Monthly Archives: December 2013

We’re all in this together

“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately” — Benjamin Franklin

CHRIS WOOD: NATURAL SECURITY
Published January 1, 2014

Here’s a thought as we enter a new year: We’re all in this together.

That is not a moral sentiment. Nor is it the wooly-headed utopiate of some bleeding-heart liberal. In fact, it is a statement about biology. Nonetheless, this clearly unoriginal insight has implications for everything from agriculture to medicine to business. It should resonate across our social, inter-personal and economic realms as well.

Here’s the deal: That splendid, solitary, neurotically cultivated and over-examined individual of pop cultural celebrity, of too many moody novels, of philosophy, and more recently of Darwinian economic ideology, turns out to be just another of those enterprises’ many fantasies. In reality, we are not individuals, we are collectives.

Pond

Deborah Jones Photo Copyright © 2013

I’m not talking about the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ kind of collective, either (although there is truth to that). What I’m talking about is something much more like the personal ecosystem that the Peanuts character Pigpen trailed behind him through every frame in an inescapable scuffle of dust. We are, it turns out, a whole lot like Pigpen.

This realization might have been predicted ever since early Dutch scientist Anthony Leeuwenhoek directed his hand-built microscope at a drop of water and discovered an entire world of microbes: literally, ‘little life.’ Indeed, we’ve known for a while (and been trying for almost as long not to think about it) that our human bodies play host to a variety of wee beasties, from eyelash lice to stomach bacteria.

What we haven’t fully appreciated, until recently, is how much of this ‘foreign’ life is hitching a ride with us; how varied that life is; or how intimately, even essentially, involved these ‘other’ creatures are in making us, us. We’ve been equally unaware to what an extent ‘little life’ plays s similarly ubiquitious, intimate and essential role in the only other biological activity that interests us nearly as much as our own: growing food.

What’s unlocking these small subjects is the relatively low-cost availability of high-throughput, automated DNA sequencing, essentially machines that can read the genetic codes of little life en mass. Scientists, like kids in a new candy-shop, have been putting all kinds of things through these devices, and reaching some astonishing conclusions.

Are you aware, for example, that nine out of ten cells walking around in your shoes are not human? Sure, there are about a trillion cells that are, genetically speaking, human, and so distinctly you. But there are about 100 trillion other cells inside and on that envelope of ‘you,’ that in fact belong to yeasts and bacteria, fungi, mites and worms. Your gut alone carries around a kilogram of little life that’s genetically inhuman, but without which your intestines couldn’t do their job.

Other fragments of non-human life are embedded in our own DNA. One particular bit was captured from a virus some 100 million years ago into the genetic material that much, much later produced the first proto-humans. It’s still serving today’s new mothers by suppressing their immune response enough to allow an embryo to implant in the uterus wall.

There are, in fact, only four parts of ourselves we can truly call all our ‘own’. Under most conditions our brains, blood, lungs and urine are sterile of other life; and when microbes do infect those areas we suffer from illnesses like cystitis or meningitis. Everywhere else, we share the space with others.

Growing awareness of these biological strangers in our midst is leading clinical researchers to new treatment approaches that enlist microbes as allies, rather than target them with weapons of mass antibiotic destruction. One experimenter found that cocktails made from fragments of garden soil bacteria did not, as she had hoped, slow down her human subjects’ cancers; but they did markedly elevate their spirits and raise their pain tolerance, leading one reporter to speculate that this could explain why so many people find gardening soothing.

Apart from our inexhaustable interest in our own (and other people’s) bodies, much of modern life is a maximally engineered effort to exclude ‘wild’—ie: non-human—life from our living space. We deploy everything from window-screens to mouse-traps to chopping boards impregnated with those same antibiotics, to isolate ourselves from infestation. Clearly, none too successfully.

But there is one other area where a much-reduced but still significant number of us retain a lively interest in life forms other than our own: food production. We like to eat. Moreover hundreds of millions of us in newly rich countries are developing a taste for eating, if not well, then certainly better, with more protein and more variety in their meals. There are many reasons to doubt that global agriculture, as currently practised, can achieve the 50-100% increase in food production that will be needed, according to estimates, to feed our forecast 9 billion human mouths by 2050.

Automated mass DNA analysis of soil microbes could help get us there. The new mass analysis techniques allow agronomists to put names to many more of the little life forms that populate healthy soils—and whose density and diversity largely distinguish fertile earth from wasteland.

One reason this was previously impractical is the sheer number of these: a single patch of thriving dirt can contain 50,000 different species of fungus, bacteria, ameoba, insects and worms. The number of individuals in just a cubic foot of such soil can reach, as an expert on the subject put it to me, into the “cadjillions”.

Of the few that scientists have so far studied, many play a part in plant health, especially in crops’ ability to absorb nutrients from the soil. And here too, our ability to identify and differentiate these little critters and their activities is suggesting new solutions to troubling problems. Already, specialty composts rich in targeted beneficial microbes are being applied on some farms, in applications custom-tailored to field soil conditions and crops. Apart from offering a sustainable alternative to fossil-fuel-derived chemical fertilizers, feeding the life in the soil generates additional benefits like enhanced pest resistance, carbon sequestration, more complete metabolizing of pesticides and fertilizers, and resilience to changing climate conditions.

Agricultural biotechnology is barely a step behind medical biotechnology. Cascading discoveries are creating new business opportunities in both realms. And not only in those: a venture based in New Mexico signed a contract in December to deliver crude oil derived entirely from algae to a Phillips 66 refinery.

This is good news for those who hold faith that human ingenuity will yet find a way to extricate our industrial society from the crumbling cliff-edge where it finds itelf. But let’s not get too full of ourselves, especially when we recall what our selves are actually full of.

The distance between me and you only appears to be empty space. In fact, it is a teeming bazaar of life, a continuum of organic activity where a near infinity of little lives are continually exchanging energies, molecules, bits of DNA. Not only are our shambling containers of skin more collective than individual; even they are involuntary intimate participants in the much larger community of the biosphere.

I sometimes describe ecosystems as our ‘life-support systems.’ And so they are. But this is not a life-support system that we can strap on and remove like a pair of diving tanks. We are embedded in our ecosystem as thoroughly as those highly specialized bacteria that even now are helping me digest last night’s chile dinner.

This thought should cause us to reconsider the boundaries of our ‘self’-interest. Because there is a house-of-cards quality to ecosystems. You can take a card out here or there, and it may continue to stand. But then you take away a card that looks no more consequential than those you’ve previously removed… and the whole thing collapses.

If creatures so apparently inconsequential that we haven’t even noticed them occupying our surfaces and those of everyone around us until now, can have such a powerful influence on our health and happiness, how can we be sanguine about the loss to extinction of any life form anywhere?

For that matter, how can we be cavalier about any kind of injury to other clusters of sentience, of awareness and intent—of consciousness—in this living global sphere? How can we be indifferent to the suffering of others? To their opportunity for joy and creativity?

Individualism is a delusion. We are all in it together. That is as good a thought to take into the new year as any I can offer.

Copyright © 2014 Chris Wood

Contact: cwood@factsandopinions.com

References and further reading:
Microbes in the human body: http://mpkb.org/home/pathogenesis/microbiota#fn__1
DNA: The Things We Carry: http://spiritualityhealth.com/articles/dna-things-we-carry
Using DNA Sequencing to Show Why Crop Rotation Works: http://modernfarmer.com/2013/07/want-a-higher-yield-try-dna-sequencing-your-soil/
Bacteria ‘R’ Us: http://www.psmag.com/science/bacteria-r-us-23628/

 

 

 

 

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Analysis: Political survival of Turkey’s PM at stake

International affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe examines the mess that Turkey’s Prime Minister made for himself, and which now threatens his political survival. Excerpt:

ManthorpeTurkey’s bullish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is locked in a struggle for political survival with a United States-based Muslim cleric, whose followers he helped infiltrate the country’s police, courts, the military, and even his own Justice and Development Party.

Erdogan lost another round today in his increasingly frantic contest with the self-exiled conservative cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers in police special investigations units, on December 17, detained 52 people on corruption allegations, including the sons of three cabinet ministers.

In response, Erdogan sacked five Gulenist police commissioners and moved to start removing the cleric’s followers from the judiciary.

At the same time, Erdogan tried to head off the gathering taint of corruption around his administration by firing 10 ministers touched by the investigations or whose loyalty he doubted.

The Prime Minister’s attempts to grab control of the situation are, however, coming up hard against the Gulenists Erdogan helped infiltrate Turkey’s establishment. Erdogan encouraged this infiltration …  

Log in to read the column, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan fights for political survival.* (F&O premium works, including our commentary, are available for a $1 site day pass, or with monthly or annual subscriptions. Real journalism has value, and to avoid the conflicts inherent in advertising or soliciting outside funding F&O relies entirely on reader payments to sustain our professional quality.)

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The Newfoundland Mummers

The Mummers Parade by Greg Locke

As the year ends and winter gets a grip in the Northern latitudes, many cultures mark the passing of another year and the coming of winter with annual religious and folk festivals and events. In the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, the remote and isolated coastal fishing villages long held on to traditions brought from England and Ireland. A mix of ancient Celtic, Pagan and Anglo-Saxon rituals merged with Christianity and the celebration of Christmas. One of those traditions, Mummering, has enjoyed a cultural revival in urban areas in recent years. Check out Greg Locke’s slide/sound presentation, Mummers The Word, from this year’s annual Mummers Parade in St. John’s, Newfoundland. (Subscriber-only content.)

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Mummers the Word

“For years they trespassed in my dreams until once, in a circle of standing stones, I felt their shadows pass.” — John Montague

 

This presentation contains audio. Turn on your  speakers for maximum experience. Slides can be paused and advanced manually using the buttons that appear when you roll over the images. )

 

In Canada’s most eastern province, and the first colony of the once-mighty British Empire, Newfoundland’s cultural revival has recently included the dark art of mummering.

With roots in the pagan, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic cultures that celebrated the winter solstice and Samhain, mummering became a local folk arts variant, evolving with it own traditions.  In the small and remote Newfoundland fishing villages, it was the seasonal Christmas entertainment, for the traditional 12 days of Christmas ending on Old Christmas Day of January 6. People dressed in makeshift disguises and roamed each village, knocking on doors and demanding entry. Inside they would sing, dance and play music in exchange for food and drink … but mostly drink, fueling the darker and rowdier possibilities before the evenings wore out. Sometimes scores were settled on these cold winter evenings. Mummering, mumming or jannying lives in the shadows of seasonal festivals somewhere between Halloween, Samhain, the burning of the Wicker Man, the celebration of Christ and … Peace on Earth and Good Will toward Men. The Mummers Play still presents characters today that would be familiar to people in England and Ireland of yore, with King George, the menacing Horse, and the Turkish Knight.

In Newfoundland in 1860, fisherman Isaac Mercer was murdered by Mummers in Bay Roberts, Conception Bay, which led to laws banning Mummering in the colony.

Photography by Greg Locke – www.greglocke.com
Music by The Armagh Rhymers – www.armaghrhymers.com

Visit the Newfoundland Mummers Festival online at http://mummersfestival.ca/

 

All photos property of Greg Locke © 2013.All Music property of The Armagh Rhymers © 2013.

Produced by Stray Light Media, Inc.
St. John’s, Newfoundland. Canada.

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Solstice!

Sun over Greenland

Photo over Greenland by Deborah Jones © Copyright 2011

Solstice! — relinquish regrets, count blessings, light lanterns to illuminate the start of another journey around the sun.

 

 

Posted in Gyroscope

F&O’s WEEK IN REVIEW

Downtown Corner Brook, Newfoundland on a beautiful wintery Friday night. Photo by Greg Locke © 2013.

Downtown Corner Brook, Newfoundland, on a beautiful wintery Friday night after more than 30cm of snow fell over the previous two days … just another winter day on the west coast of the Atlantic Canadian province. Photo by Greg Locke © 2013.

 

New work on Facts and Opinions – and selected reading and viewing from elsewhere in the week past:

This week Facts and Opinions welcomed aboard Jim McNiven with his new regular column, Thoughtlines, in Commentary. In his inaugural column, Bill, Shane and Jim, McNiven tells the tale of three men who changed the modern world, from the baseball field to major political campaigns, but who remain almost unknown.

International affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe examined the symbolism of Japanese and Indian military exercises, and their relevance to China, in a column titled Japan moves to unshackle its military as storm clouds gather over Asia. Manthorpe also turned his attention to the renewed threat of civil war in South Sudan. Excerpt:

The sickening smell of unfulfilled vengeance hangs over fighting that broke out Sunday among rival clans in the capital of Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan — and there is an awful predictability about where it will lead.

Included among several new reports in our Dispatches section is a story about an American fraudster sentenced to six years in jail for his exploits in a strikingly grotesque line of work. Excerpt of a ProPublica story:

“Joseph Caramadre saw death as a holiday, a cause for celebration, a way to make money,” U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha declared on the courthouse steps downtown. “He stole the identities of people and used it to make money from companies who should have probably done more due diligence.”

In Canada a panel of the National Energy Board gave conditional approval to the contentious Northern Gateway pipeline proposal by Enbridge, which wants to ship oil from the Alberta oil sands overland to Canada’s West Coast, and then load it on tankers bound for Asian markets. Look for an upcoming F&O feature on the issue.

Spying – or surveillance for those who prefer the sanitized word – was again in the news this week as analysts blamed America’s National Security Agency for the loss of a $4.5 billion Brazilian aircraft contract that American aircraft manufacturer Boeing was widely expected to win. Brazil, publicly irate over American spying, awarded the contract to Sweden’s Saab AB, reported Reuters. See F&O’s Dispatches section for a report on recommendations aimed at curbing the NSA by an American expert panel appointed by United States President Barack Obama.

An interesting development, reported widely, caught our eye in Latin America: Chile’s election of former president Michelle Bachelet on a centre-left platform that promised profound change in the South American country, including using higher corporate taxes for better education, and getting big money out of politics.

And finally, if you’re considering giving someone a new bicycle for Christmas this year, you might consider that the two-wheeled mode of transportation and fun has, at least according to one columnist, become the symbol of a new conservative front in North America’s culture wars. Yes, you did read “bicycle.” No, we’re not kidding. The title of the piece, in the Boston Globe, says it all: Conservatives’ new enemy: Bikes.

— Deborah Jones                                

 

Posted in All, Current Affairs, Gyroscope

Analysis: Japan’s military and Asian storm clouds

International affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe examines the symbolism of Japanese and Indian military exercises, and their relevance to China. Excerpt:

The Japanese and Indian navies are in the second of four days of joint exercises in the Bay of Bengal, an event which neatly demonstrates the gathering storm of military preparations rumbling over Asia.

Log in to read the column, Japan moves to unshackle its military as storm clouds gather over Asia.*

*F&O premium works, including our commentary, are available for a $1 site day pass, or with monthly or annual subscriptions. Real journalism has value, and to avoid the conflicts inherent in advertising or soliciting outside funding F&O relies entirely on reader payments to sustain our professional quality.

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Analysis: Conflict in South Sudan

The sickening smell of unfulfilled vengeance hangs over fighting that broke out Sunday among rival clans in the capital of Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan — and there is an awful predictability about where it will lead, writes Jonathan Manthorpe in his latest international affairs column.

He looks at the renewed threat of civil war in the country, where at least 500 people have been killed so far. “There was a sure sign today that this fighting between the Dinka tribe of President Salva Kiir and the Nuer people led by his sacked Vice-President Riek Machar is to settle old scores,” writes Manthorpe. Log in to F&O  to read the column here.*

*Please note, F&O premium works including commentary are available for a price that’s less than a coffee, with monthly or annual subscriptions or with a $1 site day pass. Real journalism has value, and to avoid the conflicts inherent in advertising or soliciting outside funding F&O relies entirely on reader payments to sustain our professional quality.

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“Regret the error, we do” – once we stop laughing

With a nod to our own house of  glass, I’m laughing out loud at the list of best and worst media errors and corrections of 2013, by Craig Silverman at the Poynter Institute.

The outrageous ones will give you a giggle: the British outlet that apologized and paid damages for an “exclusive” interview with Roger Moore that was completely made up; an American consumer magazine that admitted wrongly labeling someone a journalist when “in fact she is a practitioner of vibrational energy medicine.”

Don’t let your high dudgeon over the “error of the year” — bungled reporting by American news program 60 Minutes on an attack on American diplomats in Libya — make you overlook the delicious Star Wars-inspired “correction of the year.”

The list is a funny romp underpinned, as we’d expect of Poynter, by its founder’s mission: to nurture and hold to account the kind of independent journalism that helps “maintain the integrity, the stability, the progress of self-government.”

— Deborah Jones                                  

 Further reading:
The best and worst media errors and corrections in 2013, by Craig Silverman at the Poynter Institute
The Poynter Institute mission

Posted in Canadian Journalist, Gyroscope Tagged , , |

Introducing Thoughtlines, a new column by Jim McNiven

McNiven for F&O bio

Jim McNiven

Facts and Opinions is pleased to welcome aboard Jim McNiven and to introduce his new regular column, Thoughtlines, in Commentary.

In his inaugural column, Bill, Shane and Jim, McNiven tells the tale of three men who changed the modern world, from the baseball field to major political campaigns, but who remain almost unknown.

McNiven is Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, where he still teaches part time, and Senior Policy Research Advisor with Canmac Economics Ltd. He has been a Fulbright Research Professor at Michigan State University’s Canadian Studies Center and, at Dalhousie, was the R. A. Jodrey Chair in Commerce and Dean of the Faculty of Management. He has served as Deputy Minister of Development for Nova Scotia, and President of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council.

He has also been CEO of a small technology company, served on numerous corporate and government boards, and was a member of the Canadian Royal Commission on National Passenger Transportation. McNiven, who has a PhD from the University of Michigan, has written widely on public policy and economic development issues, co-authored three books, and has a special interest in American business history.

In A Lesson Passed On, his piece in October for the Loose Leaf salon of Facts and Opinions, McNiven wrote about taking his young grandson to a museum for Cold War-era Titan nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles – and how that trip put the ghosts and goblins of Halloween into perspective.

Posted in Gyroscope Tagged |