The Darien Gap

Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!

I haven’t updated since July, but October was one of my best months yet. Despite being in the middle of finishing my masters degree (my albatross), I have found a window of opportunity to get a quick update in. Just to show this site has not left my mind, far from it, ideas are countless still. My next update should be during the winter break between fall and spring semester. So… in preparation for a more in depth article on Latin America I’m going to tell you about the Darien Gap.

What is the Darien Gap?

darien-gap-overview

The Darien Gap - thanks to Canary in the Coal Mine

This question is more difficult to answer than I had originally planned. ‘What is the Darien Gap’ is like asking ‘What is physics?’ Sure – there’s the simple answer that it’s the study of matter and energy and how they interact with each other… but anybody who has ever studied it knows that physics is the greatest mindfuck there is. And like physics, the complexity surrounding the Darien Gap might be equally boggling. And also like physics, there is a simple answer: the Darien Gap is a small swath of jungle that sits on the border of Central and South America on the edges of Colombia and Panama. It’s a mere 31 miles wide from the Caribbean Coast to the Pacific Coast and various thicknesses depending on your source and what they consider to be the Darien Gap since it’s not an entirely defined region. But as I said, this simple answer to the question “What is the Darien Gap’ does it no justice. If I were to create my own answer to this question I might simply call it the most insidious place on Earth.

And there was no light matter in choosing the word ‘insidious’ either. The Darien Gap is insidious in every aspect of the definition. Merriam-Webster describes insidious as “awaiting a chance entrap: treacherous, harmful and enticing: seductive” and the Darien Gap is most definitely both seductive and treacherous. The following are real-life situations and issues directly involving the seduction and treachery of the Darien Gap. And these stories are so extreme that they could only be fact because fiction wouldn’t believe them. But the Darien Gap is virtually unheard of despite its global reach. The 31 miles of unbroken jungle seems paltry to the behemoth Amazon to the South, yet it is crucial to understand the power it holds. But for all these stories to truly have weight, we need to understand the setting: The Darien Jungle itself.

 

60e0c72c3f8b539480e5461365724985_large

Thomas Griffioen's beautiful snapshot of the Darien Jungle

The Darien Jungle

The Darien Jungle consists of some of the most impassible and impossible terrain on the planet. In some areas rocky cliffs reign supreme while other areas are so swampy that you could hide a few passenger jets deep in the swamp with plenty of room to spare. Some rainforest areas have been described as if being in a giant Cathedral with nothing but dirt on the ground and nothing but canopied trees above, other areas are shrouded in a constant fog of clouds. The picture to the right is from one of the only places I could find quality pictures from the Darien Gap. Most pictures are small or grainy or poor quality in some way. Thomas Griffioen’s website has a lot of high quality beautiful pictures from the area, his set of pictures will really help you get a feel for the area. Through these pictures the seduction of the Darien Gap becomes obvious.  In fact, it seduced this entirely different man to be the first to cross the Darien Gap by motorcycle and he had this to say about describing one part of the jungle:

After two hours on the trail we arrived at the marker on the Panama Columbia border. The hills were getting steeper and longer, sometimes it took three of us to get a bike up a hill. At places the trail was on the side of a steep hill. One slip, bike and rider would plunge into a deep valley that would be almost impossible to get out of. To make problems worse, there were many fallen trees and the jungle seemed to be getting thicker. We could barley see the sky and the jungle seemed like perpetual twilight zone.

He also took some pictures. Ian Hibell, a bicyclist that made the goal to bike from the tip of South America to Alaska went through the Darien Gap and you can see him hiking through a torturous swamp. And that is actually the only video I have of the Darien Jungle deep in its own heart. To think so very few primary resources of any place teeming with life on the planet in the 21st century is shocking.

And hidden deep within the jungle along the coast not accessible by road lays nothing less than one of the most unique fishing locations on the planet. The Tropic Star Lodge’s website proudly acknowledges that they are rated the number one salt-water fishing resort in the world. Built in 1961 by a Texas oil rancher it has become an expensive fishing resort that lures the rich and famous across the planet including John Wayne and Saudi Shieks.

The Tropic Star Lodge poolside, the mystical Darien in the background

As in any unexplored jungle, it is needless to say that species of both plant and animal life still lay undiscovered inside. So naturally there are also numerous species that have been discovered that are endemic within the Darien Gap area. The Darien Gap is also a safe-haven for quite a few endangered species. Of these endangered species you might stumble across a Howler monkey, so surly in disposition it is the only untamed monkey by Native Americans. The Giant Anteater is another endangered species crawling through this tropical dimension. I’m going to take a minute to grind my axe here – I hate it when species like this are endangered, I’ve express this same feeling in my ocean entry about the endangered Leatherback turtles that eat jellyfish.  Speaking from one human to another, we do not want species like this to go extinct. I know the anteater looks like a joke with legs but truly this animal is really smart and useful. Like bats and Leatherbacks they get rid of the pesky primordial species that are always trying to overwhelm the planet to turn the Earth back in to the golden age of when simple-celled organisms and insects ruled the planet. Ants are ridiculously plentiful, nobody is complaining about the scarcity of ants, and nobody is all too keen on hanging around with ants – so why aren’t we worshiping these creatures that have adapted a nose to actually inhale them? AND it’s the BIGGEST of them ALL! These animals are worth not only saving but actually growing their population. But instead we blindly go around eradicating these useful complex species from our planet in favor of the mechanical insects and primordial jellyfish. Why are we so stupid as to pick stinging, burning, biting, insects over silly-looking ant-eaters, flying mammals, and cool turtles, I will never understand this…

But I digress… Another endangered species found in the Darien Gap is the Bush Dog – super cute little guy right there. The white lipped peccary is a hog-like species that are notoriously aggressive and travel in packs. So you might be going for a random stroll through the Darien Jungle when all of a sudden you hear a large herd of white lipped peccaries coming your way – you better climb up the nearest tree because these little guys are nasty and they aren’t afraid of people. The lesser capybara is another rare and endangered species, it also weighs in as the worlds largest rodent. But before you cringe in disgust it’s clear the picture that it looks less like a rat and more like a guinea pig. And giant guinea pigs should be cool in everybody’s book. In fact, looking at this animal makes me understand that even rabbits had to have come from rodent ancestry.  Another endangered species is the Oncilla, a super cute 5 – 10 lb wildcat, I suspect living in a jungle they could get pretty nasty though. Baird’s Tapir is the last endangered animal I’m going to showcase even though it is not the last endangered animal in the jungle; this strange mammal travels largely alone through the inexplicably unforgiving jungle trying to survive despite lower and lower numbers. These Tapirs take over a year to give birth after being impregnated and have to survive in a jungle in addition to being hunted by humans. I’m surprised any animal lives a year in that jungle with all the predators and deadly insects. Finally, some of the native residents of the Darien Jungle are the Embera tribe, traditional warriors of the region. Hunting with blowpipes and into some serious body painting, these native inhabitants have survived the Darien for centuries.

The Darien Scheme

Darien-map3

The Isthmus of Darien

So how unforgiving can the Darien Gap be? Well, listen to the story of how the Darien Gap defeats the country of Scotland. Yes – Scotland! How does a 30-mile swath of jungle in Central America defeat a country half a world away? Well, Scotland had existed as an autonomous entity for roughly 1000 years without compromising their independence. Yet it is well documented that at the very minimum the Darien Gap accelerated dissolution of Scotland and the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

William Paterson was a Scottish fellow who got rich by creating the Bank of England. And for his second trick he decided to return to his native Scotland and create a trading empire out of the tiny kingdom to the North. The cartography of the world had been complete enough at the turn of the 18th century and Paterson recognized a trading monopolists dream. It was clear beyond a doubt that the narrow isthmus of Darien, a mere 30 miles across (have I stressed that point enough yet?), would be ideal to establish a trading monopoly. Paterson was certain that if the Scottish government and the people of Scotland backed this plan they could colonize this isthmus and establish a crucial trading route from the expansive Atlantic and mighty Pacific.

I can only imagine Paterson’s vision. Any completed map of the world back then would clearly show the unique geographic feature of an incredibly thin strip of land sitting conveniently between two massive continents. I can even feel his excitement – the Panama Canal would not be created for another 200 years – plenty of time to make Scotland the ultimate trading monopoly on the planet. For all these years the Kingdom of Scotland sat in the shadow of the likes of England, France, and Spain colonizing half the planet while Scotland held no successful colonies. And here was Scotland’s prodigal son – William Paterson – a successful businessman with capital to invest getting ready to give Scotland its just due in the light of exploitation. No longer will England, Spain, and France be the only countries patting each other on the back for the capitalization of whole regions of the planet – in fact they’ll now be at Scotland’s mercy because they will have control of the Darien isthmus – and thus have control of the simplest trading route between the two monster continents. It would be an unavoidable monopoly and it would be Scotland who would benefit.

So Paterson started pitching this “scheme” to the Scots, and the Scots bought it – hook, line, and sinker. The Scots invested £500,000 which totaled about 50% of the nations capital. There was hardly a Scot who didn’t throw whatever money he could at this global conquest. Originally, the Scots weren’t going to bare the entire load and Paterson had worked the English and Dutch into the deal who subsequently backed out. To this day scandalous rumors float around questioning if this was done intentionally with the foresight of what would happen in Darien. Volunteers for the first trip to Darien were easy to find and were packed on a boat, 1,200 in number, and sailed 4 months across an expansive ocean to settle in their distant tropical paradise, build a colony, and make money! Of course when you cram 1,200 people on a boat for 4 months across an ocean at the turn of the 18th century enthusiasm tends to diffuse rather quickly. The Scots arrived in Darien sick and filled with dead – including Paterson’s wife.

They unloaded their ship and began setting up their colony in the exact jungle in which I’ve already took the liberty to describe for you. And if things were bad on the boat they only got worse in the unforgiving heart of tropical Darien. Jungle diseases quickly began decimating the population and rations were becoming thin. Back at home Scotland sent a resupply ship which got shipwrecked. It then took even longer to send two ships which began their 4 month journey to Darien too late. The colony, decimated, took to the jungle in search of nearby plantations run by other nations. The resupply ships, only equipped for the basic necessities for a fully operating colony landed at Darien in shock and dismay to find nobody.  1,200 resupply colonists reached Darien but it is said that as few as 30 survived.  With a complete and utter disaster realized it’s believed that Scotland became so crippled it forced the 1707 Act of Union with England.

The Pan-American Highway

PanAmericanHwy

Nothing can stop the pan-American highway... except for the Darien Gap -click to enlarge-

So we just read some history of the Darien region, now let’s fast-forward to modern day. But again, let’s step away from Darien for a moment and head to the top of the world where the small town of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska sits on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Like Darien, this is a place on the planet where most people avoid. In fact, Prudhoe Bay has only about 50 residents all toiling in a remote, lifeless region of the planet to pump oil back to civilization for us to consume. According to their website that looks like it was made in 1995, there are 0 families that live at this northernmost town in North America. A few years ago Prudhoe Bay got some notoriety when BP spilled over a million liters of oil.

Now let’s go the the very opposite now – the bottom of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina – often regarded as the southernmost city in the world. Not as extreme as Prudhoe Bay, Ushuaia enjoys milder weather despite its location. What do these two places have in common? They are both the starting and ending points of the Pan-American Highway – a highway created to span across the expanses of two continents. Unbroken lay the chain of highway from Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia standing as a testament to the power of mankind over nature… well unbroken everywhere except for the Darien Gap.

Yes, you could take the Pan-American Highway and cross its distances from the icy Arctic, where no trees live through the towering rockies and conifer forests, down through the North American deserts, into unstable Central American countries shrouded in jungle, but in the small backwater of Yaviza, Panama the Pan-American Highway stops. A seemingly impenetrable wall of jungle faces you here – you are staring at the Darien Gap. Nothing but raw jungle stands between you and Turbo Colombia. From Colombia, you could follow along the Pacific through Ecuador, Peru, and Chile into the ribbed backside of the Andes Mountains.  The final leg of the intensely long journey would be through country of Argentina, showcasing its capital – Buenos Aires, before turning sharply South along the Atlantic to Ushuaia.

And it’s this fact that draws people to want to know more about the Darien Gap. We have a road that has conquered all aside from this stretch of jungle. Why hasn’t the jungle been breached? Why haven’t we connected this highway that would be an unrivaled global achievement? What power does this Darien Gap have that we cannot tame in this 21st Century? It turns out that these questions are presumptuous, because despite its inaccessibility, it was purposefully left unfinished.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – With all the endangered species I listed above it’s clear that a highway cutting through this very narrow and diverse jungle is something that humanity as a species would never dare ruin because the preciousness of diversity in life far outweighs the worlds longest road.  But the truth is a terrible livestock disease that exists in South America does not exist in North America. The disease is called Foot and Mouth Disease, from Outside Magazine:

FMD is the doomsday plague of the livestock industry, an illness whose outbreak can shake global stock markets. Most recently, an epidemic of FMD ravaged England in 2001, causing more than $7 billion in economic losses. No cases of the disease have been reported in Panama, and the last U.S. outbreak occurred in 1929. But in Colombia, FMD was endemic during the 1970s and remains present today.

“If FMD were to invade Central America, it could have very rapid access to the United States,” says Harold Hofmann, 61, associate regional director of the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), an agency within the Department of Agriculture that’s charged with protecting the U.S. food supply from pests and diseases. “Therefore, the government’s plan is to keep it as far away as we can.”

Not only did the Pan-American highway never get finished but the creation of the Darien National Park was a result of the fear of this disease. A national park ensured no livestock would be raised within its boundaries. The United States has been puppeteering this region because it is precisely the country standing to lose the most if this disease crosses over. The United States Health Inspection Service has a $4.5 million regional budget working towards eliminating both FMD and a critter known as a screwworm whose larvae eat the flesh of cows.

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia

colombia_farc-rebels-march-in-la-macarenapreview

FARC rebels

So Darien is purposefully closed off, and with essentially good reasons. But when we look closer, we see there is still yet more to the story. It’s essential to remember the Darien Gap is insidious. And while we look at the Darien Gap and see 3 feet tall kitties and cute rodents and endangered species that need to be saved, the people who live with the Darien see the jungle as a giant death trap. Not simply for the natural causes of death – which are many – but because the Darien Gap has been home to Americas oldest terrorist organization. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are a by-product of over a century of civil war in Colombia. In the 1960s, rallying behind Marxist ideas, FARC was organized and began financing through the drug-trade. Today FARC is a multi-billion dollar drug-dealing enterprise supplying the United States with at least 60% of its cocaine.  This is unfortunate because this is financing a group who recruits child-soldiers and kidnaps anyone of seemingly value  and holds them in remote jungle prisons for sometimes years. The FARC have found their way to the Colombia-Panama border and are living (among other places)  in the Darien Jungle kidnapping those they could use in any way and killing those who don’t help in any way. There will be no arrest for your murder when you are murdered in the jungle, because you will never be found. Due to FARCs power people such as Hugo Chavez, leader of Venezuela, use them to cause confusion among accountable established nations by committing a certain amount of support for them. The United States has paid particular attention to them due to their influence.

Other rebel/terrorist groups that exist in this region are the National Liberation Army and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. All groups kidnap for some money. National Geographic Adventure magazine reporter, Robert Young Pelton, and two others were kidnapped for 10 days by the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia attempting to trek the Darien.  When asked advice for travelers considering going to the region he responded:

The Darién Gap is an extremely dangerous place—it’s probably the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere, definitely in Colombia. It’s used as a conduit for drugs. There are no police there, there’s no military, the trails aren’t marked. Kuna Indians are freaked out now because of the violence being perpetrated against them. Unless you have a lot of experience in Colombia, I wouldn’t suggest it. [For the most part] the jungle there is not viewed as a place that is pristine and beautiful—it’s looked at as a place where you get killed. Because no one bothers gathering information, like I did. I mean, I know how you can hike the Darién now. But you have to have a group of armed men with you.

 

Abandoned mining train succumbing to the Darien Jungle

Destruction of the Darien Gap

Despite the Darien Gap existing (albeit dangerously) into the 21st century, it is guaranteed that it will not exist into the 22nd century. In fact it seems the Gap has less than a decade until the natural plug is breached and the Americas are irrevocably connected. Deforestation of the Gap is rampant. The rebel groups infest the interior making it incredibly dangerous for any sort of ecological protection. And the clock ticks until the final, slim, remaining barrier between North and South America is breached and the transference of Foot-and-Mouth disease to the North will be uncertain. The Native Embera tribe and jungle animals are losing their home tree by tree for basic subsistence and the result will be the elimination of an ecosystem of transcontinental importance.

Advertisements

Home the movie

Click on the picture to see a free high def movie!

Click on the picture to see a free high def movie!

Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!

Wow! Hands down, I just watched a movie that should be mandatory for every human on this planet. A lot of what I try and talk about on here is expressed through gorgeous high definition images ALL for free right on Youtube!

Home” – the movie that should change your life if you weren’t already thinking like this every day of your life. If you weren’t, you should start doing it now. What this movie says is what you should base all your foundational decisions on. This movie is incredibly moving to me.

Why? First off, this movie is oriented correctly. This movie is filled with stunning images and jaw-dropping facts that most people are unaware of – and yet it’s free on Youtube. This is the kind of people we want making movies in our future. The entertainment industry is deadlocking our court system. With the advent of the internet we do not need the largely bureaucratic systems that were built to promote an artist or a movie. The only people who complain about copyright infringement and stealing are giant corporate bureacracies such as the MPAA and the RIAA. The MPAA and RIAA are the giant screaming toddlers that the United States government pacifies with the granting of retrieving ridiculous amounts of cash wherever they deem an unjustice happened to them. What would happen if the courts ruled against them? What would happen if we persecuted the entertainment industry where agents and promoters were the victims rather than a useless remnant of the 20th century still acquiring an income for simply existing? Where artists had a direct relationship with their fans and created their own mp3s which they could sell or even just give away and they make money by playing a live performance? Where anybody who wanted to make a movie would just fund it and toss it up on Youtube? Like “Home” did. What would we lose if we did such a thing? Such gems as “Night at the Museum” and “The Mummy” series? Bastardized Spielberg versions of “War of the Worlds” and “Indiana Jones”? Jokes such as “National Treasure” or “300” or “Titanic” or “Pearl Harbor” guised as historical but clearly warped? Oh, how terrible, imagine a world where those cookie-cutter movies that are churned out yearly as if from a factory disappeared. Money might actually be spent on something useful. Which brings me to my next point on why I like “Home.”

The movie steps back and tries to look at the world from an outside perspective. It really tries to show you the big picture and how critical THIS MOMENT is right now to our actions as a whole. There is no excuse in ignorance – the facts are clear and laid out and our bureaucratic mechanisms need to respond swiftly. And they shouldn’t be mucking around in the entertainment industry – we’re humans – we are entertained VERY easily. “Home” chooses its images carefully and contrasts where our money SHOULD be going and where it IS going. They show how we build cities in deserts such as Dubai as monuments to our glut at the expense of limited and quickly exhausting resources. The movie throws out important facts that reorient where we want to be and where we are: “The world spends 12 times more on military expenditures than on aid to developing countries.” “40% of arable land has suffered long-term damage.” “Every year, 13 million hectares of forest disappear.”

The man behind this film is a French photographer, journalist, and reporter Yann Arthus-Bertrand. This is a man who apparently cares about the future of humans not living in post-apocalyptic Hell within our lifetime and is calling us to attention with this movie. I can tell you that this man is someone you should take information from because he puts it together and can read the implications. And, as you know from reading this site, the implications are dire. “One mammal in 4, one bird in 8, and one amphibian in 3 are threatened with extinction. Species are dying out at a rhythm of 1,000 times faster than that of the natural rate.”

Also, I liked how it ended. It did give me hope, and I might even admit a tear. Because no matter how much we’ve destroyed or ruined, humans are notorious for perseverance. And we might have to learn a hard lesson, but it would be a shame to have our lonely species annihilated due to our collective ignorance.

But what kills me is despite the beautiful images and despite the important and dire messages “Home” portrays it has only been viewed by just over a million people on Youtube. This thing is way too important to stay so far under the radar. So please – push this movie as I am because this movie should be a basis to a question to all people in charge of anything – what are you doing with what you’re in charge of to align yourself with this situation? Well, what are you doing?

Water

Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!

You should read this entry if water is in anyway important to you. So you should probably move along if you are a rock or a star or the vacuum of space. But as for the rest of you perhaps you can take a moment and really appreciate the chemical compound that sustains all life on this planet. You know good old water – the stuff that makes up 60% – 80% of your body, the stuff that makes up 71% of the Earth’s surface, the stuff that make up the clouds, the stuff that covers our polar regions, the stuff that makes up any river, stream, lake, or ocean you’ve ever see. It’s on the grass in the morning and it pours at us from the sky, it’s the stuff that’s in your swimming pool or it’s the stuff that runs out of your sink, and even the stuff that carries your waste (the giant turd you just dropped) to some distant forgotteness. Water, indeed, deserves at least a little bit of your time – regardless of how busy you are.

You already make time for it daily. Everybody loves a delicious drink, and at the base of every drink is good, delicious, pure, unadulterated water. In fact it has become so integrated into our lives I am here to make the case that we not only stopped appreciating it, but if we don’t recognize the true, vast, and utter importance of water that we will no longer have it to appreciate in most places.

It sounds like a bold claim, but I’m certain everybody has heard in the news somewhere that in the near future, while most on this planet are still alive, that billions will be without clean potable water. It’s one of those stories you see on CNN at an airport after a long unsuccessful business trip, concerned about the mortgage, and suspecting your children are falling into the hands of an unfavorable crowd. You look up from your uncomfortable plastic seat at the droning talking head telling you that the UN suspects that 2/3 of the global population will be in water-stressed regions and you really let it sink to your gut for a second. You know what I mean – that gut feeling that says “What are we doing?! The world is undeniably doomed.” But of course the ever-familiar narcissistic vanity so typical of Americans returns and you are once again lost in your own troubles. But how often do you think, do you worry, that you might not beat the odds? How often do you let it cross your mind that in 2025 or 2030 that YOU might be living in that water-stressed region? And you thought you had problems now…

This is a good moment to take a break from the disconcerting news above and do a 1st grade lesson – maybe 2nd. We are going to determine the difference between a need and a want. I made “need” red because without a need we are going to have to stop – living. I made “want” green because wants are always something we want to go after. For example, if you need to take that dump I was talking about earlier, that just simply must occur, it’s not usually something you’re craving to do – it’s business – it’s life business. If you don’t poop your body will sooner, more likely than later, stop living. If you want something, for example the man at the airport wanted to pay his mortgage, there is no danger of him losing his life. While he may be homeless, certainly he can find shelter, albeit not nearly as luxurious as a house.

Of course losing a house is no small deal. Certainly that is a very strong want. In fact it’s so strong that man might do anything to keep that want. Some people have pushed as far as murder or genocide to achieve their wants. And therein lies the water problem – people putting wants in front of needs. Imagine replacing all of the red bulbs (or LEDs or whatever) at stoplights with green ones.  The problem of putting green lights where the red lights should be is that we are under the impression that it is indeed okay to proceed when it is not okay to do so – when in fact your life will most likely be in danger.And that is exactly what replacing needs with your wants does.

This is the argument that could be made in the case of water. Water happens to be one of those very few things that have been placed on our needs list (I stopped using color because I figure you get the picture now). Yet we live in a very materialized want-based society, and surprisingly it is the driving force in the world today. Americans especially (but many other nations as wells) are notorious for creating things – not because they’re needed – but simply because they’re wanted – they’re desired. Yet this is not a problem that has started with America – it is as old as pollution.

A great example of this is that we can assume there is a beautiful, clean, bountiful, flowing river and there are two properties along the river 10 miles apart. We’ll pretend those properties are virtually identical and cost the same if you were interested in buying it. Both properties are completely self sufficient. There is no need for a dependency on others for water – such as the water company – to get your water for you because clean water is freely accessible on the river. However, due to the high demand for complex chemical products the property upstream was purchased so a factory had a place to dump its waste. A chemical factory dumping waste into the river completely depreciates all properties downstream, including the one 10 miles away. They are now unable to be independent for water, and because it is a need, they must turn toward another system to obtain it.

There was never and still isn’t a value put on the depreciation of our natural resources – specifically the ones we need. The voracious illegal logging across the planet, the dumping of chemicals and waste into our water and air that we breathe are all these things we allow to happen, free of charge. Please don’t confuse what I’m saying with things that can be replenished or renewed – things that humans do that are sustainable, or largely sustainable, are things I’m okay with. I’m okay with tree farms made specifically for logging that do not contribute to desertification. I’m not really okay with losing a forest that will never return to the Earth until humans are dead and their unquenchable desire for materials lost back to nature.

Slowly across the world pollution is taking a stronger and stronger grip. Certainly there have been gains – for example, in America air pollution has consistently decreased throughout the last few decades. But there are two problems with evidence like this. The first is that it would make sense for the increase of air quality for America with the decrease in industrial production due to outsourcing since the ’70s. But since the ’70s China’s coal use has doubled from just over 600 million metric tons to more than 1.2 billion metric tons. My reason for making this point is to prove that this is a global problem that connects and affects us all, and it is only getting worse. The second problem with the good-news evidence is that air pollution is not the only way to pollute. I’ve written previous entries on the pollution of plastic to the decimation of entire regions.

And again all of this pollution occurs because of “wants” in the most stripped definition of the word. They are wants, perhaps, with very good reasons behind them – perhaps it is even an idea used to save lives, but it comes at the cost of poisoning our natural right – water. For example, in the same book that dished out the facts on China’s coal consumption had this to say:

Indeed, China’s use of chemical fertilizers has more than quadrupled during the reform period, from 8,840,000 tons in 1978 to 42,538,000 tons in 2001. According to the World Bank, the poor quality of fertilizers and their inefficient application is contributing to significant nutrient runoff, which in turn is contributing to eutrophication in many of China’s most important lakes, in which the growth of dense algaie depletes the shallow water of oxygen.

This is just one example of how water gets polluted across the globe – including in America. China’s poor environmental practices are not the exception – but the rule. And they are being rewarded with a booming economy manufacturing materials for the West. They can circumvent the rules we, the West, put in place to have a clean and sustainable future thereby receiving the illusion of having the best of both worlds. But in reality America is still a high polluter due to our high desire for materials.

And this is the bombshell – this is the whole point: When we lose our free and natural sources for clean potable water, where do we turn? In the past for humans water was owned by Gaia, Mother Earth, God, Allah, Yahweh – in other words – somebody we don’t have to pay. But now we have a planet full of consistently filthier and filthier water and someone needs to clean that water (a process that was not needed nearly as strongly in the past) and, let’s bring the argument full through here, doesn’t that person who takes the time, energy, and money to clean that water deserve to be compensated?

Traditionally water has been a public domain. Perhaps you pay to get water pumped to your home but certainly you are not paying for the product being produced – it’s just water – it’s owned by no one. But now water is slowly becoming a product. More and more work is involved in getting water. Partially due to the pollution and partially due to the exponential growth rate in humans. Already the American midwest is experiencing water stress. So who is going to solve such big problems for us? In the West there is a major movement to privatize water. What this means in the most simplest of terms is that somebody will own the water – somebody we do have to pay. Not Gaia anymore. Can you imagine one of your needs to be owned by another human or group of humans? Imagine if they owned your right to poop, and you never had enough money to pay them, what is the ultimate result?

Fucking scary. That’s my answer to that question. When you privatize a need only bad things can happen. But don’t just take my word for it – Take it from the makers of an amazing book called Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water. This book came out in addition to the movie Thirst. The authors do a much better job at explaining the different arguments for and against Private and Public water than I ever could:

One is concerned with practical issues of efficiency and economics, and the other is about principle. In the first case, both advocates and opponents of privatization point to successes and failures that allegedly prove their case. The debate over principle is more fundamental and involves questions of ethics and moral values.

I consider that a fair and powerful statement. When something becomes privatized the conversation MUST revolve around efficiency and economics  while a public conversation has the ability to discuss the moral value of such efficiency or economics. It brings in to question the very foundation of what the terms public and private actually mean. If we privatize water, what IS public? On the topic of water should we REALLY just limit ourselves to narrowly defining it in terms of efficiency and economics? And whats to stop them from withholding water so long as they have military might behind them? Why not just let the rich and powerful drink and live easy letting others to fend for themselves and find their “own” water source to “purchase”? The authors continue:

The practical debate over who can provide water better focuses on the issues of transparency, efficiency, rates, and sustainability. In public systems, major decisions must go through a deliberative process that not only is conducted in public but also involves the public. Such transparency gives citizens’ groups and individuals access to the information they need to understand the workings of their utility and to follow the money. The same cannot be said for private water companies. Yes, wholly-owned water systems are regulated by state public utilities commissions and public-private partnerships are overseen by city councils, but getting information out of a giant corporation – even information required by contract – is often a difficult and contested process. In addition, it is nearly impossible to audit money flows between a local subsidiary and its parent multinational based abroad…. In 2006, two top managers at a Suez/United Water plant in New Jersey were indicted for covering up high radium levels in the drinking water. Prolonged exposure to radium is linked to to cancer, and communities served by the plant had a history of unusually high rates of childhood cancers.

And they continue on for no short length of time explaining all the risks that come with giving up our freedom to water. Now if you’ve read my entries before, you know I am an avid believer in gathering any information on the people behind an opinion to see if there are any tell-tale signs of corruption or greed. In the case of both plastic and biotechnology I found backers with ambiguous relationships in the government that would give them more profit and power to themselves and their relationships if their beliefs were followed. When I look up Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, the authors of this book, the only paper trail they have leads them back to PBS. PBS has proved through decades of nonpartisan work to have thoughtful and fair programs – providing as impartial a view as possible. If people kept water public Snitow and Kaufman would not profit – this is an excellent sign – this means while they promote the idea and profit off of promoting that idea, they do not profit off of people following the idea. This is rare to see in backers of privatization – they not only attempt to profit off of promoting the idea, they tend to profit off of people following the idea. For example:

Private Water Corporations

RWE/Thames – An energy behemoth German corporation known as RWE (because who wants to spell out the entire name? not me.) is the first example Snitow and Kaufman point out for why privatization is a bad idea. In the beginning of the 21st century RWE was hungrily devouring companies to put underneath its belt. One such company was known as Thames, which was the water company that supplied England with its water. In a report written by Public Citizen they found RWE/Thames had been England and Wales worst polluter for three years running.

This was of little matter to RWE who had reached number 78 on the Global Fortune 500 list raking in the largest profit of any water company in the entire world just barely beating the French water giants Suez (who was number 79) and Veolia (Page 1). A hop over the pond and RWE/Thames were ready to do business with America’s largest private water company – American Water Works – with 16 million customers in 29 states and 3 Canadian Provinces. Yes, this is the very same company with a terrible pollution record. In about 10 years time RWE had racked up $27 billion in debt and 2002 alone stocks dropped 40% (Page 2).

The implications of depending on a profit-driven entity that can not or does not make the expected profit are always negative. If a corporation does extremely well, such as Exxon-Mobil’s $40 billion profit, the savings do not get passed on to the consumer, as we well know. However, if a corporation does extremely poorly and we are dependent on it, such as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, it is up to the public to bail them out at the expense of those who act responsibly.

Due to RWE not acting responsibly they had to resort to some dirty tactics for profit. Two-term mayor, Gary Podesto, of Stockton, California was happy to oblige by blocking information to the public on the privatization of their water system. Snitow and Kaufman paint Podesto as a man who had every intention of allowing RWE/Thames to take over their water system with minimal to no public decision on the topic. They accuse Podesto of not releasing details and refusing a public input on the matter. When public water supporters wanted to bring RWE/Thames in front of a referendum RWE/Thames and OMI (the American company they were working with) contributed $60,000 to the antireferendum campaign, which Podesto backed. Considering those who supported the referendum were a local grassroats group the decision seemed to have a heavy bias. I think it’s important to remember that this is about drinking water and sanitation which are needs. Should we allow the market to lay such a heavy bias on something that is so crucial to our existence?

Gary Podesto and RWE/Thames seemed to have no problem with it as “RWE/Thames took out full-page newspaper ads. Leaflets and mailers went out to homes across the city, and Podesto recorded automatic phone messages, warning voters against the ‘misinformation and sometimes downright lies’ being spread by the Coalition supporters [for public water]“(p. 40 of Snitow and Kaufman’s book). It is clear that RWE/Thames and Podesto were not interested in facts so much as winning, and winning is what they got.  Snitow and Kaufman discuss the results explaining that while Podesto claimed only a 7% rate increase during the 20 year contract there was already an increase of 8.5% after only the first 3 years. “In addition, leakage doubled, maintenance backlogs skyrocketed, and staff turnover was constant, even on the management level, where there were two general managers and four operations managers in the first two years” (p. 46). And even in addition to that Snitow and Kaufman explain they cut odor-control chemicals to save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, pumped chlorine into a waterway killing fish and getting the city fined $125,000, and spilled 8 million gallons of sewage into a river contaminating a swimming area.

So why was Gary Podesto so willing to blindly back such a bloated and pollution-prone corporation based a half a world away? He needed the money freed up to build a minor-league ballpark which was riddled with ineptitude. A report by a former city finance commissioner found the “city had inappropriately drained $36 million from water and sewer accounts to pay for the ballpark” (p. 46). Ultimately it was found that Stockton illegally implemented OMI and RWE/Thames as the water authority and returned it to municipal control. In other words the way a private company operated exclusively with a public official, in this case Gary Podesto, shows that water can be wasted and contaminated when driven by profit. The local interests of Stockton, California were moot to a desperate corporate giant desperate for profit. As for Gary Podesto, does he regret his terrible mismanagement of the water authority and his precious ballpark? Despite the Stockton City Council being found guilty of financial mismanagement Gary Podesto still backs them in hopes to regain political favor. Luckily as of 2006 he seems largely forgotten.

Also after buying American Water Works RWE/Thames continued to work deceptively. They’ve increased rates to over 100% in another California town of Felton, they manipulated neighboring district rate figures to attempt to trick the residents, they planted “community operatives” to “conduct reconnaissance,” in other words supplanting citizens who seemed impartial but were staking out the situation for the company. They used a public relations group known as the Moriah Group based in Tennessee to coerce citizens without the need of impartiality. In fact a grassroots website that quickly popped up supporting the privatization of water turned out to be done by a designer who also created the Moriah Group website… in Tenessee. It’s once again clear that winning overtook any informed decision on such a matter. They even went as far as to attempt to rewrite the state’s eminent-domain laws. All of this can be found in the 3rd Chapter of Thirst.

Suez – When Atlanta, Georgia’s public water and sewage system were too old and needed a major financial investment one would suspect the mayor of the city, Bill Campbell, to be concerned. However Mayor Campbell was happy to privatize the system selling it to Suez, a French company and United Water out of New Jersey at the curiously low price of $21.4 million a year over 20 years. Shortly after the sale is about the point where the Mystery Machine starts driving through Atlanta and the van breaks down. Because it was shortly after the sale to Suez and United Water that strange things started to occur. Only this wasn’t a scary ghost doing the strange things – it was Suez and Mayor Campbell.

Suez has a history of corruption. In exchange for privatizing the city of Grenoble the mayor accepted $3 million in bribes and was sentenced to four years in prison. Originally it was thought to be just a local bribe between local Suez officials and the mayor, but the CEO who finalized the deal was also a close adviser to Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris, future President of France. However, it was only the mayor that was imprisoned.

So it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Suez was already a partial owner of New Jersey based United Water and within a year was the 100% owner. Now the joint-work supposed to be between the two companies in Atlanta was now just Suez and again the desire for profit cut quality immensely. Service wait-time increased across the board and maintence workers cut staff from 479 to about 300 (p. 76 in Thirst). Advisories to boil water and water shortages increased and the quality of the water such as clarity and purity were lower.

How did Suez respond to their poor performance?

United Water subsidiary quickly began playing politics. It donated $10,900 to Ralph Campbell, Mayor Campbell’s brother, who was running for state auditor in North Carolina, a state in which United Water has no operations. The company also made contributions to Campbell’s campaign organization, even though Campbell – now in his second term – could not run for reelection and wasn’t a candidate for any other office. Although these contributions were not illegal, they reeked of impropriety and financial payoffs.

Meanwhile, United Water had a series of explanations for the growing cacophony of consumer complaints. Amazingly, the company said that it didn’t know about existing conditions when it signed the contract. (p. 78).

Additionally Mayor Campbell got an all-expense-paid trip for himself and a female companion in 1999 to visit the Suez corporate headquarters for 2 1/2 hours. However, all 5 days were paid for racking up a total cost of $12,900.  In fact Campbell ended up being “indicted on 7 counts of racketeering, tax violations, and taking corrupt payments from various developers, political supporters, and contractors” (p. 83). When all was said and done Mayor Campbell was sentenced to 30 months in prison. As for Suez the new mayor was in shock at how poorly the system was run and was able to void the contract due to the terrible performance via an audit.

The audit also confirmed that United Water had not come close to delivering the $20 million in annual savings (a reduction from the $30 million tossed out by Mayor Campbell at various times). The amount saved was closer to $10 million a year, and no one thought those savings made up for the incompentent water service.

Corruption happens. I understand. But corruption occurs much easier when a lot of money is moved around behind closed doors instead of transparently in the open with public collusion. Water, being a need, must be as transparent as possible – just as it was when it was cleaned by Mother Nature. There were no ulterior motives of profit – only bounty.

Nestle – Another side of the privatization of water is bottled water:

In 2005, Americans spent well over $10 billion on bottled water, and sales are skyrocketing. The Beverage Marketing Corporation reports that bottled-water sales are increasing nearly 10 percent a year, growth almost unheard of in the food and beverage sector…. (p. 143)

In addition, if we get used to paying gas prices for a bottle of water, we might also get used to the idea that private corporations should provide tap water as well – at prices that guarantee a hefty profit….

From California to Maine to Florida, local and state governments are giving bottlers tax breaks and incentives, in effect paying them to appropriate the natural springs and aquifers we own in common as a people, all in return for the promise of a small number of jobs. Other companies receive similar subsidies for filling their bottles with inexpensive municipal water, slightly filtered or straight from the tap.

Consumers of bottled water pay roughly one thousand, sometimes even ten thousand, times more water for bottled water than for tap water. And what do we get? Study after study has concluded that bottled water is neither cleaner nor greener than tap water. The Natural Resources Defense Council discovered that a surprising number of the bottled waters they tested contained contaminants, pesticide residues, and heavy metals. The results shocked most people, who had not realized that bottled water is less regulated than tap water. While the Environmental Protection Agency enforces strict standards on municipal tap water, the Food and Drug Administration oversees bottled water and is concerned more with the accuracy of the label than with contents of the bottle. Water bottled and sold inside a single state isn’t covered by federal regulations at all but by state regulations, which vary from strict to virtually nonexistent. (p. 144)

I don’t mean to seem like I’m quoting the whole book, but this information is important for us to know to make informed decisions. Aside from bottled water being lower quality than tap water it also contributes largely to plastic waste. Thirst goes on to say that 88% of the 40 million bottles drank a day do not get recycled.

Nestle, however, felt they could cope with that fact. Being the world’s largest food company and based in Switzerland they knew people were going to want a drink with that. So Nestle created a division called Perrier and bought Poland Springs, Calistoga, Zephyrhills, Arrowhead, Ozarka, Deer Park, and Ice Mountain. Another quote:

Nestle Waters sells seventy-two brands in 160 countries. By 2005, its U.S. subsidiary was exploiting 150 water sources to feed over twenty bottling plants. The company’s $3.1 billion in 2005 sales accounted for almost one third of the U.S. bottled water market (p. 148).

Another big corporation and another story of corporate corruption with our precious need – water. In Newport and New Haven Wisconsin, after receiving a sour welcome from the town, people from Perrier contacted local landowners who had spring water. They promised to give them a good price for them if they agreed to keep the talks secret from everybody they knew – including family.  Again, I understand business is business, but when it comes to a need such as our water supplies, this creepy backroom deal stuff is shameful. Nestle spends millions a year lobbying the government to continue to find sources for water.

Even though Nestle spent plenty of money on brochures 74% of New Haven and 81% of Newport wanted Perrier to leave with only a local official supporting them (which I’m sure he was not promised something by Perrier at all). Perrier would not leave the area claiming public support and 0 environmental impact without an environmental study and despite proof to the contrary with their test pump. After Perrier and local residents took it to court both sides had its victories and defeats. However, Perrier changed its name after the incident to Nestle Waters North America.

Additionally Nestle has been sniffing around the largest fresh water resource in the world – the Great Lakes, particularly Michigan:

They quickly discovered that a year earlier Nestle’s representatives met with the Republican governor, John Engler, and his staff won their support for an expansion of the company’s bottled-water business. “Support” doesn’t quite express the relationship however: Nestle had been offered almost $10 million in state and local tax abatements and other subsidies over ten years.

One of the governor’s senior aides apparently felt some pangs of guilt about the giveaway. In a “conscience-clearing” memo to his boss, the aide, Dennis Schornack, wrote, “Michigan won’t just be giving away the water; it will be paying a private and foreign-owned firm to take it away.” And in a later interview he went further: “The plentifulness and purity of the water that drew them [Nestle] to Michigan was going to draw them here anyway,” he said. “Tax abatements were unnecessary and unwise.” Schornack estimated Nestle could clear up to $1.8 million a day when the plant was up and running, a figure Nestle disupted (p. 172).

In both Wisconsin and Michigan Nestle was getting friendly with local leaders to circumvent public opinion. In a place called Sanctuary Springs Nestle received the right to lease the springs for pumping for 99 years. I mean let’s face it – politicians are known to take bribes – which, again, I know we cannot stop that completely. However, if all the dealings with water were done 100% transparently with public knowledge and interaction without multi-BILLION dollar corporations pushing legal boundaries as far as they go and sometimes breaking them then we might be able to come up with a clever, smart, sustainable, cost-effective system. Private corporations can sometimes pull that off, assuming the market and predictions go well, but they sometimes can not pull that off – for way many more reasons – being too bloated, internal greed, poor communication, bureaucratic hierarchies, poor profits 10,000 miles away, a lagging stock market… and my point is simply that we shouldn’t let the fate of our water supplies be determined in this fashion. It should seriously be illegal – owning water is sick, not smart. And the laws aren’t there yet – at least in Michigan. In 1998, when Ontario promised Asia 50 tankers of lake water a year there was an outrage and the company was forced to stop. Nestle claims that pumping for tiny bottles of water is not nearly going to have the same effect, but:

the original supertanker export proposal was to ship about 160 million gallons a year. That’s far less than the 240 million gallons a year Nestle could pump from that springs in Mecosta County alone, and the company was already developing new sources, including wells in the town of Evart, just fifty miles north of its Stanwood plant in Mecosta County (Michigan) (p. 186).

And oh yea, there’s this point too the book makes which is pretty important:

industry and industrial agriculture have been profligate in their use of water to produce food and other commodities. But Nestle isn’t making anything. It is merely exploiting a substance in the public domain, pasting on its brand name, shipping it out, and marking it up for sale by a factor of a hundred or more (p. 187).

And in court in November of 2003 a judge ruled against Nestle pumping in Mecosta County, Michigan and told them that they had 21 days to leave town by December 16, 2003. On December 15 “company lawyers reportedly held a private noontime meeting with top officials of Governor Granholm’s administration” (p. 191) who then supported the Nestle appeal and the pumping continued. I mean seriously – Nestle (and many other major corporations) are manipulating the system with an extremely disproportionate advantage leaving piles of money turds on the feet of anyone who can help them get what they want. “That’s just the market!” someone can ignorantly say, but this is water. W-A-T-E-R. We need it and exploiting it should not be the name of the game here – for Nestle and other private water companies, it is. But who would’ve thought that a major corporation would’ve ended up having secret meetings with public officials to get their way despite the lack of benefits to the local owners? Well after reading this entry you should’ve thought about it because Mayors and Governors seem to be the usurpers of democracy, local support, and humanity as a whole for being so lenient with such aggressive and manipulative corporate entitites. In 2006 at the 4th World Water Forum, which is dominated by private water companies, the authors of Thirst had this to say:

By the end of the conference, the Forum’s organizers, in an apparent fit of pique, blocked any reference in the final declaration to water as a human right because doing so would carry certain legal obligations and guarantees under international treaties. Instead, they substituted vague pabulum: water is “a guarantee of life for all of the world’s people (p. 207).

Now, water is a human right in my book. Just as if a government was withholding food from its citizens they would be denying their people of a basic human right, so would a private corporation holding water simply for a return profit. The wording they chose is so slippery it kind of makes me a little sick: water is a guarantee of life for all the world’s people. What that means, if you didn’t take time to break down the semantics, is that they are simply acknowledging the importance of water to people… but that people do not have a basic right to it. That is scary – that is Dr. Doom talk – we need to be smarter and pick up on these idiosyncrasies – otherwise the sentence might go as follows: “Water is a guarantee of life for all of the world’s people… which you will not be supplied with unless you pay us.” And in short that sentence is already implied, just not discussed, due to the whole “cruel” factor that might be played.

How Bad Can It Really Get

But seriously, how bad can it really get? Nestle has that cute chocolate rabbit – there is no way they’re going to be willing to deprive the world of the most efficient water conservation techniques and the cost of profit, is there? If only we can look into a world where privatized water industry got everything they wanted – maybe it’s just us who want transparency and lack of bribes that ARE really the source of trouble – if only there was a place where all water was privatized – what would that world be like?

Bechtel – Being the largest engineering company in the United States Bechtel was happy to lend a helping hand to Bolivia when the World Bank demanded that they privatize a city’s entire water system – including rainwater (yes RAINWATER). Cochabamba, the third largest city in Bolivia, began having to pay 1/4 of their income for water having to hold back on buying medicine, allowing their children to go to school, and having the elderly beg for money. Shortly thereafter riots began and the Bolivian government chose to back Bechtel – not its people. Of course many were injured and killed, including children. Eventually Cochabamba got their water back. So is this worth the right for someone to make a profit?

It reminds me of a quote I have from Catch-22 on my About Page where Milo Minderbinder is wondering how he can make a profit off of something nobody wants (for him it was Egyptian cotton, for us it’ll be water you must pay for), Yossarian says he should bribe the government into buying into it:

“Bribe it!” Milo was outraged and almost lost his balance and broke his neck again. “Shame on you!” he scolded severely, breathing virtuous fire down and upward into his rusty mustache through his billowing nostrils and prim lips. “Bribery is against the law, and you know it. But it’s not against the law to make a profit, is it? So it can’t be against the law for me to bribe someone in order to make a fair profit, can it? No, of course not!” He fell in to brooding again, with a meek, almost pitiable distress. “But how will I know who to bribe?”

“Oh don’t you worry about that,” Yossarian comforted him with a toneless snicker as the engines of the jeeps and ambulance fractured the drowsy silence and the vehicles in the rear began driving away backward. “You make the bribe big enough and they’ll find you. Just make sure you do everything right out in the open. Let everyone know exactly what you want and how much you’re willing to pay for it. The first time you act guilty or ashamed, you might get into trouble.”

And isn’t that the case? Wasn’t it the case with RWE/Thames, Suez, and Nestle? Bechtel even paid a record low for the water business of Cochabamba because the government was against the wall. When people rallied against the idea of paying for a human right the giant companies just dropped money in all the right places to attempt to keep it working for them. Some succeeded, others failed, but with water crises quickly coming up we know they will not stop and just like the hole in the dike, it will get bigger and more powerful to stop – the more we allow private companies to invade and control our natural resource made for all life – the more dependent we become on others, and not ourselves, and the less we take care of ourselves, the more infantile we deserve to be treated. And these companies are not the only players in the game – Pepsi and Coca-Cola are right behind Nestle selling their bottled water brands of Aquafina and Dasani respectively. Plastic is piling up and the cost of water in 16-ounce forms is costing us over 100% of what it’d cost from our usually cleaner tap-water supply.

Change your beliefs, abstain from buying bottled water (fill one up on your own), and keep your local water supply (wherever it may be) public and transparent. Of course, as usual, despite being a 6,000 word entry, I still am only touching the tip of the iceberg. For way more information on this topic I suggest the following. Comment please!

Scarcity is the soul of profit – if profit can be said to have a soulThirst (p. 3)

Biotechnology and Transgenics

I like this Frankenstein

I like this Frankenstein

Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!

“How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! – Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips… I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.

– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.

It was the summer of 1816 when Mary Shelley first dreamt up this image. Her husband and she went to go visit their friend in Switzerland – Lord Byron. Due to the dreary weather they were confined to the indoors and shared ghost stories. For Mary’s entire life she was surrounded by some of the most famous writers in British literature – both her parents, her husband, and her friend Lord Byron all went down in British history. So, to no surprise, during this dreary summer the idea came up that everybody would create their own ghost story. Finally she dreamed the image quoted above, as she explains in the introduction of the third edition of Frankenstein:

I saw – with shut eyes but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

For it was not a ghost story that really shook Mary to her bones. Mary was concerned about the concept of mankind playing God. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. She was questioning the dark corridors that science could lead us down. The idea that some people would try and use science to do the work of nature, and in fact replace nature, was alive in Mary Shelley’s mind as she wrote the famous words of Frankenstein.

Of course in 1816 it was not biotechnology or transgenics Mary Shelley had in mind – but electricity. While many scientists worked diligently to help pave the way to the creation of all benefits electricity has given us, many scientists felt that within electricity the elixir to life was hidden. The possibilities were endless in many scientists mind – electricity could’ve been the key to bring back the dead. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein warns us about using crude knowledge of science to try and follow a pipe dream, such as Dr. Victor Frankenstein did. You see – in Frankenstein’s mind he was certain what he was building was going to be a beautiful, perfect creature, but as soon as he had succeeded in what he was pushing for so long he becomes aghast at what he had created and tried to run from his own creation, but what he created was irrevocable and ultimately the death of him.

In the book Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering on a Biotech Planet by Denise Caruso, I see a Mary Shelley of the 21st Century. The mysticism of electricity is long dead – Since Mary’s masterpiece physicists have found a way to link it magnetism and most other forces of the Universe, we have harnessed its power to energize virtually every household and machine product. It was done collaboratively for the public good and today we couldn’t function at the level of society we do without the gift of science and the lack of greed that consumed them. Sure – we could find a more efficient way to transport it among other things but civilization has democratically agreed electricity has been conquered and put to its most efficient use. But science is never out of new boundaries. Today it’s genetics and biotechnology. Denise Caruso assesses risk and she tries to make sure that others assess risk properly. Of course nobody will take eloquent, centuries-old, fiction as warnings anymore (though many would do us some good), so Denise Caruso writes a logical, referenced-reinforced, and deeply interesting book on how we should assess risk with technology we do not understand yet. And if you don’t have time to read the book, you should read this entry though it’s long, because it’s shorter than the book. I use both information provided by her and information I’ve found on my own as my references which are linked along the way (please click, lots of work involved)

So What Is Biotechnology and Transgenics?

Don’t feel dumb. That’s a fair question to ask – I know you’re not a scientist (most likely). Imagine you are about to have a child and it is born with a disease that will severely impact his life – now imagine that a doctor could use genetic engineering to remove that disease. Pretty cool, huh? The doctor would simply replace the “broken” gene with a healthy one and your child would have averted the disease. But let’s not stop there – Imagine if you could alter genes in delicious fruits and vegetables so that they could stay fresh 10 times longer to reduce the impact on the planet? I mean – we simply are treating the gene that makes that fruit or vegetable rot just like the gene that was going to cripple your child for life – we just need to put a gene that keeps freshness longer – what difference does it make what gene we change, so long as it benefits us? I mean don’t even stop there, let your imagination come off the reel here – what if we could infuse some common, mass produced food, like bread, with a bunch of essential nutrients and send it to poor countries to feed their teeming famished? And why deal with animals if we could just grow their body parts from DNA and only produce the profitable and delicious parts? And what if we could create species as we pleased with whatever clever DNA already exists from any species on the planet? We could have pigs that glow and fish that grow super fast and we could design our children to look exactly like we wanted, and if we want them to be athletic, they can be athletic, and if we want them beautiful, they can be beautiful – the sky is the limit!

Now take everything written above and stick it in your pipe because this is our current pipe dream. This is the early 21st century’s electricity.  Biotechnology and Transgenics have achieved most of those things above to some or partial success. If they have not achieved them they are promised to come in the future by those researching. But they are in their infancy and the corporations conducting research are fervent believers that biotechnology and transgenics are the answer to most, if not all, of our future problems. But when they finally achieve their idea of success with biotechnology – will they awake to a horror not unlike Frankenstein’s monster?

Anybody can dismiss that question as absurd. But I am a true believer that any unknown front in science should be objectively risk-assessed so we’re not blindsided with something we could have predicted – because the story of Frankenstein is a question: At what point does your dream become your nightmare? Where do we draw the line? How do we know? and who decides? On the fronts of biotechnology and transgenics these questions are falling to the wayside for the simple motivation of profit – which I will support with evidence further on.

Will Smith - you are so fucking tough.

Will Smith - you are so fucking tough.

So – again – what is transgenics? We know it has the capacity to be both our dream and our nightmare, but what is actually the process? Well here goes – I’m no geneticist, but it seems to be a relatively simple concept: I’ve read it likened to “cutting” the desired traits from gene A (let’s say a trait that make honey bees docile) and “pasting” the trait into the DNA code of gene B (let’s say the aggressive Africanized honey bee).  The result? Docile Africanized honeybees – or so we’d hope. As we know, things are not always as simple as they sound.

Let me try and magnify the risks as “cutting and pasting” makes it sound like a 2nd grader could do it. Instead of collecting body organs geneticists find the proper components to infect the desired trait into the plant or animal victim.

That’s right – infect. Because essentially that is what transgenics could be described as in one single word – infection. And that holds certain negative preconceptions – as it should – infection indicates a foreign body invading a natural environment with the intent to permanantly change that environment. To infect holds significant risk alone. When your body becomes infected with a disease, the disease is attempting to take over your body by force, your body is not okay with just naturally accepting it and your body wants to fight it off. In transgenics all of these things need to be overcome so the infection wins. Because the intent is to infect the body with something good as opposed to something bad.

If you’re a fan of zombie movies – I Am Legend provides an excellent example of this. If you listen to how the zombies came to be it was the result of something totally unexpected – a cure for AIDS. And in the movie the person who designed the “cure” explains a very similar process about infection. But ultimately there were no long-term studies done on this “cure” and the infection ended up becoming extremely aggressive as well as airborne infecting virtually everybody with extremely disastrous results. Another movie (and video game) Resident Evil creates a post-apocalyptic world via zombies that came about through a highly secure DNA testing facility having a disease released using the same processes described here.

While it is unlikely this infectious process will turn us all into zombies, it is likely that there could be unforeseen consequences to infecting living beings with “better” qualities. The main reason being that infectious items are aggressive and accomplish their needs through means of force, not through a working symbiotic relationship.

They\'re wearing biohazard suits because they\'re afraid of infection

Theyre wearing suits because theyre afraid of infection - Resident Evil

So how do they infect, for example, a crop of plants to become resistant to weed killer? Well they take a soy plant, for example, and now they have to find out a way to stop it from being harmed when it is sprayed with glyphosate (aka weed killer). So what is glyphosate resistent? Salmonella. However since we don’t want the gastroenteritis that comes with it, we just extract the good part, the part that happens to be resistent to weed killer.  And now, how do we get it into the soy plant? Now that we have the cargo we have to deliver the goods. So we take a little bit of E. Coli to use as the vessel to deliver and infect the soy plant on a DNA level. And, in addition Denise Caruso explains:

There are generally other bits of DNA included in transgenic cassettes that are designed to perform various other functions, like impelling the target protein to express in certain parts of the plant (or animal) and not in others. In Roundup Ready, this bit of genetic material comes from a petunia, for example. Until recently, virtually all commercial transgenic cassettes have also included a sequence of antibiotic resistant DNA from Streptococcus bacterium.

Can anyone not see Dr. Frankenstein’s parallel? We are taking the best parts of life, much like Dr. Frankenstein gave his monster the best parts of a human. But when they come together and work, what do they produce? Has mankind out-done nature or “God” as Mary Shelley put it? The roundup ready soy we just learned the basics of transgenics on is actually a product on the market now making a hefty load of cash. The EPA approves it. So can there be any serious risks or problems with this Frankenstein-like work? Have we put Mary Shelley’s classic work to shame? Have we proven stronger than the natural Universe itself?

I won’t make you wait for the answer – it’s simply No – we haven’t. And without proper oversight and insight from those leading the front of biotechnology the problems will continue and we will have a Frankenstein on our hands – and we will recoil in horror at what we had created. What problems, you ask? These problems:

Problems with Biotechnology and Transgenics

Instead of burgers it\'s lifetime enslavement - thats the only difference

Instead of burgers its eternal enslavement - same diff

Profit is the number one problem for biotechnology and transgenics. It skews reason, it disregards long-term testing, and it corrupts government. Okay, how do I prove these things? We can start with Monsanto which is literally the Hamburglar of the world. As Grimace, Ronald, and the chicken nuggets are looking the other way Hamburglar sneaks behind the counter and steals more hamburgers than he could even possibly eat. Only instead of the counter Monsanto sneaks behind the world, and instead of stealing more hamburgers than he can eat, Monsanto steals more money than it can use. Bold claim! But not without cause. Monsanto was the producer of Agent Orange – of Agent Fucking Orage – and they have the audacity to make their logo a fucking plant? I mean isn’t that seriously insane? Agent Orange killed everything it touched and mutated both animals and plants for generations to come – and yet we find Monsanto a member of a website called Bio.org with the theme “Science for Life.”

You would think that anyone with that theme would have at least this single pre-requisite: The creators of Agent Orange are not allowed to join strictly on principle but they made it in. Now we can all say “Hey, that was Vietnam, Monsanto has a totally different staff, they’ve turned over a new leaf, they’re an honest company now – they now are not motivated strictly by profit as they were back during Vietnam – at some point the company grew a conscience.” Then it would be hard to explain the phenomenon known as Monsanto Revolving Doors. Excerpt from one of the multiple Monsanto documentaries:

The state of affairs in 1999 includes Linda Fisher moving from the Environmental Protection Agency to Monsanto, Michael Friedman from the FDA to Monsanto, Marcia Hale and Josh King from the White House to Monsanto, Margaret Miller from Monsanto to the FDA, William Ruckelshaus from the EPA to Monsanto, and let’s not forget Michael Taylor who went back and forth several times.

Monsanto employees are flopping between the company and the government at the highest of levels and in areas that could change the biology of the Earth for centuries to come could at nicest be described as a conflict of interest, and at the strictest could be described as a crime against humanity. Because Monsanto has made a business out of biogenetics – roundup ready crops can only be bought for a single season – you are not allowed to replant the previous years seeds at a penalty that could cost everything you own. Much like the RIAA Monsanto has been trying to create a profit by becoming as litigious as possible filing loads of lawsuits because they knowingly have the upperhand in lawyers. Also it’s a great way to eliminate your competition – which happens to be individual farm owners and not giant impenetrable behemoth corporations (which makes it super convenient for Monsanto).

Now I’m not just calling Monsanto a giant impenetrable behemoth without just cause. I’m not doing it to belittle it, but Monsanto has been the poster child for what is going wrong in the world of biotechnology today. A couple paragraphs up I linked a documentary on Monsanto. I’m going to do it again to be sure if you don’t believe in the unethical practices Monsanto is engaging in that you know the facts you’re up against. It’s called The World According to Monsanto. This is not the only documentary on Monsanto and its unethical practices, but it’s the only one available on the internet. It kills me when people get defensive of big business as if the very suggestion of unethical practices in the area of business deserves to be scoffed. But these are not men and women who dedicate their lives to peace, unity, the Universe, God, cohesion – they are dedicated to making a profit. What makes more logical sense? That Monsanto insists on creating a new seed every year because it’s a great way to turn a profit or because they just want to update to the genetically best enhanced version for their customers and don’t want previous batches soiling it? In the area of business profit is more than essential. And this should settle the argument alone because even Monsanto’s public relations chief said:

Monsanto should not have to vouch for the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.

Wow, Monsanto-claus, why didn\'t I think of that!
Wow, Monsanto-claus, why didnt I think of that!

I stress that point so much because I feel people would rather believe it’s alarmist than make a stand against such methodological manipulation. All of these moves by Monsanto and its employees who went to and from the government have clear reasons to be motivated by profit and little else. The astoundingly lax standards on such an unknown technology with the obvious influence of Monsanto Employees within the agency that governs it – and because Monsanto is a corporation it makes no secrets that it’s number one responsibility is to his shareholders. Now – before people get confused – I’m not saying there is anything wrong with capitalism – that is a totally separate issue. But the government is put in place to ensure safety for all before a rabid desire of profit. Because, after all what is capitalism but another complex game we play to make things seem less confusing. So at what point do we know when to say “Hey, that’s unethical and a total detriment to nearly everybody but yourself”? The government is our agreed upon source for that. So when those who desire primarily to profit go into an agency of governing its own product to a pretty advantageous degree – that is wrong.

How advantageous? Remember earlier how I described the process of transgenics – like an infection? Creating genetically engineered plants with bad infections is obviously bad and illegal. But the fact remains – creating genetically engineered plants with good infections is not the same as making a regular plant (ie. planting just a regular seed). But high level biogenetics companies like Monsanto in the 80’s were already working very closely with the government on a new and upcoming technology – genetically modified plants.  Biogenetic companies seemed to try and portray the dutiful American by promising the wonders we’ve previously imagined that biogenetics could provide. But there was just one tiny eency weency problem – the industry hadn’t even begun yet – it was still completely in its infancy. There was no data to prove that Genetically Modified organisms were safe. “Well shucks!” says the GMO (biotech) companies, “If you want to be the best in the world we need to get started right away. It’s just un-American to not let us lead in such a dream-delivering idea. Hey – I got an idea, judge us by our product, not by our process.”

This is known as substantial equivalence. Basically if you breed a new strain of corn by taking two types of centuries old, untainted breeds you would not need to go to the FDA to get it approved. So the GMO companies say “That’s basically exactly what we’re doing – but instead of naturally breeding we’ll just forcefully infect whatever parts of whatever species we please – but it’ll look identical to corn so it’s close enough. That’s what substantial equivilance is – The law of close enough. It’s like saying I’ve come up with a new way to slaughter cows for mass production – and as long as the meat isn’t covered in e-coli or Mad Cow I have the right to sell it regardless of the process of how I butchered it. But if I butchered it in a way that was totally unsafe for the environment I’ll never have to have a legal repercussion for that because we made a deal not to assess my process – only my product. And the government bought it hook line and sinker – but once again most likely with internal help. Finally after a lawsuit the FDA was forced to release documents proving it knew there was potential danger with the products that are not going to occur in naturally occurring plants. And that took a lawsuit – there was no apology and it’s still in effect. Why wouldn’t we want to know what the dangers to GM food is? Denise Caruso quotes from a critic (Linda Kahl) of the substantial equivalence product –

I believe there are at least two situations relative to this document in which it is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The first… is that the document is trying to force an ultimate conclusion that there is no difference between foods modified by genetic engineering and foods modified by traditional breeding practices.  This is because of the mandate to regulate the product, not the process. The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks. There is no data that addresses the relative magnitude of the risks – for all we know, the risks may be lower for genetically engineered foods than for foods produced by traditional breeding. But the acknowledgment that the risks are different is lost in the attempt to hold to the doctrine that the product and not the process is regulated…. [The second square peg is] the approach of at least part of the document is to use a scientific analysis… to develop policy statement. In the first place, are we asking the scientific experts to generate the basis for this policy statement in the absence of any data? It’s no wonder that there are so many different opinions – it is an exercise in hypotheses forced on individuals whose jobs and training ordinarily deal with fact

Regardless the FDA approved the law of substantial equivalence. But for the biggest reason on why it’s obvious that profit is the primary motivation we have to revisit bio.org. Simply looking at the slogan and the picture on the site one would assume the organization is around for the benefit of life. Yet the picture is truly symbolic – it is a picture of a plant growing out from dirt on top of a hand. Previously we only needed to put plants into just dirt to have them grow, but it is literally the goal of this site to remove that ability from you in exchange for growing your food out of their own hands. Even on the front page we can see profit is primarily the focus in this organization as all the entries seem to be directed at shareholders. Today there is a link to a blog entry called Science is your brand. The problem with language like that is that you’re speaking as if you’re talking to consumers – people who are looking for personal gain – not gain for humanity. And it’s true – the blog addresses shareholders letting them know to “protect their investment.” The only problem with that is that a shareholder only protects his investment as far as he believes he’s going to make a profit off of it – not to the point that it’s for the benefit of humanity or the world. In fact when we move to the members section of bio.org I start to notice something fishy – like something out of the Stepford Wives or Pleasantville. All the sites seem to be extremely similar. They all have serious scientists doing precision work or happy children and families or caring doctors… and of course the occasional cool close-up picture. In fact looking at the members of bio.org is like strolling down the suburbs of the internet – it is a place where image is more important than information. Lets take a look at some:

Monsanto – I just still am so stunned that Monsanto dares tries to remake its image to be a positive and natural thing when it is most definitely the very definition of unnatural in what they’re doing.

Captial Royalty L.P. – hot looking girl doing something smart, check. double helix invading her skull? Check. What is the site actually for? Seems to be good for distributing money “appropriately” among GMOs, but they keep it vague enough that it just wants to you to give up at finding its actual duties.

Wyeth – Wyeth too has a randomized image maker of looking-out-for-you-doctors and satisfied customers. Thats because Wyeth is the creator of Robitussin and Advil. However it makes you wonder how far they will go, being a pharmaceutical giant, with a technology that has 0 risk assessment – it makes you wonder how many they already did.

PaleoTechnology – Ah yes – the sprawling beauty of nature covering the site following Monsanto’s lead in replacing facts with nice pictures. Of course it’s vague but it seems they have the crazy idea of finding solutions to our “problems associated with existing technologies” (ie. the oil crisis) by looking at oil. Who would have such backward logic but an oil company with too many assets to find a real alternative? Well their parent company – PetroHunter – seems to be quite close with Encana Oil & Gas as all of their producing wells are operated by Encana, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world.

Scigen – A Singapore company also directly related to bio.org. Again we see the surgeon-like hands doing careful scientific work and of course the happy little girl and boy jumping for joy. With those plus the cool blue background the site figures you need little more information now – so they politely explain that they do work dealing with endocrinology and immunology. Now these items are seriously important – I have a family member who is very close to me that could use the sciences of endocrinology so he doesn’t need to take pills every day multiple times a day for his entire life (which hopefully will be very long), so it’s not that I’m insensitive to the work… but how can you possibly work on genetically engineered immunities without assessing the risk? Also I find it interesting that this company is based in Singapore but all the key executives for the company aside from a secretary are white males (she seems to be doing her best to look like one though).

Yorktown Technologies, L.P. – Another fine innovative member of bio.org. They create the product known as Glofish (which come in 3 exciting colors! Electric Green, Starfire Red, or Sunburst Orange!) which are exactly what they sound like – fish that glow in the dark. What are they created for? For you! And your friends! They’ve genetically modified a species of fish for the sole purpose of making them glow in the dark. God knows what other parts of species ended up in these fish – but Glofish are an excellent example of where do we draw the line? and especially what about the risk of genetically modified pets? At what point do we agree that genetic infection stops here? Glofish are a promise by the biotech industry that there is no brake.

Spaltudaq – Though the company explains their website is under construction we can clearly see that they are nearly complete. They have their exciting picture of technology up there that gives us (the reader) only feelings – not facts. My only suggestion is that the site put up a scientist or a doctor doing something really important – and to balance out the seriousness put a happy family or some children. But again – they are part of bio.org and totally for pushing ahead on a technology that has no risk assessment and making it sound like they know what they’re talking about – even though nobody does. But it is clear that they are working on these technologies for the ultimate goal of profit like all the other sites on bio.org

Sound Pharmaceuticals – Here is another company part of bio.org that is under construction – oh wait, no it’s not. It’s easy to get them confused because they all look so similar – under construction or not. This site is interesting because they plan on restoring hearing by regenerating your cells – obviously with the intent to profit which would be totally fine except for the process has unassessed risks (did we cover this thoroughly enough yet, because it seems a lot of people like to forget that part).

I made this picture myself and it says - Oh yea sure guys. I always thought biotechnology was a good idea. Honest! I agree with you completely

I made this picture myself and it says - Oh yea sure guys. I always thought biotechnology was a good idea. Honest! I agree with you completely

These are just randomly chosen sites (aside from precious Monsanto) out of the hundreds that cover the “Members” section on bio.org. You come across behemoth companies like Wyeth who need to stay on top financially and apparently are willing to risk our safety by supporting products that we do no know the risk to but are put out into our environment. Other companies such as Paleotechnology can be connected to other big companies that need to stay on top financially at any expense. Once again – this can be argued with reason – the cohesiveness and community-minded ability that naturally occurs within the individual is lost when profits, jobs, and livelihoods are at stake. Now let’s look at some other members of bio.org:

Yale – Wow. My argument seems weaker and weaker the more I wrangle in established names (such as Monsanto, Wyeth, and now Yale). I mean everybody has the conception that Yale is a totally respectable top-of-the-line University. Which is exactly why multi-billion dollar corporations have descended upon the Ivy-League Universities as now they seem to solely be preparing for private work. There is a solid and fair argument against today’s higher education being controlled too much by the market. As if this entry wasn’t going to be long enough, I’ll have to save all the details of that for another time. But if you are interested in the subject of Higher Education focusing too much on money and less on academics I suggest the book The University, State, and Market: The Political Economy of Globalization in the Americas. But basically the point is that that this privatization of our educational direction means if what the school is funding isn’t financially beneficial then the program should be cut. Diversity is shunned and grant money is the new direction. The problem with this is that it makes our educational system far less objective, because those who dangle the grant money are usually doing it for a profitable (not necessarily publicly beneficial) project. So how do we prove this privatization of the educational system is occurring? Well those who fund the programs shouldn’t be actively ready to patent what is discovered under their grant. Essentially that would be like employing the students directly. A notorious example of this was in 1998 when another pharmaceutical company that is a member of by bio.org named Novartis promised $25 million to the University of California, Berkeley in exchange for rights to negotiate licenses on roughly a third of the departments discoveries – including results of research funded by state and federal sources – the results have not been beneficial for the public.

Well it goes to show that the Yale Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Society is sponsored seemingly entirely by for-profit enterprises (Note the opportunity for sponsors to participate in a variety of their programs). Sponsors such as Bristol-Meyers Squibb (you’ll do yourself a favor to not click that link and hear the most obnoxious video of your life) and Achillion Pharmaceuticals are also members of bio.org. In fact, the only sponsor that seems remotely related to the state is a company called Connecticut United for Research Excellence in which Achillion and Bristol-Meyers Squibb are again members. And maybe all of this would be okay but the simple fact remains there are known risks in the process of biogenetics that are not being assessed. And the federal government, Connecticut, Yale, Monsanto, Achillion, Wyeth, and virtually everybody else seems okay with just ignoring this. From the highest levels of government we’ve all just been calmed into thinking that refusal to physically contain genetically modified plants and animals allowing them to spread in nature as they please with unknown risks as it has never been done before is okay. We should know better than this. Let me continue on with the story of some other members of Bio.org:

Calgene – Calgene doesn’t have its own website anymore despite being part of bio.org. Monsanto bought them out and now owns 100% of the shares. Instead that link takes you to the Wikipedia entry on Flavr Savr tomatoes – a legend in the biogenetics industry. Calgene was one of the first companies to try and make a profit off of this miracle technology – if it went right they’d be a pioneer in the industry. So even though their project wasn’t quite as noble as curing totally debilitating diseases prenatally, they did pick a serious problem for almost everybody in America and the world. Tomatoes! The problem was when tomatoes grew ripe they also became soft and shipping soft tomatoes is difficult. Well Prince Calgene comes down from his castle in his sky with his miracle solution: “We’ll just modify the ripening and softening genes so that doesn’t happen anymore. Fresh ripe delicious tomatoes for everyone!” then Prince Calgene went up into his cloud castle and returned with his tomatoes and held out his hand for payment.

But the people planted the Calgene Tomato called The Flavr Savr. But less than 20% of the harvest were the quality promised by Calgene. And when they tried to ship them in hopes to have the firm, ripe tomatoes Prince Calgene promised, they were actually not as good as the traditional shipment of green tomatoes losing more tomatoes than ever. Prince Calgene couldn’t handle all the problems with his seemingly perfect idea – it all fell apart on him. And as he died confused at why his little Frankenstein didn’t work the giant cyclops Monsanto came and swallowed him whole, stole the best of the technology, and began to make its own profitable tomatoes from it. But Calgene’s Flavr Savr problem was not only short-sighted on the type of tomato used but also the actual usefulness of their tomatoes. The studies produced by Calgene found a significant amount of stomach lesions on the rats that were tested and although this was addressed by the FDA somebody approved it regardless to push it through. It seriously begs the question how many things are not being appropriately tested with this totally new technology? And already we’re seeing negative results from this new type of technology – and it is because people were so hurry to turn a profit that they figured things and used political leverage to make it work. What specifically I’ll get to shortly, but first there is one more member of bio.org I’d like to take a look at:

Syngenta – After a terrible meteorite accident near a nuclear factory Captain Syngenta was given powers of a superhero thusly earning the right to determine the future of global foods. Syngenta decided that he would always use his powers for good, not evil. His first mission – save the blind and starving millions. There is our problem, and now Captain Syngenta invokes the power of transgenics for our miracle solution. He created a type of rice that had beta-carotene in it to produce vitamin A which helps sight (We all knew that anyway, thats why we eat our carrots). The people rejoiced and it was called gold rice because surely it would be as precious as gold to the starving and blind. It literally took millions of dollars to create and adapt while other countries use much cheaper supplementation programs. The vitamin A was easily lost losing its minimal nutritional value simply by being boiled or stored inappropriately. In fact the nutritional value was so little it wasn’t enough to help most cases of blindness due to vitamin A deficiency. But this is the biggest reason why it’s not okay – anybody can argue that it still has a case with what I wrote above – but the most significant problem is this: They are living beings and they need to be exposed to the environment, and then they interact with that environment.

You know which side Im on

You know which side Im on

GMOs make no pretentions that they know how to contain their products that they grow. Do you know how hard it was to write about genetics for this long and not bring this point up yet? But think about it – these companies are making living beings that will be put into the environment to grow. They could easily mess with a whole species DNA because there are no built-up immunities or relationships between the species. Monsanto has transgenic bentgrass that ended up 13 miles downwind. And this is the same company that sues you if they find their transgenic crops on your property – that is ludicrously criminal. And Golden Rice, like any rice, cross-pollinates with other plants. Now these are infected plants with infectious traits. And because we know absolutely nothing of these long term effects it’s important to keep track of them and study them before releasing them to the world. We need to have higher standards for our science forefronts – we can’t just hope it won’t decimate a biosphere. Additionally they are already seeing mutations within the rice. The information I used to recite to you the history of Golden Rice came from Denis Caruso – only she didn’t make the superhero analogy.

Golden Rice and Bentgrass are not the only example of genetically engineered plants causing trouble. For one, Genetically Modified plants have been a source of negative contamination for naturally grown plants. Additionally it’s being found out now that genetically modified plants, including Monsanto’s poison-resistant crops, are having a negative effect on the insect community, from bees to butterflies. This is really terrible if you really think about it. If our pollinating insects can’t handle these crops (an unforseen consequence both Captain Syngenta and Prince Calgene know all too well that it’s fucking impossible to predict all the factors of a genetically modified species). And the worst part of it all is that biotechnology could be such an integral part of our society – but because we didn’t take the time to do the objective research first, and because we refuse to acknowledge the unforeseen genetic mutations in the plants, and because we insist we already know what we’re doing – it will be a detriment to our society.

On top of the problems above, genetically modifying anything is costly and inefficient, especially without an objective focus (hence glofish to regenerative hearing, to oil biogenetics). But animals are also genetically modified. If you thought glowing fish might be pushing the limit – why not glowing pigs? Now we are at the forefront of human technology and Taiwanese researchers found nothing better to do than genetically change pigs so they glow. The article goes on to say that it isn’t anything special because other people have made pigs glow before. Seriously? Seriously seriously? Has this what transgenics has come to? Trying to make the most florescent pig by ripping the fabric of life and mutating a pig into a now partial jellyfish-pig. Within the article it also notes the laborious work it took to get 3 glow-in-the-dark pigs. Out of 265 pig embryos only 3 came out how they wanted them to. What else does this say about the field of biotechnology aside from that it’s still deep in its infancy? It comes down to something I heard somewhere that I forgot – it’s the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Is waiting all year for plants to bear fruit in the spring efficient? Not necessarily – but is it effective? Absolutely. Are changing the genes of animals for our benefit efficient? That’s what’s promised (though it’s not currently), but is it effective? No. Always within genetically modified animals is the appropriate birthrate near 0.

Even in death...

Even in death...

And remember Dolly, the first cloned sheep? It was hailed as a breakthrough but even she had her troubles. After fertilizing over 25,000 eggs only 134 calves were produced and out of the 134 only 9 were transgenic. 9 out of 25,000.  And then as soon as she was rushed out into the global spotlight to hail her success Dolly died prematurely with arthritis and lung disease. How much did going through the transgenic process affect her health? We will never know because scientists aren’t looking at that – because it’s not profitable and doesn’t “bring in the grants.” In fact one of the few studies done that can be publicly seen on transgenic animals have found that out of a total of 12,000 transgenic embryos, only 207 of them, resulted in live births. Transgenic animals that didn’t turn out as expected didn’t live as long. These are reasons – solid reasons – why we should hold up a brakelight to transgenics. Not to say they can never do it – but at least hold off on the profiting of such an industry. Have some self respect and know solidly what the risks are instead of just ignoring it entirely.

Transgenic salmon are another miracle fix through transgenics. The concept is to infect fish so that they grow alarmingly fast but so they don’t pose a danger to the environment they must be sterilized too. If a transgenic salmon gets released into the wild it could become invasive. And there are hundreds of invasive species already – but imagine what a totally unnatural life-form could do that is genetically engineered to be bigger and grow faster than other species. A company called Aqua Bounty Farms seems to be the attempted miracle-worker this time. Again, the site design looks like it might be a mafia front for money laundering, but the picture in the corner speaks for itself – transgenic 6 month-year-old salmon in front and eensy-weensy regular 6 month-year-old salmon in the back. Now let’s look at all the unforeseen consequences that occurred with all of the other transgenic things above – now look at the 6-month year old transgenic salmon. The battle here is between two different parts of your brain – the part of you that says “Bigger faster = better” is more in the amygdala (I’d assume) part of your brain because it is a quick emotional reaction. However if we use the more developed parts of our brain – we recognize that this may not be better considering that every single transgenic experiment (even foods approved by the FDA) have had unforeseen consequences, many of which are infecting the rest of the planet. But – can we find anybody who will promote transgenic salmon hands down? Yes we can – of course it’s bio.org again – and look who’s a member – Aqua Bounty. Interesting huh? Now this multi-billion dollar organization wouldn’t be pushing the concept of FDA-approved transgenic fish for the purposes of profit over all else, would it? Does that seem plausible at all? Especially when Monsanto themselves admitted that is their number 1 goal? I mean they have NO RIGHT to pretend they can use objective reasoning with an un-assessed technology which their whole company rides on – there is no way that they will be hunting for potential problems – undoubtedly this project has cost them millions – and for what? To get it thrown down the tube because one of their own employees, someone who is siphoning their own money, tells them it needs to stop? I wouldn’t even put up with that in that situation – it’s just such a substantial amount of money to be invested into a mistake. So the mistake is promised to be fixed by another mistake and yet promised to be fixed by another mistake and yet another and so on until billions are tied up in this technology that is being forced to bare fruition, regardless of risk.

How could you possibly say no?!

How could you possibly say no?!

Ultimately the problem with biotechnology is that we have not studied this area of science well enough. In normal circumstances that would be fine because they could just keep testing but the problem is that we are already exposing biotechnology to the world. But don’t worry – scientists have thought of this and have come up with a few ways to manage this situation. First – the idea of physical confinement isn’t even on the table. Labs and test fields in the middle of nowhere are too expensive and not 100% guaranteed so scientists came up with the term “biological confinement.” For instance with the Transgenic Salmon – so they don’t end up becoming an invasive species with their supernatural evolutionary gains they are made “mostly” sterile. The man in the NOVA video said that if these salmon get loose (which is being dealt with as a 100% possibility as fish farms lose fish all the time) and somehow reproduce they would decimate the salmon population because they would be the first to mate but unlikely to have healthy (or living) offspring. They could still be eaten by predators and the effect of the salmons genes on the predator are unknown – as the biotechnology industry still has done 0 risk assessment by doing these experiments in a physically confined place. So they would also plan on feeding the salmon something that can’t be found in nature and that is only manmade – Denise Caruso uses skittles as an example. Aside from this still not being effective what kind of Frankenstein monsters are we really making here? Everything that is occurring is unnatural – they’d even be fed on something unnatural – and there is no idea of the long term effect on people or the environment. And yet this is allowed.

The Biotech industry has come up with insidious methods to “biologically confine” all sorts of species. A way to biologically confine engineered microbes is to make them highly demanding of energy to survive. However if that microbe can adapt such as the bacteria has against anti-bacterial soap the threshold effect will take place and there most likely will be unforeseen consequences. For plants another company absorbed by the gluttonous Monsanto developed plants to produce sterile seeds to biologically confine them. Can you feel the magnitude of that? We would be refusing our food sources to reproduce naturally. Are we really okay with letting this technology blow about this planet and infuse these corrosive genes into our natural bounty?! While it is not sold commercially both Monsanto and the USDA have continued to develop it. There is such a demand for biological confinement already including for those herbicide-resistent plants that are being blamed for our insect dilemmas provided above. Another type of biologically confined species so gruesome and slavish Denise Caruso explains:

there are plants and animals engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, vaccines or industrial chemicals – a genre often referred to as “pharming” – which have the capacity to harm people or other species that might accidentally consume them…. the purpose of pharming is simply to use the plant or animal as a cheaper or more productive (or both) living factory for the substance, which will then be harvested.

Biological confinement has been unsuccessful (much to Monsanto’s litigious joy). In 2005 when Denise Caruso wrote her book 62 cases of contamination in 27 countries have occurred with transgenic crops. Today, in 2008, there are 216 cases of contamination in 57 countries. And, as shown in the link in the parantheses Monsanto is profiting off of their own contamination of crops. So not only are we engineering poorer quality products but we are infecting healthier and beneficial plants all over the world with poorer qualities. So in other words biotech companies are forcing us slowly into their dependency. They already demand that you pay yearly for seeds. This is our food, this is one of our few essential sources needed for survival on our planet. Why are we letting them fuck with us so bad? Because billions are invested into it. The most powerful pharmaceutical businesses, biotech companies, educational facilities, and oil companies are all depending on it to bring them their miracle source of profit.

Well John, I guess we didnt see that coming with the terminator gene. But you win some you lose some ya know?

Well John, I guess we didnt see that coming with the terminator gene. But you win some you lose some ya know?

To hit home this point Denise Caruso tells a story of the GM Nation survey done in the UK to determine the public opinion of GM crops. The study overwhelmingly reported that the public was not happy with the idea of GM crops being planted on their lands based on the fact that nobody knows the long-term risk of doing this. Regardless the government allowed GM crops to be planted on their land. But how do the GMO companies still support their work after such a lack of support? They find sites that look like they’re straight out of the mid-90s to skew all the data so it wasn’t an appropriate sample of the whole of the UK. Another tactic to muddy the data against GM products made by a site called PG Economics. Where it doesn’t take long to find that the ones who run the site have a history of working for the GM companies – including, yes, Monsanto. They must go through some sort of brainwashing program and then send them out on their own to continue pretending theres a market for these poorly planned or understood products. Is that an overexaggeration aimed at stripping the opposite view on GM organisms? Not really – as Monsanto was caught having bribed at least 140 government officials in Indonesia so it wouldn’t have to provide an environmental assessment for its Bt cotton. If Monsanto were a person he would be considered a heinous criminal, but because it’s a corporation and armies of lawyers are attached we have to pretend that their warped view of the world should come above all else. And like those who oppose global warming is occurring, they don’t need solid fact to back up their claim, they just need to create enough confusion to not have to deal with the problem directly. And this tactic can be very divisive.

Monsanto was also part of a subpoena in 2005 along with Goodrich,  Goodyear, Union Carbide and 20 in total chemical companies that are refusing a release of a book. They are restricting our freedom of knowledge. The book was to be about corporate cover-ups of industrial pollution written by two highly regarded professors from NYU and Columbia. At the same time the forefront of science and technology are hidden behind these doors with refusal to publish anything about their work unless it’s positive or forced by law. Big biotech, chemical, and pharmaceutical companies are not trying to be progressive, they’re trying to be profitable, they’ve never explained it any differently. They are not directly accountable for their actions. Many companies create their biotech dream, watch it fail, and then go defunct – and if that failed biotech project has an extremely negative effect on the world at large – we will have no one to hold responsible – and if we did, what’s the use? The damage is irrevocable due to unassessed risk.

And these ideas that we can use biotechnology for anything keep occurring. In 2004 a professor thought it’d be a good idea to plant trees that could absorb mercury, break it down into a “less harmful form” and release it into the atmosphere. Maybe – just maybe – there should be some regulations on this stuff? I can’t even walk off a trail in some places in this country for public fear of ruining the natural environment and we’re allowing professors who know no risks to transgenics plant trees that want to put mercury into the air? Another type of scary technology is known as “DNA synthesis” which attempts to construct gene and genome length DNA fragments from scratch. Again, there is no risk assessment on this. Yet despite being virtually alone working in the field the company has raised millions of dollars for their work. This could create entirely new species or change existing organisms “for useful purposes.” The company is called Synthetic Genomics and yes, they are also a part of bio.org. The founder of the company is none other than Dr. Craig Venter. Notice how the author of that article, a microbiologist for NYU, is ecstatic about the creation of the new company on his creepily named blog “biosingularity.” Anytime I find an evangelist supporter of biotechnology I love to find their reasoning, for him, he follows biotechnology blindly because:

I aim to follow and contribute to these advances with the hope that they will have positive impact on our health, greatly increasing our lifespans, enhancing our standard of living and improving our environment.

(Italics and bolded print are mine!)

Great. A microbiologist for NYU and he is being led by the same faith of hope as the religious. He follows these “advances” because he knows they will have a positive impact on our health and whatever and whatever? No. He follows these “advances” because evidence strongly supports that they will have a positive impact on our health and whatever? No. He follows these advances because he strongly believes risks have been greatly minimized to the public on these technologies? No. He hopes. And do you know why he hopes? Because the above statements are impossible for him to say because there are no studies – there are no risk assessments – only blind capitalism and hidden investors hungry for a 10-fold-return on their investment for doing absolutely nothing with it personally.

So who is this Dr. Craig Venter that founded Synthetic Genomics? He is famous for sequencing the human genome – for understanding what all the parts of a human gene look like. He became infamous for backing academia and then switching to backing industry. The battle for funding these exhaustively expensive projects was a choice between dealing with a bureaucratic government or vociferously voracious for-profit industry. Dr. Venter decided that with his research he should be able to pop out a few products that should return a profit – but at what risk? We’ll never know because assessment of risk in this undeniably highly controversial field will not occur. The private industry has held governments at bay on regulations with confusion and sweet whispers of miracles. If you don’t believe me there was a whole book written on it – and it explains how much of the advancement is controversial and ego-oriented, hardly in the publics best interest.

No - shes serious

No - shes serious

In fact profiting from the human genome has already had significant steps taken for it. When Craig Venter sequenced the human genome he could not have done so without public records, yet now he supports privatization of the human genome down to individual genes or even smaller. What does this mean? Well for giant biotech, pharmaceutical, and chemical companies it simply means investors (who literally do nothing but already own a lot of money they don’t care to share) need only to patent a part of the gene and if it is used for the purpose of any cure or idea they can profit off of it. So basically it means people who already have a bunch of money need to do little more than transfer a large amount of money into researching it, patent what’s discovered, and lie in wait for the cure to cancer or for a longer life or for happiness to be found in his now-purchased-gene and then he gets even more money he doesn’t share without a price. I mean working with Satan is hardly any different. What does this mean for reality? It means the patent office is inundated with 20,000+ patents on the human genome right now that are totally private to the outside world. As of Denise Caruso’s book 20% of the human genome had already been patented and some of the genes have been patented as many as 20 times each because they’ve been “improved” upon. Scientists refuse to do any research with the gene because if they discover something and it comes to show some jerk has patented the gene, he is allowed to demand money for simply having the money to put down on it in the first place. So research is halted, or only done with “sure-fire” genes that won’t cost a fortune in the long-run. What makes this more cruel is that these genes are found in each and every one of our bodies – they are beginning to patent what is inherently ours – what comprises you of you. I don’t know how that emotionally affects those who patent it or what lousy excuse or “reason” they can give for it – they are doing nothing but owning us from the inside out, and not letting everybody share the divine knowledge that makes us who we are.

Making a profit from genes and transgenes has become paramount. It comes at the cost of people with the very illnesses they promise to cure. It makes cows produce milk faster. They make farmers pay yearly for crops (our very food source, we must pay to be allowed to grow) all in the name of intellectual property. Just to tell you whats in your genome is becoming a fast growing business. It’s being used to systemize us and control us. And yet when these things get out into the environment – the real world – we have no way to protect ourselves against them if they are harmful (which we don’t know because we haven’t assessed the risks of this technology). Detection data is weak and transgenic crops accidentally wind up in all sorts of places they don’t believe. So once its let out into the world it is something we must deal with regardless of the negative effects of the transgenic crop or animal. If it decimates an entire species, food-staple, or region there is absolutely no repercussion strong enough to make the ends justify the means. The company that produced the rotten transgene would go bankrupt and the world would suffer and be forced to depend on this new infectious transgene because there are no other alternatives. In fact, Syngenta, the makers of the useless golden rice described earlier had contaminated a strain of corn en-route to Japan, who has much stricter guidelines on their food than America. However New Zealand received the same rice as Japan and it went through undetected even though it was contaminated with the transgene. Even biological confinement is a literal impossibility. And what for? Even Syngenta says GM food will not save the world.

Conclusion

So why did I write this? Already it is my longest entry to date (which I regret because people don’t like reading long things) and yet the problems I mentioned are only eclipsed by the problems I haven’t mentioned strictly due to space and time constraints. I see an industry that wants to have its cake and eat it too. Companies as scary as Synthetic Genomics which could create bioterrorism that crushes all bioterrorism (the scariest form of weapons) fill me with nothing other than the feeling that I’ve seen this somewhere before. To me this is a very old story – it comes with the fallacies of mankind – and is most famously portrayed in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Certainly people such as Craig Venter and the rest on the forefront of biotechnology have their visions – just as Frankenstein envisioned his creature as beautiful up until the very point it came to fruition and the disaster realized. But unlike Frankenstein’s monster – the monster tortured relatively few people and died alone out in the Arctic. If any single one of those hundreds of companies at the forefront of biotechnology release a Frankenstein monster into our world – it will not go up to the Arctic to die – it will become invasive – removing the competition of diversity, it will interact with us on the smallest of levels in unknown ways, it could decimate the planet or a food industry. Will they? We simply don’t know – because there are no risk assessments. Too much money is tied up into miracle working these days and people forget about the common good. We have enough technology that is safe for all of us, with risks already assessed, that would not take the financial weight to get the biotech industry off of the ground. But our pharmaceutical companies, our chemical companies, our oil companies – they’ve all found refuge in the sirens songs of genetic technology.

They have the power of life on their fingertips and its hidden behind secret doors with egos and millions of dollars to be lost or gained. But where are the regulations? Where are the risks? Is it okay to throw out into the environment a genetically different species? Animals and plants have no inherent defense intricately primed through ages of evolution to promote diversity and weather naturally-produced problems. Now we are creating unnatural species that natural ones must interact with on a molecular, biological, and environmental level. I mean this could mean the difference between the American midwest being a steppe or a desert. While nobody is opposed to physically confined experiments the biotech industry flaunts a big “fuck you” to having it that way simply because they should be entitled to turn a profit off of their studies. The problem is that if a study ends up with little fruit there is an attempt to create a demand for what is needed – much like Syngenta’s golden rice.

How far will it stretch?

Because I am not a super smart scientist why should my argument be worth anything? My argument started to be worth something the minute they took unassessed transgenic plants outdoors and began having all forms of life interact with it with no proof to me that they know what the fuck they’re doing. I may not be a scientist but I am certainly no idiot. I am not a religious man and the hope that feeds the giddy microbiologist up there and the hope that feeds the Christian desire of the second-coming-of-Christ does not feed my fact-based need for proper risk assessment. I wrote about this because it’s such a complex topic and the reason why it’s not getting taken care of properly most likely is because people don’t have a fucking clue with whats going on in this area so they decide to “leave it to the experts” – who all happen to be foaming at the mouth with profit-rabies. And don’t you dare have the audacity to call me an alarmist or extremist for saying that – there are billions of dollars tied up in that industry – there is a unquenchable desire for profit in an industry like that and the proof lies in the risk assessments. But now with this entry you’re an expert. You’re allowed to say “We don’t have a clue what the long-term effects of these transgenic crops and animals are and until you’ve followed some pretty basic standards in this field – we don’t want to know what you’ve got for us.”

The biggest problem is you’re most likely already eating it – just like many other species on this planet – because we’re not even allowed to know whether a crop was genetically modified or not. Ignorance is what is allowing the biotech company to keep from acting morally responsible – I’ve provided many links of information including Denise Caruso’s book. I don’t know how to compete with millions of dollars, but I do know I can’t stand when we have to pretend something is good when it’s not.

The North Pacific Garbage Patch

Delicious empty plasticUpdate: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!

********If you think the North Pacific Garbage Patch is important I strongly suggest you click on this link to my entry on the general state of our oceans. There are more immediate dangers to our ocean other than it being a giant garbage pool (I know! Suck! right?!)*********

********Update: 1/16/10 – Brand new article in Scientific America about the mounting concern about the dangers of BPA – Let’s hope this is the start of the ball we’ve all been waiting for to move on to a biodegradable and safer choice in packaging and containing********

Ecological disasters that affect the Earth on a global scale have been important to me for a long while now. Not because I love to see disasters or that I am a nature freak – but because I see an absolute lack of attention on these issues and I know, being a rational human being, that large ecological disasters need to be addressed – and ecological disasters involving our water is huge. Earlier I wrote an entry on the dilapidated Aral Sea which civilization hides what remains of the skeleton in countries forgotten or mocked. Ecological disasters – total and utter disasters – are a massive blind spot in the vision of civilization.

The North Pacific Garbage Patch is easily one of the top 5 blind spots of civilization. Everyday civilization cheerleads over the material benefits it has provided to humanity. Cars, money, alcohol, drugs, toys, conversation-pieces, an amazing array of food, plumbing, sneakers, clothes, the list is literally endless. From the depths of South America and Mexico immigrants team towards the United States in droves grasping for the coattails of the lifestyle civilization has provided the “Western” world for the last century. In China and other Southeast Asian countries people are willing to work literally for pennies for a chance at the civilized lifestyle – the chance to get material possessions to miraculously appear like those in the western culture.

Yet the Achilles heal of civilization can be summed up in one sentence: There are infinite desires on this finite planet. Yet Civilization is going full-steam ahead at creating a globalized world and economy. The blood of the Civilized Beast? Oil. It courses thick and hot through the veins as it is at the root of our transportation, which we all know, but it is also at the root of something less-thought-about but more prevalent than gas – plastics.

Plastic comes from oil and civilization has found no end for its uses. If we stopped using everything that used plastic today we wouldn’t have computers, cars, medical equipment, cookware, most bottles, most supermarket bags, and so much more. When you have a substance that is so depended on by literally billions of people, but yet is so disposable is the point when you have a problem – that is common sense. We are at that point. We have a problem.

The North Pacific Garbage Patch, the Toxic Soup, Pacific Trash Vortex, Garbage Island, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are just some names that have referred to this problem. And it’s a problem that is still in its infancy to Civilization (which always has something more important to deal with than problems – like profit). The fact that this problem doesn’t even have just one common name shows how unaddressed this problem really is. People can say 9/11 and everybody knows exactly what you’re talking about, but if you start asking people about the North Pacific Garbage Patch many will blankly stare and wait for you to “preach” to them and walk away deeming you as a hippie or environmentalist. Yet 9/11 was two (albeit tall) buildings that only affected people psychologically (outside of those who were actually victims of the attack), but 9/11 did not affect those who watched it on television (over and over and over again) physically – the North Pacific Garbage Patch is affecting us all physically.

The North Pacific Garbage PatchWhat Garbage Patch?

So what is the North Pacific Garbage Patch? Articles found sparsely across the web will all tell you virtually the same thing. Just like a flushing toilet there is a giant rotating vortex in the middle of the substantial Pacific as you can see in the picture. And like massive whirlpools the size of continents will do, they will collect debris from all 4 corners of the ocean and slowly whirl towards the center. This whirlpool is known as the North Pacific Gyre and at the center of it hundreds of thousands of square acres are covered in our plastic. Yes – the plastic you used to cover your leftovers last night, the plastic found around your vitamin water, the plastic bags you brought home from the store, and that plastic trinket you threw away last year and never thought twice about. Slowly it meanders around the gyre toward the center like a black hole.

The comparison to the black hole falls apart when we get to the center. While matter seems to disappear forever once it passes the event-horizon of a black hole, the matter of the North Pacific Gyre simply collects forever. I’m not going to pretend like I’m the expert or that I can tell you more about the garbage patch than others, this entry is more than just simply shouting “Hey – Garbage Patch everyone – big problem!” That job has been done relatively well by few progressive newspapers, but are outshadowed by VBS.TV.

This video by VBS.TV can give you the best information on the North Pacific Garbage Patch to date. In fact I was a little disappointed when I saw the video because I had this entry planned long before the video came out. But obviously everything that is right comes from that video. VBS.TV reports on the things that our multi-billion dollar corporate media empires should be reporting on. They wreak of real people who are simply interested in sharing the world with the world. And it’s all for free.

Bisphenol A, Pesticides, and Other Delicacies Offered on Your Menu This Evening

The source of the problemSince that documentary can show you more than I could ever show you on the North Pacific Garbage Patch I want to take this to the next step. What that documentary shows is frightening to humanity. You hear them speak about the “money shot,” a trail of garbage as far as the eye can see, and how alas, it never was to be. This is because Civilization has stopped giving us a tangible visible enemy, this enemy lurks under the waves and is slowly breaking apart, but not becoming part of the environment, just becoming smaller pieces of plastic.

All of this plastic is floating to an area of the ocean that most of the world has forgotten about – an area twice the size of Texas to an area twice the size of the United States (still no serious studies done on it yet). It may be a large area but very few ocean species live there and humans rarely need to ship or boat through it. So simply because it is owned by no one and isn’t highly traveled, it has become nonexistent to us. Ultimately we have found a garbage dump that costs nothing and is extremely large to fill.

Of course the cost is nothing if you only calculate it in dollars – which is unfortunately still the ignorant way of civilization. Our plastic trash has become an epidemic changing the genetics of animals and humans as well as creating vast stretches of beaches filled with garbage. If I’m going to make the claim that it is indeed changing genetics then I should have to verify this statement. Within that VBS.TV video there is a clip at the end labeled “Extra” in which they ask a Marine Biologist which cites studies done with animals that have been exposed to bisphenol A.

Bisphenol A is a major compound found in plastics. A fact is that bisphenol A mimics estrogen, which is a hormone within our bodies. According to the Marine Biologist in the study, animals exposed to high levels of bisphenol A have had a lower rate in male births because estrogen is primarily a female hormone. In fact a team of government experts on bisphenol A has concluded that the current levels of bisphenol A found within humans today can “impact human health at current levels of exposure.

But – people are going to say what they want to say, right? After all you’ve been drinking from and using plastic your whole life and you aren’t out buying bras or giving birth, are you? The unfortunate reality of this situation is that the negative affects have already began to settle on the human race. Throughout humankind the ratio between males to females have always always always been 1:1. It’s a coin-flip. 50/50. There has been nothing throughout the course of OUR ENTIRE SPECIES that has thrown us off this virtually perfect balance between men and women. Theoretically the idea of a soul-mate exists, the idea that every man could find a woman and every woman could find a man to thrive and prosper happily ever after. But now – that is changing – and of course it would have to begin with those who never accepted plastic into their lives like we do now.

The Inuit now have a birth ratio of 1 boy to every 2 girls. The article vaguely puts “Man-made chemicals” at the root of this issue. However with our brief crash course on bisphenol A and the Pacific Garbage Patch I think we can begin to draw some logical cause-and-effect relationships.

A dead bird with a full belly of plasticsWhy? If you noticed in the VBS.TV documentary they had a researcher on board collecting the plastic in glass jars. Why was he doing this? He was measuring the ratio of zooplankton, the most basic food in the ocean, to plastic. Why is this significant? Because more complex animals like to eat the plankton. The problem is with all animals (humans included) is that we’re lazy and if there is something more convenient to eat then why not eat that instead? Why go home and cook a perfectly done steak when you can stop at McDonalds? Are you trading both taste and quality for convenience? Yes. Animals do the same thing. There is so much plastic in the North Pacific Gyre that there is roughly 10 pounds of plastic for every 1 pound of plankton. In Part 10 of the VBS.TV video he shows a sample of about 1000 to 1 ratio.

Once again, so what? Small fish are as lazy as people and instead of eating McDonalds they choose to eat plastic, what’s the big deal? Aside from plastic having no nutritional value and doesn’t digest (similar to McDonalds again, har har har) plastic also happens to be a convenient spongy absorber of some of the most toxic chemicals on the planet (once again Humanity and Civilization may take a bow for creating these personal Frankensteins). What kind of chemicals? PCBs, DDTs, and many other pesticides and poisonous chemicals created from around the world. Animals consume these.

And again, the ignorant will drum, “So what!? It’s still not us that has the problem!” But that is not true. Now we have plastic and poison sitting inside of billions of species of fish, birds, and mammals because as one consumes the other up the food chain the plastic and poisons remain part of their system. And these are the same animals that we eventually end up eating. So why is it affecting the Inuit first? Because they eat directly from the ocean and their birthrate is telling us that plastic has permeated the ocean so severely that is is affecting land-dwelling animals – us – humans. If this continues we will be forcing ourselves, our children, and their children to eat the poison and plastic created by us and our prior generations for whimsical convenience. Again – there is no rate of slowing down, there is no attempt at removing plastics from our lives. We have wedded to it as Siamese twins are wedded to each other and we will influence each other similarly.

Plastic pellets, which create every plastic thing you know, are created and sold with no worry of regulations, with no worry of shutting down. The picture to the right shows us how novel plastic is – you can even purchase pellets that glow in the dark! Well how cool is that!? Meanwhile it is getting broken down into invisible chunks in the ocean and infecting life as we know it.

A New Way

What I really wanted to focus on though is a new way of thinking that needs to come from you – the individual. Nobody can rid their life completely of plastic, but first things first, people need to know that this is a serious serious serious threat to both humanity and life as we know it. We need to push news organizations to cover the North Pacific Garbage Patch and tell our governments (all our governments) to start doing something to fix it, and we need to openly know all of the problems it is causing us. Nobody within the civilized world is innocent – indeed those who are innocent, like the Inuit, are the first to deserve compensation. We need to know the scale of the problem. We need to know what we can do with it if cleaning it is virtually impossible. We need to become creative in a positive and progressive way.

How do we do that? Not like this. That is a link to a Globe-and-Mail article on the North Pacific Garbage Patch. Do you want to read about it? Do you want to learn more about it? Well too bad because unless you’re going to cough up $5, you’re NOT going to read it. And guess how many people are willing to pay $5 to read an article? None with a life, I’ll answer you that. Topics like the North Pacific Garbage Patch can NOT GET OUT SOON ENOUGH. In fact, the government should be paying people to stand on sidewalks shouting this at people.

Another good idea on what this monstrosity isAnother way to NOT be progressive about this whole thing is to skirt important issues such as this google-advertised website that seems uncharacteristically positive on the absolute permeation of plastic. It links to articles that disseminate concerns as nothing to lose sleep over. Indeed there are videos near the bottom in which they interview a woman from the American Chemistry Council shaming the media for saying anything negative about plastics and claiming the safety for all within them. She claims we must “look at all the facts” and that these products are entirely safe. Of course there is no mention of the Inuit birth ratio, the fact that BPA acts as an estrogen, and that our oceans are literally garbage dumps for plastic. In fact, if you can find out what specific individuals run that site, I’m sure we’ll quickly find connections to the plastic industry. A “factsonplastic.org” is something worthy of checking out (not always true though), a “factsonplastic.com” is something worthy of being suspicious of, profit is still the main motivation. I took the liberty to check it out myself because some of these articles just skirt the issue entirely. Factsonplastic.com seems to cite STATS.org as their “factual” reference. But one look at that site and I got suspicious again (and see? It’s a .org site), but here’s why:

The article that got me suspicious was this article: Why Journalism is Failing the Public on the Risk from Plastic. So why does STATS.org say that journalism is failing the public on the risk from plastic? No – not because it’s not reporting on the giant sewage pit you can spy with a telescope from atop the Golden Gate Bridge (exaggeration guys, I dont know if that’s true), but instead it’s because they are fretting TOO MUCH about plastic. The article comes to sooth you from the aggressive media attacks on the evils of plastic. Wait, what? Since when does the media talk about plastic – the most pervasive and essential item to the entire civilized world? Well actually, Google Trends reveals that the media actually almost never talks about plastic at all, and it’s spoken far less about than Iraq – which only affects the people who are in the country. So how is the media being “highly selective and judgmental”? Well actually they were just simply reporting the findings of the government, such as the scientific study I linked above, and that Canada is considering banning BPAs. But STATS.org takes you down a dark path of twisted words and questionable logic, but that’s okay, you don’t have to waste your time reading that BS – they bold and italicize the only words you need to know: some concern, some concern, negligible concern, negligible concern, minimal concern, possibility but not a certainty, the panel then raised the Tolerable Daily Intake of BPA, not only not to ban BPA but to increase the level permitted. Those are just some of the terms they skew this “scientific” article with. They fill you with doubts and ideas that because plastics are increased somewhere that it still doesn’t have a long-term affect. All of those concerns (which the article is happy to dismiss to focus on the probability they just created using those terms) say nothing about long-term exposure to the environment. NONE of them. They all focus on the fact that if you go and touch BPA right now that you will not be infected and murdered.

So I looked at the Staff of “STATS.org” because there seemed nothing unbias about that article at all. A simple Google search of the President and the #1 result is from a website known as Sourcewatch, with the slogan “Your Guide to Names Behind the News” – interesting. S. Robert Lichter is the president of STATS.org and in the past was strongly affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute which “succeeds in placing its people in influential governmental positions.” Additionally the American Enterprise Institute is a basis for neoconservatives and is extremely pro-business (and pro-plastic! what’s business without plastic?). And still S. Robert Lichter is a paid consultant of Fox News, the right-wing news source in the media. And though STATS.org touts being used by influential news organizations S. Robert Lichter condemns Peter Arnett, who has a solid history of reporting war for what it really is – someone who taught us all what real news reporting is. In this day and age it does not take very many brain cells to connect S. Robert Lichter to the current, lying, economy-ruining, big-business, torture-promoting, checks-and-balances-avoiding neoconservatives. Yet it is his website that is the source for a website called “FACTSONPLASTIC.COM.” It is obvious that he has no desire to see plastics being treated with unbiased factual information, which is why whoever he’s affiliated with created such a deceiving and misleading website. This is what needs to change! It’s sad for humanity to allow people like S. Robert Lichter to have such power even though it is clear he has a heavy, uninformed bias.

It’s sick that we allow humans such as above to determine the life of us and generations to come of all species. This isn’t a forest fire – this is plastic – it doesn’t go away and it’s changing, poisoning, and killing everything. But one way to begin to be progressive about this is to get the word out. In the VBS.TV video the person getting the samples of plankton-to-plastic said that it’s impossible to clean or fix. But I’m going to have a little more faith in humanity than that.

Our Future? Or Our Past?A start is how simply this teenager found a way to make plastic degrade in 3 months time. Instead of never. That’s a good first step. I don’t have the answers, but it’s high time we make plastic the forefront of our attention. Logically, from looking at the pieces of plastic picked up on the VBS.TV documentary and knowing the true scale of plastic-to-plankton, knowing the “concerns” from scientists across the board on plastic, and the result of the Inuit birth rate, there is virtually no doubt in my mind whether plastic is harmful. While factsonplastics.com tries to focus on whether a baby bottle will turn your baby into a disfigured monster, the facts are it is being used as a food source by animals, is absorbing toxins, and is likely the cause behind high female birth rate.

***Update*** I got a couple of comments that seem literally offended by this entry – it’s like the same kind of offense you see when you pick on someone’s mom. Let me clear something up quick – I’m not saying we need to scrap everything we’ve ever progressed with and we should wait for trees to fall down naturally and live under them like cavemen, I’m not being unrealistic here… however I AM making the argument that we can do way way better than this. For example – Coal is a dirty, cancerous, and inefficient, however during the early 20th century it was the staple of industrialization. In England it would coat buildings black with soot and cause major health problems for those living nearby. Now is it WRONG for people to recognize the dangers of coal? And is it WRONG for people to want something more energy efficient and healthy? Is it anti-civilization to want something better for humanity and the world? Plastic is unsustainable, isn’t biodegradable, and has significant dangers if we continue or increase our usage. Additionally oil deposits will not be around forever – why would anyone be upset at a movement for a cleaner, healthier, and sustainable way of living? That is all I’m looking for – it’s for my health as well as yours – I’m just being greedy for all of us.

The Aral Sea

 

 

 

***Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!***

Update August 2009*** Newest Photo of Aral Sea by NASA – The sea has become virtually a desert.

***If you enjoyed this entry, you might also be interested in my entry on the North Pacific Garbage Patch or Our Oceans***

Yes. The Aral Sea. The name either stirs up complex emotions of urgency, desperation, hopelessness, and shame or – nothing at all. For too many people on this planet the latter response is all too common, the Aral Sea might as well be a massive depression on the moon or Mars because they could not locate it on a map of the world despite its huge size and complex issues surrounding it. The story of the Aral Sea is epic. It marks a beginning as well as an end on this planet, it is a watershed. It’s an indicator of the progress of civilization and it is a marker of human power. It is also infinitely buried behind stories of Hollywood drama, iEverything, and sports scandals. It is the story of the Aral Sea that future generations will look back upon and clearly understand where humans went wrong but are left empty with the reasons why. Parched, starving, and disease-ridden they will look back at their species impact on the planet and feel abysmal shame. But for now we live pridefully in ignorance, playing a game of economics, gratuitously feeding the infinite desires in our finite world, laughing or scoffing at those who do not win or play the game.

The Aral Sea from SpaceSo what is the story of the Aral Sea? When I said it was epic, I wasn’t kidding. It’s a story that J. R. R. Tolkien could be impressed with, and it’s real too. It’s a story involving extreme landscapes, powerful leaders, deadly weapons the likes of which this Earth has never seen, projects never before attempted. It is about a struggle for humanity to become God. To the right we see the Aral Sea and its serene beauty from space. The reason why we can see it from space is because the Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world. That’s right – a lake. A lake that supported all forms of life – including humans – for centuries.

The difference between a lake and a sea is salinity, or salt – the more salinity the more likely the body of water will be called a sea. The Aral Sea lay around some of the flattest and driest land on the planet. An area naturally high in salt the Aral Sea seemed destined to become a salty sea. But over 1,500 miles away in the remote mountains of a forgotten country that is known today as Tajikistan – something was happening that greatly affected the Aral Sea. The Pamir Mountains are some of the highest mountains in the world and still covered in glaciers. Being one of the few unthawed regions left on the planet glacial waters poured in abundance from the mountains dropping to much lower land in the West. Fresh and clean, two of the largest rivers in Central Asia headed West and drained into the Aral Sea. This freshwater runoff allowed the Aral Sea to lose salinity and become the fourth largest lake in the world. Fish prospered, animals prospered, people prospered. Centuries went by and the Aral Sea continued to provide. Strong coastal communities formed where fishing and fresh water dominated the otherwise dry and empty plains. The story of the Aral Sea up to this point could be one akin to a fairy-tale, a massive source of water in one of the driest and hottest places on the planet, a much needed source of fresh water and food, like a mother she nurtured those who trusted her with their lives.

As the centuries passed nothing remarkable changed. The freshwater from the mountains were plentiful as was the diverse ecosystem of the Aral Sea. Even when the Great Russian Famine struck in the early 1920’s the Aral Sea helped provide for a growing nation. The Aral Sea could not have known what the people it had helped try to feed during the famine were going to do to it a couple decades later – nobody could’ve known.

The Karakum and the Nurek:

A Darvasa Gas Crater in the Karakum desertThe Karakum desert is one of the largest deserts in the world and lies mostly Southeast of the Aral Sea. The hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet was 136 degrees Fahrenheit in Libya… the Karakum desert has been known to reach over 122 degrees. Translated the name does little to help the image of the Karakum, or Kara – kum, or “Black Sand.” The desert of black sand sounds like the kind of place where Satan himself seems like he’d reside, and he just might. Overshadowed by the boundless Sahara or the enchanted Gobi little is known or documented about this desert which resides in a country almost entirely sheltered from the outside world (Turkmenistan). Closed to the public the Karakum desert has a mystical allure to it which the Darvasa Gas Craters exacerbate (right).

In 1954 the United States and the Soviet Union were beginning their long descent in to the Cold War. While the United States was condemning the actions of Joseph McCarthy and his red scare, the Soviet Union was very interested in this desert Hell. They had grand schemes to transform a desert, that’s right – a desert, into prosperous agricultural land. The Soviets had visions of cotton and rice supplying their socialist empire from one of the most forsaken deserts on the planet.

The Karakum Canal - good luck finding better pictures of itHow do you pull off making a desert a haven for life? It is a contradiction in terms to have an abundance of life with a desert. Deserts are meant to be void of life, empty of the necessities of survival for most species regardless of what kingdom they belong, yet this was the plan of the Soviets. A year earlier in 1953 one of the most notorious leaders in the recorded history of the planet had finally died due to a stroke – Joseph Stalin. There was then a struggle for power in the Soviet Empire in which Nikita Kruschev came out on top. It was in the infancy of his leadership that the plan to turn a desert in to an ecosystem began. And the plan was this: To build the largest irrigation canal that this Earth has ever seen. And in 1954 the Karakum Canal was being built. When finished it was going to be 500 miles of pure irrigation madness. There was just one little problem – where would they get all that water from in a desert? The answer lay in the foot of the impressive Pamir Mountains in which the longest river in Central Asia flowed out of – known as the Amu Darya.

The Amu Darya, such a large river the name actually translates into “sea” or “big river,” had enough water to provide the Karakum Canal with the water it needed for irrigation. It would take over 3 decades to complete the canal but it was completed, not only that but the Karakum Canal was a success! Canals started springing up all along the Amu Darya and her sister to the North, Syr Darya, mainly growing cotton and rice. It quickly became the staple in these Middle Earth countries. Even today the Karakum Canal still reigns as the largest irrigation canal in the world. The long flowing arms of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya became economic goldmines. The Syr Darya’s name means “Great Pearl” because of the fresh glacial sediment pouring off the mountains giving the color of wet cement. The sources of these rivers were useful to the Soviet agenda as well. Deep in the vast Pamirs the Soviets were brewing another plan to harness the powers of these glacial rivers.

Secret Picture of the Nurek DamTucked in the Pamir Mountains, in the quiet country of Tajikistan, a town was created that never existed before. The town of Nurek was built out of necessity and still exists. Like a relic from a long forgotten past a statue of Lenin, the godfather of the Soviet Union, adorns the town even today. The town was created for one job – to build the tallest dam in the world and then staff it and run it. The Nurek Dam was born. The Nurek Dam provides electricity for 98% of the country in the past and currently. It is still an essential part of the Tajik lifestyle. Families take vacations to the Dam’s reservoir and swim in the pristine blue glacial waters. The government is so concerned about security with it that they allow almost no pictures of it – you are lucky to find 4 on the internet. The river the Nurek Dam sits on – the Vakhsh River – used to flow into the pearly Syr Darya but it is now used to power an entire country. The Soviet Union only saw success in their eyes: the longest canal, the tallest dam. Surely they questioned what it is they couldn’t do. Their legacy carries on today as a heavy portion of the world market of cotton comes from this area of the world because of the irrigation canals these two rivers fed, and the Nurek Dam is still the tallest fully functioning dam in the world.

The Death of the Amu and Syr Darya:

Now, while all this was happening the Aral Sea was creating a local mystery. The shoreline of the Aral Sea was receding. The waters edge was quickly becoming more distant. Interestingly enough it was originally branded as a temporary problem. The solution was simple – get some boats, bring them upstream, dredge the nearest canal and pull that water back to the Aral Sea so boats could still go about their business. The water the dredgers brought back were toxic with pesticides and high concentrations of salt. To the fish it was a chemical bath that most did not survive and the result was a plummeting fishing industry in a lake with a still receding shore. In the early 60s the Aral Sea employed 60,000 people in the fishing industry, by the 70’s the industry had dropped 75%. The Aral Sea was in a crisis and the reality of it soon sunk in. The irrigation canals and the dams all diverted the arteries of the Aral Sea across Central Asian desert. Naturally the answer would be to close down the irrigation canals and allow the water to continue to flow in the sea, but too late, these canals help aid a global need for cotton as well as employs thousands. Nobody was in a rush to shut all this down to feed a dying Sea – that, in the rest of the world’s eyes, was a local problem.

By 2000, less than a half century after the last time the Aral Sea was seen at normal levels, the Aral Sea is a wasteland. Piles of salt encrust the sand that used to be full of thriving life and all underwater. When the wind picks up it blows fine pieces of sand, salt, and chemicals across theA dry Amu Darya now barren desert. If Rip Van Winkle himself went to sleep under a tree in front of the Aral Sea Coastline he would wake up aghast at the desert that surrounded him. He would hop on the parched landscape breathing in the sandy heat. Surely it would feel post-apocalyptic. At one point Rip Van Winkle could stop and look up and say “The water should be 30 feet over my head,” because it had been only 50 years earlier. Eventually Rip Van Winkle would find the shoreline – far off in the distance from the original. Once the 4th largest lake in the world it’s now between the 10th and 15th largest… and dropping rapidly. On top of creating the salty, sandy, pesticide-ridden desert the Soviets had one more thing to contribute to the area.

Renaissance Island:

Picture a James Bond movie: James Bond: Renaissance Island. This mission for Bond isn’t easy, he has to infiltrate a forgotten Asian country and reach an island in the middle of a sea undetected. On this island lies one of the most top-secret, deadly, bioweapons facilities on the face of this planet. This is Renaissance Island – a name only a cliche Bond movie could’ve come up with. Once he passes through the test chambers and secretly strangles a few guards Bond finds himself in a clean, white laboratory with the most hazardous materials on the planet: anthrax, bubonic plague, small pox, tularemia. “You’re too late Bond,” the Soviet supervillian appears from behind a secret door blocking his exit in his pressed and decorated uniform, “I’m just about to release these toxins into the world, and you’re too late to stop me.” Normally this is where Bond does something really creative, but in real life Bond never stood a chance. This time the supervillian wins.

Welcome to Vozrozhdeniya Island. Yes, the name really does mean Renaissance. The word renaissance means “rebirth,” so it is interesting that only death was on the mind of so many of the inhabitants. Indeed it is true Vozrozhdeniya Island was host to one of the most top secret, deadly, bioweapons facilities in the world. However, it didn’t always used to be like that. Vozrozhdeniya is the southwestern of the two islands in the Aral Sea. In the 1930’s it was briefly used as a bioweapons testing range but was not considered for some of mankind’s most dastardly work again until the 1950s. Enter Kantubek, the town created for the scientists to live and play in when not working in a top secret bioweapons facility.

Vozrozhdeniya Island is dubbed “the world’s largest biological warfare testing ground.” This facility really did carry those germs mentioned above: anthrax, bubonic plague, small pox, tularemia. Out of Kantubek the men would come to work to create some of the world’s most powerful superstrains. This meant that they would take something like smallpox and make it super resistant to antibiotics making it more easily communicable. But how do we know for sure what was going on in that facility? While many scientists have worked there I have only found two that have spoken about their time there.

Seriously the only picture of the Vozrozhdeniya lab complex not from space on the internet - seriously.In 1992 a man named Ken Alibek defected from Russia to the United States. Alibek and Vozrozhdeniya Island had a special history together. You see, Alibek used to be the former head of the Soviet germ warfare program and just so happened to have worked on Vozrozhdeniya himself. He openly admits to the atrocious strains they worked on. He claims to have been ordered to prepare a strain of anthrax, small-pox, and bubonic plague to be put in a warhead aimed at the United States – New York, Boston, Chicago. Openly Alibek admits that in a certain scenario the devastation would be catastrophic. Animal testing was common on the Island; guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, cows, horses, donkeys and even monkeys were all animal victims of the facility. Like a funhouse from Hell the animals would be pulled through unknown corridors and led to dead ends where agonizing and terrible Death lay waiting to be fed Life sautéed in disease.

They tested at night, hidden from the secret eye of satellites, it was when the sun set that the animals must’ve backed in to a corner of their cage fearing their “turn.” Open air testing with biological weapons is universally agreed as a bad idea, yet on Vozrozhdeniya it was common practice. The Soviets, however, did attempt some level of containment. They figured insects or birds could be nearby during the open-air testing thusly transferring some superstrain to the mainland. To solve this little problem the Soviets poisoned the whole testing area to kill off anything around that happened to be alive. This is to ensure those insects are dead before any serious biological weapons are tested, some have taken issue with this practice claiming that it guarantees nothing, but the Soviets took no mind. After the open-air testing facility is freshly poisoned it is time to bring the animal(s) out to be subjected to some of the most wretched diseases on the planet. Alibek describes one night: “The cloud would start moving towards the monkeys. They were crying because they knew they would die.” Afterwards they’d be studied until they languishingly succumbed to death – Alibek claims thousands of animals died through this method.

The other man I found was named Gennadi Lepyoshkin who was a supervisor of scientific teams on Vozrozhdeniya Island in the 1970’s. He recalls the still fresh and deep Aral in which they swam during their off time. The island was “beautiful.” From Lepyoshkin we gather a more relaxed atmosphere even claiming one woman who dropped a petri dish of anthrax and tried to cover it up was not even punished for her action, “Nobody got sick” he says. Plus not all work Lepyoshkin worked on was negative: “We discovered new methods to improve the immune system. We developed an anthrax vaccine that was given to the whole army, and it’s considered to be the best in the world. Same with our plague vaccine; it’s been used more than 40 years.” Yet I wonder if he really believed the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. Lepyoshkin on his feelings for testing biological weapons of horror:

I knew the weapons would never be used. When nuclear weapons were made, no one thought they would be used. You’d have to be mad to use them. But now that there’s terrorism, it’s more scary. You know biological weapons are cheap. We calculated that to achieve an effect on one square kilometer (and by ”effect,” he explains, he means killing about half of the population) it costs $2,000 with conventional weapons, $800 with a nuclear weapon, $600 with a chemical weapon and $1 with a bioweapon. One dollar.

Unfortunately the story of Vozrozhdeniya Island gets worse. One dark night in 1988 a train was heading towards the Aral Sea carrying 100 tons of anthrax. There were orders straight from Moscow to bury the anthrax on Vozrozhdeniya and to never speak of it again. Covered in bleach they were shipped to the island in steel barrels. Officials decided instead of burying them in the barrels they would just dump them in pits and pour a little more bleach on it just to be sure. In 1991 the island was abandoned altogether becoming one of the most hazardous places on the planet.

The Aral Sea Disaster:

The Aral Seashore todayMan. The Aral Sea sure has its fair share of stories. And they come together in a putrid parade of human ignorance. The dreams that the irrigation canals and the dams were supposed to fulfill gave birth to nightmares that thrived the further down the rivers you traveled. The irrigation canals did do their job – they created plenty of arable land to make cotton. In fact today in Uzbekistan an ancient communist dictator is still in charge of the country which he uses as his own personal cotton-picking slave business. In this video they ask a child how long shes been picking cotton and she responds “for a long time.” This is what she is forced to do for “school.” When picked the workers (slaves) are forced to sell it to the government for below market price so the corrupt leadership can make a profit. The region using these canals sell a serious portion of global cotton to the world, so it makes one wonder what one could be inadvertently contributing to when they simply buy clothes. Cotton is known as “white gold” for a reason. And on top of that they load the cotton with pesticides poisoning the canals and the river water that did make it to the Aral Sea.

In fact it was the pesticides flowing into the Aral, the heavily increased salinity in the area, and the unique batch of poison and diseases of Renaissance Island that left the sea null of life by the 1980s. It took a matter of about two decades to eliminate all life from the Aral. The water has decreased at an unparalleled rate. Reports currently fear the Sea’s disappearance in under a decade – and any satellite picture shows it too. It was as if the Vozrozhdeniya bioweapons facility manufactured a disease that could cause terrible cancer – not to humans – but bodies of water. From space one would watch the Aral Sea slowly look more ill up until the present where the Aral looks sickeningly like a skeleton of her former self. She is not being fed and she has become emaciated.

A good idea at the rate the 4th largest lake disappearedWhat is the Aral Sea like today on the ground? Put simply – awful. It’s even worse than in 2000, the Aral Sea was everything to the locals, it even gave them milder summers and winters in a land that was already known for extremes. The Aral Sea is now a dry, salty, desert. When the wind picks up here the fine particles of sand, pesticides, and poison make a “chemical cocktail,” a term I’ve only heard used describing the air of the Aral Sea. And when this wind picks up, some of it doesn’t land until it’s as far as the Antarctic, or even further. Lime disease, all sorts of cancer, anemia and tuberculosis are all running rampant in the Aral Sea region. The infant mortality rate has risen in the area as well. Doctors without Borders, something that has previously been chiefly used in war-zones, have committed themselves to aiding the Aral Sea problem as their first environmental cause. Yes, it is that bad. Abandoned boats are strewn across this desert leaving the eerie feeling of death. Maybe it’s because the Aral Sea is literally now a desert, void of life – or maybe it’s because you are standing around ships in that desert – the only desert on Earth covered in ships.

If you pass the barren coastal towns, pass the abandoned desert ships, hike through the searing desert with snowpiles of salt as wind pummels your pores with fine toxic particles, you will come to the sea’s edge. It’s still there for the time being. The salinity is so high it is now compared to the Dead Sea – the lowest point on mainland Earth. Walk along the edge of the water pondering humanity for a while and come to the newly formed land-bridge that now connects you to the Renaissance Peninsula. In 2001, the 10 year anniversary of the Soviets abandoning one of the most toxic islands on the planet, Vozrozhdeniya, she shed her Island title in place for the fancier “Peninsula.” Vozrozhdeniya rejoined the mainland as waters decreased to its consistent record low. Rodents and other animals now have open access to one of the most lethal areas on the planet.

One of the many abandoned ships in the Aral DesertIn 1995 a U.S. Department of Defense mission found its way to Vozrozhdeniya shortly before it turned into a peninsula. What drove them to this wretched corner of the Earth was again Ken Alibek, the defector from Russia:

It is clear, when you destroy tons and tons of their weapons, it wouldn’t be possible to kill everything. And now, what we know, is this island is contaminated.

And he was right. They found the anthrax pits, took some samples back, and found that they were still alive and could even be used for a potential terrorist plot. In 2002 the U.S. returned, this time with the intent of destruction. 8 warehouses were burned on the freshly created peninsula. Just because the island is one of the most noxious places on the Earth, it does not necessarily keep people away. Chris Pada is the only reporter I’ve found to have visited the island (he also interviewed Lepyoshkin). He did this by meeting up with a group of locals about to head to the abandoned peninsula. He called these people “scavengers” because they have been stripping apart the facility and the town since 1996 to sell or use the parts. While Pada notes the respectful silence the scavengers give to this infamous town the general attitude is unworried (“I don’t see any microbes”). Pada also noticed the 8 burned warehouses that the U.S. government destroyed earlier in the year. An unnerving fact is that Pada found many things the warehouses held still intact, but a U.S. Defense Department Official still claims all the anthrax is destroyed from the bleach pits they were buried in a decade earlier.

Whatever has claimed to have been done to neutralize the island does not compensate for some strange diseases occurring around the dying watermass. Even during the Soviet time, in 1971, a superstrain of smallpox had reached mainland from a scientist on a boat in the Aral Sea. In 1999 a 9-year old boy who lived near the shores of the Aral Sea died of the plague. Also in 1999 there were two cases of anthrax infecting people in Kazakhstan near the sea.

The Aral Sea seemed to hit rock-bottom with experts agreeing on no hope of a complete recovery. What was once the fourth largest lake in the world turned in to a massive dustbowl covered in salt plains. The rain is less frequent, the air more deadly, the temperatures more extreme, the wind more harsh. However in the Aral’s darkest hour some hope still lies yet for this doomed sea.

A New Hope – The North Aral Sea:

While the Amu Darya fed the Aral Sea from the south, the Syr Darya fed the Aral Sea from the North seemingly splitting the lake in half. The Syr Darya created the smaller northern region in Kazakhstan connecting through a small 8 mile gap to the larger southern portion mainly in Uzbekistan. It is in the much smaller northern region where progress is being seen today, no matter how small. The Kazakhstan government couldn’t save the whole sea but they realized that the 8 mile dam could amputate the dead and decaying southern portion from the much healthier northern portion. The Kazakhstan government, whose maximum spending ability is less than half of Wal-mart’s profit for 2006, put together $68 million to build a dam known as the Kok-Aral. The Kok-Aral has become the center of attention for those who still live by the Aral, it has helped regain 40% of its surface area since the dam was built and the water raised over 9 feet using just the Syr Darya.

The Aralsk harbor - the sea hasn’t returned yetAn issue with the dam is that it is low, which will not allow the North Aral Sea to reach previous levels, and so with a $126 million loan from the World Bank, a second dam is going to be attempted. Those who live by the northern section of the Aral Sea are ecstatic. Everything from better weather to a renewed fishing industry is giving everybody a positive attitude. The dam is a local attraction and people like to hang about it fishing. An ecosystem is being restored here. A sign in Aralsk, once the greatest fishing port on the sea, is patiently waiting for its return. A sign in the town reads “The sea has left our harbor, but it hasn’t left our hearts.

Ultimately though, the northern part of the Aral Sea is just a fraction of the entire thing. The feeling of hope quickly dissipates the farther south one goes past the Kok-Aral dam. There are no easy solutions to this problem. Uzbekistan has an archaic self-absorbed government that shows no signs of saving its portion of the sea. The profit from the cotton slave business is good enough for now, even as the salt from the receding sea and excessive pesticides kills arable land daily.

How to make a sea disappear in just 5 decadesThe story of the Aral Sea is a sad one. Even if the northern part returns to previous levels it will no longer be considered anywhere near the 4th largest lake in the world. It will have rejoined a class of mediocre lakes all around the world. But what’s the point of this Aral Sea story, why did I go so in depth into it? Well the question I ask myself, and I ask all of you, is this a trend that will be repeated in the future? The Aral Sea is not the only ecological disaster and they are not shrinking in numbers. There are trails of garbage miles long in the most remote parts of the Pacific. There is a radioactive town and forest in Ukraine. In China one of the world’s longest rivers is almost void of life because of pollution. At first these things seem to start small, for convenience. Is the Aral Sea a manifestation of future events or is it a freak accident?

The evidence points to the former. The reason why the Aral Sea began to shrink and die was not because of a natural climate shift, it was first and foremost a man-made disaster. But the irrigation canals were not made for pure evil purposes, they were simply made to ultimately create a profit. While there are plenty of benefits and positive aspects to capitalism, with the human population growing at an exponential rate, there are only more unlimited wants in an otherwise limited planet, so a greater need for resources is a natural reaction. Fresh water seems to be resource of the future and we can see how quickly it can disappear. The Aral Sea is disappearing in less than a half-century. That is less than one lifetime. I am here to suggest some humble wisdom for the human race that is likely on the minds of anybody who ever thinks of these things – not everything can be a game. In physics we’ve learned how relative everything can be, but even in physics there are admittedly some things that are not relative. This is also true for life. The need for freshwater for plants, animals, and humans is something that needs to be heavily invested in without profit or even an attempt at profit. If one is greedy with water and attempts to profit off of it then one is most likely guilty of some of the most awful crimes of life. Water was not made for Company/Government/Person A to pollute and Company/Government/Person B to profit and yet this is exactly the direction our planet is heading in without a bit more sincerity to our home. The Earth is our home and it is the only thing that provides for us – nothing else does. As I will explain in a different entry those who sniff future profits are attempting to monopolize the water “business.” But if you are still certain that disasters like Aral only come from incompetent archaic rulers, it just might be time to reconsider.

 

Is this our future?

I encourage discussion, comments, and clicking on the links. I really looked hard for them and it is where most of my information came from. The videos are amazing and the articles are thought-provoking. For such a terrible disaster it is almost not spoken about. Some of the articles I had to use were years old just because of the lack of reporting from the region. Any other things on the Aral Sea, feel free to share.

Life

Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!

Q: What do you think about when you see the picture below?

 

Some places where dead are below

A: You probably thought of death.

And while this is a graveyard, a sort of place only humans could think of, life is abound within the picture. Not so much in the cornfield in the background and not so much the individual leaves still remaining on the tree. Many of them are also dead, only they don’t get their own stones, why?

Certainly it isn’t because we don’t appreciate the work of the corn or leaf, is it? Well let’s hope not because that corn is probably going to be fed to cows or used to produce a biofuel. Those leaves are going to give nutrients to the soil which will help feed the next round of crops that invariably have human worth. And what are the dead people going to do? Store themselves deep in the Earth where nothing grows in an impenetrable box and have a giant cut stone resting at the surface.

Hardly the most useful dead beings in the picture humans still don’t typically question this ritual (if it is within your culture). However, this entry isn’t about humans, in fact if you’re interested in my beliefs about people, check that link right there. No, this entry isn’t about people, it is in fact about one of the other 3 things that I don’t understand: this entry is about life.(If you are interested in the other two things I don’t understand, check out my entries on people and the Universe.)

Life is prevalant in the above picture but since people are always so centered around the topic of people, the life in the above picture probably never crossed your mind. As far as the camera can see there is an abundance of alive, yet very thirsty (or perhaps dying), grass. Out of the cameras view or perhaps too small for the camera to see are the small birds potentially in that tree (and if not, they aren’t far off), the worms digging through the ground, the insects making their way across a steppe of everlasting trim grass.

Yet death plays an important role with life because it is the concept that meets every body and thing that reaches the end of their journey in life. There are no surprises here. As kind and giving or as cruel and cold life may have treated us for any variety of reasons we reach the bitter end to find Death awaiting to collect our souls and, truth be told, nobody knows where the journey goes after that.

Death by this guy

And this is why we fear Death. He’s exactly the type of guy who will come up to a tiny bunny in the middle of the frozen woods and relieve the tiny bunny from life and even refuse him the decency of telling the bunny where he’ll be sent! So people have some theories about this: Some people think it’ll go to bunny-heaven, others think it’ll not go to any heaven because it’s not as important as a human, still others think the bunny will just cease to exist in any living form period… NO heaven… NO nothing!

But the reality upon reality is we have no damn clue WHAT is going to happen to that bunny when it dies. Hell, nobody knows whats going to happen to themselves when they die. Sure you’ll hear theory after theory, but in the end there is just no damn proof exactly what happens to any given living individual. There is a tree in California that is approaching 5,000 years old. Forget the advent of electricity, the “discovery” of America, the middle ages, the Roman Empire, Jesus, the Shang Dynasty… no, this tree was alive when hieroglyphics was in style! And do you think this tree knows what happens to it when it dies? Well if it does it’s certainly not going to tell any of us, but I’m still going to go out on a limb here (pun intended!) and suggest that the tree does not have an idea what will happen to it when it dies. Yet from the moment we’re born, even from the moment we’re conceived, death lurks behind every corner, waits at the bottom of every slippery staircase, in the no-mans-land in Western Sahara, in the nearest nuclear reactor, and even inside other life forms!

So naturally the question arises: Why is there life? If every last one of us are germinated or born or whatever ONLY to have a stalker that wants to remove us at some point in some fashion, be it cruel or merciful (but always 100% accurate), why are we even born in the first place? Why not just not exist and save everyone the trouble?

Immediately at this point Religion obnoxiously bounds to the foreground and like an obedient dog propounding out-dated, loosely interpreted, largely unreliable, separate context, ambiguous, tedious, and questionable messages that are supposed to fill our lives with meaning. I will not go in to why that is, that is once again more discussed in my article on people. However Religion often does not match up with what many people would agree to be an ideal world. Religion has probably shed the most blood and committed the most torture out of any other human concept. So what can we turn to for answers? Is religion totally wrong? That’s a bold claim to make. However I suggest we really open our eyes and realize where we are in the Universe. The Universe is a vast, empty, space with just a sneezeful of matter sailing through the Universe. And on most of that matter, as far as we know, is not filled with life.

Yet there is one planet we know that is like a round ball of rotting bread… teeming with life. Every DAY we are confronted by the miracle of life the minute you confront another person or step outside or water a plant. People take life for granted so easily that they rarely consider how important it is both mentally and physically to them every day.

I don’t have the article on me, but you can take it from me it’s true, it has been found that when astronauts garden when up in space for long periods of time it tends to relax them. People are so desperate and needy for life that even if we could somehow survive in space we couldn’t do it alone for long. Nature relaxes us. Animals adore us. Life is most definitely essential especially because we, humans, are in the gang of life! But the question slowly creeps back, again and again, like a cockroach just out of stomping range, why is there life?

My answer? I don’t have a God damn clue. That is why it is one of the 3 things I don’t understand…

Giant Ball of Life

What I do understand is that doesn’t mean we’re totally screwed on figuring out some important things about it. Sometimes its hard to talk about the importance of life because some narrow minded people will quickly lump you in to some “environmentalist” category as if the environment didn’t apply to us all. The facts are we as people can not survive without life and it is also the very driving force behind everything we think we are and everything we think we know.Life should be upheld with the most sobering of importance. Yet we are a species of harvesters and it is hard to look humanely at our resources, it is easier to think of them as not alive, as if they are absolutely nothing like us.

But we aren’t going to be those kind of guys! We’re going to rationally acknowledge the importance of life, the implications of removing life, and delve in to the history of life all to help understand why life is so important. Why it’s worth delaying the enemy (In many cultures Death is not the enemy). Even questioning if Death is an enemy. Questions I plan to be focusing this site around in terms of life is the following:

What is the importance to life?

What does religion have to do with life?

Why is life sentient as opposed to inert like everything else in the Universe?

What are we (the living) reacting to in order to make each of us the way we are?

Can life forms communicate with other life forms that aren’t from the same species? (I say obviously yes, but how much is the real question)

Are we as people not communicating with other life forms as well as most other life forms due to our hubris?

What is life in relationship to death?

Where is life appreciated?

Where is life not appreciated?

What knowledge can we gain from that?

What is going on with the study of manipulating life as in biogenetics?

How does not knowing the purpose of it effect what we do?

…And other similar questions. It is important to recap what I’ve reiterated in my other initial entries. Life, People, and the Universe are the 3 things I don’t understand. Each one poses some serious questions that I am interested in answering, however they are all inter-related and act on each other. Life comes from the Universe which people are subject to both of their laws, while life is only subject to the laws of the Universe (however one can now make the argument of humans making laws for life now too with biogenetics). Each of the three things has some unique characteristics that make it enigmatic and important to think about. It’s important to take these concepts slowly and compile thoughts on individual topics to perhaps recognize a pattern with any of it.

So maybe we can put the ego away for a little bit. Maybe thinking about life isn’t about being a hippie or environmentalist or a pussy, maybe it will actually make you think a little bit before you act in this increasingly whimsy world. Being from the United States many of my point of views will come from that background, but much of the Western and many times still the Eastern world still apply to things I’ll be talking about. Indeed, I am speaking as best I can on a global level, while some things might not be as far reaching. I’m talking about hopefully learning some truths of the Earth, figured by reasoning.

Now maybe you can think a little bit, what do you think about life?

What DO Polar bears think about life?

What do they think about life?

Posted in Life. Tags: . 1 Comment »