Pluralistic: 25 Feb 2021

Today's links

Against hygiene theater (permalink)

A year ago, covid was a mystery. We didn't know how it spread, we didn't know who it infected, we didn't know how to treat it. All we knew was that it was spreading fast and the early epicenters were slaughterhouses.

It's been a year, and now we know a lot more. One thing we know, for example, is that even though virus particles can linger for a long time on surfaces, you're not likely to catch the virus from these "fomites."

Simple handwashing of the sort we should have all practised all along will do the trick. You don't need to sterilize your groceries or leave your parcels to sit on your doorstep for three days. Just wash your hands!

However, in the lockdown's early days, businesses were floundering, wondering how they'd reopen, and, driven by the scant science of covid transmission, a class of highly speculative health consultant sprang into existence to promote a meticulous regime of surface cleaning.

Surface-cleaning is a highly visible activity, and it can feel reassuring to be handed a grocery basket whose handle is glistening with a layer of freshly applied sterilizing spray. But all of this hygiene theater is largely irrelevant to controlling the pandemic.

Hygiene theater isn't harmless. At the very least, it's a major distraction. Late in 2020, my kid's school district circulated a plan to reopen for in-person classes in early Jan, assuming the LA County health department permitted it (they didn't because LA is a plague-pit).

This email went into incredible, eye-watering detail about the school's plan to sterilize all surfaces, going so far as to mention the brand names, active ingredients and concentrations of the products that would be applied to every surface every day.

Meanwhile, the plan included nothing about ventilation. When I wrote to the district to ask some simple questions like, "Will you unseal the windows so they can be opened while students are present?" or "Do you have any fans?" no one knew the answer.

Needless to say, "Have you changed the kind of HVAC filters you use?" was an unanswerable mystery. This wasn't reassuring – as school safety plans go, it was about as useless as those lock-down active shooter drills they terrorize the kids with.

Hygiene theater is everywhere. A friend of mine owns a 100-employee business that moved into new offices just before the pandemic. The lease includes cleaning services, and twice a week, a masked crew sweeps through the unoccupied offices and sterilizes every surface.

Covid science is still a moving target, obviously, but the overwhelming consensus is that masks, distance and ventilation are the most important safety measures we can take – while sterilization and surfaces are no more (or less) important than they were before the plague.

Of course, airflow isn't easy to demonstrate or detect (some places are experimenting with giant CO2 readouts as a proxy for ventilation), so it's getting short shrift.

But focusing on sanitizing because it's so visible is the epidemiological equivalent of looking for car keys under the lamppost.

Saving the planet is illegal (permalink)

One of the worst barriers to preserving the planet in a state suitable for human habitation is the Energy Charter Treaty, an obscure 1994 treaty with 50+ signatories that allows energy companies to sue governments over environmental protection laws.

The ECT has just been invoked by the German polluter RWE, which is suing the Dutch government for €1.4b over a law that bans coal plants by 2030.

All told, the EU faces at least €345b in ECT liability over its climate plans. In reality, the total could be much higher, because the ECT provides for damages equal to the value of physical plant and all projected future profits from those plants.

€345b is double the EU's total annual operational budget. This is the ransom that the world's worst climate criminals are demanding that Europeans pay as a condition of continuing to have a habitable planet. Big Energy want to be rewarded for its crimes against humanity.

Every day the treaty remains in effect produces more liability. Under ECT's provisions, a country that pulls out of the agreement is still liable for twenty years for any laws that affect the profitability of energy products started while the country was still in the ECT.

When a country is sued by a multinational for improving its environmental protections, the case is tried by a star-chamber of corporate lawyers who meet in secret and overwhelmingly find in favor of polluters.

Now, obviously, this is not a stable situation. To keep countries from fleeing the ECT, the energy cartel has embarked on a "modernization" project that it has slow-walked since 2017, with help from Japan, whose worst polluters depend on ECT to operate with impunity.

It's not hard to grind negotiations to a halt – all you need is a requirement that every decision must be unanimous before work can proceed. Leaks show this gambit is why the "modernization" meetings have been a four-year, do-nothing talking shop:

The harms of ECT aren't limited to direct vast transfers of public money to polluters. ECT is a major reason we don't get meaningful climate action in the first place: such legislation dies in planning once its authors are warned that it will trigger ECT enforcement action.

The arguments in favor of ECT are risible FUD, as Fabian Flues, Cecilia Olivet and Pia Eberhardt document for Opendemocracy.

Take the argument that the ECT spurs investment in renewables: a meta-analysis of 74 papers concludes that this effect is "so small as to be considered zero" (in reality, the majority of ECT-attributable investment is in dirty fossil fuel power).

Or the argument that since quitting ECT leaves countries exposed for 20 years, there's no point. Recall that this 20 year overhang only applies to projects begun before the country leaves the ECT, so the sooner countries quit it, the less risk they face.

Such risk as does exist can be mitigated by countries quitting in a bloc, making a mutual promise to ban companies domiciled in their borders from making any claims under the ECT, using national law to prohibit ECT action. The EU could mitigate much of its risk this way.

That the ECT even exists is a bad joke. It can't be fixed through "modernization" (especially not the current modernization plan, which doesn't touch corporate courts or contemplate any exemptions for climate regulation).

300 EU lawmakers have signed a petition calling on the EU to leave the ECT.

They're joined by 450 climate activists:

And you can sign, too, in this new EU-wide petition:

(Image: joelbeeb, CC BY-SA, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Don Knotts dead at 81

#5yrsago Rosa Parks’s papers and photos online at the Library of Congress

#5yrsago HarperCollins to libraries: we will nuke your ebooks after 26 checkouts

#5yrsago Disney offers to deduct contributions to its PAC from employees’ paychecks, to lobby for TPP

#5yrsago Read: The full run of If magazine, scanned at the Internet Archive

#1yrago Cops' qualified immunity

#1yrago Private equity looters underperform the S&P 500

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 516 words (114637 total).

  • A short story, "Jeffty is Five," for The Last Dangerous Visions. Yesterday's progress: 260 words (7276 total).

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla