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Rachel's Democracy and Health News

Rachel's Democracy & Health News #956 "Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?" Thursday, April 24, 2008printer-friendly version

Featured stories in this issue...

The Bridge at the Edge of the World
This is the introduction to an extraordinary new book (The Bridge at the Edge of the World) by Gus Speth, who is currently Dean of the School of Forestry at Yale University. I don't recommend very many books, but I feel sure that nearly every Rachel's reader will find Gus Speth's new book illuminating and worthwhile reading. -- P.M.
Reasonable Doubt
"New evidence of an association between increased cancers and proximity to nuclear facilities raises difficult questions. Should pregnant women and young children be advised to move away from them? Should local residents eat vegetables from their gardens? And, crucially, shouldn't those governments around the world who are planning to build more reactors think again?"
Small and Thin
In 1986, David Barker's basic claim that heart disease was "related to nutrition during prenatal and early postnatal life" -- now known as the "Barker hypothesis" -- was regarded as heretical. Now it is widely accepted.
Warmer Seas, Over-Fishing Spell Disaster For Oceans: Scientists
The current plunder of the oceans is risking long-term sustainability with "too many fishing boats taking too many fish and not allowing the stocks to regenerate.... Once the oceans are gone, we're gone. The oceans sustain the planet."
EPA Opens Chemical Risk Assessment to Corporate Lobbying
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopts a new process that marginalizes government scientists and promotes industry influence in government decisions.


From: The Bridge at the Edge of the World
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By James Gustave Speth

Between Two Worlds

The remarkable charts that introduce this book reveal the story of humanity's impact on the natural earth.[1] The pattern is clear: if we could speed up time, it would seem as if the global economy is crashing against the earth -- the Great Collision. And like the crash of an asteroid, the damage is enormous. For all the material blessings economic progress has provided, for all the disease and destitution avoided, for all the glories that shine in the best of our civilization, the costs to the natural world, the costs to the glories of nature, have been huge and must be counted in the balance as tragic loss.

Half the world's tropical and temperate forests are now gone.[2] The rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an acre a second.[3] About half the wetlands and a third of the mangroves are gone.[4] An estimated 90 percent of the large predator fish are gone, and 75 percent of marine fisheries are now overfished or fished to capacity.[5] Twenty percent of the corals are gone, and another 20 percent severely threatened.[6] Species are disappearing at rates about a thousand times faster than normal.[7] The planet has not seen such a spasm of extinction in sixty-five million years, since the dinosaurs disappeared.[8] Over half the agricultural land in drier regions suffers from some degree of deterioration and desertification.[9] Persistent toxic chemicals can now be found by the dozens in essentially each and every one of us.[10]

Human impacts are now large relative to natural systems. The earth's stratospheric ozone layer was severely depleted before the change was discovered. Human activities have pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide up by more than a third and have started in earnest the dangerous process of warming the planet and disrupting climate. Everywhere earth's ice fields are melting.[11] Industrial processes are fixing nitrogen, making it biologically active, at a rate equal to nature's; one result is the development of more than two hundred dead zones in the oceans due to overfertilization.[12] Human actions already consume or destroy each year about 40 percent of nature's photosynthetic output, leaving too little for other species.[13] Freshwater withdrawals doubled globally between 1960 and 2000, and are now over half of accessible runoff.[14] The following rivers no longer reach the oceans in the dry season: the Colorado, Yellow, Ganges, and Nile, among others.[15]

Societies are now traveling together in the midst of this unfolding calamity down a path that links two worlds. Behind is the world we have lost, ahead the world we are making.

It is difficult to appreciate the abundance of wild nature in the world we have lost. In America we can think of the pre-Columbian world of 1491, of Lewis and Clark, and of John James Audubon. It is a world where nature is large and we are not. It is a world of majestic old- growth forests stretching from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, of oceans brimming with fish, of clear skies literally darkened by passing flocks of birds. As William MacLeish notes in The Day before America, in 1602 an Englishman wrote in his journal that the fish schooled so thickly he thought their backs were the sea bottom. Bison once roamed east to Florida. There were jaguars in the Southeast, grizzly bear in the Midwest, and wolves, elk and mountain lions in New England.[16]

Audubon described the breathtaking multitudes of the passenger pigeon migration, as well as the rapacity of their wild and human predators:

"Few pigeons were to be seen before sunset; but a great number of persons, with horses and wagons, guns and ammunition, had already established encampments.... Suddenly, there burst forth a general cry of 'Here they come!' The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea.... As the birds arrived, and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by polemen. The current of birds, however, still kept increasing.... The pigeons, coming in by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses... were formed on every tree, in all directions.... The uproar continues... the whole night.... Toward the approach of day, the noise rather subsided.... The howlings of the wolves now reached our ears; and the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears, raccoons, opossums, and pole-cats were seen sneaking off from the spot. Whilst eagles and hawks, of different species, accompanied by a crowd of vultures, came to supplant them, and enjoy their share of the spoil. It was then that the authors of all this devastation began their entry amongst the dead, the dying, and the mangled. The pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder."[17]

The last passenger pigeon on earth expired in a zoo in Cincinnati in 1914. Some decades later, forester and philosopher Aldo Leopold offered these words at a ceremony on this passing: "We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies.... Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind.... There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, or clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. Book-pigeons cannot breakfast on new mown wheat in Minnesota and dine on blueberries in Canada. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather."[18]

Human societies are moving, rapidly now, between the two worlds. The movement began slowly, but now we are hurtling toward the world directly ahead. The old world, nature 's world, continues, of course, but we are steadily closing it down, roping it off. It flourishes in our art and literature and in our imaginations. But it is disappearing.

Economic historian Angus Maddison reports that in the year 1000 there were only about 270 million people on earth -- fewer than today's U.S. population. Global economic output was only about $120 billion. Eight hundred years later, the man-made world was still small. By 1820, populations had risen to about a billion people with an output of only $690 billion. Over this eight hundred years, per capita income increased by only a couple of hundred dollars a year. But shortly thereafter the take-off began. By 2000, populations had swelled by an additional five billion, and, astoundingly, economic output had grown to exceed forty trillion dollars.[19] The acceleration continues. The size of the world economy doubled since 1960, and then doubled again.

World economic activity is projected to quadruple again by midcentury.

Historian J. R. McNeill has stressed the phenomenal expansion of the human enterprise in the twentieth century. It was in the twentieth century, and especially since World War II, that human society truly left the moorings of its past and launched itself on the planet with unprecedented force. McNeill observes that this exponential century "shattered the constraints and rough stability of old economic, demographic, and energy regimes." "In environmental history," he writes, "the twentieth century qualifies as a peculiar century because of the screeching acceleration of so many of the processes that bring ecological change."[20] We live now in a full world, dramatically unlike the world of 1900, or even that of 1950.

Physicists have a precise concept of momentum. To them momentum is mass times velocity, and velocity is not just speed but also direction.

Today the world economy has gathered tremendous momentum -- it is both huge in size and growing fast. But what is its direction?

I am seated in my study as I write this, looking at a stack of books about two feet high. They share a common theme, and it is not a happy one to contemplate. We can see this theme immediately in their titles.[21]

By a conservative jurist: Richard A. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response

By the president of the Royal Society in the United Kingdom: Martin Rees, Our Final Hour: How Terror, Error and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future

By a leading American scholar: Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

By a British scientist: James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back and How We Can Still Save Humanity

By an American expert: James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century

By a U.S. expert on conflict: Michael T. Klare, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict

By an Australian diplomat and historian: Colin Mason, The 2030 Spike: The Countdown to Global Catastrophe

That is but a sample of the "collapse" books now on the market. Each of these authors sees the world on a path to some type of collapse, catastrophe, or breakdown, and they each see climate change and other environmental crises as leading ingredients of a devil's brew that also includes such stresses as population pressures, peak oil and other energy supply problems, economic and political instabilities, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the risks of various twenty-first- century technologies, and similar threats. Some think a bright future is still possible if we change our ways in time; others see a new dark ages as the likely outcome. For Sir Martin Rees, "the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilization on earth will survive to the end of the present century."[22] Personally, I cannot imagine that the risks are so great, but Rees is a thoughtful individual. In any case, it would be foolish to dismiss these authors.

They provide a stark warning of what could happen.

The escalating processes of climate disruption, biotic impoverishment, and toxification that continue despite decades of warnings and earnest effort constitute a severe indictment, but an indictment of what exactly? If we want to reverse today's destructive trends, forestall further and greater losses, and leave a bountiful world for our children and grandchildren, we must return to fundamentals and seek to understand both the underlying forces driving such destructive trends and the economic and political system that gives these forces free rein. Then we can ask what can be done to change the system.

The underlying drivers of today's environmental deterioration have been clearly identified. They range from immediate forces like the enormous growth in human population and the dominant technologies deployed in the economy to deeper ones like the values that shape our behavior and determine what we consider important in life. Most basically, we know that environmental deterioration is driven by the economic activity of human beings. About half of today's world population lives in abject poverty or close to it, with per capita incomes of less than two dollars a day. The struggle of the poor to survive creates a range of environmental impacts where the poor themselves are often the primary victims -- for example, the deterioration of arid and semiarid lands due to the press of increasing numbers of people who have no other option.

But the much larger and more threatening impacts stem from the economic activity of those of us participating in the modern, increasingly prosperous world economy. This activity is consuming vast quantities of resources from the environment and returning to the environment vast quantities of waste products. The damages are already huge and are on a path to be ruinous in the future. So, a fundamental question facing societies today -- perhaps the fundamental question -- is how can the operating instructions for the modern world economy be changed so that economic activity both protects and restores the natural world?

With increasingly few exceptions, modern capitalism is the operating system of the world economy. I use "modern capitalism" here in a broad sense as an actual, existing system of political economy, not as an idealized model. Capitalism as we know it today encompasses the core economic concept of private employers hiring workers to produce products and services that the employers own and then sell with the intention of making a profit. But it also includes competitive markets, the price mechanism, the modern corporation as its principal institution, the consumer society and the materialistic values that sustain it, and the administrative state actively promoting economic strength and growth for a variety of reasons.

Inherent in the dynamics of capitalism is a powerful drive to earn profits, invest them, innovate, and thus grow the economy, typically at exponential rates, with the result that the capitalist era has in fact been characterized by a remarkable exponential expansion of the world economy. The capitalist operating system, whatever its shortcomings, is very good at generating growth.

These features of capitalism, as they are constituted today, work together to produce an economic and political reality that is highly destructive of the environment. An unquestioning society-wide commitment to economic growth at almost any cost; enormous investment in technologies designed with little regard for the environment; powerful corporate interests whose overriding objective is to grow by generating profit, including profit from avoiding the environmental costs they create; markets that systematically fail to recognize environmental costs unless corrected by government; government that is subservient to corporate interests and the growth imperative; rampant consumerism spurred by a worshipping of novelty and by sophisticated advertising; economic activity so large in scale that its impacts alter the fundamental biophysical operations of the planet -- all combine to deliver an ever-growing world economy that is undermining the planet's ability to sustain life.

The fundamental question thus becomes one of transforming capitalism as we know it: Can it be done? If so, how? And if not, what then? It is to these questions that this book is addressed. The larger part of the book proposes a variety of prescriptions to take economy and environment off collision course. Many of these prescriptions range beyond the traditional environmental agenda.

In Part I of the book, Chapters 1-3, I lay the foundation by elaborating the fundamental challenge just described. Among the key conclusions, summarized here with some oversimplification, are:

** The vast expansion of economic activity that occurred in the twentieth century and continues today is the predominant (but not sole) cause of the environmental decline that has occurred to date. Yet the world economy, now increasingly integrated and globalized, is poised for unprecedented growth. The engine of this growth is modern capitalism or, better, a variety of capitalisms.

** A mutually reinforcing set of forces associated with today's capitalism combines to yield economic activity inimical to environmental sustainability. This result is partly the consequence of an ongoing political default -- a failed politics -- that not only perpetuates widespread market failure -- all the nonmarket environmental costs that no one is paying -- but exacerbates this market failure with deep and environmentally perverse subsidies. The result is that our market economy is operating on wildly wrong market signals, lacks other correcting mechanisms, and is thus out of control environmentally.

** The upshot is that societies now face environmental threats of unprecedented scope and severity, with the possibility of various catastrophes, breakdowns, and collapses looming as distinct possibilities, especially as environmental issues link with social inequities and tensions, resource scarcity, and other issues.

** Today's mainstream environmentalism -- aptly characterized as incremental and pragmatic "problem solving" -- has proven insufficient to deal with current challenges and is not up to coping with the larger challenges ahead. Yet the approaches of modern-day environmentalism, despite their limitations, remain essential: right now, they are the tools at hand with which to address many very pressing problems.

** The momentum of the current system -- fifty-five trillion dollars in output in 2004, growing fast, and headed toward environmental disaster -- is so great that only powerful forces will alter the trajectory. Potent measures are needed that address the root causes of today's destructive growth and transform economic activity into something environmentally benign and restorative.

In short, my conclusion, after much searching and considerable reluctance, is that most environmental deterioration is a result of systemic failures of the capitalism that we have today and that long- term solutions must seek transformative change in the key features of this contemporary capitalism. In Part II, I address these basic features of modern capitalism, in each case seeking to identify the transformative changes needed.

The market. In Chapter 4, I focus on the need to transform the market to make it work for the environment, reversing the historical pattern.

I examine the urgent need to take seriously neoclassical environmental economics with its emphasis on achieving environmentally honest prices and correcting other market signals, and look at the need to restrain "market imperialism" and excessive commodification.

Growth. In Chapter 5, I focus on what has been called the "growth fetish" and on taking seriously the field of ecological economics, including its critique of endless economic growth and its concern that advanced industrial economies may have already exceeded their optimal or sustainable scale. I explore the dimensions of a "post-growth society," where neither nature nor community is sacrificed to the priority of economic growth. In Chapter 6, I develop the idea that today's economic growth in affluent societies is not materially improving human happiness and satisfaction with life and is a poor way to generate solutions to pressing social needs and problems. I call for alternative measures that directly address these social challenges, which now desperately need attention.

Consumption. In Chapter 7, I focus on materialism and consumerism in today's affluent societies -- what has been called our affluenza -- and suggest ways to encourage both green consumption and living more simply.

The corporation. In Chapter 8, I take up the challenge to the dominance and power of the modern corporation, including that offered by what is often referred to as the antiglobalization movement, and set out a program to transform corporate dynamics.

Capitalism's core. Chapter 9 is more speculative. Is there something beyond both capitalism and socialism? If so, what might be the dimensions of a nonsocialist system beyond today's capitalism?

In Part III, I consider two potential drivers of transformative change:

A new consciousness. In Chapter 10, I focus on the prospect for profound change in social values, culture, and worldviews. I explore how today's dominant values contribute abundantly to social and environmental alienation and what might lead to a new consciousness that gives priority to nonmaterialistic lives and to our relationships with one another and the natural world.

A new politics. In Chapter 11, I address the search for a new and vital democratic politics -- one premised on addressing America's growing political inequality and capable of embracing neglected environmental and social needs and sustaining the difficult actions needed. I examine the vital longer-term goal of strong democracy as well as the immediate steps needed to forge a new environmental politics. An important question in this regard is whether a popular movement that can drive real change is being born.

Taken together, the proposals presented in the chapters that follow would, if implemented, take us beyond capitalism as we know it today.

The question whether we would then have an operating system other than capitalism or a reinvented capitalism is largely definitional. In the end, the answer is probably not important. I myself have no interest in socialism or centralized economic planning or other paradigms of the past. As Robert Dahl has quipped, "Socialist programs for replacing market capitalism [have] fallen into the dustbin of history."[23] The question for the future, on the economic side, is how do we harness economic forces for sustainability and sufficiency?

The creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship of businesses operating in a vibrant private sector are essential to designing and building the future. We will not meet our environmental and social challenges without them. Growth and investment are needed across a wide front: growth in the developing world -- sustainable, people- centered growth; growth in the incomes of those in America who have far too little; growth in human well-being along many dimensions; growth in new solution-oriented industries, products, and processes; growth in meaningful, well- paying jobs, including green-collar ones; growth in natural resource and energy productivity and in investment in the regeneration of natural assets; growth in social and public services and in investment in public infrastructures, to mention a few. These are the things we should be growing, and it makes good sense to harness market forces to such ends. As I discuss in Chapter 5, even in a "post-growth society," many things still need to grow.

I believe Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins have it right when they propose these strategies for the new economy in their book Natural Capitalism:

** Radically increased resource productivity in order to slow resource depletion at one end of the value chain and to lower pollution at the other end.

** Redesigned industrial systems that mimic biological ones so that even the concept of wastes is progressively eliminated. (This is what the new field of industrial ecology is all about.)

** An economy based on the provision of services rather than the purchase of goods.

** Reversal of worldwide resource deterioration and declines in ecosystem services through major new investments in regenerating natural capital.[24]

The good news is that impressive thinking and some exemplary action have occurred on the issues at hand. Proposals abound, many of them very promising, and new movements for change, often driven by young people, are emerging.[25] These developments offer genuine hope and begin to outline a bridge to the future. The market can be transformed into an instrument for environmental restoration; humanity's ecological footprint can be reduced to what can be sustained environmentally; the incentives that govern corporate behavior can be rewritten; growth can be focused on things that truly need to grow and consumption on having enough, not always more; the rights of future generations and other species can be respected.

America faces huge social problems and needs in addition to its environmental challenges. But priming the economic pump for ever- greater aggregate growth is a poor, sometimes even counterproductive, way to generate solutions on the social front. We need instead to address these problems directly and thoughtfully, with compassion and generosity. A whole world of new and stronger policies is needed -- measures that strengthen our families and our communities and address the breakdown of social connectedness; measures that guarantee good, well-paying jobs and minimize layoffs and job insecurity; measures that introduce more family-friendly policies at work; measures that provide more time for leisure activities; measures that provide for universal health care and alleviate the devastating effects of mental illness; measures that provide everyone with a good education; measures to eliminate poverty in America, sharply improve income distribution, and address growing economic and political inequality; measures that recognize responsibilities to the half of humanity who live in poverty.

If you raise these social issues in the councils of our major environmental organizations, you might be told that "these are not environmental issues." But they are. As I explain in the chapters that follow, they are a big part of the alternative to the destructive path we are on. My hope is that the environmental community will come to embrace these measures, these hallmarks of a caring community and a good society.

In the end, then, despite the large volume of bad news, we can conclude with an affirmation. We can say with Wallace Stevens that "after the final no there comes a yes." Yes, we can save what is left.

Yes, we can repair and make amends. We can reclaim nature and restore ourselves. There is a bridge at the edge of the world. But for many challenges, like the threat of climate change, there is not much time.

A great American once said: "We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The 'tide in the affairs of men' does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: 'Too late.'" -- Martin Luther King, 4 April 1967, Riverside Church, New York City.

Let us turn, then, to the costs of being too late.


James Gustave Speth is the Dean of the School of Forestry at Yale University.


End Notes

1. The graphs are from W. Steffen et al., Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet under Pressure (Berlin: Springer, 2005), 132-133 (with sources for the graphs cited therein).

2. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), Ecosystems and Human Well- Being: Synthesis (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2005), 31-32.

3. Food and Agriculture Organization, Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005 (Rome: FAO, 2006), 20. This calculation includes all net change in forest area in South America, Central America, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia; the total is about twenty-eight million acres lost per year between 2000 and 2005.

4. MEA, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis, 2; MEA, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being, vol. I: Current State and Trends (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2005), 14-15. See also N. C. Duke et al., "A World without Mangroves?" Science 317 (2007): 41. And see Carmen Revenga et al., Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Freshwater Systems (Washington, D.C.: WRI, 2000), 3, 21-22; World Resources Institute et al., World Resources, 2000-2001 (Washington, D.C.: WRI, 2000), 72, 107; and Lauretta Burke et al., Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Coastal Ecosystems (Washington, D.C.: WRI, 2001), 19.

5. Food and Agriculture Organization, World Review of Fisheries and Aquaculture (Rome: FAO, 2006), 29; Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm, "Rapid World-wide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities," Nature 423 (2003): 280, See also Fred Pearce, "Oceans Raped of Their Former Riches," New Scientist, 2 August 2003, 4.

6. MEA, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis, 2.

7. MEA, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis, 5, 36.

8. Tim Radford, "Scientist Warns of Sixth Great Extinction of Wildlife," Guardian (U.K.), 29 November 2001). See also Nigel C. A. Pitman and Peter M. Jorgensen, "Estimating the Size of the World's Threatened Flora," Science 298 (2002): 989; and F. Stuart Chapin III et al., "Consequences of Changing Biodiversity," Nature 405 (2000): 234.

9. U.N. Environment Programme, Global Environment Outlook 3 (London: Earth-scan, 2002), 64-65. Drylands cover about 40 percent of the earth's land surface, and an estimated 10-20 percent suffer from "severe" degradation. James F. Reynolds et al., "Global Desertification: Building a Science for Dryland Development," Science 316 (2007): 847. See also "Key Facts about Desertification," Reuters/Planet Ark, 6 June 2006, summarizing U.N. estimates.

10. Fred Pearce, "Northern Exposure," New Scientist, 31 May 1997, 25; Martin Enserink, "For Precarious Populations, Pollutants Present New Perils," Science 299 (2003): 1642. See also the data reported in Joe Thornton, Pandora's Poison (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 1-55.

11. U.N. Environment Programme, Global Outlook for Ice and Snow, 4 June 2007. See also http://www.geo.unizh.ch/wgms. See generally William Collins et al., "The Physical Science behind Climate Change," Scientific American, August 2007, 64.

12. "UN Reports Increasing 'Dead Zones' in Oceans," Associated Press, 20 October 2006. See generally Mark Shrope, "The Dead Zones," New Scientist, 9 December 2006, 38; and Laurence Mee, "Reviving Dead Zones," Scientific American, November 2006, 79. On nitrogen pollution, see Charles Driscoll et al., "Nitrogen Pollution," Environment 45, No. 7 (2003): 8.

13. Peter M. Vitousek et al., "Human Appropriation of the Products of Photo-synthesis," Bioscience 36, no. 6 (1986): 368; S. Rojstaczer et al., "Human Appropriation of Photosynthesis Products," Science 294 (2001): 2549. See also Helmut Haberl et at., "Quantifying and Mapping the Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production in Earth's Terrestrial Ecosystems," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2007).

14. U.N. Environment Programme, "At a Glance: The World's Water Crisis," and MEA, Ecosystem and Human Well-Being: Synthesis, 32.

15. MEA, Ecosystem and Human Well-Being: Synthesis, 12.

16. William H. MacLeish, The Day before America: Changing the Nature of a Continent (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 164-168.

17. Quoted in Stephen R. Kellert, Kinship to Mastery.: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1997), 179-180.

18. Quoted in Kellert, Kinship to Mastery, 181-182.

19. Angus Maddison, The World Economy: Millennial Perspective (Paris: OECD, 2001).

20. J. R. McNeill, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), 4, 16.

21. Among the many books written about the possibility of large-scale economic, environmental, and social breakdown are Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, zoos); Fred Pearce, The Last Generation. How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change (London: Transworld, 2006); Martin Rees, Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning... (New York: Basic Books, 2003); Richard A. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back -- and How We Can Still Save Humanity. (London: Penguin, 2006); James Martin, The Meaning of the Twenty-first Century (New York: Penguin, 2006); Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilifation (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2006); Mayer Hillman, The Suicidal Planet: How to Prevent Global Climate Catastrophe (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007); James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century (New York: Grove Press, 2005); Richard Heinberg, Power Down: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World (Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society, 2004); Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2004); John Leslie, The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction (London: Routledge, 1996); Colin Mason, The 2030 Spike (London: Earthscan, 2003); Michael T. Klare, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (New York: Henry Holt, 2001); and Roy Woodbridge, The Next World War: Tribes, Cities, Nations, and Ecological Decline (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).

22. Rees, Our Final Hour, 8.

23. Robert A. Dahl, On Political Equality (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 105-106.

24. Paul Hawken et al., Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown, 1999), 10-11.

25. See Chapters 10-12.

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From: New Scientist
[Printer-friendly version]


By Ian Fairlie

Among the many environmental concerns surrounding nuclear power plants, there is one that provokes public anxiety like no other: the fear that children living near nuclear facilities face an increased risk of cancer. Though a link has long been suspected, it has never been proven. Now that seems likely to change.

Studies in the 1980s revealed increased incidences of childhood leukaemia near nuclear installations at Windscale (now Sellafield), Burghfield and Dounreay in the UK. Later studies near German nuclear facilities found a similar effect. The official response was that the radiation doses from the nearby plants were too low to explain the increased leukaemia. The Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment, which is responsible for advising the UK government, finally concluded that the explanation remained unknown but was not likely to be radiation.

There the issue rested, until a recent flurry of epidemiological studies appeared. Last year, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston carried out a meta-analysis of 17 research papers covering 136 nuclear sites in the UK, Canada, France, the US, Germany, Japan and Spain. The incidence of leukaemia in children under 9 living close to the sites showed an increase of 14 to 21 per cent, while death rates from the disease were raised by 5 to 24 per cent, depending on their proximity to the nuclear facilities (European Journal of Cancer Care, vol 16, p 355).

This was followed by a German study which found 14 cases of leukaemia compared to an expected four cases between 1990 and 2005 in children living within 5 kilometres of the Krummel nuclear plant near Hamburg, making it the largest leukaemia cluster near a nuclear power plant anywhere in the world (Environmental Health Perspectives, vol 115, p 941).

This was upstaged by the yet more surprising KiKK studies (a German acronym for Childhood Cancer in the Vicinity of Nuclear Power Plants), whose results were published this year in the International Journal of Cancer (vol 122, p 721) and the European Journal of Cancer (vol 44, p 275). These found higher incidences of cancers and a stronger association with nuclear installations than all previous reports. The main findings were a 60 per cent increase in solid cancers and a 117 per cent increase in leukaemia among young children living near all 16 large German nuclear facilities between 1980 and 2003. The most striking finding was that those who developed cancer lived closer to nuclear power plants than randomly selected controls. Children living within 5 kilometres of the plants were more than twice as likely to contract cancer as those living further away, a finding that has been accepted by the German government.

Though the KiKK studies received scant attention elsewhere, there was a public outcry and vocal media debate in Germany. No one is sure of the cause (or causes) of the extra cancers. Coincidence has been ruled out, as has the "Kinlen hypothesis", which theorises that childhood leukaemia is caused by an unknown infectious agent introduced as a result of an influx of new people to the area concerned. Surprisingly, the most obvious explanation for this increased risk -- radioactive discharges from the nearby nuclear installations -- was also ruled out by the KiKK researchers, who asserted that the radiation doses from such sources were too low, although the evidence they base this on is not clear.

Anyone who followed the argument in the 1980s and 1990s concerning the UK leukaemia clusters will have a sense of deja vu. A report in 2004 by the Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters (2 Mbyte PDF), set up by the UK government (and for which I was a member of the secretariat) points out that the models used to estimate radiation doses from sources emitted from nuclear facilities are riddled with uncertainty. For example, assumptions about how radioactive material is transported through the environment or taken up and retained by local residents may be faulty.

If radiation is indeed the cause of the cancers, how might local residents have been exposed? Most of the reactors in the KiKK study were pressurised water designs notable for their high emissions of tritium, the radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Last year, the UK government published a report on tritium which concluded that its hazard risk should be doubled. Tritium is most commonly found incorporated into water molecules, a factor not fully taken into account in the report, so this could make it even more hazardous.

As we begin to pin down the likely causes, the new evidence of an association between increased cancers and proximity to nuclear facilities raises difficult questions. Should pregnant women and young children be advised to move away from them? Should local residents eat vegetables from their gardens? And, crucially, shouldn't those governments around the world who are planning to build more reactors think again?

Ian Fairlie is a London-based consultant on radiation in the environment

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From: The New Yorker (pg. 52)
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By Stephen S. Hall

[Rachel's introduction: Two revolutionary discoveries, made only in the past 20 years, radically alter our perspective on the importance of "the environment" for human health. One such discovery is "fetal programming" -- mechanisms by which chemical exposures in the womb can "program" a person in ways that last a lifetime, including a predisposition to diseases that may only become apparent decades later. The second discovery is "epigenetics" -- an unexpected mechanism by which environmental influences on a person can be passed along to offspring. This essay describes important early work that paved the way for later understanding of both fetal programming and epigenetics. We have modified the text to include links to two of the earliest studies. --P.M.]

In the early nineteen-eighties, a group of British epidemiologists at the University of Southampton compiled a grimly detailed atlas of the common causes of death in various parts of England and Wales. The atlas contained page after page of maps for everything from cirrhosis of the liver (most common in industrial areas) to automobile accidents (drivers in the countryside are the most at risk). One of the maps, charting heart disease, proved difficult to interpret. Heart disease, the leading killer in the Western world, is considered a rich person's illness: rates tend to rise as a society becomes more affluent. But, on this map, the poorer areas of England, in the north and west, were predominantly red, indicating higher than average death rates; the prosperous south and east, including London, were overwhelmingly green, indicating below-average death rates.

"It's a pretty dramatic map, isn't it?" David J. P. Barker, one of the authors, said recently, after pulling the book, "Atlas of Mortality from Selected Diseases in England and Wales, 1968-1978," from a shelf in the office in his home, near Southampton. In the era of genetic research, such an epidemiology had an anachronistic, almost Bartleby- like feel. But Barker had become fascinated by the puzzling pattern.

"At the time we started looking at this, there were some pretty good indications that the answer was not going to lie in the way that poor people lead their lives as adults," Barker said. For decades, conventional medical wisdom has attributed heart disease to factors like obesity, eating a high-fat diet, lack of exercise, and smoking. But, in contemporary Britain, "diet is relatively homogeneous," Barker said. "Although poor people eat fewer fruits and vegetables, the differences weren't that big, and so couldn't go anywhere near explaining these big differences in health. So the other logical possibility was to think, Well, maybe they're simply more vulnerable to what everybody does." Barker continued, "And if you're thinking about vulnerability, you'd better think back to childhood. And so we wondered how babies were fed in the past in these places that were showing up on the map as red."

Governments do not typically keep archives of the caloric intake of babies born decades earlier, of course, so Barker and a statistician named Clive Osmond tracked down data they thought could serve as a proxy: records of infant mortality between 1921 and 1925. To plot the incidence of adult heart disease, Barker and Osmond used every death certificate recorded between 1968 and 1978. They divided England and Wales into two hundred and twelve areas and created what they called a "map of vulnerability." And they discovered that the areas with the highest death rates from heart disease had the highest rates of infant mortality about fifty years earlier.

Barker and Osmond then focussed on the deaths that occurred within the first month after birth and so were probably due to prenatal problems. On the whole, the poorer areas had higher rates of both early and late infant mortality (as well as higher rates of heart disease) than the more affluent areas, with one glaring exception: poor, slum-ridden parts of London. There the neonatal-death rates were surprisingly low.

"London was the only large place where there was a discontinuity," Barker said. He decided that it wasn't a matter of medical care -- in both city and countryside, almost all babies were then born at home, and neonatal health care was primitive at best. He noted that the older infants had died, "for all the reasons that anyone who's read Dickens's novels is all too familiar with, such as crowded and unsanitary housing. So there was an issue about why death rates in newborn babies were so low in London."

Barker is given to wearing the same rumpled clothes for days on end, and, as he once put it, has "never been anything other than the shortest boy in school." He is effortlessly sarcastic. Now sixty-nine, he has a head of white hair over dark eyebrows, a ruddy face, and a low voice that often descends to a whisper. His office bookshelves are crammed with scientific texts and with his mother's editions of Thackeray and Austen. Barker is a good storyteller, and he relished getting to "the mystery of London" because it advertised an approach to epidemiology -- not just number-crunching but also social history, economics, and narrative stitchwork -- that his admirers find highly imaginative and his critics find maddening.

"London renewed itself through the nineteenth century by bringing in the fittest young people -- men and women, but particularly women who went into domestic service. They came from the villages," he said, people born and raised in England's prime agricultural country, to the east and south of London. "You start from very well-nourished communities, with tall churches and tall people," Barker said. But because agricultural wages were extremely low, wage riots broke out in the nineteen-twenties, and many young people migrated to London. "They brought with them all the advantages of having had a well-nourished childhood, and the women gave birth to healthy babies, who tended not to die," he said.

Those women posed the question that would shape the next twenty-five years of Barker's scientific career: Was vulnerability to heart disease rooted in adulthood, in childhood -- or did it go all the way back to life in the womb? "And London said it's for sure about life in the womb, or newborn babies at most," Barker told me. That led him to the next question: Was the trajectory toward disease perhaps set by how healthy the mother had been even before her childbearing years?

In 1986, when Barker's basic claim that heart disease was "related to nutrition during prenatal and early postnatal life" -- now known as the "Barker hypothesis" -- was first published, in The Lancet, it was regarded as heretical. Barker took this as a personal rebuke. In his telling, the critics expected him to "just go away." Instead, he cast a wider net for more historical data. He was keen to get his hands on one particular statistic: birth weight.

Now, when Barker lectures, he shows slides of the red-and-green heart- disease map and an arresting 1912 photograph of barefoot street urchins from London's East End. "You live in two worlds," he said at a recent talk at Princeton, "the world of your mother and the world into which you are born." He made disparaging asides about the "dismal failure" of genetic research to explain chronic diseases. And, as he does often these days, he ended with a pledge to "fix" the problem. For Barker, this includes injunctions about the diets of young girls and the risks of low birth weight and, more surprising, the unsettling suggestion that underweight toddlers might be better off not growing too fast -- that there might be advantages in the small remaining, relatively speaking, small.

Like many people of his generation, David Barker had a childhood that was shaped by the Second World War. He was born in London in 1938. His father, a mechanical engineer, joined the military when the war began; his mother, a violinist, took him to live in a small village called Much Hadham, in Hertfordshire, north of London, as part of the evacuation of children from London during the blitz. His younger sister was born there in 1943.

After attending the British public school Oundle, Barker went on to medical school at Guy's Hospital, in London, and trained as an internist before beginning graduate studies in epidemiology at the University of Birmingham. In 1972, he accepted an offer to join a new medical school that was being built in Southampton, a gritty port city heavily bombed by the Germans during the Second World War. It was far from Oxford and Cambridge, the twin jewels of British academic science, and Barker simultaneously cultivated and resented his outsider status. ("We've done very well being big fish in a small pond," he told me one day.)

In 1980, on the day after Easter, Barker's wife, Angela, died after a long battle with mental illness, and Barker found himself, at age forty-two, the single parent of five children, ranging in age from six to eighteen. His epidemiological work all but stopped. Then, in 1983, Barker married Jan Tarplett, who was divorced and had three children of her own. In addition to taking care of eight children, Jan embroidered art works to illustrate the covers of his books; she sewed wedding dresses for several women in his lab group; and, in 1986, she found Manor Farm, a fourteen-acre homestead in East Dean, between Southampton and Salisbury. "My own Barker hypothesis," Osmond told me, "is that without Jan, David would have been sunk."

Barker, who believes that much of modern biology has become estranged from the natural world, takes frequent walks along the River Dun, a chalk stream that runs through Manor Farm. Sometimes the river has the quality of a moat. There is a sense of isolation there, one that may stem, at least in part, from the strong antipathy Barker's work initially provoked. The intensity of the reactions made me wonder if people were responding to the theory or to the scientist. Barker has an ability to infuriate, and a tendency to make sweeping statements. (At one point, as he was explaining again that the issue is not just what women eat during pregnancy but, rather, their lifetime dietary habits, Barker told me, "A woman is merely the arena for miracles over which she has no control.") A scientist who has worked on the fetal- origins hypothesis told me that Barker "is very aggressive in talking about it, and I think he has made himself enemies that have been unhelpful. That's been his style. I'm not sure it's been necessary or optimal."

One of the earliest reservations about the Barker hypothesis was that, although the 1986 Lancet paper had unearthed an unexpected connection, it provided no evidence that whatever caused infant mortality also caused surviving children born in the same areas to become sick later in life. By definition, the babies who died were not the ones suffering from the diseases of middle age. What Barker needed was some way to tie an individual's prenatal development with his health as an adult. Birth weight, he thought, would be the best proxy -- what he called "a shorthand" for fetal growth.

Low birth weight, typically defined as less than 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms), can relate to any number of adverse gestational events, from smoking to malnutrition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8.2 per cent of the roughly four million children born in the United States each year are low-birth-weight babies; the statistics are higher for black women. Worldwide, the percentage is closer to 15.5. Premature infants account for about two- thirds of low-birth-weight babies in the United States, while the vast majority of such cases in the developing world -- more than ninety per cent -- are due to nutritional deprivation and poor maternal health during gestation. (Barker's initial research did not involve premature babies, since only the hardiest from the first half of the twentieth century survived.)

In his search for old records of birth weights, Barker had written, by his own estimate, more than a thousand letters to local health officials. In the summer of 1987, he received a reply from Hertfordshire: a collection of old handwritten ledgers had been shipped to the county archives. Barker drove up to Hertford himself to visit the county archivist.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, in part to improve the physical vigor of young men eligible for military service, Britain began to keep records of infant health. By local law, doctors and midwives had to report births, and "health visitors" monitored feeding and growth over the first year. In Hertfordshire, the Chief Health Visitor and Lady Inspector of Midwives was Ethel Margaret Burnside, who logged thousands of miles on her bicycle each year on visits to pregnant women and new mothers. Burnside and her platoon of nurse assistants kept detailed records of thousands of children born in six Hertfordshire villages between 1911 and 1945. One of those villages happened to be Much Hadham, and one of those children was Barker's sister.

"The guy was sitting there with these books on his desk, saying, 'I can see your point, but you can't have these records. We've put them under a fifty-year hold because of the comments that were written by the midwives and health visitors about some of the mothers,' " Barker said. "And it was the fact that on his desk were the records from Much Hadham, where I had lived, that unlocked them for us. I would not have gotten those records unless I had been able to align myself up as a local person." Hertfordshire officials eventually agreed to transfer the birth records to the University of Southampton.

It took two years for Barker and his colleagues to find the adults whose birth records they now possessed. They initially tracked down 5,654 men who were born between 1911 and 1930 (men were easier to trace than women because their last names didn't change when they got married), and then correlated mortality and health data with birth weight and infant growth. Men who had weighed 5.5 pounds or less at birth, and especially those who remained small at age one, had the highest rates of death from coronary heart disease. "I mean, we weren't in any doubt that we were right," Barker said. "It was just very, very clear."

Others were not so sure; The Lancet rejected the paper. "It just got trashed," Barker said. "And so I rang up the editor. I happened to know him, because I'd been a medical student with him. I said, 'You are making a big mistake here.' He had another look, and published it."

When the paper appeared, in the September 9, 1989, issue of The Lancet, a lot of people didn't know what to make of it. Many were unconvinced that the Southampton epidemiologists had controlled for things like socioeconomic background; Barker told me that one "not unreasonable concern" was that people born small into poor homes and impoverished environments would adopt less healthy adult life styles. More broadly, many doctors disliked the idea of fetal origins, in part because it undermined a decades-long public-health message that linked heart disease to adult behavioral factors. The late Sir Richard Doll, Britain's leading epidemiologist, told Barker that he was "very disappointed," and Barker heard that as an understated but unmistakable form of academic censure.

While many heart-disease experts had responded to the Barker hypothesis with hostility -- "People were starting to walk out on meetings when I spoke," Barker said -- another group, biologists who studied prenatal development, couldn't hear enough. "I didn't know what it meant," said Kent Thornburg, a physiologist at the Oregon Health & Science University, who encountered Barker for the first time at a conference in 1989. "But I knew it was incredibly important."

In rapid succession, new epidemiological studies confirmed and extended the observations of the Lancet paper. When epidemiologists found birth records in India, in South Carolina, in China, and in Sweden, the same basic pattern emerged: slow growth in the womb, as suggested by low birth weight, seemed to increase the risk of adult illnesses like coronary heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and stroke.

Even as the body of evidence grew, doubts persisted. In 1995, the British Medical Journal published an editorial implying that the Barker hypothesis was "broad and fuzzy" and had yet to be "subjected to an ordeal" of rigorous scientific attack. As recently as 2002, an article in The Lancet argued that the link between birth weight and blood pressure was overstated and minimal. But more recent epidemiological findings have favored Barker. "The idea that this effect is a statistical artifact or not real is nonsense," said David Leon, an editor at the International Journal of Epidemiology. He characterized some of the critiques as "mischievous."

Barker hasn't always made it easy for his supporters. His colleagues say that he would berate critics who didn't "get it." He would refuse to engage in scientific debates. He seemed to be daring his detractors to prove him wrong. But that, too, had its advantages. As Johan Eriksson, one of Barker's collaborators, put it, "The best thing to happen to this field is people trying to disprove the Barker hypothesis."

One of the most significant events in the life history of a scientific idea occurs when its detractors become adherents. A Danish researcher, Allan Vaag, told me that he "really did not believe in this theory" until 1997; that was the year he discovered, in a study of identical twins, that diagnoses of type 2 diabetes were more common for the twin who had a lower birth weight. Janet Rich-Edwards, a Harvard Medical School epidemiologist with the Nurses' Health Study, which has tracked about a hundred thousand women since 1976, admitted that she "set out to prove that Barker was totally wrong." But, in 1997, Rich-Edwards and her colleagues reported "strong evidence" of a connection between low birth weight and a heightened risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. In 2000, Rich-Edwards and her Harvard colleague Matthew Gillman published a paper titled "The Fetal Origins of Adult Disease: From Sceptic to Convert."

On a windswept, rainy day in February, 1995, Johan Eriksson, a young Finnish doctor, arrived at Manor Farm for a visit. In his restless search for early birth records, Barker had begun to suspect that there was a gap in the story. All along, there had been hints from the epidemiology that how much and how fast a low-birth-weight child grew might also matter a great deal. That first evening, after dinner, Barker remembers telling Eriksson, "The thing we really, really need, beyond everything else, is some records of growth in children whose size at birth had been measured."

Eriksson replied, "I have them."

In the early nineties, intrigued by the Barker hypothesis, Eriksson and his colleague Tom Forsen had launched a search for Finnish birth records. "I was certain we would find them somewhere," Forsen told me. "I just didn't know how many." They found exquisitely detailed birth records of fifty-three thousand babies born at Helsinki University Central Hospital between 1924 and 1944, which included not only birth weight but size of the placenta and measures of the mother's body composition. They also found thousands of school growth cards and child-welfare-clinic cards. The Finnish researchers then set out to track down the adults these children became.

In 1971, Finland began to issue a personal identity number to every citizen; this number was used to register hospital admissions, prescriptions, socioeconomic data, and, eventually, cause of death. By painstakingly collating these records, the researchers managed to assemble comprehensive pictures of the infancy, growth, and health of thousands of Finns.

In 1997, the first paper based on the "Helsinki cohort," as it came to be known, appeared in the British Medical Journal. The study showed that thinness at birth seemed to be linked to the child's vulnerability to later disease and that small size at age one was associated with adult mortality from heart disease. The mother's body composition also played a role. Women who were small because their own growth had been affected by poor childhood nutrition often produced low-birth-weight babies. Short women who were overweight, Barker said, were the "most dangerous scenario" for heart disease in their offspring, while tall women could become overweight without dramatically affecting the disease prospects of their children. Fifty- four papers have been published to date on the Helsinki cohort, with another twenty-three in preparation, and they have been consistent in their findings. Osmond said, "Our best estimate is that every one kilogram increase [in birth weight] reduces heart disease by about seventeen per cent. The effect with diabetes seems a bit stronger."

The Helsinki data, as summarized in a 2005 paper in The New England Journal of Medicine, suggested that the biggest threat to adult health, however, was rapid gain in body mass index (a standard, though imperfect, measure of body fat) in a child who had a low weight at birth and had been small and thin during the first two years of life.

"What the Finland paper shows is that the children who are going to bankrupt the American health system are not fat children," Barker said. "They are thin children who are putting on weight at age two, three, four, five, six, and so on. That's a difficult thing to say. These are invisible children."

On a sunny spring afternoon at the University of Southampton, a biologist named Tom Fleming offered Barker and me a cup of tea, and then gave us a harrowing tour of some recent experiments with animals. Fleming was among the earliest to test the Barker hypothesis experimentally by asking what could biologically explain the correlation between birth weight and later disease.

In one study, Fleming's group fed pregnant rats a low-protein diet for the first four days after fertilization. The researchers then gave the rats normal diets for the remainder of gestation. Yet that four-day period exerted profound and irreversible long-term effects. The embryos had fewer stem cells than those of pregnant rats fed a normal diet and, after birth, had differences in organ size, weight, growth, and metabolic function, including blood pressure.

"The way I understand things now," Fleming said, as Barker listened intently, "is that the embryo is having a kind of dialogue with its mother about nutrient availability. And that dialogue will result in appropriate compensatory mechanisms if, for example, nutrition is poor."

Even at this very early point -- at an analogous stage, most women would not even know they were pregnant -- Fleming believes that the embryo can detect reduced levels of insulin and essential amino acids, as well as elevated levels of glucose, in the blood of its mother. If those nutrient levels are limited or unbalanced, the embryo must adjust -- either by extracting more nutrition from the mother or by slowing down its own growth. "The most critical thing for the embryo is that it engages in a growth trajectory that is appropriate for its nutrient availability," Fleming said.

Back in 1992, Barker and C. Nicholas Hales, a biochemist at Cambridge, attributed the development of type 2 diabetes disease in adults to what they called the "thrifty phenotype." The idea was that the fetus set its metabolic thermostat during critical periods of gestation. If the setting was "thrifty," because of less than optimal fetal nutrition, the individual would be metabolically and physiologically ill suited to adapt to the nutritional prosperity of postnatal life in most developed countries. A person whose metabolism had been programmed to deal with its mother's poor diet, for example, would be overwhelmed by a plentiful childhood diet, and put on fat rather than acquire muscle mass.

Barker calls the kidneys, which regulate blood pressure, "a pretty piece of biology." During a brief developmental window, between the thirtieth and thirty-sixth week of gestation, the fetus calibrates the number of blood-cleansing kidney units, or nephrons, it needs to make. Full-term low-birth-weight babies possess as much as thirty to forty per cent fewer nephrons than higher-birth-weight babies. In the nineteen-nineties, Barry M. Brenner, a nephrologist at Harvard Medical School, proposed that these babies would be at greater risk for high blood pressure as adults -- a prediction that subsequent research has borne out. If a small and thin baby puts on weight quickly after infancy, the likelihood of kidney dysfunction in adulthood increases, too. "If you're small and you grow rapidly, you're overwhelming your reserve capacity," Brenner said. "You're stressing the system."

There is keen medical debate, and conflicting scientific data, about the optimal growth of a child between birth and age two. When I asked Barker about it, he made sure to say that no child is doomed by low birth weight; rather, knowledge of the risks should allow doctors to identify heightened vulnerability in certain children, for whom preventive measures can make a great deal of difference. But, he said, "The two messages for parents are: the nutrition and growth of your baby in the first two years after it's born is important, and, broadly, the more it grows, the better. Growth is good. But after two, the rules change, and it's better if babies stay in their tracks" -- for a small child to stay small -- "rather than starting to go up through the centiles."

Since 2003, Barker has held a position at the Oregon Health & Science University, in Portland, and he and his wife have established a foundation dedicated to optimizing the growth of infants and children. In February, O.H.S.U. began to enroll young women in a pilot project to monitor their diet, health, and, eventually, pregnancies. "We are going to alter the nutritionally poor environment of people in Oregon," Barker said in a recent talk. "We don't know how to do it, but we're going to try."

Pronouncements like that carry vexing implications. "In many of the closed-door meetings, with five or six or ten scientists sitting around the table, this becomes a very hot debate," Thornburg said. Matthew Gillman, of Harvard, believes it is not only nutrition but the entire maternal milieu -- diet, stress, hormones -- that affects intrauterine growth, and said that there is no reason to change current recommendations to pregnant mothers, which are to avoid smoking, increase the consumption of fish, and eat a balanced diet. Of course, those recommendations can be confusing enough -- eat fish, but not too much of fish that might be high in mercury. Barker's work expands that bubble of anxiety.

The Barker hypothesis has, gradually, acquired its own air of orthodoxy, When I used the word "controversial" to describe it in a recent conversation with Richard Schultz, who studies early development at the University of Pennsylvania, he quickly took exception. "A few years ago, it was considered controversial," Schultz said. "But it's my sense that it's no longer controversial, and people have moved on. The discussion now is about what are the underlying cellular and molecular mechanisms."

Given Barker's frequent caustic references to "modern-day hereditarians," perhaps the most ironic turn in the story of the Barker hypothesis is its convergance with a new field of biology known as epigenetics, which refers to the way environmental factors can produce permanent changes in the activity of genes. Researchers have recently found that subtle nutritional changes in the diets of rats and mice can turn off certain genes in the developing fetus, with lifelong effects on metabolism and growth.

Barker is, typically, impatient with principally genetic explanations. "Genes are not Stalinist dictators," he said. "They live in a democracy, and what they do is conditioned by what else is going on around them. If geneticists find molecular mechanisms for this, bully for them! It's just not where I live," he said. "I can't wait twenty years for the geneticists to figure this out before we start improving the nutrition of human babies. You know? One-quarter of all babies born in Southampton are recognizably thin. This will lead to shorter lives as a group. We need to fix it!"

Later, when we spoke in his office, he said, "How much do we need to know about how it works at the cellular and molecular level to fix it? Maybe we don't need to know anything very much." He added, "You almost can't say that -- it's such a deeply held belief that you have to really understand something before you fix it. But I don't believe that's how it will work out."

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From: Agence France-Presse
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HANOI (AFP) -- The future food security of millions of people is at risk because over-fishing, climate change and pollution are inflicting massive damage on the world's oceans, marine scientists warned this week.

The two-thirds of the planet covered by seas provide one fifth of the world's protein -- but 75 percent of fish stocks are now fully exploited or depleted, a Hanoi conference that ended Friday was told.

Warming seas are bleaching corals, feeding algal blooms and changing ocean currents that impact the weather, and rising sea levels could in future threaten coastal areas from Bangladesh to New York, experts said.

"People think the ocean is a place apart," said Peter Neill, head of the World Ocean Observatory. "In fact it's the thing that connects us -- through trade, transportation, natural systems, weather patterns and everything we depend on for survival."

Marine ecosystems and food security were key concerns at the Global Conference on Oceans, Coasts, and Islands, an international meeting of hundreds of experts from governments, environmental groups and universities.

"There is a race to fish, but in wild capture fisheries right now we can catch no more," said Steven Murawski, fisheries chief science advisor at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

"We catch 100 million metric tonnes per year, and that's been very flat globally. Our only hope is if we conserve and rebuild stocks," he said, adding that sustainable aquaculture could help make up the shortfall.

The current plunder is risking long-term sustainability with "too many fishing boats taking too many fish and not allowing the stocks to regenerate," said Frazer McGilvray of Conservation International.

"Once the oceans are gone, we're gone. The oceans sustain the planet."

The world has already seen the effects of over-fishing, experts said.

North Atlantic cod fisheries collapsed in the 1990s, anchovies previously disappeared off Chile, herring off Iceland and sardine off California.

Sixty-four percent of ocean areas fall outside national jurisdictions, making it difficult to reach international consensus or to stop illegal fishing -- a growing concern as high-tech ships scour the high seas.

"It's the Wild West. It's a very small number of boats but the technology allows them to take enormous amounts of fish," said Neill.

"They take only the high commercial product and they throw the bycatch overboard. The waste is extraordinary."

Marine life is also being harmed by climate change, said Murawski.

"We've seen that fish populations go up and down with variations in the climate," he said. "Increasingly we are starting to see long term change affect the productivity, the distributions, the migrations."

The trend is speeding up, Murawski said.

"Our forecasts are wrong," he said. "The melt-off is much faster than has been forecast in the models."

Meanwhile land-based pollution puts heavy strain on oceans, said Ellik Adler of the UN Environment Programme.

"Rivers of untreated sewage, factories, refineries, oil industry discharge their effluent into the marine environment, and this causes huge damage," he said. "Marine pollution has no political borders."

There are few easy fixes, experts said, but one initiative now being considered is setting up a global network of marine protected areas.

"You've got to get agreements between countries," said consultant Sue Wells, whose has worked in coastal East Africa. "Some developed countries have already closed some areas, and most coastal countries are now considering it."

Satellites could monitor no-catch areas, she said, while inspiration could come from South Pacific fishing communities.

"They have taboo areas, coral reef sanctuaries, where fish would be saved for bad weather periods or major festivals and feast," she said. "They know if they leave an area and don't fish there, they'll have much better stocks."

It is a view that has been lost in modern times, she said, where the common view now was "if I don't go and fish it, someone else will."

Copyright 2008 AFP

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From: Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
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Washington, DC -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has unveiled a new process for assessing the health risks of new chemicals that allows chemical manufacturers and other industries to play key roles. As a result, it will be much easier to inject corporate influence into public health determinations that should be purely scientific, according Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

The overhaul of the EPA "Integrated Risk Information System" became effective on April 10, 2008, the day it was announced. EPA said the changes "created several important opportunities" for affected interests to weigh in "at key points throughout the nomination and assessment" of new environmental contaminants. One hallmark of the changes is pushing government research to the side in favor of outside research which is largely industry-funded. As a consequence -

Affected corporations will be intimately involved in each step of EPA's risk assessment and will be able to know what staff are assigned to which work, making the agency "research plan" vulnerable to political manipulation through the appropriations process; The Defense and Energy Departments will have a formal role on how pollutants, such as the chemical perchlorate, are evaluated. In addition, these agencies could declare a particular chemical to be "mission critical" that would allow them to control how "data gaps" are to be filled. All intra-and inter-agency communications on risk assessments are deemed "deliberative" and thus confidential; The White House Office of Management and Budget would control both the substance and timing of final decisions on chemical risk assessments. "Under this system, every chemical risk assessment is a special interest scrum," stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former EPA scientists and attorney. "Had this process been in place, the tobacco industry would have stopped EPA from declaring secondhand smoke a lung cancer risk."

These chemical risk assessments are used to develop toxic clean-up criteria, safe drinking water standards, occupational exposure levels and other essential public health protections. In its press announcement, EPA Assistant Administrator George Gray said the changes were intended to make the assessments "more predictable, streamlined, and transparent."

"In the name of transparency, EPA concocted this convoluted system in secret," Bennett added, noting Gray's previous work in an industry- financed institute on this topic. "What a coincidence that this process seems tailor-made to drum up a lot of business for the work Mr. Gray did in the private sector."

PEER points to this revision as one of what will be many more late-in- the-Bush-administration attempts to skew rules, interpretations and policies that could not be changed through normal, publicly-reviewed channels. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee has already vowed to hold oversight hearings on this topic.

Read the EPA press release

See Senator Barbara Boxer's vow to hold oversight hearings

Look at the new 13-step IRIS process

Scan EPA's FAQ explanation

Review George Gray's background

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