WikiLeaks has released an updated version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) chapter on intellectual property. The new version of the texts, dated May 2014, show that little improvement has been made to sections critics say would hurt free speech online. Further, some of the TPP’s stipulations could have dire consequences for healthcare in developing nations. The Daily Dot reports: “Nearly all of the changes proposed by the U.S. advantage corporate entities by expanding monopolies on knowledge goods, such as drug patents, and impose restrictive copyright policies worldwide. If it came into force, TPP would even allow pharmaceutical companies to sue the U.S. whenever changes to regulatory standards or judicial decisions affected their profits. Professor Brook K. Baker of Northeastern U. School of Law [said] that the latest version of the TPP will do nothing less than lengthen, broaden, and strengthen patent monopolies on vital medications.”
Every new development in the Ebola outbreak in the United States further exposes the incompetent, indifferent and irresponsible character of the official US response to what the World Health Organization has called “unquestionably the most severe acute public health emergency in modern times.”
On Wednesday, US officials announced that a second nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital involved in treating deceased Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan had tested positive for the disease. She had been allowed to fly on a commercial aircraft twice, from Dallas to Cleveland and back, after having been exposed to the disease. She subsequently reported having a fever during her return flight.
On Tuesday, National Nurses United, the largest nurses’ union in the US, revealed that nurses at the hospital had been instructed by administrators to provide care for Duncan, a native of Liberia, with part of their faces and necks exposed. They were told to compensate for their inadequate protective equipment by wrapping medical tape around their exposed skin.
Despite nurses’ protests, Duncan was left for hours in a common waiting area with other patients, potentially infecting them. His lab specimens traveled unprotected throughout the hospital’s tube system, potentially contaminating the entire system. Nurses forced to treat Duncan with inadequate protective garments were then told to carry out their normal hospital duties, visiting and potentially infecting other patients.
These outrageous violations of basic Ebola contamination protocols took place after Duncan had been taken to the hospital a second time in an ambulance because family members suspected that he had contracted the disease.
On Wednesday, President Obama responded to mounting public concern and criticism by staging a photo-op with cabinet officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. He issued a brief and perfunctory statement and took no questions from the press in what was clearly an exercise in damage control.
Nothing said by Obama or any other government official can be believed. Their overriding concern is to cover up their responsibility for the disaster, not to level with the people and do what is necessary to protect them.
The first known victims of the negligence of hospital and government officials are medical workers, whose lives have been recklessly endangered. The indifference to the safety and health of these workers sums up the attitude of the ruling class to the well-being of the population as a whole.
This is not the first time that an emergency has exposed the fact that matters relating to the health and social conditions of the general public are of absolutely no concern to those who wield economic and political power in America.
Nine years ago, the virtual destruction of a major American city by Hurricane Katrina exposed the lack of any preventive measures to combat the impact of a major flood in a region repeatedly inundated in the past, or protect the lives of New Orleans’ working class residents. The disaster itself starkly revealed shocking conditions of poverty, and the belated, desultory and hopelessly inadequate government response led to nearly 2,000 deaths.
Just five years later, the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico resulting from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig once again exposed the criminal negligence of the corporations and the complicity of the government. This was an entirely man-made disaster, the result of cost-cutting and unsafe methods on the part of BP that was facilitated by the government regulatory agencies. The cleanup effort was handed over to the company that was responsible for the disaster in first place.
In between and since there have been countless plant explosions, fires, coal mine disasters and industrial accidents in cities throughout the United States.
The American ruling class and its political frontmen such as Obama view issues affecting the safety and well-being of the American people as annoyances. They detract from the business of generating ever greater profits for the corporations and ever greater fortunes for the rich and the super-rich.
Like every other aspect of the social infrastructure of America, the health care system has been degraded as a result of decades of budget cuts and profit-gouging by pharmaceutical and insurance companies and hospital chains.
While it had been known for decades that an Ebola outbreak could happen in the United States, no effort was made to adequately prepare for one. No vaccine has been brought into production. Instead, the resources needed to address pressing health issues have been diverted to pay for war and conquest abroad and the ever-greater enrichment of the American financial aristocracy.
Earlier this week, World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan explained the failure to develop an Ebola vaccine, saying, “a profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay.”
Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the US National Institutes of Health, told the Huffington Post that a vaccine for Ebola would likely already exist if not for multi-billion dollar cutbacks in health care research.
These disasters expose the bankruptcy and failure not just of one administration, but of the capitalist profit system itself. The subordination of all social concerns, including health care, to the corporate drive for profit and the money-mad greed of the ruling elite, together with the irrational division of the world into rival nation states, makes the rational and socially beneficial development and utilization of the productive forces impossible. Instead, obscene levels of wealth in the hands of a few are accompanied by the decay of basic social services and mounting poverty for the masses.
A serious campaign to halt the widening Ebola epidemic in Africa and its spread to the US and other countries requires:
* The establishment of an international team of doctors, scientists and health care professionals to take the response to the crisis out of the hands of corporate-dominated governments. This team, developing a global plan of action, must be provided with whatever resources are needed—however many billions of dollars—to treat all those already infected and prevent the spread of the disease.
* A state-funded research program completely independent of the profit interests of the health care industry, the drug companies and the insurance giants must be established to rapidly develop and make available to all an anti-Ebola vaccine as the first step in conquering this and other infectious diseases that are linked to poverty.
This is not merely a scientific task. It is a political question.
It is necessary to draw the appropriate conclusions from the Ebola outbreak and the string of catastrophes that preceded it. The implementation of a rational and humane response to the Ebola crisis, along with all the other social evils that are intrinsic to a society based on exploitation, requires a struggle by the working class to reorganize society on socialist foundations to meet social needs, not private profit. This includes taking the profit out of medicine and providing high-quality health care to all as a social right.
In less than three weeks, the United States will hold national elections to choose a third of US senators, all 435 members of the US House of Representatives, the governors of 36 out of 50 states, and thousands of state legislators.
The elections come at a time of immense crisis, nationally and internationally. The American people are being dragged into yet another war in the Middle East, as Washington pursues a global militarist policy that leads inexorably toward World War III.
At home, chronically high unemployment is fueling a growth of poverty, while basic social services—education, health care, housing—are being slashed, along with wages and pensions.
Democratic rights are being shredded, with police-state mobilizations in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri against social protest and the government sweeping up the communications of every American.
Social inequality has reached levels not seen since before the Great Depression of the 1930s. And now an Ebola epidemic in Africa is exposing the criminal neglect of healthcare infrastructure in the US and threatening to spiral into an international catastrophe.
All of these issues are being ignored in the election campaigns of the two big business parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. Instead, what predominate are banal and right-wing platitudes combined with mutual mudslinging. The entire process is dominated by corporate money, with all of the rival candidates on the take.
The Democratic Party is seeking to hold onto its majority in the upper house of Congress, the Senate. This is presented by the media as a momentous issue. In reality, which party ends up in control of Congress makes no difference for working people. The outcome of every election, regardless of which party wins, is a shift of the political system further to the right.
The Democrats secured comfortable majorities in both the House and the Senate in 2008. They proceeded to continue the war in Iraq, escalate the war in Afghanistan, expand the taxpayer bailout of Wall Street, implement a health care “reform” that slashes workers’ benefits and increases their costs, impose a 50 percent cut in the pay of newly hired auto workers, and oversee a vast expansion of government spying on the population.
Neither party offers any policies to address the raging social crisis. The Obama administration touts a “recovery” that has brought the share of total household wealth held by the richest 0.5 percent to just under 35 percent and that of the top 0.1 percent to 20 percent. The Republicans, who work hand-in-glove with the Democrats to slash working class living standards, demand even bigger tax cuts for the rich and deeper cuts in social programs.
The basic bipartisan unity extends to a foreign policy of endless war and militarism. The Democrats who postured as opponents of the Iraq war under Bush—and insured that war funds were continued when they gained control of Congress—are avidly backing Obama’s new war in Iraq and Syria.
On the domestic front, there is no mention of the bankruptcy of Detroit, imposed by a Republican governor working with a Democratic mayor and backed by the Obama White House. The gutting of Detroit city workers’ pensions and health benefits, in violation of the state constitution and under the dictates of an unelected “emergency manager,” is being used as a precedent for cities across the US. In a debate Sunday night, Mark Schauer, the Democratic challenger to Republican Governor Rick Snyder, made clear that he supported the Detroit bankruptcy as well as the wage-cutting bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler.
War, austerity and the attack on democratic rights are all massively unpopular, but the views and interests of working people, the vast majority of the population, find no expression in the election campaigns of the two parties. The experience of the Obama administration, which came to power by exploiting popular disgust with Bush and his policies of war and social reaction, only to continue and deepen the same policies, has further alienated the masses of Americans from the political system.
They no longer believe that their votes will have any impact on the policies pursued by the government. They try to block out the meaningless debates between the candidates and the mind-numbing attack ads financed by the corporate donors who control both parties and the system as a whole.
The crisis of the American capitalist political system results in an election that is barely being followed by the electorate, the majority of whom feel little commitment but a great deal of anger toward both parties. One would hardly know, from the level of interest shown by the population, that an election is taking place.
None of the traditional outward signs of an election—license plate stickers, lawn signs promoting candidates, campaign buttons—are to be seen.
All signs point to a record low turnout on November 4, even lower than the dismal 37 percent of eligible voters who cast ballots in the last nonpresidential election, in 2010. Voter turnout in the primary elections earlier this year, in which the Democrats and Republicans chose their candidates, hit new lows, with, in many cases, fewer than 5 percent of eligible voters going to the polls.
The likely participation of younger voters, who turned out in relatively large numbers to elect Obama in 2008, is particularly revealing. In recent polls, only 23 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 said they were definitely going to cast a ballot this year.
The contrast could hardly be starker between the acuteness of the issues the American people confront—war, poverty, dictatorship—and the empty and right-wing character of the campaign and general popular disinterest in the election. This contradiction bespeaks a system that is coming to the end of its rope. The immense growth of social inequality has turned American democratic institutions into hollow shells behind which the corporations, the military brass and the intelligence agencies conspire against the people of the US and the world.
The political system is incapable of responding to the crisis facing the working class because it is an instrument of a plutocracy.
The 2014 election is an expression of the crisis of American capitalism, which is at the center of the breakdown of world capitalism. The abstention is not an expression of either acceptance of the status quo or popular complacency. Social opposition is mounting, but the working masses as of yet see no alternative.
As they enter into struggle, they will inevitably seek alternatives outside the two official parties. The burning question is the building of the Socialist Equality Party to prepare the coming mass movement, ensure that it breaks all ties with the Democratic Party, and imbue it with socialist consciousness and an independent revolutionary program.
The country is tops when it comes to violence and weapons exports but ranks low in healthcare and education.
October 13, 2014 |
American politicians are fond of telling their audiences that the United States is the greatest country in the world. Is there any evidence for this claim?
Well, yes. When it comes to violence and preparations for violence, the United States is, indeed, No. 1. In 2013, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. government accounted for 37 percent of world military expenditures, putting it far ahead of all other nations. (The two closest competitors, China and Russia, accounted for 11 percent and 5 percent respectively.) From 2004 to 2013, the United States was also the No. 1 weapons exporter in the world. Moreover, given the U.S. government’s almost continuous series of wars and acts of military intervention since 1941, it seems likely that it surpasses all rivals when it comes to international violence.
This record is paralleled on the domestic front, where the United States has more guns and gun-related deaths than any other country. A study released in late 2013 reported that the United States had 88 guns for every 100 people, and 40 gun-related deaths for every 400,000 people―the most of any of the 27 economically developed countries surveyed. By contrast, in Britain there were 6 guns per 100 people and 1 gun-related death per 400,000 people.
Yet, in a great many other areas, the United States is not No. 1 at all.
Take education. In late 2013, the Program for International Student Assessment released a report on how 15-year old students from 65 nations performed on its tests. The report showed that U.S. students ranked 17th in reading and 21st in math. An international surveya bit earlier that year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the ranking was slightly worse for American adults. In 2014, Pearson, a multinational educational services company, placed the United States 20th in the world in “educational attainment”―well behind Poland and the Slovak Republic.
American healthcare and health fare even worse. In a 2014 study of healthcare (including infant mortality, healthy life expectancy, and mortality from preventable conditions) in 11 advanced industrial countries, the Commonwealth Fund concluded that the United States ranked last among them. According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. healthcare system ranks 30th in the world. Other studies reach somewhat different conclusions, but all are very unflattering to the United States, as are studies of American health. The United States, for example, has one of the world’s worst cancer rates (the seventh highest), and life expectancy is declining compared to other nations. An article in the Washington Post in late 2013 reported that the United States ranked 26th among nations in life expectancy, and that the average American lifespan had fallen a year behind the international average.
What about the environment? Specialists at Yale University have developed a highly sophisticated Environmental Performance Index to examine the behavior of nations. In the area of protection of human health from environmental harm, their 2014 index placed the United States 35th in health impacts, 36th in water and sanitation, and 38th in air quality. In the other area studied―protection of ecosystems―the United States ranked 32nd in water resources, 49th in climate and energy, 86th in biodiversity and habitat, 96th in fisheries, 107th in forests, and 109th in agriculture.
These and other areas of interest are dealt with by the Social Progress Index, which was developed by Michael Porter, an eminent professor of business (and a Republican) at Harvard. According to Porter and his team, in 2014 the United States ranked 23rd in access to information and communications, 24th in nutrition and basic medical care, 31st in personal safety, 34th in water and sanitation, 39th in access to basic knowledge, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, and 70th in health and wellness.
The widespread extent of poverty, especially among children, remains a disgrace in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. A 2013 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund noted that, of the 35 economically advanced countries that had been studied, only Romania had a higher percentage of children living in poverty than did the United States.
Of course, the United States is not locked into these dismal rankings and the sad situation they reveal about the health, education, and welfare of its citizens. It could do much better if its vast wealth, resources, and technology were employed differently than they are at present.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of priorities. When most U.S. government discretionary spendinggoes for war and preparations for war, it should come as no surprise that the United States emerges No. 1 among nations in its capacity for violence and falls far behind other nations in providing for the well-being of its people.
Americans might want to keep this in mind as their nation embarks upon yet another costly military crusade.
The report that a healthcare worker in Dallas, Texas, one of those who treated Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan before his death, has herself contracted the disease, is a significant and troubling event. Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, admitted in a television interview Sunday, “It’s deeply concerning that this infection occurred.”
While Frieden claimed that current protocols for treating Ebola patients were effective in preventing the spread of the disease, arguing that there must have been “a breach of protocol,” no actual explanation has been given for how the healthcare worker became infected. She was not one of the 48 primary contacts with Duncan who were being monitored for possible exposure, but worked in a more peripheral role. Her infection was only detected when she contracted a fever and reported it herself.
There are a growing number of such cases, including doctors and nurses in the affected regions of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, who were well aware of the procedures, and an NBC News photographer, whose infection has caused the quarantining of the entire reporting team, led by Dr. Nancy Snyderman, the network’s chief medical correspondent. These cases suggest that despite the repeated assurances from health officials, there is much that is not known about how the disease is transmitted.
What is certain is that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is a catastrophe for the people of that region. More than 8,000 people have been infected and more than 4,000 have died, with no signs that the epidemic has been curtailed. The heroic efforts of doctors, nurses and aid workers have been sabotaged by the collapse of the healthcare systems of these countries, among the poorest in the world. Only 20 percent of the affected population in West Africa has access to a treatment center.
It is almost impossible to overstate the dimensions of the disaster. Until this year, Ebola was a disease of remote rural areas that had killed only 1,500 people in 20 previous outbreaks over 40 years. Now the disease has reached urban centers like Monrovia, capital of Liberia, a city of one million, and individuals infected with the virus have travelled from the region only to fall ill in the United States, Spain and Brazil. There are well-founded fears that Ebola could become a global plague, particularly if it reaches more densely populated countries like Nigeria, or the impoverished billions of South and East Asia.
The impotent global response to the immense tragedy in West Africa is a serious warning. The Ebola crisis has proven to be a test of the ability of capitalism, as a world system, to deal with an acute and deadly threat. The profit system has failed. A society organized on the basis of production for private gain and divided into antagonistic nation-states, with a handful of imperialist powers dominating the rest, is incapable of the systematic, energetic and humane response that this crisis requires. It is no accident that the Ebola outbreak takes place in countries that are former colonies of imperialist powers. Guinea was a French colony, Sierra Leone a British colony, and Liberia a de facto US colony since its founding by freed American slaves. Despite their nominal independence, each country remains dominated by giant corporations and banks based in the imperialist countries, which extract vast profits from the mineral wealth and other natural resources. Guinea is the world’s largest bauxite exporter, Sierra Leone depends on diamond exports, Liberia has long been the fiefdom of Firestone Rubber (now Bridgestone).
These countries are unable to provide even rudimentary healthcare services to their populations, not because they lack resources, but because they are exploited and oppressed by a global economic system controlled by Wall Street and other financial and commodity markets. This economic system is so unequal that the 85 richest individuals on the planet control more wealth than the poorest three billion people, nearly half of humanity.
Economic development, particularly over the past 40 years, has created an interconnected and globalized world. Thousands of people travel every day between West Africa and other parts of the world. The revolution in transportation and communications means that what happens in West Africa today can affect Dallas, Boston, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro tomorrow. This makes the Ebola epidemic not a regional event, but a world event.
But the response to the Ebola crisis is carried out by national governments driven by competing national interests, and concerned, not with the danger of the virus to the world’s people, but with how it affects the interests of the ruling class in each nation. Thus there are calls in the United States and Europe for imposing an embargo on travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, although health experts warn that such an action would cause the economic collapse of these countries, vastly worsening the epidemic and making its global spread more rather than less likely.
Equally reactionary is the Obama administration’s decision to send 4,000 US troops to Liberia, ostensibly to build health treatment facilities. Why are heavily armed soldiers chosen for such a mission? They are not construction workers or healthcare providers. If healthcare workers and journalists have become infected, despite taking every precaution, then certainly soldiers could themselves fall victim to the disease, and bring the virus home with them. The real agenda of Washington is to secure a basis for its Africa Command (AFRICOM), up to now excluded from the continent by local opposition, thus advancing the interests of American imperialism against its rivals, particularly China.
The potential dangers of a disease like Ebola spreading from rural Africa to the world have long been understood by epidemiologists and other scientists. It has been the subject of specialized studies and best-selling books. The issue has even penetrated into popular culture through films from The Andromeda Strain to Outbreak and 28 Days. But the profit system has been incapable of generating a serious effort to forestall an entirely predictable crisis.
The detection of Ebola in the mid-1970s should have been the occasion for the launching of an intensive effort to study the virus, analyze how it is transmitted and develop antidotes and a vaccine. This did not take place, in large measure, as a report last month suggested, because the giant pharmaceutical companies that control medical research saw little profit in saving the lives of impoverished villagers in rural Africa (see “Profit motive big hurdle for Ebola drugs”).
What little research has been conducted on possible cures and vaccines was funded by the US Pentagon, for dubious reasons: at best, to protect US soldiers who might be deployed to the jungles of central Africa as an imperialist invasion force; at worst, to determine whether the virus could be weaponized for use against potential enemies.
What would a serious response to the Ebola crisis look like? It would entail a massive, internationally coordinated response which calls on vast resources on the scale necessary both to save as many as possible of those under immediate threat and to prevent the development of an outbreak on a global scale.
It would mean the mobilization of doctors, nurses, public health workers and scientists from America, Europe, Russia, China and the rest of the world to fight back against a deadly threat to the entire human race. And it would mean taking control of this response out of the hands of the national military establishments, particularly the Pentagon, and the giant pharmaceutical firms, one of the most corrupt and rapacious detachments of big business.
Ben Lerner’s new novel, “10:04,” opens with a meditation on a decadent and expensive lunch in Chelsea, prominently featuring baby octopus. The narrator is supposed to be celebrating the six-figure sale of his book, but instead he focusses on the absurdity of the meal: “the impossibly tender things” had been “literally massaged to death.” He wonders about eating “an animal that decorates its lair, has been observed at complicated play.” Afterward, he and his agent walk out onto the High Line to watch the traffic on Tenth Avenue, and he experiences an empathic response to the once sentient octopuses now curdling within him:
I intuited an alien intelligence, felt subject to a succession of images, sensations, memories, and affects that did not, properly speaking, belong to me: the ability to perceive polarized light; a conflation of taste and touch as salt was rubbed into the suction cups; a terror localized in my extremities, bypassing the brain completely.
Octopus intelligence is well documented: they have been known to open jars, guard their unhatched eggs for months or even years, and demonstrate personalities. Most famously, they can blast a cloud of ink to throw off predators, but even more impressive is the masterfully complex camouflage employed by several members of Cephalopoda (a class that also includes squid and cuttlefish). Their curious behaviors are also culturally familiar. Ringo Starr traces the origins of his song “Octopus’s Garden” to an anecdote that a sea captain once told him in Sardinia, about the habit octopuses have of adorning their homes with rocks and detritus. During the 2010 FIFA World Cup, soccer fans across the world became enamored of Paul the Octopus (also known as Pulpo Paul), who correctly “predicted” the outcomes of all seven of Germany’s matches by choosing a box that, in addition to containing food, had the flag of the winning country on it. The chef José Andrés pledged to take octopus off his menus if Paul’s prediction about the semifinal between Spain and Germany came true. It did, and some Germans responded by calling for his arms. (Paul died that October, of apparently natural causes.)
Are Paul’s kind too smart to be eaten? The cephalopod—a spelling-bee favorite, from the Greek kephalē, for “head,” and pous or pod, for “foot,” by way of modern Latin—has been around for hundreds of millions of years. Evolutionarily speaking, it is far more distant from humans than the animals we tend to have moral quandaries about consuming. In characterizing the octopus, the CUNY biology professor Peter Godfrey-Smith has used language very similar to that of Lerner’s narrator: “It’s probably the closest we’ll get to meeting an intelligent alien.” With their ovoid, head-like mantles, octopuses even look the part. They have relatively large brains, three hearts, and a decentralized nervous system that confers incredible motor dexterity—and they can squeeze through any opening larger than their beaks. They’ve been observed to “walk” on the ocean floor and even dry land. They have remained inscrutable in part by being notoriously difficult lab animals. There are stories of them unplugging drains, disconnecting wires, and resisting the maze challenge. They are known to possess around five hundred million neurons—which is not such an impressive number when compared with the eighty-six billion in the human brain, but is notable for the fact that more than half of them are located in the animal’s arms. I like to think of an octopus as a blobby, eight-fingered hand, but with a mind of its own and the uncanny ability to change color, size, shape, and texture. And then I’m suddenly not so keen on the idea of eating it.
Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist and early pioneer of virtual reality, long ago stopped eating cephalopods. In 2006, he wrote an impassioned tribute to the octopus’s morphing abilities for Discover, which later showed up in his 2010 manifesto, “You Are Not a Gadget.” After seeing video footage that his friend Roger Hanlon shot of an Octopus vulgaris practically disappearing into some algae, Lanier professed jealousy. He began to wonder what humans might be capable of if we were more like octopuses, and vice versa. “They can just at will project images on their bodies, and change their shape and turn into different things,” he fawns, calling this morphing “postsymbolic communication.” Cephalopods are on their own from the moment they’re born, he points out: with no concept of parenting, they pass on nothing to future generations. “If cephalopods had childhood,” he goes so far as to suggest, “surely they would be running the Earth.” (One of my colleagues points out that this seems an excellent reason to eat them.)
It takes a whole lot of work to make an octopus palatable, but humans around the globe, particularly in the Mediterranean and in East Asia, have been doing it for centuries. Most preparations involve tenderizing the meat—which is quite lean—through some combination of massage, blanching, braising, and blunt force. According to Harold McGee, salting is essential. The French chef Éric Ripert tenderized an octopus on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” by giving it a few good whacks on a cutting board, echoing the stereotypical Greek fisherman bashing it to death on the rocky shores of the Aegean. The perfectionistic sushi chef Jiro Ono requires that his octopus be massaged for forty to fifty minutes. These days, however, most octopus bought wholesale and served in restaurants comes frozen, and already tenderized, after being “tumbled” with sea salt and ice, its eight legs neatly tucked under it like the petals of a flower.
One way of bypassing the prep work, of course, is to eat the thing while it’s still alive. This is a practice with its own morally dubious thrill. (I have eaten live shrimp and ants, and I wonder if the frisson I felt wasn’t some kind of dormant predator instinct.) Mostly, though, it feels like a stunt. In Korea, the dish has a name—san nak ji—and in Flushing, Queens, there is a Korean restaurant that serves it, along with a potful of other live sea creatures, which are quickly simmered to their demise. Traditional san nak ji has the octopus cut into wriggling pieces. In a terrifying scene from the South Korean cult film “Old Boy,” however, it is served and eaten whole. Multiple live specimens were used in the filming of the scene, and the actor, Choi Min-sik, a Buddhist, said a prayer for each one. (The YouTube user who posted the clip writes, “I think I would try it but I dont think its kosher.” He’s right—lacking both fins and scales, it is not.)
After all this research, I find myself suffering from what Michael Pollan, in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” calls “ethical heartburn.” Is an animal’s marked intelligence really reason enough not to eat it? Many arguments have been made against eating pigs on the same grounds. But, unlike domesticated animals, octopuses don’t have what Pollan calls a “bargain with humanity,” wherein they are dependent on us rearing them as either food or pets. (Though I do wonder what’s become of Tracy Morgan’s pet octopus.) Candace Croney, an associate professor of animal sciences at Purdue University, told Modern Farmer earlier this year, “If we’ve decided to eat pigs despite the fact that they are smart, should we not at least use the information that we have to make their lives as positive as possible up until the point when we decide, ‘Well now they’ve become food?’ ” Pollan similarly values a captive animal’s “opportunity to express its creaturely character.” An oft-cited aim of ethical consumption is to avoid interference with an animal’s habitat and its ability to reproduce. The more popular octopus becomes as an ingredient, the more likely it is to go the way of the European sea bass (on menus as branzino or loup de mer) and be commercially farmed.
According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, catches of O. vulgaris, the common octopus, are down about sixty per cent from their record high in the mid nineteen-seventies. But octopus, squid, and cuttlefish remain a delicacy of modern cuisine—think grilled-octopus salads and squid-ink pastas. I wondered whether word of cephalopod intelligence had reached the food world, so I asked a few chefs if they had any misgivings about serving the animals at their restaurants. For Ashleigh Parsons and Ari Taymor, of Alma, in Los Angeles, the question is not what we eat but where the food is coming from and how it is treated. “The only octopus Ari can get is frozen and shipped from Japan,” Parsons told me in an e-mail. For them, sustainability is paramount, and can trump the cachet of an ingredient.
Ignacio Mattos, the chef at Estela (and formerly at Isa, where he served a whole squid), said that he recently put cuttlefish on the menu, and recalled telling his staff about how smart the creatures are. “I remember seeing this Discovery Channel documentary about them and it really blew my mind,” he wrote to me. Mattos confessed that he loved their elegant texture and taste, but added, “I might in a way have started consciously avoiding using them somehow.” Dave Pasternack, chef and co-founder of the upscale midtown seafood restaurant Esca, spoke with me last week during dinner service from a wall-mounted phone right behind his station in the kitchen. As he called out orders for sole and scampi, he assured me that he had never heard tales of octopus intelligence. “The smarter they are, the more you’d want to eat them, right?” he suggested. (I’ve always been suspicious of people who eat brains.) He insisted that there was an art to cooking octopus correctly. His includes a Neapolitan trick: a wine cork in the cooking liquid. Éric Ripert and Harold McGee dismiss this step as mere legend—to which Pasternack gleefully responds, “Éric Ripert is full of shit!”
Michael Psilakis, a successful Greek-American chef and restaurateur in New York (Kefi, Fishtag, MP Taverna), said that he’s been serving octopus for about twenty-five years but only noticed its increase in popularity over the past ten. “I remember first cooking octopus as a special, only on the weekends, and we’d do twenty orders the whole weekend. Now we do two hundred for a single shift,” he told me. He had heard about octopus intelligence many years before from a customer and Googled it. One of the first results he got was a list of the twenty-five smartest animals. “Pig was, like, number two, and sheep was on that list, too. That’s three animals specific to my cultural identity.… I sort of wondered, does that mean anything?” Psilakis said.
Like many animals, the octopus is occasionally cannibalistic—does that make it any more or less O.K. to eat? And if we could grow octopus meat in a lab, would it still be palatable? Last year, the TimesMagazine ran a story about Dylan Mayer, a teen-ager who legally wrestled, caught, and ate a giant Pacific octopus off the coast of Seattle, causing an uproar. “Mayer’s real offense,” the piece concludes, “may have been forcing a community to realize that just because they’ve embraced local fare doesn’t mean they’re necessarily ready to see, in gory detail, it slaughtered or hunted or punched out and dragged from the bay.” In my opinion, Mayer is on solid footing—he swam for his dinner. It’s the rest of us, outsourcing death to the supply chain, who have something to think about. It is impossible for us to fully know the inner lives of octopuses, but the more we continue to study them and other forms of life, the closer we can come to a working definition of “intelligence.” The real quandary here is, when we find them, what if aliens turn out to be delicious?
The surging Ebola epidemic is the result of broad-based ecological and social collapse including rainforest loss, over-population, poverty and war. This preventable environmental and human tragedy demonstrates the extent to which the world has gone dramatically wrong; as ecosystem collapse, inequity, grotesque injustice, religious extremism, nationalistic militarism, and resurgent authoritarianism threaten our species and planet’s very being.
Any humane person is appalled by the escalating Ebola crisis, and let’s be clear expressing these concerns regarding causation is NOT an attempt to hijack a tragedy. Things happen for a reason, and Ebola was preventable, and future catastrophes of potentially greater magnitude can be foreseen and avoided by the truth.
The single greatest truth underlying the Ebola tragedy is that humanity is systematically dismantling the ecosystems that make Earth habitable. In particular, the potential for Ebola outbreaks and threats from other emergent diseases is made worse by cutting down forests . Exponentially growing human populations and consumption – be it subsistence agriculture or mining for luxury consumer items – are pushing deeper into African old-growth forests where Ebola circulated before spillover into humans.
Poverty stricken communities in West Africa are increasingly desperate, and are eating infected “bushmeat” such as bats and gorilla, bringing them into contact with infected wildlife blood. Increasingly fragmented forests, further diminished by climate change, are forcing bats to find other places to live that are often amongst human communities.
Some 90% of West Africa’s original forests have already been lost. Over half of Liberia’s old-growth forests have recently been sold for industrial logging by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s post-war government. Only 4% of Sierra Leone’s forest cover remains and they are expected to totally disappear soon under the pressure of logging, agriculture, and mining.
My recently published peer-reviewed scientific research  on ecosystem loss and biosphere collapse indicates more natural ecosystems have been loss than the global environment can handle without collapsing. Yesterday, new science reported that 50% of Earth’s wildlife has died (in fact been murdered) in the last 40 years .
Loss of natural life-giving habitats has consequences. We are each witnesses to and participants in global ecosystem collapse.
There are other major social ills which potentially foster global pandemics. Rising inequity, abject poverty, and lack of justice threaten Earth’s and humanity’s very being. These ills and global ecosystem collapse are causing increased nationalistic war, migration and rise of authoritarian corporatism. West Africa has been ravaged by war and poverty for decades, which shows little signs of abating, particularly since natural habitats for community based sustainable development are nearly gone.
War breeds disease. It is no coincidence that 1918 flu pandemic – the last great global disease outbreak that killed an estimated 50-100 million – occurred just as the ravages of World War I were ending. Conditions after ecosystems are stripped by over-population and poverty are not that different – each providing ravaged landscapes that are prime habitat for disease organisms.
West Africa’s ecological collapse has brought people into contact with blood from infected animals causing the Ebola epidemic. Once human infection occurs, ecologically denuded, conflict ridden, over-populated, and squalid impoverished communities are ripe for a pandemic. As the Ebola virus threatens to become endemic to the region, it potentially offers a permanent base from which infections can indefinitely continue to spread globally.
Since 911 America has slashed all other spending as it militarizes, viewing all sources of conflict as resolvable by waging perma-war. Africa needs doctors and the U.S. sends the military. Both terrorism and infectious disease are best prevented by long-term investments in equitably reducing poverty and meeting human needs – including universal health-care, living wage jobs, education, and establishment of greater global medical rapid response capabilities.
We are all in this together. Our over-populated, over-consuming, inequitable human dominated Earth continues to wildly careen toward biosphere collapse as sheer sum consumption overwhelms nature. West Africa’s 2010 population of 317 million people is still growing at 2.35%, and is expected to nearly double in 25 years, even as squalor, lack of basic needs, ecosystem loss, and pestilence increase. This can never, ever be ecologically or socially sustainable, and can only end in ruin.
Equity, education, condoms, and lower taxes and other incentives to stabilize and then reduce human population are a huge part of the solution for a just, equitable, and sustainable future. Otherwise Earth will limit human numbers with Ebola and worse. It may be happening already.
We are one human family and in a globalized world no nation is an island unto itself. By failing to invest in reducing poverty and in meeting basic human needs in Africa and globally (even as we temporarily enrich ourselves by gorging upon the destruction of their natural ecosystems), we in the over-developed world ensure that much of the world is fertile ground for disease and war. There is no way to keep Ebola and other social and ecological scourges out of Europe and America if they overwhelm the rest of humanity.
Ebola is what happens when the rich ignore poverty, as well as environmental and social decline, falsely believing they are not their concern. There can be no security ever again for anybody as long as billions live in abject poverty on a couple dollars a day as a few hundred people control half of Earth’s wealth.
We learn the meaning of enough and how to share or it is the end of being.
Walmart parking lots and iPads don’t sustain or feed you. Healthy ecosystems and land do. The hairless ape with opposable thumbs – that once showed so much potential – has instead become an out of control, barbaric and ecocidal beast with barely more sentience of its environmental constraints than yeast on sugar.
Ebola is very, very serious but can be beat with public health investments, courage, and by dealing with underlying causes. In the short-term, it is absolutely vital that the world organizes a massive infusion of doctors and quarantined hospital beds into West Africa immediately, even as we work on the long-term solutions highlighted here.
Ultimately commitments to sustainable community development, universal health care and education, free family planning, global demilitarization, equity, and ecosystem protection and restoration are the only means to minimize the risk of emergent disease. Unless we come together now as one human family and change fast – by cutting emissions, protecting ecosystems, having fewer kids, ending war, investing in ending abject poverty, and embracing agro-ecology – we face biosphere collapse and the end of being.
A pathway exists to global ecological sustainability; yet it requires shared sacrifice and for us all to be strong, as we come together to vigorously resist all sources of ecocide. It is up to each and every one of us to commit our full being to sustaining ecology and living gently upon Earth… or our ONE SHARED BIOSPHERE collapses and being ends
I desperately hope that Ebola does not become a global pandemic killing hundreds of millions or even billions. But if it does, it is a natural response from an Earth under siege defending herself from our own ignorant yet willful actions. We have some urgent changes to make as a species, let’s get going today before it is too late.
 Barry, G. (2014), “Terrestrial ecosystem loss and biosphere collapse”, Management of Environmental Quality, Vol. 25 No. 5, pp. 542-563. Read online for personal use only: http://bit.ly/MEQ_Biosphere