Human Consumption and our Planet’s Future


Pixabay: Peter H

Human consumption is not just about food. It’s about clean water, clean air, energy sources, minerals, rock, sand, lithium, rubber, wood, all the ingredients that provide us with our homes, furniture, cars, clothing, tech devices, electricity, heating and cooling our homes, means of running our cars, sports equipment, entertainment, and other creature comforts. The increase in population and need for homes mean more natural land is being paved over for homes and agriculture.

To take one example, we are buying more clothing and discarding it sooner. The clothing industry accounts for 20% of our water pollution and remains only behind the fossil fuel industry in that regard. Every year the world consumes over 80 billion clothing items. In 2013 over 15 million tons of textile waste was produced according to the EPA. When clothing ends up in landfills. chemicals, such as dye, leach into the ground. When unsold clothes are burned, CO2 escapes—as much as 1.2 billion tons per a World Resources Institute report.

Amazon trees are being felled to make way for agriculture, reducing oxygen produced by them, and an environment for wild life. We buy knick-knacks, souvenirs, toys galore, decor for every holiday, political swag, gadgets for special uses or plain silliness—remember that awful fish on a board to hang on your wall that wagged its tail and talked or sang. When the last parent passes on, their belongings don’t. They are hauled to the dump by the truckloads.(Advice to the elderly is to clean out the attic so your loved ones are spared such trips.)

Plastic has been my bugaboo as it takes eons to degrade and is killing ocean life including the plankton that produce more oxygen than the Amazon forest. Containers for goods are next to unavoidable. We once used glass, but glass requires sand, of which there is not an infinite amount, and too much removal from some sites have had a negative impact. Cardboard originates from trees. Face it, we’re consuming at a faster rate than Mama Nature can provide.

I’m as guilty as the next person, seeking the perfect lemon squeezer, the foam pillow designed to prop my ipad in bed, plastic storage boxes to park stuff in my attic. Now, I’m determined to turn over a new leaf. I’m saving plastic containers and bags for reuse rather than buying those convenient seal plastic bags. I reuse unsoiled tinfoil. My hubby thinks I’m nuts but gets in trouble when he balls it up, thinking it’s fun. I’m encouraged by efforts to manufacture a biodegradable plastic or plastic-like material to use in containers, millennials who are eschewing abundant wardrobes. Like most of us I’ve spent most of my life accumulating. Now it’s time to stop and begin shedding. Unfortunately, most of the young don’t want our family heirlooms of china, crystal, and silver.

As a footnote, I highly recommend David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet on Netflix. In fact, it should be required in our schools and for adlults to be allowed to vote. I plan to devote my next blog to its message. The documentary not only is a stark commentary on human’s impact on the planet, it includes ways we can avoid disaster.

Thousands of New RNA Viruses Discovered in Oceans

Don’t become alarmed. They are not likely to be coming after us, and not all RNA viruses cause disease. An RNA virus is defined as a virus that contains ribonucleic acid. Sounds better already, right? Unable to replicate outside of a host cell, viruses are not considered living organisms. In the ocean, they use plankton primarily as their hosts. In terms of number, RNA viruses dominate our oceans.

Scientists were searching for RdRp, an ancient gene existing only in RNA viruses  and found  44,000 RNA viruses with RdRp. This gene has evolved many times over billions of years, existing even before DNA. (RNA contains the sugar ribose, while DNA contains the sugar deoxyribose. RNA is a single-stranded molecule, while  DNA is double-stranded.)The researchers planned to determine the evolutionary relationship between the different  versions. Ahmed Zayed, a research scientist in microbiology at Ohio State, said, “So we’re not just tracing the origins of viruses, but also tracing the origins of life.” Many xcholars have long puzzled over how life began, with a number of theories but in almost every case, they have agreed that in some way, the creation of life involved water. The human body is 60% water on average, which seems to support this view..

In the search process, researchers identified about 5,500 new RNA virus species. Some fell into five existing phyla, but some were so different, they were determined to require five new phyla or categories. The new phyla were dubbed Taraviricota, Pomiviricota, Paraxenoviricota, Wamoviricota and Arctiviricota, sounding  like new pasta dishes.

As a footnote, biologists are excited about a massive sinkhole in china (click to see picture.) The unusual nature is that it contains an entire forest. It could contain species new to our generation, but possibly ancient in the world both in terms of vegetation and insects. Maybe even little green men from inner space could exist on the forest floor.

Snakes Alive! Ever Heard of Venomics?

It is common knowledge that many of today’s drugs originated from plants. However, the number, 7,000, prescribed by Western doctors surprised me. Seventy percent of the 3000 plants identified by the United States National Cancer Institute as having potential anti-cancer properties are endemic to the rainforest. Further, new drugs continue to be found at a time when due to climate change and deforestation, the rain forest is shrinking.

However, I didn’t expect that creatures like snakes, scorpions, gila monsters, and poisonous spiders could be sources of medicine for human ailments. Scientists are amazing in their curiosity and where they search for ways to improve human health and lives. It turns out that venom, which has recently been found to have thousands of components, provides a wealth of possibilities for relief and saving lives. One component under investigation could be used after heart attacks. A heart attack reduces blood flow to the heart, making its cells more acidic, leading to their dying off. The component being tested blocked heart cells’ ability to sense the acidity, which in turn helped the cell to stay alive. There is also potential for the relevant component to improve the chances of success with heart transplants.

A number of venom-derived drugs are already on the market. Captopril  was created from the venom of a Brazilian jararaca pit viper to treat high blood pressure. Exenatide, is derived from Gila monster venom and is prescribed for Type 2 diabetes. Draculin is an anticoagulant from vampire bat venom and is used to treat stroke and heart attack.

Just as for drugs that came from the rain forest, there is no need to extract venom from these friendly creatures once the critical components are chemically analyzed. They can be replicated in laboratories.

Wonders from Mother Nature and Science never cease to amaze me in terms of what they do for the human race. Let’s hope the human race will respect both. We do otherwise at our own peril.

Questionable Scientific Measurement

Much of scientific inquiry involves measurement and data. I recall decades ago when I taught mathematics at the college level, that my colleagues in social science maintained that their research was as scientific as that of physical scientists. In so doing, there were efforts to measure human traits numerically. Measurement theory is indeed a serious academic area of study. Two main qualities are required for legitimate measurement: reliability and validity. Reliability requires consistency. If you measure the same thing at different times or identical things, the measurements should be the same. Validity requires that what is being measured reflect the quality being studied.

Indeed, wouldn’t it be wonderful to determine depression, sanity, honesty, tendency toward violence, and other human traits by questionnaires with numerical answers? I recently encountered a Kaiser questionnaire that measured the # of days in the last two weeks I experienced various feelings like hopelessness, lack of interest in daily activities, inability to sleep or eat, etc. I found myself wondering if feeling hopeless about the war in Ukraine, the wacky politicians holding the country hostage, or humans getting their act together regarding climate change counts toward what is being measured. If so, does it make me in trouble or am I a normal human being who cares?

I do agree that social science is a science in terms of most other qualities of scientific endeavors like experimentation, research, peer reviews, replication, critical analysis, and the like.

As a mathematician, however, I maintain not everything can be numerically measured reliably and validly.

Carbon Capture Needs Corporate committments

Climatologists have been quietly researching carbon capture for some time. Their warnings and pleas to decrease the use of fossil fuels went unheeded too long by too many. Earth’s temperature continued to increase along with its population of consumer/producers. We are on track to hit 420 parts of carbon per million this month. is named after the 350 parts per million that is the maximum tolerable level.

There has been limited progress. Prompted by federal legislation, gas mileage has been increased (In fact, even with today’s gasoline prices, the increase means today’s drivers pay less per mile than in the past.) More electric vehicles are on the roads. The number of solar rooftops continue to increase. Nevertheless, the efforts aren’t enough to prevent an increase in the number of drought areas, floods, hurricanes, fires, threats to health, and shortages of food and clean water. As a result, scientists understood that in addition to controlling pollution emissions, means of removing methane and carbon from the air needed to be seriously investigated. They avoided over- publicizing the research lest people spank their hands together and assume that science will take care of the problem without any sacrifice on their parts.

Fortunately, due to the increasing number of disasters the general public does appreciate that climate change is real. Corporations now understand that it is good public policy to convince consumers they are environmentally responsible. Some including several airlines like United pledge to be Net Zero in terms of emissions by a given date. Since, zero emissions is not always possible, Net Zero requires some kind of offset, i.e. carbon capture. Carbon capture can be accomplished in two different categories: natural and designed. For example, trees and other plant life naturally capture carbon, so adding trees to a forest can be an offset.  There are a myriad of ideas, but who will pay for the costs of a wholesale effort? If corporations seeking Net Zero would commit to buy the number of tons of carbon offset they need, it would create competition among those companies means of sucking carbon from the air and promote best solutions.

There are plenty of ideas. Now corporations and government need to commit to make them happen.

Are Meals of Mealworms on Our Horizons?

They are not just for the birds any longer. With the breadbasket of Europe in potential trouble, drought in South America and California, the question of ability to feed a growing global population is a serious one. One potential solution is insect ranches. Insects have been part of the human diet in the past, particularly in countries like Mexico. Aborigines in Australia love witchety grugs. Insects as food could become more common again, but it is more likely they will provide the diet of farm animals, fish, pets, and used for fertilizers. However, they can be ground into a tofu-like substance for the human palate. Recently, the first large scale insect farm has been funded to the tune of five million dollars. The genetics of mealworms and other insects are being studied with the goal of breeding those with the best qualities for sustenance.

Insect ranches would take little land as they are placed in stacked trays, impervious to floods and droughts. I also I presume, once set up, they would require less maintenance than large animals. There is an insect farm in northern France that is 35 meters high.

The author of the article on this topic  points out for the squeamish that lobsters were once considered the insects of the ocean, but of course are now eaten most often for special occasions. Of course, I’d eat anything dripping with lemon butter.

More Impressive Animal Behavior

* Polar bears use rocks or blocks of ice to bludgeon walruses as prey.

* Some tourists dropped their phone off a boat and a Beluga whale retrieved it and brought it to the owners.  <== Click to see the amazing video.if you’re on Instagram.

* Elysia sea slugs can grow an entire new body from a detached head.

*40 species of spiders will eat snakes. They trap them with their tough silky threads. They can even hoist  a roach 50 times their weight spinning  silk ropes around them. Then they feast.

* A water scavenger beetle can walk upside down under the surface of a pond.

* Hummingbirds can fly backwards.

* Male superb lyrebird can mimic the sounds of many other birds all at once, sounding like a flock.

News Flash: We used to think that sharks never slept, but it has just been discovered that they do sleep. However, they sleep with their eyes wide open. Somehow, from the position , amount of movement, and other tests made scientists have discovered their sleep mode.

Are Animals a Different Kind of Human?

Historically, we humans believed that we were in a totally different category from animal life. As zoologists learned more about animals, however, the distinction began to diminish. A recent discovery about chimpanzees further establishes that we are not so special.

An accidental observation of a mother’s inspection of a baby chimp’s wound, followed by administration with a chewed up insect that she grabbed from a nearby branch led to surveillance for such behavior. The mother had repeated her medical treatment until the wound healed. Over a period of fifteen months, nineteen incidents of using insects to soothe wounds was observed.

Not only did the chimps self-medicate and minister to their families, they were found to tend to unrelated chimps. This is quite amazing as it indicates medical knowledge of ways to treat injuries, and also indicates empathy for strangers, presumably of their own kind. At one time, the notion that any living creature other than human could be so capable would have been considered ludicrous. Hmm, I seem to recall writing a blog about plants not allowing their roots to get too close to plants of their kind, but going for all the moisture they could get with stranger plants nearby.

Another recent discovery is that dogs apparently can distinguish between different languages including gibberish. The older the dog the more likely it reacted differently to an unfamiliar language. While this was established by monitoring brain activity, I’ve seen video where dog behavior demonstrated differences. One sees happy mouth with hanging tongue and wagging tail in hearing a familiar language while an unfamiliar one causes a closed mouth, still body, and a frown like “what the hell is this?”

Hank the Tank is not the only black bear menacing homes near south Lake Taho. A number of them have decided they like human food, and use not only their strength but considerable cleverness in getting into food hanging high in trees, cars, and homes. Everyone’s house is a potential Black Bear Diner.

Living in a World of Plastic

Plastic trash washed up from ocean

Bad News: (I always like to get the bad out of the way first.)

Nearly 9 million tons of plastic are entering global waters every year. This is primarily due to a global waste management problem, with developing countries having  the greatest issues. In China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, waste management hasn’t kept pace with the population explosion.

It’s little consolation that among the 20 top dumpers of plastic waste into oceans, the United States is # 20, possibly because of its large coastal population. However, the US is the top producer of plastic waste. At one time, our plastic waste was accepted in China and other countries. Now we must deal with it ourselves.

No surprise that Marine life is dying because of plastic pollution. Our oceans produce 70% of the oxygen in the air. We can live without eating fish, but we can’t live without breathing.

Further, plastic is made from fossil fuels so the production of plastics also contributes to air pollution. Plastics have carbon-intense life cycles. The majority of plastic resins come from petroleum, which requires extraction and distillation. Then the resins are formed into products and transported to market. All of these processes emit greenhouse gases, either directly or via the required energy in the chain. The carbon footprint continues after disposal. Dumping, incinerating, and recycling all release carbon dioxide.. 2015 emissions from plastics amounted to 1.8 billion metric tons of CO2.

Good News: (Yes, there is “some.”) Awareness of plastic contamination is increasing, and members of the UN are in preliminary  stages of  addressing the plastic waste problem.. Proposed caps on plastic production would stop the predicted  exponential increase. They also seek rules to make plastic easier and less toxic to repurpose. Some companies are using thinner plastic in packaging. Scientists continue working on compostable plastic bags, researching enzymes who might liked to dine on plastic, using plastic in paving roadways, and more ways to repurpose plastic waste,

Everyday at home tips: While it is impossible to avoid buying groceries and other products that are not wrapped in plastic, here are a few tips.

  • Take your own shopping bags to grocers and other stores. Even consider smaller ones for loose produce. TJs provide compostable bags for its produce.
  • Don’t buy plastic bags that seal for storage. Instead, save such bags from nuts and other dry products for reuse. Save bread bags as well and use twisties to store dry leftovers, etc. Also reuse hard plastic containers for wet leftovers and organizing small items. I love the very large clear plastic spinach containers for napkins, napkin rings, and any small collection.
  • While much plastic is “recyclable,” at most 10% is actually recycled. Plastic bottles are, but the caps may not be. If not, sorters may throw the bottle out with the cap. If in doubt about any item, throw in the trash or check with your local recyler. Two young men are recycling bottle caps into skate boards.
  • Make certain what you recycle is clean, lest you contaminate a sizable amount of recycled paper,  cardboard, etc. One reason China stopped accepting our waste was because it was dirty.
  • Make your voice heard among your friends, neighbors, relatives, store owners, and political leaders.
  • Out for a hike? Take a bag and glove to pick up trash along the trail. I use the plastic glove from my hair dye kit.
  • In general, consume less. We are running out of space for landfills. New ski slopes?

Bad News sources: ;

Good News source:

PS to Tips: A friend recommended for laundry. Small thin squares torn up into the tub dissolve and clean. Down with heavy plastic bottles!

The Long History of mRNA Vaccine Research

Today’s mRNA vaccines against Covid began with a search for a vaccine against MERS. Many breakthroughs occurred in different areas over six decades as medical science scrounged for financing and encountered many failures. A major discovery was that mRNA, a genetic molecule, is in charge of the human body’s proteins. It is unknown how many different proteins there are in the human body, with estimates between ten thousand and two million. Another major development, which occurred in gene therapy, was the ability to treat disease safely at the genetic level.

The arrival of HIV spurred an effort to find a vaccine using the acquired knowledge. HIV proved intractable, but the additional research increased knowledge of mRNA behavior and gene therapy even further, so much so that with a huge investment by the federal government when Covid struck, it enabled rapid development of Covid vaccines. This time the ideas worked as expected.

The spikes seen in depictions of the Covid virus that can stab their way into our cells are made of a certain protein. Since prior research had determined a means to get mRNA to recognize particular proteins, all that medical scientists needed to do was analyze the molecular structure of the Covid spike’s protein. They must have been amused or shaking their heads at people viewing the development of Covid vaccines as “rapid.”

This extraordinary history is testimony for supporting basic scientific research. If all of that research had not been done, who knows how long it would have taken to develop a vaccine and make it available to the public? In fact, scientists involved in the final stages view it as a long awaited validation of the value of decades of research.

Speaking of the success of scientific research, the scientists who labored over the constrtuction of the James Web telescope are no doubt experiencing much relief along with validation, now that it arrived as its final resting place. Now they anticipate learning more about the strange universe in which we live, and in fact about events in the far distant past.

Postscript: With mRNA vaccines, no dead nor weakened beastlings need to be injected into our bodies as had been the practice for older vaccines. As is true today, many people feared and opposed such vaccines including the one for polio, which originally contained diseased cells from monkeys. I suppose suspicion of new things is a survival trait built into the human psyche. We also sometimes fear what we don’t understand. Hmm, we use cell phones and computers without understanding, but we can see they work. Now, the statistics show that mRNA vaccines work.

This is primarily based on an article: Halting Progress and Happy Accidents: How mRNA vaccines were made. By Gina Kolata and Benjamin Mueller

Can Our Minds Ever Completely Understand Our Brains?

A long history of human effort to understand how we think, began with believing the heart was responsible for thinking. Serious research began with the discovery of electrical impulses traveling between the brain and nerves. Next came discovery of specific functions like respiration and executive thinking governed by different brain regions.

The ultimate question is how thoughts form, and how detected?  

An Article in the New Yorker describes how better use and interpretation of brain scans is yielding results. For example, an observation that imagining walking in your home and playing tennis elicited activity in different parts of the brain led to communication with a vegetative patient. Yes or no questions were asked and the patient successfully imagined one activity for yes and the other for no.

For examples, brain scanning can discover depression and mastery of subject matter— assessed by comparing with experts. Particularly revealing, movies have beeen used to simultaneously plot emotions of many people where the movie is manipulating the feelings.

Mathematics inspired viewing a thought like a point (x, y, z) in 3-D space except that the number of dimensions is larger. For example recognition of a face might involve (face length, face width, length of nose, … size of eyes.) The “coordinates” of a thought may not be numbers but involve other “dimensions” such as colors, smell, taste, sound, with relevant coordinate sets for different situations.

Psychologists have recognized the importance of remembering scripts and scenes to our thinking. The first time one flies it’s distressful. However, after a few trips, we know the script: 1. Check in & deposit bags 2. Go through security 3. Locate gate 4. Wait to board. Even if the scene is a new airport, the script guides you. (The first time my aunt flew,she sat in the waiting room & missed the flight, exclaiming she didn’t know what she was thinking. Someone would come and get her?)

If you somehow woke up from sleep in an aisle with flour & sugar on an adjacent shelf, you’d associate the scene with a grocery store. (Click to see the wonder of a one-year old in a grocery cart for the first time because he’d been home safe from the pandemic all his life.)

Becoming familiar with various scenes and scripts allows the brain to focus on the essentials and filter out distractions. A book on autism describes how the autistic brain gives equal weight to all of the stimuli in a scene as if every scene were new. Consequently, autistics easily become overwhelmed and can end up like my aunt. One view of our brains’ absorbing new situations is that they either associate the new with a familiar scene or script or create a new one.  

Brain scientists are enthusiastic about the promise of incorporating brain scans to uncover much more about how we think.