Saturday, March 17, 2018

The 8 Million Species We Do Not Know

                                                  Comments due by Mar. 23, 2018
The extinction of species by human activity continues to accelerate, fast enough to eliminate more than half of all species by the end of this century. Unless humanity is suicidal (which, granted, is a possibility), we will solve the problem of climate change. Yes, the problem is enormous, but we have both the knowledge and the resources to do this and require only the will.
The worldwide extinction of species and natural ecosystems, however, is not reversible. Once species are gone, they’re gone forever. Even if the climate is stabilized, the extinction of species will remove Earth’s foundational, billion-year-old environmental support system. A growing number of researchers, myself included, believe that the only way to reverse the extinction crisis is through a conservation moonshot: We have to enlarge the area of Earth devoted to the natural world enough to save the variety of life within it.
The formula widely agreed upon by conservation scientists is to keep half the land and half the sea of the planet as wild and protected from human intervention or activity as possible. This conservation goal did not come out of the blue. Its conception, called the Half-Earth Project, is an initiative led by a group of biodiversity and conservation experts (I serve as one of the project’s lead scientists). It builds on the theory of island biogeography, which I developed with the mathematician Robert MacArthur in the 1960s.
Island biogeography takes into account the size of an island and its distance from the nearest island or mainland ecosystem to predict the number of species living there; the more isolated an ecosystem, the fewer species it supports. After much experimentation and a growing understanding of how this theory works, it is being applied to the planning of conservation areas.
So how do we know which places require protection under the definition of Half-Earth? In general, three overlapping criteria have been suggested by scientists. They are, first, areas judged best in number and rareness of species by experienced field biologists; second, “hot spots,” localities known to support a large number of species of a specific favored group such as birds and trees; and third, broad-brush areas delineated by geography and vegetation, called ecoregions.

All three approaches are valuable, but applying them in too much haste can lead to fatal error. They need an important underlying component to work — a more thorough record of all of Earth’s existing species. Making decisions about land protection without this fundamental knowledge would lead to irreversible mistakes.
The most striking fact about the living environment may be how little we know about it. Even the number of living species can be only roughly calculated. A widely accepted estimate by scientists puts the number at about 10 million. In contrast, those formally described, classified and given two-part Latinized names (Homo sapiens for humans, for example) number slightly more than two million. With only about 20 percent of its species known and 80 percent undiscovered, it is fair to call Earth a little-known planet.
Paleontologists estimate that before the global spread of humankind the average rate of species extinction was one species per million in each one- to 10-million-year interval. Human activity has driven up the average global rate of extinction to 100 to 1,000 times that baseline rate. What ensues is a tragedy upon a tragedy: Most species still alive will disappear without ever having been recorded. To minimize this catastrophe, we must focus on which areas on land and in the sea collectively harbor the most species.
Building on new technologies, and on the insight and expertise of organizations and individuals who have dedicated their lives the environment, the Half-Earth Project is mapping the fine distribution of species across the globe to identify the places where we can protect the highest number of species. By determining which blocks of land and sea we can string together for maximum effect, we have the opportunity to support the most biodiverse places in the world as well as the people who call these paradises home. With the biodiversity of our planet mapped carefully and soon, the bulk of Earth’s species, including humans, can be saved.
By necessity, global conservation areas will be chosen for what species they contain, but in a way that will be supported, and not just tolerated, by the people living within and around them. Property rights should not be abrogated. The cultures and economies of indigenous peoples, who are de facto the original conservationists, should be protected and supported. Community-based conservation areas and management systems such as the National Natural Landmarks Program, administered by the National Park Service, could serve as a model.
To effectively manage protected habitats, we must also learn more about all the species of our planet and their interactions within ecosystems. By accelerating the effort to discover, describe and conduct natural history studies for every one of the eight million species estimated to exist but still unknown to science, we can continue to add to and refine the Half-Earth Project map, providing effective guidance for conservation to achieve our goal.

The best-explored groups of organisms are the vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes), along with plants, especially trees and shrubs. Being conspicuous, they are what we familiarly call “wildlife.” A great majority of other species, however, are by far also the most abundant. I like to call them “the little things that run the world.” They teem everywhere, in great number and variety in and on all plants, throughout the soil at our feet and in the air around us. They are the protists, fungi, insects, crustaceans, spiders, pauropods, centipedes, mites, nematodes and legions of others whose scientific names are seldom heard by the bulk of humanity. In the sea and along its shores swarm organisms of the other living world — marine diatoms, crustaceans, ascidians, sea hares, priapulids, coral, loriciferans and on through the still mostly unfilled encyclopedia of life.
Do not call these organisms “bugs” or “critters.” They too are wildlife. Let us learn their correct names and care about their safety. Their existence makes possible our own. We are wholly dependent on them.
With new information technology and rapid genome mapping now available to us, the discovery of Earth’s species can now be sped up exponentially. We can use satellite imagery, species distribution analysis and other novel tools to create a new understanding of what we must do to care for our planet. But there is another crucial aspect to this effort: It must be supported by more “boots on the ground,” a renaissance of species discovery and taxonomy led by field biologists.
Within one to three decades, candidate conservation areas can be selected with confidence by construction of biodiversity inventories that list all of the species within a given area. The expansion of this scientific activity will enable global conservation while adding immense amounts of knowledge in biology not achievable by any other means. By understanding our planet, we have the opportunity to save it.
As we focus on climate change, we must also act decisively to protect the living world while we still have time. It would be humanity’s ultimate achievement.
 (E O Wilson, the global authority on extinction)

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Can we avoid a Global collapse?

                                                       Comments due by March 9, 2018                                                   

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the authors of The Population Bomband Limits to Growth warned that humans were using the finite resources of the planet to fuel unsustainable population growth. Since 1975, the global population has grown from 3 billion to the current 7.3 billion, and it is predicted to reach 9 billion to 10 billion by 2050. There is compelling scientific evidence that present trends in global population, resource use, and economics cannot continue for more than a few decades. The only question is whether there will be a gradual and managed decline or a catastrophic crash. Nevertheless, ­self-proclaimed experts maintain that “sustainable development” can be achieved if we can just summon the necessary technical expertise, political will, and popular support.
Of the more than two dozen titles on global sustainability listed on, The Age of Sustainable Development by Jeffrey Sachs is likely to be especially influential. As the publisher proudly proclaims, “Sachs is a world-renowned economics professor, leader in sustainable development, senior UN advisor, best-selling author, and syndicated columnist. He serves as the director of the Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and professor of health policy and management at Columbia University. He is special advisor to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations on the Millennium Development Goals, and . . . director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.”
The book starts with a bold assertion: “We have entered a new era . . ., the Age of Sustainable Development.” The first chapter articulates Sachs's concept of sustainable development, “a world in which economic progress is widespread; extreme poverty is eliminated; social trust is encouraged . . .; and the environment is protected from human-induced degradation.” Subsequent chapters lay out an ambitious agenda, termed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for the United Nations and world leaders. The SDGs are intended to reverse the dire state of the Anthropocene—the current era of human domination and degradation of the biosphere—and to solve its big, challenging problems: extreme poverty, poor health and education, social and political inequality, ineffective policies and governance, unsustainable population growth and resource use, changing climate, and declining biodiversity.

This is a bad book. Despite endorsements from Ban Ki-moon, Edward O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, and other notables, it is deeply flawed from a scientific perspective and dangerously misleading from a policy perspective. Sachs is a social scientist, but there is not much science, social or natural, in this book. Science is an objective, evidence-based way of learning fundamental truths about the world. Sachs presents lots of graphs, tables, and maps to illustrate past trends, current conditions, and future projections, but he fails to use these data to assess the feasibility of the SDGs.
After chapters on social and economic topics, in “Planetary boundaries,” Sachs asks the crucial questions, “How can the world economy and population continue to grow if the Earth itself is finite?” and “Can economic growth be reconciled with environmental sustainability?” He responds, “By very careful and science-based attention to the real and growing environmental threats, we can indeed find ways to reconcile growth—in the sense of material improvement over time—with environmental sustainability.”
Unfortunately, “sustainable development,” as advocated by most natural, social, and environmental scientists, is an oxymoron. Continual population growth and economic development on a finite Earth are biophysically impossible. They violate the laws of physics, especially thermodynamics, and the fundamental principles of biology. Population growth requires the increased consumption of food, water, and other essentials for human life. Economic development requires the increased use of energy and material resources to provide goods, services, and information technology.
Existing uses of these resources have already created an unsustainable bubble of population and economy. Unless current trends can be reversed, a catastrophic crash is inevitable (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2013). The global human population is currently growing at a rate of 1.1 percent per year and will add 80 million in 2015. Humans are rapidly depleting the finite reserves of fossil fuels that power the current industrial–technological economy (Hall and Klitgaard 2011). Resource shortages are evidenced in declines since the 1980s in per-capita consumption of oil, natural gas, metal ores, phosphate (an essential fertilizer), fresh water, arable land, and ocean fisheries (Brown et al. 2013). It is no coincidence that the genuine progress indicator (an alternative to gross national product), which measures quality of life, has also been decreasing since the 1980s (Kubiszewski et al. 2013). The humans of the Anthropocene are changing the climate, decimating the biodiversity, and reducing the productivity of the biosphere.
Can these trends be reversed? Unfortunately, the answers depend on objective scientific analysis, which is missing from this book. It is not enough to recognize the problems and suggest optimistic solutions. It is necessary to do a rigorous scientific evaluation: Assemble the relevant data; do the arithmetic to estimate the energy, material, and socioeconomic costs; and draw the logical conclusions. It is not enough simply to assert what should be done; one must show quantitatively what needs to be done and how it could practically and politically be accomplished in time to avert catastrophe. The problems are compounded, because in our complex, interconnected world, actions to address some SDGs will make others worse. We know that anthropogenic climate change could be reversed if we stopped burning fossil fuels. But such energy deprivation would have a devastating impact on all of Sachs's social objectives. Politicians and economists would have to abandon the holy grail of economic growth and prepare for a rapid, drastic reduction in the global population and standard of living.
Rather than address Sachs's 10 SDGs individually, I will consider them in three categories. Those in the first category might actually be accomplished. These include reductions in disease and poverty and increases in health services and education. Recent progress toward these goals might be continued as long as the global economy holds up. But consider the reason: These SDGs do not call for major sacrifices by most people, and they profit individuals and corporations in developed countries that sell goods, services, and information to the developing world.
The SDGs in the second category are biophysically impossible, because they violate the laws of nature. These include “achieve economic development within planetary boundaries,” “curb human-induced climate change and ensure sustainable energy,” and “secure ecosystem services and biodiversity.” The finite stocks of energy and material resources limit potential economic growth. Following Sachs's graph 6.10, energy consumption would need to increase more than threefold in China and more than tenfold in the poorest developing countries to attain a US level of economic development and standard of living. This is clearly impossible in the foreseeable future. China currently uses more than 20 percent of global energy production. In the next few decades, renewable energy sources will make increasing but only modest contributions. The global economy will continue to be fueled by burning diminishing reserves of fossil fuels, with the attendant emission of carbon dioxide and the exacerbation of climate change. The increasing impacts of cultivating crops, harvesting fish and wood, extracting minerals, and dispersing pollutants are damaging ecosystems and decimating biodiversity.
The SDGs in the third category are unrealistic, because they ignore realities of human behavior. They include “achieve gender equality, social inclusion, and human rights for all” and “transform governance for sustainable development.” These noble ideals have never been achieved in all of history. Humans are constitutionally incapable of making the necessary sacrifices. Doing so would violate the Malthusian–Darwinian dynamic, the biological imperative that causes all organisms to favor themselves and their family, social group, and nation state over all others (Nekola et al. 2013).

For an alternative perspective on the present condition and future trajectory of humanity and the biosphere, I recommend Overdevelopment, Over­population, Overshoot (Butler 2015). This is mostly a picture book, but its 163 photographs show a grim reality that contrasts with Sachs's misleading optimism.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Cape Town is running out of water, whose next?

                                                  Comments due March 2, 2018

It sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster. “Day Zero” is coming to Cape Town this April. Everyone, be warned. The government cautions that the Day Zero threat will surpass anything a major city has faced since World War II or the Sept. 11 attacks. Talks are underway with South Africa’s police because “normal policing will be entirely inadequate.” Residents, their nerves increasingly frayed, speak in whispers of impending chaos. The reason for the alarm is simple: The city’s water supply is dangerously close to running dry. If water levels keep falling, Cape Town will declare Day Zero in less than three months. Taps in homes and businesses will be turned off until the rains come. The city’s four million residents will have to line up for water rations at 200 collection points. The city is bracing for the impact on public health and social order. “When Day Zero comes, they’ll have to call in the army,” said Phaldie Ranqueste, who was filling his white S.U.V. with big containers of water at a natural spring where people waited in a long, anxious line. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way for Cape Town. This city is known for its strong environmental policies, including its careful management of water in an increasingly dry corner of the world. But after a three-year drought, considered the worst in over a century, South African officials say Cape Town is now at serious risk of becoming one of the few major cities in the world to lose piped water to homes and most businesses. Hospitals, schools and other vital institutions will still get water, officials say, but the scale of the shut-off will be severe. Cape Town’s problems embody one of the big dangers of climate change: the growing risk of powerful, recurrent droughts. In Africa, a continent particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, those problems serve as a potent warning to other governments, which typically don’t have this city’s resources and have done little to adapt. For now, political leaders here talk of coming together to “defeat Day Zero.” As water levels in the dams supplying the city continue to drop, the city is scrambling to finish desalination plants and increase groundwater production. Starting in February, residents will face harsher fines if they exceed their new daily limit, which will go down to 50 liters (13.2 gallons) a day per person from 87 liters now. Just a couple of years ago, the situation could not have looked more different here. In 2014, the dams stood full after years of good rain. The following year,  a collection of cities focused on climate change worldwide, awarded Cape Town its “adaptation implementation” prize for its management of water. Cape Town was described as one of the world’s top “green” cities, and the Democratic Alliance — the opposition party that has controlled Cape Town since 2006 — took pride in its emphasis on sustainability and the environment. The accolades recognized the city’s success in conserving water. Though the city’s population had swelled by 30 percent since the early 2000s, overall water consumption had remained flat. Many of the new arrivals settled in the city’s poor areas, which consume less water, and actually helped bring down per capita use. The city’s water conservation measures — fixing leaks and old pipes; installing meters and adjusting tariffs — had a powerful impact. Maybe too powerful. The city conserved so much water that it postponed looking for new sources. For years, Cape Town had been warned that it needed to increase and diversify its water supply. Almost all of its water still comes from six dams dependent on rainfall, a risky situation in an arid region with a changing climate. The dams, which were full only a few years ago, are now down to about 26 percent of capacity, officials say. Cape Town has grown warmer in recent years and a bit drier over the last century, according to Piotr Wolski, a hydrologist at the University of Cape Town who has measured average rainfall from the turn of the 20th century to the present. Climate models show that Cape Town is destined to face a drier future, with rains becoming more unpredictable in the coming decades. “The drier years are expected to be drier than they were, and the wetter years will not be as wet,” Mr. Wolski said. As far back as 2007, South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs warned that the city needed to consider increasing its supply with groundwater, desalination and other sources, citing the potential impact of climate change. Mike Muller, who served as the department’s director between 1997 and 2005, said that the city’s water conservation strategy, without finding new sources, has been “a major contributor to Cape Town’s troubles.” “Nature isn’t particularly willing to compromise,” he added. “There will be severe droughts. And if you haven’t prepared for it, you’ll get hammered.” Ian Neilson, the deputy mayor, said that new water supplies have been part of the city’s plans but “it was not envisaged that it would be required so soon.” Cities elsewhere have faced serious water shortages. Millions of Brazilians have endured rationing because of prolonged droughts. Brasília, the capital, declared a state of emergency a year ago. Experts say the water shortages in Brazil, which have affected more than 800 municipalities across the country, stem from climate change, the rapid expansion of agriculture, bad infrastructure and poor planning. Here in Cape Town, the water shortages have strained political divisions, especially because much of the responsibility for building water infrastructure lies with the national government led by the African National Congress. “The national government has dragged its feet,” said David Olivier, who studies climate change at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Global Change Institute. The national government controls the water supply to Cape Town, other municipalities and the province’s agricultural sector, including the large wine industry east of Cape Town. In the first two years of the drought, experts say, the national government failed to limit water supplies to farmers, intensifying the problem. But the city made mistakes, too. Last year, instead of focusing on “low hanging fruit” like tapping into local aquifers, the city concentrated on building temporary desalination units, said Kevin Winter, a water expert at the University of Cape Town’s Future Water Institute. “It takes a lot of time to build desalination modules, three to five years, and at considerable cost,” Mr. Winter said. “They’re even costlier to build during a crisis.” Mr. Neilson, the deputy mayor, acknowledged that “some time was lost.” The city, he said, had now “shifted our efforts dramatically.” The city is stepping up its efforts to cut consumption. With water and time running out, Mr. Neilson said he was “acutely aware” of needing to scare people into changing their behavior without causing them to panic, adding, “I don’t think we quite got that right yet.” So far, only 55 percent of Cape Town residents have met the target of 87 liters per day. Helen Zille, the premier of Western Cape Province, which includes Cape Town, wrote in The Daily Maverick last week that she considers a shut-off inevitable. The question now, she said, is, “When Day Zero arrives, how do we make water accessible and prevent anarchy?” Cutting back is a difficult message to convey in one of the world’s most unequal societies, where access to water reflects Cape Town’s deep divisions. In squatter camps, people share communal taps and carry water in buckets to their shacks. In other parts of the city, millionaires live in mansions with glistening pools. In vast townships like Mitchells Plain, residents without cars wondered how they could even carry water containers home from a collection point. Faried Cassiem, who works as a cleaner but does not have a car, said his wife would have to fetch water for his household of eight. “There are so many guys just standing around, with no jobs, so I’ll just give them two Rands to carry the water,” he said, referring to the equivalent of about 17 cents. As Day Zero looms, some were stocking up on water at two natural springs in the city. Others were buying cases of water at Makro, a warehouse-style store. In Constantia, a suburb with large houses on gated properties with pools, some residents were installing water tanks in their yards. At one house, Leigh De Decker and Mark Bleloch said they had reduced their total water consumption from the city to 20 liters a day, down from 500 liters a day before the drought. Instead, they now draw from two 10,000-liter tanks of treated well water, and were waiting for two additional tanks to be delivered. Several weeks before Day Zero, their use of city water should come down to zero, they said, estimating that it will cost them about $4,200 to become completely self-sufficient. “It allows you to have a certain lifestyle without drawing on resources that other people need,” Ms. De Decker said. 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Could Lab Grown Meat & Fish Feed the World Sustainably?

                                  Comments due by Feb. 23, 2018

Finless Food (is) a company growing fish flesh in their laboratory, aiming to feed the 5,000 and then some without needing to kill a single animal. It was founded in 2016 by university buddies Mike Selden and Brian Wyrwas, bright-eyed biochemists in their mid-20s who are on a mission to save the oceans and bring affordable, contaminant-free fish to the masses.
Finless Foods is the first firm to enter the race to take cellular agriculture – meat grown outside of animals – to market with marine, as opposed to land animals. In 2013, the godfather of what is also known as cultured or in-vitro meat, Professor Mark Post from Maastricht University, unveiled the first ever cultured beefburger- no livestock required. It was dry and anaemic, but, says Post, “it showed it could be done.” Three years later, San Francisco startup Memphis Meats delivered a succulent beef meatball, following up this year with fried chicken and duck a l’orange. Meanwhile, Hampton Creek foods (also in San Francisco) are boldly promising they will be selling cultured poultry as soon as the end of next year.
Selden and Wyrwas’s lab was only established in March 2017, and as Selden says, “Fish cell culture was really not a thing. Human cell cultures - we do that all the time and there’s all sorts of papers on animal culture, but for fish, Brian had to invent a protocol to do that.” Yet by the end of our first conversation I am invited to taste their first prototype. “We’re small but we’re moving very quickly, and so are the investors,” says Selden, with the robotic urgency of someone who dedicates every waking hour to their vocation.
 He bristles at the phrases “Frankenmeat” and “lab-grown meat”, insisting that “they’re not fair or accurate”. He makes his point by comparing the process of culturing meat cells to another passion of his: brewing beer. That hallowed, ancient process tends to happen in giant, sterile, sealed fermenters, which are not unlike the bioreactors that will be used for culturing meat in industrial quantities. Trusty beer, he points out, “is often prototyped in a facility that looks like a laboratory: it’s white, everyone’s wearing lab coats and gloves, and is using lab equipment. So if we’re lab-grown meat, then beer is lab-grown beer. We’re not going to have armies of scientists sitting over petri dishes forever.”
The technology for culturing animal cells was originally developed for medical use; in fact Post, whose early burger attempt was funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, had a background in repairing heart tissue. An early attempt by academics to culture fish (the results of which were published in 2002) tested the processes as a potential renewable protein source for astronauts embarking on a four-year schlep to Mars…
The principle for culturing cells is relatively straightforward. Animal cells can be obtained harmlessly by biopsy from a living beast, or in the case of Finless, says Selden, “We have an agreement with the aquarium at the bay that whenever a fish dies, they call me and I jump in a car, pick up the fish, bring it back and Brian cultures it up.” By “culturing up” he means feeding the cells in a solution of salts, carbohydrates and proteins. “Typical division time for most animals is about 24 hours,” he says. Whether you’ve got two cells or two tonnes, you’ll have double a day later, although this may get faster.
The greatest challenge lies in making the process affordable enough to scale-up production and be competitively priced. An alternative needs to be found for the animal serum – commonly foetal bovine serum – that’s currently used to kick-start cell division. “It’s about $500 a litre, and it’s totally against the mission of our company,” says Selden. “We’re trying to make food that doesn’t harm animals and it’s kind of doing the opposite. Also, animal serum is variable from batch to batch.”
I visit Finless Foods’ lab ahead of the prototype tasting. They’re moving to new bespoke quarters later this year, but in the meantime share a workspace with various young companies developing biotech solutions to the world’s problems. We pass Clara Foods, which has created the world’s first animal-free egg, and a centrifuge whizzing around something to do with regenerating “the nipple-areolar complex” for women after mastectomies. Senior scientist at Finless, Jihyun Kim, proudly invites me to peer through her microscope at fish cells developing in a beaker of clear, pink liquid resembling the run-off from defrosting pork. A pattern has formed on the bottom of the beaker – the slightest sliver of fish. It doesn’t look appetising, but neither do the contents of an abattoir.
Selden, Post and the other cultured meat startups exude confidence aboutsolving the serum puzzle: with venture capitalists to keep sweet, and stiff competition, a certain swagger must be displayed at all times. The serum provides proteins called growth factors. “We’re trying to find which growth factors are most important for fish cell growth,” says Selden, “and we’re making those ourselves in-house.”
They produce them in a similar way to how human insulin is made for peoplewith diabetes. Up until 1978, medical insulin was extracted from ground pig or cow pancreases. These days we can genetically modify yeast or bacteria to produce human insulin. Similarly, the serum alternative will involve putting fish DNA inside yeasts, “which then act as little protein factories”. Selden assures GMO haters that this doesn’t mean the meat cells are GM, “but they used proteins produced by a GMO to signal them into dividing and growing.”
At Finless Foods they say they’ll have a blue-fin tuna product ready for market in late 2019. Post is more conservative; he says he is happy with his product, but is at least three years from selling one. As well as working on his own serum alternative, he is seeking to replace the bovine collagen he uses “so the cells can find each other and form a fibre.”
Hi-tech, plant-based protein alternatives, meanwhile, are starting to give meat a run for its money. Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat makes chicken strips largely from a protein in peas, and beefburgers that bleed beetroot juice. After Bill Gates tried a Beyond Chicken taco, he blogged about being fooled into thinking it was the real thing. Meanwhile the Impossible burger exploded out of Silicon Valley and is available in restaurants across the US. It is uncannily beef-like, oozing cholesterol-free fat and pink through the middle. Impossible’s not-so-secret ingredient is heme, a compound that is abundant in meat but can be sourced from plants. According to Impossible’s blurb, heme is what makes “meat sizzle, bleed and taste gloriously meaty.”
But in the eyes of the cultured meat trailblazers, fancy vegetarian food will never have mass appeal. Demand for meat, and fish, is only going one way. “The question is, which product can satisfy the craving of the population for meat?” posits Post. “At the moment it’s there and it’s increasing ... culturing is going to cover the entire gamut of meats that are out there. It will be much more difficult to achieve that goal with vegetable-based proteins.” This is a sentiment the Chinese government has got behind, announcing a $300m investment in cultured meat produced in Israel. The US may be among the world’s most carnivorous nations, but as China’s economy swells, the planet’s most populous country is catching up.
When you tell people about growing animal muscle and fat cells in factories, the initial reaction is invariably revulsion. But after you point out the ethical and health benefits, they warm to the prospect. Cultured meat doesn’t involve intensively farming and slaughtering animals, nor the associated environmental and animal-cruelty costs, not to mention the risks of human contamination with disease, antibiotics, pesticides and – in the oceans – mercury and plastics. Fish farming, which accounts for over half of global fish consumption, increasingly relies on pesticides, fungicides and antibiotics, which pollute open water surrounding the captive fish. Aquaculture also employs inhumane methods to physically detach parasites from the fish. Farmed fish are not even immune to absorbing mercury and toxic industrial byproducts such as PCBs and dioxins, although being in shallower water reduces their exposure.
This is why companies such as Hampton Creek and Memphis Meats are referring to their produce as “clean meat”, and it’s catching on: clean meat, clean conscience…
Without a brain, cultured meat can indeed be thought of as almost plantlike. “If you look under a microscope, you see the same cell structures as you would meat from an animal,” says Koert Van Mensvoort, director of the Next Nature Network, a non-profit organisation in Amsterdam that investigates how technology transforms our relationship with nature. “But there’s a different story there that forces us to reevaluate our positions.” Which is partly why he thinks the new culinary possibilities created by cultured meat should be explored, rather than seeing it as replacing the sausages and burgers we’re so familiar with…
How a clean-meat revolution could affect the landscape and environment is riddled with ifs and buts, not helped by the secrecy among the startups. Hanna Tuomisto, a specialist in the environmental impacts of food production at the University of Helsinki, started investigating the implications at Oxford University in 2008. Feeding the cells is one thing, but to convert a mush of them into muscle-like structures adds a second layer of energy burn, and she can only guess at the expenditure involved. “When we estimate energy consumption,” she says, “it’s at the same level as beef or higher now, but there is lots of uncertainty in bioreactor design and the scales we are looking at now are quite small.” Culturing fish cells will probably use less energy than land animal cells, because fish cells will merrily reproduce at room temperature.
However, if the land freed up by moving from intensive farming to cultured meat was used to grow bioenergy crops (a big if), this could mitigate the carbon generated by culturing. Post, meanwhile, thinks enterprising farmers might switch to crops that could provide the nutrients for cultured meat factories. Either way, converting the grassland we use for grazing would have serious drawbacks. Grassland has higher biodiversity than arable land, and converting grassland to arable land would release, Tuomisto says, “a lot of carbon from the soil.”…
The world’s first cultured fish tasting takes place on an afternoon in early September, as the mist rolls over San Francisco from the bay. Silicon Valley chef Laurine Wickett will be preparing the fish at her gleaming catering kitchens. Before she fries the five bite-sized, cultured-carp croquettes she has made, she describes the raw paste of harvested cells within them as having a delicate flavour of the sea, a little like the water in an oyster shell. As I suppress thoughts of beakers of pink liquid and taste my perfectly-cooked croquette, I find it both delicious and disappointing. It’s only 25% fish and the subtle carp flavour is eclipsed by the potato. I just about detect a pleasant aftertaste of the sea, though not fish as such. But then, far from a polished product from a development kitchen, this is a first prototype  a benchmark of scientific progress. Selden and Wyrwas only tasted their fish for the first time a few days before.
Despite the stingy fish-to-potato ratio, each tiny croquette had cost $200 (£150), working out at about $19,000 (£14,380)-per-pound of fish. But such is the speed of technological advance that they’ve already slashed that by more than half.
Afterwards, Selden and Wywras are flushed with the raw elation of having given birth to something important, and they talk frenetically about strategies for developing a more mature fishy flavour, expansion into fresh premises and the structural wonders their newly recruited tissue engineer will create. Next stop: cultured sashimi.
(edited from an article by Amy Fleming for the Guardian)

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Sustainable Development Goals 2030

Read the following and comment on whether you think that these goals are compatible with an ecologically healthy environment and whether these goals are achievable from within our current dominant paradigm. (If we believe in these goals are we willing to do what it takes to reach them?)

                               Comments due by February 16, 2018

Image of the Envision Disability in 2030 visual identity

Imagine the world in 2030, fully inclusive of persons with disabilities

In September 2015, the General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Building on the principle of “leaving no one behind”, the new Agenda emphasizes a holistic approach to achieving sustainable development for all.
Visual identity of the SDGs that shows each individual goal in colour boxes
The SDGs also explicitly include disability and persons with disabilities 11 times. Disability is referenced in multiple parts of the SDGs, specifically in the parts related to education, growth and employment, inequality, accessibility of human settlements, as well as data collection and the monitoring of the SDGs.
Although, the word “disability” is not cited directly in all goals, the goals are indeed relevant to ensure the inclusion and development of persons with disabilities.
Inforgraphic that shows where disability is explicitly included in the 17 SDGs
The newly implemented 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development holds a deep promise for persons with disabilities everywhere.
The year 2016 marks the first year of the implementation of the SDGs. At this critical point,  #Envision2030 will work to promote the mainstreaming of disability and the implementation of the SDGs throughout its 15-year lifespan with objectives to:
  • Raise awareness of the 2030 Agenda and the achievement of the SDGs for persons with disabilities;
  • Promote an active dialogue among stakeholders on the SDGs with a view to create a better world for persons with disabilities; and
  • Establish an ongoing live web resource on each SDG and disability.

The campaign invites all interested parties in sharing their vision of the world in 2030 to be inclusive of persons with disabilities.
Please forward your comments, suggestions, references and/or new information on the SDGs and persons with disabilities to or follow us @UNEnable on Facebook and Twitter and use hashtag #Envision2030 to join the global conversation and help create a world in 2030 that is fully inclusive of persons with disabilities.

The 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) to transform our world:

Friday, February 2, 2018

Rambling Through Time

                                                             Comments Due February 9, 2018

There’s a seafloor in Central Park. It crops out from under fallen ginkgo leaves, in black hunks sparkling with muscovite. This familiar rock was laid down as deep-sea muck half a billion years ago in a strange ocean haunted by alien exoskeletons, and gelatinous things that pulsed and squirmed. But you can’t find fossils in this Central Park seabed — they were all cooked to schist tens of millions of years later in titanic continental collisions that pushed snowcapped mountains into tropical New England skies. As you can imagine, this was all a very long time ago — but then again, you can’t imagine it. This is the central insight of geology. The world is old beyond comprehension, and our story on it is short. The conceit of the Anthropocene, the supposed new epoch we’re living in, is that humanity can already make claims to its geological legacy. But if we’re to endure as a civilization, or even as a species, for anything more than what might amount to a thin layer of odd rock in some windswept canyon of the far future, some humility is in order about our, thus far, infinitesimal part in the history of the planet. Astronomy gets much of the credit for decentralizing the role of humans in the story of the cosmos, but just as Edwin Hubble placed our island universe in deep space, the geologist James Hutton placed us in deep time, gawking in awe in 1788 at the chasms of history that confronted him in the rocks at Siccar Point on the east coast of Scotland. To grasp the extent of this abyss, the present-day geologist Robert Hazen proposes going for a walk, with each step representing a century back in time. Let’s walk 500 million years back, roughly to the strange age of the Central Park seafloor. With a nod to the space folks, we’ll start out at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium on the Upper West Side and head west. We can’t even get to the sidewalk before all of recorded history — all of the empires, the holy books, agriculture, the architecture, all of it — is behind us. But since it is geological time, not human history that we’re after, we keep walking down city streets in a world now populated by woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths. We walk past Broadway to Riverside Park, eventually hitting the Hudson River. We’ve already put more than a thousand centuries behind us, but we’ve got a long way to go. So we march up the West Side Highway and cross the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey. Despite our sore feet, and having covered untold millenniums over several miles, we’re stupefied to learn that we’ve scarcely gone back a million years — an all but insignificant amount to geologists. In fact, we haven’t even emerged from the pulsating ice age that has waxed and waned for the past 2.6 million years. The scale of the task dimly dawning on us, we push on, trudging along the rumble strip of Interstate 80 in New Jersey, battered by gusts of passing tractortrailers. After walking for more than 24 hours we make it clear across the state, stumbling into Pennsylvania. Morale now collapsing, we’re further gutted to learn that walking as the crow flies 300 miles across the Keystone State won’t even bring us back to the age of dinosaurs. That august period begins in Ohio and, though all of human civilization lasted only those first few dozen footsteps out of the museum, the age of dinosaurs will continue through the rest of the state. Then Indiana. Then Illinois. Then Iowa. It’s not until we reach the middle of the Triassic somewhere in Nebraska (and some 235 million years ago) that the first humble dinosaurs appear. But we’re still nowhere near that ancient sea world entombed in the Manhattan schist. So we keep going, across prairies, over the Rocky Mountains, through Utah’s Martian wastes, then Nevada’s bleak Basin and Range, as untold millions of years slip past. Finally, scrambling over the Sierras and across the San Joaquin Valley to San Francisco, we arrive at the edge of the continent, more than 100 miles, and tens of millions of years, short of the Cambrian world revealed in Central Park. Having reached the Pacific Ocean, we have covered 10 percent of earth’s history. It has been cynically observed by some politicians that over this vast scope of time, “Earth’s climate is always changing.” Indeed, in our transcontinental walk through earth history, it’s true. The planet’s climate in those first few miles of our walk, through the freeze-thaw seesaw of the recent ice ages, is, in fact, far different from the carbon-dioxide infused wasteland inferno of the early Triassic, more than a thousand miles later. Over the grand sweep of earth history our planet has been many different worlds — a snowball earth colonized by sponges, a supercontinental broiler ruled by crocodile kin. But during the brief window of the past few thousand years in which all of civilization has emerged — those first few steps in our journey — we’ve enjoyed an almost miraculously equable interglacial climate, the most stable of the past several hundred thousand years. It’s these pleasant few footsteps that allowed complex societies to blossom. But in the next few footsteps, we’re projected to return to climates last seen hundreds, if not thousands of miles in our past. In this century alone, a time scale so laughably brief as to effectively not exist to geologists, we could send the planet back to a climate system not seen for many millions of years. One study recently estimated that humanity has the capacity in the next few centuries to make the planet warmer than it has been in at least 420 million years. The story of life on earth so far isn’t one of a tidy march of progress, culminating in humanity’s “end of history.” Other alien worlds have claimed this planet for unimaginably longer spans, relinquishing their place only under the duress of mindbending episodes of chaos, like asteroid hits And contrary to some accounts of our current moment, we’re not even the first, or only, organism to threaten the planet with mass extinction. At the end of the Ediacaran period, 540 million years ago, burrowing animals and filter feeders might have wiped out vast swathes of exotic life clinging to the seafloor. Almost 200 million years later at the end of the Devonian period, the evolution of trees might have driven such convulsions in climate and ocean chemistry that 97 percent of the world’s vertebrates died. In the next few decades we will decide whether humanity’s legacy will be a sliver of clay in the limestone strata — a geological embarrassment accessible only in remote outcrops to eagle-eyed geologists of the far future — or an enduring new epoch like the reign of dinosaurs. But even if it’s the former, and we collapse almost as soon, in geologic time, as we got started, the record in the rocks of the extinctions we caused will remain, as eternal as the schist in Central Park.( Peter Brannen NYT)

Sunday, January 28, 2018


Listen to the audio clip under week 1 of BB and write a comment. Due date is February 2, 2018.