Climate Change Worsening Faster Than Expected

Here in the Midwest, the “Hundredth Meridian” has been moving eastward (140 miles east and so now technically is the 98th Meridian). That is the dividing line between the dry and the humid. The dry region is creeping into Iowa and, in recent years, it has brought droughts along with it. Yet in the unpredictability of climate change, this year Iowa as had more precipitation than has been seen since records began to be kept in 1895. We have some of the best soil in the world and so feed a large part of the world, but farmers here are having a hard time getting their crops in. Also, it wasn’t that long ago that the Midwest had one of the largest floods in American history, what they called a 500 year flood. On top of that, there has been increased tornado activity.

Climate change causes weather patterns to go wacky and bounce between extremes. Along with other weather events such as superstorms that get so much attention, droughts and floods have increasingly been seen around the world. Like the American Midwest, Europe has also recently experienced droughts and that has decreased crop yields. It’s far worse in other regions. One of the largest cities in India has lost all access to water, as all four reservoirs have dried up. The Middle East is having the worst drought seen in almost a thousand years. And it turns out this has been happening for a while. Scientists have determined that man-made climate change was causing droughts at least as far back as earlier last century. Even further back, the impact on climate can be detected from ancient Roman air pollution.

Not only scientists but the Pentagon has been studying the situation and warning about the consequences. Climate change is a climate crisis. We now know that it’s a key contributing factor to ongoing famines, economic collapse, sociopolitical instability, international conflicts, civil wars, revolutions, and refugee crises. In some parts of the world, it’s beginning to get too hot to live. And these places happen to be where most of the world’s population is concentrated. A similar pattern is happening with how most of the world’s population is along coasts where storms are becoming a worsening threat. The Arctic is seeing record temperatures, the permafrost and glaciers are melting, and islands are disappearing as the water rises. Ever more people are being affected, many to the point of desperation. This leads to authoritarian and violent reactions, including terrorism. So, large numbers are fleeing in all directions and so the problem cascades from one society to the next.

Even in countries like the US, the increasing stress might be more subtle but no less impactful. Most Americans now agree that climate change is happening, even if the ruling elite continues to put on a spectacle in debating it. There is an underlying sense of crisis, not only felt by farmers who are struggling and worried about the future. Many major storms and floods have devastated American cities. Because of drier conditions, wildfires are ravaging other parts of the country. Even as President Donald Trump denies its existence, maybe the stress and uncertainty of climate change contributed to the populist outrage that got him elected. Americans realize there is a dangerous situation developing and, in desperation, it isn’t uncommon for people to turn to demagogues and authoritarians. It’s not that climate change is behind every bad thing in the world, but what is true that every bad thing in the world will be made worse by it.

Even ignoring the worst results on society, the harm to the individual is real. Many people become sick as pests and viruses spread. And many die from numerous causes, such as heatwaves: “More than 70,000 people perished to the extreme heat of the 2003 European heatwave, more than 10,000 people to the 2010 Russian heatwave, and more than 2,000 to the 2015 India heatwave. Altogether more than 800 cases of deadly heatwaves have been documented worldwide since 1980” (Climate & Capitalism, Heatwaves can kill 27 ways, and climate change puts 74% of humanity at risk).

Even for those who don’t die, life will be more difficult, uncomfortable, and stressful. Resources, from water to food, will become scarce for ever more people and so, even for those lucky enough to have access, prices for basic goods will increase. Disease and sickness will grow, along with healthcare burdens that could bankrupt many countries. Sure, the worsening conditions in many cases will lead to mass violence, probably world war, but for the average person that might be the least of their worries when they are faced with everyday difficulties and struggles in trying to take care of their families. We will see mass suffering on a scale not known in modern history. It has already begun.

Much of it is already too far gone to stop. Ecological destruction, for example, has already hit a tipping point where mass extinction will probably continue unabated. Yet climate change itself is not inevitable. Even at this late of a date, we could change our ways and avoid the worst outcomes. Will we? Probably not. But I’m not absolutely certain civilization will entirely collapse. Humans are innovative when times get tough. Still, we are forcing ourselves into a corner that will be hard to get out of without mass sacrifice and mass death. There will be high costs without any guaranteed benefit, much less certain salvation. The best hoped for outcome could be severely decreased populations living in small areas of environmental stability while others might eke by in biodomes. Life won’t return to normal. The good times of temperate climate that made the agricultural revolution possible, that is most likely coming to an end.

* * *

Environmentalist Majority
Climate Catastrophe In Slow Motion
Modernity as Death Cult
Inequality in the Anthropocene
Climate Change, Refugees, and Terrorism
Is Adaptation to Collapse the Best Case Scenario?
More Words
Learning to Die

Ancient Roman air pollution caused climate change in Europe
by Michael Marshall

Roots of Climate Change Traced to 19th Century Industry
by John Parton

Global Warming Was Already Fueling Droughts in Early 1900s, Study Shows
by Bob Berwyn

Fingerprint of Climate Change on Drought Traced to 1900
by Victoria Prieskop

100th Meridian, Which Divides the Arid West From the More Humid East, May Be Shifting Because of Climate Change
by Pam Wright

The 100th Meridian, Where the Great Plains Begin, May Be Shifting
Warming Climate May Be Moving Western Aridity Eastward
by Kevin Krajick

Scientists: Climate change causing heatwaves, droughts and floods
from Climate & Capitalism

Tipping Point Looms as Climate Change Dries Out Earth
by Matthew Renda

Warming raises threat of global famine repeat
by Tim Radford

This Exhausted Polar Bear Wandering a Siberian Suburb Is the Latest Face of the Climate Crisis
Olivia Rosan

‘This Should Scare the Hell Out of You’: Photo of Greenland Sled Dog Teams Walking on Melted Water Goes Viral
by Jon Queally

CO2 Concentration Is Higher Than Ever in Human History
by Dahr Jamail

Scientists Are Stunned by How Rapidly Ice Is Melting in the Arctic
by Dahr Jamail

Scientists shocked by Arctic permafrost thawing 70 years sooner than predicted
from The Guardian

‘The Changes Are Really Accelerating’: Alaska at Record Warm While Greenland Sees Major Ice Melt
by Eoin Higgins

Canada warming at twice the global rate, climate report finds
by Leyland Cecco

Himalayan Glacier Melt Has Doubled Since 2000, Satellites Show
by Olivia Rosane

Greenland Temps Soar 40 Degrees Above Normal, Record Melting of Ice Sheet
by Jordan Davidson

Climate Change Is Slamming the Mediterranean and Risks Are Being Underestimated, Scientists Warn
by Ruth Schuster

New Satellite Photos Show Climate Change Is Sweeping Europe
by Jonathan Tirone

Climate Change Plays Major Role in Record European Heat
from Climate Central

Europe’s seas to lose almost a third of life due to climate change: report
from DW Akademie

Europe set to suffer as climate change brings mosquito threat
by Tarek Bazley

Global warming could drive 660,000 more people per year to Europe
by Courtney Norris

Chennai water crisis: City’s reservoirs run dry
from BBC

‘The New Normal’: Ten of Thousands Flee Extreme Heatwave in India as Temperatures Topping 120°F Kill Dozens Across Country
by Julia Conley

The Future Is Now: Iran’s Drought Crisis Is Fueling the Country’s Political Instability
by Matthew Reisener

Pakistan is ground zero for global warming consequences
by Abdul Salam

How Climate Change Could Exacerbate Conflict in the Middle East
by Sagatom Saha

Climate change will fuel more wars and displacement in the Middle East, experts warn
by Borzou Daragahi

How The Middle East’s Drought Cycle Will Probably Lead To Even More Refugees
by Rachel Delia Benaim

3.5 million children now uprooted in Africa – including those displaced by conflict, poverty and climate change
from UNICEF

Drought subjects Central America to pests, loss of crops and lack of drinking water
by Noe Leiva

Two million risk hunger after drought in Central America – U.N
by Anastasia Moloney

The Caravan Is a Climate Change Story
by Lauren Markham

How Climate Change Is Fuelling the U.S. Border Crisis
by Jonathan Blitzer

Central America: Climate, Drought, Migration and the Border
by Lieutenant Commander Oliver-Leighton Barrett, US Navy (Retired)

How a Climate Change-Fueled Drought and US-Fed Violence Drives Immigration
by Amy Goodman and Juan González

Pentagon Fears Confirmed: Climate Change Leads to More Wars and Refugees
by Jonathan Tirone

How soon will climate change force you to move?
by Adele Peters

A warming Arctic could cost the world trillions of dollars
by Stephen Leahy

Companies Expect Climate Change to Cost Them $1 Trillion in 5 Years
by Sara Harrison

The Bank of England lays bare the “very real” trillion-dollar risks of climate change
by Akshat Rathi

Arctic Warming Will Cost At Least $24 Trillion More Than We Thought, Study Finds
by Becky Ferreira

The $70-Trillion Climate Bill Coming Our Way
by Tim Radford

The Boy Crisis

There is a recent C-SPAN talk with Warren Farrell about his book, The Boy Crisis. Although mostly focused on the US, I imagine it would apply to some other countries, as he does briefly mention ISIS recruits. American boys and girls have the same suicide rate at age 9, but in the years following that it goes up for boys only. Overall, the mortality of boys is declining in recent years, even though mortality of girls remains the same. I don’t know if the book is insightful or not, as I haven’t read it, but the issues the author brings up are important. I’ve made similar observations about gender divides. Let me make my case, although my thoughts here are tentative and so I’m not entirely attached to them. No doubt my own biases will slip in, but let me try my best to be clear in my position, even if I’m not perfectly right.

The difficulty is gender inevitably is mixed with culture, not that gender is merely a social construct, but gender identity and perception does have a powerful influence. I’d argue that, in certain ways, girls get more of a certain kind of attention. My nieces have received immense help for problems they’ve had such as social training, therapy, etc and been given many opportunities such as signing them up for social events, activities, etc. But what I sense is that my nephew who has serious problems has mostly been ignored, such as no one apparently helping him with his learning difficulties, despite his obviously needing more help than his sister and female cousin who are natural learners. The attitude seems to be that boys will be boys, that boys should suck it up and take care of their own problems, that boys aren’t sensitive like girls and so don’t need the same help, that boys are naturally aggressive and disruptive and so troubled behavior should simply be expected or else punished. Boy problems are to be ignored or eliminated, a Social Darwinian approach less often applied to girls, so it seems to me.

There is also something physiological going on, something I feel more confident in asserting. Boys and girls do seem to deal with health issues differently. Girls, according to some research, have a better ability at dealing with stress (or maybe just less acting out their stress in ways that distress others, similar to how female-profile aspies might be better at socially compensating than male-profile aspies). Some of the aggressive and impulsive behaviors from such things as lead toxicity can be rationalized away as the extremes of otherwise normal boy behavior. The same goes for autism, ADHD, etc — simply not taken as seriously when seen in boys (e.g., autism explained as extreme male profile). This is complicated by the question of whether girls are being diagnosed less, a complication I’ve written about before but won’t be explored further in this post because it goes into difficult issues of the psychology and behavior of personality as filtered through culture.

Dr. Leonard Sax also speculates that something in the environment or diet is causing developmental issues (and this is where much of my own recent thinking comes in). Over time, girls are reaching puberty earlier and boys later, which causes an inequality in neurocognitive development and educational achievement, resulting in boys dropping out at higher rates and girls attending college at higher rates. He suspects it might have to do with estrogen-like chemicals in plastics (then again, it could have to do with food additives, increased soy consumption, hormones in dairy, a high-carb diet, etc or else any number of a slew of environmental toxins and other chemicals, some of which are hormone mimics; others have observed that boys today seem to have more effeminate features such as less square jaw structure than what is seen in photographs of boys from the past and from hunter-gatherer tribes). He also makes a slightly different kind of argument that typical boy behavior is less tolerated in schools with stereotypical girl behavior being the ideal of a good student — that of sitting quietly and calmly, rather than running around like, well, little boys which is an issue as free playtime and gym classes have been among the first to be cut in the new push for teaching to the test (of course, this would also impact girls who don’t follow stereotypical female behavior). Not all of these arguments necessarily fit together.

Most likely, it’s dozen of major factors that are overlapping (and one senses the terrain covered with landmines of confounders). Throw in some reactionary right-wing backlash to mix it up, along with partisan politics to polarize the population. The paranoia about boys being emasculated turns into a moral panic and there is the fear on the other side about the return of theocratic patriarchy or whatever. There is no doubt something to worry about for all involved, but the water gets muddied up with ideologically-driven fearful fantasies and identity politics of every variety. Similar moral panics were seen before WWI and earlier before the Civil War. Societies have a tendency of getting militaristic and violent toward other societies, in the hope of toughening up their boys and often the rhetoric and propaganda becomes rather blatant about this. It is madness that leads to madness. Meanwhile, the real problems facing boys mostly get ignored by the political left and right, until a few generations later when the unresolved problems erupt again as moral panic returns.

Society goes through cycles of ignoring boys and obsessing over them. Girls typically never get the same kind of extreme attention, positive or negative (which one could argue leads to other problems for girls). There is a lot of social pressure in being a boy and a lot more judgment for perceived failure and inadequacy, which surely would relate to the higher rate of suicide and self-destructive behavior, including suicide by cop. That isn’t to say life is easy for girls either, but many of the measurements seem to be improving or at least remaining stable for girls in a way not seen for boys where in important areas worsening is apparent. There is a growing disparity that needs to be explained. Why would mortality be worsening for boys while not for girls? Why would more girls and fewer boys be attending college? Why are there more homeless men on the streets? In a society that is historically patriarchal with certain male privileges, this is the complete opposite of what one would expect. And this resonates with life expectancy and well-being (e.g., drug addiction rates) getting worse for rural white men and middle class white men, even as most other demographics aren’t seeing such declines, indicating that even among males it’s particular populations being hit the most.

The awareness of this problem, a sense of something severely wrong, is the kind of thing driving too many Americans to support someone like President Donald Trump. The populist outrage is real, if misdirected in a way that will make everything worse. Authoritarian nationalism promoted through xenophobic scapegoating, chest-pounding, and war-mongering is not going to save our boys. Yet one can feel that so many people in power are itching for mass violence to enforce social order again and that means enforcing nostalgic notions of ultra-masculinity. Nurturing children, all children, and ensuring public health and the public good for all… well, that is less exciting than lamenting the decline of Western civilization or whatever. It’s not about gender wars, about boys and men losing their position in society or it shouldn’t be about that. We need to find ways to help children where they are at, to create equality of opportunities not only in theory but in reality. We are a society out of balance with gender being one expression among many others.

Improving the lives of girls should be a priority, as is true for other historically disadvantaged demographics and populations. But it is severely problematic if improvement in one area of society seems to be coming at the cost at worsening conditions elsewhere, such as for boys. Even if that isn’t exactly true, in that one can’t be directly or fully blamed for the other, we shouldn’t be so naive as not to realize that is how it will get portrayed. We can’t afford to dismiss the real harm and suffering caused to part of the population, especially at a time when the entire society is under stress. Identity politics turned into dysfunctional demographic tribalism can’t lead to a happy result. This situation isn’t feminism in a fight against the men’s rights movement. These boys have sisters, mothers, and aunts. And these boys will grow up to be husbands and fathers. We don’t live in demographic abstractions for we are part of personal relationships that connect us. Our problems are shared, as is the good we seek.

The Crisis of Identity

“Besides real diseases we are subject to many that are only imaginary, for which the physicians have invented imaginary cures; these have then several names, and so have the drugs that are proper to them.”
~Jonathan Swift, 1726
Gulliver’s Travels

“The alarming increase in Insanity, as might naturally be expected, has incited many persons to an investigation of this disease.”
~John Haslam, 1809
On Madness and Melancholy: Including Practical Remarks on those Diseases

“Cancer, like insanity, seems to increase with the progress of civilization.”
~Stanislas Tanchou, 1843
Paper presented to the Paris Medical Society

I’ve been following Scott Preston over at his blog, Chrysalis. He has been writing on the same set of issues for a long time now, longer than I’ve been reading his blog. He reads widely and so draws on many sources, most of which I’m not familiar with, part of the reason I appreciate the work he does to pull together such informed pieces. A recent post, A Brief History of Our Disintegration, would give you a good sense of his intellectual project, although the word ‘intellectual’ sounds rather paltry for what he is exploring: “Around the end of the 19th century (called the fin de siecle period), something uncanny began to emerge in the functioning of the modern mind, also called the “perspectival” or “the mental-rational structure of consciousness” (Jean Gebser). As usual, it first became evident in the arts — a portent of things to come, but most especially as a disintegration of the personality and character structure of Modern Man and mental-rational consciousness.”

That time period has been an interest of mine as well. There are two books that come to mind that I’ve mentioned before: Tom Lutz’s American Nervousness, 1903 and Jackson Lear’s Rebirth of a Nation (for a discussion of the latter, see: Juvenile Delinquents and Emasculated Males). Both talk about that turn-of-the-century crisis, the psychological projections and physical manifestations, the social movements and political actions. A major concern was neurasthenia which, according to the dominant economic paradigm, meant a deficit of ‘nervous energy’ or ‘nerve force’, the reserves of which if not reinvested wisely and instead wasted would lead to physical and psychological bankruptcy, and so one became spent. (The term ‘neurasthenia’ was first used in 1829 and popularized by George Miller Beard in 1869, the same period when the related medical condition of ‘nostalgia’ became a more common diagnosis, although ‘nostalgia’ was first referred to in the 17th century (Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer coined the term, also using it interchangeably with nosomania and philopatridomania — see: Michael S. Roth, Memory, Trauma, and History; David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country; Thomas Dodman, What Nostalgia Was; Susan J. Matt, Homesickness; Linda Marilyn Austin, Nostalgia in Transition, 1780-1917; Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia; Gary S. Meltzer, Euripides and the Poetics of Nostalgia; see The Disease of Nostalgia). Today, we might speak of ‘neurasthenia’ as stress and, even earlier, they had other ways of talking about it — as Bryan Kozlowski explained in The Jane Austen Diet, p. 231: “A multitude of Regency terms like “flutterings,” “fidgets,” “agitations,” “vexations,” and, above all, “nerves” are the historical equivalents to what we would now recognize as physiological stress.” It was the stress of falling into history, a new sense of time, linear progression that made the past a lost world — from Stranded in the Present, Peter Fritzsche wrote:

“On that August day on the way to Mainz, Boisseree reported on of the startling consequences of the French Revolution. This was that more and more people began to visualize history as a process that affected their lives in knowable, comprehensible ways, connected them to strangers on a market boat, and thus allowed them to offer their own versions and opinions to a wider public. The emerging historical consciousness was not restricted to an elite, or a small literate stratum, but was the shared cultural good of ordinary travelers, soldiers, and artisans. In many ways history had become a mass medium connecting people and their stories all over Europe and beyond. Moreover, the drama of history was construed in such a way as to put emphasis on displacement, whether because customary business routines had been upset by the unexpected demands of headquartered Prussian troops, as the innkeepers protested, or because so many demobilized soldiers were on the move as they returned home or pressed on to seek their fortune, or because restrictive legislation against Jews and other religious minorities had been lifted, which would explain the keen interest of “the black-bearded Jew” in Napoleon and of Boisseree in the Jew. History was not simply unsettlement, though. The exchange of opinion “in the front cabin” and “in the back” hinted at the contested nature of well-defined political visions: the role of the French, of Jacobins, of Napoleon. The travelers were describing a world knocked off the feet of tradition and reworked and rearranged by various ideological protagonists and conspirators (Napoleon, Talleyrand, Blucher) who sought to create new social communities. Journeying together to Mainz, Boisseree and his companions were bound together by their common understanding of moving toward a world that was new and strange, a place more dangerous and more wonderful than the one they left behind.”

That excitement was mixed with the feeling of being spent, the reserves having been fully tapped. This was mixed up with sexuality in what Theodore Dreiser called the ‘spermatic economy’ in the management of libido as psychic energy, a modernization of Galenic thought (by the way, the catalogue for Sears, Roebuck and Company offered an electrical device to replenish nerve force that came with a genital attachment). Obsession with sexuality was used to reinforce gender roles in how neurasthenic patients were treated in following the practice of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, in that men were recommended to become more active (the ‘West cure’) and women more passive (the ‘rest cure’), although some women “used neurasthenia to challenge the status quo, rather than enforce it. They argued that traditional gender roles were causing women’s neurasthenia, and that housework was wasting their nervous energy. If they were allowed to do more useful work, they said, they’d be reinvesting and replenishing their energies, much as men were thought to do out in the wilderness” (Julie Beck, ‘Americanitis’: The Disease of Living Too Fast). That feminist-style argument, as I recall, came up in advertisements for the Bernarr Macfadden’s fitness protocol in the early-1900s, encouraging (presumably middle class) women to give up housework for exercise and so regain their vitality. Macfadden was also an advocate of living a fully sensuous life, going as far as free love.

Besides the gender wars, there was the ever-present bourgeois bigotry. Neurasthenia is the most civilized of the diseases of civilization since, in its original American conception, it was perceived as only afflicting middle-to-upper class whites, especially WASPs — as Lutz says that, “if you were lower class, and you weren’t educated and you weren’t Anglo Saxon, you wouldn’t get neurasthenic because you just didn’t have what it took to be damaged by modernity” (Julie Beck, ‘Americanitis’: The Disease of Living Too Fast) and so, according to Lutz’s book, people would make “claims to sickness as claims to privilege.” This class bias goes back even earlier to Robert Burton’s melancholia with its element of what later would be understood as the Cartesian anxiety of mind-body dualism, a common ailment of the intellectual elite (mind-body dualism goes back to the Axial Age; see Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind). The class bias was different for nostalgia, as written about by Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia (p. 5):

“For Robert Burton, melancholia, far from being a mere physical or psychological condition, had a philosophical dimension. The melancholic saw the world as a theater ruled by capricious fate and demonic play. Often mistaken for a mere misanthrope, the melancholic was in fact a utopian dreamer who had higher hopes for humanity. In this respect, melancholia was an affect and an ailment of intellectuals, a Hamletian doubt, a side effect of critical reason; in melancholia, thinking and feeling, spirit and matter, soul and body were perpetually in conflict. Unlike melancholia, which was regarded as an ailment of monks and philosophers, nostalgia was a more “democratic” disease that threatened to affect soldiers and sailors displaced far from home as well as many country people who began to move to the cities. Nostalgia was not merely an individual anxiety but a public threat that revealed the contradictions of modernity and acquired a greater importance.”

Like diabetes, melancholia and neuraesthenia was first seen among the elite, and so it was taken as demonstrating one’s elite nature. Prior to neurasthenic diagnoses but in the post-revolutionary era, a similar phenomenon went by other names. This is explored by Bryan Kozlowski in one chapter of The Jane Austen Diet (p. 232-233):

“Yet the idea that this was acceptable—nay, encouraged—behavior was rampant throughout the late 18th century. Ever since Jane was young, stress itself was viewed as the right and prerogative of the rich and well-off. The more stress you felt, the more you demonstrated to the world how truly delicate and sensitive your wealthy, softly pampered body actually was. The common catchword for this was having a heightened sensibility—one of the most fashionable afflictions in England at the time. Mainly affecting the “nerves,” a Regency woman who caught the sensibility but “disdains to be strong minded,” wrote a cultural observer in 1799, “she trembles at every breeze, faints at every peril and yields to every assailant.” Austen knew real-life strutters of this sensibility, writing about one acquaintance who rather enjoys “her spasms and nervousness and the consequence they give her.” It’s the same “sensibility” Marianne wallows in throughout the novel that bears its name, “feeding and encouraging” her anxiety “as a duty.” Readers of the era would have found nothing out of the ordinary in Marianne’s high-strung embrace of stress.”

This condition was considered a sign of progress, but over time it came to be seen by some as the greatest threat to civilization, in either case offering much material for fictionalized portrayals that were popular. Being sick in this fashion was proof that one was a modern individual, an exemplar of advanced civilization, if coming at immense cost —Julie Beck explains (‘Americanitis’: The Disease of Living Too Fast):

“The nature of this sickness was vague and all-encompassing. In his book Neurasthenic Nation, David Schuster, an associate professor of history at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, outlines some of the possible symptoms of neurasthenia: headaches, muscle pain, weight loss, irritability, anxiety, impotence, depression, “a lack of ambition,” and both insomnia and lethargy. It was a bit of a grab bag of a diagnosis, a catch-all for nearly any kind of discomfort or unhappiness.

“This vagueness meant that the diagnosis was likely given to people suffering from a variety of mental and physical illnesses, as well as some people with no clinical conditions by modern standards, who were just dissatisfied or full of ennui. “It was really largely a quality-of-life issue,” Schuster says. “If you were feeling good and healthy, you were not neurasthenic, but if for some reason you were feeling run down, then you were neurasthenic.””

I’d point out how neurasthenia was seen as primarily caused by intellectual activity, as it became a descriptor of a common experience among the burgeoning middle class of often well-educated professionals and office workers. This relates to Weston A. Price’s work in the 1930s, as modern dietary changes first hit this demographic since they had the means to afford eating a fully industrialized Standard American Diet (SAD), long before others (within decades, though, SAD-caused malnourishment would wreck the health at all levels of society). What this meant, in particular, was a diet high in processed carbs and sugar that coincided, because of Upton Sinclair’s 1904 The Jungle: Muckraking the Meat-Packing Industry,  with the early-1900s decreased consumption of meat and saturated fats. As Price demonstrated, this was a vast change from the traditional diet found all over the world, including in rural Europe (and presumably in rural America, with most Americans not urbanized until the turn of last century), that always included significant amounts of nutritious animal foods loaded up with fat-soluble vitamins, not to mention lots of healthy fats and cholesterol.

Prior to talk of neurasthenia, the exhaustion model of health portrayed as waste and depletion took hold in Europe centuries earlier (e.g., anti-masturbation panics) and had its roots in humor theory of bodily fluids. It has long been understood that food, specifically macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, & fat), affect mood and behavior — see the early literature on melancholy. During feudalism food laws were used as a means of social control, such that in one case meat was prohibited prior to Carnival because of its energizing effect that it was thought could lead to rowdiness or even revolt (Ken Albala & Trudy Eden, Food and Faith in Christian Culture).

There does seem to be a connection between an increase of intellectual activity with an increase of carbohydrates and sugar, this connection first appearing during the early colonial era that set the stage for the Enlightenment. It was the agricultural mind taken to a whole new level. Indeed, a steady flow of glucose is one way to fuel extended periods of brain work, such as reading and writing for hours on end and late into the night — the reason college students to this day will down sugary drinks while studying. Because of trade networks, Enlightenment thinkers were buzzing on the suddenly much more available simple carbs and sugar, with an added boost from caffeine and nicotine. The modern intellectual mind was drugged-up right from the beginning, and over time it took its toll. Such dietary highs inevitably lead to ever greater crashes of mood and health. Interestingly, Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell who advocated the ‘rest cure’ and ‘West cure’ in treating neurasthenia and other ailments additionally used a “meat-rich diet” for his patients (Ann Stiles, Go rest, young man). Other doctors of that era were even more direct in using specifically low-carb diets for various health conditions, often for obesity which was also a focus of Dr. Mitchell.

* * *

“It cannot be denied that civilization, in its progress, is rife with causes which over-excite individuals, and result in the loss of mental equilibrium.”
~Edward Jarvis, 1843
“What shall we do with the Insane?”
The North American Review, Volume 56, Issue 118

“Have we lived too fast?”
~Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, 1871
Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked

It goes far beyond diet or any other single factor. There has been a diversity of stressors that continued to amass over the centuries of tumultuous change. The exhaustion of modern man (and typically the focus has been on men) has been building up for generations upon generations before it came to feel like a world-shaking crisis with the new industrialized world. The lens of neurasthenia was an attempt to grapple with what had changed, but the focus was too narrow. With the plague of neurasthenia, the atomization of commericialized man and woman couldn’t hold together. And so there was a temptation toward nationalistic projects, including wars, to revitalize the ailing soul and to suture the gash of social division and disarray. But this further wrenched out of alignment the traditional order that had once held society together, and what was lost mostly went without recognition. The individual was brought into the foreground of public thought, a lone protagonist in a social Darwinian world. In this melodramatic narrative of struggle and self-assertion, many individuals didn’t fare so well and everything else suffered in the wake.

Tom Lutz writes that, “By 1903, neurasthenic language and representations of neurasthenia were everywhere: in magazine articles, fiction, poetry, medical journals and books, in scholarly journals and newspaper articles, in political rhetoric and religious discourse, and in advertisements for spas, cures, nostrums, and myriad other products in newspapers, magazines and mail-order catalogs” (American Nervousness, 1903, p. 2).

There was a sense of moral decline that was hard to grasp, although some people like Weston A. Price tried to dig down into concrete explanations of what had so gone wrong, the social and psychological changes observable during mass urbanization and industrialization. He was far from alone in his inquiries, having built on the prior observations of doctors, anthropologists, and missionaries. Other doctors and scientists were looking into the influences of diet in the mid-1800s and, by the 1880s, scientists were exploring a variety of biological theories. Their inability to pinpoint the cause maybe had more to do with their lack of a needed framework, as they touched upon numerous facets of biological functioning:

“Not surprisingly, laboratory experiments designed to uncover physiological changes in the nerve cell were inconclusive. European research on neurasthenics reported such findings as loss of elasticity of blood vessels,’ thickening of the cell wall, changes in the shape of nerve cells,’6 or nerve cells that never advanced beyond an embryonic state.’ Another theory held that an overtaxed organism cannot keep up with metabolic requirements, leading to inadequate cell nutrition and waste excretion. The weakened cells cannot develop properly, while the resulting build-up of waste products effectively poisons the cells (so-called “autointoxication”).’ This theory was especially attractive because it seemed to explain the extreme diversity of neurasthenic symptoms: weakened or poisoned cells might affect the functioning of any organ in the body. Furthermore, “autointoxicants” could have a stimulatory effect, helping to account for the increased sensitivity and overexcitability characteristic of neurasthenics.'” (Laura Goering, “Russian Nervousness”: Neurasthenia and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Russia)

This early scientific research could not lessen the mercurial sense of unease, as neurasthenia was from its inception a broad category that captured some greater shift in public mood, even as it so powerfully shaped the individual’s health. For all the effort, there were as many theories about neurasthenia as there were symptoms. Deeper insight was required. “[I]f a human being is a multiformity of mind, body, soul, and spirit,” writes Preston, “you don’t achieve wholeness or fulfillment by amputating or suppressing one or more of these aspects, but only by an effective integration of the four aspects.” But integration is easier said than done.

The modern human hasn’t been suffering from mere psychic wear and tear for the individual body itself has been showing the signs of sickness, as the diseases of civilization have become harder and harder to ignore. On a societal level of human health, I’ve previously shared passages from Lears (see here) — he discusses the vitalist impulse that was the response to the turmoil, and vitalism often was explored in terms of physical health as the most apparent manifestation, although social and spiritual health were just as often spoken of in the same breath. The whole person was under assault by an accumulation of stressors and the increasingly isolated individual didn’t have the resources to fight them off.

By the way, this was far from being limited to America. Europeans picked up the discussion of neurasthenia and took it in other directions, often with less optimism about progress, but also some thinkers emphasizing social interpretations with specific blame on hyper-individualism (Laura Goering, “Russian Nervousness”: Neurasthenia and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Russia). Thoughts on neurasthenia became mixed up with earlier speculations on nostalgia and romanticized notions of rural life. More important, Russian thinkers in particular understood that the problems of modernity weren’t limited to the upper classes, instead extending across entire populations, as a result of how societies had been turned on their heads during that fractious century of revolutions.

In looking around, I came across some other interesting stuff. From 1901 Nervous and Mental Diseases by Archibald Church and Frederick Peterson, the authors in the chapter on “Mental Disease” are keen to further the description, categorization, and labeling of ‘insanity’. And I noted their concern with physiological asymmetry, something shared later with Price, among many others going back to the prior century.

Maybe asymmetry was not only indicative of developmental issues but also symbolic of a deeper imbalance. The attempts of phrenological analysis about psychiatric, criminal, and anti-social behavior were off-base; and, despite the bigotry and proto-genetic determinism among racists using these kinds of ideas, there is a simple truth about health in relationship to physiological development, most easily observed in bone structure, but it would take many generations to understand the deeper scientific causes, along with nutrition (e.g., Price’s discovery of vitamin K2, what he called Acivator X) including parasites, toxins, and epigenetics. Churchland and Peterson did acknowledge that this went beyond mere individual or even familial issues: “It is probable that the intemperate use of alcohol and drugs, the spreading of syphilis, and the overstimulation in many directions of modern civilization have determined an increase difficult to estimate, but nevertheless palpable, of insanity in the present century as compared with past centuries.”

Also, there is the 1902 The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: Volume 29 edited by William G. Spiller. There is much discussion in there about how anxiety was observed, diagnosed, and treated at the time. Some of the case studies make for a fascinating read —– check out: “Report of a Case of Epilepsy Presenting as Symptoms Night Terrors, Inipellant Ideas, Complicated Automatisms, with Subsequent Development of Convulsive Motor Seizures and Psychical Aberration” by W. K. Walker. This reminds me of the case that influenced Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Daniel Paul Schreber’s 1903 Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.

Talk about “a disintegration of the personality and character structure of Modern Man and mental-rational consciousness,” as Scott Preston put it. He goes on to say that, “The individual is not a natural thing. There is an incoherency in “Margaret Thatcher’s view of things when she infamously declared “there is no such thing as society” — that she saw only individuals and families, that is to say, atoms and molecules.” Her saying that really did capture the mood of the society she denied existing. Even the family was shrunk down to the ‘nuclear’. To state there is no society is to declare that there is also no extended family, no kinship, no community, that there is no larger human reality of any kind. Ironically in this pseudo-libertarian sentiment, there is nothing holding the family together other than government laws imposing strict control of marriage and parenting where common finances lock two individuals together under the rule of capitalist realism (the only larger realities involved are inhuman systems) — compared to high trust societies such as Nordic countries where the definition and practice of family life is less legalistic (Nordic Theory of Love and Individualism).

* * *

“It is easy, as we can see, for a barbarian to be healthy; for a civilized man the task is hard. The desire for a powerful and uninhibited ego may seem to us intelligible, but, as is shown by the times we live in, it is the profoundest sense antagonistic to civilization.”
~Sigmund Freud, 1938
An Outline of Psychoanalysis

“Consciousness is a very recent acquisition of nature, and it is still in an “experimental” state. It is frail, menaced by specific dangers, and easily injured.”
~Carl Jung, 1961
Man and His Symbols
Part 1: Approaching the Unconscious
The importance of dreams

The individual consumer-citizen as a legal member of a family unit has to be created and then controlled, as it is a rather unstable atomized identity. “The idea of the “individual”,” Preston says, “has become an unsustainable metaphor and moral ideal when the actual reality is “21st century schizoid man” — a being who, far from being individual, is falling to pieces and riven with self-contradiction, duplicity, and cognitive dissonance, as reflects life in “the New Normal” of double-talk, double-think, double-standard, and double-bind.” That is partly the reason for the heavy focus on the body, an attempt to make concrete the individual in order to hold together the splintered self — great analysis of this can be found in Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: “an unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap. Before anyone can be snared in this trap, an equation must be made between the body and the world (my skin color is my place as a Hispanic; menstruation is my place as a woman)” (see one of my posts about it: Lock Without a Key). Along with increasing authoritarianism, there was increasing medicalization and rationalization — to try to make sense of what was senseless.

A specific example of a change can be found in Dr. Frederick Hollick (1818-1900) who was a popular writer and speaker on medicine and health — his “links were to the free-thinking tradition, not to Christianity” (Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Rewriting Sex). With the influence of Mesmerism and animal magnetism, he studied and wrote about what more scientifically-sounding was variously called electrotherapeutics, galvanism, and electro-galvanism. Hollick was an English follower of the Scottish industrialist and socialist Robert Dale Owen who he literally followed to the United States where Owen started the utopian community New Harmony, a Southern Indiana village bought from the utopian German Harmonists and then filled with brilliant and innovative minds but lacking in practical know-how about running a self-sustaining community (Abraham Lincoln, later becoming a friend to the Owen family, recalled as a boy seeing the boat full of books heading to New Harmony).

“As had Owen before him, Hollick argued for the positive value of sexual feeling. Not only was it neither immoral nor injurious, it was the basis for morality and society. […] In many ways, Hollick was a sexual enthusiast” (Horowitz). These were the social circles of Abraham Lincoln, as he personally knew free-love advocates; that is why early Republicans were often referred to as ‘Red Republicans’, the ‘Red’ indicating radicalism as it still does to this day. Hollick wasn’t the first to be a sexual advocate nor, of course would he be the last — preceding him was Sarah Grimke (1837, Equality of the Sexes) and Charles Knowlton (1839, The Private Companion of Young Married People), Hollick having been “a student of Knowlton’s work” (Debran Rowland, The Boundaries of Her Body); and following him were two more well known figures, the previously mentioned Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955) who was the first major health and fitness guru, and Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) who was the less respectable member of the trinity formed with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Sexuality became a symbolic issue of politics and health, partly because of increasing scientific knowledge but also because increasing marketization of products such as birth control (with public discussion of contraceptives happening in the late 1700s and advances in contraceptive production in the early 1800s), the latter being quite significant as it meant individuals could control pregnancy and this is particularly relevant to women. It should be noted that Hollick promoted the ideal of female sexual autonomy, that sex should be assented to and enjoyed by both partners.

This growing concern with sexuality began with the growing middle class in the decades following the American Revolution. Among much else, it was related to the post-revolutionary focus on parenting and the perceived need for raising republican citizens — this formed an audience far beyond radical libertinism and free-love. Expert advice was needed for the new bourgeouis family life, as part of the ‘civilizing process’ that increasingly took hold at that time with not only sexual manuals but also parenting guides, health pamphlets, books of manners, cookbooks, diet books, etc — cut off from the roots of traditional community and kinship, the modern individual no longer trusted inherited wisdom and so needed to be taught how to live, how to behave and relate (Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, & Society of Individuals; Bruce Mazlish, Civilization and Its Contents; Keith Thomas, In Pursuit of Civility; Stephen Mennell, The American Civilizing Process; Cas Wouters, Informalization; Jonathan Fletcher, Violence and Civilization; François Dépelteau & ‎T. Landini, Norbert Elias and Social Theory; Rob Watts, States of Violence and the Civilising Process; Pieter Spierenburg, Violence and Punishment; Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature; Eric Dunning & Chris Rojek, Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process; D. E. Thiery, Polluting the Sacred; Helmut Kuzmics, Roland Axtmann, Authority, State and National Character; Mary Fulbrook, Un-Civilizing Processes?; John Zerzan, Against Civilization; Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization; Dennis Smith, Norbert Elias and Modern Social Theory; Stejpan Mestrovic, The Barbarian Temperament; Thomas Salumets, Norbert Elias and Human Interdependencies). Along with the rise of the science, this situation promoted the role of the public intellectual that Hollick effectively took advantage of and, after the failure of Owen’s utopian experiment, he went on the lecture circuit which brought on legal cases in the unsuccessful attempt to silence him, the kind of persecution that Reich also later endured.

To put it in perspective, this Antebellum era of public debate and public education on sexuality coincided with other changes. Following the revolutionary era feminism (e.g., Mary Wollstonecraft), the ‘First Wave’ of organized feminists emerged generations later with the Seneca meeting in 1848 and, in that movement, there was a strong abolitionist impulse. This was part of the rise of ideological -isms in the North that so concerned the Southern aristocrats who wanted to maintain their hierarchical control of the entire country, the control they were quickly losing with the shift of power in the Federal government. A few years before that in 1844, a more effective condom was developed using vulcanized rubber, although condoms had been on the market since the previous decade; also in the 1840s, the vaginal sponge became available. Interestingly, many feminists were as against the contraceptives as they were against abortions. These were far from being mere practical issues as politics imbued every aspect and some feminists worried about how this might lessen the role of women and motherhood in society, if sexuality was divorced from pregnancy.

This was at a time when the abortion rate was sky-rocketing, indicating most women held other views. “Yet we also know that thousands of women were attending lectures in these years, lectures dealing, in part, with fertility control. And rates of abortion were escalating rapidly, especially, according to historian James Mohr, the rate for married women. Mohr estimates that in the period 1800-1830, perhaps one out of every twenty-five to thirty pregnancies was aborted. Between 1850 and 1860, he estimates, the ratio may have been one out of every five or six pregnancies. At mid-century, more than two hundred full-time abortionists reported worked in New York City” (Rickie Solinger, Pregnancy and Power, p. 61). In the unGodly and unChurched period of early America (“We forgot.”), organized religion was weak and “premarital sex was typical, many marriages following after pregnancy, but some people simply lived in sin. Single parents and ‘bastards’ were common” (A Vast Experiment). Early Americans, by today’s standards, were not good Christians — visiting Europeans often saw them as uncouth heathens and quite dangerous at that, such as the common American practice of toting around guns and knives, ever ready for a fight, whereas carrying weapons had been made illegal in England. In The Churching of America, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark write (pp. 25-26):

“Americans are burdened with more nostalgic illusions about the colonial era than about any other period in their history. Our conceptions of the time are dominated by a few powerful illustrations of Pilgrim scenes that most people over forty stared at year after year on classroom walls: the baptism of Pocahontas, the Pilgrims walking through the woods to church, and the first Thanksgiving. Had these classroom walls also been graced with colonial scenes of drunken revelry and barroom brawling, of women in risque ball-gowns, of gamblers and rakes, a better balance might have been struck. For the fact is that there never were all that many Puritans, even in New England, and non-Puritan behavior abounded. From 1761 through 1800 a third (33.7%) of all first births in New England occurred after less than nine months of marriage (D. S. Smith, 1985), despite harsh laws against fornication. Granted, some of these early births were simply premature and do not necessarily show that premarital intercourse had occurred, but offsetting this is the likelihood that not all women who engaged in premarital intercourse would have become pregnant. In any case, single women in New England during the colonial period were more likely to be sexually active than to belong to a church-in 1776 only about one out of five New Englanders had a religious affiliation. The lack of affiliation does not necessarily mean that most were irreligious (although some clearly were), but it does mean that their faith lacked public expression and organized influence.”

Though marriage remained important as an ideal in American culture, what changed was that procreative control became increasingly available — with fewer accidental pregnancies and more abortions, a powerful motivation for marriage disappeared. Unsurprisingly, at the same time, there was increasing worries about the breakdown of community and family, concerns that would turn into moral panic at various points. Antebellum America was in turmoil. This was concretely exemplified by the dropping birth rate that was already noticeable by mid-century (Timothy Crumrin, “Her Daily Concern:” Women’s Health Issues in Early 19th-Century Indiana) and was nearly halved from 1800 to 1900 (Debran Rowland, The Boundaries of Her Body). “The late 19th century and early 20th saw a huge increase in the country’s population (nearly 200 percent between 1860 and 1910) mostly due to immigration, and that population was becoming ever more urban as people moved to cities to seek their fortunes—including women, more of whom were getting college educations and jobs outside the home” (Julie Beck, ‘Americanitis’: The Disease of Living Too Fast). It was a period of crisis, not all that different from our present crisis, including the fear about low birth rate of native-born white Americans, especially the endangered species of WASPs, being overtaken by the supposed dirty hordes of blacks, ethnics, and immigrants.

The promotion of birth control was considered a genuine threat to American society, maybe to all of Western Civilization. It was most directly a threat to traditional gender roles. Women could better control when they got pregnant, a decisive factor in the phenomenon of  larger numbers of women entering college and the workforce. And with an epidemic of neurasthenia, this dilemma was worsened by the crippling effeminacy that neutered masculine potency. Was modern man, specifically the white ruling elite, up for the task of carrying on Western Civilization?

“Indeed, civilization’s demands on men’s nerve force had left their bodies positively effeminate. According to Beard, neurasthenics had the organization of “women more than men.” They possessed ” a muscular system comparatively small and feeble.” Their dainty frames and feeble musculature lacked the masculine vigor and nervous reserves of even their most recent forefathers. “It is much less than a century ago, that a man who could not [drink] many bottles of wine was thought of as effeminate—but a fraction of a man.” No more. With their dwindling reserves of nerve force, civilized men were becoming increasingly susceptible to the weakest stimulants until now, “like babes, we find no safe retreat, save in chocolate and milk and water.” Sex was as debilitating as alcohol for neurasthenics. For most men, sex in moderation was a tonic. Yet civilized neurasthenics could become ill if they attempted intercourse even once every three months. As Beard put it, “there is not force enough left in them to reproduce the species or go through the process of reproducing the species.” Lacking even the force “to reproduce the species,” their manhood was clearly in jeopardy.” (Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization, pp. 87-88)

This led to a backlash that began before the Civil War with the early obscenity laws and abortion laws, but went into high gear with the 1873 Comstock laws that effectively shut down the free market of both ideas and products related to sexuality, including sex toys. This made it near impossible for most women to learn about birth control or obtain contraceptives and abortifacients. There was a felt need to restore order and that meant white male order of the WASP middle-to-upper classes, especially with the end of slavery, mass immigration of ethnics, urbanization and industrialization. The crisis wasn’t only ideological or political. The entire world had been falling apart for centuries with the ending of feudalism and the ancien regime, the last remnants of it in America being maintained through slavery. Motherhood being the backbone of civilization, it was believed that women’s sexuality had to be controlled and, unlike so much else that was out of control, it actually could be controlled through enforcement of laws.

Outlawing abortions is a particularly interesting example of social control. Even with laws in place, abortions remained commonly practiced by local doctors, even in many rural areas (American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues). Corey Robin argues that the strategy hasn’t been to deny women’s agency but to assert their subordination (Denying the Agency of the Subordinate Class). This is why abortion laws were designed to target male doctors, although they rarely did, and not their female patients. Everything comes down to agency or its lack or loss, but our entire sense of agency is out of accord with our own human nature. We seek to control what is outside of us for our own sense of self is out of control. The legalistic worldview is inherently authoritarian, at the heart of what Julian Jaynes proposes as the post-bicameral project of consciousness, the contained self. But the container is weak and keeps leaking all over the place.

* * *

“It is clear that if it goes on with the same ruthless speed for the next half century . . . the sane people will be in a minority at no very distant day.”
~Henry Maudsley, 1877
“The Alleged Increase of Insanity”
Journal of Mental Science, Volume 23, Issue 101

“If this increase was real, we have argued, then we are now in the midst of an epidemic of insanity so insidious that most people are even unaware of its existence.”
~Edwin Fuller Torrey & Judy Miller, 2001
The Invisible Plague: The Rise of Mental Illness from 1750 to the Present

To bring it back to the original inspiration, Scott Preston wrote: “Quite obviously, our picture of the human being as an indivisible unit or monad of existence was quite wrong-headed, and is not adequate for the generation and re-generation of whole human beings. Our self-portrait or self-understanding of “human nature” was deficient and serves now only to produce and reproduce human caricatures. Many of us now understand that the authentic process of individuation hasn’t much in common at all with individualism and the supremacy of the self-interest.” The failure we face is that of identify, of our way of being in the world. As with neurasthenia in the past, we are now in a crisis of anxiety and depression, along with yet another moral panic about the declining white race. So, we get the likes of Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and Jordan Peterson. We failed to resolve past conflicts and so they keep re-emerging.

“In retrospect, the omens of an impending crisis and disintegration of the individual were rather obvious,” Preston points out. “So, what we face today as “the crisis of identity” and the cognitive dissonance of “the New Normal” is not something really new — it’s an intensification of that disintegrative process that has been underway for over four generations now. It has now become acute. This is the paradox. The idea of the “individual” has become an unsustainable metaphor and moral ideal when the actual reality is “21st century schizoid man” — a being who, far from being individual, is falling to pieces and riven with self-contradiction, duplicity, and cognitive dissonance, as reflects life in “the New Normal” of double-talk, double-think, double-standard, and double-bind.” We never were individuals. It was just a story we told ourselves, but there are others that could be told. Scott Preston offers an alternative narrative, that of individuation.

* * *

I found some potentially interesting books while skimming material on Google Books, in my researching Frederick Hollick and other info. Among the titles below, I’ll share some text from one of them because it offers a good summary about sexuality at the time, specifically women’s sexuality. Obviously, it went far beyond sexuality itself, and going by my own theorizing I’d say it is yet another example of symbolic conflation, considering its direct relationship to abortion.

The Boundaries of Her Body: The Troubling History of Women’s Rights in America
by Debran Rowland
pp. 34

WOMEN AND THE WOMB: The Emerging Birth Control Debate

The twentieth century dawned in America on a falling white birth rate. In 1800, an average of seven children were born to each “American-born white wife,” historians report. 29 By 1900, that number had fallen to roughly half. 30 Though there may have been several factors, some historians suggest that this decline—occurring as it did among young white women—may have been due to the use of contraceptives or abstinence,though few talked openly about it. 31

“In spite of all the rhetoric against birth control,the birthrate plummeted in the late nineteenth century in America and Western Europe (as it had in France the century before); family size was halved by the time of World War I,” notes Shari Thurer in The Myth of Motherhood. 32

As issues go, the “plummeting birthrate” among whites was a powder keg, sparking outcry as the “failure”of the privileged class to have children was contrasted with the “failure” of poor immigrants and minorities to control the number of children they were having. Criticism was loud and rampant. “The upper classes started the trend, and by the 1880s the swarms of ragged children produced by the poor were regarded by the bourgeoisie, so Emile Zola’s novels inform us, as evidence of the lower order’s ignorance and brutality,” Thurer notes. 33

But the seeds of this then-still nearly invisible movement had been planted much earlier. In the late 1700s, British political theorists began disseminating information on contraceptives as concerns of overpopulation grew among some classes. 34 Despite the separation of an ocean, by the 1820s, this information was “seeping” into the United States.

“Before the introduction of the Comstock laws, contraceptive devices were openly advertised in newspapers, tabloids, pamphlets, and health magazines,” Yalom notes.“Condoms had become increasing popular since the 1830s, when vulcanized rubber (the invention of Charles Goodyear) began to replace the earlier sheepskin models.” 35 Vaginal sponges also grew in popularity during the 1840s, as women traded letters and advice on contraceptives. 36 Of course, prosecutions under the Comstock Act went a long way toward chilling public discussion.

Though Margaret Sanger’s is often the first name associated with the dissemination of information on contraceptives in the early United States, in fact, a woman named Sarah Grimke preceded her by several decades. In 1837, Grimke published the Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, a pamphlet containing advice about sex, physiology, and the prevention of pregnancy. 37

Two years later, Charles Knowlton published The Private Companion of Young Married People, becoming the first physician in America to do so. 38 Near this time, Frederick Hollick, a student of Knowlton’s work, “popularized” the rhythm method and douching. And by the 1850s, a variety of material was being published providing men and women with information on the prevention of pregnancy. And the advances weren’t limited to paper.

“In 1846,a diaphragm-like article called The Wife’s Protector was patented in the United States,” according to Marilyn Yalom. 39 “By the 1850s dozens of patents for rubber pessaries ‘inflated to hold them in place’ were listed in the U.S. Patent Office records,” Janet Farrell Brodie reports in Contraception and Abortion in 19 th Century America. 40 And, although many of these early devices were often more medical than prophylactic, by 1864 advertisements had begun to appear for “an India-rubber contrivance”similar in function and concept to the diaphragms of today. 41

“[B]y the 1860s and 1870s, a wide assortment of pessaries (vaginal rubber caps) could be purchased at two to six dollars each,”says Yalom. 42 And by 1860, following publication of James Ashton’s Book of Nature, the five most popular ways of avoiding pregnancy—“withdrawal, and the rhythm methods”—had become part of the public discussion. 43 But this early contraceptives movement in America would prove a victim of its own success. The openness and frank talk that characterized it would run afoul of the burgeoning “purity movement.”

“During the second half of the nineteenth century,American and European purity activists, determined to control other people’s sexuality, railed against male vice, prostitution, the spread of venereal disease, and the risks run by a chaste wife in the arms of a dissolute husband,” says Yalom. “They agitated against the availability of contraception under the assumption that such devices, because of their association with prostitution, would sully the home.” 44

Anthony Comstock, a “fanatical figure,” some historians suggest, was a charismatic “purist,” who, along with others in the movement, “acted like medieval Christiansengaged in a holy war,”Yalom says. 45 It was a successful crusade. “Comstock’s dogged efforts resulted in the 1873 law passed by Congress that barred use of the postal system for the distribution of any ‘article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of contraception or procuring of abortion’,”Yalom notes.

Comstock’s zeal would also lead to his appointment as a special agent of the United States Post Office with the authority to track and destroy “illegal” mailing,i.e.,mail deemed to be “obscene”or in violation of the Comstock Act.Until his death in 1915, Comstock is said to have been energetic in his pursuit of offenders,among them Dr. Edward Bliss Foote, whose articles on contraceptive devices and methods were widely published. 46 Foote was indicted in January of 1876 for dissemination of contraceptive information. He was tried, found guilty, and fined $3,000. Though donations of more than $300 were made to help defray costs,Foote was reportedly more cautious after the trial. 47 That “caution”spread to others, some historians suggest.

Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America
By Carroll Smith-Rosenberg

Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America
by April R. Haynes

The Boundaries of Her Body: The Troubling History of Women’s Rights in America
by Debran Rowland

Rereading Sex: Battles Over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-century America
by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

Rewriting Sex: Sexual Knowledge in Antebellum America, A Brief History with Documents
by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America
by Nicola Kay Beisel

Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873–1935
by Leigh Ann Wheeler

Purity in Print: Book Censorship in America from the Gilded Age to the Computer Age
by Paul S. Boyer

American Sexual Histories
edited by Elizabeth Reis

Wash and Be Healed: The Water-Cure Movement and Women’s Health
by Susan Cayleff

From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America
by Kimberly A. Hamlin

Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917
by Gail Bederman

One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea
by Dana Becker

* * *

8/18/19 – Looking back at this piece, I realize there is so much that could be added to it. And it already is long. It’s a topic that would require writing a book to do it justice. And it is such a fascinating area of study with lines of thought going in numerous directions. But I’ll limit myself by adding only a few thoughts that point toward some of those other directions.

The topic of this post goes back to the Renaissance (Western Individuality Before the Enlightenment Age) and even earlier to the Axial Age (Hunger for Connection), a thread that can be traced back through history following the collapse of what Julian Jaynes called bicameral civilization in the Bronze Age. At the beginning of modernity, the psychic tension erupted in many ways that were increasingly dramatic and sometimes disturbing, from revolution to media panics (Technological Fears and Media Panics). I see all of this as having to do with the isolating and anxiety-inducing effects of hyper-individualism. The rigid egoic boundaries required by our social order are simply tiresome (Music and Dance on the Mind), as Julian Jaynes conjectured:

“Another advantage of schizophrenia, perhaps evolutionary, is tirelessness. While a few schizophrenics complain of generalized fatigue, particularly in the early stages of the illness, most patients do not. In fact, they show less fatigue than normal persons and are capable of tremendous feats of endurance. They are not fatigued by examinations lasting many hours. They may move about day and night, or work endlessly without any sign of being tired. Catatonics may hold an awkward position for days that the reader could not hold for more than a few minutes. This suggests that much fatigue is a product of the subjective conscious mind, and that bicameral man, building the pyramids of Egypt, the ziggurats of Sumer, or the gigantic temples at Teotihuacan with only hand labor, could do so far more easily than could conscious self-reflective men.”

On the Facebook page for Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Luciano Imoto made the same basic point in speaking about hyper-individualism. He stated that, “In my point of view the constant use of memory (and the hippocampus) to sustain a fictitious identity of “self/I” could be deleterious to the brain´s health at long range (considering that the brain consumes about 20 percent of the body’s energy).” I’m sure others have made similar observations. This strain on the psyche has been building up for a long time, but it became particularly apparent in the 19th century, to such an extent it was deemed necessary to build special institutions to house and care for the broken and deficient humans who couldn’t handle modern life or else couldn’t appropriately conform to the ever more oppressive social norms (Mark Jackson, The Borderland of Imbecility). As radical as some consider Jaynes to be, insights like this were hardly new — in 1867, Henry Maudsley offered insight laced with bigotry, from The Physiology and Pathology of Mind:

“There are general causes, such as the state of civilization in a country, the form of its government and its religion, the occupation, habits, and condition of its inhabitants, which are not without influence in determining the pro portion of mental diseases amongst them. Reliable statistical data respecting the prevalence of insanity in different countries are not yet to be had ; even the question whether it has increased with the progress of civilization has not been positively settled. Travellers are certainly agreed that it is a rare disease amongst barbarous people, while, in the different civilized nations of the world, there is, so far as can be ascertained, an average of about one insane person in five hundred inhabitants. Theoretical considerations would lead to the expectation of an increased liability to mental disorder with an increase in the complexity of the mental organization: as there are a greater liability to disease, and the possibility of many more diseases, in a complex organism like the human body, where there are many kinds of tissues and an orderly subordination of parts, than in a simple organism with less differentiation of tissue and less complexity of structure; so in the complex mental organization, with its manifold, special, and complex relations with the external, which a state of civilization implies, there is plainly the favourable occasion of many derangements. The feverish activity of life, the eager interests, the numerous passions, and the great strain of mental work incident to the multiplied industries and eager competition of an active civilization, can scarcely fail, one may suppose, to augment the liability to mental disease. On the other hand, it may be presumed that mental sufferings will be as rare in an infant state of society as they are in the infancy of the individual. That degenerate nervous function in young children is displayed, not in mental disorder, but in convulsions; that animals very seldom suffer from insanity; that insanity is of comparatively rare occurrence among savages; all these are circumstances that arise from one and the same fact—a want of development of the mental organization. There seems, therefore, good reason to believe that, with the progress of mental development through the ages, there is, as is the case with other forms of organic development, a correlative degeneration going on, and that an increase of insanity is a penalty which an increase of our present civilization necessarily pays. […]

“If we admit such an increase of insanity with our present civilization, we shall be at no loss to indicate causes for it. Some would no doubt easily find in over-population the prolific parent of this as of numerous other ills to mankind. In the fierce and active struggle for existence which there necessarily is where the claimants are many and the supplies are limited, and where the competition therefore is severe, the weakest must suffer, and some of them, breaking down into madness, fall by the wayside. As it is the distinctly manifested aim of mental development to bring man into more intimate, special, and complex relations with the rest of nature by means of patient investigations of physical laws, and a corresponding internal adaptation to external relations, it is no marvel, it appears indeed inevitable, that those who, either from inherited weakness or some other debilitating causes, have been rendered unequal to the struggle of life, should be ruthlessly crushed out as abortive beings in nature. They are the waste thrown up by the silent but strong current of progress; they are the weak crushed out by the strong in the mortal struggle for development; they are examples of decaying reason thrown off by vigorous mental growth, the energy of which they testify. Everywhere and always “to be weak is to be miserable.”

As civilization became complex, so did the human mind in having to adapt to it and sometimes that hit a breaking point in individuals; or else what was previously considered normal behavior was now judged unacceptable, the latter explanation favored by Michel Foucault and Thomas Szasz (also see Bruce Levine’s article, Societies With Little Coercion Have Little Mental Illness). Whatever the explanation, something that once was severely abnormal had become normalized and, as it happened with insidious gradualism, few noticed and would accept what had changed “Living amid an ongoing epidemic that nobody notices is surreal. It is like viewing a mighty river that has risen slowly over two centuries, imperceptibly claiming the surrounding land, millimeter by millimeter. . . . Humans adapt remarkably well to a disaster as long as the disaster occurs over a long period of time” (E. Fuller Torrey & Judy Miller, Invisible Plague; also see Torrey’s Schizophrenia and Civilization); “At the end of the seventeenth century, insanity was of little significance and was little discussed. At the end of the eighteenth century, it was perceived as probably increasing and was of some concern. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was perceived as an epidemic and was a major concern. And at the end of the twentieth century, insanity was simply accepted as part of the fabric of life. It is a remarkable history.” All of the changes were mostly happening over generations and centuries, which left little if any living memory from when the changes began. Many thinkers like Torrey and Miller would be useful for fleshing this out, but here is a small sampling of authors and their books: Harold D. Foster’s What Really Causes Schizophrenia, Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization, Alain Ehrenberg’s Weariness of the Self, etc; and I shouldn’t ignore the growing field of Jaynesian scholarship such as found in the books put out by the Julian Jaynes Society.

Besides social stress and societal complexity, there was much else that was changing. For example, increasing concentrated urbanization and close proximity with other species meant ever more spread of infectious diseases and parasites (consider toxoplasma gondii from domesticated cats; see E. Fuller Torrey’s Beasts of Earth). Also, the 18th century saw the beginnings of industrialization with the related rise of toxins (Dan Olmsted & Mark Blaxill, The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic). That worsened over the following century. Industrialization also transformed the Western diet. Sugar, having been introduced in the early colonial era, now was affordable and available to the general population. And wheat, once hard to grow and limited to the rich, also was becoming a widespread ingredient with new milling methods allowing highly refined white flour which made white bread popular (in the mid-1800s, Stanislas Tanchou did a statistical analysis that correlated the rate of grain consumption with the rate of cancer; and he observed that cancer, like insanity, spread along with civilization). For the first time in history, most Westerners were eating a very high-carb diet. This diet is addictive for a number of reasons and it was combined with the introduction of addictive stimulants. As I argue, this profoundly altered neurocognitive functioning and behavior (The Agricultural Mind, “Yes, tea banished the fairies.”, Autism and the Upper Crust, & Diets and SystemsDiets and Systems).

This represents an ongoing project for me. And I’m in good company.

 

Is Adaptation to Collapse the Best Case Scenario?

A little over a decade ago, a report by David Pimentel from Cornell University came out about the health costs of pollution. “About 40 percent of deaths worldwide,” wrote Susan S. Lang, “are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says” (Water, air and soil pollution causes 40 percent of deaths worldwide, Cornell research survey finds).

That is damning! It is powerful in showing the impact of our actions and the complicity of our indifference. It’s even worse than that. The harm touches upon every area of health. “Of the world population of about 6.5 billion, 57 percent is malnourished, compared with 20 percent of a world population of 2.5 billion in 1950, said Pimentel. Malnutrition is not only the direct cause of 6 million children’s deaths each year but also makes millions of people much more susceptible to such killers as acute respiratory infections, malaria and a host of other life-threatening diseases, according to the research.” This is billions of people who lack the basic resources of clean water and air along with nutritious food, something that was a human birthright for most of human existence.

It’s worse still. This data, as bad as it is, maybe was an underestimation. Another report just came out, Cardiovascular disease burden from ambient air pollution in Europe reassessed using novel hazard ratio functions by Jos Lelieveld et al. Summarized in Hurn Publications, it is stated that, “The number of early deaths caused by air pollution is double previous estimates, according to research, meaning toxic air is killing more people than tobacco smoking. The scientists used new data to estimate that nearly 800,000 people die prematurely each year in Europe because of dirty air, and that each life is cut short by an average of more than two years” (Air pollution deaths are double previous estimates, finds research). This isn’t limited to poor, dark-skinned people in far away countries for it also affects the Western world: “The health damage caused by air pollution in Europe is higher than the global average.” And that doesn’t even include “effects of air pollution on infant deaths”.

Think about that. It was a decade ago that around 40% of deaths were able to be linked to pollution and environmental problems. Since then, these problems have only grown worse, as the world’s population continues to grow as does industrialization. Now it is determined that air pollution is at least twice as fatal as previously calculated. The same is probably true more generally for other forms of pollution along with environmental degradation. Our data was incomplete in the past and, even if improved, it remains incomplete. Also, keep in mind that this isn’t only about deaths. Increasing numbers of sick days, healthcare, and disabilities adds up to costs that are incalculable. Our entire global economy is being dragged down, at the very moment we need all our resources to deal with these problems, not merely to pay for the outcomes but to begin reversing course if we hope to avoid the worst.

This barely touches upon the larger health problems. As I’ve written about before, we are beginning to realize how diet majorly impacts health, not only in terms of malnourishment but also all the problems related to a diet of processed foods with lots of toxins such as farm chemicals, hormone mimics, food additives, starchy carbs, added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Most of our healthcare costs go to a few diseases, all of them preventable. And the rates of major diseases are skyrocketing: neurocognitive conditions (mood disorders, personality disorders, autistic spectrum disorders, ADHD, etc), autoimmune disorders (type 1 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s disease, many forms of arthritis, etc), metabolic syndrome (type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, etc), and much else. This all relates to industrialized farming and food production that has, among much else, caused the soil to become depleted of nutrients while eroding what is left of the topsoil. At this rate, we have less than a century of topsoil left. And monocrops have been devastating to ecological diversity and set us up for famines when crops fail.

There pretty much is no one who isn’t being harmed. And increasingly the harm is coming at younger ages with diseases of older age now being seen among children and young adults. More of the population is becoming sick and disabled before they even get old enough to enter the workforce. For example, schizophrenia is on the rise among urban youth for reasons not entirely certain — in a summary of a study, it was concluded that “young city-dwellers also have 40% more chance of suffering from psychosis (hearing voices, paranoia or becoming schizophrenic in adulthood) is perhaps is less common knowledge” (see Urban Weirdness). So, it isn’t only that more people are dying younger. The quality of people’s lives is worsening. And with ever more people disabled and struggling, who is going to help them? Or are large swaths of the world’s population simply going to become unwanted and uncared for? And will we allow billions of people to fall further into poverty? If not becoming homeless, is it a better fate that we simply institutionalize these people so that we of the comfortable classes don’t have to see them? Or will we put these useless eaters into ghettos and internment camps to isolate them like a plague to be contained? The externalized costs of modern industrialized capitalism are beyond imagining and they’re quickly becoming worse.

Modernity is a death cult, as I’ve previously concluded. Besides mass extinction on the level never before experienced in all of hominid existence (the last mass extinction was 66 million years ago), we are already feeling the results of climate change with increased super-storms, floods, droughts, wildfires, etc. Recent heatwaves have been unprecedented, including in the Arctic — far from being a mere annoyance since it speeds up the melting of glaciers, sea ice, and permafrost which in turn releases greenhouse gases (possibly pathogens as well), speeds up the warming (Arctic Amplification), and will alter ocean currents and the polar jet stream. These environmental changes are largely what is behind the refugee crises numerous countries are facing, which is also connected to terrorism. Inequality within and between societies will exacerbate the problems further with increased conflicts and wars, with endless crisis after crisis coming from every direction until the available resources are pushed to the limit and beyond — as I wrote last year:

“As economic and environmental conditions worsen, there are some symptoms that will become increasingly apparent and problematic. Based on the inequality and climatology research, we should expect increased stress, anxiety, fear, xenophobia, bigotry, suicide, homicide, aggressive behavior, short-term thinking, reactionary politics, and generally crazy and bizarre behavior. This will likely result in civil unrest, violent conflict, race wars, genocides, terrorism, militarization, civil wars, revolutions, international conflict, resource-based wars, world wars, authoritarianism, ethno-nationalism, right-wing populism, etc.”

If you really want to be depressed, might I suggest reading Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy by Jem Bendell, a full Professor of Sustainability Leadership and Founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) at the University of Cumbria (UK): “When I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease, and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you won’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbors for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.” Here is what a Vice piece had to say about it:

“You only needed to step outside during the record-breaking heatwave last year to acknowledge that 17 of the 18 hottest years on the planet have occurred since 2000. Scientists already believe we are soon on course for an ice-free Arctic, which will only accelerate global warming. Back in 2017, even Fox News reported scientists’ warnings that the Earth’s sixth mass extinction was underway. Erik Buitenhuis, a senior researcher at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, tells me that Bendell’s conclusions may sound extreme, but he agrees with the report’s overall assessment. “I think societal collapse is indeed inevitable,” he says, though adds that “the process is likely to take decades to centuries” ” (Geoff Dembicki, The Climate Change Paper So Depressing It’s Sending People to Therapy).

What are governments and other major institutions doing in response? Very little, despite the consensus among experts and a majority of Americans supporting environmental policies, although the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security is concerned in maintaining their own power: “Their preparation, however, is not aimed at preventing or slowing down climate change, nor is it principally aimed at relieving distress. Rather it is in protecting the U.S. homeland and American business interests from the desperate masses” (Phil Ebersole, Climate, migration and border militarization). There are many courses of actions we could take. And we know what needs to be done to prevent or mitigate what will otherwise follow. Will we do it? Of course not. The problem is too large, too incomprehensible, and too depressing. We will go on denying it, until well into the global crisis, if not the civilizational collapse. At that point, it probably will no longer matter what we do or don’t do. But until then, we can begin to imagine the unimaginable, if only to prepare for it psychologically.

Then again, maybe we’ll find some way to pull out of this death spiral at the last moment. It’s unlikely, but humans can be innovative under pressure and no doubt there will be plenty of people attempting to create new technologies and adapt to new conditions. Even if there is only minimal success, some of the population could be saved as we shift to smaller-scale societies in the areas that are still viable for farming or else escaping into ecodomes. One way or another, the world as we know it will not continue on as before and, ignoring all the suffering and death, I don’t know that will be an entirely bad thing, at least for the earth if not for humanity. Even in that best case scenario, we would still be facing possibly thousands of years of climate disruption, maybe a new ice age, and on top of that it would take millions of years for the biosphere and ecosystems to recover from mass extinction and find a new balance. So, if we humans plan on surviving, it will be a very long struggle. Thousands of future generations will inherit our mistakes and our mess.