Rachel's Democracy & Health News #895
Thursday, February 22, 2007

From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #895 ..........[This story printer-friendly]
February 22, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: A new report from the ETC Group in Canada highlights the power of new genetic engineering techniques that are capable of creating new forms of life never seen on Earth before.]

By Tim Montague

In the past 5 years, the science of genetic engineering has made giant strides. Starting from scratch using lifeless chemicals, scientists are now able to create viruses, such as the polio virus. Technically, viruses are not "alive" because they require cells to survive. But soon -- perhaps some time this year -- scientists expect to create bacteria, which are definitely alive. From there, it will be a short step to manufacturing new forms of life that have never existed on Earth before. This startling new enterprise is called "synthetic biology."


Life begins as lifeless chemicals, called nucleotides. You can buy them off the shelf. Under some circumstances, these can combine into complicated chains to create DNA molecules. Long strands of DNA form genes, and genes give rise to proteins and eventually to cells and viruses. Cells metabolize, adapt to their environment, and reproduce themselves using the information packed away in their DNA -- thus fulfilling the definition of living things. The nucleotides are just ordinary lifeless chemicals, but by the time they combine into cells they have become the stuff of life itself.

Scientists have spent 300 years working backward from cells, trying to discover how all this works. Along the way they learned that genes can give creatures particular characteristics. Starting 30 years ago they began snipping genes from one creature and inserting them into a different creature, hoping to give the recipient some new characteristic that humans would find valuable. For example, trout can tolerate cold water, so perhaps a gene from a trout inserted into a tomato will help the tomato tolerate cold weather. This has become known as "gene splicing" or "genetic engineering."

All this activity can be described as "reading" the genetic code. But now scientists know enough to begin "writing" their own genetic code -- putting together chains of nucleotides into chunks of DNA, and pasting these together to create living things.

In 2002 a team of scientists at the State University of New York at Stony Brook took mail-ordered pieces of synthetic, lifeless DNA and pasted them together to create a polio virus -- a feat that took two years of hard work. It was the first time humans had ever created a functioning organism from scratch. Since then, things have speeded up.

In 2003 a team led by Craig Venter produced a second synthetic virus from scratch -- and they did it in 14 days. "Scientists predict that within 2-5 years it will be possible to synthesise any virus; the first de novo [meaning, "starting from scratch"] bacterium will make its debut in 2007," says a new report 1 Mbyte PDF from the ETC Group in Canada. (pg. 1) Bacteria are definitely alive, so the creation of life from scratch, starting with simple chemicals, is upon us.

In 2005, researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and the U.S. Centers of Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta announced that "They had resurrected the lethal [1918 flu] virus. They published details of the completed genome sequencing in Nature and details of the virus recreation in Science." (p. 24) The flu virus that swept the world in 1918 was especially adept at transmitting itself from one person to the next, and it was especially deadly, killing somewhere between 20 million and 50 million humans. Reconstructing the virus using gene-splicing techniques may help us avoid another pandemic like that of 1918 -- or it may give some "genetic hacker" an idea for creating mischief on a monumental scale.

Obviously the ability to create the polio virus, or the 1918 flu virus, is an extraordinary scientific accomplishment, but freighted with dark possibilities.

In response to recreation of the 1918 virus, technology gurus Bill Joy and Ray Kurzweil told the New York Times, "This is extremely foolish, the genome [of the 1918 flu virus] is essentially the design of a weapon of mass destruction. No responsible scientist would advocate publishing precise designs for an atomic bomb... revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous."(p. 24)

Despite such grim warnings, many new start-up firms are competing to find ways to profit from these new techniques.

Craig Venter -- the golden boy of synthetic biology -- and hundreds of other scientists are now trolling the depths of the oceans, the canopies of jungles and the far corners of earth to catalog and patent life's genetic heritage. A new report from the ETC Group titled "Extreme Genetic Engineering" 1 Mbyte PDF says, "Venter claims that his expedition has discovered 3,995 new gene families not previously known, and 6-10 million new genes -- which he describes as 'design components' of the future."(p. 14)

The gold rush is on. Synthetic biology -- heralded as the next "big thing" to fuel economic growth -- is genetic engineering on steroids. Cataloging our genetic heritage is just the beginning. Armed with desktop synthetic biology machines, scientists can now create DNA on demand, freely combining the best or worst characteristics of any known organism and inventing completely new life forms.

This is all very exciting for scientists and their financial backers who dream of making huge profits. "They hold growing patent portfolios and foresee industrial products for uses as diverse as energy production, climate change remediation, toxic cleanup, textiles and pharmaceutical production."(p.3) Huge sums of money are now pouring from private foundations, government programs and venture capital to invent new medical and chemical products.

As the synthetic biology industry hurtles into the future, civil society organizations are now asking if we shouldn't at least have widespread debate and legally-binding regulation before we rush into this great unknown?

Evidence is accumulating that we really don't know how to control this new technology. For example, Greenpeace just released a report documenting the growing number of cases of unapproved GMO [genetically modified organisms] food crops showing up in regular food crops. GMO rice, corn, soy, cotton and other crops have now 'contaminated' the gene pools of their non-GMO cousins in 142 different incidents since the introduction of GMO crops 12 years ago in 1996.

If we can't control the spread of GMO crops -- relatively large, visible organisms -- how will we control microscopic viruses and bacteria?

Scientists at Berkeley University backed by a $42.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are developing synthetic drugs to combat malaria. This work gives synthetic biology the blessing of major philanthropy -- but the eventual outcomes for society are unpredictable. The Berkeley team says it will create unlimited and cheap production of the previously scarce drug Artemisinin to treat malaria in the developing world.(p. 20)

Artemisinin is naturally produced by the wormwood (artemisia) plant which is widely cultivated in Africa and Asia. Tea made from the plant is used as a natural medicine to prevent and cure malaria. Although synthetic biology may eventually yield an affordable synthetic alternative, it will likely disrupt indigenous agriculture that provides a livelihood for thousands of small-scale farmers.

And the ETC Group even questions whether the Berkeley work will produce a low-cost drug: "Pharmaceutical companies will accumulate control and power over the production process; artemisia producers will lose a source of income; and local production, extraction and (possibly) manufacturing of ACT [Artemisinin Combination Therapies] in regions where malaria is prevalent will shift to the main production sites of Western pharmaceutical companies."

The ETC Group report outlines six major areas where synthetic biology needs to be carefully watched and where it could undermine the public interest and local/regional economies.

** Biological weapons -- more dangerous, more stealthy

** Biofuels -- to replace petroleum with ethanol and other chemicals derived from genetically modified organisms -- instead of focusing on conservation and efficiency

** Creating intellectual monopolies -- why not own the world? Companies are aiming to create new monopolies by patenting all manner of natural forms and substances

** Conservation biology -- prevent and reverse extinction, thus introducing alien species into contemporary ecosystems

** New commodities -- rubber, silk, you name it; will they interfere with existing crops? Can we anticipate the problems they will create?

** Public health and safety -- trust us, we're experts. What will happen when new organisms enter ecosystems, evolve, and mutate?

The details of each are well worth reading (pgs. 23-48). The common theme is that corporate profits are the primary motivation for all of these innovations. When profit comes first, there is often little room for ethical and democratic exploration of better alternatives.

So what is an ostensibly-democratic society supposed to do? The ETC Group suggests, "...in keeping with the Precautionary Principle, synthetic microbes should be treated as dangerous until proven harmless. At a minimum, environmental release of de novo synthetic organisms should be prohibited until wide societal debate and strong governance are in place, and until health, environmental and socioeconomic implications are thoroughly considered."(p. 50)

The synthetic biology industry has made some soft proposals of self- governance, as a preemptive measure. Most of these have focused on biological weapons. "One proposal was... to boycott gene synthesis companies that did not screen orders for dangerous pathogens, and the development of software that could check genetic code for sequences that could be used maliciously." And a second, "He [Stephen Maurer, a Berkeley attorney] also proposed a confidential hotline for synthetic biologists to check if their work, or the work of others, was ethically acceptable."

But even some synthetic biologists doubt that self-policing can work. Drew Endy of MIT -- a synthetic biology leader and advocate of 'open-source' biology -- said, "I expect that this technology will be misapplied, actively misapplied.... I don't think [these proposals] will have a significant impact on the misuse of this technology."(p. 47)

In May of 2006, the synthetic biology 2.0 conference was held in Berkeley California. When the ETC Group tried to register to attend the event, they were turned away because of "limited space." So they submitted an open letter signed by 38 civil society organizations calling on the synthetic biology industry to "participate in a process of open and democratic oversight of the technology."(p. 50)

"Scientists creating new life-forms cannot be allowed to act as judge and jury," explained Sue Mayer, director of GeneWatch. "The implications are too serious to be left to well-meaning but self interested scientists. Public debate and policing is needed."(p. 47)

The ETC Group report makes the following recommendations:(p. 50)

** There must be a broad societal debate on synthetic biology's wider socioeconomic and ethical implications, including potential impacts on health, environment, human rights and security."

** Civil society should meet at national, regional and international levels to evaluate and plan a coordinated response to the emergence of synthetic biology in the context of wider, converging technologies.

** Governments should maintain zero tolerance for biowarfare agents, synthesised or otherwise, and adopt strong legal measures and enforcement to prevent the synthesis of biowarfare agents.

** The building blocks of life must not be privatised: Despite earnest calls for "open source biology," exclusive monopoly patents are now being won on the smallest parts of life -- on gene fragments, codons and even the molecules that make living organisms (i.e., novel amino acids and novel base pairs).

** To facilitate coordinated global action, an international body should be established to monitor and assess societal impacts of emerging technologies, including synthetic biology.

Can regulation work?

If society does create rules for the development of synthetic biology it should remember that, "scientists are ill-equipped by their training to grapple with the ethical and moral dimensions of their work. Scientists have no equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath -- "First do no harm" -- that guides the behavior of physicians. The Hippocratic oath counsels restraint, humility, and caution. In science, on the other hand, wherever your curiosity takes you is the right place to go, even if it takes you into "a darker bioweapons future."(Rachel's News #835)

Even when industry accepts regulation we must be wary. First, history tells us that government regulation translates mostly into government approval. Furthermore, new products are invented so fast that government can't keep up with the onslaught. And when someone is harmed and sues, manufacturers will use regulation as an excuse to evade responsibility: "The government approved this so I'm not liable."(Rachel's News #834)

In addition, regulation gives big firms unfair advantage over their smaller competitors. Complicated regulations require armies of lawyers and engineers -- "compliance specialists" -- who "do nothing but read the regulations and fill out the burdensome paperwork, bellyaching all the way to the bank."(Rachel's News #834)

Let us remember these words, from the ETC group's open letter to the 2006 synthetic biology 2.0 meetings: "We believe that this potentially powerful technology is being developed without proper societal debate concerning socioeconomic, security, health, environmental and human rights implications. We are alarmed that synthetic biologists meeting this weekend intend to vote on a scheme of voluntary self-regulation without consulting or involving broader social groups. We urge you to withdraw these self-governance proposals and participate in a process of open and inclusive oversight of this technology."


From: The Archdruid Report ................................[This story printer-friendly]
February 21, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: "Our society, like all others, picks and chooses among available technological options, implementing some and neglecting others. This needs hiding because most of these choices are made by influential members and groups within America's political class for their own private profit, very often at the expense of the rest of the public."]

By John Michael Greer

One of the things that gives the mythology of progress its emotional power is the circular logic at its center. From within the confines of the myth, what's new is better than whatever it replaces by the simple fact that it's newer, and whatever our technology happens to be good at is more important than the things it does poorly, especially when older methods did a better job of these latter than newer ones do.

I had a useful reminder of this the other day, thanks to one of the readers of The Archdruid Report, who critiqued my recent post "Technological Triage" with a certain degree of heat. One of his central points was that technology is here to stay, no matter what the future holds, because it's better than any alternative. "What is certain is that 'technology' will not disappear," he wrote: "...the engineer's outlook and the scientist's methods will continue to be applied to problems. And they will continue to provide better results for questions involving the physical world than magical thinking of any sort."

His comment missed a central point of my post, of course, which is that there's no such thing as "technology" in the singular, only technologies in the plural. The notion that technology is a single monolithic thing is a convenient bit of mystification, used to hide the fact that our society, like all others, picks and chooses among available technological options, implementing some and neglecting others. This needs hiding because most of these choices are made by influential members and groups within America's political class for their own private profit, very often at the expense of the rest of the public. Wrapping the process in a smokescreen of impersonal inevitability is a convenient way to keep awkward questions from being raised via what remains of the democratic institutions of an earlier age.

From another angle, of course, my reader's comment is true but tautological. Toolmaking is as natural to human beings as singing is to finches, and every human culture across space and time has had its own technologies, each of which draws on available resources to meet culturally recognized needs in culturally desirable ways. It's habitual in our own culture to think of the particular suite of technologies we've come up with as not only better than anybody else's, but more advanced, more progressive. Think about what these two phrases imply, and you'll see how they derive from and feed into the core narrative of the myth of progress, the way of telling the story of our species that turns every other culture and every past technology into a stepping-stone on the way to us. From within this narrative, all earlier technologies are simply imperfect attempts to achieve what we've got.

Again, this is mystification, and it serves a socially necessary purpose in a culture where talking about the goals and values of specific technologies is taboo. The frequently repeated claim that "technology is value-free" is fatuous nonsense, but as long as we think about tools and techniques as a single thing called "technology," it's also plausible nonsense. In reality, of course, individual technologies embody the values and goals of their designers, and are selected by users on the basis of the technology's relationship to values and goals. Look at the suite of technologies used by a person or a culture, and it's an easy matter to divine the values that person or that culture holds and the goals they pursue. This is unmentionable in our culture, among other reasons, because the values and goals our technologies reveal to the world are a very long ways indeed from the ones we claim to embrace.

But there's a third set of issues woven up in my reader's comments, and these issues take the same points a good deal deeper. His distinction between "the engineer's outlook and the scientist's methods" and "magical thinking of any kind" is a valid one, and he's quite correct to suggest that the former -- the set of intellectual tools in which our own culture has specialized -- does a better job with certain strictly physical questions than most other ways of thinking, including the ones he labels "magical thinking." Yet this begs the question on a much deeper level, because problem-solving methods aimed at physical questions aren't anything like as relevant to the current predicament of industrial society as they sometimes seem.

Peak oil is a case in point. What happens when world petroleum production begins to decline, as it will most likely do in the next few years, has very little to do with physical questions. The forces that will take the lead in the opening phases of the deindustrial age will be political, cultural, and psychological, not physical. About these issues the methods of the scientist and the engineer have very little useful to say, and most of that was drowned out decades ago by the louder voices of political opportunism and middle-class privilege. In the same way, the technical issues involved in the transition from an overpopulated, petroleum-based civilization with an expanding economy to a renewables-based civilization with a sharply reduced population and a much smaller steady-state economy were either solved long ago or could have been solved readily with modest investment. What could not be solved by these methods is the problem of finding the motivating factors and the political will to get these solutions put into place.

Since this latter problem could not be solved by "the engineer's outlook and the scientist's methods," in turn, it has not been solved at all. This is the downside of the superlative technological efficiency of our age: those things we can't do with our machines, or with ways of thinking that evolved to manage our machines, we can't do at all. Thus discussions of how to respond to peak oil, when these have not simply been exercises in denial or Utopian fantasy, have tended to focus on finding ways to redefine the issues in technical terms so they can be dealt with by technical methods. We hear endless talk about finding new ways to fuel our cars, and very little about the tangled and dysfunctional human motives that make it seem logical to us to ghettoize our homes, worksites, and marketplaces at such distances from one another that a preposterously inefficient system of freeways, roads, and automobiles has to be used to bridge the distances among them. It's all very reminiscent of the old fable about the drunkard who dropped his keys in a dark street and went to look for them under the streetlight half a block away, since there, at least, he could see what he was doing.

There's a rich irony, in other words, in my reader's insistence that magical thinking is less useful than the technical thinking he champions, because magical thinking is exactly the form of human thought that deals with the realm of motivations, values, and goals that technical thinking handles so poorly. Americans dream of living in suburbs not because suburbs have any particular virtue -- most of them lack the amenities of city and countryside alike, while sharing the worst features of both -- but because the suburban house, surrounded by its protective moat of grass, is a magical symbol brimfull of potent cultural meanings. Americans drive preposterously oversized and overpowered cars, not because these are better than smaller and more sensible vehicles in any objective way, but because they magically symbolize the freedom and power most Americans long ago surrendered to the machinery of a mass society. For that matter, the hallucinated wealth that keeps our mostly fictional economy churning away consists of sheer enchantment, with even less tangible substance behind it than the moonbeams and fairy dust of a child's wonder tale.

To speak of these issues in terms of magic is not, by the way, just a metaphor. Dion Fortune, one of the premier magical theorists of the 20th century, defined magic as the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. It's predictable that a society fixated on seeing its own technology as the be-all and end-all of human achievement would misunderstand magic as a kind of failed physical technology, but that predictability makes modern attitudes about magic no less misleading. This is hardly the place for a detailed discussion of magic, but for our present purposes it can be seen as the use of psychologically potent symbolism to influence consciousness and, through consciousness, the universe as we experience it. The advertising campaigns that seduce so many people into buying, say, fizzy brown sugar water, by associating this product with symbols of happiness, self-esteem, or love, are good examples of magic at work -- a debased magic, force-fitted into the manipulative mold of physical technology, but magic nonetheless.

In recent years I've heard people in the peak oil community who have no knowledge of magic, and who wrinkle their noses in disgust at the mere mention of the word, shake their heads in bafflement at the way that so many people in today's world seem to be sleepwalking toward disaster. Words like "trance" and "spell" appear not infrequently in such discussions. Over the next few weeks I want to explore this in more detail, and look at the ways in which issues of meaning, value, and purpose shape the way we approach the predicament of industrial society -- and might be reshaped by those who are willing to face up to the challenge of doing so.

This essay has also appeared in The Energy Bulletin, a publication we recommnend highly.


From: New York Times .....................................[This story printer-friendly]
February 19, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: As we have pointed out before, the U.S. now has all the trappings of a police state, though for the most part it is not yet being operated as one. Nevertheless, even the New York Times has noticed that we are inching toward martial law.]

A disturbing recent phenomenon in Washington is that laws that strike to the heart of American democracy have been passed in the dead of night. So it was with a provision quietly tucked into the enormous defense budget bill at the Bush administration's behest that makes it easier for a president to override local control of law enforcement and declare martial law.

The provision, signed into law in October, weakens two obscure but important bulwarks of liberty. One is the doctrine that bars military forces, including a federalized National Guard, from engaging in law enforcement. Called posse comitatus, it was enshrined in law after the Civil War to preserve the line between civil government and the military. The other is the Insurrection Act of 1807, which provides the major exemptions to posse comitatus. It essentially limits a president's use of the military in law enforcement to putting down lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion, where a state is violating federal law or depriving people of constitutional rights.

The newly enacted provisions upset this careful balance. They shift the focus from making sure that federal laws are enforced to restoring public order. Beyond cases of actual insurrection, the president may now use military troops as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or to any "other condition."

Changes of this magnitude should be made only after a thorough public airing. But these new presidential powers were slipped into the law without hearings or public debate. The president made no mention of the changes when he signed the measure, and neither the White House nor Congress consulted in advance with the nation's governors.

There is a bipartisan bill, introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and Christopher Bond, Republican of Missouri, and backed unanimously by the nation's governors, that would repeal the stealthy revisions. Congress should pass it. If changes of this kind are proposed in the future, they must get a full and open debate.


From: CommonDreams.org ...................................[This story printer-friendly]
February 16, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: How is it that as corporate investments and foreign aid and international loans to poor countries have increased dramatically throughout the world over the last half century, so has poverty?]

By Michael Parenti

There is a "mystery" we must explain: How is it that as corporate investments and foreign aid and international loans to poor countries have increased dramatically throughout the world over the last half century, so has poverty? The number of people living in poverty is growing at a faster rate than the world's population. What do we make of this?

Over the last half century, U.S. industries and banks (and other western corporations) have invested heavily in those poorer regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America known as the "Third World." The transnationals are attracted by the rich natural resources, the high return that comes from low-paid labor, and the nearly complete absence of taxes, environmental regulations, worker benefits, and occupational safety costs.

The U.S. government has subsidized this flight of capital by granting corporations tax concessions on their overseas investments, and even paying some of their relocation expenses---much to the outrage of labor unions here at home who see their jobs evaporating.

The transnationals push out local businesses in the Third World and preempt their markets. American agribusiness cartels, heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, dump surplus products in other countries at below cost and undersell local farmers. As Christopher Cook describes it in his Diet for a Dead Planet, they expropriate the best land in these countries for cash-crop exports, usually monoculture crops requiring large amounts of pesticides, leaving less and less acreage for the hundreds of varieties of organically grown foods that feed the local populations.

By displacing local populations from their lands and robbing them of their self-sufficiency, corporations create overcrowded labor markets of desperate people who are forced into shanty towns to toil for poverty wages (when they can get work), often in violation of the countries' own minimum wage laws.

In Haiti, for instance, workers are paid 11 cents an hour by corporate giants such as Disney, Wal-Mart, and J.C. Penny. The United States is one of the few countries that has refused to sign an international convention for the abolition of child labor and forced labor. This position stems from the child labor practices of U.S. corporations throughout the Third World and within the United States itself, where children as young as 12 suffer high rates of injuries and fatalities, and are often paid less than the minimum wage.

The savings that big business reaps from cheap labor abroad are not passed on in lower prices to their customers elsewhere. Corporations do not outsource to far-off regions so that U.S. consumers can save money. They outsource in order to increase their margin of profit. In 1990, shoes made by Indonesian children working twelve-hour days for 13 cents an hour, cost only $2.60 but still sold for $100 or more in the United States.

U.S. foreign aid usually works hand in hand with transnational investment. It subsidizes construction of the infrastructure needed by corporations in the Third World: ports, highways, and refineries.

The aid given to Third World governments comes with strings attached. It often must be spent on U.S. products, and the recipient nation is required to give investment preferences to U.S. companies, shifting consumption away from home produced commodities and foods in favor of imported ones, creating more dependency, hunger, and debt.

A good chunk of the aid money never sees the light of day, going directly into the personal coffers of sticky-fingered officials in the recipient countries.

Aid (of a sort) also comes from other sources. In 1944, the United Nations created the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Voting power in both organizations is determined by a country's financial contribution. As the largest "donor," the United States has a dominant voice, followed by Germany, Japan, France, and Great Britain. The IMF operates in secrecy with a select group of bankers and finance ministry staffs drawn mostly from the rich nations.

The World Bank and IMF are supposed to assist nations in their development. What actually happens is another story. A poor country borrows from the World Bank to build up some aspect of its economy. Should it be unable to pay back the heavy interest because of declining export sales or some other reason, it must borrow again, this time from the IMF.

But the IMF imposes a "structural adjustment program" (SAP), requiring debtor countries to grant tax breaks to the transnational corporations, reduce wages, and make no attempt to protect local enterprises from foreign imports and foreign takeovers. The debtor nations are pressured to privatize their economies, selling at scandalously low prices their state-owned mines, railroads, and utilities to private corporations.

They are forced to open their forests to clear-cutting and their lands to strip mining, without regard to the ecological damage done. The debtor nations also must cut back on subsidies for health, education, transportation and food, spending less on their people in order to have more money to meet debt payments. Required to grow cash crops for export earnings, they become even less able to feed their own populations.

So it is that throughout the Third World, real wages have declined, and national debts have soared to the point where debt payments absorb almost all of the poorer countries' export earnings---which creates further impoverishment as it leaves the debtor country even less able to provide the things its population needs.

Here then we have explained a "mystery." It is, of course, no mystery at all if you don't adhere to trickle-down mystification. Why has poverty deepened while foreign aid and loans and investments have grown? Answer: Loans, investments, and most forms of aid are designed not to fight poverty but to augment the wealth of transnational investors at the expense of local populations.

There is no trickle down, only a siphoning up from the toiling many to the moneyed few.

In their perpetual confusion, some liberal critics conclude that foreign aid and IMF and World Bank structural adjustments "do not work"; the end result is less self-sufficiency and more poverty for the recipient nations, they point out. Why then do the rich member states continue to fund the IMF and World Bank? Are their leaders just less intelligent than the critics who keep pointing out to them that their policies are having the opposite effect?

No, it is the critics who are stupid not the western leaders and investors who own so much of the world and enjoy such immense wealth and success. They pursue their aid and foreign loan programs because such programs do work. The question is, work for whom? Cui bono?

The purpose behind their investments, loans, and aid programs is not to uplift the masses in other countries. That is certainly not the business they are in. The purpose is to serve the interests of global capital accumulation, to take over the lands and local economies of Third World peoples, monopolize their markets, depress their wages, indenture their labor with enormous debts, privatize their public service sector, and prevent these nations from emerging as trade competitors by not allowing them a normal development.

In these respects, investments, foreign loans, and structural adjustments work very well indeed.

The real mystery is: why do some people find such an analysis to be so improbable, a "conspiratorial" imagining? Why are they skeptical that U.S. rulers knowingly and deliberately pursue such ruthless policies (suppress wages, rollback environmental protections, eliminate the public sector, cut human services) in the Third World? These rulers are pursuing much the same policies right here in our own country!

Isn't it time that liberal critics stop thinking that the people who own so much of the world -- and want to own it all -- are "incompetent" or "misguided" or "failing to see the unintended consequences of their policies"? You are not being very smart when you think your enemies are not as smart as you. They know where their interests lie, and so should we.

Michael Parenti's recent books include The Assassination of Julius Caesar (New Press), Superpatriotism (City Lights), and The Culture Struggle (Seven Stories Press). For more information visit www.michaelparenti.org.


From: Newsweek ............................................[This story printer-friendly]
February 15, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: Toxic chemicals don't just hurt us in big doses. Environmental oncologist Devra Davis argues that myriad tiny amounts of cancer-causing agents in our environment -- and even in our shampoo -- can make us sick.]

By Devra Davis

We know that children are not simply little adults. With their quick heartbeats, fast-growing organs and enviable metabolism, the young absorb proportionally more pollutants than those who are older. Exposures to minute amounts of hormones, environmental tobacco smoke or pollutants early in the life of an animal or human embryo can deform reproductive tracts, lower birth weight and increase the chance of developing cancer. And yet results from an independent chemical testing laboratory released last week found a probable human carcinogen, 1,4-dioxane (also known as para-dioxane), in some common children's shampoos at levels higher than those recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization that ran the study, estimates that more than a quarter of all personal-care products sold in the United States may contain this cancer-causing agent.

The presence of a cancerous agent at levels above those suggested by the FDA is disturbing enough. The idea that such a compound exists at any amount in products that can be in regular contact with babies' skin is even more disconcerting. Scientists have long known that certain chemicals like para-dioxane can cause cancer. (The World Health Organization considers para-dioxane a probable human carcinogen because it is proven to cause cancer in male and female mice and rats.) Now we're beginning to realize that the sum total of a person's exposure to all the little amounts of cancerous agents in the environment may be just as harmful as big doses of a few well-known carcinogens. Over a lifetime, cigarettes deliver massive quantities of carcinogens that increase the risk of lung and other cancers. Our chances of getting cancer reflect the full gamut of carcinogens we're exposed to each day -- in air, water and food pollution and in cancerous ingredients or contaminants in household cleaners, clothing, furniture and the dozens of personal-care products many of us use daily.

Of the many cancer risks we face, shampoos and bubble baths should not be among them. The risks of para-dioxane in American baby soaps, for instance, could be completely eliminated through simple manufacturing changes -- as they are in Europe. To remove such carcinogens, however, would require intervention by the federal government, but the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act allows the industry to police itself. Europe has banned the use of para-dioxane in all personal-care products and recently initiated a recall of any contaminated products. There's a problem with the way the United States and other countries look at toxicity in commercial agents. Regulators nowadays often won't take action until enough people have already complained of harm. This makes little sense. Scientists can seldom discern how the myriad substances, both good and bad, that we encounter in our lives precisely affect our health. We need to be smarter about using experimental evidence to predict and therefore prevent harm from happening. A few decades ago, people accepted the fact that cigarette smoking was harmful, even though no scientist could explain precisely how this happened in any particular cancer patient. If we had insisted in having perfect proof of how smoking damaged the lungs before acting to discourage this unhealthy practice, we would still be questioning what to do. By the same token, we now have to get used to the idea that scientists are unlikely to be able to say with certainty that a trace chemical in shampoo accounts for a specific disease in a given child. But if we're to reduce our cancer risk, we need to lower our exposures to those agents that can be avoided and find safer substitutes for those that can't.

Scientists don't experiment on humans, for obvious reasons, but we have found some clues from lab and wildlife studies. Medical researchers have demonstrated that trace chemicals of some widely used synthetic organic materials can damage cultured human tissue. The effects don't just accumulate, they mushroom. UC Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes has shown that very low levels of pesticide residues in Nebraska cornfields can combine to create male frogs with female features that are vulnerable to infection and can't reproduce.

Should we wait for these same things to happen to baby boys before acting to lower exposures? There's plenty of solid human evidence that combined pollutants can cause more harm together than they do alone. We are not surprised to hear that people who smoke, drink and work as painters have much higher risks of kidney cancer than those who only engage in one of these known cancer-causing practices. We also understand that women who use hormone-replacement therapy and drink more than two glasses of wine daily have higher risks of breast cancer than those who engage in only one of these practices. This tells us that other combinations of chemicals in the environment can also lead to other cancers. One in five cases of lung cancer in women today -- a disease that kills more women than ovarian, breast and uterine cancer combined -- has no known history of active or passive smoking exposure. Rates of non-Hodgkins lymphoma and other cancers not tied with aging or improved screening have also increased in many industrial countries. New cases of testicular cancer continue to rise in most industrial countries. While still rare, childhood cancer is more common today than in the past, and most cases occur in children with no known inherited risk of the disease.

The problem, from a scientific standpoint, is that resolving the effects of miniscule levels of chemicals we encounter throughout our lives is part of a complicated puzzle for which many pieces are missing. What scientists need is data -- lots of it. Manufacturers, however, tend to hold the precise formulations of products as trade secrets, and the law allows them to withhold much information about carcinogens even if they are known to be present. Of course, we should continue to collect information to advance our ability to prevent cancer and other chronic diseases. But when a chemical causes cancers in both sexes of two different species of animals, we shouldn't arrogantly presume we will escape a similar fate. Recent work on the human and animal genomes shows us that humans differ from frogs and mice by fewer than 10 percent of genes. We should not let the absence of specific information on the health consequences for our infants and toddlers of single cancer-causing contaminants like para-dioxane become a reason to delay getting rid of such hazards.

The goal of public-health policy is to prevent harm, not to prove that it's already happened. The Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute advises that personal-care products that contain hormones may, in part, account for the continuing and unexplained patterns of breast cancer in African- Americans under age 40, and also may explain why more girls are developing breasts at younger ages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found generally higher residues of some plastic metabolites in African-American women, with children ages 6 to 11 having twice the levels of whites. Dr. Chandra Tiwary, a recently retired military chief of pediatric endocrinology at Brooks Air Force Base, found that African-American baby girls as young as 1 year old developed breasts after their parents applied creams that they hadn't realized contained estrogen to their scalps. When the creams were no longer used, these infant breasts went away. Other work published last week by the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, shows similar effects in young boys who had been washed with some hormone-mimicking soaps or oils. After their parents stopped applying these products, their breasts also receded.

In light of the growing numbers of young girls with breasts, the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society, the certifying board for pediatric endocrinology, in 1999 changed the recommendation of what is natural. We believe this would be a dangerous move. If we say that it's now normal for African-American and white young girls to develop breasts at ages 6 and 7, respectively, we will fail to pick up serious diseases that could account for this. We will also lose the chance to learn whether widely used agents in the environment, like those found in personal-care products today or others that may enter the food supply, lay behind some of these patterns.

It should not be the job of scientists, or of public-spirited leaders or environmental groups, to find out what contaminants or ingredients may be affecting the delicate endocrine systems of our children and grandchildren. (The tests that found para-dioxane in shampoo were funded privately by environmental journalist and activist David Steinman, author of "Safe Journey to Eden.") Manufacturers have known for years about how para-dioxane forms as a by-product of manufacturing and how to get rid of it. Until now, they just haven't need to do so. People have a right to know whether products they use on themselves and their children contain compounds that increase their risk of disease. They also have a right to expect that government will prevent companies from selling products that are harmful to children. To do otherwise is to treat our children like lab rats in a vast uncontrollable experiment.


Devra Davis is director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health. A National Book Award finalist for "When Smoke Ran Like Water," she is completing "The Secret History of the War on Cancer," from which this work is adapted, expected in October from Basic Books.

Copyright 2006 Newsweek, Inc.


From: Boston Globe .......................................[This story printer-friendly]
February 19, 2007


Echoes issues raised by global panel

[Rachel's introduction: The nation's largest scientific organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has issued a consensus statement saying global warming is a "growing threat to society."]

SAN FRANCISCO -- The world's largest general scientific society on Sunday joined the concern over global climate change, calling it a "growing threat to society."

It is the first consensus statement of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on climate change. It comes just weeks after the International Panel on Climate Change issued its most recent report on human-induced warming.

"The evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now and is a growing threat to society," the AAAS said at its annual meeting.

"Scientists are observing the rapid melting of glaciers, destabilization of major ice sheets, rising sea levels, shifts in species ranges and increased frequency of weather extremes," said John P. Holdren, director of the Woods Hole Research Center and AAAS president.

Concern focuses on carbon dioxide and other gases produced by burning fossil fuels and other processes. As these gases accumulate in the atmosphere they trap heat from the sun, much like a greenhouse, warming the climate.

"The longer we wait to tackle climate change, the harder and more expensive the task will be," the group said.

Holdren noted that some of the most dramatic changes are occurring in the far North where warming has occurred more rapidly than in other areas. Retreating sea ice and rising sea level are driving some natives from their villages, the group said.

On Feb. 2 the Intergovernmental Panel in Climate Change reported that global warming is so severe that it will "continue for centuries," leading to a far different planet in 100 years.

The panel, established by the United Nations, concluded that global warming is "very likely" caused by man, meaning more than 90 percent certain.

If nothing is done to change current emissions patterns of greenhouse gases, global temperature could increase as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, the report said.

AAAS was founded in 1848. It reports that it serves 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, reaching 10 million individuals.


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