New at SynEARTH
The Difficulty of Going Green
BBC Environment -- The presence of prairie winds and rich soil makes Iowa literally fertile ground for developing alternative energy sources from wind turbines and biofuels. But the landscape is also a reminder that achieving energy independence is a formidable challenge and making an agricultural economy green is not easy.
Farm workers cannot take subways to work, farmers have to drive long distances into the fields to sow and harvest their crops and to deliver them to markets.
Farm animals themselves, not to put too fine a point on it, produce methane - a powerful greenhouse gas - that is trapped in the atmosphere.
Those challenges have not stopped the state setting itself ambitious goals. The Iowa Climate Change Advisory Panel recently wrote a report for Governor Chet Culver setting out how the state can reduce carbon emissions by 90% by 2030. The state has set up an Office of Energy Independence - surely the perfect place, I thought, to test how easy it will be for President Obama to achieve energy independence for the whole of America. ...
Iowa hopes that wind energy will deliver more than just electricity - and that investment in wind technology will help to transform towns depressed by unemployment. Towns like Newton, which is just to the east of the capital, Des Moines. Nearly 2,000 people lost their jobs in Newton when the town's biggest employer, Whirlpool, shut its doors in 2007.
Ethanol processing plant Is ethanol really a clean alternative to fossil fuels? Hundreds of those same workers, who once made washing machine parts, now make blades for wind turbines at the TPI factory. But the jobs did not come cheap.
The state gave the manufacturer $6m in subsidies and tax breaks - in return the company promised to hire 500 people.
Larry Crady worked at Whirlpool for 23 years, making coin-operated laundry machines. "It just wows you when you see a blade open and close," Larry says. "When you pull that blade out of the mould it's exciting, I feel like I'm doing something more than just building a washing machine, I'm building something for everyone to capitalise on."
Mr Crady's sense of wonder is understandable - the plant certainly has the "wow" factor. The turbine blades are as long as a 747 jet and the factory is longer than an aircraft carrier. It is fitting, then, that - according to the plant's manager - so many of those that work there feel that making the blades is as much about national security as it is about electricity.
"A lot of us in this company and in wind energy have a sense of calling to this," Crugar Tuttle says. "I think in the interview process it comes out with a lot of our veterans that this is about weaning us off foreign oil." But wind energy is a long way from delivering independence for Iowa any time soon. It provides just 8% of Iowa's energy needs. If it is to go any way towards making the rest of the country energy independent, a distribution grid would be needed. ...
Many Iowans think the solution is biofuels (as do most presidential candidates - albeit only while they are campaigning in the crucial Iowa caucuses). Refineries across the state produce 1.5 billion gallons of ethanol a year - enough to replace 10% of the petrol in America's cars. But biofuels are controversial. A UN report says they drive up the price of food. And is ethanol really clean? We visited POET's ethanol plant in Hanlontown in the northern part of Iowa. The plant, like most in the state, is powered by fossil fuels. ...
The trouble is, many of Iowa's ethanol refineries use coal - the dirtiest fuel of all. It is one of the reasons why Iowa will soon be building another coal-fired power plant. More than half of all the electricity produced by the new plant is expected to be used to fuel the state's ethanol refineries. King coal Another problem is that Iowa gets very cold in winter. How many Americans would risk living in a place where January temperatures hover around -18F, if they had to rely on sun or wind power for heat? What happens when the sun goes down and the wind dies? That is why, despite the push for ethanol and wind power, coal is still king when it comes to powering Iowa. It currently provides 85% of the state's energy needs. (02/03/09)
Water Crisis 2009
BBC Weather Science -- If you look at the numbers, it is hard to see how many East African communities made it through the long drought of 2005 and 2006.
Among people who study human development, it is a widely-held view that each person needs about 20 litres of water each day for the basics - to drink, cook and wash sufficiently to avoid disease transmission.
Yet at the height of the East African drought, people were getting by on less than five litres a day - in some cases, less than one litre a day, enough for just three glasses of drinking water and nothing left over.
Some people, perhaps incredibly from a western vantage point, are hardy enough to survive in these conditions; but it is not a recipe for a society that is healthy and developing enough to break out of poverty. ...
Why do some communities have so little access to water? And how will the current picture change in a world where the human population is growing, where societies are urbanising and industrialising, and where climate change may alter the raw availability of water significantly?
The UNDP is unequivocal about the first question. "The availability of water is a concern for some countries," says the report. "But the scarcity at the heart of the global water crisis is rooted in power, poverty and inequality, not in physical availability."
Statistics on water consumption appear to back the UN's case. Japan and Cambodia experience about the same average rainfall - about 160cm per year. But whereas the average Japanese person can use nearly 400 litres per day, the average Cambodian must make do with about one-tenth of that. ...
In some regions, "the scarcity at the heart of the global water crisis" could become one of physical availability, especially in places where consumption is already unsustainably high.
"There are several rivers that don't reach the sea any more," says Mark Smith, head of the water programme at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). "The Yellow River is one, the Murray-Darling (in Australia) is nearly another - they have to dredge the mouth of the river every year to make sure it doesn't dry up."
A changing climate is only one of the factors likely to affect the amount of water at each person's disposal in future. A more populated world - and there could be another 2.5 billion people on the planet by 2050 - is likely to be a thirstier world.
Those extra people will need feeding; and as agriculture accounts for about 70% of water use around the world, extra consumption for growing food is likely to reduce the amount available for those basic needs of drinking, cooking and washing.
Industry can also take water that would otherwise have ended up in peoples' mouths. (02/03/09)
Google Earth Submerges
BBC Environment -- Google has lifted the lid on its first major upgrade to its global mapping software, Google Earth. The upgrade expands this map to include large swathes of the ocean floor and abyssal plain. Users can dive beneath a dynamic water surface to explore the 3D sea floor terrain.
The map also includes 20 content layers, containing information from the world's leading scientists, researchers, and ocean explorers.
Al Gore was at the launch event in San Francisco which, Google hopes, will take its mapping software a step closer to total coverage of the entire globe. In a statement, Mr Gore said that the update would make Google Earth a "magical experience". "You can not only zoom into whatever part of our planet's surface you wish to examine in closer detail, you can now dive into the world's ocean that covers almost three-quarters of the planet and discover new wonders that had not been accessible in previous versions."
Approximately 70% of the world's surface is covered by water, which contains nearly 80% of all life - yet less than 5% of it has actually been explored. Google Ocean aims to let users visit some of the more interesting locations, including underwater volcanoes, as well as running videos on marine life, shipwrecks and clips of favourite surf and dive spots.
Conservation organisations hope the tool will improve awareness of issues facing undersea life. "With this, everybody can see the unbelievable beauty of our marine life and how incredibly threatened it is," said Carl Gustaf Lundin, head of the global marine programme at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). "We hope this major technological innovation will get the public more involved in marine conservation and encourage governments and businesses to stop driving ocean species to extinction." (02/03/09)
Why Invest in Health Care?
John Rockefeller writes: Having campaigned on a broadly sketched platform of hope for those on the fringes of economic and physical viability, President Obama is watching the ticker line expand to the point where half of the U.S. population considers itself either underemployed or underserved.
An expanding percentage of this group -- 43.6 million by the Centers for Disease Control's 2006 pre-recession count -- are without health care. This number has certainly burgeoned well beyond the 50 million mark given the fresh round of layoffs, financial failures and re-budgeting by the recently unemployed.
My concern, and the concern of many, surrounds the disappearance of Obama's commitment to health care provision for the uninsured and underserved members of our population. We are about to ignore our single functional economic engine -- that of the health care sector -- by prioritizing long-dead sectors of finance and auto manufacturing. ...
If we fail to rescue health care and public health itself as we move forward, we will be entering a fiscal trough that may take decades to rebuild. Now would be the perfect time to pick the sector with most viability to fuel our recovery. Later will be far too late. As we pour countless, and lightly accounted for, billions into bailouts and tax cuts for those having sufficient income to avail themselves of such stimulus measures, we are leaving an ever larger proportion of our country behind, and in the most dire state of need.
The only way to stem the tide on this decline -- and its accompanying fiscal and public health consequences -- is to fund health care as the fiscal engine it has recently become amidst the financial sector collapse. Had the health care sector been given half of the recent financial and auto manufacturing bailout funding, we would have been able to expand and extend health care coverage. We would thereby be capturing the remaining stability of this sector as an engine of economic and public health recovery.
It surprises me that the economists and health care consultants working in the Obama administration have not taken this opportunity to the bank. They could have made a difference by diverting meaningless cash dumps from non-functional industries into the single most viable and necessary industry in the country. (02/01/09)
BBC Medical Science -- Scientists say they have discovered a missing link in the way cells protect themselves against cancer. They have uncovered how cells switch a gene called p53, which can block the development of tumours, on and off. The researchers say the finding has important implications for cancer treatment and diagnosis.
The study, published in Genes And Development, was carried out by teams of scientists in Singapore and the University of Dundee. ...
Lead researcher Professor Sir David Lane, said: "The function of p53 is critical to the way that many cancer treatments kill cells since radiotherapy and chemotherapy act in part by triggering cell suicide in response to DNA damage.
"So understanding more about how this gene is controlled in cells is really important in finding ways to prevent cells from turning cancerous."
Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK's director of cancer information, said: "This is a really exciting study which improves our understanding of how the p53 gene works.
"Discovering how it is regulated will have incredibly important implications in the development of better drugs and ways to diagnose cancer." (02-01-09)
Acid oceans 'need urgent action'
BBC Environmental Science -- The world's marine ecosystems risk being severely damaged by ocean acidification unless there are dramatic cuts in CO2 emissions, warn scientists. More than 150 top marine researchers have voiced their concerns through the "Monaco Declaration", which warns that changes in acidity are accelerating.
The declaration, supported by Prince Albert II of Monaco, builds on findings from an earlier international summit. It says pH levels are changing 100 times faster than natural variability.
Based on the research priorities identified at The Ocean in a High CO2 World symposium, held in October 2008, the declaration states: "We scientists who met in Monaco to review what is known about ocean acidification declare that we are deeply concerned by recent, rapid changes in ocean chemistry and their potential, within decades, to severely affect marine organisms, food webs, biodiversity and fisheries."...
It calls on policymakers to stabilise CO2 emissions "at a safe level to avoid not only dangerous climate change but also dangerous ocean acidification". The researchers warn that ocean acidification, which they refer to as "the other CO2 problem", could make most regions of the ocean inhospitable to coral reefs by 2050, if atmospheric CO2 levels continue to increase. The also say that it could lead to substantial changes in commercial fish stocks, threatening food security for millions of people.
"The chemistry is so fundamental and changes so rapid and severe that impacts on organisms appear unavoidable," said Dr James Orr, chairman of the symposium. "The questions are now how bad will it be and how soon will it happen." (02/01/09)
Stem Cells Offer Hope for Multiple Sclerosis
BBC Medical Science -- Stem-cell transplants may control and even reverse multiple sclerosis symptoms if done early enough, a small study has suggested.
Not one of 21 adults with relapsing-remitting MS who had stem cells transplanted from their own bone marrow deteriorated over three years. And 81% improved by at least one point on a scale of neurological disability, The Lancet Neurology reported. Further tests are now planned, and a UK expert called the work "encouraging".
MS is an autoimmune disease which affects about 85,000 people in the UK. It is caused by a defect in the body's immune system, which turns in on itself, causing damage to the nerves which can lead to symptoms including blurred vision, loss of balance and paralysis. ...
In the latest trial patients with earlier stage disease who, despite treatment had had two relapses in the past year, were offered the transplant.
Stem cells were harvested from the patients and frozen while drugs were given to remove the immune cells or lymphocytes causing the damage. The stem cells were then transplanted back to replenish the immune system - effectively resetting it. Five patients in the study relapsed, but went into remission after receiving other therapy.
The researchers are now doing a randomised controlled trial in a larger number of patients to compare the treatment with standard therapy. Study leader Professor Richard Burt said this was the first MS study of any treatment to show reversal of damage.
Dr Doug Brown, research manager at the MS Society, said the results were very encouraging. "It's exciting to see that in this trial not only is progression of disability halted, but damage appears to be reversed. Stem cells are showing more and more potential in the treatment of MS and the challenge we now face is proving their effectiveness in trials involving large numbers of people." (02/01/09)
News of the Best of Times and the Worst of Times – Living in Paradox
Happy Jesus of Nazareth Day!
Future Positive — Timothy Wilken writes: In his sermon on the mount,Jesus of Nazareth taught: “Love our enemies, do good to them that hate us, bless them that curse us, and pray for them that despitefully use us, I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgement. Go be reconciled with thy brother.”
Jesus of Nazareth may have been the first human to embrace synergy. His words seem to capture the very essence of synergic morality.
Synergic morality is more than not hurting other, it requires helping other. Jesus was the first human to state the fundamental law of synergic relationship. It is known as the Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law.”
What would you have others do to you? The best one word answer I can find for this question is help.
“Help others as you would have them help you.”
Whether you believe Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ fortold in the Old Testament, or just a man, his words bring wisdom to all humanity. (12/25/11)