Elections, democracy, and doing it right

Excellent description of our voting system and how it could be better.

Robby Robin's Journey

How to start this post. Writing about voting and representation isn’t easy, especially during an election. But this election in particular has me thinking about our options and how we get this right in the future.

I’m not talking about the presidential election in the U.S., which is over a year away but already consumes pretty well everything of consequence in that country, not to mention unimaginable amounts of money. Unimaginable amounts. I’m talking about the election Canada is in the middle of right now, a simple 6-week election period. An election cycle similar to most representative democracies around the world, and very similar to other countries that use some form of the British parliamentary system of government.

One person, one vote. Not too much concern about voter suppression; in fact, I’ve never heard it mentioned. And at the citizenship ceremony I attended this past week, held 13 days before…

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Setting a maximum wage for CEOs would be good for everyone

Under capitalism, the argument goes, it’s every man for himself. Through the relentless pursuit of self-interest, everyone benefits, as if an invisible hand were guiding each of us toward the common good. Everyone should accordingly try to get as much as they can, not only for their goods but also for their labour. Whatever the market price is is, in turn, what the buyer should pay. Just like the idea that there should be a minimum wage, the idea that there should be a maximum wage seems to undermine the very freedom that the free market is supposed to guarantee.

This view, however, has some dramatic consequences. One is the explosion in economic inequality that almost all liberal capitalist democracies have experienced over the past 30-40 years. The difference between the top and the bottom of the income distribution now lies about where it did in the Gilded Age and the roaring 1920s, up until the Great Depression. Unlike these earlier periods, however, this rise in economic inequality has not been driven by returns on capital assets. This time, one of the most important contributors to the rise has been the payment of extraordinarily high levels of compensation to corporate executives. In 2017, for example, the 200 highest-paid CEOs in US business each received compensation of between $13.8 million and $103.2 million, well above the cut-off for the top 0.01 per cent of the income distribution, which currently lies at $8.3 million. More troubling still, while the compensation for corporate executives has been almost continually rising during this period, real (inflation-adjusted) wages for almost everybody else have been stagnating.

Many people find this upsetting but, even so, they tend to treat it as something capitalism requires us to tolerate. Others think it is something that capitalism requires us to applaud. But nothing in capitalism actually says that such sky-high levels of compensation are permissible. What capitalism says instead is that people need incentives to be maximally productive. But will someone who makes $100 million a year really work harder than someone who makes $10 million? Compensation, like everything else, has what economists call ‘diminishing marginal utility’. More of it has less and less of an incentivising effect, until eventually it has no incentivising effect at all – people are already working as hard as they can. At which point capitalism suggests that we should not pay someone even more money, for we are going to get nothing in return.

But wait – aren’t CEOs just getting paid the market rate for their labour? Their compensation is calculated according to a formula set when they were hired and, as long as this formula represents the going wage, then this is what they should receive. The market rate for CEO labour, however, is not set in a competitive manner. The formula is set by a special group of the company’s directors, called ‘the compensation committee’. It does this by commissioning a survey to see what similar companies pay their CEOs. The answer is usually expressed as a range, and while that range depends on what kind of companies are deemed similar, let’s assume for purposes of illustration that it is something like $1 million to $60 million for that particular industry and company size, with an average of $18 million. Given the fact that the CEO will ultimately be in a position to reward the members of the committee in various ways, there are obviously opportunities for corruption here.

Even setting this aside, there are problems when it comes to using the survey results to frame an offer. The committee can’t recommend an offer at the bottom of the range, for that would be saying that they think the candidate is only as good as the lowest-paid CEO. They might want to offer more than the top, just to show how highly they think of their candidate. But at the very least, they are going to offer a little more than average, for no one wants to suggest that their candidate is worth less than this. By doing this, however, the average keeps ratcheting up. Next time someone hires a CEO and another compensation committee conducts a survey, the average will be higher. The market is not bidding up the price; the price is going up simply because everyone always wants to beat the current average. We have what economists call a market failure. Setting a maximum wage would therefore not interfere with market freedom because, in this instance, the market is not working.

But if we don’t pay the going rate, how are we going to be able to hire the best people? The best people will surely want to go where they will be paid more? This is a loss, however, only if those who receive the greatest amount of compensation really are the best, which is contrary to the evidence. It is very difficult to tell who has both the skill and the talent to make an effective CEO. Past performance is no guarantee of future success. Very highly paid CEOs have run their companies into the ground, and some of the most successful companies today were started and managed by people who had absolutely no background in business. These people began working for almost nothing, yet built their companies into mammoth enterprises. Steve Jobs is an excellent example here, for Apple faltered when he left, and began to thrive again only when he came back, for a salary of $1 a year. So companies need not worry about losing the best candidate to someone who pays more. Very good people will work for say, $10 million a year, especially when given a chance to run a company. And these people are just as likely to do well as those who might demand $100 million.

Nevertheless, doesn’t this deprive CEOs of compensation they deserve? If their company does well, they should do well too. But a corporation’s success depends on the contributions of many people. If we are going to try to determine how much compensation the CEOs deserve given their contribution to their companies, this should be the test all the way down. When the company does well, everyone should get a similar percentage of the profits. But they don’t. More troubling still, when a company performs poorly, CEO compensation should not go up, yet it often does. At least it often remains disproportionately high in light of the company’s poor performance, something that itself seems contrary to the logic of capitalism. To justify this, companies often argue that the CEO shouldn’t be blamed when ‘the market’ takes a downturn. But if there are too many factors to determine why a company does poorly, then there are too many to determine why a company does well. Determining what individual employees ‘deserve’ in a large corporation is simply impossible to do with reasonable certainty.

Where should we set the maximum? We can fine-tune this as we accumulate experience, but I propose we start with a limit of $10 million in total compensation for a CEO of any company doing business in the US, with no one in the company or its subsidiaries permitted to earn more. This would put the CEO solidly among the top 0.01 per cent of the US income distribution, and this should be incentive enough to attract very good people, from anywhere in the world. For companies doing business in the US but which are not based there, are not listed on any US exchange, do not have substantial operations or employees there, and do have such contacts somewhere else, then a similar limit would be calculated according to the relevant country’s income distribution.

To avoid people trying to game the system, when companies have substantial contacts with multiple jurisdictions, the applicable limit would be adjusted to reflect the source of the company’s real economic activity. When 40 per cent of real economic activity is in a country with a lower or (perhaps in rare cases) higher limit, for example, the $10 million limit would be reduced or increased proportionally. In any case, such a limit would help to slow the growth of economic inequality and prevent reckless risk-taking by CEOs who otherwise might feel motivated to try to drive up the stock price of their company and therefore their bonus, while also discouraging the paper relocation of companies to ‘billionaires’ club’ jurisdictions, and putting younger, less traditional and potentially more creative leadership at the top.Aeon counter – do not remove

Mark R Reiff

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


Important Insects for Our Ecosystem (3 images) plus A Conservation Success, Flint MI is Granted Clean Water Relief

Thanks for the beneficial insects but the water video and info is amazing, hopefully it could be used a lot more.

Laura Putman Nature Photography

I love that there are such helpful insects to assist with our plants. I enjoy watching their tiny world as they work away to keep our world beautiful.

Flint Michigan is in a clean water crisis, a gentleman in Wisconsin created a solution and did something on his own to help that community have clean water again. (video below)

Yellow Jacket Feasting on Aphids

Bumble Bee Pollinating in Autumn

Tachnid Fly Imitating a Bee pollinating flowers

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From fall colours to citizenship, so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend

Thanks for these thoughts, it certainly makes me think a little more deeply about being Canadian.

Robby Robin's Journey

One of the nicest things about the timing of Canadian Thanksgiving is that it comes during this beautiful though fleeting season of autumn. It’s the time of year when nature paints the trees in stunning shades of reds, golds, yellow, and every combination in between. It’s the time of year where around every turn you see yet another tree that takes your breath away. It’s the time of year when you can’t decide which colour is your favourite or which particular tree in town is your favourite. Or whether a single tree, standing alone in its splendor, is more beautiful or a whole hillside full of colour. It’s the time of year when you can’t decide whether the leaves glow more in the sun or just after a rain. What an amazing gift of nature.

Trees outside my kitchen window, my favourite fall leaf colour

When I was growing up…

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Trees hold the answers to many of life’s problems

Diana Beresford-Kroeger is a scientist and author. Her most recent book is To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest, from which this is adapted.

We find ourselves living in a special time. On the one hand, the climate crisis poses the most significant threat to our future that humanity has ever faced. On the other, we are better equipped than ever before to take on that challenge. To do so, though, we need to understand and respect the natural world as people once did. We need to see all that the sacred cathedral of the forest offers us, and understand that among those many offerings is a way to save the world.

The forest is far more than a source of lumber. It is our lungs. It cleans the atmosphere. It recycles water. It is our collective medicine cabinet. It is the regulatory system for our climate and feeds our oceans. It is the cooling mantle of the planet. It is the health and well-being of our children and grandchildren. It is our salvation.

Trees offer us the solution to nearly every problem facing humanity today, from halting global temperature rise to defending against drug-resistant bacteria. And trees affect our lives, our cultures and spirit in many other ways. The tapestry of life, worldwide, depends on trees.

Over the past decade, science and medicine have been revealing all the ways that trees and forests are good for your health, especially mental health. Forest bathing, an ancient technique used by many cultures, especially the Japanese, isn’t some wellness fad. It actually fine-tunes the health of the entire body: As you walk through the trees, you immerse yourself in an air bath of natural forest biochemicals released as a fine aerosol mist. Even a 20-minute walk can have benefits as long as you slow down, take your time and breathe deeply so that the volatile organic compounds carried by those aerosols reach into the lower regions of the lungs where the deep tissue will absorb nature’s medicines. For the full medicinal effect, take your walk in a mature forest, the older the better. Ancient forests are the best, of course.

Enter this strong atmospheric bath with as much of your hair and skin uncovered as possible. Some of these tree medicines are fat soluble and others are water soluble, and entry sites in the skin will receive them both. In general, the fats will travel to the brain, the waters to the major organs. The body will extract what it needs.

Walk in the daytime, too, because sunlight works on the glandular tissue of the leaves, increasing the amount of volatile organic compounds and mobilizing them to ride the airways looking for a landing site. Both timing and temperature are important to effective forest bathing. In northern climates in the winter, early spring and very late fall, trees can’t deliver their full health benefits because they are shutting down, entering dormancy. Based on tree physiology, the ideal temperatures range for a forest bathing walk is from 15 degrees to around 30 degrees. And participants should walk when the day is humid, because the water vapour helps to drive the movement of the aerosols.

Tree aerosols act as anti-cancer shields, improve circulation and decrease high blood pressure. They have antibiotic, antifungal and anti-rheumatic effects. One species of tree whose habitat is the edge of the forest produces a target vasodilator, a unique biochemical that opens the left ascending coronary artery of the beating heart, a medicine already used in surgery. Some tree aerosols suppress the flow of a hormone called hydrocortisone, or cortisol, which also tied in with immune protection. All this is known, yet science has barely scratched the surface of the immense gifts trees bring us.

With the Amazon burning, and the global temperature rising, stopping climate change in its tracks can seem an impossibility. But my life and work have taught me that nothing is ever as dire or insurmountable as it seems, and that the natural world’s powers of regeneration stretch far beyond our understanding. Every one of us can fight for and save the global forest, our planet and ourselves. It’s not complicated. My bioplan is as simple as protecting the trees we have and planting one native tree each per year for six years.

There is a deity in nature that I believe we all understand. When you walk into a forest, great or small, you enter it in one state and emerge from it calmer. You come out of the woods knowing something big has happened to you. Science has now explained a part of that sacred experience. We now know that the aerosols produced by the forest actually do uplift your mood and affect your brain through your immune system.

Simply walking into a forest is a holiday for your mind and soul, allowing your imagination and creativity to bloom. It is a miracle, and there are so many other miracles of the natural world left for us to discover.

We all feel the joy of those miracles. We will save the forests and our planet. The trees are telling us how to do just that – all we have to do is listen.

The energy status quo is being upended – how will Canada respond?

Tom Rand is a managing partner at ArcTern Ventures, which invests in early stage clean-tech startups. Mike Andrade is CEO of Morgan Solar, a solar technology company.

With Canadian energy executives and politicians ensnared in endless regulatory and climate debates, global forces of technological disruption that respect no borders pose the real threat to Canadian economic health.

No policy or established incumbent could prevent, or even slow, prior tech disruptions such as the industrialization of agriculture, automation of manufacturing or digitization of communications. Global energy systems are today going through a similarly inevitable and deep disruption, driven by innovation and steep cost reductions in renewables and electric vehicles.

While we bicker about pipelines to tidewater and the effects of a tiny incremental price on carbon, the cost of solar and wind continue to plummet – driven by the inevitable declining cost curves associated with all technologies as they scale, from cellphones to drones. Batteries are doing the same. The threat these technologies pose to the status quo is based on (largely Western) innovations brought to industrial scale by an aggressive Chinese state. Neither the pace of innovation nor scale of production show any signs of slowing. Indeed, the opposite is true. Fast-forward a decade or two: Clean tech will take down incumbent energy industries that make the same old assumptions about demand for their product.

How fast is this happening? Recent analysis by BNP Paribas, titled Wells, Wires and Wheels, argues that to be competitive as a transport fuel, oil must be priced between US$9 and US$20 a barrel – today. Every dollar invested in renewables generates more than five times the motive energy for our cars and trucks than the same dollar spent on gas or diesel. It will take time to build an equivalent scale of infrastructure, of course, since the fossil fuel folks have a multidecade head start. But as investors make decisions about oil fields and pipelines that rely on decades of production to return capital, more and more will give the thumbs down. Maybe the Saudis can compete in that world, but Canada can’t.

This isn’t a future scenario, but happening right now. Coal died first. Global investment dropped by three-quarters in just the past three years and more coal plants came offline than were commissioned in 2018 for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. Next comes oil. There are enough electric buses in China alone to offset 350,000 barrels a day of oil – or a quarter of Britain’s total oil demand. And China is just getting started. Its planned battery-production capacity is three times the rest of the world’s combined. And solar energy keeps getting more efficient, batteries get lighter and more energy dense, wind turbine blades get lighter and stronger. None of these technological trends can be reversed.

There are obvious repercussions for Canada. The economic fragility associated with being the world’s marginal oil producer on cost is clear. Contrary to pundits eager to vilify climate policy and a lack of pipelines, Alberta’s oil patch woes are macroeconomic and its heavy oil is destined to be uncompetitive. This isn’t a matter of us choosing between clean tech and heavy oil – that choice is being made for us.

More important, we can grab a piece of that growing clean-tech economic pie. It’s huge – estimated globally to be more than US$3-trillion annually in a decade. We are a deeply innovative country. We took an outsized portion of the digital and optical revolutions (however badly managed at Nortel), and can do the same with clean tech. We’ve got good horses in this race and partnering with incumbents brings scale, engineering capacity, capital and market access to those emerging clean-tech stars. If Canada takes just our pro-rata share of that market, our clean-tech industry will dwarf our auto sector.

But we have to stop being distracted by the past. Incumbent industries hold our national narrative on energy in a headlock, defending yesterday’s success stories – not defining or shaping tomorrow’s. That dynamic doesn’t serve our long-term national interest. We must reshape that narrative to anticipate a world dominated by low-cost distributed energy technologies in just a few decades. Decisions we make today define our role in that world. What services and equipment will be needed? How do we leverage existing expertise and technology? What outsized market share might we take, and how?

What kills incumbent industries is not a lack of innovation, but inertia. Eastman Kodak invented the very digital camera that killed them. Exxon held many of the original solar patents, but never derived any value from them. If you make lots of money doing something, it’s natural to want to keep doing the same thing. Dominant market players will try to defend and extend the status quo. That strategy works well – until it doesn’t. It will take longer for clean tech to disrupt incumbent energy systems than it took Uber to disrupt taxis or mobile phones landlines. But change will be faster and more unreasonable than we think. Let’s talk about it.

Consciousness Doesn’t Depend on Language We share the basic experience of life with all mammals.


The contrast could not have been starker—here was one of the world’s most revered figures, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, expressing his belief that all life is sentient, while I, as a card-carrying neuroscientist, presented the contemporary Western consensus that some animals might, perhaps, possibly, share the precious gift of sentience, of conscious experience, with humans.

The setting was a symposium between Buddhist monk-scholars and Western scientists in a Tibetan monastery in Southern India, fostering a dialogue in physics, biology, and brain science.

Buddhism has philosophical traditions reaching back to the fifth century B.C. It defines life as possessing heat (i.e., a metabolism) and sentience, that is, the ability to sense, to experience, and to act. According to its teachings, consciousness is accorded to all animals, large and small—human adults and fetuses, monkeys, dogs, fish, and even lowly cockroaches and mosquitoes. All of them can suffer; all their lives are precious.

THE MONK AND THE SCIENTIST: When he visited the Dalia Lama in India, neuroscientist Christof Koch (at the computer) realized the Tibetan Buddhist belief that all life is sentient was in harmony with his view that all mammals share the “gift” of conscious experience.Courtesy of the Mind-Life Institute

Compare this all-encompassing attitude of reverence to the historic view in the West. Abrahamic religions preach human exceptionalism—although animals have sensibilities, drives, and motivations and can act intelligently, they do not have an immortal soul that marks them as special, as able to be resurrected beyond history, in the Eschaton. On my travels and public talks, I still encounter plenty of scientists and others who, explicitly or implicitly, hold to human exclusivity. Cultural mores change slowly, and early childhood religious imprinting is powerful.

I grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family with Purzel, a fearless dachshund. Purzel could be affectionate, curious, playful, aggressive, ashamed, or anxious. Yet my church taught that dogs do not have souls. Only humans do. Even as a child, I felt intuitively that this was wrong; either we all have souls, whatever that means, or none of us do.

René Descartes famously argued that a dog howling pitifully when hit by a carriage does not feel pain. The dog is simply a broken machine, devoid of the res cogitans or cognitive substance that is the hallmark of people. For those who argue that Descartes didn’t truly believe that dogs and other animals had no feelings, I present the fact that he, like other natural philosophers of his age, performed vivisection on rabbits and dogs. That’s live coronary surgery without anything to dull the agonizing pain. As much as I admire Descartes as a revolutionary thinker, I find this difficult to stomach.

Modernity abandoned the belief in a Cartesian soul, but the dominant cultural narrative remains—humans are special; they are above and beyond all other creatures. All humans enjoy universal rights, yet no animal does. No animal possesses the fundamental right to its life, to bodily liberty and integrity.

Yet the same abductive inference used to infer experience in other people can also be applied to nonhuman animals. I am confident in abducing experiences in fellow mammals for three reasons.

First, all mammals are closely related, evolutionarily speaking. Placental mammals trace their common descent to small, furry, nocturnal creatures that scurried the forest in search of insects. After an asteroid killed off most of the remaining dinosaurs about 65 million years ago, mammals diversified and occupied all those ecological niches that were swept clean by this planet-wide catastrophe.

My church taught that dogs do not have souls. Only humans do. Even as a child, I felt this was wrong.

Modern humans are genetically most closely linked to chimpanzees. The genomes of these two species, the instruction manual for how to assemble these creatures, differ by only one out of every hundred words. We’re not that different from mice either, with almost all mouse genes having a counterpart in the human genome. Thus, when I write “humans and animals,” I simply respect dominant linguistic, cultural, and legal customs in differentiating between the two natural kinds, not because I believe in the non-animal nature of humans.

Second, the architecture of the nervous system is remarkably conserved across all mammals. Most of the close to 900 distinct annotated macroscopic structures found in the human brain are present in the mouse brain, the animal of choice for experimentalists, even though it is a thousand times smaller.

It is not easy, even for a neuroanatomist armed with a microscope, to distinguish human nerve cells from their murine counterpart, once the scale bar has been removed. That’s not to say human neurons are the same as mouse neurons—they are not; the former are more complex, have more dendritic spines, and look to be more diverse than the latter. The same story holds at the genomic, synaptic, cellular, connectional, and architectural levels—we see a myriad of quantitative but no qualitative differences between the brains of mice, dogs, monkeys, and people. The receptors and pathways that mediate pain are analogous across species.

The human brain is big, but other creatures, such as elephants, dolphins, and whales, have bigger ones. Embarrassingly, some not only have a larger neocortex but also one with twice as many cortical neurons as humans.


Ingenious: Christof Koch

Consciousness may be the greatest illusion of all. Or at least the greatest mystery. “It is in the brain that the poppy is red, that the apple is odorous, that the skylark sings,” wrote Oscar Wilde. But how does the…READ MORE

Third, the behavior of mammals is kindred to that of people. Take my dog Ruby—she loves to lick the remaining cream off the whisk I use to whip heavy cream by hand—no matter where she is in the house or garden she comes running in as soon as she hears the sounds of the metal wire loops striking the glass. Her behavior tells me that she enjoys the sweet and fatty whipping cream as much as I do; I infer that she has a pleasurable experience. Or when she yelps, whines, gnaws at her paw, limps, and then comes to me, seeking aid: I infer that she’s in pain because under similar conditions I act similarly (sans gnawing). Physiologic measures confirm this inference: dogs, just like people, have an elevated heart rate and blood pressure and release stress hormones into their bloodstream when in pain. Dogs not only experience pain from physical injuries but can also suffer, for example if they are beaten or otherwise abused or when an older pet is separated from its litter mate or its human companion. This is not to argue that dog-pain is identical to people-pain; it is not. But all the evidence is compatible with the supposition that dogs, and other mammals, not only react to noxious stimuli but also experience the awfulness of pain and suffering.

As I write, the world is witnessing a killer whale carrying her baby calf, born dead, for more than two weeks and a thousand miles across the waters of the Pacific Northwest. As the corpse of the baby orca keeps on falling off and sinking, the mother has to expend considerable energy to dive after it and retrieve it, an astonishing display of maternal grief.

Monkeys, dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, rats, mice, and other mammals can all be taught to respond to forced-choice experiments—modified from those used by people to accommodate paws and snouts, and using food or social rewards in lieu of money. Their responses are remarkably similar to the way people behave, once differences in their sensory organs are accounted for.

The most obvious trait that distinguishes humans from other animals is language. Everyday speech represents and communicates abstract symbols and concepts. It is the bedrock of mathematics, science, civilization, and all of our cultural accomplishments.

Many classical scholars assign to language the role of kingmaker when it comes to consciousness. That is, language use is thought to either directly enable consciousness or to be one of the signature behaviors associated with consciousness. This draws a bright line between animals and people. On the far shore of this Rubicon live all creatures, small and large—bees, squids, dogs, and apes; while they have many of the same behavioral and neuronal manifestations of seeing, hearing, smelling, and experiencing pain and pleasure that people have, they have no feelings. They are mere biological machines, devoid of any inner light. On the near shore of this Rubicon lives a sole extant species, Homo sapiens. Somehow, the same sort of biological stuff that makes up the brains of creatures across the river is superadded with sentience (Descartes’s res cogitans or the Christian soul) on this side of the Rubicon.

There are other cognitive differences between people and mammals: We can be deliberately cruel.

One of the few remaining contemporary psychologists who denies the evolutionary continuity of consciousness is Euan Macphail. He avers that language and a sense of self are necessary for consciousness. According to him, neither animals nor young children experience anything, as they are unable to speak and have no sense of self—a remarkable conclusion that must endear him to parents and pediatric anesthesiologists everywhere.

What does the evidence suggest? What happens if somebody loses their ability to speak? How does this affect their thinking, sense of self, and their conscious experience of the world? Aphasia is the name given to language disorders caused by limited brain damage, usually but not always to the left cortical hemisphere. There are different forms of aphasia—depending on the location of the damage, it can affect the comprehension of speech or of written text, the ability to properly name objects, the production of speech, its grammar, the severity of the deficit, and so on.

The neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor rocketed to fame on the strength of her TED Talk and a subsequent bestselling book about her experience while suffering a stroke. At age 37, she suffered a massive bleeding in her left hemisphere. For the next several hours, she became effectively mute. She also lost her inner speech, the unvoiced monologue that accompanies us everywhere, and her right hand became paralyzed. Taylor realized that her verbal utterances did not make any sense and that she couldn’t understand the gibberish of others. She vividly recalls how she perceived the world in images while experiencing the direct effect of her stroke, wondering how to communicate with people. Hardly the actions of an unconscious zombie.

ALAS, POOR BRAIN: Jill Bolte Taylor (above) “perceived the world in images while experiencing the direct effect of her stroke, wondering how to communicate with people,” Christof Koch writes. “Hardly the actions of an unconscious zombie.”Kip May

Two objections to Taylor’s compelling personal story is that her narrative can’t be directly verified—she suffered the stroke at home, alone—and that she reconstructed these events months and years after the actual episode. Consider then the singular case of a 47-year-old man with an arteriovenous malformation in his brain that triggered minor sensory seizures. As part of his medical workup, regions in his left cerebral hemisphere were anesthetized by a local injection. This led to a dense aphasia, lasting for about 10 minutes, during which he was unable to name animals, answer simple yes/no questions, or describe pictures. When asked to write down immediately afterward what he recalled, it became apparent that he was cognizant of what was happening:

In general my mind seemed to work except that words could not be found or had turned into other words. I also perceived throughout this procedure what a terrible disorder that would be if it were not reversible due to local anesthetics. There was never a doubt that I would be able to recall what was said or done, the problem was that I often could not do it.

He correctly recalled that he saw a picture of a tennis racket, recognized it for what it was, making the gesture of holding a racket with his hand and explaining that he had just bought a racket. Yet in actuality all he said was “perkbull.” What is clear is that the patient continued to experience the world during his brief aphasia. Consciousness did not fade with the degradation of his or Jill Taylor’s linguistic skills.

The belief that only humans experience anything is preposterous, a remnant of an atavistic desire.

There is ample evidence from split-brain patients that consciousness can be preserved in the nonspeaking cortical hemisphere, usually the right one. These are patients whose corpus callosum has been surgically cut to prevent aberrant electrical activity from spreading from one to the other hemisphere. Almost half a century of research demonstrates that these patients have two conscious minds. Each cortical hemisphere has its own mind, each with its own peculiarities. The left cortex supports normal linguistic processing and speech; the right hemisphere is nearly mute but can read whole words and, in some cases at least, can understand syntax and produce simple speech and song.

It could be countered that language is necessary for the proper development of consciousness but that once this has taken place, language is no longer needed to experience. This hypothesis is difficult to address comprehensively, as it would require raising a child under severe social deprivation.

There are documented cases of feral children who either grew up in near total social isolation or who lived with groups of nonhuman primates, wolfs or dogs. While such extreme abuse and neglect leads to severe linguistic deficits, it does not deprive these wild children of experiencing the world, usually in a tragic and, to them, incomprehensible, manner.

Finally, to restate the obvious—language contributes massively to the way we experience the world, in particular to our sense of the self as our narrative center in the past and present. But our basic experience of the world does not depend on it.

Besides true language, there are, of course, other cognitive differences between people and the rest of mammals. Humans can organize into vast and flexible alliances to pursue common religious, political, military, economic, and scientific projects. We can be deliberately cruel. Shakespeare’s Richard III spits out:

“No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none, and therefore am no beast.”

We can also introspect, second-guessing our actions and motivations. As we grow up, we acquire a sense of mortality, a knowledge that our life has a finite horizon, the worm at the core of human existence. Death has no such dominion over animals.

The belief that only humans experience anything is preposterous, a remnant of an atavistic desire to be the one species of singular importance to the universe at large. Far more reasonable and compatible with all known facts is the assumption that we share the experience of life with all mammals.

Christof Koch is the president and chief scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, following 27 years as a professor at the California Institute of Technology. He is the author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press), The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, and other books.

Excerpted from The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread but Can’t Be Computed by Christof Koch (The MIT Press, 2019).

Lead image: Benjavisa Ruangvaree Art / Shutterstock

If we protect the Arctic, we save the planet

Sheila Watt-Cloutier is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee

As a young child growing up in Kuujjuaq, Que., in Canada, I travelled only by dogsled for the first 10 years of my life. I was often snuggled into warm blankets and fur as my family set out on hunting and fishing trips. The vast Arctic sky surrounded us and the ice held strong beneath our feet – the foundation that carried us across the frozen land.

For the Inuit, ice is much more than frozen water; it is our highways, our training ground and our life force. It’s something we thought to be as permanent as mountains and rivers in the south. But, in my generation, the Arctic sea ice and snow, upon which we Inuit have depended for millennia, is now diminishing.

Dramatic climate change has left no feature of our landscape or our way of life untouched and now threatens our very culture, our ability to live off the land in safety. While the Arctic may seem cold, dark and distant for most, for us it is our beloved homeland which provides all that we need for our physical, spiritual and cultural well-being.

In various speeches I delivered as an elected official of the Inuit Circumpolar Council at United Nations forums, Arctic Council-related events and other international forums, I would say what is happening here is a glimpse of what is to come.

For a variety of alarming reasons, temperatures are rising faster at the North and South Poles compared to other parts of the world. In early June, my hometown of Kuujjuaq was 28.4 degrees, making it the hottest spot in Canada that day. In all four regions where the Inuit live – Northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Siberia – every community is struggling to cope with extreme coastal erosion, melting permafrost and rapid runoff as temperatures rise.

The frozen permafrost that used to serve as a reliable foundation is destabilizing homes and other structures. As the coastline erodes buildings have cracked and fallen into the ocean like a scene out of a sci-fi thriller, but sadly this is not a movie.

In order to arrest this dangerous trajectory, the world has to take note of what is happening in the Arctic – because what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. It’s the planet’s air conditioner and as it melts it causes havoc on the world.

We are constantly reminded how taking action on greenhouse gas emissions will negatively impact our economy. This is a lame and outdated card to play at this late stage of our climate crisis. The human, environmental and economic costs are racking up around the world and need to be properly accounted for.

Ultimately, addressing climate change and building human rights protections into our global climate agreements is not just a matter of strategy. It is a moral and ethical imperative that requires the world to take a principled and courageous path to solve this great challenge. As more leaders lose sight of the larger and longer-term picture with great economic potential in sight, staying on the principled path will become increasingly difficult for many. This, I believe, is the test of our time.

Given that the United States has walked away from the Paris Agreement and other governments have been slow to act, recent cases in the Netherlands, Colombia and the U.S. suggest that climate litigation may increasingly be seen as an essential tool to protect human rights and to safeguard the environment.

In 2005, I led the pioneering work on connecting climate change to human rights by putting forth a legal petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Inuit’s right to be cold is connected to everyone’s right to a healthy and safe environment. If we protect the Arctic we save the planet.

Inuit and Indigenous peoples provided life-saving guidance to early European visitors unfamiliar with the severe conditions, which they ignored at their peril. The Inuit still have much to teach the world about living harmoniously with the land and the vital importance of the Arctic ice. The world needs to reimagine and realign economic values with those of the Indigenous world and Inuit world, rather than replicating what hasn’t worked with the values of Western society. This holistic Indigenous wisdom needs to be adhered to as the world seeks solutions towards a sustainable world. Are you ready to listen?