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On becoming an apocalyptic zealot.

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

I’m no fun at parties anymore.

I’m like that guy whose only conversational gambit is to talk about the Spassky-Fisher match of 1973. Or the geek who has discovered SecondLife or WorldOfWarcraft. Or the airhead, who only wants to talk about celebrities, and other virtual worlds.

Or more to the point, that guy who has recently converted, and sees everything through the lens of the revealed.

In my case, that lens is cascading, endless bad news about species collapse, environmental collapse, peak oil and gas and phosphorus, toxic breaches and endocrine disruptions, and climate warming leading to ocean acidification. It’s the human-made horrors of the last century.

Because of what Jim and I are doing here, we are required, by our self-stated commitment, to be The ApocoDocs. We have to filter the news about the five apocalyptic scenarios, as well as finding stories of Recovery.

Sure, we make fun of all the news items, and make silly quizzes — that’s the gimmick, to get readers to pay attention by being entertained — and it’s kind of a hoot to be snarky about stuff that scares the shit out of me.

To construct that “fun,” Jim and I spend an aggregate hour or so each day, selecting the news stories we want to showcase — because there’s far more out there than we could include. And to be true ApocoDocs, we also have to know the background, understand the context, and be able to make informed predictions and judgments.

Today I read, for “fun,” a few chapters from the gorgeous, astonishing publication called Sustaining Life, from Oxford Univ. Press, which includes gems like:

The herbacide atrazine, widely used in the United States (~75 million pounds are applied each year) but banned in seven European Union countries, has been shown to change the sex of Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens) and to slow their gonadal development at levels of only 0.1 parts per billion, a concentration that is found in rainwater essentially everywhere in the United States.

This fragile, collapsing, feedback-looping, it’s-so-much-worse-than-we-thought world is the world as it is. I am looking at the world through the lens of the revealed.

I saw the Obama/Clinton rivalry only through this lens: who might have a chance in hell of enlisting the world in the struggle to save itself?

I see the “threat of terrorism” through this lens as a paltry, puny, gnat of a problem, in comparison with overfishing, ocean acidification, and environmental toxification.

I see the recession we’re in as only another goddamn barrier to recovery, since there’s less money to spend on what matters: halting the spread of mercury and other heavy metals far and wide, through coal mining and burning.

I see the continuing rise of gas prices only through this lens (even as it bites me in the wallet), because the only way we will reduce our CO2 emissions is if it’s too costly not to — and if economic depression means we get energy efficient, then it’s a step in the right direction.

I see every plastic bag, every disposable lighter, every discarded bit of diaphonous wrap through this lens: in the carcasses of albatross chicks, having had it disgorged into their gullets by their parents as “food.”

I see every container ship through this lens: the ballast water they bring and dump inevitably contains alien species, some of which become invasive, and kill off the native species — an endless, continuous stream of ecosystem damage from place to place.

I like to think that this newfound zealotry helps me understand the perspective of other zealots: Islamic fundamentalists, anti-abortion militants, rooters for Armageddon, neoconservatives, fascists, Earth Liberation Frontists, Ayn Randians, Scientologists, and all the other glazed-eyed true believers. When it all makes sense through the new lens, we then frame the rest of the world through those glasses.

And like any zealot, I’m of course convinced that my zealotry is more right than anyone else’s, because I have the facts of science on my side. I can say “my fifty years of rational, empirical, evidence-based thinking has led me to conclude….”

I can say “take a look at this, and this, and this, and this…”

But it doesn’t make me any more fun at parties.

O wretched lens, through which I must now see.

When GMO ≠ GMO

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can raise my hackles. But only sometimes. Other times, I’m delighted by the creativity, ingenuity, and smarts of the technology and its scientists.

What scares me most, I’ve discovered while working on a related project, is idle blurring of the various issues involved with “Genetic Modification.” When we speak as if it’s all the same, and worse, when our leaders polarize the issue, then society is the worse for it. We need to acknowledge that it’s not necessarily the process, but rather the implementation that is at issue.

On the one hand, you can have stupid GMO, as we have seen with Monsanto’s proprietary “roundup ready” crop seeds — corn, soybeans, and a few other crops they’ve developed, which can withstand Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup™.

They raise my hackles because they’re stupidly produced, stupidly implemented, and with a business model that is stupid for the planet, if clever for Monsanto.

a) Monsanto requires, and vigorously enforces, the provision that farmers sign away their right to replant seed grown on their own farms. Instead, they’re required to buy new seed from Monsanto, every season.

b) The early GMO seed — the Monsanto stuff in particular — was produced in a frighteningly primitive way: essentially blasting desired DNA (and a whole lot of other DNA) into another set of DNA, and seeing what happened. If the resulting plant showed promise, and didn’t fail to thrive (that is, no mutation was causing obvious troubles), then it would be propogated.

That is, they were aiming at a target — getting RoundUpReady™ seed — and then using a shotgun to fire at the target. And by golly, one of the pellets hit a bulls-eye!

But we haven’t done thorough studies of where the other pellets went — and what damage they might have done outside the target. Instead, Monsanto is making astounding profits testing the system “in the field.” Which leads me to:

c) Humankind is allowing Monsanto (and other GM crop producers) to use the world as a petrie dish. This is fundamentally stupid: few if any human-health, genetic-drift, ecosystem-health, or other tests have been done on these crops, yet we’re planting millions of acres of Monsanto seed, resulting in plenty of spillover (GM canola has been found growing as a weed in Japan, which nationally prohibits GMO importation).

It may be mere coincidence that bee colonies are suffering colony collapse disorder, but we don’t know — because the pollen of RoundUpReady soybeans was never tested on pollen-collectors. We haven’t tested to see what degree of digestive problems might be the result of an allergy to, say, GM corn-produced corn syrup. We haven’t tested whether the worms in the soil get have their reproductive systems screwed up because they end up eating the Roundup-killed weeds in those cornfields, or the decaying roots of the previous year’s corn.

a) is insulting, b) is primitive, and c) is idiotic. That’s three strikes.

But that doesn’t mean I’m fully anti-GMO. There are some amazing projects out there, which are smart, and are also controlled. That is, they are systems that use genetically modified bacteria to turn cellulose — the chaff, the corn husks, the sawdust — into ethanol, thereby taking straw and turning it into gold.

Elsewhere scientists are modifying bacteria to fix nitrogen while producing sugars to make burnable gas, grown in transparent vats, using sunlight to grow.

What’s different is that these are a closed systems. These smart GMO projects and others are being tested, and refined, within a laboratory. They’re tested, they’re checked, they’re limited even if scaled up.

Among the many reasons these distinctions matters is that knee-jerk anti-GMO reactions are as easy to dismiss as knee-jerk creationist reactions: who but a zealot would refuse to acknowledge that bacterial infections have evolved to defeat a sequence of antibiotics? The scientists working in the exciting GM field can easily dismiss societal concerns — justifiable concerns — by painting them with the brush of zealotry.

We, and our political and scientific leaders, need to take a multivalent view of GMOs — it’s not binary, not just “bad” or “good.” It’s not the “genetically modifed” part that is so wrong (and many a biologist will tell you “we’ve been doing genetic modification via hybrids for thousands of years”) — it’s the stupid implementation of promoting uncontrolled organisms that might have profound effects on our food, our health, and our biome.

We should ensure that all GM work is done smartly, not stupidly. And we need to be sure that profit is not used as an excuse for irresponsibility.

Paul Stamets to the rescue

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

So what did the residents of Fort Bragg do — to help figure out a new way to clean up their dioxin problem? They invited Paul Stamets to speak.

I first encountered Stamets at the 2006 Bioneers gathering in Marin County. This annual event gathers all sorts of amazing scientists, social justice activists, and forward-thinking folks. Through plenary speeches and workshops and panels and dance parties, people share their ideas and success stories about healing the planet.

Stamets may not be the most dynamic speaker ever, but in his plenary speech, he presented a host of ways that mycoremediation can help heal the planet. Mycoremediation — a new word to me at the time — is remediation through the use of mushrooms.

Some of it is so fanciful you think you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole with Dorothy, to mix a cultural metaphor. In fact, he delivered his speech sporting a cool looking hat made entirely from mushrooms.

Check all the great ideas and books that Stamets offers at http://www.fungi.com

And check out www.bioneers.org

This year’s Bioneers conference is Oct. 17-19. Maybe see you there.

Jim

Bat die-off now found in CT

Friday, April 4th, 2008

I’ve been following the bat die-off in the Northeast US this winter — first in New York state, then in MA, then in VT, and now in CT. The scientists studying the 80-90% fatality rate in affected “hiberniums” (read: caves and abandoned mines) are desperately searching for understanding of what has been coined “White Nose Syndrome (WNS),” after a symptom of these starving, dehydrated, dying bats flying out into the winter daylight, certain to die.

And now, it’s showing up in Connecticut.

From the Litchfield County Times:

The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) first announced the presence in Connecticut of bats affected with WNS last Friday and the second location was discovered Tuesday….

“The presence of WNS could have a major impact on biodiversity in Connecticut, and we are taking this discovery very seriously,” she continued. “Bats are our single largest predator of night flying insects and provide an important form of natural insect control. Any significant depletion in their numbers will also result in a significant effect in other parts of our ecosystem.

Dr. R. Laurence Davis, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of New Haven, explained further. “Bats will eat 4,000 to 7,000 mosquitoes each night, per bat. Those mosquitoes won’t be eaten if the bats die. Mosquitoes have a major impact on the environment, carrying diseases such as West Nile Fever. Bats also eat moths — you could say that’s just a few more moths around the light at night, but adult moths make baby moths and those are caterpillars that defoliate things. We have the potential for — I am trying not to use the word ‘disaster’….’

“Typically, they have only one pup a year,” the professor said, “It’s not like it’s a population of mice that crashed, where they have three and four litters a year — you would have mice again in a hurry — but bats are going to take a long time to come back. Normally, you would expect bats from other colonies to come in and scarf up the bugs — no food source goes wasted — but with 80 to 90 percent of the New York bats dying off, you are beginning to test the limits of bat migration.”

The reason for the die-off — which may be wiping out the majority of bats in these states — is still unknown. They’ve found no specific virus, bacteria, or other pathogen to explain it — and the “white nose” fungus seems a symptom, not a cause.

Dr. Davis said that there is little data available on bats, which is making it difficult for scientists to determine cause and effect. “They don’t normally do bat surveys every year in every cave,” he said, “mainly because when you go in, you wake them up and they burn up fat with nothing to eat. This syndrome could have started earlier than two years ago — we just don’t know. The real problem is there are no in-depth studies of bat biology. There are several labs working as hard as they can and they find parasites, they find bacteria on the fur or skin — but no one knows if this is normal because there is no data on a healthy population. We haven’t found any toxins; we haven’t found any smoking gun. Everything is so inter-connected. There are so many different elements that could be attributed to something else. No one knows for sure.”

My own armchair theorizing leads me to conclude that it has more to do with pesticide-resistent (but still sick) insects being eaten by the “prime predator” of the air. These resistent bugs have been sprayed with pesticides in apple orchards, croplands, and elsewhere. The bats then are poisoned, sickened, and their hibernation disturbed by these now-flushed toxins.

But then, I’m just watching from the sidelines, worried. I’m not an expert in this field.

The Lakota tribe has a saying that’s part of sweatlodge rituals: “O mitak uyasin,” which translates loosely to “all are my relatives.” It’s used to remind that someone else’s troubles are also mine; that we are all connected, inextricably, and are all — humans, animals, plants, soil — related.

In the bat die-off we see another example of what we’re doing to the natural world, to our relatives. Scoffers might say “there’s no proof that we are the cause of this problem” — just like they say there’s no “proof” that climate chaos is a humanly-generated problem. It seems better than likely, if not obvious.

We are all related. Our world is in trouble. We are doing damage of unspeakable magnitude in ways both hidden and evident. We are thoughtlessly presuming that if we can do it, it’s ok to do, regardless of the impacts on other living creatures.

The bats are an example of what I’m seeing as a frightening trend (viz. the bee colony collapse, the bird collapses, the amphibian collapse) — generalized species collapse, leading to newly chaotic, unbalanced ecosystems. It will likely be very depressing, on many levels — financial, psychological, systemic.

O mitak uyasin. All beings are my relatives. When my relatives are sick, so am I.

Pine beetle infestation impacting salmon runs

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008


From The Vancouver Sun:
“VANCOUVER - If the heat of climate change weren’t enough of a danger to Pacific salmon, scientists are cataloging how the effects of the global-warming-aided mountain pine beetle infestation are adding to salmon’s woes. The grain-of-rice-sized beetles have chewed through interior pine forests covering an area four-times the size of Vancouver Island, a report released Tuesday by the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council notes. Some 60 per cent of the Fraser River watershed is affected, with loss of forest cover over salmon streams that has led to numerous impacts that “significantly alter the watershed’s ecology, threatening already stressed salmon runs.”

So who are the real heroes here?

Am I supposed to consider these beetles the antagonists in this scenario? Okay, so they’ve eaten a few trees — I scanned the article but I REALLY READ THE HEADLINE a couple of times — but if their activities are hurting salmon, why aren’t we cheering for them? Salmon are clearly responsible for the creation of salmonella bacteria, so I say go for it, pine beetle. Do your dirty work!

Oh. Wait. I just thought of something. The headlines says “Pine beetle infestation impacting salmon runs.” Maybe that means these nasty pine beetles are giving the salmon diarrhea and it’s their, ahem, “runs” that produce salmonella. So the pine beetles should be stopped! So the salmon can defecate normally and not have the runs and maybe there will be less salmonella.

I wish headlines were just a little clearer, even if they have to be a little longer.

Jim

Plastic, and Albatrosses around our necks

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

Today, a BBC story called “New ‘Battle of Midway’ on plastic,” made it clear how seriously our never-to-biodegrade plastics are damaging our ecosystems:

The Midway Islands are home to some of the world’s most valuable and endangered species and they all are at risk from choking, starving or drowning in the plastic drifting in the ocean.

Nearly two million Laysan albatrosses live here and researchers have come to the staggering conclusion that every single one contains some quantity of plastic.

About one-third of all albatross chicks die on Midway, many as the result of being mistakenly fed plastic by their parents.

Every single albatross contains “some quantity of plastic”! This isn’t just another canary in the coal mine — this is humankind thoughtlessly poisoning our own wells with our own crap.

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” because he killed a lucky bird, the Mariner was required to hang the rotting corpse around his neck, as punishment:

God save thee, ancient Mariner
From the fiends, that plague thee thus
Why look’st thou so ? - “With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.”

Ah. well a-day. what evil looks
Had I from old and young
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

Ah, well a-day indeed.

The stinking, rotting corpses of the albatrosses — the ones dying on Midway, as well as the fish, birds, whales, seals and turtles dying from ingesting our plastic — will be around our necks for a long, long time.

Roundup, and the convenience factor

Friday, March 21st, 2008

I just watched an ad promoting the RoundUp Pump — or something like that — a device that you pump up, and then simply pull the trigger and stream out “kill.”

The competition in the ad is between a hand-sprayer, and the Pump. “5 minutes of continuous spray” they say. They show the weeds growing between concrete. The hand-sprayer loses, with a cramp. The Pump wins, killing off driveway weeds.

And I think of that chemical, draining off the driveway, going into the waterway. And think about what that chemical — designed to kill plants — might do when it drains away. It’s designed to kill. Or, diluted, weaken.

Yeah, dilution. Yeah, it’s only one driveway.

But it’s also “yeah, I’m going to spray this bit of continuing death onto the world, so I don’t have to lean over.”

Weeds? It’s only nature trying to re-integrate with us. Surely we can lean over, and pull up the weed, instead of spraying continuing death. Heck, plant it back where you don’t mind it being — it’ll feel better. But jeez, as part of recovery, we have to start changing the idea that we can just pound on weeds — of any kind — with chemicals, without damaging everything else too.

Mercury Threatens Next Generation Of Loons

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

From Wildlife Conservation Society:
“A long-term study by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the BioDiversity Research Institute, and other organizations has found and confirmed that environmental mercury–much of which comes from human-generated emissions–is impacting both the health and reproductive success of common loons in the Northeast.”

Pretty much…everything I posted today could have been under the heading of “Species Collapse,” but then you might have come upon our homepage and thought there was a bug (or endangered bug) in the system because of the repetition of the species collapse symbol.

So I mixed it up, because I’ve learned over the months of doing this site that if I don’t, I’ll get overwhelmed.

Let’s take today’s findings one story at a time.

1) Polar bears’ status as threatened is being delayed by the Interior.

2) Eels are declining

3) Next, I found this loon story and decided I had to search for good news just to keep my spirits up. So I found the good news that a giant wind farm is being constructed in Southern California.

Of course, I forgot for that moment that the one real problem with wind energy is that birds are kind of brainless and fly into them and sliced and diced or simply bludgeoned to death.

4) so then I found the giant oyster story– a natural for our Biome Breach scenario — and sure enough it was a classic tale of a human intervention creating an invasive species situation.

5) having interpolated a couple of non-species collapse stories, I returned to my loon story.

Late in that story, I find this quote: “This study demonstrates how top predators such as common loons can be used as the proverbial ‘canaries-in-the-coalmine’ for pollutants that concern humans as well,” said David C. Evers of the BioDiversity Research Institute and lead author of the study. “Our findings can be used to facilitate national and global decisions for regulating mercury emissions from coal-burning plants and other sources.”

There’s that metaphor again: canary in the coalmine, one we’ve been using for bats in the northeast and pteropods in the Atlantic and…

It seems chillingly true that the planet is being divided into the haves and the have nots. On one end, the endangered species: the polar bears, the eels, the loons, the bats, the pteropods, the eastern hemlock, the honey bees and … on the other end, the oysters and rats and jellyfish and cane toads and even the Asian harlequin ladybird….

Biomes are breached, species collapse, climate is changed, metaphors proliferate like … well, like oysters and rats and rabbits and cane toads.

Let’s just declare the human species as threatened or endangered. That may be the wake up call we need.

Jim

Waking from Hibernation: or, Bats ‘R’ Us

Friday, March 7th, 2008

I have been obsessing about the bat problem — the un-hibernating bats in New York and Vermont, flying out of the caves to a wintry landscape because they’re starving to death, littering the snow around their hiberniums.

And I think I realized today the reason for the obsession:

Bats ‘R’ us.

We’ve been sleepwalking through the last fifty years — mentally hibernating while the evidence piles up around us of what we’re doing to our world — and we’re just now waking up. We’re opening our eyes, and realizing that something’s wrong. We’re sick, we’re poisoned, we’re hungry, and the fat stores are about used up.

Normally, we’d just go out and get some more land, conquer another civilization, pump another aquafir, find some more solutions — it’s worked every other time for humankind, right?

We had a great autumn, eating twice our body weight of the world. We flew around with abandon, delighted in the evening sky.

But now, we’re realizing that a lot of what we ate was toxic. That our resistances are down, and all isn’t quite how it should be. And we’re waking up from our hibernation, realizing that we may have screwed it all up over the last fifty years.

And there’s not much but snow, out there.

Female starlings prefer polluted males

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

From United Press International:
“Welsh scientists have found brain and behavioral changes in wild birds after the birds forage on invertebrates contaminated with environmental pollutants. Katherine Buchanan and colleagues at Cardiff University studied male European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) foraging at a sewage treatment works and analyzed the earthworms that constitute their prey. The researchers found birds exposed to environmentally relevant levels of synthetic and natural estrogen developed longer and more complex songs compared with males in a control group…The researchers also found female starlings prefer the song of males exposed to the mixture of endocrine disrupting chemicals, suggesting the potential for population level effects on reproductive success.”

This amazing study goes on to say that “the birds’ high vocal center — the area of the brain that controls male song complexity — became significantly enlarged in the contaminated birds.”

To paraphrase politics, “It’s the estrogen, stupid.” Maybe these birds are starting to croon more like Wayne Newton — instead of Barry White.

But who knows? Maybe the more “complex song” of the males is a lament that their beloved meals (worms) are now full of toxin. And the females are joining the pity party.

Do the animals know their world is deteriorating?

How could they not.

Apocology Post: Responding to Transgression

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

Here’s the problem: we have developed, over the last fifty years, a belief that we can transgress with impunity.

We can transgress countries (viz. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and countless minor incursions in between). We can transgress economies (viz. the World Bank, the IMF, the overdevelopment industry [see Confessions of an Economic Hit Man], and countless economic incursions). We can transgress privacy (viz. the credit system, “homeland security,” and grocery-store cards that give us a discount so they can track our every purchase).

We can transgress science (viz. the well-financed “oh gosh there’s doubt” about climate impacts of massive output of CO2, when there was little real doubt among real scientists). We can transgress representative government (viz. the bush administration’s executive hegemony, over the last six years).

But worst of all is that for fifty years and more — one could argue that it’s built into our DNA — we have believed that we could transgress Nature with impunity.

What I’ve been seeing, over the last few months of attending to the Apoc scenarios, to distill it for this site, has truly terrified me. We have imagined that we were kings of the world. We have imagined that we could do no wrong, that any business was good business, that the world would take whatever we could mete out.

We were wrong. We should have known better, but of course we didn’t want to know.

It’s been fun, these last decades. I’ve just turned 50, and have had five decades of relative opulance and luxury. We didn’t have to worry about carbon footprints, or climate collapse. We didn’t have to think about what we were doing to the rainforests by eating a Big Mac. We didn’t have to wonder if there’d be wildflowers, much less most grocery produce, in five years, if the bees die off.

We didn’t worry about the pthalates in plastic. About dead zones. About ocean acidification. About mercury in what fish are left. About untethered genetic modification for profit.

All we had to worry about was nuclear war, which was just a rumble in the distance.

We are now facing facts that make it clear that, to have a viable civilization in fifteen years, we have to make radical change, faster than any of us want.

We are stuck with this. We, my generation and all above and below it, must recognize that a dramatic restructuring of priorities, and of our willingness to transgress, is required. That’s a lot of what the PostApocology site is about — trying to make it clear how far we’ve transgressed, in so many ways.

If we don’t make dramatic change, then we will be restructured anyway, just less orderly, and with more violence.

Because the shit will hit the fan. Our transgressions have caught up with us. We have to start shifting today, if we are to have any hope of having a good tomorrow.

Sea birds, pipefish, and koyaaniskatsi

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008


From Guardian (UK):
“The snake pipefish, virtually unknown around the UK in 2002, has undergone a massive, baffling and dangerous expansion since then, scientists have discovered…. Since 2000 sea birds have not been able to find sufficient food either to sustain their chicks or give them the energy to breed, a problem that is blamed on the dwindling populations of small fish and sand eels that sea birds eat, a phenomenon scientists have been unable to explain…. Now parent guillemots, terns and puffins are scooping pipefish from the sea for their chicks as substitutes for their normal fish food. But the pipefish body is rigid and bony and extremely hard for chicks to eat. Biologists have found dozens left uneaten in single nests while chicks have choked to death on their bodies.”

The seabirds are starving, because their normal food is disappearing, for reasons uncertain and no doubt complicated — warming waters, changes in phytoplankton, changes in currents, changes in other fish populations, toxins in the waters — and so the birds turn to what’s available: a bony, almost fatless relative of the seahorse.

The seabird populations are collapsing:

Sea bird numbers have been hit by a series of consecutive breeding failures in recent years, affecting skuas, guillemots, shags and others. The problem is starvation.

Why care about sea birds? Well, because they’re another canary in the coalmine, another example of koyaaniskatsi, life out of balance. “Sea birds breed fairly slowly and a number of bad years could have a long-term devastating impact,” said a professor studying the problem.

Bats, bees, amphibians, sea birds, turtles, tuna, right whales, sharks…. the list goes on.

We may be eating pipefish ourselves, all too soon.

Don’t forget to chew.

Brazil, France, and Monsanto

Monday, February 25th, 2008

From AP News:
The French government on Saturday suspended the use of genetically modified corn crops in France while it awaits EU approval for a full ban. The order formalized France’s announcement Jan. 11 that it would suspend cultivation of Monsanto’s MON810, the seed for the only type of genetically modified corn now allowed in the country.

This good news regarding GM corn — increasingly recognized as something with limited utility, unexpected consequences, and uncertain dangers — is tempered by bad news from Brazil:

One of the varieties authorized was a pest-resistant crop called MON 810 by its maker, the US biotech company Monsanto, and marketed under the names Guardian and YieldGard.

It was officially banned in France last weekend amid concerns that it could have an effect on insects, a species of earthworm and micro-organisms. (from AFP: Brazil authorizes genetically modified crops)

Hard to locate much background on the politics, at least online, especially regarding the Brazilian choice. If anyone has background, do post, please.

The PostApocaDocs were relatively agnostic about GM corn, and GM in general — until we learned of “Gene Flow,” which is part of the dance of plants in nature.

One concern associated with genetic engineering is “gene flow”–that is, the movement of genes from one organism to another. As a part of their normal reproductive cycle, plants transmit their DNA to other compatible plants via pollen. Genes from fields of crop plants can be transmitted by pollination to plants in the same or other fields, or in some cases even to other closely-related non-crop plants. (from Cornell Public Information, Horizontal Gene Transfer)

We also paid attention to the way in which most GM experiments are undertaken — frequently a shotgun, random-chance way of literally shooting shards of DNA into cells, and then seeing what happens. This may explain some of the “unintended consequences.”

In the end, we have concluded that until much better scientific understanding of GM crops on the consequences on human and non-human life, we should take the industries’ blandishments regarding the benefits with a pound of salt. And we should have much better oversight.

Shouldn’t we have the EPA paying close, close attention to human and environmental health, kind of like the FDA, for this sort of thing, independent of the multibillions involved?

Bees, and the continuing collapse

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

60 Minutes reprised their 6-month-old story on the bee collapse, something we’ve been following for longer than that. It spotlights David Hackenburg, a beekeeper for thirty years.

The scariest parts for me were two surprises:

Normally, if there weren’t soldier bees to protect a hive’s honey, all the honey would be poached by bees from other hives in short order. But, this beekeeper said, “The hives are like a ghost town. The honey’s there. The other bees won’t touch it.” He showed the honey, just sitting there.

Remember, honey is what bees make, to feed the larval bees. What’s in that honey the other bees won’t touch?

Quite possibly, a fairly recently popular insecticide, neonicotinoids, which is an artificial form of nicotine, that acts as a neurotoxin to insects, but ostensibly doesn’t harm humans. Or some GM pollen. Or some other insecticide reaching critical mass.

Is that what’s in the honey? Something is making the collapsed colonies’ honey not just toxic, but even disgusting to the other bees.

The second surprise was that Hackenburg had originally lost two thirds of his hives. In the followup, 6 months later, the poor man has lost half of his remaining hives.

This is deeply troubling. What other insects are also being affected? Broad-spectrum insecticides are like broad-spectrum antibiotics, killing off entire populations of beneficial biota as “collateral damage” in the hunt for a few terrorists.

We burn the village to save it. We wipe out 10,000 innocent for every one we wanted to see die. We cut off our hands to trim our fingernails.

Valdez Wreck — in so many ways

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

From Washington Post (US):
“When a federal jury in Alaska in 1994 ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion to thousands of people who had their lives disrupted by the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, an appeal of the nation’s largest punitive damages award was inevitable. But almost no one could have predicted the incredible round of legal ping-pong that only this month lands at the Supreme Court.”

The title of this Feb. 23, 08 article is “Exxon Oil Spill Case May Get Closure”

“Closure”? The concept of closure cuts agains the grain of the rest of this story. There WILL NOT BE closure for the 6,000 claimants’ for the original lawsuit who are DEAD.

Well, maybe they got closure FIRST as death is the ultimate closure…

And what about the wildlife, dead; current ecosystem, damaged, what can the Justices in the Supreme Court do about that? One Justice in fact, Samuel Alito OWNS stock in Exxon Mobil — he’s recused himself from the case.

Closure, my ass.

While Rome burns, oil companies fiddle w/ the largest profit margins imaginable. Remember this story from Feb. 2007: “HOUSTON (AP) - Oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. on Thursday posted the largest annual profit by a U.S. company—$39.5 billion—even as earnings for the last quarter of 2006 declined 4 percent.” Here’s that full story on Exxon profit.

Then there’s the Feb. 2008 story: NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — Exxon Mobil made history on Friday by reporting the highest quarterly and annual profits ever for a U.S. company, boosted in large part by soaring crude prices. Exxon, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, said fourth-quarter net income rose 14% to $11.66 billion, or $2.13 per share. The company earned $10.25 billion, or $1.76 per share, in the year-ago period.” Here’s the story on Exxon’s 2007 profit

Exxon Mobil — and other oil companies — Total, Chevron, Dutch Royal Shell, BP, etc. — all are making HUGE amounts of money while people like you and I are scratching our heads at the pump and when our bills come in the mail.

At least we’re not eating dirt like the Haitians, eh?

And we’re not the family members of a dead fisherman in Prince William Sound.

What politician will have the mettle to tax these oil giants’ profits? And who will hold these giants truly accountable for environmental damage done w/ oil spills and pipeline leaks. And when will we stop participating in this travesty by thoroughly revolutionizing how we interact with automobiles?

Jim