Rachel's Democracy & Health News #881
Thursday, November 16, 2006

From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News ...............[This story printer-friendly]
November 15, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The world has changed completely during the past 50 years. But our institutions, our language, and our mental tools have not changed. As a result, we are stubbornly pursuing a course that is destroying the future.]

By Peter Montague

We are living in a world that is essentially new. Almost everything has changed in the past 50 years. Perhaps we are trying to understand this new world using habits of thought from the old world. Maybe that is why things seem so confusing. Let's consider some of the ways the world has changed since 1950.

In the largest sense, here is the big change of the past 50 years: For aeons, there was a shortage of people and an abundance of nature. We set up all our institutions (churches, corporations, governments, laws, courts, media, schools) to encourage population growth and economic growth (the accumulation of capital assets -- farms, factories, highways, ports, power plants, and so on). Now we find ourselves with a shortage of nature, a superabundance of people, and a glut of capital assets -- more than we know what to do with, really. Because of this fundamental shift, almost everything is different now than it was 50 years ago. But our institutions, our language, and our mental tools have not changed. As a result, we are stubbornly pursuing a course that is wrecking the future.

Let's review some features of our new world:

Trends in the Destruction of Nature

1. More Humans

During the last 50 years, global human population more than doubled, from 2.8 billion people to 6.5 billion (in round numbers). The U.S. Bureau of the Census estimates that global population will reach 9.4 billion by 2050, a 44% increase in 45 years. It might even grow faster than that, doubling in 35 years to 12 billion, but even 9 billion would surely stress the planet's already-stressed ecosystems mightily.

Where will we put 44% more farms (with their fertilizers and pesticides and demand for fresh water), 44% more mines, more roads, highways, parking lots, airports, cars, trucks, buses, ships, trains, planes), more cities, hospitals, prisons, ports? And of course more wastes at every step.

All this will require at least 44% more power plants, which produce their own unique wastes (among them toxic or radioactive sludges, solid residues, and global warming gases).

We're already at a point where we've had to acknowledge there's no place left to throw things "away" -- there is no "away" -- the planet has been thoroughly doused with toxicants. Fog, rain and snow now contain measurable levels of toxic waste.

2. Global warming is upon us. Fifty years ago this seemed a remote theoretical possibility. Today it is a widely-acknowledged problem, looming ever larger the more we learn about it.

The likely consequences of global warming are more intense and more frequent hurricanes, tornadoes and typhoons, more severe and frequent droughts, floods, wild fires, and heat waves; rising sea levels with coastal inundation; more human disease (malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever) and other negative impacts on human health.

The main human contributions to global warming are emissions from automobiles and electric power plants burning fossil fuels. In its authoritative report, World Energy Outlook, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) projects a 55% annual increase in global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 unless national policies change pretty quickly. So far, nations have shown little inclination to make the needed changes, least of all the biggest emitter, the U.S.

3. Destruction of ocean productivity. Fifty years ago the oceans seemed unimaginably vast, so huge that humans could not possibly affect them. Yet today we know that humans have managed to...

(a) contaminate every part of the world's oceans with industrial poisons;

(b) pollute vast near-shore ecosystems with excessive nutrients (mainly nitrogen), giving rise to large "dead zones," enormous algae blooms (red and brown tides), contaminated groundwater and massive fish kills;

(c) progressively destroy many of the world's coral reefs; and

(d) exhaust many of the world's fisheries. In November, 2006, a study published in Science magazine predicted the collapse of all ocean fisheries by 2048 unless major changes occur in fishing practices.

4. Fresh water

Water pollution is reducing the useable supply of fresh water in most countries, even as the demand for fresh water is rising. At least 80 countries holding 40% of global population were facing water shortages in 2000. According to the United Nations, by 2025, 2/3rds of the global population is expected to be living in water-stressed regions. In addition, in 2000, 2.4 billion people (40% of the global population) were living without basic sanitation.

Because surface water sources have been depleted or polluted, many countries have started pumping their underground supplies, but nature generally replenishes underground sources only very slowly. Furthermore, underground water supplies are now becoming polluted. In its authoritative report, Environmental Outlook, the OECD said, "Available evidence suggests that there is a trend towards a worsening of aquifer water quality in OECD regions. Once groundwater sources are contaminated, they can be very difficult to clean up because the rate of flow is usually very slow and purification measures are often costly," the OECD says. (pg. 103) Worse, growing water scarcity is already giving rise to conflicts within and between countries -- water wars -- that are likely to increase as time goes on.

5. Forests

Within OECD countries, original "old growth" forests are being cut and replaced by secondary growth and by simple monoculture tree farms, which require artificial fertilizers and pesticides to survive. Thus, although the total area of forests is holding steady in OECD regions, the quality of forested lands, measured by natural habitat and biodiversity, is steadily declining. Some trees may grow quickly but forests take centuries to mature. The prospect for tropical forests is worse. With 37 million acres being cut down each year, "Tropical deforestation is expected to continue at alarming rates over the next few decades," says the OECD. (pg. 125) In the blink of an eye, between 2000 and 2020, the world is expected to lose almost 6% of its total remaining forested land, the OECD says. (pg. 136)

6. Acid Rain

Acid rain, snow and fog, caused by emissions of sulphur and nitrogen oxides, damage forests, soils and fresh water ecosystems. Acid rain "has been identified as an important factor in forest demise," says the OECD (pg. 127), and "Current acid deposition levels in Northern Europe and parts of North America are at least twice as high as critical levels." (pg. 190) In Europe the situation is expected to improve in the next 10 years but elsewhere in the world, it is expected to worsen. Outside OECD countries, both sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions are expected to increase substantially in the next two decades: "Thus, acid depositions are likely to continue to contribute to acidification of surface waters and soils in these areas and reduce the quality of the most sensitive ecosystems." (pg. 190)

7. Loss of Biodiversity

Humans are relentlessly clearing and plowing up the habitat needed by other creatures, mostly converting it to farmland. Then many of the farmlands themselves are being despoiled by poor irrigation practices (which bring salts up from deep soils and deposit them in the top layers) and by soil erosion. According to the OECD, two-thirds of the world's farmlands have already been degraded to some degree and one- third have been "strongly or very strongly degraded." (pg. 138) Furthermore, half the world's wetlands have already been destroyed. (pg. 136) And the biodiversity of freshwater ecosystems is "under serious threat" with 20% of the world's fresh water fish extinct, threatened or endangered. (pg. 138) Half of all primates, and 9% of all known species of trees are at some risk of extinction, the OECD says. (The United Nations is even less optimistic about the future of primates.) Between now and 2020, biodiversity in OECD countries is likely to degrade further. (pg. 138) The United Nations reports that 24% of all mammals on Earth, and 11% of all bird species, are now considered globally threatened with extinction.

Species are now going extinct at a rate somewhere between 100 and 1000 times as fast as the historical rate of extinction of species. We are shredding Creation.

In addition, ecosystems are being scrambled by invasive species and by the unintentional spread of genetically engineered organisms into the wild.

8. Chemicals are Destroying Wildlife

As global warming melts Arctic ice, polar bears swim toward distant ice flows, which now no longer exist, and they drown. The demise of the polar bear is now predicted for later this century. How do we explain drowning bears to our children?

Fish in much of the fresh water of the U.S. are having their gender changed by exposure to biologically-active chemicals -- including the residues of pharmaceutical products flushed from households into sewage treatment plants, then into streams and rivers. Many male fish are being feminized.

Frogs are disappearing around the world, for a variety of reasons ranging from habitat destruction to excessive ultraviolet radiation (a byproduct of DuPont's destruction of the earth's ozone shield) to pesticides and other industrial poisons.

Chemicals are interfering with all the biological systems that allow wildlife to thrive -- harming their immune systems, their reproductive systems, giving them cancer and a host of other diseases. Sea turtles are endangered by mysterious growths appearing on their faces, making it impossible for them to eat, starving them to death. Killer whales (Orcas) are disappearing from the Pacific Northwest because of Monsanto's PCBs wrecking their reproductive systems. This short list barely scratches the surface.

All of these problems, and more, were studied by a group of 1360 scientists from 95 countries during the period 1999-2005. Their study, called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, drew three broad conclusions:

1) Of 24 ecosystems they studied worldwide, 60% are being degraded by human activities. "We're undermining our ecological capital all around the world," said Robert Watson, chief scientist of the World Bank.

2) Global degradation is increasing the chances of sudden, drastic changes in ecosystems, such as the collapse of fisheries or the emergence of new diseases from fragmented forests.

3) The pressure on ecosystems is disproportionately harming the poor. The report says healthy ecosystems are essential for alleviating poverty.

In releasing their report, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment scientific board of directors did not mince words:

"At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted," they said.



From: Appalachian Voices ..................................[This story printer-friendly]
October 29, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: One of the greatest environmental and human rights catastrophes in American history is underway just southwest of our nation's capital.]

One of the greatest environmental and human rights catastrophes in American history is underway just southwest of our nation's capital.

In the coalfields of Appalachia, individuals, families and entire communities are being driven off their land by flooding, landslides and blasting resulting from mountaintop removal coal mining.

Mountaintop removal is a relatively new type of coal mining that began in Appalachia in the 1970s as an extension of conventional strip mining techniques. Primarily, mountaintop removal is occurring in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Coal companies in Appalachia are increasingly using this method because it allows for almost complete recovery of coal seams while reducing the number of workers required to a fraction of what conventional methods require.

Mountaintop removal involves clear cutting native hardwood forests, using dynamite to blast away as much as 800-1000 feet of mountaintop, and then dumping the waste into nearby valleys, often burying streams.

While the environmental devastation caused by this practice is obvious, families and communities near these mining sites are forced to contend with continual blasting from mining operations that can take place up to 300 feet from their homes and operate 24 hours a day.

Families and communities near mining sites also suffer from airborne dust and debris, floods that have left hundreds dead and thousands homeless, and contamination of their drinking water supplies.

In central Appalachian counties, which are among the poorest in the nation, homes are frequently the only asset folks have. Mining operations have damaged hundreds of homes beyond repair and the value of homes near a mountaintop removal sites often decrease by as much as 90%.

Worst of all, mountaintop removal is threatening not just the people, forest and mountaints of central Appalachia, but the very culture of the region. Coal companies frequently claim that mountaintop removal is beneficial for the people, economy and the environment, but the facts just don't hold up.

Appalachian Voices is helping to end the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining by working with community organizations in coalfields, and organizing a national educational campaign to end the destructive practice of mountain top removal coal mining by gaining support for the Clean Water Protection Act. As part of this campaign, we are traveling to communities to share Appalachian Treasures, a multi-media slide show presentation that depicts the dire situation in Appalachian coalfields and encouraging Americans to help protect Appalachian communities and some of our nation's oldest mountains.

Appalachian Voices is also working to compile scientific, socio- economic and geographic information on the effects and extent of mountaintop removal and a host of other resources such as a photo gallery of mountaintop removal and the Appalachian mountains and information on where coal from mountaintop removal operations is consumed.

Click the links below to view other mountaintop removal resources available from Appalachian Voices:

Appalachian Voices Mountaintop Removal Homepage

What Is Mountaintop Removal and Who Regulates It?

The Geography of Mountaintop Removal

Mountaintop Removal Photo Gallery

Myths and Facts About Mountaintop Removal

How Does Mountaintop Removal Affect the Environment?

How Does Mountaintop Removal Affect the Economy?

Where is Coal from Mountaintop Removal Consumed?

The Clean Water Protection Act: a Bill to Curtail Mountaintop

Appalachian Treasures: a National Campaign to End Mountaintop Removal

Mountaintop Removal Site Tour #1: Sundial, West Virginia

Copyright Appalachian Voices, 1999-2006


From: CNN.com ............................................[This story printer-friendly]
July 15, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: No one is suggesting that wind farms alone should power the global economy. But they could.]

CNN -- Wind power could generate more than enough sustainable electricity to meet global energy needs, according to new research.

Scientists at Stanford University have produced a world map that plots wind power potential for the first time.

They say that harnessing even 20 percent of that energy would produce eight times more electricity than the world consumed in 2000.

"The main implication of this study is that wind, for low-cost wind energy, is more widely available than was previously recognized," said Cristina Archer, formerly of Stanford's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Archer and colleague Mark Jacobsen collected wind-speed measurements from 7,500 surface stations and 500 balloon-launch stations to determine wind speeds at 80 meters (300 feet) -- the height of modern turbines.

They found average wind speeds capable of generating power -- upwards of 6.9 meters per second, or 15 miles an hour -- in 13 percent of the stations and in all regions of the globe.

North America had the greatest potential for wind energy with consistent winds found in the Great Lakes region and along both the north-eastern and north-western coasts.

Some of the strongest winds were found in northern Europe in the North Sea, off the southern tip of South America and around the Australian island of Tasmania.

Wind is already the fastest growing source of energy in the world, with average annual growth of 34 percent over the past five years. But it currently produces just 0.54 percent of electricity used.

Installed annual capacity at the end of 2003 stood at 39,000 megawatts, or 39 million watts.

Germany produced almost 40 percent of that total, with wind power contributing 20 percent of its overall electricity supplies.

But Archer and Jacobsen, whose research is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres, estimate that locations with sustainable winds could produce approximately 72 terawatts -- or 72 trillion watts -- a year.

It would take more than 500 nuclear power stations to generate a terawatt and in 2000 the world consumed just 1.8 terrawatts in total.

Critics of wind power say that densely packed wind farms would be needed to capture an acceptable level of energy, spoiling their local environment and posing a threat to bird life. They also say that winds are unreliable and that back-up sources of energy would still be necessary.

But the pair said they hoped the study would help planners to identify good locations for wind farms, particularly in developing countries. Currently many farms are located inland, where winds are intermittent.

Tom Gray of the American Wind Energy Association told Nature that the map was of interest to the wind power industry.

"From the early days, there has been an issue with where the resource is," he said.

Copyright 2006 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.


From: New Scientist ......................................[This story printer-friendly]
November 13, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The field of study called epigenetics keeps coming up with unpleasant surprises -- new ways that environmental conditions today can harm our children and grandchildren tomorrow.]

By Roxanne Khamsi

A mother's diet can change the behaviour of a specific gene for at least two subsequent generations, a new study demonstrates for the first time.

Feeding mice an enriched diet during pregnancy silenced a gene for light fur in their pups. And even though these pups ate a standard, un-enriched diet, the gene remained less active in their subsequent offspring.

The findings could help explain the curious results from recent studies of human populations -- including one showing that the grandchildren of well-fed Swedes had a greater risk of diabetes.

The new mouse experiment lends support to the idea that we inherit not only our genes from our parents, but also a set of instructions that tell the genes when to become active. These instructions appear to be passed on through "epigenetic" changes to DNA -- genes can be activated or silenced according to the chemical groups that are added onto them. Gene silencer

David Martin at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California, US, and colleagues used a special strain of genetically identical mice with an overactive version of a gene that influences fur colour. Mice with the AVY version of this gene generally have golden fur.

Half of the mice were given a diet enriched with nutrients such as vitamin B12 and zinc. These nutrients are known to increase the availability of the "methyl" chemical groups that are responsible for silencing genes. The rest of the mice received a standard diet.

The pups of mice on the standard diet generally had golden fur. But a high proportion of those born to mice on the enriched diet had dark brown fur.

Martin believes that the nutrient-rich maternal diet caused silencing of the pups' AVY genes while they developed in the womb. Passed down

Intriguingly, even though all of the pups in this generation received a standard diet, those that had exposure to a high-nutrient diet while in the womb, later gave birth to dark-coated offspring. Their control counterparts, by comparison, produced offspring with golden fur.

This shows that environmental factors -- such as an enriched diet -- can affect the activity of the AVY gene for at least two generations, the researchers say.

"The results make it clear that a nutritional status can affect not only that individual, but that individual's children as well," says study member Kenneth Beckman. Skin colour

Beckman notes that the AVY gene is linked to weight and diabetes risk. He adds that there is some evidence that a related gene in humans might affect skin colour -- but it is unknown if it also affects weight.

Even though humans may have a similar gene, they should not make dietary changes based on the results of the mouse experiment, researchers stress. "It would be irresponsible to make any prescriptions about human behaviour based on these findings," says Martin.

An earlier Swedish study which used historical data of harvests in Sweden, found that a youngster had a quadrupled risk of diabetes if their grandfather had good access to food during his own boyhood.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0607090103)


From: Times Argus (Montpelier, Vermont) ..................[This story printer-friendly]
November 15, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Citizen activists working with government officials nixed a plan by International Paper corporation to burn 72 tons of rubber tires each day on the western shore of Lake Champlain. The fight started in September 2003 and ended this week.]

By Darren M. Allen, Vermont Press Bureau

MONTPELIER -- Less than a week's worth of data stopped what three years of protests, regulatory appeals and state and federal court hearings couldn't.

International Paper will abandon its efforts to use shredded tires as fuel for the giant boilers that power its Ticonderoga, N.Y., mill.

In an announcement Tuesday, the company said the use of shredded tires "would not be economically feasible at this time" and it was ceasing tests of the effects of tire burning on air quality.

The announcement was greeted with jubilation on this side of Lake Champlain.

"I hate to say it, but we told them so," Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said. "This is great news. It's unfortunate they had to burn tires to pay attention to what we've been saying all along."

What Sorrell and other public officials from Gov. James Douglas on down have been saying is that the plant should have been forbidden to test tire burning until International Paper installed a pollution control device known as an electrostatic precipitator.

Such a device is used to capture, among other things, tiny particles that would ordinarily spew out of the mill's giant smokestacks when tires are burned. As it happened, the plant approached its federal pollution limits for those particulates when it began to feed shredded tires into its boilers at a rate of less than 1 ton per hour.

Plant officials had hoped to be able to burn up to 3 tons per hour.

"We have a record now, and we now know that their case for not putting on an electrostatic precipitator is much weaker," said Sorrell, who tried -- unsuccessfully -- to thwart the test burn in New York and federal courts. "The proof is in the pudding."

Plant officials sought permission to conduct the test to see if shredded tires would be a viable substitute fuel. Using tires to replace about one-tenth of the No. 6 fuel oil the plant uses now was estimated to save the company about $4 million a year on its energy bill.

But the test confirmed that doing so likely would require expensive upgrades to its boiler and its pollution control devices.

"The permitting process worked and the voice of the people process worked and the court system worked and when all of that comes together along with a company that acts responsibly that did what it said it would do, we are able to make sound decisions," said Donna Wadsworth, the mill's spokeswoman. "The scientific analysis, modeling and learning and then conducting the trial of the alternative fuel source was very important. We were true to our commitment to operate in compliance."

Opposition to the test burn raged since International Paper announced its intentions in the fall of 2003. Critics voiced concern over how the smoke from burned tires would affect the air quality around Lake Champlain.

Indeed, the plant, which sits on the lake's western shore less than a mile across the water from Addison County, is Vermont's largest polluter, even though it is in New York.

The test burn began last week, days after a federal appeals court in New York City denied Vermont's last-minute appeal. Although the plant was given permission to conduct 14 days of testing by New York environmental regulators and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, tires were burned for a total of about 40 hours over five days. The test was halted Thursday after levels of particulates were approaching federal limits.

Vermont's health department went on alert during the trial, and even though no health warnings were issued, a handful of people registered health concerns with the department.

Environmentalists had made the tire burn a cause celebre for years. People for Less Pollution, an Addison County-based group formed to oppose the test burn, was a key opponent.

"This is certainly good news," said the group's president, Richard Carpenter. "They obviously concluded that, without an electrostatic precipitator, it just doesn't make sense. Without one, they were going to produce more pollution than the citizens of Vermont wanted to breathe."

Although it won't be able to save about $4 million a year on fuel costs, the plant will remain an economically feasible part of International Paper, Wadsworth said.

"This mill is a very viable mill making high-end products that are in high demand with our customers," she said. "We are competitive, in fact very competitive, in our market. Like any other business, we have to look at cost effectiveness and at ways to stay competitive."

The paper industry is undergoing a global shift, with production moving overseas in many cases. One of the Ticonderoga mill's key selling points, Wadsworth said, is its proximity to "high quality fiber" -- the millions of acres of hardwood trees that grow in northern New York and New England.

Environmentalists weren't the only ones cheering the demise of tire- derived fuel. The state's congressional delegation -- Rep. Bernard Sanders and Senators Patrick Leahy and James Jeffords -- issued a joint statement Tuesday evening.

"IP's decision to abandon its test burn of tires is positive news, but we believe Vermonters should not have been subjected to these emissions in the first place," the statement said. "If IP had not taken this action, the delegation was prepared to call on the EPA to shut down this test burn."

Contact Darren Allen at darren.allen@timesargus.com.

Copyright 2006 Times Argus


Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment & Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are often considered separately or not at all.

The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy, intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and therefore ruled by the few.

In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who gets to decide?" And, "How DO the few control the many, and what might be done about it?"

Rachel's Democracy and Health News is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.

Peter Montague - peter@rachel.org
Tim Montague - tim@rachel.org


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