My View: Slouching Toward Dystopia

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By David M. Greenwald
Executive Director

This month the iconic essayist and journalist Joan Didion died at the age of 87.  While I am a fan of a number of her works, I decided to re-read Slouching Towards Bethlehem this week, transporting myself to the mid-1960s California.

While I know we are supposed to be joyous as we turn over a new year, my mood borders on the bleak.  We seem headed in a very bad direction, toward some sort of cataclysm.  2021 might not have been nearly as bleak as 2020, but it churned out a lot of hope that seemed premature, and perhaps signs at the end that things are headed to a much worse place.

Here we are, one year after the COVID vaccine was first distributed to the public, and this week we are shattering new records for the most cases.  The seven-day average tells one story—nearly 400,000 per day, three times what it was just two weeks ago, and the one-day totals are shattering all previous highs.

There is some hope that this could be short-lived and not completely catastrophic.  We are seeing in South Africa, where Omicron started, the numbers are already going down.

The NY Times reports, “New estimates from researchers at Columbia University suggest that the United States could peak by Jan. 9 at around 2.5 million cases per week, though that number may go as high as 5.4 million.”

They expect it to peak in mid-January, however, and “the enormous numbers of people getting simultaneously infected could greatly strain hospitals, experts said, especially in places with lower vaccination rates or in places where hospitals are already overburdened.”

Our failure to get a huge swath of the population vaccinated is crippling.  But there is potential good news now.  For several weeks I have been skeptical of claims that Omicron is less severe.  Part of it is the make-up of the people of South Africa—younger, more likely to have been infected with Delta, and therefore it would be expected that we would see less hospitalization and death.

Follow-up studies also were encouraging, but how much of that was simply an artifact of previous exposure and the fact that vaccinated people are still getting Omicron, just less severe because of the protection?

But a report in the New York Times yesterday found, “A spate of new studies on lab animals and human tissues are providing the first indication of why the Omicron variant causes milder disease than previous versions of the coronavirus.

“In studies on mice and hamsters, Omicron produced less damaging infections, often limited largely to the upper airway: the nose, throat and windpipe. The variant did much less harm to the lungs, where previous variants would often cause scarring and serious breathing difficulty,” it continued.

So, for the first time, we have some harder evidence that the apparent milder symptoms might be real rather than just an artifact of previous infection, younger demographics, and vaccination.

COVID, as contagious as it is and disruptive, was never going to by itself be cataclysmic.  But it has exposed very serious deficiencies in our society—vaccine reluctance, medical and scientific skepticism and the stark and growing divide between red and blue America.

In my view, this country sits on the brink of democratic dissolution.  We narrowly avoided real peril from November to January 2020-21.  The attempted insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 should have been a wake-up call.  The efforts by former President Trump were not going to work given the dynamics of government and the relative wide margin of victory, but a closer election might have been a different story.

Basically, the system was strained, but held in the face of pressure.  Trump could not pressure officials to change the outcome.  Local elected officials, state election officials and the courts provided an effective buffer.  The Vice President, much to his personal detriment, refused to play along.  But a surprising number of House Republicans voted to disallow the results.

I fear what happens next time in 2024.  Trump will run again and most assuredly get the Republican nomination.  It is hard to know if Biden runs again in his 80s.  It is hard to know the state of the country.  It is very likely there will be strong Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, and insurrectionists have made headway into local government—what happens?  Hard to know.

Will either side accept a loss in 2024?

Finally, the most grave peril facing us is climate change.  The only real question is how bad it will be.  After all, this past month we saw severe weather—tornadoes in Minnesota in December, both Denver and Chicago set records for the latest first snowfall, fires continue raging out of control in Colorado again in December.

Once again, the crisis has been made worse by ineffective leadership from the US and lack of cooperation between the major nations of the world.

Justin Worland in Time, writes, “In mid-2020, after the pandemic had settled in, I wrote in a TIME cover story that the stars had aligned to make 2020 and 2021 the ‘last, best chance’ to keep the world from experiencing the worst impacts of climate change.”

But 18 months later, “the world seems poised to blow it. Governments across the globe have failed to spend big on a green economic recovery. Political leaders from the world’s largest economies have made lofty promises to eliminate their carbon footprints but failed to offer concrete policies to get there. And President Joe Biden’s ambitions for bold climate legislation have been stymied in Congress.”

“We’re sort of standing on the precipice,” says Rob Jackson, an earth system science professor at Stanford University and the chair of the Global Carbon Project. “I am loath to say it, but I’m deeply skeptical that we will reduce emissions fast enough to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5°.”

Are we being a bit gloomy here?  Perhaps.  We may well have a number of opportunities here to forestall the worst impacts.  We still have a relatively good quality of life.  The danger though is, without stronger and more united leadership, we may see our nation and the world start backsliding—we definitely sit at a critical moment in time where we have not lost all yet, but the longer we delay, the worse it’s going to be.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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40 Comments

    1. Alan Miller

      Myself, I appreciate the gloom.  But then again I listen to death metal, take quaaludes, eat paste for dinner, shout down Christmas carolers, keep a pet opossum, and eat at Denny’s.  So it kinds of fits into my lifestyle.

  1. Alan Pryor

    Finally, the most grave peril facing us is climate change.  The only real question is bad how will it be.

    And yet you are blowing the horn for DISC 2022 which will, according to the EIR, result in over 53 Million lbs of CO2 per year put into the atmosphere

    Once again, the crisis has been made worse by ineffective leadership

    And by people who put economic gain as higher priorities than the shape of the world we leave to our children and grandchildren….We don’t get it both ways.

    1. David Greenwald

      Unless you have a good way to calculate the impact of a given project over it’s replacement, it’s hard to calculate actual climate contribution.  Moreover, I still believe that development of green technology is one of the keys to solving climate change.  And leaving people in poverty is a good way, worldwide to harm climate change efforts and that takes economic development.  Of course you didn’t have to bring these issues into this discussion, you chose to, I think they are far more complex than you are giving them.

      1. Alan Pryor

        I still believe that development of green technology is one of the keys to solving climate change.  And leaving people in poverty is a good way, worldwide to harm climate change efforts and that takes economic development.

        Oh, that’s right…I forgot that if we just develop DISC 2022 that new green technologies will just jump right out of it that will save the world AND end poverty (of course, in addition to putting 53 Million lbs of CO2 per year put into the atmosphere).

        And if we don’t develop DISC here in Davis,  we’ll just get 53,000,000 lbs a year of CO2 put into the atmosphere from somewhere else (and maybe even more) but without the green technology to save the world AND without ending poverty.

        Well, if you really believe that, then the title of your article is just a little off. It should be, “Dystopia is Finally Here!

         

        1. David Greenwald

          You are missing a key point – if Davis doesn’t build DiSC, the employees there are still going to work somewhere.  So you’re not creating jobs and impact on the environment, you are moving the impact from one location to another.  The key then is to be more efficient doing so.

        2. Keith Olson

          David, I love the spin you’re using.  What you’re saying can be applied to any business, everywhere.  Even an oil refinery, if it isn’t built here it will be built somewhere and the employees still have to work somewhere.

        3. Ron Oertel

          Keith – that’s exactly what he’s claiming.

          It’s not as if opponents are advocating for a freeway-oriented development like DiSC to be built “elsewhere”.

          David:  Unless you have a good way to calculate the impact of a given project over it’s replacement, it’s hard to calculate actual climate contribution.  

          It’s “replacement” already exists, in the form of attractive farmland forming a logical boundary for the city, and encouraging additional sprawl on farmland beyond it as well.

          Or more accurately, that’s what DiSC would “replace”.

          I don’t take concerns regarding climate change seriously, from someone with David’s point of view. It is, as they say, nothing more than “hot air” (pun intended). The “talk” doesn’t match the “walk”.

          I guess David is counting on the worldwide government to take effective action, which alleviates any local/regional responsibility. I’m *sure* that will happen. 🙂

          Has Ukraine been invaded, yet?

           

        4. Ron Oertel

          Though now that I think about it, I do vaguely recall a map (from the first battle) showing that the site of the proposed DiSC is probably the worst possible location along the freeway corridors in the region, in terms of encouraging commuting and greenhouse gasses.

          Assuming that one wants to build a freeway-oriented development like DiSC in the first place.

  2. Alan Pryor

    You are missing a key point – if Davis doesn’t build DiSC, the employees there are still going to work somewhere.  So you’re not creating jobs and impact on the environment, you are moving the impact from one location to another.

    You are flat out wrong. Building the project somewhere else (e.g. on the other side of the causeway) would save far more in reduced mobile GHG emissions (which account for 77% of the project emissions) than could possibly be saved by having greater building efficiencies if built in Davis. This is because emissions associated with operation of the buildings at DISC only account for 10.7% of the projected overall project CO2e emissions.

    If by building on the other side of the causeway we can cut down driving emissions (by 25%) but increase emissions associated with building operations (by 25%), the world is still far better off by building the project on the other side of the causeway. And because the California Energy Commission will probably impose all-electric construction standards for all new buildings within 5 years, the claim that building the DISC project in Davis will result in more energy efficient building is illusory as well.

    And yes, I have done the calculations and will have a detailed paper written and submitted soon quantitatively showing how building the project on the other side of the causeway will result in substantially lower overall project GHG emissions than if built in Davis (and with a hell of a lot less traffic too!).

    Perhaps you would be so kind as to ask the Developer to quantify their alternative claim that you are so fond of parroting.

     

     

    1. Don Shor

      Building the project somewhere else (e.g. on the other side of the causeway) …If by building on the other side of the causeway … by building the project on the other side of the causeway. … building the project on the other side of the causeway…

      So, just to clarify: you are advocating that DISC be built in West Sacramento?

      1. Ron Oertel

        Can’t answer for Alan, but that option would probably also have the benefit of not paving-over prime farmland.

        You do realize they’re building a similar facility in Woodland, don’t you?

        https://www.cityofwoodland.org/583/Woodland-Research-Technology-Park

        In any case, just like with housing – people leave their jobs all the time, creating vacancies.

        Are you or David suggesting that people are going to be unemployed, unless an additional facility (e.g., in addition to the one in Woodland) are built?  In other words, you’re claiming that “not enough” existing facilities exist?  (If that was true, they probably would have built one a long time ago – e.g., in Davis when “MRIC” had the opportunity, or in West Sacramento, Woodland, Dixon, etc.  And that’s only assuming that we’re limiting the discussion to the region.

        And in a state like California (that’s no longer growing), perhaps the question that needs to be asked is whether or not additional jobs and housing need to be created at all, in the broader sense.   Especially with an aging population that’s increasingly leaving the workforce.

      2. Alan Pryor

        So, just to clarify: you are advocating that DISC be built in West Sacramento?

        West Sacramento  and Sacramento would both be better locations for a DISC-like development than Davis in terms of reducing VMTs driven. That is why Aggie Square is in a better location next to the hospital in Sacramento than building it on the UCD campus,

        1. Bill Marshall

          That may be true… primarily because of Davis’ policies/practices as to housing, both as to availability and affordability.  Circular argument that you are making…

          A perfect “poison pill” as it were… fight any residential growth on one hand, citing any non-res growth would lead to Armageddon for the environment, because of the residential deficiencies. Perfect. Pure ‘stasis’ position.

    2. Richard_McCann

      Alan P

      Your ignoring the commuters who now commute from Davis to Sacramento who will now instead stay locally. This is also a dynamic system–you can’t use static assumptions about commuting patterns remaining the same before and after the project. This is a much more complex modeling exercise than a simple spreadsheet.

  3. Alan Miller

    While I know we are supposed to be joyous as we turn over a new year, my mood borders on the bleak.

    You are not alone in that.

    We seem headed in a very bad direction, toward some sort of cataclysm.

    Several cataclysms.  The question is which one kills us first.

    2021 might not have been nearly as bleak as 2020,

    I thought it was pretty bleak.  I got my ‘2020 dumpster fire’ t-shirt, and ordered a new one for 2021.  2022 is an open book on dumpster fire status.

    but it churned out a lot of hope that seemed premature,

    Sure did.

    and perhaps signs at the end that things are headed to a much worse place.

    They sure are.

    Here we are, one year after the COVID vaccine was first distributed to the public, and this week we are shattering new records for the most cases.

    That’s because the vaccine doesn’t stop infection, only severity of illness — and thanks to the gov’t not making that clear, a lot of people still believe that they are ‘cured’ when they get the vaccine and have gone back to ‘normal’, even here in Davis.  Not saying don’t get it, but continue to learn all you can to cut through the cråp.  And there’s a lot of cråp.

    With all the mingling over the holidays, the numbers should go through the roof in the next couple of weeks, probably to the point of putting a large dent in the economy.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Classic dystopia… instead of looking at facts, instead pessimism or optimism (eutopia), are posited…

      That’s because the vaccine doesn’t stop infection, only severity of illness… 

      That is a fact, verified by a family member, fully vaccinated by mid-January, a healthcare professional with a MS degree… who was vigilant, not paranoid, not reckless… one of the first verified Delta cases in May, truly accidental exposure…  two days of real discomfort, 2 days of ‘feeling under the weather’, and another 5-6 days of self-isolation… far better than hospitalization or death.

      I know science enough to know [from the get-go, back in March] that 1) I was not immune; 2) still should be vigilant about masking/social distancing, without being paranoid or ‘laissez-faire about it; 3) still got the booster, and, still should be vigilant about masking/social distancing, without being paranoid nor ‘laissez-faire’ about it…

      Eutopia (Pollyanna) and dystopia (Chicken Little) are not particularly useful to ‘real world’… my pessimism is so many folk are going to the extremes… not helpful, in the end… real problems, real reactions, seems right.

        1. Bill Marshall

          ‘H-E, double toothpicks’, YEP!

          I studied science… engineering, biological sciences… took 1 Poly (psuedo-) Science class… upper division… aced it… only the prof/lecturer knew I spoke ‘truth’… was constantly challenged by ‘real’ poly sci students, because I couldn’t pronounce Keynes (still can’t) right… and was openly derided by them, for my views and real-fife experience (class in PolySci in local government)… decided I’d not go there again (fulfilled my ‘humanities’ unit requirements, along with others) , and yes, I am biased against Poly (psuedo-) Science folk… I fully admit my ‘prejudice’… I actually ‘profile’ 90+% of them.

  4. Ron Glick

    The S&P 500 was up 25% last year and hit new all time highs this week. The Nasdaq 100 was up 26% and the Dow Jones industrials was up 17%. I’m expecting more of the same in 22 although predicting the future is always a speculative activity. Meanwhile minimum wage is now $15/hour. Unemployment is down. New claims for unemployment reached a multi decade low this week. Child poverty is down thanks to the Democrats. Plus the state has a massive budget surplus.

    Dystopia is overrated.

    1. Keith Olson

      The stock market and the housing market are in historic bubbles and will come back to Earth at some point.  It’s going to happen under Biden.  How he weathers that who knows?  He’s already shown he’s not very capable.  The only reason those markets are staying high now is there’s no place else to park your money.

      1. Bill Marshall

        there’s no place else to park your money.

        Actually, that’s not true… with bank/credit union interest rate so low, a good place to ‘park’ your money is I-bonds… you won’t “grow” your wealth, but you won’t have it ‘eroded’ by inflation.

        The stock market and the housing market are in historic bubbles and will come back to Earth at some point.

        What do you mean by the bolded assertion?  Go to zero?  Or, what?

        If I was a “day trader” I’d be concerned about a “bubble”… I’m more a diversify, ‘buy and hold’, mutual fund, adjust if there are definitive trend lines over a 12 month or greater period, sort of investor… I’m not concerned about a “bubble”…

        Ron G is correct… if there is a downward adjustment, that’s when you buy… compared to today, I bought way low, and therefore not concerned with a bubble burst…

        Funny you warn against Biden… just look at the charts during the Trump administration… and some of the big dips that occurred then.

  5. Ron Glick

    You read the wrong book. You should have read Sacramento native Didion’s  “Where I Was From”  in which she explains how all of the strongly held beliefs she wrote about some 50 years earlier when she wrote “Run River” were wrong.

    Didion’s ability to grow over her entire life and continue to explore the world with a critical intellectual curiosity would be refreshingly welcome if it was embraced by many of the stale minds in Davis who haven’t changed their understanding of the world in decades.

    Whether its a penchant within the Davis locals for doomsday Malthusian, Galton’s Eugenics or Schmacher’s “Small is Beautiful” limits to growth, Didion’s ability for reflection, adaptation, compassion and change in understanding seems to be missing from so many outspoken Davisites, including the Executive Editor of the Davis Vanguard.

        1. Don Shor

          I experienced those freeways regularly in the 1960s – 80s, then a long hiatus, and then several times a few years ago. I was amazed at how much more smoothly the traffic flows now than it did back then, with the one exception of the stretch of I-5 where it narrows to two lanes because they simply cannot expand it. That was a bottleneck each time. Other than that, people now have no idea how much more efficient the LA/Orange County freeway system is than it was, and also how much cleaner the air is.

        2. Alan Miller

          The air is much cleaner.  The traffic is better you two say?  Seriously?  OK, I haven’t been there since The Rona, but what I have experienced was traffic hell on multiple visits.

        3. Bill Marshall

          If you’re talking “the Grapevine” you’re right…  and Don is right… a constriction point that will likely remain until long after we’re all ‘gone’…

          The physical constraints are such that one has to ‘pick their time’ to traverse it… if you do it “off-peak” you can fly… if not it’s as best, “slow and go”… the pass was first developed as a ‘passage’ in the late 1700’s, and the early-late 1800’s…

          The Tehachapi’s are kinda like the Sierra’s … a natural barrier… the grades on the north/south sides of the Tehachapi’s can be even greater than the east-west passages of the Sierras… the Tehachapi’s would be the most logical border if CA would become two states…many reasons… one of the main reasons that won’t happen, is population, and availability of water… the folk south of the Tehachapi’s are highly dependent on the water from the north, and as I recall, most population.

    1. David Greenwald

      My favorite from Joan Didion is actually Salvador. But I do like “Slouching” as it has an essay on Sacramento with a brief mention of Yolo County.

      1. Keith Y Echols

        Isn’t “dystopia” a matter of perspective?  If you watch “Blade Runner”, sure L.A. looks like a dystopia but what about everyone else that moved off world?  Are things getting better or worse?  Again, it depends on your perspective.  I think there are areas the world and in our country that are getting better where as for others it’s getting worse.  That’s kind of the way of things.

        Also, why is my comment on the article “Some People Want Davis to Change: But to What?” awaiting moderation?  I don’t believe I said anything offensive or even controversial.  It’s my first comment.  I haven’t even commented on this site in a few days.

        1. Moderator

          Also, why is my comment on the article “Some People Want Davis to Change: But to What?” awaiting moderation? I don’t believe I said anything offensive or even controversial.

          Any variation of the word for a male chicken leads to the autofilter sending it into the moderation queue.

  6. Ron Oertel

    Here’s some dysotpia, for you.  This is what happens when there’s a disconnect between residents and those that supposedly represent them.

    This little valley and the adjacent park provided a much-needed break from the wall of development that increasingly extends from the Bay Area to the foothills, along the I-80 corridor.

    And of course, further impacting traffic along the I-80 corridor.

    I wonder if it’s in a fire zone, as well?

    https://www.thereporter.com/2021/10/13/city-heralds-start-of-lagoon-valley-development-construction/

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