Around the World
Local News from All Over
Chartering a New Course
United Nations - A delegation from the Cousteau Society (founded in 1973 by French oceanographer/environmentalist Jacques-Yves Cousteau) has presented United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan with a petition calling for stronger UN action in defense of the Earth's environment. The petition, bearing the signatures of more than 9 million people from more than 100 countries, insists that "future generations have a right to an uncontaminated and undamaged Earth and to its enjoyment." The petition asks that this commitment be incorporated into the UN Charter. Cousteau Society volunteer Pierre Chastan carried the petitions from the society's Paris office to New York during a solo trans-Atlantic voyage in a 34-foot boat.
Coal Is Bad; Charcoal Is Worse
Kenya - Nine percent of the energy in oil-rich Nigeria is derived from burning charcoal. Most of the residents of Africa and Southeast Asia still get much of their heat from charcoal. The Journal of Geophysical Research reports that the production of charcoal is generating more CO2 than the combustion of fossil fuels. Although charcoal burns cleaner than wood, Science News explains, "inefficiencies in its manufacture result in much of the carbon in the original wood literally going up in smoke." Charcoal manufacture also produces methane and carbon monoxide.
Tinder or Tenure?
Ethiopia - "Ethiopia is currently losing 200,000 hectares every year as a result of forest fires," warns agriculturist Dechassa Lemessa, "If something is not done soon... there will be no forest land in 15 to 20 years." Lemessa is the co-author of a UN study on the country's increasingly catastrophic fires. Only 40 years ago, 40 percent of the country was covered with forests. Today only 2.7 percent of the land is forested. Most fires are caused by farmers burning the land to prepare for spring planting. In January 2000, these deliberately set fires erupted into a conflagration that destroyed more than 300,000 hectares of forests, crops and wildlife habitat. It took $39 billion and an international force of 15,000 firefighters to combat the fires that raced through the Bale and Borena forests. Lemessa's report concluded that the key to saving the remaining forests was to transfer state-owned land to local communities "who would then have a greater incentive and responsibility to care for the land. Land tenure is perhaps the single most important factor in natural resources management."
Be It Resolved...
Africa - World Trade Organization rules covering the patenting of "intellectual property rights" are being used to grant multinational corporations the rights to claim "ownership" of traditional food crops and medicinal plants exchanged freely between farmers for generations. These laws, crafted and promoted by US trade negotiators, would prevent small-scale farmers from saving or exchanging seeds once they have been "patented" by the multinationals. The introduction of seeds genetically modified to survive the application of patented pesticides would make it possible for a company like Monsanto to spray cropland, killing any natural plant that it does not yet "own." Last November, US California Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters [House of Representatives, Washington, DC 202515, (202) 224-3121] introduced House Resolution 260, the AFRICA (Agriculture and Farm Resources for the Indigenous Communities of Africa) Resolution. HR 260 would protect the right of African farmers to control their seeds and food crops. The resolution is consistent with the position of the Africa Group, which maintains that seeds, plants, crops and other agricultural genetic resources must never be patented for private gain. [Africa Faith & Justice Network, 3035 4th St., NE, Washington, DC 20018, (202) 832-3412, http://afjn.cua.edu]
Corn Oil: The Great Well of China
China - Faced with the prediction that its gas and oil reserves will run dry within 30 years, China began construction of its first fuel-ethanol plant last November. While ethanol is still expensive to produce, Chinese officials expect to see costs fall as the market for "home-grown" fuel increases. In its first year, the new plant will turn 1.92 tons of corn into biofuel that will be blended with gasoline or diesel fuel. According to the Reuters News Agency, Beijing is encouraging the use of ethanol by including trial fuel ethanol production in its five-year plan.
Nepal - To most people, Nepal is "the Roof of the World" but to some well-known chemical companies it's more like "the Basement of the World." Nepalese agricultural technicians, working with a team of Greenpeace activists from India, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, announced a deadly harvest of six tons of chemical pesticides abandoned in rusting barrels scattered across Katmandu. The chemicals were shipped to Nepal through international aid organizations more than 25 years ago. Ostensibly called "donations," the shipments were intended to open new markets for Western pesticide products. The donations also included products so dangerous that they had not been registered for use in their countries of origin. The chemicals were manufactured by Bayer, Shell, Union Carbide (Dow), Sandoz, Du Pont, Monsanto and Rhône Poulenc (now Bayer). "It's time for the chemical industry to move beyond "responsible care" rhetoric and take genuine responsibility for its products from cradle to grave," Greenpeace trade expert Andreas Bernstorff stated. Greenpeace has invited the giant chemical firms to carry the toxic burden back to their home countries for proper disposal. Greenpeace estimates that 500,000 metric tons of obsolete pesticides have been dumped and abandoned around the globe - mainly in developing countries. Greenpeace has called for the industry to make a full accounting of all these dump sites and make plans for the safe retrieval and disposal of the chemical wastes. [Greenpeace International, Keizersgracht 176, 1016 DW Amsterdam, www.greenpeace.org]
Time to Stop Cloning Around
Japan - Research at Tokyo's National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) revealed that cloned mice have something in common - premature death. Or, as The Guardian (London) put it: "a clone's life is wheezy, liverish and short." According to findings published in the journal Nature Genetics, NIID's 12 cloned mice began dying within a year of birth and the survivors barely lived longer than two years. Autopsies revealed that the clones all had severe pneumonia and seriously damaged livers. The scientists concluded that the "possible negative long-term effects of cloning, as well as the high incidence of spontaneous abortion and abnormal birth of cloned animals, give cause for concern."
Versatility, Thy Name is Kenaf
Japan - Kenaf, the plant that has been used to produce "tree-free" issues of Earth Island Journal, is now being used to produce "pollution-free" air in downtown Nagoya City. Sachio Ogasawara, a researcher with the Kenaf Club of Japan, convinced the city's Public Works Bureau to plant kenaf on the traffic islands. While the fast-growing plant is adding greenery to the scenery, it is also sucking nitrogen oxides and other pollutants from the air. "The harvested kenaf is burned to make charcoal," Ogasawara explains. The charcoal is then used to filter impurities from the Hori-kawa River, which flows through Nagoya. After finishing its service as a water filter, Ogasawara reports, the kenaf-charcoal "will be tilled into the soil as a fertilizer."
Dhaka Says 'Bag It!'
Bangladesh - Like many poor countries, Bangladesh is plagued by the detritus of discarded plastic. Each year more than 9 million polyethylene bags are tossed into the streets of Dhaka, the capital city. As many as 90 percent wind up clogging storm drains and sewer lines. The bags do not biodegrade and when they are burned, they produce deadly hydrogen cyanide gas. With the support of Environment and Forest Minister Shahjahan Siraj, the Environment and Social Development Organization [House 307/1, Road-8A, West Dhanmondi Dhaka-1209, Bangladesh, http://www.esdobd.org] convinced the government to impose a ban on poly-bags in Dhaka as of January 1. "Please let's come forward hand in hand to make this ban successful," ESDO activist Hossain Shahriar declared. "We can start with a polythene-free city, which will gradually lead to a polythene-free country."
Tobin or Not Tobin
France - French Foreign Minister Lionel Jospin has placed himself as a front-runner in the country's presidential race this year by publicly proposing that France adopt the "Tobin tax." The levy, proposed by Nobel prize-winning Yale Economics Professor James Tobin, would impose a 1 percent tax on all international currency trades. With global financial speculation moving $1.5 trillion every day, the tax would generate billions of dollars in aid for the world's poorest nations. Jospin confessed that his dramatic announcement had come in response to the arguments of French anti-globalization campaigns. The British group, War on Want, has challenged the Labour government to support the Tobin tax. The Bush administration, predictably, is opposed to this reform. Expressing widely-felt exasperation, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine declared: "We shall pursue our efforts towards a humane and controlled globalization, even if the new high-handed American unilateralism doesn't help matters."
A Good Right's Sleep
UK - In an act of desperation, red-eyed residents living near London's Heathrow Airport (the world's fourth-busiest with 64.6 million passengers a year) complained to the European Court that the airport noise was depriving them of sleep. In October 2001, the court ruled in the residents' favor and declared that a good night's sleep was "a human right." John Stewart, chair of the coalition that hauled Heathrow into court, explained that his group would not be satisfied until there was total ban on night flights. Buoyed by the court's decision, neighborhoods in the flight path of Birmingham International Airport are demanding an end to night flights as well.
Foxes Escape Scot-Free
Scotland - On February 13, after months of passionate debate, the Scottish Parliament voted 83 to 36 to ban the ancient practice of pursuing foxes with hunting dogs for sport. The Protection of Wild Mammals Bill outlaws a tradition that has existed for centuries. (On March 18, Britain's House of Commons voted to ban fox-hunts in Britain. The next day, the House of Lords voted against the ban.)
It's Not Noise: Call It a 'Blare'
UK - Despite complaints and lawsuits from people living near Heathrow Airport, the Labour government plans to build a fifth airport at the sprawling complex. Labour Transport Secretary Stephen Byers argues that Britain must spend £2.5 billion ($3.5 billion) on a new terminal to stay "competitive." It would make more sense to build a new airport elsewhere, countered Robert Evans, who represents the Heathrow residents in the European Parliament. With increased security measures, passengers are spending more time in terminals and, Evans charged, British Airways simply "wants to encourage us to spend money in the terminals." The new terminal would add another 25 million passengers and another 20,000 flights per year. Green Party Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Caroline Lucas called the plan "breathtaking in its inability to comprehend the impact of aviation on climate change."
Toxic Testing Gets Serious
France - By a vote of 242 to 165, the European Parliament called for widespread testing of the environmental and health risks of 30,000 chemical products. The European Commission is set to introduce a new standard on testing and labeling chemicals later this year. The goal, explained Inger Schoerling, a Green Party MEP from Sweden, is a new regime where "no marketing [of a chemical product] will be possible without data." Western Europe's $430.7 billion (488 billion euro) chemical industry produces one-third of the world's chemical products. The European consumers association, BEUC, noted that hairsprays contain, on average, 15 potentially harmful chemical ingredients. A joint statement from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the World Wildlife Foundation noted that "little is known about the safety and environmental hazards" of the chemicals. Europe's chemical industry complained that rigorous testing would be too cumbersome, costly and would "kill many small firms."
As If DU Wasn't Bad Enough...
Kosovo - Scientists in Ireland report that rounds of depleted uranium (DU) shells fired by NATO troops in Kosovo contained plutonium. In addition, The Irish Times reports, the DU rounds contaminated local water supplies and people exposed to DU contaminants are now suffering from cancer and leukemia.
Overfishing Now a Global No-No
Malta - Last December, the United Nations celebrated the ratification of the first global treaty to control overfishing on the high seas. The treaty went into effect when Malta became the 30th nation to adopt the new rules. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization believes that more than two-thirds of the ocean's fisheries are being unsustainably overfished. Lisa Speer, of the Natural Resources Defense Council (which devoted two years to crafting the treaty) calls ratification "a very big step" but notes that "it only applies to the parties to the agreement." The US, which is a party to the treaty, will now be allowed to use Coast Guard ships to intercept, board and detain vessels suspected of violating sustainable fishing practices.
Fission Fades as Renewables Rise
Sweden - Prime Minister Goeran Persson plans to close the Barseback 2 nuclear reactor by 2003. The powerplant's energy will be offset by renewable energy projects and conservation measures. In Belgium, the government plans to start phasing out the country's seven nuclear reactors as early as this December.
Wind's Up, So Wind Down Nukes
UK - The British government is contemplating spending £6 billion ($10 billion) to construct six 600 MW nuclear powerplants. But for a mere £100 million ($143.2 million), the British Wind Energy Association estimates, the UK could build 117 500-MW windfarms - more than 16 times the power for 1/60th the cost. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has challenged the Labour Party to stop "pandering" to nuclear power interests and invest in renewable energy. The IPPR's research suggests that the typical British home could supply all its electric needs in-house by retrofitting central heating boilers to also generate electricity. Instead of relying on transmission lines, which lose 70 percent of the power, the IPPR notes, solar panels, solar water heaters and household energy systems can "generate power and heat more cost-effectively... where we need it."
Missile Pretense System
UK - There's a big problem with the Pentagon's plan for bringing down enemy missiles during a "boost-phase interception." While it's easier for a US missile to locate and hit a flaming booster rocket within the first six seconds of its launch, destroying the booster would most likely not destroy the nuclear warhead, which would then proceed to tumble back to Earth considerably short of its target. According to MIT Professor Ted Postol, if the US intercepted a missile fired from North Korea, the nuclear payload could come down in Alaska or Canada; a similar missile destroyed after blasting off from Iraq could land in Britain or Europe. US nuclear physicist Richard Garwin notes pragmatically that: "If you ask how many people are going to be killed, you're better off having the warhead fall short." Of course, Garwin adds, "the people who it's going to land on may have a different view."
Courting the Earth
France - "People no longer look to their political representatives to defend their interests," notes Francine Cousteau, president of the Cousteau Society. Faced with a lack of responsive leadership, "civil society is getting organized and demanding accountability and action." On June 19, 2001, 130 countries met at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague and approved a set of rules for the international arbitration of disputes involving natural resources and the environment. The PCA is now empowered to hear cases from people seeking justice for ecological damages. "This is a major victory for the environment and the rights of future generations," Cousteau declares. As to the dream that someday the world will see the convening of an International Court of the Environment, Tjaco T. van den Hout, Secretary General of the PCA observes that, "a growing number of thinkers see a role here for the Permanent Council."
Money Makes the World Go Green
Denmark - The European Environment Agency (EEA) wondered why wind energy was making faster strides in Germany than in Britain; why solar panels were being installed more readily in Spain than in Greece. An EEA investigation concluded that the keys to successful transition to a renewable included "political, legislative, fiscal, financial and administrative support." The EU's members are committed to producing 22.1 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2010.
France - Farmer, activist and author José Bové was sentenced to six months in jail for destroying a field of genetically altered rice in 1999. Bove's supporters were routed from the courtroom by riot police firing tear gas. Bové's appeal to the Cour de Casation, France's highest court, was rejected. "If they put me in prison... the battle will continue from behind bars," Bové declared.
Freiburg's Latest Solar Goal
Germany - The university town of Freiburg, known far and wide as the "sunniest city in Germany" because of its towering solar-powered downtown train terminal and the "Zero Emissions Hotel Victoria," has added two more environmentally sustainable attractions for solar-minded ecotourists. Freiburg now boasts a "Solar Cafe" and the city's main soccer stadium is now solar-powered.
'Solar Is Hip in Germany'
Germany - Solar power is blazing hot in Germany thanks to the government's passage of the Renewable Energies Law (REL) in April 2001. "It was not fear of power outages, high gas prices or tripled power bills, but economic incentives that jump-started the solar revolution in Germany," says reporter Reiner Gaertner. Solar power used to be associated with Müslies and Ökos (i.e., Granola-eaters and eco-freaks), but 2000 saw the sales of 75,000 solar systems generate $435 million in revenue. The REL, brainchild of Germany's Social-Democratic/Green government, pays citizens for producing their own power - 7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for biomass, 9 cents per kWh for wind and 43 cents per kWh for solar. The government's "100,000 roofs" campaign, which provides low-interest loans to install solar panels on roofs, led to a 50 percent increase in the number of orders for 2000. Last year, the program financed the installation of 65 MW of rooftop power. "We should start discussing a 1,000,000-roof initiative," joked Philippe de Renzy-Martin, an official with Shell Solar BV. Seven "Solalrfabriks" (solar factories) are now running day and night in Germany and British Petroleum (BP) and BP Solar have joined forces to build an eighth Solarfabrik with an annual capacity of 20 MW. "Solar is hip in Germany," enthuses Rian van Staden, executive director of the International Solar Energy Society [Villa Tannheim, Wiesentalstr. 50, 79115 Freiburg, Germany, http://www.ises.org]. "People are not just in it to save money, they really believe in alternative energies with their hearts and are willing to jump in head-first."
Greeting Guests with Open Palms
Dubai - Two immense man-made islands are being built off the coast of Dubai. The islands, which will add nearly 75 miles (120 km) of new beaches to the country's coast, are being built in the shape of two palm trees. Knowing that oil reserves will not last forever, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum is spending $3 billion to transform 80 million cubic meters of rock into a world-class tourist mecca, complete with dozens of hotels, golf courses, two marinas and a marine park featuring captive whales and dolphins. Luxury villas (starting at $550,000) will be offered to wealthy foreigners with 100-year leases. Dubai's Palm Islands will be visible from space. The only other man-made artifacts visible from space are the Great Wall of China and the Fresh Kills garbage landfill in New York.
US Blocks Critical Investigation
Iraq - Six years after the Gulf War, cancer cases in Iraq had nearly doubled to 10,931, according to Iraq's Health Ministry. Iraqi health officials blame exposure to the toxic residue of depleted uranium (DU) munitions for unprecedented increases in cancer, leukemia, birth defects and fetal deformaties. Iraq's plea for an independent United Nations investigation of the health impacts of DU weapons was defeated by a 45 to 54 vote of the UN General Assembly (there were 45 abstentions). According to Reuters, UN observers attributed the defeat to "a lobbying campaign by Washington."
Gene-Pooling Earth's Resources
Brazil - Activists from 50 countries gathered at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in February, called for a global treaty recognizing the gene pool as a global commons. More than 250 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) pledged support for the Treaty Initiative to Share the Genetic Commons, which "aims to prohibit all patents on plant, microorganism, animal and human life." Governments around the world will be asked to support the treaty at the Rio+10 Conference in South Africa in August-September. [www.tradeobservatory.org]
Trading Forests for Trade
Mexico - Between 1993 and 2000, 19 million acres of Mexico's jungles and forests disappeared forever. If present trends continue, environmentalists fear that the country will become a totally deforested barrens by 2059. Unless the government moves to spend four to five times more to address the problem, the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula and the Lacandon rainforest of Chiapas state - the most biologically rich area in Mexico - could be gone in 10 to 30 years. Loss of these forests and jungles would alter the course of entire watersheds, destroy soil fertility and increase landslides. Mexico's Environment Secretary Victor Lichtinger admits that illegal logging plays a role but he believes a larger villain is behind Mexico's environmental woes. According to the Associated Press, "Lichtinger blames NAFTA-related government policies that subsidize the expansion of farmlands in an effort to compete with the US and Canada's farming subsidies." As many as 15 million poor Mexicans have been driven into the forests in a desperate attempt to make a living from farming and logging.
Foiling the Aluminum Dams
Brazil - Three of the world's largest aluminum companies - Alcoa, BHP Billiton (Australia) and Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (Brazil) - want to build a huge dam in the Amazon to generate electric power to process aluminum. The Santa Isabel dam, planned for the Araguaia River, would flood an ecological reserve, displace 7,000 people and destroy the culture of the indigenous Suruí-Aiwekar tribe. The Big Three are responsible for building the Tucurui dam which displaced 35,000 Amazon Basin dwellers and flooded 2,820 sq. km. of rainforests in 1984. According to Hélio Meca of Brazil's Movement of Dam-Affected People, "By investing in energy efficiency and conservation, and alternatives such as biomass and wind energy, the expulsion of families from their homes for Santa Isabel can be avoided." "The Araguaia should be kept dam-free," says Glenn Switkes of International Rivers Network [1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley CA 94703, (510) 848-1155, www.irn.org]. "The Araguaia is an ecological jewel which supports world-class wetlands, rare pink dolphins and Amazon turtles." [To protest the dam, contact: Alcoa Corporation, 201 Isabella St., Pittsburgh, PA 15212-5858, (412) 553-4545.]
Storming the Fortis
Belize - A power company from Newfoundland is playing hardball in Belize in an attempt to build a dam in a rainforest. Fortis, the power company, wants to erect a 50-meter-tall Chalillo dam in the Macal River Valley. Burning biowastes from Belize's sugar fields could generate twice as much electricity as the 7.3 MW Chalillo dam and for seven cents per kilowatt-hour. According to Canada's National Post, "Belize consumers now suffer power rates two to four times higher than Mexico and other Central American countries." Belizeans pay a premium for power because Fortis has become the majority owner of Belize Electricity, a state-protected monopoly. The National Post reports that Fortis "is using its monopoly power [to] shut out local power producers, keep out imported Mexican power, deny Belize consumers low-cost power and undermine Belize's fastest growing industry, ecotourism." Belize environmental leader Tony Garel has traveled to the Toronto Stock Exchange to publicize Fortis' strong-arm tactics. Garel has also asked the Belize Public Utilities Commission to dissolve Fortis' monopoly and open the energy field to competition. With anger against Fortis rising and Belize Reporter columnist Meb Cutlack characterizing the company as an "expensive evil," Canada's Probe International has advised the company to "see the writing on the wall and call off its bulldozers."
That Sinking Feeling
Tuvalu - Rising seas linked to global warming are forcing the evacuation of an entire country. Earlier this year, 10,000 citizens of the Pacific Island of Tuvalu became environmental refugees. The Tuvaluans will be relocated to New Zealand in a series of mass evacuations that will take 20 to 30 years. According to the Australian quarterly Third Opinion [PO Box K133, Haymarket 1240, Australia]: "The islanders are fiercely critical of nations that do not support the Kyoto Protocol, which they believe might perhaps have saved their country." On March 3, Tuvalu's Prime Minister Koloa Talaka announced that his nation was considering suing the US and Australia in the International Court of Justice for their refusal to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Australia was targeted because it generates the world's highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions per-capita.
An Unsettled Legacy
New Zealand - Under a settlement handed down by the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, 1,700 surviving victims of US nuclear testing in the South Pacific were to share in a payment of $60 million. Between 1946 and 1958, the US exploded 67 nuclear weapons in the South Pacific, exposing tens of thousands of islanders to dangerous levels of radioactive fallout. Marshall Islands Finance Minister Michael Konelious has complained that the Bank of New York has so far refused to release the $60 million settlement.
Kennedy to Bayer: "Chicken Out"
US - The Bayer chemical corporation's plans to sell fluoroquinolone antibiotics to owners of factory-farmed chickens has run afoul of Robert Kennedy, Jr. and a coalition of health and environmental groups who fear that the overuse of antibiotics "puts consumers' health at risk." Abbott Laboratories has agreed to respect an FDA ban on the product but Bayer has fought to keep the fluoroquinolone Baytril on the market. [www.bayerwatch.com; www.keepantibioticsWorking.com].
The Old Shell Game
US - A Shell Oil refinery in Louisiana has been responsible for pollution, chemical leaks and accidents that have risked the health and lives of the nearby residents of Norco. The African American community has demanded to be relocated to a safer site. For 15 years, Shell has refused. [Send a message to Shell at: PO Box 2463, Houston, Texas 72252, USA, or fax (713) 241-5522.]
EPA Cover-up Charged
US - The EPA's top whistleblower, Ombudsman Robert J. Martin, is suing to keep his job after EPA Chief Christie Todd Whitman announced that she was closing down his office. Martin's sin? He exposed a conflict of interest between Whitman's husband John and the managers of a Superfund site in Colorado. "This is far worse than a gag order," said Government Accountability Project (GAP) Legal Director Tom Devine, "It is an effective death sentence for the concept of an independent citizens' watchdog at EPA." John Whitman is a partner with a venture capital firm controlled by Citicorp whose parent, Citigroup, mishandled the cleanup of the Shattuck Superfund site in Colorado. Whitman herself holds between $100,000 and $250,000 in Citigroup stock.
In another potential conflict of interest, EPA Chief Whitman assured residents living around New York City's Ground Zero that it was safe to breathe the air. Tests by University of California at Davis researcher Thomas Cahill subsequently revealed that the collapse of the World Trade towers caused the greatest man-made pollution event in history, releasing deadly clouds of finely pulverized asbestos, iron, copper, zinc, vanadium, nickel and mercury. Now that firefighters and neighbors are complaining of heart problems, emphysema and asthma, GAP points out that Travelers Insurance (the company handling medical claims for Ground Zero victims) is also owned by Citigroup. When Whitman was New Jersey's governor, she gave a $1.6 million state grant to an Internet company directed by her husband.
Bearing the Truth
Canada - Last November, scientists with Environment Canada (the Canadian equivalent of the EPA) were puzzled to discover that bears in Jasper National Park were going into hibernation a month earlier than usual. Environment Canada [351 St. Joseph Boulevard, Hull, Quebec, K1A 0H3] had forecast a dry, warm winter but, according to folklore, early hibernation is a telltale sign of a long and snowy winter. "Our forecast isn't good for skiers, farmers or the water table," Environment Canada's Dan Kulak told the Calgary Sun. "Maybe the grizzlies do know something we don't know." A late-February check with Jasper Park officials reveals that the park had expeienced its coldest, snowiest winter on record. "The bears were right," a park information officer told the Journal.
Something to Get Steamed About
US - There's a lot of sun and wind in Nevada, but the state's biggest renewable energy resource might lie in the superheated water trapped far underground. Nevada's nine geo-thermal plants could easily become 90 plants, Jane Long, dean of the Mackay School of Mines at the University of Nevada in Reno told the Las Vegas Sun. US geothermal plants (located mainly in the West) currently produce about 2,700 MW - sufficient to satisfy the power demands of 3.5 million people.
Botswana Beats US
US - A survey of the "environmental health" of 142 countries has placed Finland in the top spot, followed by Norway, Sweden, Canada and Switzerland. When it comes to protecting land, water and air, the US places 51st - taking a back seat to Botswana (15) and Cuba (47). (Botswana and Cuba beat out the US by virtue of the fact that they are not highly industrialized economies.) The US ranked higher than Germany (54), Japan (62) and Britain (98). Bringing up the rear were Haiti, North Korea, Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (the last three are oil-rich states). The survey, conducted for the World Economic Forum by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information, torpedoed the myth that economic wealth guarantees environmental quality. Proven beyond a doubt, however, was the fact that "the more corrupt the government, the less likely it is to pay attention to the environment." Sadly, not even Finland can take heart at it's ranking. As the report's authors conclude: "No country is on a truly sustainable path."
Trees and Bogs: Climate Refugees
US - Scientists with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change warn that rising temperatures will cause a 400-mile northward shift in the Earth's ecosystems within the next 100 years. According to the Pew report on Aquatic Ecosystems and Global Climate Change, as the planet's temperature rises from 3 to 10 F during this century, "silver maple-ash-elm forests of the upper Midwest could be replaced by cypress-tupelo swamps" and familiar lakes, rivers and streams would be replaced by marshes, swamps and bogs. It would be difficult enough for plants and animals to relocate 400 miles north in the space of a century but the problem is compounded by the existence of thousands of man-made barriers - cities, suburbs, highways, dams and flood control projects - that now block potential migration corridors. The Cox News Service noted that "one potential dramatic result of global warming could be peat fires covering thousands of square miles." The fires would result from the melting and drying of permafrost in Alaska, Canada and Russia. If the permafrost were to ignite, it would release a pall of CO2 that would likely extinguish most life on the planet.
Irradiation Worse than Anthrax?
US - Irradiating mail to zap potential anthrax spores is making millions for manufacturers of electron (e-beam) irradiators but it could be making Americans sicker, not safer. An investigation by Public Citizen reveals that bombarding suspect envelopes with the equivalent of 233 million chest x-rays can damage shipments of film and pharmaceuticals and leave paperclips and staples unacceptably radioactive. The e-beam kills spores by "breaking down water," Public Citizen's Wenonah Hauter explained. But anthrax spores are only 15 to 20 percent water. Since the e-beams only penetrate 3.75 centimeters, anthrax spores packed in the center of a package would escape harm. Meanwhile, the ozone produced by the e-beam devices will endanger the lives of operators. "The long-term effect on lungs can be deadly," Hauter warns.
Fluoride Gets the Brush-off
Canada - Two Canadian dental researchers, writing in the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association, have characterized the practice of fluoridation as "immoral." Howard Cohen, Ph.D. and University of Toronto Professor David Locker reviewed studies on the benefits of fluoridation and concluded that "the quality of the evidence provided by these studies is poor." Locker, who is also the director of the university's Dental Health Services Research Unit concluded that most studies "exaggerated" the benefits of fluoridation and "minimized" the risks. "The percentage of the population with severe enough dental fluorosis requiring costly dental restorations to repair defective tooth structure has been steadily increasing," Locker and Cohen wrote. Hardy Limeback, the university's Head of Preventative Dentistry, concurs that "Dental fluorosis should never have been classified as a simple 'cosmetic' side effect - it is a biomarker for systemic fluoride poisoning during early childhood." Limeback cited studies showing that systemic fluoride exposure can "permanently affect bone and tooth growth and the mechanical properties of these hard tissues." Noting that modern fluoridation standards rely on epidemiological data "collected more than 50 years ago," Cohen and Locker called for "new guidelines... based on sound, up-to-date science." In the absence of unequivocal evidence that fluoridation's benefits outweigh its risks, Cohen and Locker concluded that "the moral status of advocacy for this practice is, at best, indeterminate and could perhaps be considered immoral." [www.fluoridealert.org]
Bush Boosts Tobacco Terrorists
US - The Bush White House attempted to sneak a provision into the Financial Anti-Terrorism Act that would have protected US tobacco companies accused of smuggling cigarettes abroad in a scheme to avoid paying US taxes. A two-year investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reports that the backroom deal would have protected RJ Reynolds, Philip Morris and British American Tobacco from lawsuits filed by Canada, the European Union, Colombia and other South American countries under the US Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). According to a report in Public Citizen, the ICIJ unearthed evidence of "tobacco company involvement in cigarette smuggling and corporate ties to organized crime." The original version of the bill would have outlawed "any scheme to defraud... a foreign government" if such conduct would constitute a violation of interstate commerce laws in the US. The US Chamber of Commerce wrote to Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill twice last October proposing language to water-down the money laundering provisions. According to Public Citizen, the Chamber's wording "appeared in near-identical form one day later in the House bill." One insider told Public Citizen that "the White House put pressure on us to make the case even stronger." The move was pushed by Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX), who has bagged $64,500 from tobacco company Political Action Committees since 1999. The Democrats torpedoed the pro-tobacco rule and it was stripped from the final version of the PATRIOT Act.
Author Offers Cash to Trash Dam
US - The nation's largest Superfund site consists of toxic runoff from abandoned mines that has accumulated in the sediment behind a dam at the confluence of the Clark and Blackfoot Rivers near Missoula, Montana. Atlantic Richfield (ARCO), the company responsible for the cleanup, would prefer spending $20 million to strengthen the dam and leave the toxic sediment in place. Environmentalists prefer a $120 million plan to raze the dam, remove the sediment and restore the river. Historian and best-selling author Stephen Ambrose has offered $250,000 to help restore the watershed.
Sylvan Savior or Frankentree?
US - A privately owned biotech company has created a genetically engineered "Empress Tree" that grows four times faster than a normal tree and promises to "revolutionize the US and international timber markets." World Tree Technologies, Inc. believes the Empress Tree will be an environmental boon because, with four times the growth and four times the leaves, the tree can "consume four times as much CO2 [and]... emit four times the oxygen." The Empress is designed to be grown in timber plantations, not in forests. But if the tree's patented pollen were to spread to wild woods, its engineered features could create a mutant species that might dominate nature's time-tested trees.
Ground the Airlines: Save Amtrak
US - After the September 11 calamity grounded the nation's airlines, the US turned to Amtrak. The railroads helped save the US economy but now the Bush administration (which handed a $15 billion gift to the airline industry) plans to gut the nation's rail system. "What other transportation mode can move so many for so little, while polluting far less per passenger mile?" asks Andrew Whittaker of the Northern Forest Forum. "Infatuation with high-speed rail at the same time we lack a plan to upgrade existing track is rather ludicrous." Also ludicrous: Congress' failure to increase fuel-efficiency for cars and SUVs.
The Rich-Poor Gap Divides the Earth
The first attempt to study wealth and poverty on a global level has produced disturbing news. The five-year study for the World Bank, published in the January issue of the Economic Journal, reports that the richest 1 percent of people (50 million households) earn more than 60 percent of the world's poorest 2.7 billion people. The study by economist Branko Milanovic was the first to compare incomes across countries. The survey covered 84 percent of the world's population and 93 percent of world income. According to the BBC Online, "the gap between rich and poor is much greater than previously understood."
During the five years of the study, world per-capita incomes rose 5.7 percent but all these gains accrued to the richest 20 percent of the world's people. While incomes of the top fifth rose 12 percent, the earnings of the poorest five percent plummeted 25 percent. "The study raises the concern about the lack of a 'middle class' at the world level," the BBC commented. "The huge gap between rich and poor with 84 percent of the world receiving only 16 percent of its income - has become more worrying since the world has faced the threat of organized terror from groups based in some of the world's poorest countries."
Thanks to the growing reach of global telecommunications, more and more people will be getting the message that the world's richest 10 percent now earn 114 times more than the world's poorest ten percent. The situation has become so dire that UK's top finance official, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, has called for the world's industrialized nations to double financial aid to the world's poor. The White House has rejected this appeal. Meanwhile, the BBC observes, "aid flows and the movement of private capital to poor countries continues to slow" signaling that the consequences of the world's spreading equity gap will only grow "more urgent in the future."
Buy a 'Green Thermometer' And Help Us Plant Trees
When mercury thermometers break or are discarded, the mercury escapes into the environment. Now there is a solution: A plastic wallet-sized card that contains a flat mini-thermometer imprinted with a delicate pattern of heat-sensitive liquid crystal dots. Made by NexTemp [(888) 930-4599], these non-toxic temp-takers register 96 to 104.8 F and last up to five years. Earth Island Journal's Green Pages Fund has joined with NexTemp to create a special "Plant a Tree" card. Help us keep the Earth's temperature down buy purchasing a card with a $3 donation to the "Green Pages Fund." We use the donations to help plant trees around the world.
Journal staff contribution. Can be reprinted for non-profit purposes. Please credit and notify Earth Island Journal.
The Rise of Robots and the Decline of Humanity
In the new millennium, we will become our machines," says Rodney Brooks, director of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Brooks noted that work is well advanced on the creation of a new species of sentient machines known as "Robo Sapiens."
"We are talking about the emotional coupling between the robot and the human," Brooks says. "It's inevitable." Brooks foresees that these thinking, autonomous robots - with their enhanced computational skills and physical strength - will find ready use both in the business world and on the battlefield.
Autonomous robots are not just inevitable: they are imminent. In May 2001, ActiveMedia Research reported that "a multifunctional android capable of almost substituting for a general-purpose waiter is likely five to 10 years away" while "personal robots will be commonplace in the nation within 10 years." ActiveMedia foresees a 3,500 percent growth in the production of robots and a 2,500 percent increase in revenues transforming robotics into a $17 billion industry by 2005.
Honda has invented Asimo, a child-sized robot that can walk, climb stairs, turn lights off and on and perform small household tasks (see photo on page 37). Interactive Week notes that Honda's mini-robot "is being outfitted with programs and artificial sensors that will make it autonomous."
Children in Japan and the US are growing up playing with robotic pets - Sony's robot puppy Aibo, Toy Quest's robot dog Teckno and Hasbro's bizarrely-named robot doll, "My Real Baby."
At the last Robodex expo in Japan, Sony introduced its astounding "Dream Robots," which dazzled spectators by jumping, dancing and kicking balls.
In laboratories around the world, engineers who might once have used their talents to fashion human prosthetics are now designing body parts for robots - feet, knee-joints, prehensile hands, supersensitive ears and eyes and "haptic" sensors that approximate the sense of touch.
The MIT Media Lab's robot, Kismet, has been trained to recognize and respond to human emotions. Kismet can communicate its mood through facial expressions ranging from happiness to anger. Interactive Week reports that the next goal is to teach Kismet "that actions have consequences, just like a child learns how to behave through interaction with other children and adults."
In the words of Bob Metcalfe, founder of 3Com and inventor of Ethernet: "Robots are becoming more human and humans are becoming more robotic."
Freelance writer contribution. Can be reprinted for non-profit purposes. Please credit and notify Earth Island Journal. Courtesy Sony.