Authoritarian Tech

Linking climate change and air pollution to intelligence

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Picture this: a post-apocalyptic world, with humans now living on one of Jupiter’s moons. A young female scientist goes back to Earth to regenerate oxygen into the atmosphere using bees. As a sci-fi buff, it was only a matter of time before I’d see the movie “The IO” — a flopped Netflix Hollywood production. Critics have been harsh, but the movie spoke to me in light of recent climate change events. It certainly wasn’t the first time a film or book would predict our future, such as President Trump in the Simpsons, Airpods in Star Trek, and Black Mirror’s episode “Nosedive” in which people have to rate each other to gain access to services – insert China’s social credit system.

I thought of The IO again last week when I was on a call with environmental technologists and I discovered that there’s an abundance of scientific research exploring how CO2 — carbon dioxide — makes us stupid. One of the participants — Chris Adams, a director of the green web foundation, and environmental-focused tech generalist — told me he started focusing on the issue after reading James Bridle’s book New Dark Age. “It’s the existential problem of our time, and this is backed up by the science.”

A study by the Yale School of Public Health found that air pollution caused a drop in intelligence levels, while a University College London study found that “higher amounts of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere could affect our memory, concentration and decision-making abilities.” 

In response to the research, tech makers have been working on nifty little devices to track how “stupid” you get — wherever you are — from CO2. 

Sidenote: the 1968 musical Hair “warned” we probably shouldn’t breathe in too much CO2, singing: “Welcome, sulfur dioxide. Hello, carbon monoxide. The air, the air is everywhere. Breathe deep, while you sleep, breathe deep.” (Besides sci-fi, I’m also an avid musical fan, don’t judge).

We already know that casinos have been pumping extra oxygen into the halls for decades to keep people awake longer; in China, students use extra oxygen before the national exams. Our air is being altered to make us act and think differently.

This made me wonder: would repressive regimes go as far as pumping extra CO2 into enclosed areas to make their subordinates a little bit less intelligent? I know, purposely using CO2 to dumb down a nation sounds a bit outlandish. 

Or is it the perfect plot for another prescient sci-fi movie? Because it isn’t completely absurd. And that is how I wandered into the bizarre world of aerosol warfare:

  • The American military reportedly briefly looked into developing a non-lethal aphrodisiac bomb that would cause forces to become “irresistibly attracted to one another.” 
  • The CIA famously used aerosols to spray LSD to test mind-control techniques. It first came to light in 1977 when a former CIA  employee testified that he and a colleague went to San Francisco in 1959 to “lure unsuspecting people to a party at which the two agents were to spray the air with LSD‐25 as part of the agency’s secret drug‐testing.” 
  • The death of a scientist assigned to a secret U.S. biological warfare laboratory in 1953 turned out to be linked to the aerosol experiment — which inspired the  2017 six-part docudrama miniseries Wormwood
  • And no one seems to be able to agree on whether or not a small French city was sprayed with LSD by the CIA in 1951. Did the same thing occur in the New York subway system

My Favorite Coda Story This week

An interesting read this week is Lily Hide’s piece on how a chemical polluted the air around Armyansk, a town of 22,000 people in northern Crimea, and how disinformation left the residents hanging in the air (pun intended). “As reports spread of what appeared to be a major health and environmental incident, authorities on both sides of the divide, in Russia and Ukraine, seemed more concerned with using the leak as a propaganda tool than addressing the needs of those affected or investigating the cause.”

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Inge Snip

Inge worked as Coda Story's Impact Editor to solidify Coda Story's thinking on how Coda's journalism sparks change. She's also worked with UNDP, UNICEF, Forbes, Outriders, and EurasiaNet.

Beats: health, environment, tech, disinformation, gender.

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