Sunday, April 17, 2016
Comments due by April 25, 2016
We have already posted ten "stories" that we promised to do during this semester. The following, however, is for extra credit and is the response of George Monbiot to a couple of questions. Enjoy
Why is implacable growth a threat to the existence of life on the planet?
Never-ending growth simply cannot be sustained on a finite planet. The promise of growth is used as a means of deflecting social conflict: If the economy keeps growing, we are told, inequality doesn't matter, however extreme it becomes, as all will be rich. Well, it hasn't worked out like that: The rich are now able to capture almost all the increment; wages have stagnated despite rising labor productivity; far from trickling down, wealth is still seeping upwards. But even if it did work, this merely exchanges a deferred political crisis for an environmental crisis.
In the pre-coal economy, industrial growth was repeatedly undermined by agricultural collapse, as both competed for the same resources: land (industry needed it for growing fuelwood and fodder for horses) and labor. So growth kept stalling and reversing. Coal meant that rather than relying on annual productivity (of timber, grass, oats etc.), industry could exploit the concentrated productivity of millions of years. It amplified the effects of labor. It allowed agriculture and industry to live alongside each other, ensuring that industrial growth did not rely on starvation. The economic transformation was miraculous. But it had a number of costs, and by far the greatest, in the long run, was the assault on the natural world.
We are urgently in need of a new, coherent economic model, that provides prosperity without compromising future prosperity, that does not rely on destroying the more-than-human world.
Why will a continuing "shift from small to large farms ... cause a major decline in global production"?
There is a long-established inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce. In other words, the smaller they are, the greater the yield per hectare. This observation has been repeated in many parts of the world.
The most plausible explanation appears to be that small farmers use more labor, and more committed labor (generally family members), per hectare than big farmers.
What this means is that farm consolidation (often assisted by international agencies) is likely to be damaging to productivity, and threatening to world food supplies. Land grabbing by foreign corporations and sovereign wealth funds (which brings together the traditions of enclosure and colonialism) is disastrous for the rural poor. It is also disastrous -- especially when it results in the replacement of subsistence crops with crops grown for animal feed or biofuels -- for global food security.
Make the case for being "deviant and proud."
Our identity is shaped by the norms and values we absorb from other people. Every society defines and shapes its own according to dominant narratives, and seeks either to make people comply or to exclude them if they don't. These norms and values are often handed down from on high: We absorb and replicate the worldview of those who possess power, the phenomenon Antonio Gramsci called cultural hegemony.
Neoliberalism insists that we are defined by competition, and are essentially selfish and acquisitive. This turns out to be a myth: As a paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology points out, Homo economicus -- the neoliberal conception of people as maximizing their own self-interest at the expense of others - is an excellent description of chimpanzees and a very bad description of human beings. We simply don't work like this. Humans are distinguished from other mammals by an enhanced capacity for empathy, an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare and an ability to create moral norms that generalize and enforce these tendencies. These traits emerge so early in our lives that they appear to be innate: We have evolved to be this way.
But the dominant narrative tells us that we are very different creatures. It celebrates selfishness and greed and pushes us to conform to a social and economic model that rewards them. When we are forced into a hole that doesn't fit, the result is psychological damage. As the professor of psychoanalysis Paul Verhaeghe points out, the neoliberal transition has been accompanied by a spectacular rise in self-harm, eating disorders, depression, performance anxiety, social phobia and loneliness.
So if you don't fit in, and feel at odds with the world, it could be because you have retained the human values you were supposed to have discarded. You have deviated from the social norms. You should be proud to have done so.
Saturday, April 09, 2016
Comments due April 18, 2016
The United States and China are the world's largest carbon emitters , so the 2014 agreement by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping to reduce their countries' greenhouse gas emissions represented a major shift in momentum for addressing the effects of climate change.
Both countries committed to substantial emissions-reduction efforts over the next 10 to 15 years, with the understanding that they would continue to grow more ambitious with their efforts in the future. The pledges were fundamental to each country's national commitments for the Paris Agreement, adopted during the United Nations' 2015 climate conference and awaiting signatures this month at the United Nations in City.
Once a minimum of 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of total global greenhouse gases sign on, the agreement will come into effect. Already 100 countries are expected to attend the U.N. meeting on Earth Day this April 22.
An energy explosion
While China vowed to put a peak on its growing carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2030, a report from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the London School of Economics and Political Science argues that the past year brought a changing economic and energy landscape. This is because China's rapid growth, which consumed tremendous amounts of energy and produced record-setting emissions, is slowing.
China's economic model over the past few decades — like that of many other developing countries — was based on heavy investment in construction and related industries, such as steel and cement, in order to expand the nation's . Such industries are energy-intensive and in China relied heavily on coal, which produces large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions .
Now that much of China's infrastructure build-out is slowing, the demand for steel, cement and other building materials is decreasing, while at the same time China is expanding energy investments in hydroelectric, nuclear, wind and solar power.
In fact, the increase in China's renewable energy generation is expected be larger than energy-investment increases in the European Union, the United States and Japan combined, according to the 2013 World Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency (IEA).
These promising shifts in energy investment are not unique to China. In the United States, the Energy Information Administration suggests that in the coming year, more new solar electricity-generating capacity will come online than natural gas, wind or petroleum combined.
Industries shifting while governments hesitate
Industries are making the transition even faster than government: American businesses made deals to acquire 3.4 gigawatts of renewable energy in 2015, nearly double the peak power generation of the Hoover Dam.
Of that amount, two-thirds came from first-time buyers, according to the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute, a leading source on addressing climate change through market-based solutions. The most-promising trend shows older established companies — like Owens Corning, Procter & Gamble and HP — joining well-publicized new industry leaders like Amazon, Google and Ikea in making the transition toward renewable energy purchases. For example, last year, Owens Corning signed an agreement with Chicago-based Invenergy for 125 megawatts of capacity, equivalent to the power needed for 30,000 households or more, from a wind farm being built in Texas.
Beyond industry — beyond government — a third, large-scale stakeholder is innovating in the context of climate change: academia. Responding to a growing demand from their students and faculty to transition away from fossil fuels, colleges and universities such as Ohio State University and the University of Oklahoma are among the partners with the largest U.S. green power contracts, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Chinese energy evolution
Like recent progress in the United States and European Union, China's energy landscape has continued to diversify, according the Grantham report. Hydroelectric, nuclear, wind and solar power are all expanding and accounted for more than 11 percent of the nation's primary energy consumption by the end of 2014.
Perhaps most notably, coal consumption, which powered so much of China's forward momentum in the previous decade, saw no growth in 2014 and actually declined in 2015.
Whether China's emissions peak has actually crested, the trends there and elsewhere are becoming more evident: Nations and companies across the world are making the transition to clean energy alternatives and putting their money behind those investments in order to foster new, innovative paths to a lower-emission future.
Global perspectives have shifted toward encouraging nations to finally respond to climate change, but the window for action to avoid catastrophic climate impacts is limited. New technology is opening opportunities to reduce global emissions, and China's move toward renewable energies is at the forefront, such as their world-leading number of solar-voltaic installations for power generation.
It's up to the rest of the world to continue to look forward, not back, to enhance global prosperity, reduce risks to communities, and sustain healthy ecosystems on which people depend.
Saturday, April 02, 2016
Sunday, March 13, 2016
Comments due by March 28, 2016.
DURING the summer of 1940, I was an 11year old living with my family in a low income apartment in Washington, D.C. We were within easy walking distance of the National Zoo and an adjacent strip of woodland in Rock Creek Park. I lived most of my days there, visiting exotic animals and collecting butterflies and other insects with a net that I had fashioned from a broom handle, coat hanger and cheesecloth. I read nature books, field guides and past volumes of National Geographic. I had already conceived then of a world of life awaiting me, bottomless in variety. Seventysix years later, I have kept that dream. As a teacher and scientist I have tried to share it. The metaphor I offer for biological diversity is the magic well: The more you draw, the more there is to draw. But today the dream is at risk. Civilization is at last turning green, albeit only pale green. Our attention remains focused on the physical environment — on pollution, the shortage of fresh water, the shrinkage of arable land and, of course, the great, wrathful demon that threatens all our lives, human forced climate change. But Earth’s living environment, including all its species and all the ecosystems they compose, has continued to receive relatively little attention. This is a huge strategic mistake. If we save the living environment of Earth, we will also save the physical, nonliving environment, because each depends on the other. But if we work to save only the physical environment, as we seem bent on doing, we will lose them both. So, what exactly is the current condition of the living environment, in particular its biological diversity and stability? How are we handling this critical element of Earth’s sustainability? To begin, how many species of organisms are known on the planet? Here, our knowledge is pathetically weak. At the present time, about two million species have been discovered, described and given a Latinized scientific name. But how many are there actually, known and unknown? Putting aside the bacteria and a distinctive group of microbes called the archaea (which I like to call together the dark matter of biology because so little is understood of their diversity), the best estimate we have of all the rest (the fungi, algae, plants and animals) is roughly 10 million, give or take a million. Except for the vertebrates (consisting of 63,000 described species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fishes) and the flowering plants (with approximately 270,000 species), relatively little is collectively known about millions of kinds of fungi, algae and most diverse of all, the insects and other invertebrate animals. And that matters, a lot: These least understood minions are the foundation of the living world. They are the little things that run the Earth. In short, we live on a little known planet. E.T. and other alien biologists visiting Earth would, I suspect, be appalled at our weak knowledge of our homeland. They would be mystified by the scant attention humanity gives to the lifeforms on which our existence depends. The one major reserve in the United States that has been subjected to a complete census is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Fifty thousand hours of field work there by specialists and assistants have yielded records of 3/13/2016 The Global Solution to Extinction The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/13/opinion/sunday/theglobalsolutiontoextinction.html 3/5 18,000 species of animals and microorganisms alone, with 40,000 to 60,000 considered likely on the roster when all transients, as well as rare and undescribed species, have been registered. The mapping of Earth’s biodiversity was not, as many assume, mostly completed in the 19th and 20th centuries. It has only begun. The study of biological diversity is absurdly slow. Today, only about 18,000 new species are being discovered and described each year. If we continue at this rate (I’ve described only about 450 new ant species in my own lifetime), the task of mapping life on Earth, or what is left of it, will not be completed until the 23rd century. That brings me to the extinction rate of species around the world. With data on the best known vertebrate species, and a lot of additional information from fossil studies and genetics, we can put the fraction of species disappearing each year at upward of a 1,000 times the rate that existed before the coming of humans. Most of this loss is occurring in tropical countries, and especially tropical forests on islands. But to bring it home to the United States, consider that from 1895 to 2006, 57 species and distinct geographic races of freshwater fishes were driven to extinction, which is 10 percent of the total previously alive; hence the rate of extinction was just under 900 times that which existed before the coming of humans. The global conservation movement, pioneered by the United States, has raised awareness of nature’s plight, and stimulated a great deal of excellent research. It has slowed the hemorrhaging of species, but is still a long way from stopping it. Conservation efforts are concentrated on the roughly one fifth of vertebrate species worldwide that are ranked as endangered to some degree. We have managed to stabilize or reverse the decline of onefifth of the species in this group. A better record has been achieved within the United States by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which has brought more species back to health than have been lost in the same time period to extinction. All this is progress, but the prospects for the rest of the century remain grim. The global conservation movement is like a surgeon in an emergency room treating an accident victim: He has slowed the bleeding by half. Congratulations, we might say — even though the patient will be dead by morning. Unless we wish to pauperize the natural world drastically and permanently, believing that later generations will be smart enough to find a way to bring equilibrium to the land, seas and air, then we, the current inheritors of this beautiful world, must take more serious action to preserve the rest of life. There is only one rational way to accomplish this goal, and that is to bring the extinction rate back to the level that existed before the worldwide expansion of human populations. The disappearance of natural habitat is the primary cause of biological diversity loss at every level — ecosystems, species and genes, all of them. Only by the preservation of much more natural habitat than previously envisioned can extinction be brought close to a sustainable level. The only way to save upward of 90 percent of the rest of life is to vastly increase the area of refuges, from their current 15 percent of the land and 3 percent of the sea to half of the land and half of the sea. That amount, as I and others have shown, can be put together from large and small fragments around the world to remain relatively natural, without removing people living there or changing property rights. This method has been tested on a much smaller scale at the national and state park levels within the United States. This step toward sustained coexistence with the rest of life is partly a practical challenge and partly a moral decision. It can be done, and to great and universal benefit, if we wish it so. I have to think that the dream of a boy from so long ago has a chance to endure. Edward O. Wilson, a professor emeritus at Harvard University, is the author of “Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.”
Sunday, March 06, 2016
Comments due by March 14, 2016
— In the expanding realm ruled by Randal J. Kirk, sliced apples don’t brown. Salmon grow twice as fast without swimming upriver to spawn. Beloved cats are reborn. And male mosquitoes are unleashed with the sole mission to mate, pass on a gene that kills their offspring, and die. A few decades ago, the foods and creatures nurtured by Mr. Kirk would have been found only in dystopian fantasies like those written by Margaret Atwood. But Mr. Kirk’s company, Intrexon, is fast becoming one of the world’s most diverse biotechnology companies, with ventures ranging from unloved genetically engineered creatures to potential cancer cures and gene therapies, gasoline substitutes, cloned kittens and even glowinthedark Dino Pet toys made from microbes. Until recently, Mr. Kirk, 62, was a relatively unknown, self made billionaire, buying up or investing in companies in the biotech world. So when Intrexon acquired the British company Oxitec last summer, it attracted little attention as he extended his reach into genetically modified insects. But that move has thrust Mr. Kirk into the forefront of a scramble to control the Zika virus, suspected of causing babies to be born with tiny heads and damaged brains. It is rampant in Latin America and threatening the United States. While Zika was not on his radar when the deal was announced, Mr. Kirk now appears to be the prescient owner of a potential bioweapon — Oxitec’s genetically engineered mosquitoes, which he says could save millions of people from Zika by causing the population of wild disease transmitting mosquitoes to self destruct. “I think that we have the only safe, effective, field proven and readyto-deploy solution,” Mr. Kirk, who is usually called R.J., said in an interview in his office here overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. In Piracicaba, Brazil, the population of wild mosquitoes has fallen 82 percent in the neighborhood where the mosquitoes are being tested, he said. If his plans to sell the engineered mosquitoes succeed, Mr. Kirk will fortify his near cultlike status among some investors and colleagues who marvel at his shrewd (and somewhat lucky) investments. Perhaps more important, a victory against the rapidly spreading epidemic could weaken opposition to genetically engineered organisms of all sorts, propelling many others out of the lab, onto the dinner table or into the environment. Now Mr. Kirk must persuade federal agencies, foreign governments and nonprofit health organizations to place orders. He must counter caution from the World Health Organization and federal officials, who question whether the technique will be effective on a large scale. And he must overcome qualms about genetic engineering that have prompted opposition to the mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and elsewhere.
“We don’t have experience about living transgenic mosquitoes in the air,” said Dr. Artur Timerman, an infectious disease specialist in Brazil. “What will be the midterm or long term consequences of this?” Mr. Kirk is assembling a powerful lobbying effort, employing the law firm Sidley Austin in Washington as well as relying on one of Intrexon’s board members, Cesar Alvarez, the senior chairman of the prominent law firm Greenberg Traurig, and Intrexon’s head of corporate communications, Jack Bobo, who once directed biotechnology trade policy at the State Department. Dr. Luciana Borio, acting chief scientist at the Food and Drug Administration, told a House subcommittee on Wednesday that the agency was “greatly expediting” Oxitec’s application to test the mosquitoes in the Florida Keys and would issue a draft environmental assessment very soon. But when asked by Representative Morgan Griffith, a Republican who represents the Virginia district in which Mr. Kirk has a farm, Dr. Borio said the F.D.A. would not eliminate the opportunity for the public to then comment on the draft. “What we don’t know right now is where the public stands on this in the setting of Zika,” she said later in the hearing. Golden Age of Biotech Selling his mosquitoes to combat an international epidemic could help relieve the pressure Mr. Kirk is under to prove that Intrexon is more than just a collection of odd science projects, and that it can actually make money and fulfill his vision for a new golden age of biotechnology. He considers this time to be a seminal moment in history, one in which the rapidly improving ability to read and write — and rewrite — the DNA code of life will make it possible to engineer all manner of organisms to perform specific tasks.
“I think this is the most significant industrial vector to occur in history,” he said, comparing it to semiconductor technology that gave rise to smartphones and the web. And the same DNA tools can be applied to numerous areas. Intrexon’s scientists, he says, “don’t care if they are working on a primary human T cell or an avocado.” Reflecting that vision, Intrexon uses the web domain name dna.com. The engineering of life is often called synthetic biology, a vaguely defined term meant to convey more systematic genetic manipulation than the cutting and pasting of a single gene that gave rise to early biotechnology companies like Amgen and Genentech. At its most distant point, synthetic biologists would sit at a computer designing life forms from scratch, then hit “print” and have the necessary DNA made to order to be inserted into a cell. Numerous companies are moving into the field, but Intrexon is “literally the elephant in the room of the synthetic biology industry,” said John Cumbers, chief executive of SynBioBeta, a fledgling trade group. His supporters say that if anyone can pull off such an enterprise it is R. J. Kirk, whom they call an uncommon visionary and quick study, though he lacks formal training in science. When Mr. Kirk tells people, as he often does, that he is just a country lawyer, they know they’re about to get a schooling in biology or business, interlaced with references to history, philosophy and opera. “He has an astonishing grasp of science,” said Dr. Samuel Broder, a former director of the National Cancer Institute who now runs Intrexon’s health division. Dr. Broder recalled one instance in which it took him a day to understand the intricacies of a genetic disease. Mr. Kirk, after hearing Dr. Broder’s explanation, got it in five minutes. Even the hedge fund manager Thomas U. Barton, who made his mark as a skeptical shortseller, gushes. “He understands all businesses,” he said. Still, there are skeptics. It is hard to judge the strength of Intrexon’s core technology, known as UltraVector, which is a computerized system for putting together modular DNA pieces to make complex genetic circuits. The company, saying it wants to protect its trade secrets, has not published articles about it in scientific literature. Some startup companies, not Intrexon, have taken the lead in the hot new genome editing technique called Crispr. The biggest criticism is that Intrexon keeps announcing new acquisitions and new collaborations, dozens of them in all. Yet no product made with the company’s technology has reached the market, and it is not clear when any will. “There’s a mixture here of spectacle and speculation,” said Jim Thomas of the nonprofit ETC Group, which says that synthetic biology needs to be more rigorously regulated. “What’s curious about this is the way in which they are putting together all these controversial and often failing one
trick companies and trying to wrap them up in a fancy synthetic biology front.” Intrexon’s shares have fallen to about $37 from near $70 in July, though biotech stocks in general have also fallen. The company’s market value is $4.3 billion, making Mr. Kirk’s 53 percent worth over $2 billion. One big commercial opportunity could be Intrexon’s pilot project to use genetically altered microbes to turn natural gas, which is cheap and abundant, into isobutanol, a liquid fuel that can be used in cars. Investors want to see if Intrexon’s partner, the energy giant Dominion, commits to building a commercial plant, which Mr. Kirk hopes could happen as early as this year. And the Oxitec mosquitoes, while not something Intrexon developed itself, offer a bonus that Mr. Kirk could not have predicted. The mosquitoes were developed mainly to fight dengue fever, and that alone, Mr. Kirk said, made it worthwhile to pay about $160 million for Oxitec. 3/6/2016 A Biotech Evangelist Seeks a Zika Dividend The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/06/business/abiotechevangelistseeksazikadividend.html?ref=international 6/10 But because Zika is spread by the same type of mosquito, the Oxitec insects, which contain a lethality gene — can be used. When the male mosquitoes are released to mate with wild females, the offspring die before reaching adulthood.
Sunday, February 28, 2016
Comments due by March 6 , 2016
Protected areas such as rainforests occupy more than one-tenth of the Earth’s landscape, and provide invaluable ecosystem services, from erosion control to pollination to biodiversity preservation. They also draw heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and store it in plants and soil through photosynthesis, yielding a net cooling effect on the planet.
Determining the role protected areas play as carbon sinks — now and in decades to come — is a topic of intense interest to the climate-policy community as it seeks science-based strategies to mitigate climate change. Toward that end, a study in the journal Ambio estimates for the first time the amount of CO2 sequestered by protected areas, both at present and throughout the 21st century as projected under various climate and land-use scenarios.
Based on their models and assuming a business-as-usual climate scenario, the researchers projected that the annual carbon sequestration rate in protected areas will decline by about 40 percent between now and 2100. Moreover, if about one-third of protected land is converted to other uses by that time, due to population and economic pressures, carbon sequestration in the remaining protected areas will become negligible.
“Our study highlights the importance of protected areas in slowing the rate of climate change by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in plants and soils, especially in forested areas,” said Jerry Melillo, the study’s lead author. Melillo is a distinguished scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and former director of the MBL’s Ecosystems Center. “Maintaining existing protected areas, enlarging them and adding new ones over this century are important ways we can manage the global landscape to help mitigate climate change.”
Based on a global database of protected areas, a reconstruction of global land-use history, and a global biogeochemistry model, the researchers estimated that protected areas currently sequester 0.5 petagrams (500 billion kilograms) of carbon each year, or about 20 percent of the carbon sequestered by all land ecosystems annually. Using an integrated modeling framework developed by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, they projected that under a rapid climate-change scenario that extends existing climate policies; keeps protected areas off-limits to development; and assumes continued economic growth and a 1 percent annual increase in agricultural productivity, the annual carbon sequestration rate in protected areas would fall to about 0.3 petagrams of carbon by 2100.
When they ran the same scenario but allowed for possible development of protected areas, they projected that more than one-third of today’s protected areas would be converted to other uses. This would reduce carbon sequestration in the remaining protected areas to near zero by the end of the century. (The protected areas that are not converted would be the more marginal systems that have low productivity, and thus low capacity to sequester carbon.)
Based on this analysis, the researchers concluded that unless current protected areas are preserved and expanded, their capacity to sequester carbon will decline. The need for expansion is driven by climate change: As the average global temperature rises, so, too, will plant and soil respiration in protected and unprotected areas alike, thereby reducing their ability to store carbon and cool the planet.
“This work shows the need for sufficient resources dedicated to actually prevent encroachment of human activity into protected areas,” said John Reilly, one of the study’s coauthors and the co-director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.
The study was supported by the David and Lucille Packard foundation, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Energy.