Political Murmurations

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Knot murmuration, Snettisham, Norfolk, U.K., September 2023. Photo: The author.

The knots of Snettisham

Tides are highest when the sun, moon and Earth are in alignment and gravitational force is strongest. These are spring tides, named for the “springing up” of water, not the season of the year. When the three are least aligned, and gravity is weakest, tides are lowest — that’s a neap tide. Like me, you probably learned this in elementary school, but forgot it.

Here in Norfolk, where I’m spending the month, the North Sea beaches are flat and wide, and the spring tides can catch you unawares. You may be standing one moment on a vast mudflat, and a half-hour later be surrounded by water up to your waist. I’m always afraid of getting caught in a rising tide. So, it seems are the tens of thousands of birds who roost and feed on the mudflats at the RSPB reserve at Snettisham.

During spring tides, knots (caliidris canutus) are surprised by the rising waters and leave their roosts almost all at once, rising in vast murmurations that rapidly change in form and density. One moment a flock may be shaped like cigar; then a cloud, and then a pillowcase being turned inside out. The aerial spectacle continues until all the birds have relocated to a new roosting area. I witnessed the phenomenon a week ago, accompanied by a hundred or so other birders got up in khakis and Tilley hats, and carrying all sorts of kit: cameras and lenses, tripods and binoculars, coolers and thermoses. If the birds took the trouble to look down at us, they’d see that we too were a murmuration, albeit ragged and terrestrial: one moment, marching in a line from the parking lot to the viewing site; then bunched up with binoculars raised in synchrony, following the movement of the birds; and then dispersing back to from where we came.

Politics in formation

People often flock. Rush hour traffic, flash mobs, and 4th of July parades are examples. Music and dance numbers choreographed by Busby Berkely in 1930s movies, (including 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933), featured both simultaneous and metachronal (sequential) movement. Since the late 1970s, fans at sports events have performed “the wave,” a metachronal action (standing and raising arms) that entertains participants during lulls in the action on the field. More ominously, mass rallies of Nazi soldiers and civilians at Nuremberg between 1923 and 1938 included synchronized marching, presentation of arms, shouldering of shovels and other tools, and of course, the Hitler (“sieg heil”) salute.

In the U.S., blind adulation for former president Donald Trump – twice impeached, convicted rapist and thief, and indicted racketeer — manifested itself in mass, MAGA rallies during which crowds shouted in unison “lock her up”, “build a wall” and sometimes, “Trump that bitch.” On January 6, 2021, Trump directed thousands to riot and try to overturn the results of a national election. Today, 3/4 of the nation waits to see if the other quarter – the MAGA flock — will remain locked in formation or drift apart in pursuit of another, equally dangerous leader.

Instinct vs reason in animals and humans (the science of murmuration)

It’s long been supposed that animals act though instinct and humans through reason. This idea is no longer tenable. For both, self-expression, assertion of needs and desires, and the formulation of strategies to satisfy them are at once the product of higher-level executive function located in the cerebral cortex (formerly associated only with homo sapiens) and primary-process emotions located in the amygdala and hypothalamus (generally identified with the animal brain). Now we know that humans deploy instinct when they appear to think, and animals think when they seem only to act instinctively.

Knots coordinate their acrobatics primarily by means of keen sight and recognition of “topological distance”, that is, the movements of birds closest to them. They are also influenced by pheromones detectable through vomeronasal organs found at the base of their beaks. Displaced by a rising sea, knots emit stress pheromones that trigger rapid breathing, increased heart rate, vocalization, agitated movement, and sudden, synchronized flight. These reactions also have a cognitive dimension. Using the various tools of affective neuroscience, including subcortical brain stimulation and Positron Image Tomography, Jaak Panskepp demonstrated that in general, an animal’s instinctual actions are manifested in their emotions. He described this mental geography as “nested-hierarchies of BrainMind affective processing, with primal emotional functions being foundational for secondary-process learning and memory mechanisms, which interface with tertiary-process cognitive-thoughtful functions of the BrainMind.” Most animals, to put it more simply, know when they are agitated and when they are calm. Their instincts trigger emotions which in turn stimulate thoughts.

A similar “BrainMind” conjunction is operational in humans. To return to the earlier example, the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capital on Jan. 6, 2021, were motivated by loyalty to Trump, patriotism, racism, anti-Semitism, miscellaneous conspiracy theories, and individual grievances. But they were also responding instinctively to dynamic circumstances, and topological distance, like the knots in flight at Snettisham. On the one hand, primary process emotions such as fear, panic, and rage (located deep in their animal brains), drove them forward. On the other, they engaged in flocking behavior that was cognitive, volitional, and motivated. “Seditious conspiracy” is not instinctive, it’s political.

Climate migration

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Norfolk coast at Happisburgh, with St. Mary’s church. September 2023. Photo: The author.

Climate change is leading to a new kind of flocking behavior: mass human migration. All over the world, communities are being uprooted by excessive heat and drought, floods and fires, hurricanes, and rising seas. Unnaturally heavy rains in Libya last week, combined with poor dam maintenance (a product of the U.S. backed invasion), led to a devastating flood that killed at least 10,000 and forced the relocation of thousands more survivors. In 2019, a combination of drought and sudden inundation led tens of thousands of Guatemalan campesinos to flee their lands and head northward. In Southeast Asia, according to a study sponsored by the World Bank, irregular monsoon seasons have over the past decade led to drought, crop failure, and the migration of millions of people toward the Middle East, Europe, and North America. By 2050, if current trends continue, heat, drought and rising seas will lead to the migration northward of more than 143 million people from Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.

In the U.S., rising sea levels and heavier rains storms — products of global warming — are causing communities in the worst impacted areas to relocate to higher ground. The movement so far – away from the Gulf Coast, coastal Carolina, and the Florida Keys — has been piecemeal and uncoordinated. But the growing size of heat, fires and floods will soon cause a much larger scale migration, one that will dwarf the exodus of African Americans fleeing racism and Klan violence during the Great Northward Migration (1916-1970).

Nearly 30 million Americans will, over the next few decades confront fires like the ones that scorched California and the Pacific Northwest in recent years, according to a report by ProPublica. Disappearing aquifers in the Midwest, mountain states and California will destroy much existing agriculture and may even depopulate whole cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, El Paso and Los Angeles. In addition, some 100 million Americans in the Mississippi River Basin will have to contend with heat and humidity so great that work or play outside will be impossible. Millions will be forced to migrate north to more temperate zones. Government will need to step in to organize the exodus, perhaps in the form of a” Climate Migration Agency” within a “Department of Climate Change.” A robust response today (not bloody likely) will help avoid a catastrophic migration later.

The disappearing village

I recently caught a glimpse of climate migration — in miniature — in the Norfolk town of Happisburgh. Perched on crumbling bluffs, the town has become famous in the UK. as the place where Westminster drew the line: there will be no investment in sea walls to protect the town from collapsing into the rising North Sea. It’s estimated that between 200,000 and 1.5 million households in the U.K. will be displaced by climate change in the next 25 years. Coastal and other infrastructure could also be badly impacted. Neither the Tories nor Labor have a plan to protect them.

The Happisburgh caravan park was recently moved landward, across the coast road, but brick and flint homes can’t be relocated, and some have already collapsed into the sea or been demolished in advance of that eventuality. The historic lighthouse (built in 1790 and still functioning) will also collapse in a few years, and the same fate awaits the 15th century church of St. Mary’s. The Hill House Pub is also at risk, as I learned after talking to its publican, Clive. He’s a stout man with red cheeks and calm demeanor. Sitting outside the pub on a picnic bench, we talked about the future of Happisburgh.

“It’s a sad thing, innit”, Clive said.

“And there’s nothing that can be done?” I asked. “I was just at Waxham about 20 miles south and saw they have a long, concrete seawall. No plans for that here?”

“Nah, they give up on us, din’ they. You can buy a place here cheap if yur int’rested.

“How much longer has the pub got?”

Clive replied: “10-20 years, 30 at most. But I don’t care, I’ll be dead by then!”

Thinking about the fate of the earth in 2053, I joked darkly, “Not if you’re unlucky!”

Back in the car, I drove north along the coast and thought again about the birds of Snettisham. An RSPB scientist and friend told me it has been a good year. On the day I visited, 59,000 knots and 20,000 pink footed geese (anser brachyrhynchus) performed their murmuration, little changed from pervious years. They rose together in shifting formation not simply to avoid the rising sea but to protect against predators. It’s much harder for hawks to seize closely packed and fast-moving birds than individuals flying slowly and alone. Their self-protection is instinctual, but also emotional and cognitive. At the moment, national political institutions and dominating ideologies in the U.S. and U.K. have conspired to prevent people from organizing as a mass to protect themselves against the threat of global warming. The birds of Snettisham are smarter.

Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at s-eisenman@northwestern.edu