Wednesday, November 26, 2008
The Plastic Monster
They pulled it off with hair and skin and all, and left the area bleeding.
Following publication of the first major epidemiologic study of Bisphenol A, by Lang, Galloway and Scarlett, et al., in their September 17 issue, JAMA devoted the lead editorial to Bisphenol A and Risk of Metabolic Disorders by Drs. Frederick S. vom Saal and John Peterson Myers.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is the base chemical (monomer) used to make polycarbonate plastic food and beverage containers (water bottles, Nalgene®, SaranWrap®, the resin lining of cans, baby bottles, Huggies®, and dental sealants. Its in the 60,000 plastic bags used in the USA every 5 seconds. You absorb a small amount through your tissues whenever you handle the "carbonless" paper used for receipts you get at the grocery or hardware store. Its even in copier toner.
We have known for some years that BPA had some particularly nasty effects on animals. The human study by Lang, et al, reported a significant relationship between urine concentrations of BPA and cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and liver-enzyme abnormalities in the US population. They said BPA causes adverse effects on the brain, reproductive system and metabolic processes, including alterations in insulin homeostasis and liver enzymes, and cardiovascular function.
Canada has already taken steps to declare BPA a threat to health and is now employing aggressive action to enact a ban and limit human and environmental exposures. Landfills are seen as one of the more worrisome pathways. BPA production worldwide has now reached 7 billion pounds per year and much of that is non-degradable and eventually washes into aquatic ecosystems. If you haven’t watched Our Synthetic Sea, you need to.
So far, the US-FDA and the European Food Safety Authority have chosen to ignore the warnings. The JAMA editorial takes this stonewalling head-on: “One factor that may be contributing to the refusal of regulatory agencies to take action on BPA in the face of overwhelming evidence of harm … is an aggressive disinformation campaign using techniques ("manufactured doubt") first developed by the lead, vinyl, and tobacco industries to challenge the reliability of findings published by independent scientists.”
How does the FDA get away with ongoing fraud, JAMA asks, and then answers. “More recent findings from independent scientists were rejected by the FDA, apparently because those investigators did not follow the outdated testing guidelines for environmental chemicals, whereas studies using the outdated, insensitive assays (predominantly involving studies funded by the chemical industry) are given more weight in arriving at the conclusion that BPA is not harmful at current exposure levels.”
Perhaps the scariest part is what lies over the horizon. The JAMA editorial points to studies showing that infants, children, and adolescents, as well as pregnant women and fetuses are the most at-risk. They suggest the possibility of a connection between BPA in food and the dramatic increase in the incidence of obesity and type 2 diabetes in children. “A causal role for BPA in these trends is plausible because BPA can alter the programming of genes during critical periods in cell differentiation during fetal and neonatal development. This process, referred to as ‘epigenetic programming,’ can result in the expression of metabolic disease and cancers during later life,” they warn.
While the US government drags its heels at the behest of the chemical companies, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Melbourne and other cities have banned plastic shopping bags. Last July China initiated a policy to charge for plastic bags in stores, and to require that purchase of the bags be shown clearly in all supermarket receipts (which you should be careful not to handle without cotton gloves). In order to reduce their garbage crisis, China banned ultra-thin plastic bags from being produced at all.
So, going forward into the chaos and collapse of our consumer culture, and a time when putting up produce from home gardens will once again be normal, it bears underscoring a point made in The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide: “There is no stored food that is worth enough to risk chemical contamination by non-food chemicals and their potential hazard to human health.” Store food in metal or glass. Keep your leftovers in glass, wood, or ceramic containers. Don’t use old yogurt or butter tubs, or Tupperware®. Don’t cook in plastic. Don’t eat off plastic. Don’t drink from plastic.
And especially, don’t force your kids to, either.
For more, see Elizabeth Kolbert's interview with this leading endocrinologist.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
The Open Atmospheric Science Journal has published a new article by Jim Hansen and a distinguished group of climate scientists, Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? in its latest issue. The PDF version is a free download.
The abstract reads:
Paleoclimate data show that climate sensitivity is ∼3°C for doubled CO2, including only fast feedback processes. Equilibrium sensitivity, including slower surface albedo feedbacks, is ∼6°C for doubled CO2 for the range of climate states between glacial conditions and ice-free Antarctica. Decreasing CO2 was the main cause of a cooling trend that began 50 million years ago, the planet being nearly ice-free until CO2 fell to 450 ± 100 ppm; barring prompt policy changes, that critical level will be passed, in the opposite direction, within decades. If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that. The largest uncertainty in the target arises from possible changes of non-CO2 forcings. An initial 350 ppm CO2 target may be achievable by phasing out coal use except where CO2 is captured and adopting agricultural and forestry practices that sequester carbon. If the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects.
That is about as clear a statement as we can get that we are already across a dividing line between planetary survival and oblivion. Consult your Hitchhiker's Guide under the first rule of holes. Don't Panic.
Friday, November 21, 2008
In Michigan the buzz was all about the Big Three car companies going down hard, but coming from a State where car-making jobs are 31% of all manufacturing, I was unsympathetic. We are closing universities here to meet the governor’s tough new budget. The Vols don’t have a coach next year, but the bigger question is whether they will even have a team. Flying around the country to play football is going to start looking like the Detroit Three CEOs taking private jets to Washington to beg for money.
In a magnanimous spirit of “we told you so,” here is what we wrote in The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide four years ago:
“[E]ven as commonsensical as hybrid-electrics are, as recently as 2003 the big three Detroit automakers had concluded that these vehicles were too costly to be worth producing in volume and instead continued designing ever-more powerful and unsafe light trucks disguised as cars. They seemed determined to build cars that would halve the 1 percent of the gasoline performing purposeful work. By the beginning of 2005 it was apparent that Japanese automakers had eaten Detroit’s lunch. The Dinosaur Three, those same carmakers that put the squeeze on the Clinton government to soft-pedal global warming, are now either in, or teetering on, bankruptcy, unable to sell their gas-guzzling behemoths, while Honda, Nissan, and Toyota are sprouting new factories like daffodils in the spring to keep pace with skyrocketing demand for their steadily improving and greenhouse-gas–conscious hybrids.”It now seems that everyone in the country suddenly gets this, even the dim bulbs in Congress, who are starting to weary of dispensing so many trillions in bailouts, as if money could just be printed indefinitely. So, despite the 3 million car industry jobs hanging in the balance, they went home for Thanksgiving, pass the gravy please.
A ski resort is an oddly appropriate place for a petrocollapse meeting, and in Michigan, in to response to an audience question, we gave a short rap on what the exponential function looks when it is inverted. You get off the chair lift and point yourself downhill.
We know from studies of the world’s major oil fields, whose production rates are known, and from a recent IEA report, that the downslope after peak oil is likely to be steeper than the 2% average annual rise in production over the past century. The reasons for this are simple: governments and industry did not believe in peak oil, preferring to listen to classical economists who chant the mantra that demand creates supply; they pushed the fields well beyond normal production limits, using secondary and tertiary recovery techniques to scour the formations; when the end came, production less resembled the smooth curves of West Texas history and more the plunge of a natural gas gusher. Decline rates are shaping up to be 9 percent, although some, like Mexico’s, will be even steeper.
So what does 9 percent decline feel like? Well, on a growth curve, a 7 percent rise means a doubling every 10 years, each decade using more than all that has been used in history. On the descent, 7 percent means halving every 10 years: half the heating oil, half the tax revenues, half the fertilizer, half the semi-trucks, half the road and bridge repairs, half the school budgets, and so on. Nine percent would be slightly faster, or halving roughly every 8 years.
Gross Domestic Product in the developed world has always been a 1:1 ratio with fossil fuel consumption. Our economy and our oil use are essentially identical. If we start at 100% in 2008, and decline at 9% per year, we can see that we are at 47% of our present economic activity in 2016, and a little over 10 percent in 2032.
Here is how that looks on a chart.
Of course, we did not embark on a global 9% production decline in 2008, but that does not mean we won’t be on that trajectory by 2010 or 2012. The 2008 Finance Up-ending Collapse Karma of Unbelievable Proportions, triggered by the USA’s sub-prime meltdown, which punctured its real estate bubble and mortgage backed securities, forced the hedge funds to shred their credit default swaps, and exposed the quadrillion in funny money derivatives that were fractional reserve banking’s dark secret — all of that — now may send the dollar-dependent global economy “over the cliff” into Deflationary Hell, and, ironically, postpone the global oil peak.
The stone age was not ended by a lack of stones, as they say.
Which is nice, we thought, as Carl sprayed some water on the fist-sized creek stones heating atop the sauna stove. We will always have stones.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
The Happiness Plant
Immortal amarant, a flower which onceSome plants are so determined to feed us, and to be loved and be spread to the corners of the world, they are standing up to our nastiest agrochemicals and throwing candy at our feet.
In paradise, fast by the tree of life,
Began to bloom; but soon for man's offence
To heaven removed, where first it grew, there grows,
And flowers aloft, shading the fount of life— Milton, Paradise Lost (1667), iii. 353.
David Holmgren says weeds are just misunderstood plants with values that we haven’t discovered.
“Militaristic thinking about weeds, whether motivated by ‘ecological morals’ or exploitative greed is counterproductive in understanding landscape. The real challenge of weeds is firstly to understand the processes of disturbance and degradation they are responding to and then how to harness their healing work for a rapid succession to a more advanced and productive state. These insights are much assisted by ‘seeing it from the weeds' point of view.’ Thus the field naturalist approach allows us to identify with any and all lifeforms independent of whether they are beautiful or ugly, rare or ubiquitous, useful or noxious, to help broaden our perspective and in the long term act more effectively in creating and managing cultivated ecosystems.”In South Georgia, soybean, peanut, corn and cotton farmers used to plow their fields in the Spring to bury weeds. Then, after the crop was in, they would come back with a hoe or use a horse or mule-drawn row cultivator as their plants emerged, to keep down any weeds that grew from seed.
In the 1950s came herbicides and mechanized, no-till agriculture and the routine shifted. Weeds were sprayed before cotton was planted to give the cotton a head start. As pesticides became more sophisticated, they could be hand-sprayed at the base of the cotton plants to kill weeds without damaging the cotton. Then in the 1990s came Roundup Ready cotton, corn and soybeans, which meant machines could go through growing fields with heavy chemical applications of Roundup®, the Monsanto patented herbicide.
But weeds have been getting smarter. The wimpy little ones like poke, ragweed or milk thistle have retired from the field, leaving hardier cousins to stand and fight. One of the hardy pigweeds, Palmer amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri), has been making a name for itself in South Georgia, because it has evolved resistance to glyphostate, Roundup’s active ingredient. Agronomists say the overuse of glyphostate herbicides is to blame for the amaranth explosion. The plant had already evolved resistances to dinitroanilines and acetolactate synthase inhibitors, and farmers that kept using Roundup year after year, regardless of the warnings, had their fields completely taken over when Roundup Ready Amaranth appeared.
Palmer amaranth can grow as tall as 15 feet, although 6 feet is more common. Climate change is its best friend. It can continue to grow an inch a day even without water all summer, even when daily temperature tops 90°F (32°C). Its flowering tops put out half a million seeds per plant. One successful amaranth plant can seed an entire field for the following season. Full grown, the new superweed eats cotton picking machinery and spits out the metal parts.
Some Georgia farmers have been forced into bankruptcy and abandoned their farms. The new strain is spreading in every direction and has farmers and extension agents worried from South Carolina to West Texas. Even Monsanto has no recommended solution. But then, Monsanto doesn’t sell hoes.
The problem is that some farmers just can’t see the money for the weeds.
In the Mexican states of Guerrero, México, Michoacán, Morelos, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Oaxaca and Jalisco, and the Guatemalan departments of Guatemala, Chimaltenango and Alta Verapaz, Palmer amaranth seeds are dried, mixed with maguey honey and baked into a candy that is sold in the central markets. The toasted seeds are so valuable they bring four times more pesos per kilo than corn. A healthy mix of amino acids makes Palmer amaranth a complete protein, but it can also use its abundant lysine to complete the protein of maize.
It is not called pigweed in Mexico. In the hill villages of Puebla where Nahua culture still lives, it is called huautli or bledos, “feather.” Coras call it bé-be and Huicholes wa-ve. In Tlaxcala, its called alegría, “happiness.”
The alegría amaranth was used as both a cultivated food and a medicinal plant by American civilizations as far south as the Inca (where it is known as kiwicha in the Andes today) and as far back as 6000 years. An Aztec Codex tells of 4,000 tons of amaranth arriving in Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capitol, every year. The leaves were cooked as spinach and the seeds were ground for porridge or bread. An atoli drink was made from water and huautli flour and is still being sold in rural markets today. Huautli flour dough filled with steamed amaranth leaves was called by the Aztecs huauquillamalmaliztli. When fresh seeds are cooked they become gelatinous, lending themselves to a variety of recipes where a binder is desirable.
How does Palmer amaranth meet the Holmgren test? Well, for one thing it concentrates nitrates in its foliage, so soils that are overly nitrified from years of fertilizer abuse can be detoxified by planting Palmer amaranth and then harvesting the top growth. It is fast growing, so it can inhibit other, less desirable early emergents. It is hardy to zone 0 but frost tender. Both sexes can be found on the same plant so it finds it easy to set seed. Palmer amaranth does well in light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils, so it is not much use in diagnosing soil types. According to Plants for the Future, “all members of this genus photosynthesize by a more efficient method than most plants” suggesting it may be able to remove carbon from the atmosphere in hot, dry conditions after other plants have quit.
The Amaranth family, Amaranthaceae, contains about 160 genera and 2,400 species. Many of the species are halophytes, growing in salty soils. Its name comes from the Greek amarantos meaning “unwithering.” When it is not thumbing its nose at Roundup, this is a plant that can colonize deserts.
In Aesop's Fables (c. 600 BCE) it is written:
A Rose and an Amaranth blossomed side by side in a garden,As a feedstock for cattle, Palmer amaranth is comparable to maize. When a cornfield “contaminated” with amaranth is harvested for silage and fed to cattle, the protein content is better than corn alone, because of the amino acid spread. In tests of fields in Kansas, significant differences were observed in digestibility of corn plus amaranth versus corn forage alone. Most Amaranthus species have 30% higher protein value than other cereals, such as rice, wheat flour, oats and rye.
And the Amaranth said to her neighbor,
“How I envy you your beauty and your sweet scent!
No wonder you are such a universal favorite.”
But the Rose replied with a shade of sadness in her voice,
“Ah, my dear friend, I bloom but for a time:
My petals soon wither and fall, and then I die.
But your flowers never fade, even if they are cut;
For they are everlasting.”
From the standpoint of human nutrition, Palmer amaranth has few equals.
Aspartic acid 2.459
Glutamic acid 4.405
Palmer amaranth has 4.2 mg Vitamin C per 100 grams and similarly healthy doses of riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, Vitamin B-6, folate, and Vitamin E. It is high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, iron and manganese, and low in sodium, with zero cholesterol. In fact, it may lower cholesterol because of its stanols and squalene content. It is 14 percent protein, 66 percent carbohydrate, and 7 percent fatty acids, primarily polyunsaturated. Several studies have shown amaranth seed oil useful for the treatment of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Regular consumption reduces blood pressure and improves some immune system functions.
So with all this going for Palmer amaranth, why should it be putting farmers out of business?
Here is a recipe the Tlaxcalans use for Alegría candy:
Toasted Amaranth Bar
3 cups fresh or dried amaranth seeds
4 tablespoons of honey
a few drops of lemon juice
Clean (with a sieve) the seeds. For dried seeds, it is necessary to partially rehydrate them first (one cup of water for three kilograms of seeds is enough) and then drain and leave in the sun for a few hours, shaking or stirring as needed to dry equally. Toast the seeds on a preheated Mexican comal or with an iron skillet if you don’t have a comal, moving the seeds as they heat with a small brush or fork until they burst and turn white. Sieve again to remove burnt seeds and skins.
Combine the honey and lemon juice in a small saucepan and gradually warm the liquid over a reduced flame, making sure it is neither too thick nor too thin. Too thin and the candy will fall apart; too thick and the candy will crack. Needless to say, this may require practice. Humidity in the air can also make it fall apart too easily.
Use a molinillo (a wooden Mexican chocolate whisk) or a wooden spoon to blend the toasted amaranth with the honey mixture, pour over a cool table or rolling board and roll flat with a rolling pin until it becomes compact. Let stand until cool, and then cut it into pieces with a wet knife before it sets.
The finished candy can be into squares, rectangles, cylinders, or roll it into small rolls and balls. Be careful with this. When the Spanish friars saw the Aztecs forming alegría into the shapes of their gods and then cutting them up and eating them, they called it blasphemous idolatry (considering the Catholic communion) and banned both eating and growing amaranth in the first part of the 17th Century. Fortunately, the practice just went underground, bringing us with a rich cuisine of atole, pinole, tamales, chuales, helados and sorbets across the centuries.
Arizona Wild Flowers Wildflower Pictures And Photos
Culpepper et al, Glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri) confirmed in Georgia. Weed Science 54: 620-626 (2006).
Gonor KV, et al, The influence of a diet with including amaranth oil on antioxidant and immune status in patients with ischemic heart disease and hyperlipoproteidemia, Vopr Pitan 75(6):30-3 (2006).
Holmgren, D., An eclectic approach to the skills of reading landscape and their application to permaculture consultancy, in David Holmgren: Collected Writings 1978-2000.
Itúrbide, G.A. and M. Gispert, Grain Amaranths, in Neglected Crops: 1492 from a Different Perspective (1994: J.E. Hernándo Bermejo and J. León (eds.). Plant Production and Protection Series No. 26. FAO, Rome, Italy) p. 93-101.
Massinga, R. A. and R. S. Currie, Impact of Palmer Amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri) on Corn (Zea mays) Grain Yield and Yield and Quality of Forage, Weed Technology 16:3:532–536 (July 2002).
Tucker, J.B., Amaranth: The Once and Future Crop, BioScience, 36:1: 9-13 (Jan 1986).
Zaleski, G., Worst pest since the weevil striking at cotton farmers, Orangeburg S.C. Times Democrat, August 11, 2008.
Albert Bates is a permaculture and appropriate technology instructor at the Ecovillage Training Center (http://www.thefarm.org/etc) in Summertown,Tennessee and in rural Mexico and Belize. He will next be teaching a full PDC at the Maya Mountain Research Center in Belize in March 2009. His latest book, The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times, is available in English and Italian.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
The Great Unravelling
This is the first thread of the sweater. Give it a tug.
Friday, November 7, 2008
The Torture Nine: Six More Years
How did the Torture Nine fare in the 2008 election?
Wayne Allard of Colorado retired and is likely to take a fat job with Big Oil, whom he served faithfully while in the Senate. Mark Udall took the Allard seat. Mark Udall is against torture.
Kit Bond was not up for re-election and is still ensconced. He is Missouri state chair for John McCain, and that battle continues at this writing. Bond voted NO on factoring global warming into federal project planning, voted NO on reducing oil usage by 40% by 2025, voted YES on drilling ANWR, voted NO on including oil & gas smokestacks in mercury regulations, is rated 100% by the Christian Coalition, 0% by the League of Conservation Voters, 0% by SANE. He can be counted on to be a thorn in Obama’s side.
Tom Colburn of Oklahoma was not up for re-election and is still around. The Bolton of the Senate, Coburn stopped roughly a hundred bills that were generally non-controversial or had broad support. By placing an objection, Coburn prevented the bills from passing quickly through the Senate under a unanimous consent request. With floor time at such a premium, Senate leader Harry Reid had trouble bringing up each bill for an individual debate and vote, so he created a “Coburn Omnibus Bill” in the last session to break the impasse.
Thad Cochran, the 5th-term Republican from Mississippi was strongly anti-McCain – “the thought of him being president sends a cold chill down my spine,” he said. Known as one of the pork kings on Appropriations, he earmarked 52.4 million in the 2009 budget. He was not up for re-election.
John Cornyn was opposed by State Rep. Rick Noriega who favors renewable and sustainable energy over domestic production, and pledged to have all Texas household electricity usage come from 100 percent renewable sources by 2019. Cornyn’s mantra was familiar: drill in Alaska and the outer continental shelf; oppose global warming treaties, kill AMTRAK, privatize public schools. In Texas he pulled 4.3 million votes, less than McCain or the State’s judges, but that 54.8 percent majority sent this Texas Torturer back to Washington for six more years.
James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Senate’s own village idiot, won re-election handily. Known worldwide for denying climate change when he was Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman, he ran on statements like, “Developing and expanding domestic energy will translate into energy security and ensure stable sources of supply and well-paying jobs for Americans” and “One of the reasons I believe the spiritual door was opened for an attack against the United States of America is that the policy of our government has been to ask the Israelis, and demand it with pressure, not to retaliate in a significant way against the terrorist strikes that have been launched against them.” Slate said that Inhofe was "widely considered one of the dumbest members of Congress." He won a zero rating from NOW on women's issues, a 24% rating from the ACLU, a 0% rating from Population Growth (formerly ZPG), but a 100% rating from the National Association of Convenience Stores, and always a 100% rating from the Christian Coalition. Democratic challenger Andrew Rice, a freshman State Senator, was handicapped by the third party challenge from independent Stephen Wallace. One hopeful note is that Inhofe will be 73 when he begins his next term, meaning that he would be 79 at the end of it. He should spend a lot of time on junkets. Maybe he will tour Abu Ghraib.
Ted Stevens seems to be narrowly leading in the still open race in Alaska, the state that brought us Caribou Barbie. He had been famous for his “Bridge to Nowhere” and Amazing Hulk ties. The “King of Pork” (according to ABC News), and the longest-serving Republican in the US Senate, Stevens was slapped with a 7-count indictment for taking bribes. Convicted before the election, he may have won anyway, in which case he will serve from prison until Sarah Palin appoints his successor.
Pat Roberts won his third term as Senator from Kansas. As chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he oversaw the manipulation of Iraq intelligence, the Valerie Plame outing investigation, warrantless domestic spying, and torture – transforming the committee into the Senate Coverup Committee. He has repeatedly made light of the conditions at Guantanamo Bay. “There are more senators and congressmen with ethics cases pending than there are problems with interrogation right now in Gitmo,” he said. His opponent, Jim Slattery, gave him a good run in a very red state, where a Democrat hasn't won a Senate race since 1932 and where 57 percent of the voters backed John McCain.
Jeff Sessions won re-election from Alabama handily. He was very anti-McCain but pro-Iraq, anti-solar, and anti-black people and had a walkover for re-election against a black woman State Auditor, whom he never referred to. His white base was strong. His war chest was 244:1 over his opponent. On Amtrak, Sessions says: “[I] don't think the proponents of the legislation have a bad intent, they have a vision for a national rail system, and they are willing to put billions of dollars into it. But I have never been able to lay my hand on a study that shows that a national rail system mandated by the government is feasible over long distances. … Americans, more than anyone else in the world, have automobiles, and we choose to drive frequently. It allows you to arrive when you want, carry things you want to carry, drive straight to where you intend to go, and not have to wait in a station. And you don't have this on time problem. Commercial airlines are on time about 80 percent of the time. Amtrak was only on time 66 percent of the time. That is another factor you have to think about if you are going to regularly use a long-distance train.”
The election score on the Torture Nine was 7 - 1 - 1. Seven are returning to their Senate seats, one retired, and the tie vote could yet turn into a win for the Republicans. Torturing innocent and unconvicted Muslem men, women and children is still okay with the voters in at least eight states.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
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