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#895 -- Genetic Engineering on Steroids, 22-Feb-2007


Rachel's Democracy & Health News #895

"Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?"

Thursday, February 22, 2007.............Printer-friendly version
www.rachel.org -- To make a secure donation, click here.

Featured stories in this issue...

Synthetic Biology -- Genetic Engineering on Steroids
  A new report from the ETC Group in Canada highlights the power of
  new genetic engineering techniques that are capable of creating new
  forms of life never seen on Earth before.
Magical Thinking
  "Our society, like all others, picks and chooses among available
  technological options, implementing some and neglecting others. This
  needs hiding because most of these choices are made by influential
  members and groups within America's political class for their own
  private profit, very often at the expense of the rest of the public."
Editorial: Making Martial Law Easier
  As we have pointed out before, the U.S. now has all the trappings
  of a police state, though for the most part it is not yet being
  operated as one. Nevertheless, even the New York Times has noticed
  that we are inching toward martial law.
Mystery: How Wealth Creates Poverty in the World
  How is it that as corporate investments and foreign aid and
  international loans to poor countries have increased dramatically
  throughout the world over the last half century, so has poverty?
Cancer: How Dangerous Are Our Cosmetics?
  Toxic chemicals don't just hurt us in big doses. Environmental
  oncologist Devra Davis argues that myriad tiny amounts of cancer-
  causing agents in our environment -- and even in our shampoo -- can
  make us sick.
Climate Change 'Growing Threat to Society'
  The nation's largest scientific organization, the American
  Association for the Advancement of Science, has issued a consensus
  statement saying global warming is a "growing threat to society."


From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #895, Feb. 22, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]


By Tim Montague

In the past 5 years, the science of genetic engineering has made giant
strides. Starting from scratch using lifeless chemicals, scientists
are now able to create viruses, such as the polio virus. Technically,
viruses are not "alive" because they require cells to survive. But
soon -- perhaps some time this year -- scientists expect to create
bacteria, which are definitely alive. From there, it will be a short
step to manufacturing new forms of life that have never existed on
Earth before. This startling new enterprise is called "synthetic


Life begins as lifeless chemicals, called nucleotides. You can buy
them off the shelf. Under some circumstances, these can combine into
complicated chains to create DNA molecules. Long strands of DNA form
genes, and genes give rise to proteins and eventually to cells and
viruses. Cells metabolize, adapt to their environment, and reproduce
themselves using the information packed away in their DNA -- thus
fulfilling the definition of living things. The nucleotides are just
ordinary lifeless chemicals, but by the time they combine into cells
they have become the stuff of life itself.

Scientists have spent 300 years working backward from cells, trying to
discover how all this works. Along the way they learned that genes can
give creatures particular characteristics. Starting 30 years ago they
began snipping genes from one creature and inserting them into a
different creature, hoping to give the recipient some new
characteristic that humans would find valuable. For example, trout can
tolerate cold water, so perhaps a gene from a trout inserted into a
tomato will help the tomato tolerate cold weather. This has become
known as "gene splicing" or "genetic engineering."

All this activity can be described as "reading" the genetic code. But
now scientists know enough to begin "writing" their own genetic code
-- putting together chains of nucleotides into chunks of DNA, and
pasting these together to create living things.

In 2002 a team of scientists at the State University of New York at
Stony Brook took mail-ordered pieces of synthetic, lifeless DNA and
pasted them together to create a polio virus -- a feat that took two
years of hard work. It was the first time humans had ever created a
functioning organism from scratch. Since then, things have speeded up.

In 2003 a team led by Craig Venter produced a second synthetic virus
from scratch -- and they did it in 14 days. "Scientists predict that
within 2-5 years it will be possible to synthesise any virus; the
first de novo [meaning, "starting from scratch"] bacterium will make
its debut in 2007," says a new report 1 Mbyte PDF from the ETC Group
in Canada. (pg. 1) Bacteria are definitely alive, so the creation of
life from scratch, starting with simple chemicals, is upon us.

In 2005, researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and
the U.S. Centers of Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta announced that
"They had resurrected the lethal [1918 flu] virus. They published
details of the completed genome sequencing in Nature and details of
the virus recreation in Science." (p. 24) The flu virus that swept the
world in 1918 was especially adept at transmitting itself from one
person to the next, and it was especially deadly, killing somewhere
between 20 million and 50 million humans. Reconstructing the virus
using gene-splicing techniques may help us avoid another pandemic like
that of 1918 -- or it may give some "genetic hacker" an idea for
creating mischief on a monumental scale.

Obviously the ability to create the polio virus, or the 1918 flu
virus, is an extraordinary scientific accomplishment, but freighted
with dark possibilities.

In response to recreation of the 1918 virus, technology gurus Bill Joy
and Ray Kurzweil told the New York Times, "This is extremely foolish,
the genome [of the 1918 flu virus] is essentially the design of a
weapon of mass destruction. No responsible scientist would advocate
publishing precise designs for an atomic bomb... revealing the
sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous."(p. 24)

Despite such grim warnings, many new start-up firms are competing to
find ways to profit from these new techniques.

Craig Venter -- the golden boy of synthetic biology -- and hundreds of
other scientists are now trolling the depths of the oceans, the
canopies of jungles and the far corners of earth to catalog and patent
life's genetic heritage. A new report from the ETC Group titled
"Extreme Genetic Engineering" 1 Mbyte PDF says, "Venter claims that
his expedition has discovered 3,995 new gene families not previously
known, and 6-10 million new genes -- which he describes as 'design
components' of the future."(p. 14)

The gold rush is on. Synthetic biology -- heralded as the next "big
thing" to fuel economic growth -- is genetic engineering on
steroids. Cataloging our genetic heritage is just the beginning. Armed
with desktop synthetic biology machines, scientists can now create DNA
on demand, freely combining the best or worst characteristics of any
known organism and inventing completely new life forms.

This is all very exciting for scientists and their financial backers
who dream of making huge profits. "They hold growing patent portfolios
and foresee industrial products for uses as diverse as energy
production, climate change remediation, toxic cleanup, textiles and
pharmaceutical production."(p.3) Huge sums of money are now pouring
from private foundations, government programs and venture capital to
invent new medical and chemical products.

As the synthetic biology industry hurtles into the future, civil
society organizations are now asking if we shouldn't at least have
widespread debate and legally-binding regulation before we rush into
this great unknown?

Evidence is accumulating that we really don't know how to control this
new technology. For example, Greenpeace just released a report
documenting the growing number of cases of unapproved GMO [genetically
modified organisms] food crops showing up in regular food crops. GMO
rice, corn, soy, cotton and other crops have now 'contaminated' the
gene pools of their non-GMO cousins in 142 different incidents since
the introduction of GMO crops 12 years ago in 1996.

If we can't control the spread of GMO crops -- relatively large,
visible organisms -- how will we control microscopic viruses and

Scientists at Berkeley University backed by a $42.5 million grant from
the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are developing synthetic drugs
to combat malaria. This work gives synthetic biology the blessing of
major philanthropy -- but the eventual outcomes for society are
unpredictable. The Berkeley team says it will create unlimited and
cheap production of the previously scarce drug Artemisinin to treat
malaria in the developing world.(p. 20)

Artemisinin is naturally produced by the wormwood (artemisia) plant
which is widely cultivated in Africa and Asia. Tea made from the plant
is used as a natural medicine to prevent and cure malaria. Although
synthetic biology may eventually yield an affordable synthetic
alternative, it will likely disrupt indigenous agriculture that
provides a livelihood for thousands of small-scale farmers.

And the ETC Group even questions whether the Berkeley work will
produce a low-cost drug: "Pharmaceutical companies will accumulate
control and power over the production process; artemisia producers
will lose a source of income; and local production, extraction and
(possibly) manufacturing of ACT [Artemisinin Combination Therapies] in
regions where malaria is prevalent will shift to the main production
sites of Western pharmaceutical companies."

The ETC Group report outlines six major areas where synthetic biology
needs to be carefully watched and where it could undermine the public
interest and local/regional economies.

** Biological weapons -- more dangerous, more stealthy

** Biofuels -- to replace petroleum with ethanol and other chemicals
derived from genetically modified organisms -- instead of focusing on
conservation and efficiency

** Creating intellectual monopolies -- why not own the world?
Companies are aiming to create new monopolies by patenting all manner
of natural forms and substances

** Conservation biology -- prevent and reverse extinction, thus
introducing alien species into contemporary ecosystems

** New commodities -- rubber, silk, you name it; will they interfere
with existing crops? Can we anticipate the problems they will create?

** Public health and safety -- trust us, we're experts. What will
happen when new organisms enter ecosystems, evolve, and mutate?

The details of each are well worth reading (pgs. 23-48). The common
theme is that corporate profits are the primary motivation for all of
these innovations. When profit comes first, there is often little room
for ethical and democratic exploration of better alternatives.

So what is an ostensibly-democratic society supposed to do? The ETC
Group suggests, "...in keeping with the Precautionary Principle,
synthetic microbes should be treated as dangerous until proven
harmless. At a minimum, environmental release of de novo synthetic
organisms should be prohibited until wide societal debate and strong
governance are in place, and until health, environmental and
socioeconomic implications are thoroughly considered."(p. 50)

The synthetic biology industry has made some soft proposals of self-
governance, as a preemptive measure. Most of these have focused on
biological weapons. "One proposal was... to boycott gene synthesis
companies that did not screen orders for dangerous pathogens, and the
development of software that could check genetic code for sequences
that could be used maliciously." And a second, "He [Stephen Maurer, a
Berkeley attorney] also proposed a confidential hotline for synthetic
biologists to check if their work, or the work of others, was
ethically acceptable."

But even some synthetic biologists doubt that self-policing can work.
Drew Endy of MIT -- a synthetic biology leader and advocate of
'open-source' biology -- said, "I expect that this technology will be
misapplied, actively misapplied.... I don't think [these proposals]
will have a significant impact on the misuse of this technology."(p.

In May of 2006, the synthetic biology 2.0 conference was held in
Berkeley California. When the ETC Group tried to register to attend
the event, they were turned away because of "limited space." So they
submitted an open letter signed by 38 civil society organizations
calling on the synthetic biology industry to "participate in a process
of open and democratic oversight of the technology."(p. 50)

"Scientists creating new life-forms cannot be allowed to act as judge
and jury," explained Sue Mayer, director of GeneWatch. "The
implications are too serious to be left to well-meaning but self
interested scientists. Public debate and policing is needed."(p. 47)

The ETC Group report makes the following recommendations:(p. 50)

** There must be a broad societal debate on synthetic biology's wider
socioeconomic and ethical implications, including potential impacts on
health, environment, human rights and security."

** Civil society should meet at national, regional and international
levels to evaluate and plan a coordinated response to the emergence of
synthetic biology in the context of wider, converging technologies.

** Governments should maintain zero tolerance for biowarfare agents,
synthesised or otherwise, and adopt strong legal measures and
enforcement to prevent the synthesis of biowarfare agents.

** The building blocks of life must not be privatised: Despite earnest
calls for "open source biology," exclusive monopoly patents are now
being won on the smallest parts of life -- on gene fragments, codons
and even the molecules that make living organisms (i.e., novel amino
acids and novel base pairs).

** To facilitate coordinated global action, an international body
should be established to monitor and assess societal impacts of
emerging technologies, including synthetic biology.

Can regulation work?

If society does create rules for the development of synthetic biology
it should remember that, "scientists are ill-equipped by their
training to grapple with the ethical and moral dimensions of their
work. Scientists have no equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath -- "First
do no harm" -- that guides the behavior of physicians. The Hippocratic
oath counsels restraint, humility, and caution. In science, on the
other hand, wherever your curiosity takes you is the right place to
go, even if it takes you into "a darker bioweapons future."(Rachel's
News #835)

Even when industry accepts regulation we must be wary. First, history
tells us that government regulation translates mostly into government
approval. Furthermore, new products are invented so fast that
government can't keep up with the onslaught. And when someone is
harmed and sues, manufacturers will use regulation as an excuse to
evade responsibility: "The government approved this so I'm not
liable."(Rachel's News #834)

In addition, regulation gives big firms unfair advantage over their
smaller competitors. Complicated regulations require armies of lawyers
and engineers -- "compliance specialists" -- who "do nothing but read
the regulations and fill out the burdensome paperwork, bellyaching all
the way to the bank."(Rachel's News #834)

Let us remember these words, from the ETC group's open letter to the
2006 synthetic biology 2.0 meetings: "We believe that this potentially
powerful technology is being developed without proper societal debate
concerning socioeconomic, security, health, environmental and human
rights implications. We are alarmed that synthetic biologists meeting
this weekend intend to vote on a scheme of voluntary self-regulation
without consulting or involving broader social groups. We urge you to
withdraw these self-governance proposals and participate in a process
of open and inclusive oversight of this technology."

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From: The Archdruid Report, Feb. 21, 2007
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By John Michael Greer

One of the things that gives the mythology of progress its emotional
power is the circular logic at its center. From within the confines of
the myth, what's new is better than whatever it replaces by the simple
fact that it's newer, and whatever our technology happens to be good
at is more important than the things it does poorly, especially when
older methods did a better job of these latter than newer ones do.

I had a useful reminder of this the other day, thanks to one of the
readers of The Archdruid Report, who critiqued my recent post
"Technological Triage" with a certain degree of heat. One of his
central points was that technology is here to stay, no matter what the
future holds, because it's better than any alternative. "What is
certain is that 'technology' will not disappear," he wrote: "...the
engineer's outlook and the scientist's methods will continue to be
applied to problems. And they will continue to provide better results
for questions involving the physical world than magical thinking of
any sort."

His comment missed a central point of my post, of course, which is
that there's no such thing as "technology" in the singular, only
technologies in the plural. The notion that technology is a single
monolithic thing is a convenient bit of mystification, used to hide
the fact that our society, like all others, picks and chooses among
available technological options, implementing some and neglecting
others. This needs hiding because most of these choices are made by
influential members and groups within America's political class for
their own private profit, very often at the expense of the rest of the
public. Wrapping the process in a smokescreen of impersonal
inevitability is a convenient way to keep awkward questions from being
raised via what remains of the democratic institutions of an earlier

From another angle, of course, my reader's comment is true but
tautological. Toolmaking is as natural to human beings as singing is
to finches, and every human culture across space and time has had its
own technologies, each of which draws on available resources to meet
culturally recognized needs in culturally desirable ways. It's
habitual in our own culture to think of the particular suite of
technologies we've come up with as not only better than anybody
else's, but more advanced, more progressive. Think about what these
two phrases imply, and you'll see how they derive from and feed into
the core narrative of the myth of progress, the way of telling the
story of our species that turns every other culture and every past
technology into a stepping-stone on the way to us. From within this
narrative, all earlier technologies are simply imperfect attempts to
achieve what we've got.

Again, this is mystification, and it serves a socially necessary
purpose in a culture where talking about the goals and values of
specific technologies is taboo. The frequently repeated claim that
"technology is value-free" is fatuous nonsense, but as long as we
think about tools and techniques as a single thing called
"technology," it's also plausible nonsense. In reality, of course,
individual technologies embody the values and goals of their
designers, and are selected by users on the basis of the technology's
relationship to values and goals. Look at the suite of technologies
used by a person or a culture, and it's an easy matter to divine the
values that person or that culture holds and the goals they pursue.
This is unmentionable in our culture, among other reasons, because the
values and goals our technologies reveal to the world are a very long
ways indeed from the ones we claim to embrace.

But there's a third set of issues woven up in my reader's comments,
and these issues take the same points a good deal deeper. His
distinction between "the engineer's outlook and the scientist's
methods" and "magical thinking of any kind" is a valid one, and he's
quite correct to suggest that the former -- the set of intellectual
tools in which our own culture has specialized -- does a better job
with certain strictly physical questions than most other ways of
thinking, including the ones he labels "magical thinking." Yet this
begs the question on a much deeper level, because problem-solving
methods aimed at physical questions aren't anything like as relevant
to the current predicament of industrial society as they sometimes

Peak oil is a case in point. What happens when world petroleum
production begins to decline, as it will most likely do in the next
few years, has very little to do with physical questions. The forces
that will take the lead in the opening phases of the deindustrial age
will be political, cultural, and psychological, not physical. About
these issues the methods of the scientist and the engineer have very
little useful to say, and most of that was drowned out decades ago by
the louder voices of political opportunism and middle-class privilege.
In the same way, the technical issues involved in the transition from
an overpopulated, petroleum-based civilization with an expanding
economy to a renewables-based civilization with a sharply reduced
population and a much smaller steady-state economy were either solved
long ago or could have been solved readily with modest investment.
What could not be solved by these methods is the problem of finding
the motivating factors and the political will to get these solutions
put into place.

Since this latter problem could not be solved by "the engineer's
outlook and the scientist's methods," in turn, it has not been solved
at all. This is the downside of the superlative technological
efficiency of our age: those things we can't do with our machines, or
with ways of thinking that evolved to manage our machines, we can't do
at all. Thus discussions of how to respond to peak oil, when these
have not simply been exercises in denial or Utopian fantasy, have
tended to focus on finding ways to redefine the issues in technical
terms so they can be dealt with by technical methods. We hear endless
talk about finding new ways to fuel our cars, and very little about
the tangled and dysfunctional human motives that make it seem logical
to us to ghettoize our homes, worksites, and marketplaces at such
distances from one another that a preposterously inefficient system of
freeways, roads, and automobiles has to be used to bridge the
distances among them. It's all very reminiscent of the old fable about
the drunkard who dropped his keys in a dark street and went to look
for them under the streetlight half a block away, since there, at
least, he could see what he was doing.

There's a rich irony, in other words, in my reader's insistence that
magical thinking is less useful than the technical thinking he
champions, because magical thinking is exactly the form of human
thought that deals with the realm of motivations, values, and goals
that technical thinking handles so poorly. Americans dream of living
in suburbs not because suburbs have any particular virtue -- most of
them lack the amenities of city and countryside alike, while sharing
the worst features of both -- but because the suburban house,
surrounded by its protective moat of grass, is a magical symbol
brimfull of potent cultural meanings. Americans drive preposterously
oversized and overpowered cars, not because these are better than
smaller and more sensible vehicles in any objective way, but because
they magically symbolize the freedom and power most Americans long ago
surrendered to the machinery of a mass society. For that matter, the
hallucinated wealth that keeps our mostly fictional economy churning
away consists of sheer enchantment, with even less tangible substance
behind it than the moonbeams and fairy dust of a child's wonder tale.

To speak of these issues in terms of magic is not, by the way, just a
metaphor. Dion Fortune, one of the premier magical theorists of the
20th century, defined magic as the art and science of causing changes
in consciousness in accordance with will. It's predictable that a
society fixated on seeing its own technology as the be-all and end-all
of human achievement would misunderstand magic as a kind of failed
physical technology, but that predictability makes modern attitudes
about magic no less misleading. This is hardly the place for a
detailed discussion of magic, but for our present purposes it can be
seen as the use of psychologically potent symbolism to influence
consciousness and, through consciousness, the universe as we
experience it. The advertising campaigns that seduce so many people
into buying, say, fizzy brown sugar water, by associating this product
with symbols of happiness, self-esteem, or love, are good examples of
magic at work -- a debased magic, force-fitted into the manipulative
mold of physical technology, but magic nonetheless.

In recent years I've heard people in the peak oil community who have
no knowledge of magic, and who wrinkle their noses in disgust at the
mere mention of the word, shake their heads in bafflement at the way
that so many people in today's world seem to be sleepwalking toward
disaster. Words like "trance" and "spell" appear not infrequently in
such discussions. Over the next few weeks I want to explore this in
more detail, and look at the ways in which issues of meaning, value,
and purpose shape the way we approach the predicament of industrial
society -- and might be reshaped by those who are willing to face up
to the challenge of doing so.

This essay has also appeared in The Energy Bulletin, a publication
we recommnend highly.

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From: New York Times, Feb. 19, 2007
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A disturbing recent phenomenon in Washington is that laws that strike
to the heart of American democracy have been passed in the dead of
night. So it was with a provision quietly tucked into the enormous
defense budget bill at the Bush administration's behest that makes it
easier for a president to override local control of law enforcement
and declare martial law.

The provision, signed into law in October, weakens two obscure but
important bulwarks of liberty. One is the doctrine that bars military
forces, including a federalized National Guard, from engaging in law
enforcement. Called posse comitatus, it was enshrined in law after the
Civil War to preserve the line between civil government and the
military. The other is the Insurrection Act of 1807, which provides
the major exemptions to posse comitatus. It essentially limits a
president's use of the military in law enforcement to putting down
lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion, where a state is violating
federal law or depriving people of constitutional rights.

The newly enacted provisions upset this careful balance. They shift
the focus from making sure that federal laws are enforced to restoring
public order. Beyond cases of actual insurrection, the president may
now use military troops as a domestic police force in response to a
natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or to any
"other condition."

Changes of this magnitude should be made only after a thorough public
airing. But these new presidential powers were slipped into the law
without hearings or public debate. The president made no mention of
the changes when he signed the measure, and neither the White House
nor Congress consulted in advance with the nation's governors.

There is a bipartisan bill, introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy,
Democrat of Vermont, and Christopher Bond, Republican of Missouri, and
backed unanimously by the nation's governors, that would repeal the
stealthy revisions. Congress should pass it. If changes of this kind
are proposed in the future, they must get a full and open debate.

Return to Table of Contents


From: CommonDreams.org, Feb. 16, 2007
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By Michael Parenti

There is a "mystery" we must explain: How is it that as corporate
investments and foreign aid and international loans to poor countries
have increased dramatically throughout the world over the last half
century, so has poverty? The number of people living in poverty is
growing at a faster rate than the world's population. What do we make
of this?

Over the last half century, U.S. industries and banks (and other
western corporations) have invested heavily in those poorer regions of
Asia, Africa, and Latin America known as the "Third World." The
transnationals are attracted by the rich natural resources, the high
return that comes from low-paid labor, and the nearly complete absence
of taxes, environmental regulations, worker benefits, and occupational
safety costs.

The U.S. government has subsidized this flight of capital by granting
corporations tax concessions on their overseas investments, and even
paying some of their relocation expenses---much to the outrage of
labor unions here at home who see their jobs evaporating.

The transnationals push out local businesses in the Third World and
preempt their markets. American agribusiness cartels, heavily
subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, dump surplus products in other countries
at below cost and undersell local farmers. As Christopher Cook
describes it in his Diet for a Dead Planet, they expropriate the best
land in these countries for cash-crop exports, usually monoculture
crops requiring large amounts of pesticides, leaving less and less
acreage for the hundreds of varieties of organically grown foods that
feed the local populations.

By displacing local populations from their lands and robbing them of
their self-sufficiency, corporations create overcrowded labor markets
of desperate people who are forced into shanty towns to toil for
poverty wages (when they can get work), often in violation of the
countries' own minimum wage laws.

In Haiti, for instance, workers are paid 11 cents an hour by corporate
giants such as Disney, Wal-Mart, and J.C. Penny. The United States is
one of the few countries that has refused to sign an international
convention for the abolition of child labor and forced labor. This
position stems from the child labor practices of U.S. corporations
throughout the Third World and within the United States itself, where
children as young as 12 suffer high rates of injuries and fatalities,
and are often paid less than the minimum wage.

The savings that big business reaps from cheap labor abroad are not
passed on in lower prices to their customers elsewhere. Corporations
do not outsource to far-off regions so that U.S. consumers can save
money. They outsource in order to increase their margin of profit. In
1990, shoes made by Indonesian children working twelve-hour days for
13 cents an hour, cost only $2.60 but still sold for $100 or more in
the United States.

U.S. foreign aid usually works hand in hand with transnational
investment. It subsidizes construction of the infrastructure needed by
corporations in the Third World: ports, highways, and refineries.

The aid given to Third World governments comes with strings attached.
It often must be spent on U.S. products, and the recipient nation is
required to give investment preferences to U.S. companies, shifting
consumption away from home produced commodities and foods in favor of
imported ones, creating more dependency, hunger, and debt.

A good chunk of the aid money never sees the light of day, going
directly into the personal coffers of sticky-fingered officials in the
recipient countries.

Aid (of a sort) also comes from other sources. In 1944, the United
Nations created the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund
(IMF). Voting power in both organizations is determined by a country's
financial contribution. As the largest "donor," the United States has
a dominant voice, followed by Germany, Japan, France, and Great
Britain. The IMF operates in secrecy with a select group of bankers
and finance ministry staffs drawn mostly from the rich nations.

The World Bank and IMF are supposed to assist nations in their
development. What actually happens is another story. A poor country
borrows from the World Bank to build up some aspect of its economy.
Should it be unable to pay back the heavy interest because of
declining export sales or some other reason, it must borrow again,
this time from the IMF.

But the IMF imposes a "structural adjustment program" (SAP), requiring
debtor countries to grant tax breaks to the transnational
corporations, reduce wages, and make no attempt to protect local
enterprises from foreign imports and foreign takeovers. The debtor
nations are pressured to privatize their economies, selling at
scandalously low prices their state-owned mines, railroads, and
utilities to private corporations.

They are forced to open their forests to clear-cutting and their lands
to strip mining, without regard to the ecological damage done. The
debtor nations also must cut back on subsidies for health, education,
transportation and food, spending less on their people in order to
have more money to meet debt payments. Required to grow cash crops for
export earnings, they become even less able to feed their own

So it is that throughout the Third World, real wages have declined,
and national debts have soared to the point where debt payments absorb
almost all of the poorer countries' export earnings---which creates
further impoverishment as it leaves the debtor country even less able
to provide the things its population needs.

Here then we have explained a "mystery." It is, of course, no mystery
at all if you don't adhere to trickle-down mystification. Why has
poverty deepened while foreign aid and loans and investments have
grown? Answer: Loans, investments, and most forms of aid are designed
not to fight poverty but to augment the wealth of transnational
investors at the expense of local populations.

There is no trickle down, only a siphoning up from the toiling many to
the moneyed few.

In their perpetual confusion, some liberal critics conclude that
foreign aid and IMF and World Bank structural adjustments "do not
work"; the end result is less self-sufficiency and more poverty for
the recipient nations, they point out. Why then do the rich member
states continue to fund the IMF and World Bank? Are their leaders just
less intelligent than the critics who keep pointing out to them that
their policies are having the opposite effect?

No, it is the critics who are stupid not the western leaders and
investors who own so much of the world and enjoy such immense wealth
and success. They pursue their aid and foreign loan programs because
such programs do work. The question is, work for whom? Cui bono?

The purpose behind their investments, loans, and aid programs is not
to uplift the masses in other countries. That is certainly not the
business they are in. The purpose is to serve the interests of global
capital accumulation, to take over the lands and local economies of
Third World peoples, monopolize their markets, depress their wages,
indenture their labor with enormous debts, privatize their public
service sector, and prevent these nations from emerging as trade
competitors by not allowing them a normal development.

In these respects, investments, foreign loans, and structural
adjustments work very well indeed.

The real mystery is: why do some people find such an analysis to be so
improbable, a "conspiratorial" imagining? Why are they skeptical that
U.S. rulers knowingly and deliberately pursue such ruthless policies
(suppress wages, rollback environmental protections, eliminate the
public sector, cut human services) in the Third World? These rulers
are pursuing much the same policies right here in our own country!

Isn't it time that liberal critics stop thinking that the people who
own so much of the world -- and want to own it all -- are
"incompetent" or "misguided" or "failing to see the unintended
consequences of their policies"? You are not being very smart when you
think your enemies are not as smart as you. They know where their
interests lie, and so should we.

Michael Parenti's recent books include The Assassination of Julius
Caesar (New Press), Superpatriotism (City Lights), and The Culture
Struggle (Seven Stories Press). For more information visit

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From: Newsweek, Feb. 15, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]


By Devra Davis

We know that children are not simply little adults. With their quick
heartbeats, fast-growing organs and enviable metabolism, the young
absorb proportionally more pollutants than those who are older.
Exposures to minute amounts of hormones, environmental tobacco smoke
or pollutants early in the life of an animal or human embryo can
deform reproductive tracts, lower birth weight and increase the chance
of developing cancer. And yet results from an independent chemical
testing laboratory released last week found a probable human
carcinogen, 1,4-dioxane (also known as para-dioxane), in some common
children's shampoos at levels higher than those recommended by the
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Environmental Working
Group, a research and advocacy organization that ran the study,
estimates that more than a quarter of all personal-care products sold
in the United States may contain this cancer-causing agent.

The presence of a cancerous agent at levels above those suggested by
the FDA is disturbing enough. The idea that such a compound exists at
any amount in products that can be in regular contact with babies'
skin is even more disconcerting. Scientists have long known that
certain chemicals like para-dioxane can cause cancer. (The World
Health Organization considers para-dioxane a probable human carcinogen
because it is proven to cause cancer in male and female mice and
rats.) Now we're beginning to realize that the sum total of a person's
exposure to all the little amounts of cancerous agents in the
environment may be just as harmful as big doses of a few well-known
carcinogens. Over a lifetime, cigarettes deliver massive quantities of
carcinogens that increase the risk of lung and other cancers. Our
chances of getting cancer reflect the full gamut of carcinogens we're
exposed to each day -- in air, water and food pollution and in
cancerous ingredients or contaminants in household cleaners, clothing,
furniture and the dozens of personal-care products many of us use

Of the many cancer risks we face, shampoos and bubble baths should not
be among them. The risks of para-dioxane in American baby soaps, for
instance, could be completely eliminated through simple manufacturing
changes -- as they are in Europe. To remove such carcinogens, however,
would require intervention by the federal government, but the federal
Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act allows the industry to police itself.
Europe has banned the use of para-dioxane in all personal-care
products and recently initiated a recall of any contaminated products.
There's a problem with the way the United States and other countries
look at toxicity in commercial agents. Regulators nowadays often won't
take action until enough people have already complained of harm. This
makes little sense. Scientists can seldom discern how the myriad
substances, both good and bad, that we encounter in our lives
precisely affect our health. We need to be smarter about using
experimental evidence to predict and therefore prevent harm from
happening. A few decades ago, people accepted the fact that cigarette
smoking was harmful, even though no scientist could explain precisely
how this happened in any particular cancer patient. If we had insisted
in having perfect proof of how smoking damaged the lungs before acting
to discourage this unhealthy practice, we would still be questioning
what to do. By the same token, we now have to get used to the idea
that scientists are unlikely to be able to say with certainty that a
trace chemical in shampoo accounts for a specific disease in a given
child. But if we're to reduce our cancer risk, we need to lower our
exposures to those agents that can be avoided and find safer
substitutes for those that can't.

Scientists don't experiment on humans, for obvious reasons, but we
have found some clues from lab and wildlife studies. Medical
researchers have demonstrated that trace chemicals of some widely used
synthetic organic materials can damage cultured human tissue. The
effects don't just accumulate, they mushroom. UC Berkeley Professor
Tyrone Hayes has shown that very low levels of pesticide residues in
Nebraska cornfields can combine to create male frogs with female
features that are vulnerable to infection and can't reproduce.

Should we wait for these same things to happen to baby boys before
acting to lower exposures? There's plenty of solid human evidence that
combined pollutants can cause more harm together than they do alone.
We are not surprised to hear that people who smoke, drink and work as
painters have much higher risks of kidney cancer than those who only
engage in one of these known cancer-causing practices. We also
understand that women who use hormone-replacement therapy and drink
more than two glasses of wine daily have higher risks of breast cancer
than those who engage in only one of these practices. This tells us
that other combinations of chemicals in the environment can also lead
to other cancers. One in five cases of lung cancer in women today -- a
disease that kills more women than ovarian, breast and uterine cancer
combined -- has no known history of active or passive smoking
exposure. Rates of non-Hodgkins lymphoma and other cancers not tied
with aging or improved screening have also increased in many
industrial countries. New cases of testicular cancer continue to rise
in most industrial countries. While still rare, childhood cancer is
more common today than in the past, and most cases occur in children
with no known inherited risk of the disease.

The problem, from a scientific standpoint, is that resolving the
effects of miniscule levels of chemicals we encounter throughout our
lives is part of a complicated puzzle for which many pieces are
missing. What scientists need is data -- lots of it. Manufacturers,
however, tend to hold the precise formulations of products as trade
secrets, and the law allows them to withhold much information about
carcinogens even if they are known to be present. Of course, we should
continue to collect information to advance our ability to prevent
cancer and other chronic diseases. But when a chemical causes cancers
in both sexes of two different species of animals, we shouldn't
arrogantly presume we will escape a similar fate. Recent work on the
human and animal genomes shows us that humans differ from frogs and
mice by fewer than 10 percent of genes. We should not let the absence
of specific information on the health consequences for our infants and
toddlers of single cancer-causing contaminants like para-dioxane
become a reason to delay getting rid of such hazards.

The goal of public-health policy is to prevent harm, not to prove that
it's already happened. The Center for Environmental Oncology at the
University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute advises that personal-care
products that contain hormones may, in part, account for the
continuing and unexplained patterns of breast cancer in African-
Americans under age 40, and also may explain why more girls are
developing breasts at younger ages. The Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention found generally higher residues of some plastic
metabolites in African-American women, with children ages 6 to 11
having twice the levels of whites. Dr. Chandra Tiwary, a recently
retired military chief of pediatric endocrinology at Brooks Air Force
Base, found that African-American baby girls as young as 1 year old
developed breasts after their parents applied creams that they hadn't
realized contained estrogen to their scalps. When the creams were no
longer used, these infant breasts went away. Other work published
last week by the National Institute of Environmental Health Science,
shows similar effects in young boys who had been washed with some
hormone-mimicking soaps or oils. After their parents stopped applying
these products, their breasts also receded.

In light of the growing numbers of young girls with breasts, the
Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society, the certifying board for
pediatric endocrinology, in 1999 changed the recommendation of what is
natural. We believe this would be a dangerous move. If we say that
it's now normal for African-American and white young girls to develop
breasts at ages 6 and 7, respectively, we will fail to pick up serious
diseases that could account for this. We will also lose the chance to
learn whether widely used agents in the environment, like those found
in personal-care products today or others that may enter the food
supply, lay behind some of these patterns.

It should not be the job of scientists, or of public-spirited leaders
or environmental groups, to find out what contaminants or ingredients
may be affecting the delicate endocrine systems of our children and
grandchildren. (The tests that found para-dioxane in shampoo were
funded privately by environmental journalist and activist David
Steinman, author of "Safe Journey to Eden.") Manufacturers have known
for years about how para-dioxane forms as a by-product of
manufacturing and how to get rid of it. Until now, they just haven't
need to do so. People have a right to know whether products they use
on themselves and their children contain compounds that increase their
risk of disease. They also have a right to expect that government will
prevent companies from selling products that are harmful to children.
To do otherwise is to treat our children like lab rats in a vast
uncontrollable experiment.


Devra Davis is director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at
the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and is a professor of
epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of
Public Health. A National Book Award finalist for "When Smoke Ran
Like Water," she is completing "The Secret History of the War on
Cancer," from which this work is adapted, expected in October from
Basic Books.

Copyright 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

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From: Boston Globe, Feb. 19, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]


Echoes issues raised by global panel

SAN FRANCISCO -- The world's largest general scientific society on
Sunday joined the concern over global climate change, calling it a
"growing threat to society."

It is the first consensus statement of the board of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science on climate change. It comes
just weeks after the International Panel on Climate Change issued its
most recent report on human-induced warming.

"The evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human
activities is occurring now and is a growing threat to society," the
AAAS said at its annual meeting.

"Scientists are observing the rapid melting of glaciers,
destabilization of major ice sheets, rising sea levels, shifts in
species ranges and increased frequency of weather extremes," said John
P. Holdren, director of the Woods Hole Research Center and AAAS

Concern focuses on carbon dioxide and other gases produced by burning
fossil fuels and other processes. As these gases accumulate in the
atmosphere they trap heat from the sun, much like a greenhouse,
warming the climate.

"The longer we wait to tackle climate change, the harder and more
expensive the task will be," the group said.

Holdren noted that some of the most dramatic changes are occurring in
the far North where warming has occurred more rapidly than in other
areas. Retreating sea ice and rising sea level are driving some
natives from their villages, the group said.

On Feb. 2 the Intergovernmental Panel in Climate Change reported that
global warming is so severe that it will "continue for centuries,"
leading to a far different planet in 100 years.

The panel, established by the United Nations, concluded that global
warming is "very likely" caused by man, meaning more than 90 percent

If nothing is done to change current emissions patterns of greenhouse
gases, global temperature could increase as much as 11 degrees
Fahrenheit by 2100, the report said.

AAAS was founded in 1848. It reports that it serves 262 affiliated
societies and academies of science, reaching 10 million individuals.

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