Do these toxins make me look fat? Earth Day turns 41.

Cuyahoga River on fire

On June 22, 1969, a portion of the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio. The late1960s were turbulent times; 1969 alone witnessed Woodstock, the Tate-LaBianca murders, and the Mi Lai massacre. The fire on the Cuyahoga River was emblematic of human-caused environmental troubles. This event and others lit a fire under the Congress and the President. The Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency and other environmental landmarks all happened under the ‘liberal’ Nixon Administration.

And, on April 22, 1970 the United States observed its first Earth Day. On that day most of the observers had taken to heart Paul R. Ehrlich’s book “The Population Bomb,” which warned, “The battle to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines–hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” In those days, members of the environmental movement also predicted air pollution would cause another ice age through global cooling. (As Danish physicist, Neils Bohr supposedly quipped, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”)

Ehrlich and other doomsayers embraced Malthus, an eighteenth century economist who argued that the rapidly growing human population would quickly outstrip its food supply. Like Malthus, they were convinced that the world’s exponential population growth would outstrip the planet’s ability to cope. We needed to curb our population NOW or the population of humankind would collapse like the locust after they descend and voraciously remove every bit of vegetation in an area.

Not everyone thought the world would be destroyed. One man, a ‘free-market environmentalist,’ Julian Simon said the world was getting better and cleaner.

When Bjorn Lomborg, an associate professor in statistics, heard the claim, “My immediate reaction was: ‘Right-wing propaganda! It can’t be true,’ he said in an interview. “I thought it would be fun to get my students to show that he was wrong, but as we went through it, we realised that a lot of the things he said were right – and when you think about it, it’s kind of obvious. Air quality is getting better, not worse. Water quality is getting better. People are better fed, they live longer, they are not as poor or as sick as they used to be. We’ve actually managed to do a lot of good things.

“And yet we have this whole culture, and it’s much, much more than just Greenpeace,” says Lomborg, “that we’re going in the wrong direction, that things are falling apart. Everyone – politicians, journalists and certainly scientists – are telling us that things are getting worse and worse. But that is actually not the case with many – not all, but many – of those important indicators.”

Since that first Earth Day, the earth has not collapsed, and in many ways, conditions for mankind and the earth have vastly improved. Indeed the world’s population has almost doubled, yet we have not removed every whit of resource and become poorer, sicker, and hungrier. Nor did we simply maintain the status quo. No, we find that since 1970 we are doing better. Everyone is three times richer (in real terms), the percentage of people in abject poverty has dropped by over two-thirds, a greater percentage of people are better fed, the average person in a developing country eats more calories per day, the world’s forests cover 99% of what they did in 1970, and the known oil reserves have nearly doubled. The list of accomplishments goes on

Source: Maxim Pinkovskiy and Xavier Sala-i-Martin, 2010, "African poverty is falling…much faster than you think"

Four decades ago, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. While this bit of information strikes one as astonishing in its own right, it had happened at least nine times before: 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, and in 1952. It has not happened since. Today, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has designated the Cuyahoga one of fourteen American Heritage Rivers, and portions of the river that were devoid of life in 1969 now support dozens of species. Consider the advance of other waterways: the Rhine, the Thames, and New York Harbor; they have greater amounts of dissolved oxygen and thus a greater abundance of life.

Life on earth is far from perfect, yet the human species has made strides towards a healthy planet. The world is cleaner, more livable for people and animals, safer, and more sustainable than it has ever been.

Source: USDA Food Security Assessment-special Report, 2007, US Dept of Agriculture

I will let political satirist P.J. O’Rourke have the last word.

“Things are better now than things have been since men began keeping track of things. Things are better than they were only a few years ago…(I)f you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: ‘dentistry.’”

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A warmer and wetter world

I found a link the other day to a government website with global mean precipitation data from 1900 to 2000. Of course, I can’t find the link now (please comment if you have the link, but first see the note at the end of the post).

Anyway, I put the numbers into an Excel spreadsheet and graphed the data and added a trendline. (If you would like a copy of the xls file, please ask for it in the comment section below.) As the world warms it is getting wetter. As Matt Ridley writes in his book The Rational Optimist:

If you take the IPCC’s [International Panel on Climate Change] assumptions and count the people living in zones that will have more water versus zones that will have less water, it is clear that the net population at risk of water shortage falls by 2100 under all their scenarios. (emphasis added)

Global mean precipitation (1900-2000)

10 yr average-global mean precipitation (1900-2000)

Even the EPA cites the IPCC (2007) to say much the same thing:

As global mean temperatures have risen, global mean precipitation also has increased. This is expected because evaporation increases with increasing temperature, and there must be an increase in precipitation to balance the enhanced evaporation (IPCC, 2007). Globally, precipitation over land increased at a rate of 1.9 percent per century since 1901, but the trends vary spatially and temporally. Over the contiguous U.S., total annual precipitation increased at an average rate of 6.1 percent per century since 1901, although there was considerable regional variability. The greatest increases came in the South (10.5 percent per century), the Northeast (9.8 percent), and the East North Central climate region (9.6 percent). A few areas such as Hawaii and parts of the Southwest have seen a decrease.

Crops may flourish with warmer climes and more CO2. There is some indication that in California some trees are increasing their ranges in response to this change. While increasing temperatures do have their downside, they also have positive benefits as well.

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Should the FDA require DHMO to be listed on food labels?

 

dihydrogen monoxide

Would you drink Dihydrogen monoxide? (Image by helen sotiriadis via Flickr)

Dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) is used in the production of genetically modified crops. It is also used as a food additive and preservative. Every year people die from accidents involving DHMO, including DHMO poisoning. Some have died from as little as one drop. Additionally, the burning of hydrocarbons (e.g., wood and fossil fuels) releases DHMO into the atmosphere where it is a powerful greenhouse gas, more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The government and food companies will tell you that DHMO has been used for years, is perfectly safe (Chemicals are part of life; they are the building blocks in fact), and does not need regulation. Yet, given these facts, shouldn’t companies be required to place DHMO on their food labels?

Actually, no, although every fact presented to you is true, it is designed to mislead you. In fact, DHMO is relatively safe. Dihydrogen monoxide, (two hydrogen atoms to one oxygen atom) is normally written as H2O: water.

Think about spin such as DHMO when you hear that genetically engineered crops have not been proven safe. As an example, you will hear about a Cornell University research study that was reported as a note in Nature in June 1999. You will read things similar to “The Nature study was published after several Bt-corn varieties had been approved by the EPA and over 20 million acres of Bt corn were planted in the United States.” (source: Union of Concerned Scientists website) The preliminary research found that monarch butterflies died from eating pollen from corn that has been modified to produce Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt toxin). Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed that grows in the Midwest where the corn grows. That is true. The European corn borer and monarch butterfly are members of the Lepidoptera, and though Bt is harmless to humans (indeed it is used by organic farmers as a pesticide because it is a naturally occurring soil bacterium) it is toxic to lepidopteran insects. Pollen from the Bt corn could fall on the milkweed which could sicken or kill monarch caterpillars. Again, true.

What is missing is perspective and balance. No crop is grown without the farmer (organic or conventional) using a pesticide. The better targeted the pesticide, the less harm that occurs to non-targets plants and animals. While it is true that Bt pollen poses a small risk to monarchs, organic farmers use Bt sprays, would monarch caterpillars be any less at risk from organically grown corn? No, the monarch would still be sickened or killed by organic growing methods. Additionally, other insects would be at risk too.

Less pesticide use is a result of growing Bt corn. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency pesticide use has decreased about 33% since Bt corn was introduced.
For more about Bt corn and the monarch study go to: http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/br/btcorn/index.html#bt3

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