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Feb/16

4

“Three Parent” Babies? No, More Like 2.001 (If That)…

ThreeParentBabiesBioethicists are, for the most part, a pretty presumptuous bunch: who on earth do they think they are?

In this case, however, highlighted by the Washington Post, they have got things right:

An elite panel of scientists and bioethicists offered guarded approval Wednesday of a novel form of genetic engineering that could prevent congenital diseases but would result in babies with genetic material from three parents.

The committee, which was convened last year at the request of the Food and Drug Administration, concluded that it is ethically permissible to “go forward, but with caution” with mitochondrial replacement techniques (MRT), said chairman Jeffrey Kahn, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University.

No, I’m not sure why it is up to them to decide what is or is not “ethically permissible”, but still…

But the advisory panel’s conclusions have slammed into a congressional ban: The omnibus fiscal year 2016 budget bill passed by Congress late last year contained language prohibiting the government from using any funds to handle applications for experiments that genetically alter human embryos.

Thus the green light from the scientists and ethicists won’t translate anytime soon into clinical applications that could potentially help families that want healthy babies, said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a pioneer of the new technique at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Ore.

“It seems like the FDA is disabled in this case by Congress,” Mitalipov said. “At this point we’re still not clear how to proceed.”

Congress should get out of the way.

The FDA released a statement Wednesday saying it will carefully review the report from the advisory committee, but added that the congressional ban prohibits the agency from reviewing applications “in which a human embryo is intentionally created or modified to include a heritable genetic modification. As such, human subject research utilizing genetic modification of embryos for the prevention of transmission of mitochondrial disease cannot be performed in the United States in FY 2016.”

The new clinical procedures should be used rarely, with extreme care and with abundant government oversight, and they initially should be applied only to male embryos, the advisory panel said. The group delivered its report at a morning news conference at the National Academy of Sciences headquarters in Washington.

The report comes at a time of dazzling advances in genetic engineering and a commensurate struggle to understand the ethics of “playing God,” a phrase uttered twice Wednesday by committee member R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin.

Then again, as it’s most unlikely that God played God…

The FDA last year asked the Institute of Medicine, now part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, to review the ethical implications of MRT since this other method of genetic engineering would result in what has been loosely referred to as “three-parent babies.” British officials have already approved investigatory experiments involving the technique.

Certain serious congenital diseases can be passed from a mother to child via the tiny amount of genetic material contained in the mitochondria, which are small organs within a cell that are often described as the cell’s energy factories or power plants. New experimental techniques involving in vitro fertilization make it possible to replace mutated and potentially disease-associated mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) with non-pathogenic mtDNA donated from another woman.

Mitochondrial DNA contains 37 genes and is distinct from nuclear DNA (nDNA), which in humans has upwards of 20,000 genes. The mitochondrial DNA is not found in sperm, only in eggs, and thus is passed only from mother to child. That’s why the panel recommended limiting the experimental procedures at first to male embryos.

The males-only guideline is intended to prevent the introduction of unwanted, irreversible genetic changes to the human species. Any genetic changes associated with this kind of engineering will meet a dead end in males.

“If there are adverse events, they would not be reverberating down the generations,” Charo said.

The procedure should be extended to female embryos only after the long-term effects of such novel genetic engineering are better understood, the committee concluded.

Nuclear DNA is by far the more significant form of genetic material for determining most human characteristics. As the committee put it, “[W]hile mtDNA plays a central role in genetic ancestry, traits that are carried in nDNA are those that in the public understanding constitute the core of genetic relatedness in terms of physical and behavioral characteristics as well as most forms of disease.”

As a result, the modification of mitochondrial DNA “is meaningfully different.”

But panel members said that they took the philosophical issues seriously, noting that someone with genetic material from two different maternal bloodlines would potentially have to wrestle with questions about identity, kinship and ancestry.

Not really.  The babies who benefit from this technology will have about 0.1 percent of their DNA attributable to a third party. It’s a (very) crude way of looking this, but think how many great, great-grandparents away it would take to account for 0.1% of someone’s ancestry….

To describe the donor as a third “parent” is, to put it mildly, a stretch.

And, as a reminder of what this is about:

The donor provides only their mitochondria. Often called the “power plants” of the cell, the mitochondria converts energy from food into energy that can power a cell. When someone’s mitochondria don’t function properly, it’s bad news indeed…

As one ‘ethicist’ notes:

It is not part of what makes us genetically who we are.It doesn’t affect height, eye color, intelligence, musicality. It simply allows the batteries to work properly…

And as to what’s at stake;

Mitochondrial diseases can cause a whole host of life threatening problems, and it’s estimated that as many as 4,000 children are born with such conditions in the United States each year.

Again, politicians should get out of the way.

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Jan/16

30

Mosquito as “Enforcer” of Social Solidarity

MosquitoAmerica Magazine is, in its own way, an entertaining corner of the religious left published by Jesuits. It’s a reliable source of by-the-numbers leftism supplemented by pious distortions, holy evasions, extra helpings of sanctimony and regular hosannas for the Dear Leader, the (more or less) Peronist Jesuit now presiding over the Vatican.

So I suppose it wasn’t altogether surprising to read this there:

Like the Ebola panic of 2014, Zika reminds the complacent of the affluent world of a kind of enforced solidarity with folks in poorer regions, an impoverished and sometimes cruel imposter of the true solidarity we are called to embrace.

And for added points:

Zika joins an unhappy collection of diseases making the jump from tropical regions, where some of the world’s poorest people reside, to temperate zones of affluence. Global warming may be making previously hostile geography more amenable to the major vector for these illnesses, the humble mosquito.

Ah yes, global warming. Of course.

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Nov/15

29

“Another Emergency”

FourHorsemenThe Economist, at it again:

THE political masters of the world are gathering in a Paris traumatised by terror to consider another sort of emergency, climate change.

Trivialize much? Exaggerate much?

The magazine’s ‘Erasmus’ goes on to note:

The unusual thing about this gathering is that mankind’s religious guardians have also been preparing for it; their voices have been rising in a crescendo of moral concern.

Unusual? Not really: “mankind’s religious guardians” (a phrase so sycophantic and so syrupy that it beggars, well, belief) were pretty noisy before the failed Copenhagen climate conference too.

But we shouldn’t be surprised by those expressions of “moral concern”. The science of climate change is one thing (I’m probably a ‘lukewarmer’ myself), but the way it is understood is another, and the usual ‘narrative’ of climate change, with its implicit attack on materialism and warnings of an apocalypse to come,  fits very neatly into the teachings of any number of faiths. No wonder “mankind’s religious guardians” want to get involved.

Back to Erasmus:

When the French president toured typhoon-stricken areas of the Philippines in February, he brought along Patriarch Bartholomew, the “first among equals” in the Orthodox Christian world and a veteran campaigner for the planet. Then in July, Mr Hollande hosted an eye-catching “summit of conscience” that involved faith leaders of many stripes; they ranged from the Orthodox Patriarch to Sufi Muslim sages; from Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana (speaking for the pope) to indigenous people from fragile parts of Latin America. The co-organisers included R20, an environmental and green-energy movement started by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California, and Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a British-based NGO launched by Prince Philip.

With the exception of Hollande (and, once upon a time, Schwarzenegger) these people are, of course, unelected, a reminder that much of the climate change ‘process’ is a post-democratic exercise.

And talking loftily about faith, morality and ‘the planet’ will not change that most inconvenient truth.

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Nov/15

28

Must-Read Interview with Sam Harris

imrs

The New Atheist’s interview with Salon – a publication largely hostile to the Bertrand Russell-style liberalism of Harris and his ilk – is better read at Harris’s own website, in its unedited form. (A portion of the interview that badmouths Salon was cut by the site, not shockingly.) Below are some choice excerpts.

On American foreign policy and Islam:

You can make the list of U.S. crimes and missteps as long as you want, but it still doesn’t explain ISIS. The fact that we invaded Iraq is merely a background condition for a local explosion of jihadist triumphalism and horror – one that is fully explained by a commitment to a specific interpretation of Islamic scripture. Medical students and engineers, who are second- and third-generation British citizens, have joined ISIS. There is nothing about Western foreign policy, global capitalism, or white privilege that explains this.

I agree that the history of colonialism isn’t pretty, but….there are (or were) Christians living in all these beleaguered countries. How many Christian suicide bombers have there been? Where are the Pakistani, Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, and Palestinian Christians who are blowing themselves up in crowds of noncombatants?

On the problems of the multicultural left:

These people are part of what has been termed the “regressive Left” – pseudo-liberals who are so blinded by identity politics that they reliably take the side of a backward mob over one of its victims. Rather than protect individual women, apostates, intellectuals, cartoonists, novelists, and true liberals from the intolerance of religious imbeciles, they protect these theocrats from criticism.

On religion and the GOP:

Ben Carson is a perfect example of how even the process of becoming a neurosurgeon is insufficient to correct for this indoctrination. It’s astonishing: The man is both a celebrated neurosurgeon and a moron. Apparently, becoming a neurosurgeon can be like becoming an electrician or a plumber—you can learn it like a trade, and your mind can remain more or less untouched by the scientific worldview.

I felt that I glimpsed the possibility of Christian theocracy in the U.S. when Sarah Palin addressed the Republican National Convention. She was at the height of her powers, and she hadn’t yet unraveled in those interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric. This was terrifying—because I knew her to be both a religious lunatic and total ignoramus. The fact that she had any chance of acquiring so much power and responsibility seemed to make a mockery of the entire career of our species.

On the potential of P.C. mission creep to leave only fringy undesirables asking the probing questions:

I worry that such Christian demagoguery could become even more attractive politically because the secular Left has made it so painful to speak about the threat of political Islam. By conflating any focus on Islamism and jihadism with bigotry, there may come a time when only real bigots and Christian theocrats will be willing to address the problem. And they could gain political power because then even sane, secular people might feel that they have no other choice [see the appeal of Marine Le Pen to a surprising number of gay voters].

Read it all.

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Oregon shooter Chris Mercer disliked organized religion and considered himself “conservative, republican.” This according to the Daily Beast.

But then, an attempt to paint Mercer as a righty runs into problems. He also expressed sympathy for the race-card-playing black Roanoke shooter, e.g., and is himself half black (which sadly matters, even if that says more about the observers of these atrocities). On the other hand he appeared to be critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Though he loved guns, he also had beef with Christians, as those scary accounts of his actions Thursday inform us.

Secular rightists of course have a greater beef with Islam, not Christianity. (I’d say if forced to choose, but it’s not even a contest.)

The New York Times reports that Mercer chimed in on the topic of “commercialism” in online forums, which would suggest a progressive’s form of discontent – it’s unlikely he was approvingly citing passages from Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture, afterall – but then that’s not much to go on.

No, all we really know is that Mercer was in awe of the negative attention mass murder grabs; he liked guns; he had problems attracting women; and he might have had Asperger’s. There’s a manifesto apparently in police custody, but since Mercer opted to go the typewriter route ala 1965 and not post it on Medium, it’s not publicly viewable.

I think the blogger formerly known as Half Sigma might have it right: Beta Male Rage.

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dawkins_dennett_harris_hitchens_tshirts-r1fd3a1e7f96b44769b895d2f7701d6f4_8nax2_1024

I remember when atheism was clearly aligned with the left. It was a mere decade ago or so that stem cell research and sundry other hot-button issues characterized the distinction between the atheist liberal community and the Bush-loving, religious conservative community.

Remember Leon Kass and the Council on Bioethics?

But in 2015, with identity politics not only ascendant but nearly firmly in place, atheism is switching sides. Or that’s the impression one gets from this summary of a Dawkins/Dennett talk in Boston by Geoffrey Lee Hodge of the secular progressive TheHumanist.com in a piece called “Advancing the Atheist Movement: Dawkins, Dennett, and the Second Wave.” Hodge takes issue with DD’s reluctance to break bread with liberal Christians:

It should come as no surprise that insulting someone’s beliefs is not an effective way to change their viewpoint. What is surprising is that even facts are often ineffective and sometimes even detrimental to changing someone’s mind. To succeed, the atheist movement needs to win not just the minds of moderate believers, but their hearts as well. The overwhelming success of the gay marriage campaign in the US has not been due to a sudden increase in the number of people identifying as gay; the movement has succeeded because more and more moderate heterosexuals are convinced that it’s unfair to limit access to marriage based on ancient discriminatory beliefs held by some religions. Nor has other social change occurred due to a sudden increase in the numbers of women or African Americans

Liberal churches address a need for spirituality and community without the harmful fundamentalist insistence that the rest of the world must conform to their ideas.

Hodge is correct that the political landscape isn’t changing due to sudden bursts in the gay or black population. It’s changing because a largely white and progressive media/professional class has changing interests. And you see it on display here. Instead of encouraging DD and their fans to reach out, say, to more black and brown atheists, Hodge encourages atheists to be less fond of atheism, to, one supposes, encourage more black and brown (and female) interest.

(Of course, appealing to the interests of a minority within a minority might seem an uber-progressive endeavor. But we all know that if you go too far down that road, you may very well end up in Ayn Rand “the ultimate minority is the individual” territory, where NO progressive wants to be.)

Hodge is right to point out that people are hardwired to be religious, and any overly zealous atheist movement is likely to find itself irrelevant, politically. In a democracy, anyway. But it’s remarkable to see that even among the atheist left, the atheism comes second. Maybe even a distant second. There’s been a distinct shift away from touting the benefits of a zero-tolerance policy with regard to anti-scientific thinking, and toward an obsession with the sex and race of the people doing the touting. What’s being talked about is less important than who’s doing the talking.

Less substance, more style.

No wonder godlessness is becoming associated with the right, who are increasingly difficult to distinguish from “problematic” liberals. Like Dawkins.

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Jun/15

21

A Premodern/Postmodern Pope?

Pope against frackingCross-posted on the Corner.

From First Things, an interesting take on the pope’s eco-encyclical by R.R. Reno.

Here’s an extract: “Everything is connected” is [the Pope’s] mantra in Laudato Si. True to this principle, Francis links his suspicion of science with suspicions about other dimensions of the modern world. Progress has often been characterized as ever-greater prosperity. But economic globalization, a signature feature of the late modern world, and precondition for today’s rapid growth in China and elsewhere, is excoriated again and again. Francis never tires of denouncing “finance,” by which he seems to mean modern banking in all its forms. And of course we’re destroying mother earth. “The post-industrial period may well be remembered as the most irresponsible in history.”

Another feature of modernity and its faith in progress has been a political commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity. To be modern is to believe that, for all our flaws, Western societies are more democratic, more egalitarian, and more inclusive than any in history. This is not the Pope’s view. The West is rapacious. He quotes one source approvingly: “Twenty per cent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive.”

In effect, the present world system created by European and North American modernity—the world made possible by Newton, Locke, Rousseau, Ricardo, Kant, Pasteur, Einstein, Keynes, and countless other architects of modern science, economics, and political culture—is an abomination. Francis never quite says that. But this strong judgment is implied in his many fierce denunciations of the current global order. It destroys the environment, oppresses the multitudes, and makes us blind to the beauty of creation.

Indeed. And it’s worth noting that these are not the first “fierce denunciations” (I’ll stick with that relatively gentle phrase) that we have seen from a pope with something of a weakness for a demagogic, occasionally even paranoid style that would have played well in the Peronist Argentina of his youth, a time when he clearly learnt much and understood little.

But back to First Things:

Today’s progressives are often critical of the West, and in that sense critical of “progress.” Europeans can be hysterical about genetically modified food. They have renounced nuclear energy, the only feasible large-scale alternative to a hydrocarbon-based energy system. Democracy was the signal political aspiration of modernity, but the EU is a post-national political project, a technocratic, post-democratic project. Here in the United States, many are now educated to believe that the history of the West is one long story of oppression and injustice. Optimism has waned, which means that the pope’s pessimism may be received warmly.

Perhaps, therefore, the most accurate thing to say is that Francis offers a postmodern reading of Gaudium et Spes and Vatican II’s desire to be open to the modern world. He seems to propose to link the Catholic Church with a pessimistic post-humanist Western sentiment rather than the older, confident humanism.

There may be a strange genius in this. For more than two hundred years Catholicism has resisted a self-sufficient humanism confident in the triumph of reason and science. Now there are powerful forces in the West that regard the modern project of the West as a failure, and the worst-case accounts of global warming encourage us to draw this conclusion. Thus the encyclical’s apparent focus, which is quickly superseded by a wholesale critique of every aspect of the current global system. Francis encourages the humiliation of modernity and the West, seeing in its failure the seeds of repentance and return to God.

Count me a skeptic. I prefer that approach of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. If global warming poses a dire threat to humanity—and it may—we will need all the moral strength, scientific integrity, economic vitality, and political legitimacy that Western modernity can muster. The same goes for the pressing problems of poverty and development. Instead of the voice of denunciation, we need the Church’s counsel and guidance. We all need to repent. But when it comes to pressing ethical problems, revolution is a dangerous game to play.

Obviously, I’m not with Reno on the need for the guidance of the Roman Catholic Church (readers may disagree!), but his broader point is subtle and very well made. The fact is that Francis is a pope who is profoundly at odds with not just (what we understand as) the West, but with the best of the West.

And, I would add, this encyclical is far from being the only evidence of that.

Links:

http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/420034/premodernpostmodern-pope-andrew-stuttaford
http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/06/the-return-of-catholic-anti-modernism

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May/15

17

California Injects Some Sense on Vaccination


terra-baby-1024

Or at least it’s getting closer to doing that. This from Reuters/Religion News Service:

California parents who do not vaccinate their children would have to home-school them under a bill passed Thursday by the state Senate, the latest move in a battle between public health officials and “anti-vaxxers” who fear vaccines are dangerous.

The bill, which eliminates the so-called personal beliefs exemption allowing parents to forego vaccinations if opposed to them for any reason, was introduced after a measles outbreak at Disneyland last year that sickened more than 100 people.

….

Under the bill, which still must be approved by the Assembly, unvaccinated children who do not have a medical exemption would have to study at home or in organized, private home-schooling groups.

Home-schooling has nothing to do with being educated about vaccines of course, but demanding it represents a sufficient enough burden for most parents such that it should definitely help get vaccination numbers up.

Relatedly, the Lifetime Network is doing its part on the vaccine front by showing the stars of “Terra’s Little Family” getting their infant, “Penny,” vaccinated. (Yes, I watch this program. Judge me not!* ) Mom Terra struggles with the decision because she’s “heard” about the literally ill effects of vaccine. But in the end she does the right thing.

It’s good to see the MBA-holding female decision-makers at Lifetime – or Television for Women ™ – doing right by their downscale viewers. Especially because the thrust of the anti-vaccination zeitgeist is coming from the relatively upscale. David Hume has more on that here.

* I’m also a fan of other reality TV, like “Return to Amish.” This while media attention is far more focused on e.g. Mad Men. Here’s why I prefer the former.

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bible-online

For a guy who laments moral relativism, Rod Dreher doesn’t shy away from equating ISIS, though with the expected qualifier, to the folks in Silicon Valley. Upon reading a dialogue between two future forecaster types at Edge.org – who talk about “useless” people (from an economic, military, and intentionally hyperbolic POV, let’s be clear) and the possibility of the very rich cheating death – he’s come away convinced that “slavery” will soon be at hand:

This is the religion of the future. Slavery will come to us disguised as the light of liberty and progress. These are the barbarians coming to rule us — and the masses will welcome them.

If you are not part of a church community that is consciously resisting this vision, then your children, or at best your children’s children, will be lost to the faith. There is no thought more corrupting to the human soul than the Serpent’s promise in Eden: “Ye Shall be as Gods.”

Goodness, er, gracious.

Dreher is disturbed by modernity, period, and for him Silicon Valley is symbolic of everything wrong with the (relatively) rationalist, reductionist tendency in the human affairs of the Global North. He blames the “barbarians” of Silicon Valley for being both elitist – e.g. with their talk of a technological “singularity” and interest in life extension – and down-to-earth in the worst way, by promoting “bread and circuses.” Think Netflix and Snapchat (or to get really granular, the animated gif keyboard).

Some of what Dreher is criticizing is rightly considered problematic (to borrow a term from the left), such as long-term unemployment becoming the norm. And Dreher correctly points out that the trends being noticed in the conversation between Yuval Noah Harari and Daniel Kahneman aren’t necessarily being promoted. But the solution to these and other ills aren’t being obstructed by techno-optimists as much as they are anti-state libertarians (to call out “our” side), or the political dysfunction seemingly difficult to dislodge given increasing ideological rigidity.

In any case, egghead utilitarians deliberating about how the masses will endure the end of work and ample food and entertainment is not at all on par with radical Islam. But that’s just my two cents. Or is that two bitcoins? Whatever.

 

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Nov/14

1

“Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder”

Socorro, NM, May 95 (photo AS)Cross-posted on the Corner

Just when you think that the misery that climate change is bringing in its wake can get no worse, there is this.

Grist reports:

…From depression to substance abuse to suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, growing bodies of research in the relatively new field of psychology of global warming suggest that climate change will take a pretty heavy toll on the human psyche as storms become more destructive and droughts more prolonged. For your everyday environmentalist, the emotional stress suffered by a rapidly changing Earth can result in some pretty substantial anxieties….

Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist based in Washington, D.C. — and co-author of the National Wildlife Federation’s report — calls this emotional reaction “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” a term she coined to describe the mental anguish that results from preparing for the worst, before it actually happens.

There is, in my view, a perfectly reasonable case to be made that man may be contributing to the way that our ever-changing climate changes. That’s one thing, but how some choose to express their belief in that proposition can be something altogether, well let’s just say, less reasonable.

Millennialist hysteria is not, of course, a new phenomenon. But, to be fair, it’s not all that hellish for those that embrace it. I suspect that with that, um, “pre-traumatic stress disorder” comes a certain excitement too, of a girding up for the End Times, of a preparation for that definitive battle to save the planet, stave off Satan or whatever the particular apocalypse may be.

And the unbelievers just will not listen:

Grist:

What’s even more deflating for a climate scientist is when sounding the alarm on climatic catastrophes seems to fall on deaf ears.

But that too all is not all bad. The willful ignorance of those who will not pay attention to that alarm reinforces the sense of moral superiority felt by those who do. Sinners make it so much easier to be a saint.

And that sense of mission, how it burns.

Grist:

For activists like Mike Tidwell — founder of the nonprofit Chesapeake Climate Action Network and author of The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Race to Save America’s Coastal Cities — part of being on the front lines means being outspoken and passionate about the cause. But while activism may be a more forgiving platform to express emotional stresses than within the scientific community, the personal toll of the work goes largely undiscussed.

“You don’t just start talking about unbelievably fast sea-level rise at a cocktail party at a friend’s house,” Tidwell says. “So having to deny the emotional need to talk about what’s on your mind all the time … those are some of the burdens that climate aware scientists and activists have to endure….”

….Perhaps it’s time for those deeply involved in climate science to come forward about the emotional struggle, or at the very least, for those in mental health research and support to start exploring climate change psychology with more fervor. And reaching out to scientists in particular could be a huge opportunity to better explore the world of climate psych, says psychosocial researcher and consultant Renee Lertzman.

“There’s a taboo talking about it,” Lertzman says, adding that the tight-lipped culture of the scientific community can be difficult to bridge. “We’re just starting to piece that together. The field of the psychology of climate change is still very, very young … I believe there are profound and not well-recognized or understood psychological implications of what I would call being a frontliner. There needs to be a lot more attention given to frontliners and where they’re given support.”

“The field of the psychology of climate change” is “very, very young”? I don’t think so.

The chosen, the elect, the saved, the righteous, the “frontliners”.

It’s a very, very old story, but with a new script.

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