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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rise Of The Superweeds

To read the full article from the New York Times, click here.

Roundup — originally made by Monsanto but now also sold by others under the generic name glyphosate — has been little short of a miracle chemical for farmers. It kills a broad spectrum of weeds, is easy and safe to work with, and breaks down quickly, reducing its environmental impact.

Sales took off in the late 1990s, after Monsanto created its brand of Roundup Ready crops that were genetically modified to tolerate the chemical, allowing farmers to spray their fields to kill the weeds while leaving the crop unharmed. Today, Roundup Ready crops account for about 90 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn and cotton grown in the United States.

But farmers sprayed so much Roundup that weeds quickly evolved to survive it. “What we’re talking about here is Darwinian evolution in fast-forward,” Mike Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, said.

Now, Roundup-resistant weeds like horseweed and giant ragweed are forcing farmers to go back to more expensive techniques that they had long ago abandoned.

Mr. Anderson, the farmer, is wrestling with a particularly tenacious species of glyphosate-resistant pest called Palmer amaranth, or pigweed, whose resistant form began seriously infesting farms in western Tennessee only last year.

Pigweed can grow three inches a day and reach seven feet or more, choking out crops; it is so sturdy that it can damage harvesting equipment. In an attempt to kill the pest before it becomes that big, Mr. Anderson and his neighbors are plowing their fields and mixing herbicides into the soil.

That threatens to reverse one of the agricultural advances bolstered by the Roundup revolution: minimum-till farming. By combining Roundup and Roundup Ready crops, farmers did not have to plow under the weeds to control them. That reduced erosion, the runoff of chemicals into waterways and the use of fuel for tractors.

If frequent plowing becomes necessary again, “that is certainly a major concern for our environment,” Ken Smith, a weed scientist at the University of Arkansas, said. In addition, some critics of genetically engineered crops say that the use of extra herbicides, including some old ones that are less environmentally tolerable than Roundup, belies the claims made by the biotechnology industry that its crops would be better for the environment.

“The biotech industry is taking us into a more pesticide-dependent agriculture when they’ve always promised, and we need to be going in, the opposite direction,” said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety in Washington.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

And Sewage Too...

Leeds, England

Image by Micah Lidberg

ON several quiet streets in Sheffield, a northern English city an hour from here, are street lamps that look like ordinary gas lamps, but do not burn ordinary gas. Instead, their light comes from gas released from the sewers that run beneath them. Thus, they are both relics of the past, when gas lamps lighted our streets, and of the future, when excrement and wastewater will again be seen as a resource, not a waste.

“Wastewater” has always been recognized to have some value. In 1860, as waterborne sewer systems were becoming the norm, an alderman named Mechi told Farmer’s Magazine that “if the money value of our sewers could be shown to the British farmer in bright and glittering heaps of sovereigns, he would gasp at the enormous wealth, and make great efforts to obtain the treasure.” Mechi was talking about the fertilizing nutrients in human “waste,” which he thought were needlessly ruined by mixing excrement with water, but he might also have been talking about its wasted energy potential.

Sludge, the solids that remain after sewage has been cleaned into effluent, has a high B.T.U. content (a measurement of fuel’s energy); it burns efficiently and well. Other aspects of wastewater treatment can also reap energy: anaerobic digestion (whereby bacteria munch on the organic contents) produces methane, which with turbines can become combined heat or power. Microbial fuel cells can use bacteria to get electricity from sewage, while gasification, a high-temperature process, can reap fuel-ready gas from sludge.

When it comes to harnessing energy from wastewater treatment, it sounds as if we are spoiled for choice. Then you look at the numbers. Of the 16,000 wastewater treatment plants in the United States, about 1,000 process enough gallons (five million daily) to be able to generate cost-effective energy using anaerobic digestion. Yet only 544 use anaerobic digestion, and only 106 of those do anything more with the gas produced than to flare it.

If those 544 treatment plants generated energy from their sewage, the E.P.A. concluded in a 2007 report, they could provide 340 megawatts of electricity (enough to power 340,000 homes), and offset 2.3 million tons of carbon dioxide that would be produced through traditional electricity generation. In the effort to reduce greenhouse gases, the E.P.A. said, this would be equivalent to planting 640,000 acres of forest or taking some 430,000 cars off the road.

Gasification, like anaerobic digestion, is an age-old process. It used to supply gas lamps in some American towns, too, before piped gas became the norm. The process — a thermal conversion at high temperatures — could probably be done in a garbage can. But the utilities haven’t been eager to push the technology. The sewage treatment process — essentially, filter, settle, digest — hasn’t changed much since the early 1900s, because it works. And drying out sludge enough to make it burnable takes money and energy. Pilot projects may take several years to pay for themselves, which can clash with short-term budget cycles.

Other factors may force the industry’s hand. It takes considerable energy to clean sewage, and energy costs have risen along with global temperatures. Now isolated pioneers are showing how investing in “waste” can pay off: London’s Thames Water utility now generates 14 percent of the power it needs from burning sludge or methane, saving $23 million a year in electricity bills.

Also, it’s green to burn the brown stuff. Resource recovery from wastewater counts as renewable energy, which makes sense: we’re hardly likely to stop providing the raw material anytime soon. So why continue to flush away a resource whose value, even under the dim light of a sewer gas lamp, should be blindingly obvious?

Rose George is the author of “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dear Mr.President, Go Organic!

From Dr. Walter Crinnion at The Huffington Post

What is amazing is that I wasn't the one to tell him this, nor was the first lady (although she quite likely already has). It was the President's Cancer Panel, working under the auspices of the National Cancer Institution. But, they were not just telling him to eat organic foods, they are recommending all of us "to choose, to the extent possible, food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers." This is not the Coalition for Alternative to Pesticides talking, but the President's Cancer Panel! (Be still my beating heart!)

Why are they saying this? And why are they sounding like they have been reading my book (Clean, Green and Lean)? Because they have actually been reviewing the same research that I have been studying for the last few decades. Multiple published studies have revealed the relationship of small daily doses of environmental toxins to health. In this case, the panel was looking directly at cancer risk.

There have been articles published over the last few decades showing that people who are exposed to certain pesticides, industrial chemicals and common air pollutants have higher rates of cancer. Dr. Devra Lee Davis published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1994 where she revealed that the boomer generation had twice the rates of cancer as their parents had, and that these cancers were NOT related to smoking but to other environmental toxins.

The President's Cancer Panel showed particular concern around pesticide and other chemical toxin exposure in children (and rightly so). They talked about parents and child-care providers being more active in reducing a child's exposure to toxic compounds. They also recommended that prior to becoming parents, that both the mother and father-to-be reduce their toxin exposures (and I would recommend that they lower their load as well). When it comes to pesticides this is very important, since organophosphate pesticide exposure (the most commonly used pesticide type today) has been strongly associated with childhood brain tumors in children. The occurrence of these brain cancers is far higher in children whose parents use these pesticides in their home or garden. One of these pesticides, diazinon, is the most commonly used pesticide for roses and other ornamental garden plants.

Our defense against these toxins includes enzymes in our bodies that clear such pesticides from our bloodstream, but we don't all produce the same amount of enzymes. We all have many genetic differences, but about 50 percent of us have different genetic coding leading to lower levels of the enzymes that break down organophosphate pesticides in the bloodstream. When children with this genetic difference are exposed to these pesticides, the toxins stay in their bloodstream much longer and their rates of childhood brain tumors go even higher.

The easiest way for us to avoid exposure to these organophosphate pesticides (which came out of nerve-gas warfare in the 1930's), is to stop eating the top 12 most toxic fruits and vegetables. These are (in order beginning with the most toxic): Peaches, Apples, Bell Peppers, Celery, Nectarines, Strawberries, Cherries, Kale, Lettuce, Imported Grapes, Carrots and Pears. See anything on that list that you regularly eat? For most of us, this list contains many of our most frequently eaten foods. So, if this includes you, then the first recommendation would be to spend a little extra for organic varieties of these foods. For those foods that can be peeled, this will reduce the pesticide load by about 95 percent! Your other option is to make an acid wash (more info on this is in the book: Clean, Green and Lean ) by mixing distilled vinegar with water in a bucket (about 10 percent vinegar), soak these fruits and veggies for a bit, and then scrub with a vegetable brush. Of course, that won't work well for strawberries or lettuce, so those you should just look for organic sources of.

As I wrote in my book Clean, Green and Lean, there are many very simple steps to reduce our daily exposure to all of the toxic chemicals that fill our environment. We don't need to be victims of our environment. We can reclaim our health! By taking active steps, we can prevent a number of health problems that are becoming more commonplace. Often these illnesses are seen as inevitable, sometimes they may even be prevalent in your family. But, by reducing your toxic load and living a healthier lifestyle you may very well avoid these problems. Do you really think it is a coincidence that the rates of cancers, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and autism have skyrocketed in the last 20 years as our world has become so polluted?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Village Life: Our Philosophy, Our Education, Our Lifestyle

By Bhakti Raghava Swami on 29 Apr 2010
From ISKCON News
Benjamin Franklin is just one of the many famous politicians of the past who appreciated the virtues of village life.

“All living bodies subsist on food grains, which are produced from rains. Rains are produced by performance of yajna [sacrifice], and yajna is born of prescribed duties.” [Bhagavad-gita 3.14]

The basis of “Simple Living and High Thinking”, the norm for civilized human beings, lies in the acceptance of village life centered on the performance of sacrifice, yajna, which is born of prescribed duties as delineated in the scientific system of varnas (social orders) and ashramas (spiritual orders). Such a social system, being very intimately connected with land, cows and higher consciousness, namely Krishna consciousness, is the most perfect and holistic way to live. When human society, due to neglect, bad leadership or misfortune (all based on lust, anger, greed, illusion, madness and envy) deviates from this established norm, a norm scientifically designed and created by the highest of authorities, Lord Krishna Himself, a norm meant to uphold, protect and foster the universal principles of dharma or religiosity, we should know for certain that only chaos will prevail and immense suffering must follow.

In any discussions on varnashrama dharma, the importance of village life and social organization are a must. Village life needs to be clearly outlined and strongly promoted. Vedic leadership that will give shape to social organization needs to be explained and strongly advocated. As we have heard Srila Prabhupada many times explain, the very foundation of varnashrama dharma begins with cow protection, for without cows the brahmanas cannot perform their duties within the varnashrama system and without following the various samskaras (rituals) within the varnashrama system, the aim of life cannot be realized, the result of which are varna sankara (confused progeny) and ugra karma (exploitive activity) at its worse. In such a degraded condition the dependent members of society, namely the cows, the brahmanas, the children, the women, the diseased and the elders cannot be protected:

“Without protection of cows, brahminical culture cannot be maintained; and without brahminical culture, the aim of life cannot be fulfilled. The Lord, therefore, is described as go-brahmana-hitaya because His incarnation is only for the protection of the cows and brahmanas. Unfortunately, because in Kali-yuga there is no protection of the cows and brahminical culture, everything is in a precarious position. If human society wants to be exalted, the leaders of society must follow the instructions of Bhagavad-gita and give protection to the cows, the brahmanas and brahminical culture.” [SB 8.24.5]

What follows are quotations from various sources which support the basic premise enunciated above, i.e. without the majority of people taking up the simple standard village lifestyle which allows for a natural execution of prescribed duties [traditional occupations largely connected with land and cows] and which in turn favours the appearance of regular rainfall that guarantees the production of natural and wholesome food grains, no society can prosper or maintain itself for long, no society can protect its citizens from even simple calamities, and no society can lead its members to the goal of life, self-realization. In brief, no society can consider itself to be civilized. Hence the great need to remain in or return to the traditional village lifestyle as enjoined in the scriptures and as advocated by all spiritual mentors and all responsible social leaders.

Srila Prabhupada [ISKCON Founder-Acarya]

Our philosophy is that you produce your food anywhere you stay, and keep cows, take milk, produce vegetables, food grains, and chant Hare Krishna. That’s all. This is our philosophy. Make your life successful. By becoming Krishna conscious, you become free from all these troubles of material condition. This is our education. Don’t be after these motorcars, television, and all nonsense things, sporting, wine, women. Don’t be after these. Simply eat sufficiently, keep your health nicely, chant Hare Krishna, realize Kåñëa, and go back to home. This is our philosophy. [Conversations: May 25, 1974, Rome]

In the above exchange, Srila Prabhupada clearly stresses the need to produce our own food and to learn to be satisfied with this more simplified rural lifestyle. In other conversations, Srila Prabhupada makes it abundantly clear that life will be more healthy and peaceful if we learn to depend on agriculture produce and live in the villages. He discourages people from leaving the villages:

Nobody should take to very hardship labor. The modern civilization has discovered severe types of dangerous industries, and laborers are attracted for high wages. But they should not accept such work. Then naturally there will be less capitalistic idea. Because the laborer cooperates, therefore demoniac persons they take advantage and make unnecessarily increase of artificial demands of the body. Better one should be satisfied with agricultural produce than go into large cities to be engaged in industry. Peaceful life depending on agricultural produce can bring him real happiness and prosperity, not otherwise. The more persons will be satisfied at their home, with home economics, not to go outside the home; that is peaceful life. In India, Mahatma Gandhi tried to organize villages in that way so that not to drag the people to the town. So, peaceful atmosphere can be attained only when there is large scale village organization, actually village life. Not to borrow the ideas from the cities in the village life; poet Cowper said that country is made by God, and the cities and towns are made by man. So that is the distinction. [Letter to Rayarama dasa, 17 October, 1968, Seattle]

Ethics of Chanakya (On Principles of Provincial and Local Governance)

As we know, Chanakya Pandit was a great diplomat and wise moralist whose writings are greatly appreciated by politicians, educators and people in general. In the book “Ethics of Chanakya,” the author summarizes some of Chanakya’s thoughts regarding the importance of statesmanship in terms of village self-governance, village sustainability and village autonomy:

While an effective control was kept on towns, villages were free from the active jurisdiction of royal officials. They were rather autonomous bodies and were administered by local men. They were not only self-sufficient units economically, but politically, they were self-governing. Under such a system, villages continued to exist as self-sufficient little republics, which remained the basis of higher political existence. They survived successive turmoil or changes of fortune, and continued to maintain the prosperity of the people, in spite of the change of dynasties or the rise and fall of empires. The village was regarded as a co-operative social unit, and its head was the Gramika. From the evidence of one passage, this man seems to have been invested with minor magisterial authority and was empowered to expel thieves, criminals, adulterers and other undesirable persons. [Ramesh, T. Y. Ethics of Chanakya, Sahni Publications, New Delhi, 2000, p. 178]

It is clear from the above descriptions that villages were the norm for most people and that these villages prospered following principles of self-governance and self-sufficiency.

M.K. Gandhi [Extracts from VILLAGE SWARAJ]

As often quoted by Srila Prabhupada, Gandhi was a strong advocate of village organization:

In the future set-up we shall have only two things, the village and the world. We may have the names of countries on the map for the sake of convenience, but in reality, there will be no intermediary between the world and the village. All the authority concerning the material side of life will rest with the village. The village will have power to order its own life. The power of moral advancement of the whole world will rest in the world centre. The districts or the States will only be the agents of the village community. Thus we shall have the village at the base and the world Authority at the Centre. Human society will be organized on the basis of small village communities of say, 2 to 3 thousand souls each. There would be real fraternity and co-operation in the village community. There would be no private ownership. The village will be a model of corporate life. The world centre will be the ultimate co-ordination link between these primary communities.

and from Preface....

The experience of mankind testifies to the fact the collective life is more genial, varied and fruitful when it is concentrated in small units and simpler organizations. It is only small units which have had the most intense life. Collective life diffusing itself in vast areas would be wanting in cohesiveness and productiveness.

Ancient Greek City States and Village Republics of India provided specimen of all-round development of rich and puissant life. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru wrote: “This system of village self-government was the foundation of the Aryan polity. It was this that gave it strength. So jealous were the village assemblies of their liberties that it was laid down that no soldier was to enter a village except with a royal permit….
As late as 1830 a British Governor in India, Sir Charles Metcalfe, described the village communities as follows: “The village communities are little republics having nearly everything they want within themselves and almost independent of foreign relations. They seem to last where nothing else lasts. This union of the village communities, each one forming a separate little State in itself… is in a high degree conducive to their happiness, and to the enjoyment of a great portion of freedom and independence.”

Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus, every village will be a republic or Pancayat having full powers. It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world.

I want to resuscitate the villages of India. Today our villages have become a mere appendage to the cities. They exist, as it were, to be exploited by the latter and depend on the latter’s sufferance. P. 83, from Village Swaraj.

I am convinced that if India is to attain true freedom and through India, the WORLD also, then sooner or later the fact must be recognized that people will have to live in villages, not in towns, in huts, not in palaces. Crores of people will never be able to live at peace with each other in towns and palaces. They will then have no recourse but to resort to both violence and untruth.

Nepal Villages

In a recent conversation with a former Gurukula boy from Nepal, the following description was given. “Even today many villages in Nepal have their own blacksmith, their own barber, their own tailor and other skilled workers. They serve the villagers as and when needed throughout the year. When harvest time comes these different labourers come to the land and are remunerated with grains and other produce from the land. This simple lifestyle and this simplified economics still prevail in many villages of Nepal today. It is the remnants of the ancient Vedic varnashrama system."

Benjamin Franklin (one of the founding fathers of America):

There seems to be three ways for a nation to acquire wealth. The first is by war, as the Romans did, in plundering their conquered neighbours. This is robbery. The second by commerce, which is generally cheating. The third by agriculture, the only honest way, where a man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground, in a kind of continual miracle, wrought by the hand of God in his favour as a reward for his innocent life, and his virtuous industry.

Daniel Webster (American lawyer and politician with great interest in agriculture):

Let us never forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labour of man. Man may be civilized, in some degree, without great progress in manufactures and with little commerce with his distant neighbours. But without the cultivation of the earth, he is, in all countries, a savage. Until he gives up the chase, and fixes himself in some place and seeks a living from the earth, he is a roaming barbarian. When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.” [Speech delivered to the Massachusetts Legislature (Boston, 13 January 1840) []


The meaning of varnashrama dharma and its practical application will remain largely concealed as long as individuals do not leave their present comfort zones in the cities. This requires the accommodation of another paradigm, the village lifestyle paradigm. Only by spending quality time in the villages will the inner truths and secrets of varnashrama dharma become revealed. The principle of self-sufficiency and sustainability will only become manifest when one learns to live in a localized way. As boldly stated by Srila Prabhupada, one must learn to live “on the lap of material nature.”

This will require tremendous courage and determination on the part of those taking up the mantle given to us by Srila Prabhupada. The varnashrama mission or daiva varnashrama dharma means re-introducing village lifestyle as the norm within all of societies, the most ideal norm which can best facilitate the advancement of our Vaisnava practices in devotional service. Education and training at the village levels must be re-introduced and for this reason both Gurukula (devotional primary school) and Varnashrama Colleges are of paramount importance. The Varnashrama Shikshalaya programs introduced in India are meant to serve as forerunners to these educational reforms.

Let us know, let us realize and let us demonstrate the importance of village life. Let us become convinced that village life, based on the eternal principles of Krishna consciousness, is indeed part of our eternal philosophy, our eternal education and our eternal lifestyle.

The author can be contacted at:

Monday, May 24, 2010

Plugging The Integrity Leak: Lessons From The Mahabharata

Ramnath Subramanian is the president and CEO of The Bhakti Center, our wonderful cultural center/cafe/yoga studio/temple, following the in the line of the great teachers of the bhakti tradition of India, right in the heart of the East Village in Manhattan.

He is also my good friend and fellow monk in our ashram here at The Bhakti Center. Recently he was asked to contribute to the worldwide online newspaper The Huffington Post. This is his first contribution, and I'm proud to predict that because of his deep intelligence and even deeper heart that he will be a profound addition to the Huff, as we call it.

"Watch out when you tell yourself that you deserve! Watch out!" Mr. Patrick Kuhse's voice thundered through the auditorium at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management on day two of an action-packed orientation program for the MBA Class of '07. I felt the earnestness and the gravity come through Mr. Patrick's warning. The mood in the room had shifted, from a light-hearted conversation about an easy-going college kid to one about a super-ambitious and reckless college graduate who was ready to forgo everything to reach the echelons of fame and fortune. Mr. Patrick, an international consultant on business ethics, was giving us a concise yet profound glimpse into a momentous phase of his own life that set the course towards his becoming one of the most successful stockbrokers, only to be arrested by the Interpol and spend four years in rigorous imprisonment, followed immediately by a divorce and loss of custody of his two kids. After that he went on to become an acclaimed speaker on ethical behavior and an ethics consultant for multinational corporations and educational institutions.

Fascinated by his story and the sheer honesty and vulnerability he showed in opening up his life, I approached Mr. Patrick after the talk to express my heartfelt gratitude. In course of our conversation, I asked him a question that came to me mid-way during his talk: "Patrick, here I am on day two of my two-year journey through business school. I hear a mind-blowing story on ethical compromise. But how am I supposed to remember this story, when for the next two years I am going to be bombarded unreservedly about profit maximization and improving the bottom-line in all my classes?" A bunch of my new classmates who were standing beside me, waiting impatiently to talk with Mr. Patrick, stared at me in a way that made me feel naïve and idealistic. Perhaps, I was naïve and idealistic. There seemed to be a sense of "Be practical, mister. This is a business school. Profit maximization is primary." Definitely true, and that is why I came here. Mr. Patrick seemed to appreciate the question and once again, staying loyal to his candidness, stated that it is definitely a glaring weakness in our system for training leaders and that unless we plug the hole at the grassroots level, we will see more cases of irresponsible behavior come to foreground in the future -- even bigger than what we just heard. Although I appreciated his answer, I couldn't but help think that my question was indeed naïve and presumptuous -- that humans are definitely more responsible than I thought.

Almost five years later, as I reflect on my question, I realize that I did undervalue my own concerns and appreciate Mr. Patrick's insight even more. Sitting in the midst of another crisis -- this time created by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- and witnessing the drama around it almost makes Mr. Patrick sound like a doomsayer. But not without sound reasoning. The unfolding of the entire oil spill episode has brought to the forefront a trail of irresponsible acts that BP has engaged in, not unknowingly. And the schemes to arrest the flow are being put into place without clearly assessing the long-term effects they will have on the ecology. The scheme to contain the spill with a dome has failed, and among the next steps, one idea being seriously considered is to shoot garbage into the gaping hole to plug the gusher. The remedies seem as irresponsible as the actions or the lack of those that led to the oil spill in the first place. Statisticians from BP quote the strength of the probability models that predict such leaks. According to them, the probability of such leaks happening was one in ten million rigs. That sounds very promising, sure enough, but the probability models do a poor job of predicting the extent of the damage that will be caused if a leak does happen.

In 2006, the EPA and Justice Department launched a criminal investigation into two massive BP oil leaks in Alaska caused by corroded pipelines. One of the leaks spewed almost 200,000 gallons onto the tundra, and investigations revealed that BP had reported ignored warnings. It finally came to a $50 million settlement but what could not be repaired, it seems, was a certain mindset. As one EPA official put it, for BP it was a financial decision: should they pay a fine of $50 million or spend a lot more correcting flaws in their operations? The answer was obvious, at least to the top management of BP. This irresponsibility did not receive much publicity and was dexterously shoved under the carpet through numerous pay-offs until the current oil spill, being termed as probably the biggest man-made natural disaster yet, surfaced. Even more frustrating is the undertone to BP CEO Mr. Tony Hayward's response to this crisis. Mr. Hayward impressed several lawmakers with his earnestness about stopping the leak, but he also seemed intent on deflecting questions about responsibility. BP seeks to leverage every penny of the $15.9 million it spent lobbying last year, and most of all it is trying its best to contain penalties. BP's history shows that it will succeed at that, and that leaves the larger questions still unanswered: how can our corporate leaders be made more responsible? This is not to state that our leaders are twisted right from the onset. In fact, my personal experience interacting with business leaders is that many of them are wonderful and noble individuals. But it is a fact that they have to operate in a system that is fueled by collective greed and that unconsciously brings out irresponsible behavior.

I heard a story in my early childhood that has only grown on me through my experience in corporate America. The story comes from the Mahabharata (literally translated as "The History of Greater India"), one of the classics from India's ancient religious texts, the Vedas. The setting: the best school of martial arts and military training, headed by a veteran archer and teacher named Dronacharya. The school trained the best kings and princes in military warfare and defense, the most famous of all of them being Arjuna, the main character of the timeless eastern classic, the Bhagavad Gita. Dronacharya's big lessons at school before he taught any of the various arts of fighting revolved around teaching responsible behavior even in the midst of the most provoking and enticing situations, as well as control over base urges of unconscious exploitation. He had creative and difficult tests that students had to pass, and he taught them the arts of military warfare only in proportion to their sense of responsible behavior. One quality that he consistently tested them on was situational compromise of truth. What is so striking to me in this story is the emphasis on character development and integrity before skills are bestowed. A responsible training system not just focuses on how skilled the students are but goes to great extent to ensure that the skills are grounded in well-developed character and integrity.

Developing character and integrity requires time and investment. As trivial as it may sound, and as negligible as the number of accolades it receives in comparison to training in leadership skills may be, character development forms the basis of any leadership program. It is exactly like laying a strong foundation before a structure is erected. The foundation forms the basis of the entire structure. We can erect a most amazing structure, but if the foundation is weak, it is only a matter of time before a minor tremor can cause the structure to completely collapse, causing severe damage to life and property. A good engineer spends ample time designing the foundation for the worst possible threat. And it is usually the main structure that gets the glories. No one looks at a nice structure and admires the foundation. And yet, the structure cannot exist and be fortified without a strong foundation.

We can go to great extent to ensure ethical following of roles and responsibilities, but if the individual's intention is to cheat the system, an intelligent individual boosted by the wide spectrum of knowledge and skills provided by our educational system can find numerous holes to exploit. We can take pride in the fact that the American legal system has brought to books many individuals in positions of power who have compromised on responsibility -- but not before their actions caused severe and sometimes irreparable damage to individuals, society, and the environment at large. After all, prevention is better than cure.

What this will take, as Mr. Patrick so articulately put it in his answer to my question, and as the story from the Mahabharata illustrates, is investment in character development at grass roots level, i.e., all the education and training institutions. The practical implementation of such a long-term solution is undoubtedly challenging given the current economic and social system that we feed our younger generation into, but the change can start small. The important thing is to start. The broader details are important and will unfold in time, but not without the strong and earnest desire to implement such a system, which must be at the forefront in the mind of our nation's administrative machinery. Without this essential training in character development, we will still produce great corporations and powerful leaders, but we will still face equally devastating actions that will have widespread repercussions on the social and ecological fabric of this country, not to mention the world at large. The problem goes beyond the BP rig leak, and no ethical systems or probability models are foolproof to prevent such crises from happening again and again purely due to lack of integrity from our leaders and decision makers.

"Watch out when you tell yourself that you deserve! Watch out!" Mr. Patrick Kuhse's voice thundered through the auditorium at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management on day two of an action...
"Watch out when you tell yourself that you deserve! Watch out!" Mr. Patrick Kuhse's voice thundered through the auditorium at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management on day two of an action...

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Dirty Secrets Of Coal

From The Huffington Post

Coal is a dirty and dangerous business. It produces more than half of the energy in the U.S. because it is a cheap resource, but it comes at a high human and environmental cost. The coal industry is the single largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions -- and that's just the beginning. We're taking a look at some of the dirtiest secrets the coal industry doesn't want you to know.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Scaling Up Renewables And The Smart Grid

From our friend Madhava Ghosh

Posted on March 30, 2010 by Alison Wise, National Renewable Energy Lab

There are many experts who feel that the market potential of renewable energy will only be fully realized if smart grid technologies and services are successful. But first, we need to define the smart grid.

In the broadest sense, “smart” refers to a kind of reactive and interactive capability of the energy transmission and distribution infrastructure that is driven both by the generators of electrons and the demands for those electrons. So, the smart grid is defined as “digital energy” by those that focus on the information and communications technologies that will help build the interactive capability of its promise.

For the utility stakeholders, the smart grid is an “intelligent utility infrastructure.” And because of that, utilities with have to change their business model (and sometimes the regulatory context in which that model functions) as well as make changes to their entire operations to encompass the commodity aspect of energy and step up their customer interactions.

Finally, some refer to it as the “modern grid,” recognizing that this new infrastructure represents a 21st century approach to retrofitting a 19th century understanding of energy flows.

I will be referring to the interaction between technologies and services in this space as the “smart grid,” since it seems that is becoming the dominant way to describe this new system.

Late last year, the DOE awarded $435 million to sixteen different smart grid pilot projects in the U.S. A map of pilot projects can be found on OpenEI’s Smart Grid Gateway. In addition, the DOE organized a “smart grid task force,” whose activities and resources can be found here. These projects represent field research on how all the different stakeholders and technologies will combine to expand these projects into a smart grid that will transform our infrastructure.

When awarding these funds, the DOE focused on these critical goals for the grid:

  • Increased reliability
  • Increased security
  • Greater economic efficiency
  • Greater energy efficiency
  • Improvements to the environment
  • Increased safety
  • Utilizing a vision; not randomly implementing technologies

You may note that in this list, better integration of distributed renewable generation is not made distinct, though one could back into it through diversification of energy resources as increasing reliability and security. Interestingly, just like the many definitions for the smart grid, there are many opinions about the need for renewable energy in the smart grid, with some feeling that renewables are central and others feeling renewables are irrelevant.

The DOE funded nine demonstration projects to specifically address the issue of renewable integration into the grid. In these projects, it is looking for a 15% peak load reduction on a distribution feeder through both renewable and efficiency technologies.

Pilot Project in Boulder

Right in NREL’s backyard, a community scale “demonstration” smart grid project is underway in Boulder, CO. The first in the U.S. the Denver smart grid demonstration project preceded those that are now in development as a result of the recent funding from DOE. This initial experiment has had mixed reviews.

The success of the smart grid depends on the private and public sector’s stakeholder involvement with systemic issues of transparency versus security. According to many businesses that are building smart grid “solutions,” there are two aspects to the way that energy should be thought of in terms of efficiency. Adrian Tuck, the CEO of Boulder-based smart grid company Tendril, recently gave testimony to Congress on the matter.

He said, “Energy efficiency is best measured across at least two dimensions. On the one hand, we can and must focus on improving the throughput efficiency of the electric system and the buildings it serves, including programs to fund improvements in insulation, caulking and replacing appliances. On the other hand, we must also consider the real-time market and environmental information that can drive true transactional and behavior changes. The impacts of these changes can drive tangible energy efficiency and environmental benefits.”

In other words, consumers will (hopefully) make better energy choices if they have access to energy information in their homes and/or businesses. “Smart” in the smart grid lexicon then also refers to smarter consumer choices. It is this access to information that has some Boulder residents grumbling; the smart meters exist in their homes, but the information that these meters are collecting in this program is not shared with the homeowner.

The utilities involved in Boulder were not able to provide energy information to the homeowners for a few reasons, most of which stem from their not being equipped to handle the onslaught of customer questions that they feared would come as a result. In addition, a case can be made that consumer behavior would be even more changed if customers were billed based on time-of-use (TOU) pricing. Since the utilities involved in this program didn’t have TOU pricing for residential customers in place, it could be argued that customer usage data wouldn’t have much value for the customers anyway.

Building customer information systems that are capable of accepting detailed demand data and displaying it for customers and customer service representatives who accept calls from customers will require massive utility investment. Investing in and implementing this type of infrastructure and implementing TOU pricing requires approval by utility commissions, which can take years.

The challenge for all of us will be to align the right incentives for existing energy providers with the right mechanisms for sharing energy information with energy users.

Smart Grid and Renewables

Why is the smart grid so important to renewable energy generation, and specifically distributed renewable energy generation? If smart grid is done correctly, information in the electricity infrastructure will allow the grid to “intelligently” accept more energy from intermittent sources like solar and wind. Without this intelligence, the existing grid will have difficulty incorporating larger amounts of intermittent renewable energy.

Think of the situation as analogous to the interaction between automobiles, roads and traffic lights. If we were to introduce ever-increasing numbers of vehicles to our roads with no signals to direct the flow of traffic, the whole system would collapse quickly into accidents and blockages. It is this “intelligence” – the signals that direct the traffic – that enables vehicles to move through the system relatively seamlessly. Since the roads need to be accessible by the vehicles being introduced to the system, potentially more roads will need to be built to accommodate these new vehicles from wherever they originate.

Similarly, power generated from sustainable sources like wind and solar pose problems in terms of controlling how and when this power is generated and introduced into the grid. Energy from these intermittent sources needs to be matched intelligently to the needs of the end user in order to be able to integrate these newer renewable resources as an asset to our energy infrastructure as opposed to a liability. Without these measures, renewables may never penetrate markets beyond niche applications.

Those of us who have been working in renewables for years (and my own organization having a 30 year track record), may bristle at the idea that we are “new” but if we are to become the status quo, smart grid may be an important element to how we get there.

For more information about where Smart Meter Pilot Projects are taking place in the U.S. and beyond, check out the Clean Energy Infrastructure section of the Clean Energy Economy, developed by NREL.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Organic, Small Farmers Fret Over FDA Regulations

By Carolyn Lochhead for The San Francisco Chronicle on 27 Apr 2010
From ISKCON News
Image: Craig Lee / The Chronicle
Earthbound Farm, an organic grower in San Juan Bautista (San Benito County), packages and sells bags of lettuce.

Small farmers in California who have led a national movement away from industrial agriculture face a looming crackdown on food safety that they say is geared to big corporate farms and will make it harder for them to survive.

The small growers, many of whom grow dozens of different kinds of vegetables and fruits, say the inherent benefits of their size, and their sensitivity to extra costs, are being ignored.

They are fighting to carve out a sanctuary in legislation that would bring farmers under the strict purview of the Food and Drug Administration, an agency more familiar with pharmaceuticals than food and local farms.

A bill before the Senate is riding a bipartisan groundswell created by recent outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella and other contamination in everything from fresh spinach to cookie dough.

And the small farmers face opponents in consumer groups, victims of food contamination, large growers and the Obama administration, who say no farm and no food should get a pass on safety.

An even tougher version of the legislation passed the House last summer. Now, a behind-the-scenes battle is raging in the Senate over how to regulate small and organic growers without ruining them - and still protect consumers.

If two versions of the overhaul pass, Congress would work to merge them.

The legislation would mandate a range of programs intended to bolster food safety. The FDA would gain greater authority to regulate how products are grown, stored, transported, inspected, traced from farm to table and recalled when needed.

Pinpointing problems

But biologically diverse and organic growers argue that the problems that have plagued the food industry lie elsewhere.

They point to the sale of bagged vegetables, cut fruit and other processed food in which vast quantities of produce from different farms are mixed, sealed in containers and shipped long distances, creating a host for harmful bacteria.

The legislation does not address what some experts suspect is the source of E. coli contamination: the large, confined animal feeding operations that are breeding grounds for E. coli and are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the FDA.

"It does not take on the industrial animal industry and the abuses going on," said Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms in Madera, an organic grower of Mediterranean vegetables. "The really dangerous organisms we're dealing with out here, and trying to protect our produce and other foodstuffs from, are coming out the rear end of domestic animals."

No one in Congress or the administration has yielded in a bureaucratic turf battle between the Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat, poultry and eggs, and the FDA, which regulates all other food.

The controversy began with the spinach E. coli outbreak near San Juan Bautista in 2006 that left four people dead, 35 people with acute kidney failure and 103 hospitalized. The bacteria, known as E. coli O157:H7, first appeared in hamburger meat in the early 1980s and migrated to produce, mainly lettuce and other leafy greens that are cut, mixed and bagged for the convenience of shoppers.


Since then, there have been dozens of contamination cases, leading Congress to rewrite food safety laws by giving much more power to the FDA. But small growers worry that they, and consumers, will suffer in the sweep of reform.

"How do we trust that the FDA is going to know about things that the San Francisco Bay Area has been very progressive on - the field to fork, fresh, grow local, buy local - all of that?" said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel. "The organic people are feeling that the regulations the FDA may promulgate will be so safety oriented, it'll put them out of business."

Consumer groups say they care about small farmers but that safety comes first.

"Our principle is that food should be safe, whatever the source," said Sandra Eskin, director of the Pew Health Group's food safety campaign, one of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which Monday sponsored a public meeting on the issue with federal officials in Seaside (Monterey County).

"People care profoundly about all these issues: feeding their families, food safety, local agriculture," Eskin said. "It's a passionate discussion and understandably so. Everybody eats."

Tom Nassif, head of Western Growers, which represents large produce growers, said small growers should not be exempt.

"If the small guy who sells to a farmers' market gets a family sick, it's a blip on the radar screen," Nassif said. "There's not a big hue and cry, because it didn't affect hundreds of people. What about those people? Doesn't their food safety count?"


The tension that has come with food safety reforms was on display after the spinach outbreak rocked California. Large growers embraced costly science-based safety protocols for all leafy greens - guidelines that federal regulators are considering taking nationwide.

However, a UC Davis study last year by Shermain Hardesty and Yoko Kusunose found that the rules have put smaller growers at a disadvantage because their compliance costs are spread over fewer acres. Hardesty said costs may be as high as $100 an acre.

Large produce buyers such as Wal-Mart and McDonald's have gone much further than the industry standards. They have imposed rules of their own that have forced many California farmers who supply them to fence off waterways, poison wildlife to keep animals out of fields and destroy crop hedgerows that support beneficial insects.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said Monday the administration is keeping a "close watch" on these so-called "super metrics," acknowledging that they have harmed the environment but said, "nobody gets a pass on food safety."

Increasing the danger

Willey, the Madera farmer, argued that many food safety rules tend "to push us to embrace a paradigm of sterility," which, in the long run, increases the danger.

"When you create microbial vacuums, they can be even more easily taken over by pathogenic organisms," he said. "In organic agriculture, we depend tremendously on a cooperative effort with beneficial microorganisms. My whole soil fertility system is based on that. Actually, soil fertility planetwide is based on that."

Efforts to modify proposed rules to make compliance easier for biologically diversified farms have been more successful in the Senate than in the House. New language that requires the FDA to consider farm size, crop diversity, organic requirements and other issues has been added.

"While none of these things in themselves solves the cause for concern, they certainly point strongly in the direction of the FDA needing to take into account these considerations," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Hoefner called the House bill a one-size-fits-all approach that would be a "complete disaster" for small farms.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A New Vision For the 2012 Farm Bill?

From Paula Crossfield at the Huffington Post

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN), who last year called those who spend money on organic produce "dumb," may become the unlikely champion of a Farm Bill in 2012 that could create opportunities for more sustainable farmers.

This week, the House Agriculture Committee held the first hearing on the 2012 Farm Bill, the main piece of legislation that every five years establishes our nations food and agriculture policy. The Farm Bill affects farm payments, supplemental nutrition assistance programs (SNAP, formally called food stamps), international trade, conservation programs, the opportunities in rural communities, agriculture research, food safety, and more. Currently 70% of farm payments go to the wealthiest 10% of producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice. These kinds of oversights are the result of a Farm Bill that has been largely cobbled together over time.

But it seems the House Agriculture Committee is gearing up for a more serious overhaul this time around. Peterson said that he called the Farm Bill hearing Wednesday in order to get a head start on the process, saying "I think it will be very difficult to pass a status-quo farm bill in 2012." As the Environmental Working Group pointed out, Peterson has said that all options will be "on the table" for the planning of this Farm Bill.

Due to budgetary constraints affecting all areas of government, Peterson and his committee will specifically be re-considering the efficiency of direct payments, disaster relief programs, crop insurance and conservation programs. He said in an interview following the hearing that subsidy programs could phase out over the next 20 years as crop insurance programs strengthen and become less focused on commodities. "Is it right to be doing [crop insurance] by commodity, or should we be doing this with whole-farm type of situation with crop insurance and revenue?" said Peterson. He went on to say that the idea of crop insurance is easier to sell to urban voters than the conventional subsidy programs. If the new Farm Bill includes this change, it could spur farmers to diversify their crops, spreading out their risk, thereby creating new opportunities for local food systems.

Peterson has also expressed concern that direct payments could be affecting land values and rents, asking "is that making it more difficult for young farmers to get started?"

This openness could pave the way for a broader conversation about who the Farm Bill serves, what it is suppose to do, and what the long term goals of such legislation should be.

One of the ideas that the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) hopes will be a part of the discussion is an expanded "green payments" program, which would reward farmers for environmental stewardship instead of placing the incentives on overproduction. "In light of the increasing questions coming from within parts of the Agriculture Committee leadership about the commodity programs--especially direct payments," said Aimee Witteman, Executive Director of NSAC, "We think 2012 represents an important opportunity to make [the Conservation Stewardship Program] an even bolder program that shifts financial resources away from environmentally-destructive practices."

Writer and farmer Wendell Berry, plant biologist Wes Jackson and other advocates of sustainable agriculture have called for a 50-year Farm Bill in order to deal with environmental issues like soil degradation, water pollution and climate change, all exacerbated by the way we produce food now in the US.

"While we need to look at short term problems in agriculture, we also need to look further ahead than 5 years," said Jim Goodman, organic dairy farmer and Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy fellow. "Issues of water quality, soil erosion, increasing local food production, revitalizing rural communities and decreasing agriculture's dependence on fossil fuel should be addressed with a long range focus."

Daniel Imhoff, author of the book, Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, said long-term thinking on the Farm Bill should focus on "Getting Perennial by the Next Centennial." The idea would be to "[use] the 5-year farm bills to push land use from monocropping of annual feed grains to broad acreages of deep rooted perennial plants that sequester carbon, filter water, protect the soil, provide habitat, and can support fewer numbers of healthier grazing animals."

Imhoff also said that this Farm Bill should take a stance of "No Subsidization without Social Obligation." "We must put an end to commodity subsidy programs that simply encourage overproduction and insurance of cheap ingredients for industrial foods," he said. "What we subsidize should contribute to an all around healthier food system"

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and frequent speaker on food issues, agrees. "[The] whole bill needs to be viewed through the lens of improving public health and, perhaps specifically, supporting the first lady's Let's Move initiative," he said. "In the same way bills in congress get "scored" by [the Congressional Budget Office] for their impact on the deficit, the [Farm Bill] should be scored on its various provisions likelihood of improving or damaging public health."

Another major issue is funding the research needed to turn the tables on climate change and the other environmental byproducts of this food system. "The federal food and agriculture research budget and agenda need to be more robust and diversified," said Michael Dimock, President of the organization Roots of Change. He continued, saying that we need "agro-ecological and organic research that will allow us to scale up the work of Joel Salatin, Wes Jackson, and others that are showing farmers how to work with diversity [and] to break out of the industrial mindset that seeks to eliminate diversity."

It is still too early to tell how this dialog about the 2012 Farm Bill will turn out, but Aimee Witteman at NSAC has some advice. "Get to know your legislators and identify champions for your issues early on," she said. "Also, don't underestimate the freshmen. We had several first-year Congress members step up and champion issues like beginning farmers and organic agriculture, folks such as Rep Tim Walz (D-MN) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)," who was a Representative when the 2008 Farm Bill was written.

Because the 2008 Farm Bill mostly followed the status quo of the bills that had come before it, despite an active base supporting change, I asked Witteman what should be different about the approach to reform this time.

"It's important for the 'good food movement' to not demonize farmers in their media and advocacy work," she said. "I think there was a tendency in the media last time for the "change" story to be written as a power play between the urban elite and the big conventional farmers supposedly living high on the hog. Not only is that depiction inaccurate, it does nothing to forge a strategic relationship between urban and rural stakeholders, or win the hearts and minds of members of the Agriculture Committee. The biggest winners from our existing farm policies are not farmers or eaters, but agribusiness companies that benefit from cheap feed inputs and unenforced antitrust regulations."

The House Agriculture Committee will hold four field meetings in the coming weeks in Des Moines, Iowa; Boise, Idaho; Fresno, California; and Cheyenne, Wyoming that are open to the public, giving individuals a chance to weigh in on the direction of the legislation.

Follow Paula Crossfield on Twitter:

Monday, May 17, 2010

The People-And The Shame-Behind Our Food

From Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, at the Huffington Post

Our current culture has an unprecedented awareness of food and its source. Organic, locavore, sustainable, free-range, farm-raised: these have all become household terms. We pay more attention than ever before to what goes into our shopping carts and into our stomachs. Food has even become a major source of entertainment: we watch chefs compete on TV for the best culinary creation and those struggling with obesity to lose the most weight.

We may carefully inspect the food we buy for certain ingredients or where it comes from, but we're still not getting the full story.

Mainstream America was awakened to the plight of millions of farm workers when legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow broadcast his documentary, "The Harvest of Shame" in 1960. Cesar Chavez called on Americans to "Boycott Grapes" in the 1960s and won the first union
contract protections for farm workers in America's history.

Now, it is our turn.

Let's ask ourselves why we are so aware of what we eat, yet so unaware of the abuse that California's 500,000 farm workers endure. They live in squalor among us, suffering from sexual harassment, inadequate drinking water and housing, lack of shade, and sky-high disease rates. More farm workers have died from heat in the last few years than at
any time in decades. That these conditions persist into the 21st century is appalling, and we ought to be ashamed.

When farm workers organize, they are threatened with deportation. When they complain to the government, they are so often ignored. When they try to defend themselves, they are fired.

Today's leaders of the United Farm Workers are a remarkable group of young men and women. I've marched with them and seen first hand their struggle for fairness and equality.

I have worked for Californians' civil rights before, and I will continue to do so by standing with the workers who help us get our state's produce to the table and keep our agricultural economy
running. Farmworkers in California harvest and produce a majority of fresh food for the U.S., which helps preserve our food security and maintains a sustainable, local source of food. Without farmworkers, our national security, economy, and environment would suffer.

This year, the United Farm Workers has decided to do something new, and it's an opportunity for us all to participate in improving the living and working conditions of those who need and deserve it.

They are organizing "Fair Harvest Meals" on college campuses across California. Farm workers will share both the fruits and vegetables they pick and their stories with students. They hope to inspire a new generation of young people to do more than take a day off work or school to honor the legacy of Cesar Chavez. They hope that young people will take what they learn to pressure the food stores we patronize to require humane working conditions from growers.'

To learn more, visit

One of my political heroes, Robert F. Kennedy, supported striking UFW workers under Cesar Chavez's leadership in the 1960s. I want to honor both of these civil rights activists by doing all that I can for those who give so much to feed us. I want to see "Fair Harvest Foods" as
much a part of our consciousness and consumption as "Free Trade Coffee."

Our state's farm workers deserve every opportunity to participate in the California dream. We have the ability to stop the indignities, to end the suffering, to ease the fears -- and it is our moral imperative to do so.

Follow Gavin Newsom on Twitter:

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Evolution Presupposes Design, So Why The Controversy?

A thoughtful piece from philosopher and integral theorist Erwin Laszlo The Huffington Post

The debate among conservative Christians, Muslims, and Jews (the "creationists") and natural scientists and the science-minded public (the "evolutionists") centers on biological evolution. But on a deeper level, it concerns the universe in which life has evolved -- or in which it was created. And, as I will argue, on this level there is no contradiction between design and evolution: both are equally needed to explain the facts.

At first glance, the scientific community -- and anyone who believes that science can tell us something about the nature of reality -- is compelled to reject the hypothesis that all organisms are the way they are because they were designed to be that way. But the creationists question that the stupendously varied panoply of life arose from mutations in the genome occurring by chance with the resulting organisms fitting by chance into environments where they can reproduce better than their predecessors. Such a chance-mutation and lucky-environmental-fit process is surely too "hit or miss" to have created the complex web of life in the biosphere. The theory that affirms it is bound to be false.

However, at the cutting edge of science, the theory of evolution doesn't rely on random serendipity. That view marks the classical Darwinist position, still championed by a few (though always fewer) mainline biologists. Richard Dawkins, for example, insists that the living world is the result of processes of piecemeal trial and error, without deeper meaning and significance. Evolution happens, but there is no purpose and meaning to it.

Take cheetahs, said Dawkins. They give every indication of being superbly designed to kill antelopes. The teeth, claws, eyes, nose, leg muscles, backbone, and brain of a cheetah are all precisely what we should expect if God's purpose in creating cheetahs was to maximize deaths among antelopes. At the same time, antelopes are fast, agile, and watchful, apparently designed so they can escape cheetahs. Yet neither the one feature nor the other implies creation by design: this is just the way nature is. Cheetahs have a "utility function" to kill antelopes, and antelopes have a utility function to escape cheetahs. Nature itself is indifferent to this game. This is a world of blind physical forces and genetic replication where some get hurt and others flourish. It has precisely the properties we would expect it to have if there were no design, no purpose, and no evil and no good in the world, only blind indifference.

If a Designer is responsible for the way the living world works, He/She would have to be at best indifferent to what comes about in that world, or at worst a sadist who enjoys blood sports. It's more reasonable, according to Dawkins, to hold that the world just is, without reason and purpose. The way it is results from random processes played out within limits set by fundamental physical laws. The idea of design is superfluous. Classical Darwinists echo French mathematician Pierre Laplace, who is reputed to have said to Napoleon that God is a hypothesis for which there is no longer any need.

Confronted with the classical theory, creationists are justified in pointing out that it's extremely improbable that all we see in the world of life, ourselves included, should be the result of chance processes governed by impersonal laws. The idea that everything evolved by blind chance out of common and simple origins is just theory, they say. The world is more than a random assembly of disjointed elements; it exhibits meaning and purpose. This implies design.

The creationist position would be the logical choice if -- but only if -- scientists would persist in claiming that the evolution of living species is a product of two-fold serendipity. But at the cutting edge, scientists no longer claim this. Post-Darwinian biologists recognize that the evolution of species is far more than the chance processes classical Darwinists say it is. It must be more, because the time that was available for evolution would not have been sufficient to generate the complex web of life on this planet merely by trial and error. Mathematical physicist Sir Fred Hoyle calculated the probabilities and came to the conclusion that they are about the same as the probability that a hurricane blowing through a scrap-yard assembles a working airplane.

Leading-edge scientists realize that the evolution of organic species is an orderly, highly coordinated process, even if it's not mechanistic and deterministic. The evolution of the living world is part of the great wave that created particles from the underlying virtual-energy and information field misleadingly called "vacuum" (and is better called unified field, nuether, or Akashic field). The wave unfolded in the cosmos by structuring particles into atoms, atoms into molecules, molecules into macromolecules and cells, cells into organisms, and organisms and populations of organisms into local, regional, and continental ecologies.

The wave of evolution could only have unfolded in a universe where the fundamental laws and constants are finely tuned to permit the emergence of complexity. Ours is such a universe. Physicists know that even a minute difference in these laws and constants would have foreclosed the possibility of life forever.

Our universe is staggeringly fine-tuned to the creation of systems of higher and higher orders of complexity, differentiation, and integration. That such a universe would have come about by chance is astronomically improbable. According to quantum cosmology, some 1 x 10500 (1 followed by five hundred zeros) universes could exist physically, but only a handful could give rise to life. That our life-supporting universe would have come about by a random selection from this enormous set of possible universes is a zillion times more improbable than that living species would have come about by random mutations. The great wave of evolution requires highly harmonized and coordinated processes in all its domains.

In the final count the evolution of life presupposes intelligent design. But the design it presupposes is not the design of the products of evolution; it's the design of its preconditions. Given the right preconditions, nature comes up with the products on her own.

The debate between creationists and evolutionists would be better focused on the origins of the universe than on the origins of life. Could it be that our universe has been purposefully designed so it could give rise to the evolution of life? For creationists, this would be the logical assumption. Evolutionists could not object: evolution, being an irreversible process, must have had a beginning, and that beginning must be accounted for. And our fine-tuned universe is entirely unlikely to have come about by chance.

So the creationist/evolutionist controversy really is pointless. Design is a necessary assumption, because chance doesn't explain the facts. But evolution is likewise a necessary assumption, for given the way this universe works, the evolution of complexity is a logical and by now well-documented consequence. Therefore the rational conclusion is not design or evolution. It's design for evolution.

Then why the controversy?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

School Lunches Called A National Security Threat

From our friend Madhava Ghosh

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – School lunches have been called many things, but a group of retired military officers is giving them a new label: national security threat.

That’s not a reference to the mystery meat served up in the cafeteria line either. The retired officers are saying that school lunches have helped make the nation’s young people so fat that fewer of them can meet the military’s physical fitness standards, and recruitment is in jeopardy.

A new report being released Tuesday says more than 9 million young adults, or 27 percent of all Americans ages 17 to 24, are too overweight to join the military. Now, the officers are advocating for passage of a wide-ranging nutrition bill that aims to make the nation’s school lunches healthier.

The officers’ group, Mission: Readiness, was appearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The military group acknowledges that other things keep young adults out of the armed services, such as a criminal record or the lack of a high school diploma. But weight problems that have worsened over the past 15 years are now the leading medical reason that recruits are rejected.

Although all branches of the military now meet or exceed recruitment goals, retired Navy Rear Adm. James Barnett Jr., a member of the officers group, says the obesity trend could affect that.

“When over a quarter of young adults are too fat to fight, we need to take notice,” Barnett said. He noted that national security in the year 2030 is “absolutely dependent” on reversing child obesity rates.

Recruitment isn’t the only problem posed by obesity. According to the report, the government spends tens of millions of dollars every year to train replacements for service members discharged because of weight problems.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cows On Drugs

Stanford, Calif.

NOW that Congress has pushed through its complicated legislation to reform the health insurance system, it could take one more simple step to protect the health of all Americans. This one wouldn’t raise any taxes or make any further changes to our health insurance system, so it could be quickly passed by Congress with an outpouring of bipartisan support. Or could it?

More than 30 years ago, when I was commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration, we proposed eliminating the use of penicillin and two other antibiotics to promote growth in animals raised for food. When agribusiness interests persuaded Congress not to approve that regulation, we saw firsthand how strong politics can trump wise policy and good science.

Even back then, this nontherapeutic use of antibiotics was being linked to the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria that infect humans. To the leading microbiologists on the F.D.A.’s advisory committee, it was clearly a very bad idea to fatten animals with the same antibiotics used to treat people. But the American Meat Institute and its lobbyists in Washington blocked the F.D.A. proposal.

In 2005, one class of antibiotics, fluoroquinolones, was banned in the production of poultry in the United States. But the total number of antibiotics used in agriculture is continuing to grow. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, 70 percent of this use is in animals that are healthy but are vulnerable to transmissible diseases because they live in crowded and unsanitary conditions.

In testimony to Congress last summer, Joshua Sharfstein, the principal deputy commissioner of the F.D.A., estimated that 90,000 Americans die each year from bacterial infections they acquire in hospitals. About 70 percent of those infections are caused by bacteria that are resistant to at least one powerful antibiotic.

That’s why the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Pharmacists Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the American Public Health Association and the National Association of County and City Health Officials are urging Congress to phase out the nontherapeutic use in livestock of antibiotics that are important to humans.

Antibiotic resistance is an expensive problem. A person who cannot be treated with ordinary antibiotics is at risk of having a large number of bacterial infections, and of needing to be treated in the hospital for weeks or even months. The extra costs to the American health care system are as much as $26 billion a year, according to estimates by Cook County Hospital in Chicago and the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, a health policy advocacy group.

Agribusiness argues — as it has for 30 years — that livestock need to be given antibiotics to help them grow properly and keep them free of disease. But consider what has happened in Denmark since the late 1990s, when that country banned the use of antibiotics in farm animals except for therapeutic purposes. The reservoir of resistant bacteria in Danish livestock shrank considerably, a World Health Organization report found. And although some animals lost weight, and some developed infections that needed to be treated with antimicrobial drugs, the benefits of the rule exceeded those costs.

It’s 30 years late, but Congress should now pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which would ban industrial farms from using seven classes of antibiotics that are important to human health unless animals or herds are ill, or pharmaceutical companies can prove the drugs’ use in livestock does not harm human health.

The pharmaceutical industry and agribusiness face the difficult challenge of developing antimicrobials that work specifically against animal infections without undermining the fight against bacteria that cause disease in humans. But we don’t have the luxury of waiting any longer to protect those at risk of increasing antibiotic resistance.

Donald Kennedy, a former commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration, is a professor emeritus of environmental science at Stanford.