Talking about art and spending your time doing it can feel ineffectual and inappropriate, in these times. With so much political and economic turmoil and so many senseless wars in the current human consciousness, how can anybody, in all conscience, prioritise making pictures, songs or stories? Isn’t this a case of pure head-in-the-sand denial? Are we artists just running away and hiding from the horror? How can art have any effect on Sarin gas and those that would gleefully use it on babies?
A sign of our times is the Internet meme. These have come to symbolise the zeitgeist. It was with wry amusement that I encountered this meme, today. It’s germane to what I want to talk about, in this article.
If the relevance isn’t clear to you yet, let me tell you a true story. It was once the case that wolves lived prolific lives in the Yellowstone National Park, but farmers, seeing them as a threat to their livelihoods, had argued that they were a menace to human life, thereby rationalising their lust to hunt them to extinction, in that locale. Over time, wolves were, indeed, wiped out by government predator control programmes and so, no longer inhabited that particular wilderness. The last grey wolf in the park perished in 1926.
To quote Wikipedia, “Once the wolves were gone, elk populations began to rise. Over the next few years, conditions of Yellowstone National Park declined drastically. A team of scientists visiting Yellowstone in 1929 and 1933 reported, ‘The range was in deplorable condition when we first saw it, and its deterioration has been progressing steadily since then.’ By this time many biologists were worried about eroding land and plants dying off. The elk were multiplying inside the park and deciduous, woody species, such as aspen and cottonwood, suffered from overgrazing. As elk populations rose, the quality of the range declined, affecting many other animals.”. The extirpation of the wolves had caused an environmental catastrophe.
Wolves were reintroduced in 1995, relocated from Canada. This changed the behaviour of the elk population, halted overgrazing in the valleys and allowed the woodland to recover. This, in turn stabilised the river banks, changing the course of the river itself and thereby providing viable habitats for birds, insects, beavers and otters. Much of the decline was reversed by the reintroduction of a small pack of predators.
Ecologists refer to these chain reactions in the environment as “trophic cascades”. They relate to food chains, specifically, but the concept has applicability in the world of ideas too, I think. There are many situations where a small group of people can bring original ideas to the fore and these ideas subsequently cascade throughout the population, sometimes with unpredictable consequences. In ideas, and in art, your behaviour and habits change other people’s behaviour and habits and this changes the whole environment and ecosystem. There are many vivid examples. Here are some of them.
We (humanity) thought the goal of fruit growing was to produce larger, sweeter fruit. Apricots were once tiny, dominated by their stone and with flesh that wasn’t very sweet, but over hundreds of years, they were cultivated to favour larger, sweeter fruit. Now, they are so full of fructose, they adversely affect our livers, our waistlines, our brain function, blood sugar and insulin. These effects foreshorten our lives. We’ve turned our apricots (and many other foods) into a toxic substance. Unintended consequences. A cascade of things we didn’t want.
Farmers thought (and presumably still think) the main issue facing them was insects destroying their crops, so chemical weapons were developed to kill the insects. That, in turn, starved the birds and poisoned the bees. Monocultures became susceptible to the effects of the insecticide, so scientists genetically modified the crops, with genes borrowed from who knows where, so that they could be saturation-doused with chemical agents, killing even the most resistant insects, but not killing the plant. Now, a soup of insecticides can be detected in newborn babies and in mother’s milk. Nobody knows the consequences, but evidence is beginning to mount of severe long term harm. Bigger crops, but a degraded ecosystem and toxic food. That’s a trophic cadcade nobody really wanted or predicted. Yet, in the absence of behavioural changes, it persists.
Researchers are discovering that the most efficient means of real-time signalling, in distributed computer systems, is to employ cascades to disseminate the information. Block chain distributed ledgers, a technology predicted to become as ubiquitous as the Internet itself, works best when information cascades. There is no central, master controller. That architecture can’t work and won’t scale. Dissemination cascades turn up everywhere.
We find dissemination cascades in social media, too. Flickr photographs, viral videos and memes all have a cascade quality about their spread. Most of the time, we don’t even know who posted the item first. Authorship is obscured and this, too, is an unintended consequence of social dissemination cascades. They start with an act of creativity, however and this fact should excite all artists.
The source of the cascade is always an original, creative work. Block chain may, in time, preserve the authorship of such digital works, throughout the ensuing cascade and could serve to protect the originator’s rights, give artists recognition and maybe even compensate them fairly for their contribution.
Revolutions begin with information cascades. Ideas that resonate, whose time has come, disseminate like wild fire, out of control and with their own velocity. When the present regime has had its time and lost the support of the populace, deposing them can take no time at all. By the same token, it’s easy to replace the incumbent with something just as bad, or worse, at equally breathtaking speed. This is where we are today. It won’t be long until the next dissemination cascade displaces this regime too. Dissemination cascades are a powerful force.
Depression is now the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), with more than 300 million people suffering. Rates of depression have risen by more than 18 percent since 2005, but a lack of support for mental health, combined with a common fear of stigma, means many do not get the treatment they need to live healthy, productive lives. What are the cascading consequences of this epidemic? Nobody knows, but we are going to find out.
Depression is a common mental illness, characterized by persistent sadness and a loss of interest and lack of ability in everyday activities and work. It affects around 322 million people worldwide. That’s nearly 5% of all humans alive and even this may be a gross underestimate of the true number of those afflicted. Depression also increases the risk of several major diseases and disorders including addiction, suicidal behavior, diabetes and heart disease, which are themselves among the world’s biggest killers. WHO has expressed concern that, in many countries, there is little or no support for people with mental health disorders, and said only around half of people with depression get treatment in wealthier nations. On average, just 3 percent of government health budgets is spent on mental health, varying from less than 1 percent in poor countries to 5 percent in rich ones, according to the WHO. If we think this won’t end worse than exterminating the grey wolves in Yellowstone, we’re deluding ourselves. It will change the course of history, at a minimum.
Of course, rather than “treating” depression, addressing the root causes could be more effective. There is a growing body of thought that depression frequently has its roots in abusive behaviour towards the individual, a diet heavily biased toward carbohydrate consumption (which exacerbate the inflammation often correlated with depression), and the combination of increasing income inequality, the rising real cost of living and the dismantling of social safety nets. It’s all evidence of the effects of some massive dissemination cascades and the source of many others, downstream. Abused people tend to abuse people. Cascades can self-perpetuate in perpetuity.
Because of decisions made by long-dead politicians, in far-away, remote, war rooms, I came to be born in Australia, decades after the conflict known as World War II began in Europe and finally ended. My people brought their culture, ideas, ideals, life experiences, outlook, history and recipes, which profoundly changed Australian culture. The conflict spawned the Cold War, which affected my young life in myriad ways, being descended from a country then regarded as a sworn enemy of the one I was born in. I’m a living, breathing result of dissemination cascades. Interestingly, I’ve moved to a different country to the one I was born in, which shaped me into who I am. Now my very presence, both in this land and on-line, reshapes others in ways that nobody could have expected. The cascades never end.
Science is only now beginning to discover how our gut microbiome infuences our health, our state of mind and our well-being. For most of my life, its role was discounted, dismissed and ignored, but that cascade of ideas was wrong and the consequence was needless suffering and premature deaths. Our gut microbiota actually comprises a metabolome – it creates metabolites that interact with the host organism: us. We are co-dependent.
Even the effect of daylight saving changes the equilibrium of the bacteria in our digestive systems. It turns out the bacteria have circadian rhythms of their own and disturbing them, even by an hour, causes a cascade of metabolic consequences to both us and them. This new field of study is called chronobiology. Daylight saving was originally championed by a builder from Farnham called William Willett, who had no knowledge of the metabolome. The cascading of his idea caused significant consequences to our health, by a mechanism of action unknown to humanity, when his campaign was first propagated. Yet, we persist with it, over a century later, as well as shift work and a flirtation with frequent jet lag. We know not what we do.
In fact, so little was known about the composition of the microbiota in our guts, it wasn’t until 2012 that a highly heritable bacterium, with a strong correlation to the incidence of obesity, was identified and named. Christensenellaceae were not studied at all, practically, until then. It will be interesting to see how this dissemination cascade plays out. Fat shaming might turn out to be predominantly toward people with a particular bacterial infestation, which they got from the mothers. Who knows? Punitive health policies, rationalised on the belief in the fecklessness and moral turpitude of the obese, could prove to be without basis.
Another recent finding is that antibiotics, used to treat infections in people, act like a forest fire in the gut microbiome. The harm may turn out to be significant, as it affects gene expression, disrupting human biological processes, rightbdown to endocrine signalling, creating metabolic dysfunction. Antibiotics still have obvious net health benefits when used clinically, but inadvertently consuming them through foods and drinking water is not as safe as once assumed. The antibiotics contribute to their own trophic cascades. The behaviour and adaptation of infectious agents, in response to the ambient prevalence of antibiotics, leads to antibiotic resistance, thereby imperilling us all.
I’ve already discussed the use of glyphosate on genetically modified organisms (i.e. food crops), which reinforces monoculture, subsequently killing wild animals, which have nothing to eat, due to the disruption of their food chain. Glyphosate also kills wildflowers (“weeds”, in farming parlance), leaving nothing for the bees, other than the food crop itself. That’s not enough to sustain healthy gee populations and so crops begin to fail, due to the absence of pollinators. The yield is supposed to go up, yet it ultimately goes down.
Glyphosate also kills gut bacteria by the same mechanism it kills weeds – disruption of the shikimate pathway, by removing vital manganese. Mineral uptake in plants is also reduced, affecting its nutrition. What we eat is, consequently, less nutritious than it would have been without glyphosate. This greed-driven stupidity and insane pursuit of an idea that cannot fundamentally work, to deliver net benefit to humanity, is a classical example of a malevolent trophic cascade, in which humans are both unwitting victims and bad actors.
Cellular manganese content is developmentally regulated, in human dopaminergic neurons. It affects our brain function. Dopamine dysregulation can be implicated in depression, which we’ve also already discussed above. Manganese depletion affects multiple biological processes and causes disease. Why would we grow good that is deliberately deficient in manganese, when this mineral is vital to our health? Yet that’s the very mechanism used to kill the weeds. The cascade, disseminating a bad idea, carries on like a juggernaut.
Here’s another trophic cascade, due to the invention of man-made fibres and the washing machine: the weight of plastic microfibres in the ocean, shed from our clothing when we launder it in our washing machines, now exceeds the weight of all the fish. The fish eat the microfibres, it passes into their bodies, making them sick. Then, we catch and eat the fish, ingesting thousands of these plastic microfibres (from our clothes) in every portion.
Here’s one more: because of industrial processes and the exhaustion of agricultural soils, due to over exploitation in farming, wind erosion of dry soils and industrial smoke put tiny 2.5 micron particles into the atmosphere. We breathe these in, but they’re small enough to enter our blood stream and cross the blood-brain barrier. The dust we cause, we breathe in and it ends up in our brains. It’s not supposed to be there. The damage its presence causes to our health is still largely unknown, but we’re going to find out. Trophic cascades are often insidious.
Incidentally, it has recently been discovered that lungs make blood platelets. Our very blood cells are created, in part, by an organ we’re contaminating with tiny PM2.5 dust particles, which may disrupt those platelets. Prior to this discovery, it was thought that the lungs only served to oxygenate blood, not to actually make it.
It is one of those peculiarities of consumer culture that we come to believe that Italian tinned tomatoes are the only acceptable kind. Tomatoes in tins from elsewhere remain unsold indefinitely. Nobody wants any other sort of tinned tomatoes. Only Italian ones will do. Consequently, tomatoes from all over the world are sent to Italy, to be tinned. The consumer is none the wiser. It says “made in Italy” on the tin. The added food miles are never counted, but the transport emissions put more tiny particles into the atmosphere.
Of course, some people want real Italian tomatoes in their tins. To meet this demand, great swathes of Tuscany have been given over to growing tomatoes for canning, thereby exhausting the already dry soils, adding to the atmospheric particulate burden, while simultaneously polluting the rivers with the aggressive pesticides, necessary to maintain tomato crop yields. The fish suffer, the tomatoes are tainted with pesticides and for good measure, the internal surfaces of the tins are lined with endocrine-disrupting epoxy coatings, to prevent the acidic tomatoes from corroding the tins. The tomatoes you eat contribute to metabolic signalling disorders, which probably exacerbate depression and obesity. Some cascade.
To your liver, starch is treated the same as sugar. It’s readily converted into a substance that spikes your blood sugar concentration and insulin. A primary source of starches, in our diet, is anything made with wheat flour, potatoes and other grains, such as white rice. Your liver just responds to them as sugar. However, the action of yeast on starch is that it breaks down the long molecular chains, partially digesting it.
Sourdough bread, which takes something like 36 hours to make, gives the yeast time to work, resulting in bread that doesn’t cause quite as drastic a spike in blood glucose and insulin. This is a little safer for those with insulin resistance; a widespread affliction in modern, carbohydrate-saturated populations. Within living memory, this used to be how all bread was made (though it was adulterated in several other horrendous ways).
Industrial (and even artisanal) bakeries think the 36 hours needed to make a loaf of genuine sourdough is uneconomic. They need to produce a loaf in one tenth of that time, to remain viable. Yet, people aware of the terrible health effects of starchy white bread have expressed a clear consumer preference for sourdough. Faced with this problem, bakery supply companies found a way to add sourdough flavouring to factory-made bread, to meet the consumer preference, without taking the time needed to let the yeast digest the starches. So, you get a loaf that tastes like sourdough bread, but full of unmodified, long-chain starch (i.e. sugar).
Consequently, bakers succeeded in making what is marketed and sold as “sourdough bread” dangerous to those with blood sugar dysregulation, while simultaneously making it hard to tell and trust real sourdough bread from sourdough-flavoured starchy bread. Insulin dysregulation is a killer. You need both low blood sugar and low insulin, for long life and optimal quality of health They both need to not spike wildly. It’s no joke, but while the trophic cascade remains unacknowledged, bakers recklessly endanger a significant portion of humanity, without even knowing it. Dissemination cascades sometimes spread ignorance.
Crushed by the weight of student loans, Millennials don’t want to take on any more debt. Now they are teaching their kids, Generation Z, to shun borrowing. How will traditional lenders survive, if two consecutive generations spurn credit? Who cares? Lending always was a con. Debt is a guilt trip imposed on moral people by the amoral.
The fact is that the money loaned was invented, out of thin air, the moment you signed the loan agreement. It didn’t exist, prior to your signature. There never was a moral justification to pay the lender anything, let alone the interest. The money loaned simply represents your pledge to produce enough economic value to equate to this nominal amount. The lender is just the thug that will hurt you, if you don’t. Why you should repay them for their powers of deception and intimidation is anyone’s guess. Your real obligation to produce something of value is to the community you trade with.
The lender, instead of producing something of value, parasitically gets you to do that for them, which they reap as interest payments. You produce more value than you borrowed, so that they don’t have to produce anything (other than needless, bamboozling bureaucracy, sleight of hand, threats and menaces).
This idea of spurning debt is spreading. We’ve been under the spell of one sort of dissemination cascade for generations. Will this new dissemination cascade take root and displace it, for the right reasons? Time will tell.
Why do neurons die, in brain injury cases? Nobody knew the answer, when I was young. These vital brain cells kept mysteriously dying off, long after the injury incident, resulting in terrible brain damage, observable as loss of mobility, language, comprehension, memory, sensation, personality and intellect. There are other structures in the brain, other than neurons. Astrocytes and exosomes also react to brain injury. These structures play a role in controlling the concentration of free, neurotoxic glutamates in the brain.
Astrocytes are glial cells that moderate neural transmission. It has been found that after a brain injury, they reduce their glutamate uptake, leaving more glutamate around to kill neurons. Nobody quite knows why astrocytes react this way in response to a brain injury, but the effect is readily observable.
Exosomes, first discovered in the 1980s, modulate cell to cell communication. It is believed that exosomes can regulate the bioactivities of recipient cells by the transportation of lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids, while circulating in the extracellular space.
People have discovered that microRNA in the exosome can be used to push astrocytes to resume normal glutamate uptake, thereby protecting adjacent neurons. Get the exosome to send the astrocyte the right chemical message and normal functioning resumes. How miraculous! This information has not yet been widely disseminated, but it could save a lot of stroke victims from severe brain damage, for example. Let’s hope this dissemination cascade flourishes.
The political vision for society that venture capitalists are funding and building is hollow and dystopian, but that won’t change the deal flow. And they don’t believe themselves accountable to the vast majority of present and future humanity in any way. It never even enters their heads that maybe they ought to be. This is yet another dissemination cascade with profound consequences, but which few people are paying much attention to. The world you build has an inevitable political dimension. While the default vision is anathema to the rights and freedoms of the majority, a minority should not be permitted to manifest their self-serving vision unchecked. Yet, it’s happening.
Nikola Tesla said everything is connected. “Though free to think and act, we are held together, like the stars in the firmament, with ties inseparable. These ties cannot be seen, but we can feel them.”
We’ve all got to grow up and take responsibility for the cascades of idea dissemination we start and propagate. We’re the medium through which these ideas spread and many spawn trophic cascades. Spreading positive messages and doing the necessary work to arrest the destructive cascades is going to take a lot of creativity and application. That’s why making the pictures, singing the songs and writing the stories really matters. These are the tools we have to shape those dissemination cascades. This is how we make a difference.
Art is life. Creativity affirms life and counters destructiveness, in destructive times. It’s not a futile, quixotic hope to cling to art; it’s a way of reinforcing and starting beneficial dissemination cascades.