As bitcoin plunged below $20,000 in mid-June, many cryptocurrency users were distraught over massive losses – with some reporting they had lost their life savings. But one corner of the internet was cheering: Buttcoin, a Reddit subforum launched in 2011 to poke fun at cryptocurrency.
“I’m addicted, I need help,” read one popular post. “I just love watching line go down too much. I always tell myself ‘after it breaks through this next support line, you’ll be satisfied’ but there’s ALWAYS another lower level after that.” “I’m actually hoping it levels off at 20K for tonight,” said another user. “I’m kinda tired and need more time to think of new lower priced memes.”
One tech industry worker who frequents Buttcoin told the Guardian they stayed up until 3am one night to watch the crash unfold. “I know this may sound pathetic but I get a dopamine hit when I see the bitcoin price going down. It was so exciting.” The cryptocurrency flirted with its two-year low again this week, which meant a festive mood at Buttcoin. With about 135,000 members, the subreddit is tiny compared with the millions of people who chat on Reddit’s many pro-cryptocurrency forums.
But frequent contributors to the community – whose logo replaces bitcoin’s golden “B” with a pair of golden buttcheeks – describe it as a kind of digital support group, laced through with dark humor, for people who are horrified by the proliferation of crypto scams and pyramid schemes. Though they may not have the power to destroy crypto, they can make jokes when it stumbles. As Buttcoin members say, instead of mining useless digital coins – they’re “mining comedy gold”.
Just like the crypto culture it mocks, Buttcoin has its own set of memes. Some of them simply flip crypto sayings. Instead of baying for token prices to rise “to the moon”, Buttcoin users chant “to the floor”. But Buttcoin’s most popular jokes take pro-crypto logic and push them to sarcastic extremes. To skewer crypto promoters’ habit of spinning negative news, Buttcoin users comment “This is good for bitcoin” under stories of cryptocurrency catastrophes. (Bitcoin’s been banned in a major country? Good for bitcoin. Bitcoin’s price is plummeting? Good for bitcoin. Someone lost their life savings to a bitcoin scam? You guessed it… good for bitcoin.)
Another crypto catchphrase smugly referencing the technology’s complexity, “Few understand,” has been become a Buttcoin meme in its own right. (For example: a Buttcoin user jokes that a 2003 Toyota Camry’s rising price amid the crypto crash makes the Camry a superior “store of value”. “Every 2003 Camry has a unique VIN and you can drive it to the supermarket too … Few understand,” another replies. “This is good for Toyota,” a third chimes in.)
Buttcoin’s most senior moderator, an IT worker who goes by spookmann, told the Guardian that the 11-year-old forum has “changed as crypto itself as grown and festered. “Originally the tone was almost entirely ‘Haha… that’s so silly!’ And certainly that element is still present, but nowadays there’s an increasingly tragic element of ‘Ugghh… so many people are having their lives ruined by this damn thing!’”
The biggest posts on Buttcoin are shot through with schadenfreude. The subreddit invariably celebrates when bitcoin, the largest cryptocurrency, dips below symbolic price levels – which to many Buttcoin users, proves that the scam is unraveling. “I definitely get hopeful when it starts seriously dipping or when some stablecoin scheme goes to zero,” said Joe, a systems engineer who browses Buttcoin every day. “There’s a kind of thrill to the validation of it, right? Especially since the crypto bro stereotypes are so obnoxious whenever it goes up in a new bubble.”
But the more controversial posts mock crypto investors themselves for losing money – though there’s disagreement over how far to go. Some highly rated posts on the subreddit argue that there should be no sympathy for victims. “They can go fuck themselves,” read one post in late June, with more than 1,500 upvotes: “Criticizing scams is not being mean. This also isn’t a support group to help console people who lost all of their money on ElonDogPoop Coin.” Not all Buttcoin users agree. “Even if they are assholes, I don’t relish the idea of the average [investor] losing their life savings even if they should have been able to see the scam for what it is. That unambiguously sucks,” Joe says.
There’s a “shared enjoyment of watching things go up in flames”, said M, a Buttcoin user and a tech industry worker, but he still has “sympathy for those drawn into crypto by family members or by the promise of a better life … Times are tough for most.” He pointed to the victims of Celsius, an unlicensed crypto “bank” that offered massive returns to over a million investors in an alleged ponzi scheme that collapsed earlier this summer. The court testimonies – which included pleas from ordinary people who lost their life savings – were “heartbreaking”, M said.
Because Reddit’s pro-cryptocurrency forums quickly delete critical posts, Buttcoin also attracts users looking to commiserate over loved ones who have been caught up in the scam. One support seeker was Izzycc, a 23-year-old social work student whose boyfriend of eight years had become depressed after getting sucked into the NFT fad and losing money.
“I’m absolutely fucking praying for the downfall of cryptocurrency,” she wrote. “It would mean a wakeup call for him, he might finally pull out of this scam, and maybe even start to feel a little better not staring at a number that’s only going down.” Buttcoin users urged Izzycc to break up with her boyfriend – and so she did. “It was for a couple of reasons, but the NFT stuff was kind of a big one,” she told the Guardian.
“I just hated being around it all the time. I hated when he would talk to my family about it. It was just kind of embarrassing, I guess.” She’s doing “a lot better now”, but still browses Buttcoin: “The people are funny, and I know too much about cryptocurrency to not at least casually browse the site at this point.”
Buttcoin sometimes deals with heavier tragedy. In August, a user described a close friend who had gone all-in on crypto before he killed himself. “I was secretly making fun of him,” the user wrote, “till I recently heard the bad news … and it’s hard to feel sorry for crypto bros, but now that I’m here, I do.” “I’m tearing up hearing about this,” wrote one user. Another user observed: “This sub makes a lot of jokes that I consider comic relief, but everything about this sucks, in reality.”
That’s the tension that runs through Buttcoin: beneath the memes lies real pain – and a frustration of watching helplessly as more people around you get hurt. “I think if the crypto cult was just a bunch of dudes off in the woods with a server farm and a maypole there wouldn’t be any real call for Buttcoin to exist,” said Joe. “But it apparently intends to stick around and become a sufficiently big part of the world overall that I don’t have that option.”
Buttcoin isn’t so much a force for resistance as it is a coping mechanism, Joe said, and one that at least for him, may even be backfiring.
“I’m pretty sure the algorithms have actually been sending me more crypto ads since I started posting regularly because they can’t tell the difference between ‘I’m reading about how absurd this is’ and ‘I’m reading about this as a potential sucker/customer.’” He refreshes Buttcoin anyway, hoping he’ll one day witness the price go all the way to the floor.
A Reddit forum devoted to skewering cryptocurrency investors and the industry’s neverending scams says it’s “mining comedy gold” instead of Bitcoin, which it prefers to label Buttcoin. Home to 135,00 members, the Buttcoin community arose in 2011, well-ahead of the current bear market in the crypto industry, which has wiped out some people’s savings. The subreddit’s emblem is gilded butt-cheeks, according to the Guardian.
For dark comic relief, Buttcoiners take widely-used crypto catchphrases by Bitcoin boosters like “going to the moon” and derisively supplant them with going “to the floor.” They also ironically label objectively catastrophic events as “good for Bitcoin,” such as when a country levies a nationwide prohibition on crypto or an entire crypto lender goes bankrupt, leaving destitute creditors in their wake. Other gripes with Bitcoin include its lack of utility in the world and the high environmental footprint associated with mining.
In recent months, there’s been an uptick in groups chronicling the failure of decentralized finance and crypto. From Molly White’s “web3 is going just great” to the Cryptic Critics’ Corner podcast, these places are seen as an antidote to the often breathless coverage of crypto in some corners of the internet.
According to the Guardian, some subreddit users even get a dopamine hit when the price of Bitcoin plunges. “I definitely get hopeful when it starts seriously dipping or when some stablecoin scheme goes to zero,” a Redditor named Joe told the Guardian.
But even Joe has the self-awareness not to plunge too deeply into schadenfreude: “Even if they are assholes, I don’t relish the idea of the average [investor] losing their life savings even if they should have been able to see the scam for what it is. That unambiguously sucks.”
Children looking over Aberfan, Wales, in the wake of the disaster there in 1966. When it finally happened, shortly after nine o’clock in the morning on October 21, 1966—when the teetering pile of mining waste known as a coal tip collapsed after days of heavy rain and an avalanche of black industrial sludge swept down the Welsh mountainside into the village of Aberfan, when rocks and mining equipment from the colliery slammed into people’s homes and the schools were buried and 116 young children were asphyxiated by this slurry dark as the river Styx—the anguished public response was that someone should have seen this disaster coming, ought to have predicted it.
Or at least, they claimed they had. Shortly after the tragedy at Aberfan, several women and men recalled having eerily specific premonitions of the event. A piano teacher named Kathleen Middleton awoke in North London, only hours before the tip fell, with a feeling of sheer dread, “choking and gasping and with the sense of the walls caving in.” A woman in Plymouth had a vision the evening before the disaster in which a small, frightened boy watched an “avalanche of coal” slide towards him but was rescued; she later recognized the child’s face on a television news segment about Aberfan.
One of the children who died had first dreamt of “something black” smothering her school. Paul Davies, an 8-year-old victim, drew a picture the night before the catastrophe that showed many people digging in a hillside. Above the scene, he had written two words: The End. Premonitions this dramatic and alarming are likely rare. But most of us have experienced odd coincidences that make us feel, even for an instant, that we have glimpsed the future. A phrase or scene that triggers a jarring sensation of déjà vu.
Thinking of someone right before they text or call. Inexplicably dreaming about a long-lost acquaintance or relative only to wake and find that they have fallen ill or died. It’s mostly accepted that these are not really forms of precognition or time travel but instead fluky accidents or momentary brain glitches, explainable by science. And so we don’t give them a second thought or take them that seriously. But what if we did?
The Premonitions Bureau, an adroit debut from TheNew Yorker staff writer Sam Knight, draws us into a world not that far gone in which psychic phenomena were yet untamed by science and uncanny sensations still whispered of the supernatural, of cosmic secrets. Knight’s book registers the spectral shockwaves that rippled out from Aberfan through the human instrument of John Barker, a British psychiatrist who began cataloguing and investigating the country’s premonitions and portents in the wake of the accident.
Barker spent his career seeking out the hidden joints between paranormal experience and modern medicine, asking scientific questions about the occult that we have now agreed no longer to ask. In Knight’s skillful hands, the life of this forgotten clinician becomes a meditation on time and a window through which we can perceive the long human history of fate and foresight. It’s also a tale about how we decide what is worthy of science and what it feels like to be left behind. It is a story about a scientific revolution that never happened.
Forty-two years old when the country learned of Aberfan, John Barker was a Cambridge-educated psychiatrist of terrific ambition and rather middling achievement. In his thirties, he had been an unusually young hospital superintendent at a facility in Dorset; a nervous breakdown led to his demotion and reassignment, by the mid-’60s, to Shelton Hospital, where he cared for about 200 of the facility’s thousand patients. Shelton was a Victorian-era asylum in western England, not far from Wales, and a hellish world unto itself.
Local doctors called it the “dumping ground,” this 15-acre gothic facility of red-brick buildings hidden behind red-brick walls, where women and men suffering from mental illness were deposited for the rest of their lives. One-third of Shelton’s population had never received a single visitor. Like other mental health facilities in midcentury Britain, it was a place of absolutely crushing neglect. “Nurses smoked constantly,” Knight writes, “in part to block out Shelton’s all-pervading smell: of a house, locked up for years, in which stray animals had occasionally come to piss.” Every week or two, another suicide. “The primary means of discharge was death.”
As a clinician, Barker was tough and demanding. He was also complicated (like all of us) and tough to caricature. Barker had arrived at Shelton as calls for psychiatric reform were growing louder, and he supported efforts to make conditions “as pleasant as possible” for the hospital’s permanent residents, including removing locks from most of the wards and arranging jazz concerts. But he also favored aversion shock therapies and once performed a lobotomy—which, to his credit, he later regretted.
At any rate, Barker’s true passion lay elsewhere. As a young medical student, he collected ghost stories from nurses and staff at the London hospital where he was training: sudden and unaccountable cold presences late at night, spectral ward sisters who shouldn’t have been there and who vanished when you looked twice. A “modern doctor” committed to rational methods, his interest in all things paranormal led him to join Britain’s Society for Psychical Research, whose members had been studying unexplained occult phenomena since 1882.
Barker had a crystal ball on his desk and spent his weekends at Shelton rambling around haunted houses with his son. He was a man caught between worlds who would eventually fall through the cracks. The day following the disaster, Barker showed up in Aberfan to interview residents for an ongoing project about people who frightened themselves to death. But he realized quickly that his questioning was insensitive—and as he learned more about the uncanny portents and premonitions that were already swirling around the tragedy, he sensed a much greater opportunity.
Barker contacted Peter Fairley, a journalist and science editor at the Evening Standard, with his hunch that some people may have foreseen the disaster through a kind of second sight. Days later, the paper broadcast Barker’s paranormal appeal to its 600,000 subscribers: “Did anyone have a genuine premonition before the coal tip fell on Aberfan? That is what a senior British psychiatrist would like to know.”
A gifted scientific popularizer, Fairley shared with Barker a knack for publicity as well as tremendous ambition. Within weeks, the two men had dramatically expanded the project. From January 1967, readers were told to send general auguries or prophecies to a newly established “Premonitions Bureau” within the newsroom. “We’re asking anyone,” Fairley told a BBC radio interviewer, “who has a dream or a vision or an intensely strong feeling of discomfort” which involves potential danger to themselves or others “to ring us.”
With Fairley’s brilliant assistant Jennifer Preston doing most of the work, the team categorized the predictions and tracked their accuracy. Their hope was to prove that precognition was real and convince Parliament to use this psychic power for good by developing a national early warning system for disasters. “Nobody will be scoffed at,” Fairley insisted. “Let us simply get at the truth.”
Seventy-six people wrote to Barker claiming premonitory visions of the Aberfan disaster. Throughout 1967, another 469 psychic warnings were submitted to the Bureau. Many of these submissions came from women and men who claimed to be seers, who experienced precognition throughout their lives as a sort of sixth sense. Kathleen Middleton, the piano teacher who awoke choking before the coal tip collapse, became a regular Bureau contact who had been sensitive to occult forces since she was a girl.
(During the Blitz, a vision of disaster convinced her to stay home one night instead of going out with friends; the dance hall was bombed.) Another frequent contributor was Alan Hencher, a telephone operator who wrote that he was “able to foretell certain events” but with “no idea how or why.” The premonitions gathered by Barker ran the gamut of believability. Some were instantly disqualified. Others were spookily prescient. In early November 1967, both Hencher and Middleton warned of a train derailment; one occurred days later, near London, killing 49 people.
Hencher suffered a severe headache on the evening of the disaster and suggested the time of the accident nearly to the minute, before the news had been reported. Most of the premonitions appear to have been vague enough to be right if you wanted them to be, if you were willing to cock your head to one side and squint. A woman reported a dream about a fire; on the day she mailed her letter, a department store in Brussels burned. One day in May 1967, Middleton warned about an impending maritime disaster; an oil tanker ran aground.
Visions of airliner crashes inevitably, if one waited long enough, came true somewhere in the world. Barker was determined to believe in them. “Somehow,” he told an interviewer, seers like Hencher and Middleton “can gate-crash the time barrier … see the unleashed wheels of disaster before the rest of us.… They are absolutely genuine. Quite honestly, it staggers me.” Visions of airliner crashes inevitably, if one waited long enough, came true somewhere in the world. Barker was determined to believe in them.
For those of us unable to gate-crash time itself, one wonders what it would be like to have this kind of premonitory sense, to perceive the future so viscerally and so involuntarily. It was like knowing the answer for a test, some explained, with cryptic keywords floating in space in their imaginations. ABERFAN. TRAIN. Others had physiological symptoms. Odd smells, like earth or rotting matter, that nobody else could perceive, or a spasm of tremors and pain at the precise moment when disaster struck far away.
People who sensed premonitions explained to Barker that it was an awful burden, that they grappled with, as one put it, “the torment of knowing” and “the problem of deciding whether we should tell what we have received” in the face of potential ridicule or error. Prone to a certain grandeur, Barker believed that the stakes of the project, which he called “essential material and perhaps the largest study on precognition in existence,” were high. Practically speaking, he thought it would help avert disaster.
(If the Premonitions Bureau had been up and running earlier, he boldly claimed, Aberfan could have been avoided and many children’s lives saved.) More daringly, Barker thought that proving the existence of precognition would overturn the basic human understanding of linear time. He wondered if some people were capable of registering “some sort of telepathic ‘shock wave’ induced by a disaster” before it occurred. It might be akin to the psychic bonds felt between twins, but able to vanquish time as well as space.
Inspired by Foreknowledge, a book by retired shipping agent and amateur psychic researcher Herbert Saltmarsh, Barker thought that our conscious minds could likely only experience time moving forward, and in three distinct categories: past, present, and future. To our unconscious, however, time might be less stable and more permeable. If scientists would “accept the evidence for precognition from the cases” gathered by the Bureau, he said, they would be “driven to the conclusion that the future does exist here and now—at the present moment.” Barker sensed a career-defining discovery just around the corner.
But it was not to be. John Barker died on August 20, 1968 after a sudden brain aneurysm. He was 44 years old. The Bureau, which Jennifer Preston dutifully continued through the 1970s, and which ultimately included more than 3,000 premonitions, represented the last, unfinished chapter of his brief life. He never wrote his book on precognition and fell into obscurity. The morning before he died, Kathleen Middleton woke up choking.
Knight narrates Barker’s story with considerable generosity and evident care. Rather than condescend or deride him as a crank, Knight thinks with Barker: about the strangeness of time and our human ways of moving through it, about how we make meaning from chaos and resist the truly random, about prediction and cognition and our hunger for prophecy. Yet the many disappointments in Barker’s career were not incidental to his significance, and emphasizing them does not diminish him.
In fact, his life can also be framed as a tale told much too rarely in the history of science, about how scientific inquiry relies as much upon failure as success in order to function, on exclusion as much as expansion. Around the time Barker was appointed to his role at Shelton, the American historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn published a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a landmark work that now structures practically everyone’s thinking without them realizing it. What Kuhn proposed was that scientific research always occurs within a paradigm:
A set of rules and assumptions that reflect not only what we think we know about how the universe works, but also the questions we are permitted to ask about it. At any given moment, “normal science” beavers away within the borders of the current paradigm, working on “legitimate problems” and solving puzzles. For a long while, Kuhn explained, phenomena “that will not fit the box are … not seen at all,” and “fundamental novelties” are suppressed. Eventually, however, there are too many anomalies for which the reigning paradigm cannot account. When a critical mass is reached, the model breaks and a new one is adopted that can better explain things. This is a scientific revolution.
For Barker, precognition constituted what Kuhn would have called a legitimate problem within normal science: It ought to be studied using experimental methods and would, he thought, one day be explained by them. But he admitted the risk that modern psychiatry might not ever be able to accommodate the occult, that his work on premonitions could break the paradigm altogether. Hunches and visions that came true might demand a new way of explaining time and energy. “Existing scientific theories must be transformed or disregarded if they cannot explain all the facts,” he lectured his many critics. “Although unpalatable to many, this attitude is clearly essential to all scientific progress.”
He seems to have seen himself as a contemporary Galileo, insisting upon empirical truth in the face of “frivolous and irresponsible” gatekeepers. “What is now unfamiliar,” he argued in the BMJ, usually tends to be “not accepted, even despite overwhelming supportive evidence. Thus for generations the earth was traditionally regarded as flat, and those who opposed this notion were bitterly attacked.” Barker wanted the ruling scientific paradigm to make room for the paranormal—or give way.
It wasn’t so implausible, in midcentury Britain, that it just might. A craze for spiritualism and the paranormal had swept the country between the two world wars, and a rash of new technologies that seemed magical (telegram, radio, television, etc.) left many Britons, not unreasonably, to wonder if “supernatural” phenomena like prophecies or telepathy might turn out to be explainable after all. In Barker’s Britain, one quarter of the population had reported believing in some form of the occult. Even Sigmund Freud, nervously protecting the reputation of psychoanalysis, refused to dismiss paranormal activities “in advance” as being “unscientific, or unworthy, or harmful.”
In physics, too, Knight points out, “the old order of time was collapsing” by midcentury, thanks to developments in relativity as well as quantum mechanics. For experts, time had become less predictable and mechanisms of causation less clear, both subatomically and cosmically. Barker had been formed, in other words, by “a society in which one set of certainties had yet to be eclipsed by another.” Premonitions became understood not in terms of extrasensory perception but simply misperception: the work of cognitive error or misfiring neurons rather than the supernatural.
But instead of rearranging itself around Barker’s research into precognition, the paradigm shifted away from him and snapped more firmly into place. The walls sprang up, and the questions that interested Barker became seen as illegitimate and unscientific. The Bureau he built with Fairley was not all that successful. Only about 3 percent of submissions ever came true, and in February 1968 a deadly fire at Shelton Hospital itself went unpredicted, to the unabashed glee of critics and satirists.
Barker’s supervisors grew skeptical and then embarrassed. As time went on, and the boundaries of the scientific paradigm in which we still live grew less permeable, occult phenomena were explained not by bending time, but with recourse to cognitive science and neurology. Premonitions became understood not in terms of extrasensory perception but simply misperception: the work of cognitive error or misfiring neurons rather than the supernatural.
The popular understanding of scientific revolutions still revolves around big ruptures and great scientists, the paradigm-defining concepts (like heliocentrism, gravity, or relativity) that transform how human beings think they understand the universe: We shift the frame to move forward. Yet there is just as much to be learned from the times when revolutions don’t occur, when scientific inquiry is defined not by asking thrilling new questions, but by the determination that some old questions will no longer be asked.
What’s so brilliant about Knight’s account, in the end, is the way it portrays a creative workaday researcher rather than a modern-day Newton or Einstein, a man aspiring to do normal science while the rules shifted around him; the way it conveys the rarely captured feeling of a paradigm closing in around you and your ideas, until it all fades to black.
Sam is woken from a dream, believing to have had a premonition of a man being suffocated by his car’s exhaust fumes. He tells Dean it felt the same as when he dreamt of their old house and of Jessica, which prompts Dean to question why he would be dreaming of a random man in Michigan.
Tens of millions of people, from Europe to Asia, Africa to the Middle East, are expected to go hungry this year due to a grim combination of factors made significantly worse by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war in Ukraine.
The conflict, which involves two countries that together produce nearly one-third of the world’s wheat, helped push the grain’s global price up 21% in just the 10 days that ended March 3. Extreme weather, such as persistent drought in North America, high fuel costs, fertilizer prices through the roof and the need to feed an increasing number of refugees displaced by war and climate change will contribute to the menace of growing hunger in 2022.
“The situation is in many ways bordering on catastrophic, and without substantial and immediate assistance, it will get worse,” said Eric Muñoz, senior policy advisor for agriculture at Oxfam, the Nairobi-based charity. “There’s no better wake-up call than the current moment, with sky-high food prices and skyrocketing hunger, to have a serious conversation about rethinking global food systems.”
Short-term solutions are hard to come by. American farmers, hobbled by what some observers are calling the driest weather in 1,200 years, can’t be depended on to make up for the shortfall. Nutrien, the world’s biggest fertilizer maker, has said it plans to ramp up production by 20%, but prices have been so high that a lot of the world’s growers still won’t be able to afford it.
A more permanent way out of chronic world hunger would be creating more options in more places to grow and access food. Organic farming also shows glimmers of growth, but still accounts for less of 1% of agricultural acreage in the U.S.
Then there’s the problem of getting food to people who are in some cases so hungry they’re starving. Before the war in Ukraine, 26 million refugees, the highest level in history, relied on a network of aid and government organizations for food. Russia’s attack on Ukraine has displaced or made refugees of another estimated 10 million.
The World Food Programme, the UN’s food-assistance branch, expects its costs to rise $71 million a month due to the conflict alone. The organization says it has already had to reduce rations in hunger-stricken Yemen, where it says more than 16 million people are food insecure and “there are pockets of famine-like conditions.”
The Middle East and North Africa are particularly vulnerable to higher food prices, according to the World Food Programme. Lebanon imports about half its wheat from Ukraine, the organization said. For Tunisia, the percentage is 42% and for Yemen 22%. Food prices worldwide are already at an all-time high, and buyers that need to shop around to replace Ukrainian wheat would pay even more, the organization said.
Russia has already curtailed wheat and maize exports, and Ukraine’s agricultural minister said Tuesday that its spring crop could be as small as half what the country expected before the invasion. Ukraine has suspended exports of meat, livestock, salt, sugar, buckwheat, oats, millet and rye.
In 2010, skyrocketing bread prices contributed to the political uprisings of the Arab Spring, which swept through some three dozen countries and forced regime change in Egypt and Libya. Protests against high food prices also played a part in the rise of the violent Islamic State extremist group. The current global food supply is not as bad as in 2010 — when total food supplies were even lower — but the global grain supply is now in a critical situation.
U.S. farmers are hamstrung when it comes to filling the gap in food production. First, there’s the historically lousy weather. Thirty-five states, or 61% of the total acreage of the lower 48 states, were in drought last week, according to government calculations. Extreme or severe dry conditions persist from the Pacific coast in the West to as far as Louisiana and Arkansas in the East.
Then there’s the availability of land. Farmers in places like the U.S. and Brazil are already farming as much as they can. Agriculture requires long-term planning far ahead of a planting season, and companies and organizations purchase food months if not years in advance. Direct contracts with suppliers give growers even less leeway on what crops to raise. That’s why ending the global food shortage is far from as simple as American or Brazilian farmers planting more wheat or corn.
The high cost of fertilizer has also put a drag on global agriculture. Nitrogen fertilizer prices have increased four-fold, while phosphate and potash prices have climbed more than three-fold since 2020. Nutrien said it’s expanding its mining in Southern Canada for potash, an essential source of potassium, to help offset what could be a gaping global shortfall due to sanctions on Russia, a big exporter.
Proponents of industrial agriculture say chemical fertilizers are necessary to harvest large yields and feed a growing global population. Fertilizer overuse, however, is a leading cause of waterway pollution and dead zones like the massive one in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as soil degradation and erosion. Those are all factors which will challenge access to food in the future, and advocates of sustainable agriculture say now is the time to make the transition to more resilient systems.
“These are all price signals that show the world is telling us to change,” said Sanjeev Krishnan, the chief investment officer at venture firm S2G, which is backed by Walmart heir Lukas Walton and has invested in food and agriculture since 2014. “Is this cyclical or structural? In my opinion, it’s structural.”
Just as fertilizer prices were starting to spike, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would create a $250 million fund to invest in alternative and U.S.-made fertilizers. The government of Brazil, which has imported a lot of fertilizer from Russia, is also investing in alternatives. Meanwhile, earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron signaled support for more investment in food infrastructure.
“Europe and also Africa will be very deeply destabilized in regards to food because of what can’t be planted right now in Ukraine,” Macron said March 11. “We will have to prepare for that and reevaluate our production strategies to defend our food sovereignty, but also to be able to define a strategy concerning Africa.”
Food security should have the same priority as energy security, said Graham Gordon, U.K.-based head of policy at the nonprofit Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, the world’s second-biggest humanitarian network after the Red Cross.
“We’ve had two years where supply chains haven’t been working,” Gordon said. “How can we rethink food and how can we push for more food sovereignty?”
“I am deeply concerned that the violent conflict in Ukraine, already a catastrophe for those directly involved, will also be a tragedy for the world’s poorest people living in rural areas who cannot absorb the price hikes of staple foods and farming inputs that will result from disruptions to global trade,” said Gilbert F. Houngbo, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), in a statement.
“We are already seeing price hikes and this could cause an escalation of hunger and poverty with dire implications for global stability.” IFAD, a Global Citizen partner, has teams worldwide working to support small-scale producers and improve food security in rural areas of developing countries that have documented the ways in which the war in Ukraine has worsened existing food crises.
The impact has been particularly devastating in agricultural contexts, where the ability to acquire and distribute food is always a vexed ordeal due to chronic underfunding. But new crises are emerging as a result of the disruptions caused by the war…..
For years, we were encouraged to store our data online. But it’s become increasingly clear that this won’t last forever – and now the race is on to stop our memories being deleted. How would you adjust your efforts to preserve digital data that belongs to you – emails, text messages, photos and documents – if you knew it would soon get wiped in a series of devastating electrical storms?
That’s the future catastrophe imagined by Susan Donovan, a high school teacher and science fiction writer based in New York. In her self-published story New York Hypogeographies, she describes a future in which vast amounts of data get deleted thanks to electrical disturbances in the year 2250.
In the years afterwards, archaeologists comb through ruined city apartments looking for artefacts from the past – the early 2000s.
“I was thinking about, ‘How would it change people going through an event where all of your digital stuff is just gone?’” she says.
In her story, the catastrophic data loss is not a world-ending event. But it is a hugely disruptive one. And it prompts a change in how people preserve important data. The storms bring a renaissance of printing, Donovan writes. But people are also left wondering how to store things that can’t be printed – augmented reality games, for instance.
Data has never been completely safe from obliteration. Just consider the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria – its very destruction is possibly the only reason you’ve heard about it. Digital data does not disappear in huge conflagrations, but rather with a single click or the silent, insidious degradation of storage media over time.
In other cases, these services actually keep running for long periods. But users might lose their login details. Or forget, even, that they had an account in the first place. They’ll probably never find the data stored there again, like they might find a shoebox of old letters in the attic.
Donovan’s interest in the ephemerality of digital data stems from her personal experiences. She studied maths at university and has copies of her handwritten notes. “There’s a point when I started taking digital notes and I can’t find them,” she says with a laugh.
She also had an online diary that she kept in the late 1990s. It’s completely lost now. And she worked on creative projects that no longer survive intact online. When she made them, it felt like she was creating something solid. A film that could be replayed endlessly, for instance. But now her understanding of what digital data is, and how long it might last, has changed.
“It was more like I produced a play, and you got to watch it, and then you just have your memories,” she says.
Thanks to the permanence of stone tablets, ancient books and messages carved into the very walls of buildings by our ancestors, there’s a bias in our culture towards assuming that the written word is by definition enduring. We quote remarks made centuries ago often because someone wrote them down – and kept the copies safe. But in digital form, the written word is little more than a projection of light onto a screen. As soon as the light goes out, it might not come back.
That said, some online data lasts a very long time. There are several examples of websites that are 30 years old or more. And now and again data hangs around even when we don’t want it to. Hence the emergence of the “right to be forgotten”. As tech writer and BBC web product manager Simon Pitt writes in the technology and science publication OneZero, “The reality is that things you want will disappear and things you don’t will be around for forever.”
Someone who aims to redress this balance is Jason Scott. He runs Archive Team, a group dedicated to preserving data, especially from websites that get shut down.
He has presided over dozens of efforts to capture and store information in the nick of time. But often it’s not possible to save everything. When MySpace accidentally deleted an estimated 50 million songs that were once held by the social network, an anonymous academic group gave Archive Team a collection of nearly half a million tracks they had previously backed up.
“What are my children or any potential grandchildren […] going to do with the 400 pictures of my pet that are on my phone?” – Paul Royster
“There were bands for whom MySpace was their only presence,” says Scott. “This entire cultural library got wiped out.”
“Once you delete the stuff it just disappears utterly,” says Scott, explaining the significance of proactive efforts to preserve data. He also argues that society has, to an extent, sleepwalked into this situation: “We did not expect the online world was going to be as important as it was.”
It should be clear by now that digital data is, at best, slippery. But how to curb its habit of disappearing?
Scott says he thinks there should be legal or regulatory requirements on companies that give people the option to retrieve their data, for a certain period – say, five years – after an online service is due to shut down. Within that time, anyone who wants their information could download it, or at least pay for a CD copy of it to be sent to them.
Not all of the data we accumulate each day will be worth preserving forever (Credit: Alamy)
A small number of companies have set a good example, he adds. Scott points to Glitch, a 2D online multiplayer game that was removed from the web in 2012, just over a year after it was launched. Its liquidation, in data terms, was “basically perfect”, says Scott. Others, too, have praised the fact that the game’s developers acknowledged players’ frustrations and gave them ample opportunity to download their data from the company’s servers before they were switched off.
Some of the game’s code was even made public and multiple remakes of Glitch, developed by fans, have emerged in the years since. Should this approach be mandatory, though?
“We should have real-time rights, for example to ask for data deletion, data download, or data portability – to take the data from one source to another,” argues Teemu Ropponen at MyData.
He and his colleagues are working on systems designed to make it easier for people to transfer important data about themselves, such as their family history or CV, between services or institutions.
Ropponen argues that there are efforts within the European Union to enshrine this sort of data portability in law. But there is a long way to go.
Even if the technology and regulations were in place, that doesn’t mean that preserving data would become easy overnight. We have so much of it that it is actually quite hard to fathom.
“We should set aside one day of the year when we all go through our data – data preservation day,” – Paul Royster
Around 150 years ago, making a photograph of a family member was a luxury available only to the wealthiest in society. For decades, this more or less remained the case. Even when the technology became more broadly available, it wasn’t cheap to take lots of snaps at once. Photographs became treasured items as a result. Today, smartphone cameras mean it feels like second nature to take literally hundreds or even thousands of photographs every year.
“What are my children or any potential grandchildren […] going to do with the 400 pictures of my pet that are on my phone?” says Paul Royster at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “What’s that going to mean to them?”
Royster argues that saving all of our data won’t necessarily be very useful to our descendants. And he disagrees with Scott and Ropponen that laws are the answer. Governments and legislators are often behind the curve on technology issues and sometimes don’t understand the systems they intend to regulate, he says.
Instead, people ought to get into the habit of selecting and preserving the data that is most important to them. “We should set aside one day of the year when we all go through our data – data preservation day,” he says.
Unlike old letters, which are often rediscovered years after being forgotten, online memories are unlikely to last unless you take active steps to preserve them (Credit: Alamy) . Scott also suggests that we should think about what we really want to keep, just in case it gets deleted. “Nobody is thinking of it as the stuff that we have to preserve at all costs, it’s just more data,” he says. “If it’s written, I would print it out.”
There is another option, though. Miia Kosonen at South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences and her colleagues have been working on solutions for storing digital data in archives and national institutions.
“We converted more than 200,000 old emails from former chief editors of Helsingin Sanomat – the largest newspaper in Finland,” she says, referring to a pilot project by Digitalia, a digital data preservation project. The converted emails were later stored in a digital archive.
The US Library of Congress famously keeps a digital archive of tweets, though it has stopped recording every single public tweet and is now preserving them “on a very selective basis” instead.
Could public institutions do some digital data curation and preservation on our behalf? If so, we could potentially submit information to them such as family history and photographs for storage and subsequent access in the future.
Kosonen says that such projects would naturally require funding, probably from the public. Institutions would also be more inclined to retain information that is considered of significant cultural or historical interest.
At the heart of this discussion lies a simple fact: it’s hard for us to know – here in the present – what we, or our descendants, will actually value in the future.
Archival or regulatory interventions could go some way to addressing the ephemerality of data. But that ephemerality is something we will probably always live with, to some extent. Digital data is just too convenient for everyday purposes and there’s little rationale for trying to store everything.
The question has become, at best, one of personal motivation. Today, we decide either to make or not make the effort to save things. Really save them. Not just on the nearest hard-drive or cloud storage device. But also to backup drives or more permanent media, with instructions for how to maintain the storage over time.
This might sound like an exceptionally dry endeavour, but it need not be. A cultural movement might be all it takes to spur us on.
Many audiophiles insist on buying vinyl in an age of music streaming. Booklovers still make the effort to acquire physical copies of their favourite author’s new work. Perhaps we need an analogue-cool movement for preservationists. People who devote themselves to making physical photo albums again. Who go out of their way to write handwritten notes or letters.
These things might just end up being far easier to keep than anything digital, which will likely always require you to trust a system you haven’t built, or a service you don’t own. As Donovan says, “If something is precious, it’s dangerous, I think, to leave it in someone else’s hands.”
Most folks love learning, regardless of whether or not school is “their thing.” Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the right teacher for your learning style—or maybe even the right medium. For auditory learners, podcasts can be excellent vehicles for processing knowledge that’d be less digestible in more visual mediums like video or even the written word.
The American education systems tends to fail students in myriad ways, requiring continual education after the fact to learn the truth behind what we were taught in history, art, science, language, literature, and math. Privileged gatekeepers deciding who and what gets taught can result in the denial of diverse voices and perspectives.
Podcasts radically shift the dynamics around who gets to teach, and who gets to learn. A lot of the most beloved and popular shows, like Radiolab and Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, basically boil down to what you wish your science or history class had been like in the first place. Many others, like 1619 and You’re Wrong About, aim to correct the misinformation in many accepted cultural narratives from both our near and distant pasts.
Now, obviously, podcasts can’t replace a world-class, bonafide, IRL, teacher-to-student relationship. But they can teach us more than a few vital lessons. Here are a few of our most educational favorites.
While Vox is known for explaining complicated ideas in easily understandable ways, it’s new podcast Unexplainable flips that premise on its head. Instead of demystifying the daily information onslaught, Unexplainable sits with the most mystifying unknowns of all time. From questioning whether everything we thought we knew about psychology is wrong to the quest to understand what the hell dark matter is, Unexplainable teaches us to get comfortable with the idea that human knowledge has many limits. And that’s kinda awesome.
2. You’re Wrong About
“You’re Wrong About is doing God’s work by correcting the record on everything we misremember or misunderstand in our collective cultural memory.Each week, journalists Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes debunk popular myths, misconceptions, and mischaracterizations of figures like Tonya Harding and Marie Antoinette, or topics like sex trafficking and events like the O.J. Simpson trial.” [From our Best Feminist Podcasts roundup.]
“As all-encompassing as it is powerfully specific and personal, 1619 is the story of modern America — and the people who built it through blood, sweat, tears, and hope. It’s a version of the story a great many of us never hear, purposefully kept hidden in the margins of U.S. history books. But 1619 isn’t just a podcast about the history of slavery as the genesis of almost every aspect of American society and culture today.
This isn’t just a sobering lesson, or hard pill to swallow. By weaving the historical with the personal and the poetic, Nikole Hannah-Jones (alongside other guest hosts) paints a viscerally captivating portrait of Black Americans’ lived experience, and all the simultaneous struggle, strength, oppression, ambition, pain, and humor needed to survive. 1619 is a story about race and the inequalities embedded into a system predicated on its conceit. But above all it’s a story about us, the people we were then and still are now.” [From ourroundup.]
4. Encyclopedia Womannica
“History class often paints a portrait of the world that excludes about half of its population. That’s what Wonder Media Network’s Encyclopedia Womannica sets out to fix, by releasing 5- to 10-minute episodes on women who made history in a certain field. Each month focuses on a different area of expertise, which most recently included activism and music.” [From our Best Feminist Podcasts roundup.]
5. You Are Not That Smart
There’s a kind of fallacy that comes with being knowledgable or well-educated: You can start to think you know everything. In reality, human knowledge is always flawed, a work in progress rather than an end goal in itself. That’s the backbone of this psychology podcast, which dives into the ways we think and why they’re often faulty or misunderstood.
6. 99% Invisible
Invisible forces increasingly rule our world, and this legacy podcast is determined to reveal exactly how and why. Host Roman Mars uncovers a different facet of the hidden world of design in every episode, whether it’s the user experience of an app on your phone or your entire home’s architecture.
“NPR’s Peabody-winning, textbook example of rich, expertly-produced documentary podcast-making was started by Jad Abumrad way back in 2002. Hosted by Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, Radiolab tasks itself broadly with ‘investigating a strange world.’ It’s constantly referred to in the same breath as their friends at , but tends toward the more science-related topics.” [From our Best Science Podcasts roundup.]
8. Every Little Thing
Like the teacher who encouraged you to ask all the questions, Gimlet’s Every Little Thing seeks to answer listeners’ questions about, well, everything. Whether it’s trying to determine if a listener’s very specific early childhood memory is real, or investigating why we cry, there’s no quest for understanding too small or too big for this podcast.
9. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
Dan Carlin is the history teacher we all wish we’d had in grade school, able to turn the most fascinating and dramatic episodes of our past into multi-part epic sagas. Tuning into Hardcore History‘s three hour-long behemoth episodes transports your imagination. As informative as they are enthralling, each deep dive can transform what you thought you knew about both ancient and modern history.
10. Lolita Podcast
“The influence of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita can’t be overstated. From fashion to music to film to sexual expression itself, the novel’s impact on society far exceeds literary circles, affecting the mainstream in ways you may not even be aware of. You don’t need to have read Lolita — a cautionary tale about a predator grooming, kidnapping, and repeatedly raping a child — to be riveted by the podcast, which is more focused on tracing its ripple effects on the zeitgeist.
Comedian, podcaster, and writer Jamie Loftus wrestles with this tangled nexus of significance in a society that perpetually sexualizes young girls. Weaving in her own personal experiences and analysis with expert interviews and source materials, Loftus leaves no stone unturned — no matter how uncomfortable. Diving headfirst into a minefield of impossible yet crucial questions, Lolita Podcast delivers nuanced perspectives that only unfurl more layers of complexity rather than offering easy answers.” [From our Best Podcasts of 2020 roundup.]
11. Grammar Girl
Delving into the ins and outs of grammar can be pretty boring sometimes. (Apologies to our editors.) But this beloved show from host Mignon Fogarty brings a much-needed lack of judgment, accessibility, and fun to learning about the nitty-gritty of the English language. It’s an essential resource for writers of all sorts, diving into not only the rules but the historical and cultural contexts behind them.
“If you want to dig into the niches of study that professionals choose to dedicate their lives to, check out Ologies with science correspondent and humorist Alie Ward. Each episode, Ward takes on a different ‘ology,’ from conventional ones like and , to more niche ones like (the study of kissing).” [From our Best Science Podcasts roundup.]
13. Planet Money
“Planet Money’s success lies in how it tackles complex subjects with great storytelling. A financial instrument like a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) may sound impossibly boring, but Planet Money routinely makes these types of things the heart of a thrilling narrative. The team continues to explore the financial collapse, but they’ve expanded their scope to include all aspects of the global economy.” [From our.]
Alternatively, try NPR’s Indicator: “Its more compact, daily sister podcast is a knockout. But for those a little less interested in talk of money stuff, NPR’s is a great gateway drug. Tackling smaller yet still robust and integral stories related to work, business, and the economy, you’ll be surprised by how much crucial information you can gain in just 10 minutes.” [From our.]
14. Hidden Brain
“NPR’s popular podcast hosted by social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam delves into the recesses of the human mind, and questions why the hell we do and think the things we do. Vedantam conducts excellent, well-researched interviews with experts on complex topics that are made simple to understand, and will have you really getting in your own head.” [From our Best Science Podcasts roundup.]
“No matter how much you think you know about Hurricane Katrina, Floodlines reveals how America has only reached the surface of reckoning with this deep national wound. Through interviews with survivors and reporting that addresses the media misinformation and government incompetence around the catastrophe, host Vann R. Newkirk II shows how the real storm that devastated New Orleans was the same one that’s been brewing in America for centuries.” [From our Best New Podcasts of 2020 roundup.]
16. The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos
“Happiness is a tricky goal, especially when we think about it in terms of things that will finally make us happier. But no ‘thing’ can make you happy except yourself, and achieving that state of mind takes daily work. That’s what Dr. Laurie Santos, who studied the science of happiness at Yale and has a doctorate in psychology, makes clear in her podcast tackling the wide range of questions about how to live a life with more joy in spite of, well, all of it. While many other podcasts tackle similar topics, Dr. Santos sets this one apart by taking them to panels of experts and researchers in psychology, behavioral science, and more.” [From our Best Self-Improvement Podcasts roundup.]
17. Nice White Parents
“Nice White Parents, released on July 30, is a five-part limited series from [Serial,] the team that redefined podcasting . Instead of complex true-crime cases, however, Nice White Parents puts a different criminal on trial: the white liberalism that has helped perpetuate the segregation of public schools in America for decades under the guise of progressive ideals. This American Life producer Chana Joffe-Walt tells the story through an on-the-ground investigation into the School for International Studies (SIS), a New York City public school that was predominantly serving students of color.
That is, until a flood of white parents who couldn’t get their kids into preferred white schools instead decided to enroll them there, causing it to become a battleground of racial tensions and inequalities. It’s a story that comes from a personal place for Joffe-Walt. She began reporting on it after shopping around for schools as a new parent herself, only to discover she was part of a larger history of white parents who have shaped our public school education system into what it is today — which is to say, a system that overwhelming and repeatedly fails students of color.” [From our .]
18. Philosophize This!
Philosophy, aka that insufferable elective you skipped each week in college, can get a bad rap for being elitist and impenetrable. But Stephen West makes Philosophize This! precisely for those who want to delve into the nuanced ideas of our great thinkers, only without all the BS. Meant to be consumed somewhat in chronological order, you’ll gain a working, buildable knowledge of everything from media theory studies to multiple theories of justice.
19. Making Gay History
“History isn’t often told through a gay lens and Making Gay History looks to change that, telling the stories of the people who fought for decades for LGBTQ civil rights. Many of them have largely gone uncelebrated — until now.” [From our Best History Podcast roundup.]
20. The Experiment
The American experiment, often repackaged as the American dream, is one of the biggest sources of miseducation in our country. In this WNYC Studios and Atlantic collaboration, host Julia Longoria applies the ideals of America’s past that were held to be self-evident, then measures them up against our current reality. Bringing the high ideals of this country’s founding to everyday experiences, The Experiment can even find lessons in trash reality TV shows like 90 Day Fiance.
Art history isn’t for everyone, but curator and art history student Jennifer Dasal is definitely the one who could spark your interest. With a distinct theme for every season, she brings what might otherwise be dry material to life by telling the strangest and most enthralling stories behind the art. Season 9, which is all about cursed art, feels especially right for the general vibe of the past several years.
“OK, first a disclaimer: Blowback is an unapologetically left-wing podcast. Like very left-wing. If that’s not cool with you, then it’s not the podcast for you. It tells the story of the Iraq War from that leftist point of view, and it’s both fascinating and necessary. Much of the Iraq War, as the American public knew it, was laundered through a right-wing government, and it was some time before anyone was open to admitting the disastrous war was just that. Blowback details how horrific and wrongheaded the Iraq War was, how its tentacles still shape America today, and how few consequences befell the people who sold it to the public.” [From our Best History Podcast roundup.]
23. Coffee Break Spanish (or other languages)
Not everyone vibes with language learning apps like Duolingo. Alternatively, what’s great about podcasts like Coffee Break from Radio Lingua Network is just how casual it feels — digestible enough to compliment your coffee break (as the name suggests). The lesson plans in each successive season increase in difficulty, with Season 1 being for true beginners. But the podcast really sings in its travel log episodes, applying those lessons to a conversational grasp of the language. There’s also versions in French, Italian, German, Chinese, and Swedish available too.
24. Curiosity Daily
“Curiosity Daily is kind of like the r/TodayILearned subreddit but in podcast form. Every weekday, you can learn something new from hosts Cody Gough, Ashley Hamer, and Natalia Reagan. They offer 10- to 15-minute summaries of interesting, research-backed news and facts relevant to our everyday lives from the science, psychology, and technology fields.” [From our.]
Let’s be real: many of us skipped the reading when we were in school, only to regret it later on. That’s why Spotify’s list of original audiobooks, some even voiced by A-list actors like Hilary Swank, is a great treasure trove of educational audio. Currently, it offers many of the classics for free, like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and the memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. They even have a separate podcast for unpacking the literature called Sitting with the Classics. You can check out the full collection here.
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