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Drug resistance and meat production

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009


MSNBC is giving front page coverage to a potentially serious problem that scientists identified years ago—microbes are becoming drug resistant because of antibiotic use in meat production.

Researchers say the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals has led to a plague of drug-resistant infections that killed more than 65,000 people in the U.S. last year — more than prostate and breast cancer combined. And in a nation that used about 35 million pounds of antibiotics last year, 70 percent of the drugs — 28 million pounds — went to pigs, chickens and cows. Worldwide, it’s 50 percent.

Governments are starting to realize the urgency of this issue:

The rise in the use of antibiotics is part of a growing problem of soaring drug resistance worldwide, The Associated Press found in a six-month look at the issue. As a result, killer diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and staph are resurging in new and more deadly forms.

In response, the pressure against the use of antibiotics in agriculture is rising. The World Health Organization concluded this year that surging antibiotic resistance is one of the leading threats to human health, and the White House last month said the problem is “urgent.”

….[T]hree federal agencies tasked with protecting public health — the Food and Drug Administration, CDC and U.S. Department of Agriculture — declared drug-resistant diseases stemming from antibiotic use in animals a “serious emerging concern.” And FDA deputy commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein told Congress this summer that farmers need to stop feeding antibiotics to healthy farm animals.

However, entrenched special interests continue to be as resistant as the germs our food system is producing:

Farm groups and pharmaceutical companies argue that drugs keep animals healthy and meat costs low, and have defeated a series of proposed limits on their use.

As Michael Pollan, Peter Singer, Wendell Berry, and others have noted, this is what results from the treadmill of production and the Walmartization of our food system.   When the only thing that matters is producing the most food for the least cost, our modern industrialized food system—and antibiotic resistance—is what we get.

One farmer who buys into antibiotic use echoes this conventional wisdom—that the most fundamental principle of food production is about lowering cost:

“Now the public doesn’t see that,” he said. “They’re only concerned about resistance, and they don’t care about economics because, ‘As long as I can buy a pork chop for a buck 69 a pound, I really don’t care.’ But we live in a world where you have to consider economics in the decision-making process of what we do.”

Another farmer, who eschewed antibiotic use, is one of many who are bucking conventional wisdom:

Kremer sells about 1,200 pigs annually. And a year after “kicking the habit,” he says he saved about $16,000 in vet bills, vaccinations and antibiotics.

“I don’t know why it took me that long to wake up to the fact that what we were doing, it was not the right thing to do and that there were alternatives,” says Kremer, stooping to scratch a pig behind the ear. “We were just basically killing ourselves and society by doing this.”


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Posted in food and agriculture, health | 1 Comment »

The promise and perils of algae-based biofuels

Monday, December 28th, 2009


In a forthcoming article1 in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Val Smith and colleagues describe why biofuels produced from algae have many benefits:

  • The current production of biodiesel (~2 billion gallons in 2006) is far lower than annual consumption of diesel fuel (44 billion gallons per year).  Simply put, biodiesel crops can’t keep pace with demand.  We would have to grow significantly more biofuel crops, which would affect land use by reducing the acreage of food crops or natural habitats.
  • Algae fats (lipids) can serve as the feedstocks for many types of fuels, including aviation fuel, which would be a major benefit because airline travel is a huge part of most people’s carbon footprints. Algae fuels are potentially carbon neutral.  Making air travel carbon neutral would be a game changer.
  • Algae grow extremely fast—much faster than terrestrial plants (which are made into biodiesel or ethanol).  They lack anatomical parts like roots, flowers, and woody stems that don’t help plants photosynthesize (making them more productive than plants).
  • One of the most amazing statistics in this paper is how much less land it would take to make algae based fuels compared to terrestrial plants because of the increased productivity of algae.  To produce an amount of fuel equivalent to the global demand for oil, we would only need an area of land equivalent to 3-20% of current croplands.  If we were to use biofuel plant crops instead, we would need about 2-8 times the amount of current global cropland. That’s so amazing I did a double take when I read it.
  • Algae can be grown in tanks on lands that are marginally useful for crops so that we don’t have to sacrifice croplands.
  • They can serve double-duty by removing excess nutrients from wastewater, thereby linking energy production and wastewater treatment.
  • Algal production virtually eliminates the use of herbicides and insecticides and uses much less water than growing crops for fuels.

They also point out an interesting pitfall:

  • Bioreactors containing algae are often unintentionally invaded by zooplankton that eat the algae.  This can lead to predator-prey-type cycles in algae biomass, which is not good when you want to maximize algal biomass production.
  • The solution?  Add fish that eat the zooplankton.  This would cause “top-down” pressure on the zooplankton, keeping their populations in check.

1Smith, V. et al (in press) The ecology of algal biodiesel production. Trends in Ecology and Evolution.


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Posted in biofuels, energy, solutions, sustainability, technology | 3 Comments »

In this week’s issue of Nature: Will species be able to keep up with climate change and how does this impact how we think about parks?

Thursday, December 24th, 2009


One of the outcomes of climate warming is that species will have to move to remain within climatic zones that match their physiological tolerances.  Some common examples include the northward migration of boreal forest species into areas that are currently tundra and the upward migration of mountain species.

As Scott Loarie and colleagues note1 in this week’s Nature (subscription required), we often think of mountain ecosystems as being particularly threatened because alpine species have nowhere to go.

To analyze this challenge, they looked at the spatial gradients of temperature across land masses of the world.  These data indicate how temperature changes over a known distance (temperature gradient = degrees C per kilometer).

Then, they used climate model model projections to determine how fast the temperature of a region will change (warming rate = degrees C per year).

By dividing the warming rate by the temperature gradient, they determined what they called the temperature velocity (kilometers per year)—which is basically represents how fast you (or another species) needs to move along the earth’s surface to maintain a constant temperature (check this division for yourself to see how the units cancel).

What did they find?


Posted in biodiversity science, climate change science, community conserved areas, risk analysis | No Comments »

Small green behaviors: Encouraging or distracting?

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009


There’s been some debate over the past month as to whether small green behaviors, such as changing out compact fluorescent lightbulbs, spur people to take bigger steps—say, buying a hybrid car, weatherizing a home, or commuting to work.

One camp says no.  In a blog post, We cannot change the world by changing our buying habits, George Monbiot argued (links his)

I’ve never been convinced by this argument. In my experience, people use the soft stuff to justify their failure to engage with the hard stuff. Challenge someone about taking holiday flights six times a year and there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll say something along these lines:

I recycle everything and I re-use my plastic bags, so I’m really quite green.

I wasn’t surprised to see a report in Nature this week suggesting that buying green products can make you behave more selfishly than you would otherwise have done. Psychologists at the University of Toronto subjected students to a series of cunning experiments (pdf). First they were asked to buy a basket of products; selecting either green or conventional ones. Then they played a game in which they were asked to allocate money between themselves and someone else. The students who had bought green products shared less money than those who had bought only conventional goods.

The researchers call this the “licensing effect”. Buying green can establish the moral credentials that license subsequent bad behaviour: the rosier your view of yourself, the more likely you are to hoard your money and do down other people.

Then they took another bunch of students, gave them the same purchasing choices, then introduced them to a game in which they made money by describing a pattern of dots on a computer screen. If there were more dots on the right than the left they made more money. Afterwards they were asked to count the money they had earned out of an envelope.

The researchers found that buying green had such a strong licensing effect that people were likely to lie, cheat and steal: they had established such strong moral credentials in their own minds that these appeared to exonerate them from what they did next. Nature uses the term “moral offset”, which I think is a useful one.

More recently, Mike Tidwell had a column in the Washington Post, To really save the planet, stop going green, in which he argued

December should be national Green-Free Month. Instead of continuing our faddish and counterproductive emphasis on small, voluntary actions, we should follow the example of Americans during past moral crises and work toward large-scale change.

….So what’s the problem? There’s lots of blame to go around, but the distraction of the “go green” movement has played a significant role. Taking their cues from the popular media and cautious politicians, many Americans have come to believe that they are personally to blame for global warming and that they must fix it, one by one, at home. And so they either do as they’re told — a little of this, a little of that — or they feel overwhelmed and do nothing.

However, a few days ago, Margaret Southern posted a column, Stop ‘Going Green’ to Save the Planet?, on TNC’s website in which she argued that there are data to back up the notion that small changes do spur us to make bigger ones (emphasis and links hers):

According to Professor Michael Vandenbergh of Vanderbilt University, co-author of “Household Actions Can Provide a Behavioral Wedge to Rapidly Reduce U.S. Carbon Emissions” (published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), there is no research to support the assumption that if someone does one good thing (say, bike to work) they would be less likely to do another good thing (support climate change legislation).

In fact, Professor Vandenbergh told NPR that behavior change is contagious:

There are a number of psychological phenomena that suggest that we might actually induce more support for behavior change. When someone becomes committed to a certain behavior, they’re more likely to follow through in other areas as well.

So, those already concerned about conservation might become even more concerned about it as time goes on.

So, while I agree with Tidwell that the conservation-concerned should turn up the heat on Congress and other decision-makers on creating real climate change policies, we don’t have to set aside our green habits even temporarily to do so. I don’t think that setting a good example for personal changes that people can make (that collectively would make a huge difference) is confusing people that either don’t know how to change or don’t care to change.


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Posted in behavior, environmentalism, nature and culture, sustainability | No Comments »

Ethical eating: Should we expand the circle to include plants?

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009


In a NY Times column yesterday, Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too, Natalie Angier pushes the boundaries of what we consider to be ethical eating.

She works through a series of biochemical and physiological examples of how plants are amazing—almost animal-like.  With one of my undergraduate majors in botany, I agree:  Plants are amazing and animal-like.

Attacked by an herbivove?  Plants can emit volatile chemicals to warn other individuals of the same species (analogous to a warning call). They can turn on chemical defenses that make themselves less palatable (an immune response).  And in an amazing display of evolution, some plants can even send signals to the predators of the herbivore to come get a free meal (analogous to getting your big brother to beat up the bully picking on you). For example, some corn varieties when being eaten by insect larva emit a chemical signal to attract wasps that lay eggs in the herbivorous pests, turning the pest into a tasty meal.

But being animal-like doesn’t mean we ought to give plants the same ethical considerations as animals.  Sure, plants are amazing, but that’s not a particularly effective ethical argument for diet choices for a couple of reasons:

  • Plants, without well-developed brains and nervous systems, are not sentient beings with a capacity to suffer or a will to live (sorry Brussels sprouts).  They are watery bags of enzymes and genes with exquisite biochemical and physiological responses.  They are essentially green cellulose robots that are evolutionarily and genetically programmed to respond in complex ways to complex and multifaceted environmental stimuli.  Eating plants, as many ethicists would argue, is therefore less morally challenging than eating a sentient mammal that can feel pain and possibly possesses a will to live.  Just like smashing a mosquito is less morally challenging than smashing your pet dog.
  • We have to eat something.  And until the day comes when we can mass produce food from tissue culture (don’t laugh, people are trying to culture meat in test tubes), we will have to eat living organisms.  Three arguments strongly favor plants over animals in terms of food ethics and sustainability:  (1) Plants have less capacity to suffer and feel pain (although some primitive animals like mussels and oysters may fall into this category), (2) we can feed a lot more people on a diet of plants than a diet of animals, as noted in an earlier post, and (3) growing plants for food releases fewer greenhouse gases than raising livestock.

It’s hard to tell whether Angier is being serious or satirical (and whether the rest of the blogosphere and I are being punked by developing an elaborate rebuttal).  The following passage suggests the former:

But before we cede the entire moral penthouse to “committed vegetarians” and “strong ethical vegans,” we might consider that plants no more aspire to being stir-fried in a wok than a hog aspires to being peppercorn-studded in my Christmas clay pot. This is not meant as a trite argument or a chuckled aside. Plants are lively and seek to keep it that way.

Nevertheless, her argument is flawed because it asks us to equate the moral consideration of sentient animals (like pigs) and plants.  I don’t know of a single ethicist who would make this argument given what we know about intelligence and sentience.

Furthermore, by equating plants and animals ethically, she implicitly uses this to justify eating meat because plants are objects of moral consideration too.  As the title of her article insinuates, if we are no longer able to eat Brussels sprouts, we must not be able to eat anything because of ethical equivalency.  We are led to conclude that this is absurd, so, therefore, we should just chill out and eat anything we want.

What Angier’s argument lacks in ethical rigor, it makes up in one important way:  It asks people to be thoughtful about what it means to eat other organisms.  Humanity should recognize and marvel at these amazing plant evolutionary adaptations—even be thankful for them—and do what we can to preserve them over the long haul.


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Posted in environmental ethics, food and agriculture | No Comments »

Copenhagen post-mortem and analysis roundup

Monday, December 21st, 2009


Food for thought—today’s latest on what happened at Copenhagen, what it might mean, and where we go from here:

1. SLATE:  The Party’s Over Why Copenhagen was the climate conference to end all climate conferences.




5. WSJ: Climate Chaos: Is There a Silver Lining to the Copenhagen Fiasco?

6. PIELKE, JR: Post-Copenhagen: More questions than answers

7. BREAKTHROUGH INSTITUTE: BBC World Service: Who is to Blame at Copenhagen?

8. MONBIOT (GUARDIAN): If you want to know who’s to blame for Copenhagen, look to the US Senate

9. NISBET: Schwarzenegger Says It’s Time to Regionalize the Climate Change Debate



12. MOTHER JONES: Obama’s Copenhagen Deal



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Posted in policy, solutions, sustainability | No Comments »

Heaven and Nature

Monday, December 21st, 2009

God2-Sistine_Chapel (Small)

That’s the title of a column in the NY Times today, in which Ross Douthat examines the nature-culture divide in the context of religion.  In an earlier post, we saw this divide manifested in the struggle for the soul of environmentalism.

Here, Douthat frames the human condition as a struggle between monotheistic religion and nature (or pantheism).  An excerpt of his conclusion:

Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality.

….Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.

This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.

Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.

But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.

There’s a lot to argue about with this interpretation. For example— Are spirituality and the natural world mutually exclusive? Does morality need to be grounded in religion? What might it mean for nature to “take us back?”


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Progress and the good life

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

3461159301_8445e9b2f0The cover story of this week’s The Economist, The idea of progress—Onwards and upwards: Why is the modern view of progress so impoverished?, examines an issue central to this blog:  What does/should the good life look like?


In the rich world the idea of progress has become impoverished. Through complacency and bitter experience, the scope of progress has narrowed. The popular view is that, although technology and GDP advance, morals and society are treading water or, depending on your choice of newspaper, sinking back into decadence and barbarism.

….The Economist puts more faith in business than most. Yet even the stolidest defenders of capitalism would, by and large, agree that its tendency to form cartels, shuffle off the costs of pollution and collapse under the weight of its own financial inventiveness needs to be constrained by laws designed to channel its energy to the general good.

Nor does economic progress broadly defined correspond to human progress any more precisely than does scientific progress. GDP does not measure welfare; and wealth does not equal happiness. Rich countries are, by and large, happier than poor ones; but among developed-world countries, there is only a weak correlation between happiness and GDP. And, although wealth has been soaring over the past half a century, happiness, measured by national surveys, has hardly budged.

….And it is not just that material progress does not seem to be delivering the emotional goods. People also fear that mankind is failing to manage it properly—with the result that, in important ways, their children may not be better off than they are. The forests are disappearing; the ice is melting; social bonds are crumbling; privacy is eroding; life is becoming a dismal slog in an ugly world.

….Such values are the institutional face of the fundamental engine of progress—“moral sensibility”. The very idea probably sounds quaint and old-fashioned, but it is the subject of a powerful recent book by Susan Neiman, an American philosopher living in Germany. People often shy away from a moral view of the world, if only because moral certitude reeks of intolerance and bigotry. As one sociologist has said “don’t be judgmental” has become the 11th commandment.

But Ms Neiman thinks that people yearn for a sense of moral purpose. In a world preoccupied with consumerism and petty self-interest, that gives life dignity. People want to determine how the world works, not always to be determined by it. It means that people’s behaviour should be shaped not by who is most powerful, or by who stands to lose and gain, but by what is right despite the costs. Moral sensibility is why people will suffer for their beliefs, and why acts of principled self-sacrifice are so powerful.

People can distinguish between what is and what ought to be. Torture was once common in Europe’s market squares. It is now unacceptable even when the world’s most powerful nation wears the interrogator’s mask. Race was once a bar to the clubs and drawing-rooms of respectable society. Now a black man is in the White House.

There are no guarantees that the gap between is and ought can be closed. Every time someone tells you to “be realistic” they are asking you to compromise your ideals. Ms Neiman acknowledges that your ideals will never be met completely. But sometimes, however imperfectly, you can make progress. It is as if you are moving towards an unattainable horizon. “Human dignity”, she writes, “requires the love of ideals for their own sake, but nothing requires that the love will be requited.”


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Posted in environmental ethics, environmentalism, nature and culture, solutions, sustainability | No Comments »

What happened to sea level in the past when the planet warmed 1-2 degrees?

Sunday, December 20th, 2009


A powerful tool that scientists use to determine impacts of climate warming is historical records from ice cores, ocean and lake sediments, fossil reef terraces, and tree rings.   These records have helped us determine that we are in a current warm (interglacial) phase—called the Holocene— of the Pleistocene Ice Age, a period spanning the last 2 million years, when Northern Hemisphere ice sheets advanced and retreated more than a dozen times.

In this week’s issue of Nature (subscription required), Robert Kopp and colleagues examined1 the previous warm interglacial phase, the Eemian, which happened about 125,000 years ago.  The historical records suggest that global temperature was about 1-2 degrees C warmer than today, and maybe as much as 3-6 degrees C warmer at the poles.

The question they asked was this:  How much did global sea level rise with the 1-2 degrees C  global warming in the Eemian?  Using the geological record to estimate past sea level changes, they came up with a startling answer:

  • 95% chance that sea level was 6.6 meters (22 feet) higher than today
  • 67% chance that it was 8 meters (26 feet) higher
  • 33% chance it was 9.4 meters (31 feet) higher

It’s important to remind ourselves that a 1-2 degree global warming is not some kind of scientific doomsday prediction—it’s actually the lower end of warming scenarios, pushing the limit of what is technologically and politically achievable.  If we continue a business as usual scenario, IPCC models suggest a global average warming of 4 degrees C by 2100.

1Kopp, R et al. (2009) Probabilistic assessment of sea level during the last interglacial stage. Nature 462: 863-868.


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Posted in climate change science, sea level rise | 1 Comment »

This week’s good ideas in campus sustainability: 12/14/09

Sunday, December 20th, 2009


This week’s showcase includes Worcester Polytechnic University, the Ohio university system, and Unity College.

(1)  WPI’s East Hall Recognized as a Green ‘Teaching Tool’

This is a model for how green construction should be done—use it as a classroom: has awarded Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s (WPI) East Hall the “Judge’s Choice” honor in its “Building as a Teaching Tool” category. East Hall’s design-and-construction process and sustainable features were recognized as “educational opportunities” for the campus community. As a nominee in the “Building as a Teaching Tool” category, East Hall was judged according to the mindfulness of construction materials, energy, and environment; its design as a learning laboratory; student and community involvement; integration into the coursework; and innovation and creativeness.

(2) University System of Ohio Aims to Make State a Green Workforce Leader

Another great example of public-private-university partnerships to promote green jobs and sustainability:

Chancellor Eric D. Fingerhut today formally announced the establishment of an advisory panel to position Ohio as a national green workforce leader. The Ohio Green Pathways Advisory Panel is charged with developing a comprehensive understanding of green workforce demand, building and expanding relationships with green industry leaders, and identifying strategies to create and expand new green opportunities in Ohio.

“Ohio is already ranked in the top five for clean energy job creation, energy efficiency and environmentally friendly production jobs, and is first in the nation for renewable and advanced energy manufacturing,” said Fingerhut, citing a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. “The Advisory Panel will ensure that the University System of Ohio advances the state’s economy by leading the way in green education and training programs.”

….”Environmental sustainability will be the primary driver of the new economy,” said Keith Dimoff, executive director of the Ohio Environmental Council. “Ohio Green Pathways will position Ohio to provide business with the skilled workforce necessary to harness the power of this evolving force.”

(3)  Finally, a home that gives more than it takes

There is a lot of green building going on around the world, but few projects actually lead all the way to carbon neutrality.  Here’s one example from Unity College (Maine, USA) of a house that generates more energy than it uses.   These kinds of buildings are what the new business as usual model should look like:

Unity House, as it’s called, recently received an LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, the highest achievable green building designation. The house also achieved what Bensonwood architect Randall Walter calls a Net Positive effect, which means the house actually gives energy back to the grid. This is done in part with the use of solar panels.

“On a sunny day, the house is building up a credit, to use at night,” Walter said.

These credits add up, saving money and energy, Walter said.

The home uses a combination of photovoltaic solar panels for generating electricity and a separate solar hot water system, along with some tight and high-tech insulation.

….From Oct. 5, 2008 to Oct. 5, 2009, energy use data shows Unity House produced 6,441 kilowatt hours of electricity while using only 6,430 kwh. The data shows that the cumulative months of overcast conditions and unseasonably cold temperatures in the first three seasons of 2009, considerably dampened solar collection, yet the home’s heat and power production and retention still performed well.


For more information:  AASHE Bulletin 12/14/09

Posted in campus sustainability, energy, higher education, solutions | No Comments »

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