.

I’m not particularly interested in judging anyone’s feelings about this stuff—I am myself all over the record stating that Meta is a human-rights disaster run by callous, venal people who shouldn’t hold any kind of power. But I do believe that survivable futures require that we all have access to better ways to be together online, so I always hope for broad empathy in fedi product design.

As for me—I’m much more of a pragmatist than I was twenty years ago, or even five years ago. And I have first-hand experience with having my labor and the labor of many others toward a meaningful public good—in my case, a volunteer-assembled set of official public data points tracking the covid pandemic—used by terrible people.

When the Trump White House—which had suggested suppressing case counts by stopping testing—used our work in a piece of propaganda about how well they were handling the pandemic, I spent days feeling too physically ill to eat.

Nevertheless, I judged that the importance of keeping the data open and flowing and well contextualized was much greater than the downside of having it used poorly in service of an awful government, because we kept hearing first-hand reports that our work was saving human lives.

The experience was clarifying.

Until now, I haven’t involved myself much in discussions about how Mastodon or other fedi servers should react to Threads’ arrival, mostly because I think the right answer should be really different for different communities, my own revulsion notwithstanding.

For people whose core offline communities are stuck with Meta services, for example—and globally, that is a shit-ton of people—I think there are absolutely reasonable arguments for opening lines of communication with Threads despite Meta’s radioactivity.

For other people, the ethical trade-offs won’t be worth it.

For others still, a set of specific risks that federation with Threads opens up will not only make blocking the domain an obvious choice, but potentially also curtail previously enjoyed liberties across the non-Threads fediverse.

Here’s my point: Everyone makes trade-offs. For some people, the benefits of Threads federation is worth dealing with—or overlooking—Meta’s stomach-churning awfulness. But I do think there are human costs to conflating considered pragmatism with a lack of careful, step-by-step thought.

Practicalities

That was the whole of my sermon.

Here are some things to think about if you’re a fedi user trying to work out what to do, what questions to ask your server admins, and how to manage your own risk.

Ask your admins about policy enforcement

I think this is probably a good time for people who are concerned about federation with Threads to look through their server’s documentation and then ask their administrators about the server’s Threads-federation plan if that isn’t clear in the docs, along with things like…

  • …if the plan is to wait and see, what are the kinds of triggers that would lead to suspension?
  • …how will they handle Threads’ failure to moderate, say, anti-trans posts differently from the way they would handle a Mastodon server’s similar failure?
  • …how will they manage and adjudicate their users’ competing needs, including desires to connect with a specific cultural or geographical community that’s currently stuck on Meta (either by choice or by fiat) vs. concerns about Threads’ choice to host cross-platform harassment operators?

I don’t think the answers to these questions are going to be—or should be—the same for every server on the fediverse. I personally think Meta’s machinery is so implicated in genocide and a million lesser harms that it should be trapped inside a circle of salt forever, but even I recognize that there are billions of people around the world who have no other social internet available. These are the trade-offs.

I also think the first two questions in particular will seem easy to answer honestly, but in reality, they won’t be, because Threads is so big that the perceived costs of defederation will, for many or even most fedi admins, outweigh the benefits of booting a server that protects predators and bad actors.

I would note that most mainstream fedi servers maintain policies that at least claim to ban (open) harassment or hateful content based on gender, gender identity, race or ethnicity, or sexual orientation. On this count, I’d argue that Threads already fails the first principle of the Mastodon Server Covenant:

Active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia Users must have the confidence that they are joining a safe space, free from white supremacy, anti-semitism and transphobia of other platforms.

Don’t take my word for this failure. Twenty-four civil rights, digital justice and pro-democracy organizations delivered an open letter last summer on Threads’ immediate content moderation…challenges:

…we are observing neo-Nazi rhetoric, election lies, COVID and climate change denialism, and more toxicity. They posted bigoted slurs, election denial, COVID-19 conspiracies, targeted harassment of and denial of trans individuals’ existence, misogyny, and more. Much of the content remains on Threads indicating both gaps in Meta’s Terms of Service and in its enforcement, unsurprising given your long history of inadequate rules and inconsistent enforcement across other Meta properties.

Rather than strengthen your policies, Threads has taken actions doing the opposite, by purposefully not extending Instagram’s fact-checking program to the platform and capitulating to bad actors, and by removing a policy to warn users when they are attempting to follow a serial misinformer. Without clear guardrails against future incitement of violence, it is unclear if Meta is prepared to protect users from high-profile purveyors of election disinformation who violate the platform’s written policies.

For me, there is no ideal world that includes Meta, as the company currently exists. But in the most ideal available world, I think other fedi services would adopt—and publicly announce—a range of policies for dealing with Threads, including their answers to questions like the ones above.

Domain blocking and its limits

If you don’t want to federate with Threads, the obvious solution is to block the whole domain or find yourself a home server that plans to suspend it. Unfortunately, as I’ve learned through personal experience, suspensions and blocks aren’t a completely watertight solution.

In my own case, a few months ago someone from one of the most widely-suspended servers in the fediverse picked one of my more innocuous posts that had been boosted into his view and clowned in my replies in the usual way despite the fact that my home server had long since suspended the troll’s server.

So not only was my post being passed around on a server that should never have seen it, I couldn’t see the resulting trolling—but others whose servers federated with the troll server could. Now imagine that instead of some random edgelord, it had been part of the Libs of TikTok harassment sphere, invisibly-to-me using my post to gin up a brigading swarm. Good times!

Discussions about this loophole have been happening for much longer than I’ve been active on fedi, but every technical conversation I’ve seen about this on Mastodon rapidly reaches such an extreme level of No, that’s all incorrect, it depends on how each server is configured and which implementations are in play in the following fifty-two ways,” that I’m not going to attempt a technical summary here.

Brook Miles has written about this in greater detail in the context of the AUTHORIZED_FETCH” Mastodon configuration option—see the Example—Boosting” section for more.

If your personal threat model is centered on not being annoyed by visible taunting, this loophole doesn’t really matter. But if you or your community have had to contend with large-scale online attacks or distributed offline threats, boosting your posts to servers your server has already suspended—and then making any ensuring threats invisible to you while leaving them visible to other attackers is more dangerous than just showing them.

Will this be a significant attack vector from Threads, specifically? I don’t know! I know that people who work on both Mastodon and ActivityPub are aware of the problem, but I don’t have any sense of how long it would take for the loophole to be closed in a way that would prevent posts from being boosted around server suspensions and reaching Threads.

In the meantime, I think the nearest thing to reasonably sturdy protection for people on fedi who have good reason to worry about the risk surface Threads federation opens up is probably to either…

  • block Threads and post followers-only or or local-only, for fedi services that support it, or
  • operate from a server that federates only with servers that also refuse to federate with Threads—which is a system already controversial within the fediverse because allowlists are less technically open than denylists.

A note on individual domain blocking

Earlier this week, I got curious about how individual blocks and server suspensions interact, and my fedi research collaborator Darius Kazemi generously ran some tests using servers he runs to confirm our understanding of the way Mastodon users can block domains.

These informal tests show that:

  1. if you individually block a domain, your block will persist even if your server admin suspends and then un-suspends the domain you blocked, and
  2. this is the case whether you block using the block domain” UI in Mastodon (or Hometown) or upload a domain blocklist using the import tools in Settings.

The upload method also allows you to block a domain even if your home server’s admin has already suspended that domain. And this method—belt plus suspenders, essentially—should provide you with a persistent domain block even if your home server’s admins later change their policy and un-suspend Threads (or any other server that concerns you.

(If any of the above is wrong, it’s my fault, not Darius’s.)

Human/feeling

This last part is difficult, but I’m keeping it in because it’s true and it’s something I’m wrestling with.

It’s been a wild week or so watching people who I thought hated centralized social networks because of the harm they do giddily celebrating the entry into the fediverse of a vast, surveillance-centric social media conglomerate credibly accused of enabling targeted persecution and mass murder.

Rationally, I understand that the adoption of an indieweb protocol by the biggest social media company in the world feels super exciting to many fedi developers and advocates. And given the tiny scraps of resources a lot of those people have worked with for years on end, it probably feels like a much-needed push toward some kind of financial stability.

What I cannot make sense of is the belief that any particular implementation of open networking is such an obvious, uncomplicated, and overwhelming good that it’s sensible and good to completely set aside the horrors in Meta’s past and present to celebrate exciting internet milestones.

I don’t think the people who are genuinely psyched about Threads on fedi are monsters or fascists, and I don’t think those kinds of characterizations—which show up a lot in my replies—are helping. And I understand that our theories of change just don’t overlap as much as I’d initially hoped.

But for me, knowing what I do about the hundreds of opportunities to reduce actual-dead-kids harm that Meta has repeatedly and explicitly turned down, the most triumphant announcements feel like a celebration on a mass grave.

Other contexts and voices

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Scots ministers told to seek ‘unexplained wealth order’ for Donald Trump resorts

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The Scottish Government has been urged to apply for an unexplained wealth order to investigate Donald Trump’s deals to acquire his Scottish properties.
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What would DC look like without methane gas?

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This is part 2 of a two-part series. Read part 1 here.

DC’s gas utility has promised to transition its business model away from selling gas, a necessary step if the District is to achieve its commitment of carbon neutrality by 2050. As we outlined in our earlier post, ending DC’s reliance on methane gas would reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. It would also improve indoor air quality and public health.

If DC successfully transitioned away from gas for heating, hot water, and cooking, what would that look like in practice?

Gas is polluting your home

Cooking on a gas stovetop means burning fossil fuels and emitting noxious fumes like nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide directly into a home’s air, which contributes to everything from dizziness to asthma to heart disease.

Indoor air pollution from gas combustion frequently exceeds Environmental Protection Agency outdoor air quality standards, but because indoor air is unregulated by the EPA, the toxic fumes are perfectly legal. DC’s high asthma rate—14% of children in the District have asthma—is highly correlated to indoor air pollution.

Getting rid of gas stoves and the associated health problems means cooking with electric or induction stoves, neither of which burn fossil fuels. Induction cooktops work by creating a magnetic field that transfers heat directly to the pot or pan. When heating on a gas stove, only about half the energy is transferred to the pot and the rest warms the air in the kitchen. An induction stove transfers about 90% of the energy directly to the pot.

A gas stove flame by Ervins Strauhmanis licensed under Creative Commons.

Cavemen needed fire, we don’t

The share of gas used for cooking is fairly low. The primary use for gas in buildings is heating, either with furnaces or boilers. Electric air-source heat pumps provide heat more efficiently and with less carbon pollution than gas. In recent decades, the efficiency and reliability of heat pumps have dramatically improved, allowing them to provide heat inside even amid frigid temperatures outside.

Heat pumps require only one unit of energy in the form of electricity to generate about three units of energy in the form of heat. The extra, non-electric energy comes from removing heat from the outside air, which is a source of essentially free energy.

Here is how it works. Let’s say the outside air is 25 degrees. To absorb heat from such cold air and transfer it indoors, the heat pump uses a refrigerant fluid. The refrigerant is even colder than the outside air, say 10 degrees, so it absorbs heat from the relatively warmer outdoor air.

The refrigerant is then compressed, which raises the temperature to between 120 and 140 degrees. The now-hot refrigerant is sent indoors through copper pipes, and the heat is transferred to indoor air while the refrigerant is sent back outside. Outdoors again, the pressure of the refrigerant is reduced and its temperature falls below that of the outdoor air, making it again ready to absorb heat from the outside air.

The cycle repeats over and over, providing exceedingly energy-efficient heating. The process requires electricity, but the electricity itself does not produce heat. It only transfers heat from outdoors to indoors. Heat pumps are about three times more efficient than electric baseboard radiators or gas furnaces.

Heat pumps by yum9me licensed under Creative Commons.

The same heat pump that warms a home in the winter can cool it in the summer, using the same process, but in reverse. Having the same system for heating and cooling can save money and allow buildings to move beyond gas and operate entirely on electricity. Indoor heat pump water heaters use the same technology, eliminating the need for gas-fired water heaters.

Homes not fueled by gas avoid the cost of gas lines, gas servicing, and gas metering. A study by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that using electricity for heating, hot water, and air conditioning reduces homeowner costs in new buildings. Electric retrofits of existing homes can save money for homeowners who would otherwise need to replace both a furnace and an air conditioner. Electric retrofits can also save money for those combining rooftop solar and electrification, according to the study.

Electrification necessitates efficiency

Decreased gas use increases reliance on electricity, and with DC’s electric mix moving toward 100% renewable sources because of the clean energy law going into effect this year, replacing gas with electricity means a substantial drop in greenhouse gas emissions. But electrification alone isn’t enough for DC to meet its climate goals.

Additional electricity demand resulting from switching off gas will require energy efficiency measures such as air-sealing and insulation of homes and other buildings. Increased efficiency will save money for utility ratepayers and keep costly upgrades of the electric distribution system to a minimum. While some costs will be borne by owners, governments should provide subsidies as well.

The District’s Clean Energy DC plan calls for a package of incentives targeting energy use reductions in existing buildings, with the program set up by 2020. If successful, it will pave the way for widespread electrification.

Efficiency efforts are already underway for large buildings. The DC Department of Energy and Environment is starting to set up the Building Energy Performance Standards program, which was created by the clean energy law and requires increased efficiency in buildings over 50,000 square feet beginning in 2021. The efficiency requirements will apply to buildings of 25,000 square feet in 2023 and 10,000 square feet in 2026.

Gas conduits by Vincent Aguerre licensed under Creative Commons.

Shutting off the pipeline, from California to Britain

The reliability, efficiency, and economics of heat pumps are fueling the transition off gas. In July, Berkeley, California passed a law prohibiting gas hookups in newly-constructed residential buildings. The local utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, supported the legislation. The ban takes effect on January 1. Fifty other California cities are considering their own gas bans.

In August, the California Public Utilities Commission issued a unanimous decision directing the state’s $1 billion energy efficiency program to start funding gas-to-electricity fuel switching programs. The commission’s order noted that gas is “a barrier to California’s progress on climate and energy goals.”

In March, the Conservative Party-led government in Great Britain announced a prohibition on gas in new residential buildings, moving the country toward heat pumps, increased efficiency and other alternatives to gas.

The Building Decarbonization Coalition concluded in white papers released earlier this year that fuel-switching from gas to electricity “will save consumers billions of dollars compared to other carbon reduction strategies” in part because “electric appliances have lower lifetime costs than fossil fuel appliances, especially considering the avoided costs of gas infrastructure.”

Gas-fired boilers by Vital Energi licensed under Creative Commons.

Decisions today, consequences for decades

The lifespan of an in-home furnace is up to 30 or more years, and up to 60 years for large boilers serving apartment and condo buildings. That means most gas boilers and furnaces installed today will still be in place by 2032, when DC has committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half. Many will be operating in 2050, the year DC has pledged net zero carbon emissions.

Fossil fuel interests claim ending the addiction to dirty fuels like methane gas is too expensive. In truth, acting now is far cheaper than waiting to address the problem and its devastating consequences in a much warmer future.

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chrishiestand
1775 days ago
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How did I not already know the health and environmental impacts of residential gas burning?

One of the things not mentioned in the article is that, IIRC, gas tends to be much cheaper than electricity for the same amount of heat. So even if electricity is more efficient, gas is often still cheaper. At least cheaper when you don’t factor in externalities.
San Diego, CA, USA
acdha
1775 days ago
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wmorrell
1775 days ago
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This explains some of the difficulty finding places in the SF Bay that have gas ranges. That's the one thing that I personally would have a hard time giving up; electric is fine for ovens and pressure cookers, but I can't stand the experience of cooking anything that requires changing heating levels on electric or induction ranges.
fxer
1775 days ago
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> will require energy efficiency measures such as air-sealing and insulation of homes and other buildings.

That’s its own can of worms, our breathing and general living in a home puts a colossal amount of humidity in the air that the wood and gypsum board absorbs to saturation, and with houses no longer built to breathe, but rather hermetically sealed, we get mold problems that didn’t exist before
Bend, Oregon
dreadhead
1775 days ago
Its been a huge issue here where a bunch of buildings have "failed" IE full of mosture creating mold/rot etc. Now they have to have ventilation fans running the whole time etc. It seems like a real balancing act. I have not cooked on an induction but recently switched to gas and cooking on gas is so much nicer.

‘I’m Not Tossing in the Towel Yet’

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The new print issue of the magazine has a short thought-experiment article by me, on what happened after the fall of the Roman Empire. (As I point out, this concerned the  Western Empire only—the one based in Italy, and the one Edward Gibbon described in The Decline and Fall. The Eastern Empire, based in Constantinople, had many more centuries to run.)

In a first round of reader responses, historians and others reacted (mainly) to the article’s (intentionally overstated) headline, “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” And in a second round, a veteran of governance issues named Eric Schnurer argued that a renewed focus on local-level renewal and innovation was proper, since localities were the only places where innovation ever occurred.

Here is another round, on the point I mainly hoped the article would raise: how Americans, ever optimistic about the rebound capacity of their perpetually self-reinventing system, should think about the possibility that “it’s different this time,” and that national-level governance  might finally be strained beyond its rebound abilities. Over to the readers:

1) Civil servants still want to serve. In my article I quoted Philip Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, on the difference between national-level and local officials. At the state, local, and regional level, Zelikow said, elected and career officials had no choice but to work together and actually solve problems. Whereas at the national level, politics was more and more about culture war—“who you like, who you hate, which side you’re on,” as Zelikow put it.

A career official in a national-level agency replies:

In November I will mark 32 years of federal service.

My grandparents came here with nothing. I’m an age of rising tides, my parents had the grit and good fortune to grant me and my brothers and sisters every reasonable opportunity, and then some.

That’s fundamentally why I entered public service, and that’s fundamentally why I remain in public service. I am grateful and feel a responsibility to give back.

Your essay, comparing our federal state to Rome in its age of decline strikes a chord, and in doing so fills me with an undeniable melancholy.

I push back against Zelikow’s “which side are you on” fatalism about national governance, even as I admit I see evidence of it all around me.

I’m not tossing in the towel, yet.


19th century photo of the Roman-era arena in Arles, France (Library of Congress)

2) ‘Optimates’ vs. ‘Populares’: The Battle Goes On. From a history professor, of my own Boomer generation:

I have been thinking about that [Roman] period quite a bit lately, as we see the collapse of societal norms and the failure of many central governments to actually govern.

I see the present as actually more in parallel to the fall of the Republic in the first century BCE.  

At that time the empire had begun to take form, with vast amounts of wealth pouring into the center, but mainly enriching the Senatorial oligarchs. The men who had fought the wars were forced off their land, which came to be farmed on vast plantations by slaves. The new global order failed the yeomen, mainly because the rich, who controlled the government, refused to relinquish any of their wealth to help the impoverished citizens.

Seems familiar.

The society broke into two warring parties, Optimates and Populares (the Best and the People). They engaged in wars with each other, mobilizing personal armies, and violence came to be used as a means of government with leaders of each side being killed by mobs, culminating in the death of Julius Caesar. The society had become so divided that in the end the only way to govern was by autocratic rule: Augustus.

I fear that we are near that point, and that a demagogue will arise who has more shrewdness than our current demagogue-wannabe. Trump has blazed the pathway that others can well follow.

Trump’s party represents the Optimates—the wealthy, but we could just as well see a leader representing the Populares come to power. Think if Huey Long had been successful in the 1930s. Populism can cut both ways, call them National Populism and Social Populism ….

We are seeing the breakdown of Liberal Democracy across the world, as happened in the 1930s. It was finally restored after a decade of slaughter. It may not be restored again. At the least, something new has to take form, and that will not come from our generation.


One interesting parallel to the period that you do discuss in your piece is that the “barbarians” were not invading the Empire to loot and pillage. Mainly they wanted to share in the wealthy and stable Roman society, get a bit of land for their people and be secure from tribes like the Huns on the other side of the border. They knew Rome very well, many of their leaders had been leaders in the Roman armies and many were Roman citizens. The Vandals were not really that vandalous …

In the same way, people are now migrating en masse into Europe and the US in pursuit of better lives, to participate in the wealthy and stable Western societies, to escape poverty and brutality.

Climate change plays a significant role in driving people out of their homelands, and that will only become worse over time. Another factor of course is Western as well as internecine wars (think Iraq and Syria) and Western support of brutal governments (Central America)

But the influx of a mass of outsiders into the Roman Empire (especially the western part) did ultimately lead to the breakdown of the wealth and stability they had come for.

There were many reasons for this, including inter-tribal battling among the newcomers and the disappearance of the Roman legions as a controlling force, but there was a continuing social disintegration and insecurity. The stable Roman civitas crumbled, quickly in some places (Britain) and more slowly in others (Gaul). I am not bringing this up to agree with Trump’s mantra to ‘build the wall’ (which is folly—the Romans tried in some places), but rather to stress that we must have a rational immigration policy and consensus that prevents destabilization. Mass immigration creates nationalist anger which is fuel for nationalist demagogues.


As the Roman society disintegrated, government did become ever more localized. That worked for awhile in some places (like France), but in time trade shrank, education declined, government services passed away and instability increased.

One could imagine some parts of the US doing quite well for a time without a federal government, but other parts might do very poorly. Infrastructure would fall apart, as it did in post-Roman Europe. More people would flow across unpoliced borders, adding to the disruption and to the reactions. This would not play well in a society as well armed as the US.

No one knew that “Rome had Fallen” when Odoacer brushed aside the grandly named Romulus Augustulus in 476, only that the Germans now ruled Italy in name as they had in fact for the past decades. Even in our own long lives, can we know what history might see as having passed in our lifetimes, perhaps that we are now at the transition from the 500-year Modern Age into what-we-do-not-know (as John Lukacs has written)? Life went on, as for the frog in boiling water whom you have analyzed …

Several hundred years after the fall of Rome new forms and new states began to take shape amid the ruins, and by the 12th century Western Europe was again thriving. But it was a long and difficult time between the fall of the Empire and the rise of Europe. I would not wish that on my children and grandchildren, or on theirs.

The long term results of the failure of governance we are living through will be regrettable, though perhaps as necessary as the Dark Ages.


3) The new corporate “nationality.” A Westerner who has lived for years in Japan writes about the local-vs.-national tensions within the United States:

One idea is to reorganize the 50 states into 7 regions that match the baby bells created when AT&T was broken up …. The merits to such a reorganization is to unify many basic services: do we really need 50 DMVs and 50 Medicaid programs and who knows how many other layers of bureaucracy that gets repeated state by state. This could enhance basic services at the sub national level …. on the other hand it may create the equivalent of 7 proconsuls competing among themselves to follow Rome’s decline into empire. …

What seems more likely to me to occur over the next 50 years, and something that I oppose, is a rift, with sovereign-individual stance married to the corporatization of society ….

Instead of citizenship being based on contiguous borders our lives are bounded by what membership card(s) we carry. I can go to an Amazon condominium after buying dinner at Whole Foods paid by my Amazon coins via my Kindle and travel in my Amazon car ad infinitum. And if I am a Sapphire member, better deals as I jump from location to location but stay in the Amazon or Apple or Goggle or Facebook or whatever bubble. When a person uses an “out-of-service” provider, of course rates go up, and pity the people who cannot afford/are rejected in their membership bids. Blade Runner marries Brave New World.

Finally, on the question if this time is different compared to other times due to change! change! change! yes and no. I believe that in past periods starting around 1870, in these early periods, the degree of change was much greater than now. No electricity vs. wifi and rechargeable batteries; no telephones/movies/radios vs watching reality TV on your cell phone, etc., etc.

But the pace of change does seem to be much faster and disconcerting for all generations. This deserves further explanation but who has the time to read, let alone write …


19th-century print by artist E. Cameron, of the Ben-Hur chariot race in Rome (Library of Congress)  

4) Let’s talk about ideology, and class. Another academic writes (in a message I am substantially boiling down):

1.  I have spent the past seven years years studying the Eastern Roman Empire, which is usually called “Byzantium,” and which Gibbon himself dismissed as basically the thousand-year decline of the Roman Empire.

His is a monstrous oversimplification and it has degraded our understanding of ancient/medieval history ever since Gibbon's own day (1776), just as Adam Smith’s dismissal of the timelessness of mercantilism has degraded our English-speaking understanding of ancient/medieval economics ever since the same time (1776).  [JF note: On the Adam Smith point, check out this article by me, from 25+ years ago.]

Given what is already well-known about how the US so-called “founding fathers” (itself an egregious simplification of the revolutionary generation) understood the transition of Republican Rome into the Empire, before we sink our teeth into late antique history, it might be worth remembering that our understanding of the past, especially the more distant past, is ALWAYS (and has always been) subject to the political machinations of the present, and even historians’ own careers aren’t guided so much by how well they interpret the past, but by how well their interpretations suit the sensibilities of the times in which they happen to be writing …

[JF: Leaving out point #2, a long discourse on the difficulty of understanding the real life of peasants in different eras of history.] …

3. Generations are important for understanding deep history. For the past 70 years, young generations of Americans have been told that they ought to be living better than their parents. That was fine for the Boomers and for Gen Xers, but this is clearly not the case for Millennials.

So we were lied to. Big surprise: so were the generations who fought for and against Prohibition, Slavery and Unionization (and for Odoacer as well, arguably). Why else would (according to the 1860 US census) a majority of non-slave-owning Southern Whites sign up to fight for the cause of Confederate slavery at the outbreak of the American Civil War? …

4. Let’s not forget the power of ideology in the present. In the 5th century present, Christianity (and Judaism and the various forms of Paganism) were as much part and parcel of social cornerstones as the ideology of the “American Dream,” “Intersectionality,” and “MAGA” are today ….  

The point is that we should never underestimate the power of ideology to bind people to a common cause; whether in the 5th century, the 11th century, or the 21st century. Ultimately, we as historians dismiss the significance of religion (and collective conviction) at our own peril.

5. Finally, class. With the rapid adoption of Christian laws and social structures throughout the Roman Empire during and after the 4th century, the rigid laws fossilized a system of land-owners (fief-holders) and land-workers (peasants).

The road to serfdom is something that ever since Hayek, has been capitalized by the likes of Ayn Rand and her disciples, but it truly begins with the rules that one class lives by and another class lives above.

This may sound quite Marxist, but that’s because it is.  Without centralized regulations, we automatically return to system of land-owners and toilers, whether we call them ancient/medieval sharecroppers or modern bartenders. When ideology is co-opted by the elites to perpetuate their children to inherit their elite status (whether we call it aristocracy or meritocracy), we return to the so-called “dark ages.”

This is not simply “Marxism,” it is historical materialism. And it is the only actually reliable guide to studying the past that we have ever truly innovated since the time of Marcus Aurelius.


Roman-era baths in Bath, England, from an early 20th century image (Library of Congress)

5) “I believe in America.”  And, finally, quite a different view of the ever-present, ever-reinterpreted past:

As the famous first line in the movie The Godfather reads, “I believe in America.”

While many of us continue to do so, an alarming number of Americans have fallen victim to the in-vogue critique that “woe is me” and things are awful.

For some, this is a reality. I read stories about the homeless problem in major US cities, how drug addiction and tolerance of theft is literally robbing thriving communities of their once proud fortitude of citizenship. I read daily how big tech companies are continuing to mislead the American public about how they monitor and police speech and content their employees regard as offensive, and God knows what with our personal information ….

But what I mostly don’t see now is pride: pride in how fortunate we are to live in this country. It’s called gratitude ….


Talk to someone middle-aged who grew up in Soviet Eastern Europe, and you’ll find out quickly why they left for America. We now live in a world where we can get anything we want at any time of the day. Nearly all buildings and houses have central air-conditioning. Transportation is readily available for everyone. The economy is currently booming with employment we haven’t seen in three generations. Murder rates are at all-time lows. There hasn’t been a serious threat to the homeland in nineteen years. There’s a new superhero movie out every three months in theaters. Netflix programming has people indulging on their couches more than ever.

Most people who are angry and disheartened have never known a world like the Dark Ages, the Black Plague, Serfdom, Smallpox, the Great Depression or WWII or even the height of the Cold War. And we have room to complain that America sucks?

One of the reasons the Roman Empire fell was not because of physical over-extension by the state (which is true), but by its people taking for granted what the Roman Empire had done for the modern world …

Is it any coincidence many of the Founding era sought to emulate Roman law and antiquity as they established the republican virtues and culture of the 1780s-1820s? And what’s more, many of the Founders warned, much like the scholars of latter day Rome, what would likely be the downfall of the continent and our country: indifference and ingratitude from within for what America meant as an idea ….

The truth, in my opinion, is that 9/11 sapped us of our confidence. And the ensuing years of lies, mismanaged wars and bank bailouts, an incoherent foreign policy over multiple administrations, and now the rise of brash and offensive populism in both ideological camps have Americans feeling more anxious than ever ….


Perhaps we should be devoting much more to teaching civics again, and appreciating the separation of powers, appreciating why men like James Madison, George Mason, John Adams, Gouverneur Morris, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington matter so much that it is in our individual interest to be informed of who they were and what they did to establish the freedoms we often take for granted.

More so, it’s about time we recognize African American contributions during the Founding era too. In spite of their plight, we should be recognizing Peter Salem, Phyllis Wheatley, James Armistead Lafayette, and James Forten. We should be embracing the fact that the Continental army of 1781 was color-blind; that it stood about 1/5 African American at the Siege of Yorktown is extraordinary. Or that women and some African Americans were voting in New Jersey prior to 1807….

When we stop paying attention to all of the noise, and when we regain our focus; the fog will begin to clear, and King’s pronouncement of seeking to reach “the promised land” will once again ring loudly for those of us who are yearning for a more perfect union: one of freedom and liberty for all.

Thanks to all for responding to the thought-experiment with thoughts, evidence, and opinions.

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But how will they pay for it?

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Since the climate change townhall is happening, here’s a piece I wrote for Wired about it last month, based on some ideas of Jeff Colgan, Jessica Green and Thomas Hale.
—————-

Last week, CNN announced plans to host a climate crisis town hall with the Democratic presidential candidates on September 4. MSNBC scheduled a multiday climate change forum with the presidential hopefuls later that month.

In both venues, some version of the perpetual question will undoubtedly be raised: “How will you pay for the costs of dealing with climate change?”

Despite its pervasiveness, this is a profoundly wrongheaded line of inquiry. Asking how to pay for the impact of climate change implies that these costs are a matter of choice. The reality is that global warming will impose massive costs, regardless of whether policymakers respond or not. Thus, the real question is not “How would you propose to pay?” but instead “Who is going to pay?” and “How much?”

People are already paying for climate change with their lives. Rising temperatures are killing more than 150,000 people every year. This death toll is estimated to increase to 1.5 million people annually by the turn of the century. Some are confronting the likelihood of failed crops; others have been forced to flee floodplains.

Those currently paying for the effects of climate change are the most vulnerable—people in the developing world, the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the very young. As the world changes, more people are going to suffer the cost of heat waves, rising water, damaged or dying ecosystems, and flooded coastal cities. This will create what political science and public policy experts describe as “existential politics,” in which different groups fight to preserve their entire way of life.

On one side of this existential fight will be those who want things to continue mostly as they are. Oil companies have trillions of dollars worth of petroleum still in the ground. An entire energy infrastructure has been built on the back of fossil fuel extraction. If fossil fuels become “stranded assets”— economic assets that suddenly lose most or all of their value—crucial sectors of today’s economy will be utterly transformed, hurting the interests of the businesses that run them. Unsurprisingly, these businesses are fighting back. So, too, are industrial workers such as coal miners whose way of life is threatened.

Meanwhile, others will suffer the effects of continued inaction. People who live on coasts will face the risks and costs of flooding, while many of those who live inland will have to deal with changing weather patterns, droughts, and unbearable heat waves.

This fight has already started to play out. Fossil fuel interests are rich, politically influential, and well organized. They are able not only to pay for lobbyists in Washington, DC, but to organize an entire political movement at the state level. The Koch-funded “grassroots” organization Americans for Prosperity pushes to protect fossil fuel interests in individual states. The group has become intimately intertwined with the Republican party.

The interests on the other side are broader, less well organized, and less influential. This is in part because everyday Americans don’t really understand that they will be on the hook for many of the costs of climate change unless there is a dramatic change in policy.

If we continue on our current trajectory, the lives of ordinary voters will be fundamentally transformed while fossil fuel companies continue to make vast profits. Any serious policy response to global warming needs to transfer some of the costs from voters to the fossil fuel interests, where they belong.

Some might disagree with this approach, advocating instead for a consensus among all parties. The problem with this rejoinder: The politics of global warming are necessarily divisive, and one side of the divide is already mobilizing to protect its own narrow interests.

To fight global warming, we need to organize a broad public counterweight against the sectoral interests that are trying to block action. Building an effective “Green New Deal” will require financial resources to unite a coalition in favor of climate action, and to split the counter-coalition. Such policy will also need to remake the international political economy to build both cross-national solidarities and domestic alliances.

Yet before all of this can be done, it is crucial to change the terms of debate and acknowledge reality. We are going to have to pay for global warming, one way or another. The key question is who will pay—and how we can distribute those costs fairly.

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Elizabeth Warren Has Spent Her Adult Life Repeating A Lie. I Want Her To Tell The Truth.

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But many Native advocates, myself included, were not satisfied. Warren still has work to do, and demanding she do what’s left is beyond reasonable. In all of her apologizing, Warren has never let go of her family story. After spending her entire adult life repeating a lie, I simply want Warren to tell the truth. 

In 1836, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather, a white man named William Marsh, enlisted himself in a Tennessee militia to fight in the “Cherokee War,” an occupation of Cherokee land in the lead-up to the Trail of Tears. Decades later, his grandson John Houston Crawford moved his family onto Indian Territory and squatted on Cherokee land in a move that, with no record of a permit, was almost certainly illegal.

The Crawfords were just some of the tens of thousands of white squatters who outnumber Cherokees on our own land. While Cherokee Nation beseeched Congress to enforce our treaty rights and kick them out, the squatters pushed Congress to divide up our treaty territory and create a path to white land ownership; the squatters won. 

Pauline’s youngest child, Elizabeth, grew up with her mother’s version of the story. And though the family had no evidence or relationship to the tribe, Elizabeth Warren never questioned it, she wrote in her memoir. It was her family story, she would say.

The story of Warren‘s family traces the history of Cherokee Nation, but we sit on opposite sides of that history. Like many other white families, Warren’s ancestors replaced the truth of their complicity in Cherokee dispossession with a tale of being Cherokee. If that’s not wrong, if that’s not racist, I don’t know what is. 

The monster I am trying to wrestle to the ground is not one white woman who claimed to be Cherokee. It is the hundreds of thousands of white people claiming to be Cherokee and the broad social acceptance that emboldens them. It threatens the future of my tribe.

I do not fault Warren for believing what she was told as a child. But in 2019, Warren isn’t a kid anymore. She is a United States senator running for president. If she is not in a position that demands accountability and truth, who is?

The center of this controversy is not Warren’s political career, it is Cherokee sovereignty and self-determination. The monster I am trying to wrestle to the ground is not one white woman who claimed to be Cherokee. It is the hundreds of thousands of white people claiming to be Cherokee and the broad social acceptance that emboldens them. It threatens the future of my tribe. Warren is just the most public example.

I already know what people will say. They will say that many people have Cherokee ancestors but don’t have evidence, falsely believing that Cherokees were too primitive to have a paper trail when our literacy rates were higher than those of white people. They will say their great-grandmother was too proud to sign the Dawes Rolls, falsely believing the U.S. government gave Indians the option when some who refused were arrested. They will say the DNA test proves Warren is Cherokee, falsely believing that Western science knows Indigenous communities better than we know ourselves.

Tribal affiliation and kinship determine Cherokee identity — not race or biology. At a time when the far right is equating Native identity with race to undermine Native rights, the myths that lie in the wake of Warren’s missteps are extremely dangerous. Yes, she apologized, but we are left cleaning up the mess she made.

Warren’s policy platform and admission to harm is a good first step. But a complete apology is working to repair the harm you caused. There is no one in the world who has more power to correct the harmful myths perpetuated by this saga than Elizabeth Warren herself.

She simply needs to state she does not have a Cherokee ancestor and that she was wrong to claim one. Until then, Cherokee people will be left fighting the mountain of confusion she caused. And I am terrified we will lose. 

Rebecca Nagle is a writer, advocate and citizen of Cherokee Nation living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Research assistance by Cherokee genealogist Twila Barnes.

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chrishiestand
1794 days ago
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"Like many other white families, Warren’s ancestors replaced the truth of their complicity in Cherokee dispossession with a tale of being Cherokee."
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