Want to make land use sustainable? It’s a wicked problem!

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Enlarge / An artist’s rendering of what a 24-hour solar thermal plant at Tamarugal plant could look like.

Using Australia as a case study confirms that it’s hard to have it all.

The idea of sustainability is pretty simple: Manage our resources such that they can continue to support us indefinitely. And, for an individual resource, sustainability is simple. Avoiding something like depleting our groundwater means that future generations have access to as much water as we do and don’t face the consequences of sinking soil.

But sustainability gets complicated when you start considering multiple, competing uses. Cutting back on water usage may influence things like agriculture, energy production, and more, making them less sustainable.

Just how complicated does all of this get?

Lei Gao and Brett Bryan of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) decided to use their home country as a test of sustainability goals, and the results are disheartening. While moving any aspect of land use into the “sustainable” column is possible, the more aspects you try to push into that column, the harder it gets.

Setting priorities

To look into sustainability in a concrete manner, the authors started with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 of those, but Gao and Bryan focused on land use, which determined their priorities: sustainable food production, clean water, clean energy, limiting climate change, and maintaining biodiversity. The authors translated these into specific targets for 2030 and 2050 Australia at three levels of what they call “ambition.”

(A weak target might be “slow the rate of groundwater depletion,” a moderate target could be stop groundwater depletion, while getting ambitious might berestore groundwater levels to those prior to European arrival.”)

SDG_logo_with_UN_emblem– The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets under Agenda 2030 of the United Nations1, 2 map a coherent global sustainability ambition at a level of detail general enough to garner consensus amongst nations3. However, achieving the global agenda will depend heavily on successful national-scale implementation4, which requires the development of effective science-driven targets3 tailored to specific national contexts1 and supported by strong national governance.

The authors have a computerized modeling system, called Land-use trade-offs (LUTO), that can project where things will be in response to a combination of economics, environmental constraints, and policy decisions. Given the constraints of policy and the environment, LUTO allocated land use based on what will provide the owners with the greatest return. Gao and Bryan also considered a variety of potential future scenarios, including different levels of climate change (and attempts to address it), as well as changes in Australia’s population growth.

All these scenarios and considerations led to a dizzying array of potential results. So the authors analyzed them in terms of pathways—if you prioritize food production and start down that pathway, does it preclude anything else?

The answer is yes.Simultaneous achievement of multiple targets is rare,” the authors conclude, “owing to the complexity of sustainability target implementation and the pervasive trade-offs in resource-constrained land systems.” It’s possible to achieve more only by lowering your standards and accepting some of the weaker sustainability goals.

Competing interests

To give a sense of the trade-offs, we can start by looking at the scenarios in which addressing “climate change” is a “priority.” This leads to policies that promote reforestation, which can offset carbon emissions. New forests can also help with biodiversity, although complex ecologies takes a while to develop, so some of the benefits would be outside the time period being studied. Unfortunately, reforestation would also make water use less sustainable and, not surprisingly, displace agriculture. In fact, any serious attempts to address climate change involved reforestation and tipped water use into unsustainable territory.

Agriculture was also problematic in many pathways. To meet food production targets, there needed to be continued productivity improvements; without them, food started competing with other types of land-use priorities. Only eight percent of the pathways achieved biodiversity goals, typically when government policy prioritized it.

As a result of all these competing priorities, only a quarter of the pathways managed to hit two targets when the ambition was set to moderate. Ten percent hit three of them, and another 3.5 percent hit three. A full 18 percent of the pathways achieved none of the goals.

The easiest combo to hit together involved food, water, and biofuels. That’s in part because the unused portions of food crop plants can be shunted into biofuel productions, assuming government policies prioritize the creation of the facilities to process them. But you’d only be prioritizing biofuels if you cared about climate change, and these pathways don’t end up addressing that effectively.

None of this means that meeting goals is ultimately impossible. Solar and wind power prices have plunged so much that we have blown past a variety of goals that once seemed optimistic. But the CSIRO study (Finding pathways to national-scale land-sector sustainability) does highlight that real sustainability requires solving multiple problems at once while balancing competing priorities. It may be a wicked problem, and no two countries are likely to end up with the exact same solutions. But that doesn’t mean sustainability isn’t a problem worth tackling.

 

 

 

 

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References:

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Download references

Extended Data Figures:

  1. Extended Data Figure 1: Schematic structure and scenario specification summary of the LUTO model. (225 KB)
    This figure is reproduced, with permission, from figure 2 in ref. 6 (CSIRO). Marinoni et al. refers to ref. 38; GCM, global climate model; Mha, million hectares. The integration of the range of environmental and socio-economic data and models that combine to parameterize the LUTO integrated land systems model. ASRIS is the Australian Soil Resource Information System, ANUCLIM is a spatial climate modelling tool from the Australian National University, LCA is Life-Cycle Assessment, 3-PG2 is a forest stand growth model, APSIM is the Agricultural Production Systems Simulator crop model, and the Budyko framework enables the calculation of water use by trees. On the right are the various outputs possible from the model.

  2. Extended Data Figure 2: A detailed illustration of the M3 central pathway, a single, mid-range pathway for Australia’s agricultural land from 2013 to 2050. (214 KB)
    The central settings6 are detailed in the middle of the map. The map indicates potential land-use in 2050. The leftmost graphs show modelled trajectories for key LUTO model input variables including global carbon price; projected price multipliers for crops, livestock and oil; national electricity price projections; and mapped changes in temperature and rainfall. The rightmost charts show key LUTO model outputs including changes in the projected area of land-use and the six sustainability indicators used in this study over time. Weak (W), Moderate (M), and Ambitious (A) targets are also plotted for each indicator with the up- and down-arrowheads indicating whether target achievement occurs above or below the marker. Sustainability target achievement for 2030 and 2050 at all three levels of sustainability ambition is presented in the dot matrix in the middle of the map. Similar figures are available online for all 648 scenarios (https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.4269650.v6).

  3. Extended Data Figure 3: Potential future land-use pathways for Australia’s agricultural land-use. (195 KB)
    Graphs show the area of land-use on an annual time step from 2013 to 2050 as calculated by the LUTO model under all 648 future pathways, broadly coloured by global outlook (L1, M3, M2, H3). The maps show the average frequency of occurrence of each land-use in each grid cell at 1.1-km2 spatial resolution, calculated as the number of years the land-use occurs in each grid cell across all 648 modelled future pathways, expressed as a percentage of the total number of modelled years and pathways (that is, 38 years × 648 pathways). Grey indicates that the land-use did not occur in the grid cell. The full dataset is available online12.

  4. Extended Data Figure 4: Number of future pathways for Australia’s agricultural land in which six national-scale sustainability targets were achieved by 2050. (173 KB)
    (Bioenergy is not shown.) Horizontal bars indicate the total number of pathways in which each individual target was achieved. Vertical bars indicate the total number of pathways in which each possible combination of the six targets were achieved. The matrix of coloured dots indicates specific target combinations, with achievement (at Weak, Moderate and Ambitious levels) increasing from 0 to 6 targets, left to right. Active (not grey) dots indicate targets achieved in the combination, while inactive (grey) dots indicate targets not achieved in the combination. A total of 648 pathways was modelled.

  5. Extended Data Figure 5: Parallel set plots of the option space for achieving Weak, Moderate and Ambitious targets by 2030 for the six sustainability indicators under future pathways for Australia’s land-sector. (823 KB)
    The sustainability indicators are economic returns to land, food production, water resource use, biofuels production, emissions abatement, and biodiversity services. For each target, the orange lines indicate specific combinations of global outlook, domestic land-use policy, and key uncertainties under which target achievement occurs. The percentage for each dimension (in parentheses) and the horizontal thickness of the orange lines represent the number of pathways under which the corresponding targets were achieved, expressed as a proportion of the total number (648) of pathways.

  6. Extended Data Figure 6: Parallel set plots of the option space for achieving Weak, Moderate and Ambitious targets by 2050 for the six sustainability indicators under future pathways for Australia’s land-sector. (882 KB)
    As for Extended Data Fig. 5.

Extended Data Tables:

  1. Extended Data Table 1: Mapping of land-use contributions to sustainability targets (242 KB)
  2. Extended Data Table 2: Detailed specification of the various dimensions of the 648 pathways for Australia’s land-sector assessed in this study (220 KB)
  3. Extended Data Table 3: Parameters used to specify Weak, Moderate, and Ambitious targets for biofuel production in 2030 and 2050 (39 KB)
  4. Extended Data Table 4: Parameters used to specify Weak, Moderate, and Ambitious targets for land-sector emissions abatement in 2030 and 2050 (52 KB)

Figures:

10.1038/nature21694

About DOIs

Finding pathways to national-scale land-sector sustainability : Nature …

Dr Lei Gao – csiro.au

Brett Bryan (Principal investigator) – Research Data Australia

Meeting multiple targets for sustainability at the same time comes with ..

Australian land-use and sustainability data: 2013 to 2050

Land use and sustainability trajectories – CSIRO

Tamarugal

Three solar thermal plants in Chile could generate electricity 24 hours …

Plans for a 24-hour solar thermal plant earn environmental … – xBlogs

CSP — SolarReserve

These Three Solar Plants in Chile Could Change the Solar Energy …

Australian National Outlook 2015 – CSIRO

Exploring the Cost Effectiveness of Land Conservation Auctions and …

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Ars Technica

A nexus perspective on competing land demands: Wider lessons from ..

Sustainable development goals – United Nations – un.org

Groundwater Foundation

Scholarly articles for stop groundwater depletion

Groundwater :Depletion,Contamination and the prevention

DEEP: What we can all do to reduce groundwater pollution – CT.gov

The Issue of Water Depletion: Who Can Stop It and How?

Pumped Dry: The Global Crisis of Vanishing Groundwater – USA TODAY

Groundwater depletion, USGS water science – USGS Water Resources

Ground-Water Depletion Across the Nation – USGS

Causes, Effects and Solutions of Groundwater Depletion – Conserve …

Water Table Drawdown and Well Pumping

California Struggles with Groundwater Depletion Following End of …

First study of California’s deep groundwater sparks debate | Science …

Groundwater Declines Seen, Even in Wet Climates: Studies(1 …

An integrated model of land-use trade-offs and expanding … – MSSANZ

Heat death of the universe

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Earth Science

A Glossary of Ecological Terms – Terrapsychology

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  1. The balancing of these complex and competing goals seems like the perfect starting point for the next big sim game.

    10 posts | registered 11/13/2014

  2. Would be interesting in seeing such models tested against other regions:

    – Australia clearly has a water constraint. Can that be traded into an energy constraint, through more extensive desalination ? That would seem to be a key local question for the future.

    – Western Europe has a space constraint. Is that easier or harder to address than a shortage of water ? I suspect easier actually, but again, one would love to be able to comeback in 100 years and see how the problem has been addressed.

    217 posts | registered 6/6/2011

  3. RajivSK wrote:
    The balancing of these complex and competing goals seems like the perfect starting point for the next big sim game.

    This. They’ve creating Civ for adults.

    720 posts | registered 3/7/2010

  4. Quote:
    As a result of all these competing priorities, only a quarter of the pathways managed to hit two targets when the ambition was set to moderate. Ten percent hit three of them, and another 3.5 percent hit three. A full 18 percent of the pathways achieved none of the goals.

    Probably meant to say four there in the bolded part?

    22102 posts | registered 7/1/2000

  5. I believe evolution is the ultimate manifestation of the sustainability of the grand scheme of things. Landscapes come and go, ecosystems come and go, species come and go, something old perish, something new emerge, the game goes on.

    Our notion of sustainability is preservation of the current state (for human existence and dominance) indefinitely, Nature may have other ideas.

    37 posts | registered 2/19/2009

  6. RajivSK wrote:
    The balancing of these complex and competing goals seems like the perfect starting point for the next big sim game.

    Only it’s not a game. We get to see it play out in real life.

    14842 posts | registered 10/6/2012

  7. RandomBits wrote:

    I believe evolution is the ultimate manifestation of the sustainability of the grand scheme of things. Landscapes come and go, ecosystems come and go, species come and go, something old perish, something new emerge, the game goes on.

    Our notion of sustainability is preservation of the current state (for human existence and dominance) indefinitely, Nature may have other ideas.

    Evolution, by definition, takes place over many generations. Degradation of the environment can be much quicker, and often happens at a pace that evolution cannot keep up with.

    If we don’t pay attention to sustainability, we may produce a future world that cannot sustain even current populations of humans and wild things.

    Australia is now seeing that in a big way with bleaching of its coral reefs, which could lead to a massive reduction in sea life on its continental shelf, which in turn could lead to big problems for people. All thanks to burning fossil fuels, by the way. That’s what’s poisoning the coral.

    Last edited by Shavano on Sat Apr 15, 2017 9:45 am

    14842 posts | registered 10/6/2012

  8. A large part of Australia receives very little rainfall while some parts are definitely tropical and receive regular rainfall.

    A large amount of rainwater falling in the urban areas ends up draining to the sea via sewage canals. There must be a practical way to collect all that fresh water.

    In my country the Philippines, i have diverted the rainfall on my roof to a piece of my lot (instead of going into the municipal sewage system)and let the water pool there since it does drain into the soil and im hoping that in my own little way i can contribute to replenish the underground water table.

    670 posts | registered 1/11/2009

  9. Australia and sustainable at modern Civ levels? sounds like they decided their first playthrough would be at Hard Core Iron Man.
    Australia like many other places on this earth, is not even remotely ideal for having a full range of resources to create a sustainable ongoing Civ. This is why merchant shipping is so important on the international scale.

    380 posts | registered 12/15/2010

  10. “Unfortunately, reforestation would also make water use less sustainable”

    How so? That’s not at all clear to me. Forests use up water through evaporation?

    But don’t forests also capture more rainfall that might otherwise run off or evaporate rapidly?

    Either way, if it’s reforestation, that intuitively suggests that it can’t be worse than it was before people cut down the trees, no?

    1111 posts | registered 5/1/2006

  11. bongbong wrote:

    A large part of Australia receives very little rainfall while some parts are definitely tropical and receive regular rainfall.

    A large amount of rainwater falling in the urban areas ends up draining to the sea via sewage canals. There must be a practical way to collect all that fresh water.

    In my country the Philippines, i have diverted the rainfall on my roof to a piece of my lot (instead of going into the municipal sewage system)and let the water pool there since it does drain into the soil and im hoping that in my own little way i can contribute to replenish the underground water table.

    During the last big drought the plan was to add more dams and link up most of those eastern seaboard dams via pumps, so we’d be both more drought and also flood resistant. People got all NIMBY and the drought broke so problem solved.

    As for diverting roof water, rain water tanks are pretty common here depending on where you live. They’ve been banned for being unsightly in some areas though.

    1955 posts | registered 2/13/2001

  12. Civilization is a heat engine.

    6 posts | registered 10/21/2010

  13. now, leap ahead some 2000 years, consider the population increase (less those lucky ones who have exited to those lovely exo planets and refuges on X-Resorts Unlimited of Uranus) scatter them among the slim available slots of semi arid land, hand them a spade, maybe a HDPE jug of recovered water and let them ‘live off this land’……. (taken from Ron Reagans snappy quip to them Ruskies)

    Last edited by Hapticz on Sat Apr 15, 2017 10:42 am

    869 posts | registered 4/14/2010

  14. I remember an ecologist years ago claiming that Australia was already unsustainably populated by around a factor of two, and I’ve often repeated that claim and sometimes copped scorn for being naive (especially with the implied consequences for immigration this is a politically thorny subject), but this article suggests that that ecologist was on to something. Indeed, foreigners are often surprised how few people live in such a vast territory, but it really is mostly desert – a world away from the fertile European pastures in their minds.

    167 posts | registered 12/9/2008

  15. show nested quotes

    During the last big drought the plan was to add more dams and link up most of those eastern seaboard dams via pumps, so we’d be both more drought and also flood resistant. People got all NIMBY and the drought broke so problem solved.

    As for diverting roof water, rain water tanks are pretty common here depending on where you live. They’ve been banned for being unsightly in some areas though.

    lucky you. some regions of Calipornica USA, have strict restrictions regarding ‘watta from heven’. put in a rain barrel and you get a visit from the county watta enforcement thugs. no joke!

    869 posts | registered 4/14/2010

  16. bongbong wrote:

    A large part of Australia receives very little rainfall while some parts are definitely tropical and receive regular rainfall.

    A large amount of rainwater falling in the urban areas ends up draining to the sea via sewage canals. There must be a practical way to collect all that fresh water.

    In my country the Philippines, i have diverted the rainfall on my roof to a piece of my lot (instead of going into the municipal sewage system)and let the water pool there since it does drain into the soil and im hoping that in my own little way i can contribute to replenish the underground water table.

    Just to nitpick, in Melbourne at any rate, the drains are separate to the sewerage system, as drain water is not treated before being discharged into rivers or the sea. However that reminds me of another water-saving measure that has had some negative consequences, which is that by reducing the amount of water entering the sewerage system (by for example reducing the volume in each toilet flush) the sewers don’t flow as well, potentially causing blockages!

    167 posts | registered 12/9/2008

  17. it is ironic that attempts by humans to improve on natural systems that evolved over millennia turn out to be unproductive or even damaging, despite observation of short-term benefits.

    Suppressing forest fires leading to overgrown forests susceptible to disease and increased fire risk, humans congregating in areas that don’t have enough proximate resources to support the new population (but are pretty [California] or have lots of dead dinosaurs underground [Dubai]), growing food that is desirable, but not necessary, and uses water in excess of availability (such as Almonds @ 2,100 gal./lb., vs. ironically Watermelon @ 31 gal./lb.), introducing invasive, non-native species such as Kudzu for idealistic or commercial reasons without understanding the gaps in natural limiting factors in the receiving ecosystem.

    Given the number of variables operating in any single ecosystem, it is surprising that humans think they can alter only a handful of parameters without causing long-term sustainability problems, despite the apparently positive short-term gains that accompany many decisions.

    One wonders if ecosystem modification simulations would require more or less computing power than weather prediction; humans have gotten much better at weather prediction over the past century, but very few people would bet their lives on a prediction that it will be sunny 20 days in the future, what makes us think that terraforming is less complex?

    2331 posts | registered 8/31/2012

  18. Hapticz wrote:
    now, leap ahead some 2000 years, consider the population increase (less those lucky ones who have exited to those lovely exo planets and refuges on X-Resorts Unlimited of Uranus) scatter them among the slim available slots of semi arid land, hand them a spade, maybe a HDPE jug of recovered water and let them ‘live off this land’……. (taken from Ron Reagans snappy quip to them Ruskies)

    If that’s the base SOL of people in 2000 years, forget about it. We’re done. We either move up or out, and that’s about all we can do.

    Archologies, ecunomopoli, those are our future if we want to be anything like sustainable. In truth, it’s all about the amount of energy our civilization can produce and how fast we can get to Kardashev 2+.

    202 posts | registered 4/24/2011

  19. Actually, the reason for this is pretty simple. The current population of 6 Billion is not sustainable. Don’t know what number is but I’m sure it’s well short of 6 Billion. And, the only country that practices population is China and we know what they have to do to maintain population control. I would venture (just off the top of my head) that the sustainable population control is somewhere between 4-5 Billion. So, why don’t we just start a world war and knock off a couple of billion and the rest are allowed to live. BTW, overpopulation is one of the main contributors to climate change since most of the 3rd world nations rely on fossil fuels (especially coal) to produce electricity (if they can at all) or very often just to stay warm and cook their food.

    39 posts | registered 2/18/2009

  20. Uxorious wrote:

    it is ironic that attempts by humans to improve on natural systems that evolved over millennia turn out to be unproductive or even damaging, despite observation of short-term benefits.

    Suppressing forest fires leading to overgrown forests susceptible to disease and increased fire risk, humans congregating in areas that don’t have enough proximate resources to support the new population (but are pretty [California] or have lots of dead dinosaurs underground [Dubai]), growing food that is desirable, but not necessary, and uses water in excess of availability (such as Almonds @ 2,100 gal./lb., vs. ironically Watermelon @ 31 gal./lb.), introducing invasive, non-native species such as Kudzu for idealistic or commercial reasons without understanding the gaps in natural limiting factors in the receiving ecosystem.

    Given the number of variables operating in any single ecosystem, it is surprising that humans think they can alter only a handful of parameters without causing long-term sustainability problems, despite the apparently positive short-term gains that accompany many decisions.

    One wonders if ecosystem modification simulations would require more or less computing power than weather prediction; humans have gotten much better at weather prediction over the past century, but very few people would bet their lives on a prediction that it will be sunny 20 days in the future, what makes us think that terraforming is less complex?

    We’re still in the early stages of really learning about our environment. Saying nay, haha, or whatever right now is like saying stuff like that to a kid that’s making mistakes as they’re still learning about the world around them: not particularly productive and inductive to creating bad habits. We need to develop good habits, including some degree of stewardship, but that will be a matter of time and effort on our part not really helped by the inherent negativity and scolding of a particular subset of individuals.

    While there are certainly people that see only the short-term and are completely incapable of dealing with the long, and their behavior is having very negative long-term effects, scolding them is going to no more useful than scolding trainees for making mistakes. Even less so, as they’re likely to start ignoring you completely.

    Those who are dealing with the long-term must be positive if they are to overcome the very real limitations we as people have right now in our thinking about the future. That means we look for solutions to not only the problems we’ve created, but also to the inherent problems placed on us by thermodynamics and general behavior.

    If everything I’ve written in this thread reads weird, I’d like to point out that I’ve been navel-gazing into the abyss and the abyss has navel-gazed back at me, and that’s boring so right now I’m trying out different arguments for things like why our species (and the universe as a whole) should continue to exist, and how it might do so.

    Or maybe I’ve always been bummed about the occlusion of Earth by Sol and the eventual heat-death of the universe.

    202 posts | registered 4/24/2011

  21. Quote:
    To give a sense of the trade-offs, we can start by looking at the scenarios in which addressing climate change is a priority. This leads to policies that promote reforestation, which can offset carbon emissions

    There are plenty of good reasons to preserve forests, and also to promote reforestation, but forests don’t offset fossil fuel emissions; they’re in steady-state balance with atmospheric CO2. In addition, the future of forests under current warming conditions is very iffy – look at the Canadian forests as an example. The Canadian government tried to claim that their forests were offsetting tar sands emissions, but then this happened by 2009:

    Quote:
    In an alarming yet little-noticed series of recent studies, scientists have concluded that Canada’s precious forests, stressed from damage caused by global warming, insect infestations and persistent fires, have crossed an ominous line and are now pumping out more climate-changing carbon dioxide than they are sequestering

    There really is no practical economic way to offset fossil fuel emissions; we just have to stop digging up ancient fossil fuel deposits and pumping their carbon into the atmosphere. One could theoretically pull billions of tons of CO2 out of the air and convert it to carbon fiber or carbonate rocks, but the energy costs would be monumental. It’s far, far cheaper to just transition to renewables.

    689 posts | registered 2/17/2016

  22. khoadley wrote:

    Would be interesting in seeing such models tested against other regions:

    – Australia clearly has a water constraint. Can that be traded into an energy constraint, through more extensive desalination ? That would seem to be a key local question for the future.

    Dumping coal power plants would be a good start on saving water.

    18712 posts | registered 7/2/1999

  23. “None of this means that meeting goals is ultimately impossible.”

    Uhh, surely step one of that is stating what those goals ARE?
    Chanting “sustainable” is not stating a goal. Is the goal
    – maintain today’s lifestyle for a particular population?
    – allow the population to grow as it will and reduce lifestyle to compensate?

    THAT is the issue no-one wants to clarify. The best you get is vague fudges like “well, population growth seems to be slowing so that problem will solve itself”.
    OK, that’s your sustainability plan, hope that things will just work out?

    (BTW Australia’s population growth rate ~1.4% or so for the last 50 years or so, with no obvious decline.)

    Am I irritated by this? You’re damn right I am. Exactly how does it help the situation to keep publishing articles like this that all, uniformly, refuse to admit the existence of, and consequences of, the elephant in the room?

    4189 posts | registered 11/18/2003

  24. Shavano wrote:
    show nested quotes

    Evolution, by definition, takes place over many generations. Degradation of the environment can be much quicker, and often happens at a pace that evolution cannot keep up with.

    If we don’t pay attention to sustainability, we may produce a future world that cannot sustain even current populations of humans and wild things.

    Australia is now seeing that in a big way with bleaching of its coral reefs, which could lead to a massive reduction in sea life on its continental shelf, which in turn could lead to big problems for people. All thanks to burning fossil fuels, by the way. That’s what’s poisoning the coral.

    You are missing his point.
    His point is that the language of recycling, sustainability and so on, is a language that serves human goals, it is NOT a language expressing some sort of universal moral principle that applies to the whole universe.
    We talk about “wasted water” when it affects us, but we don’t say that the Amazon is “wasting” massive amounts of water by moving it from the center of Brazil straight to the ocean.

    It’s fine to use this waste/recycle/sustain language in human contexts, because we are, after all, humans. But there are definitely some who get so carried away by this particular religion that they lose sight of the bigger picture.

    4189 posts | registered 11/18/2003

  25. Ultimately we don’t need sustainability as the universe has provided us with a near infinite supply of resources. That being said, we need to plan for sustainability such that critical resources are not depleted in a manner detrimental to the greater good while enriching a few. Resource requirements change as technology advance.

    5055 posts | registered 9/10/2012

  26. harmless wrote:

    “Unfortunately, reforestation would also make water use less sustainable”

    How so? That’s not at all clear to me. Forests use up water through evaporation?

    But don’t forests also capture more rainfall that might otherwise run off or evaporate rapidly?

    Either way, if it’s reforestation, that intuitively suggests that it can’t be worse than it was before people cut down the trees, no?

    That’s what I was wondering too. I thought agriculture is supposed to be the bane of water sustainability.

    Aren’t we supposed to have free access to Nature articles?

    5332 posts | registered 7/30/1999

  27. Hapticz wrote:
    show nested quotes

    lucky you. some regions of Calipornica USA, have strict restrictions regarding ‘watta from heven’. put in a rain barrel and you get a visit from the county watta enforcement thugs. no joke!

    I call bullshit. Provide a reference or shut up.

    https://www.lexisnexis.com/legalnewsroo … water.aspx

    There is a concern with these systems if they are inappropriately designed so that they become mosquito breeding grounds, but that’s a totally different issue.

    4189 posts | registered 11/18/2003

  28. Hapticz wrote:
    show nested quotes

    lucky you. some regions of Calipornica USA, have strict restrictions regarding ‘watta from heven’. put in a rain barrel and you get a visit from the county watta enforcement thugs. no joke!

    In my area of Virginia, you get a tax credit for installing and using rain barrels. All the public housing units on the other side of town have giant rain barrels at the end of each building.

    I use them for watering plants, but my house runs off a well, so it’s moot.

    58 posts | registered 4/13/2012

  29. RandomBits wrote:

    I believe evolution is the ultimate manifestation of the sustainability of the grand scheme of things. Landscapes come and go, ecosystems come and go, species come and go, something old perish, something new emerge, the game goes on.

    Our notion of sustainability is preservation of the current state (for human existence and dominance) indefinitely, Nature may have other ideas.

    Science has a very different idea: doom. No heat, no movement, no life, no nothing.

    Some of us like to think a super natural being will save us, others think science will save us, not knowing that it is the very science they have faith in that guarantees our doom.

    137 posts | registered 9/19/2012

  30. Uxorious wrote:

    it is ironic that attempts by humans to improve on natural systems that evolved over millennia turn out to be unproductive or even damaging, despite observation of short-term benefits.

    Suppressing forest fires leading to overgrown forests susceptible to disease and increased fire risk, humans congregating in areas that don’t have enough proximate resources to support the new population (but are pretty [California] or have lots of dead dinosaurs underground [Dubai]), growing food that is desirable, but not necessary, and uses water in excess of availability (such as Almonds @ 2,100 gal./lb., vs. ironically Watermelon @ 31 gal./lb.), introducing invasive, non-native species such as Kudzu for idealistic or commercial reasons without understanding the gaps in natural limiting factors in the receiving ecosystem.

    Given the number of variables operating in any single ecosystem, it is surprising that humans think they can alter only a handful of parameters without causing long-term sustainability problems, despite the apparently positive short-term gains that accompany many decisions.

    One wonders if ecosystem modification simulations would require more or less computing power than weather prediction; humans have gotten much better at weather prediction over the past century, but very few people would bet their lives on a prediction that it will be sunny 20 days in the future, what makes us think that terraforming is less complex?

    To be fair, 1lb of almonds contains 2600 calories vs 136 calories for 1lb of watermelon (20x more) so the almonds are actually only consuming 3.5x the water on a per calorie basis.

    Almonds also store/preserve substantially better than a watermelon that would rot fairly quickly, so you’d be willing to pay a water efficiency penalty for a longer-lasting (and thus logistically simpler and less prone to wastage) food source.

    661 posts | registered 2/11/2010

  31. RandomBits wrote:

    I believe evolution is the ultimate manifestation of the sustainability of the grand scheme of things. Landscapes come and go, ecosystems come and go, species come and go, something old perish, something new emerge, the game goes on.

    Our notion of sustainability is preservation of the current state (for human existence and dominance) indefinitely, Nature may have other ideas.

    Science has a very different idea: doom. No heat, no movement, no life, no nothing.

    Some of us like to think a super natural being will save us, others think science will save us, not knowing that it is the very science they have faith in that guarantees our doom.

    Talking about what will happen in 20 billion years to people who are interested in what’s going to happen in 20 years is not a useful contribution to the discussion.

    4189 posts | registered 11/18/2003

  32. 737 Pilot wrote:
    Actually, the reason for this is pretty simple. The current population of 6 Billion is not sustainable. Don’t know what number is but I’m sure it’s well short of 6 Billion. And, the only country that practices population is China and we know what they have to do to maintain population control. I would venture (just off the top of my head) that the sustainable population control is somewhere between 4-5 Billion. So, why don’t we just start a world war and knock off a couple of billion and the rest are allowed to live. BTW, overpopulation is one of the main contributors to climate change since most of the 3rd world nations rely on fossil fuels (especially coal) to produce electricity (if they can at all) or very often just to stay warm and cook their food.

    I’m just going to leave this here. Be sure to turn on CC if you have trouble with the speech impediment.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAJeYe-abUA1

    202 posts | registered 4/24/2011

  33. Stories like this are just sad and pointless.
    We are living in a burning house and no one will talk about the fire or do anything to keep it from burning out of control. In fact people are encouraged to spray gasoline around the house by their family, friends, and TV.”But.. but.. BABIES! Everyone needs to make more cute cuddly babies! Make them NOW! Babies babies BABIES! More more more! Aren’t they cute?! Babies are a basic human right, you need to make some or you aren’t human!!!!!”If all child births stopped on the planet for 1 decade we, would have 7 billion people sucking up resources and generating waste at the end of the 10 years. Extend that to 2 decades and we would be down to ~6.5 billion hungry mouths. A sustainable level is what half that?
    When does the oil run out? Last projection I saw was ~2038. Now new technologies are out there that might help a bit with growing and moving food but can’t help with the by products of the ~10 billion people we will have in 2038.
    There are an estimated 8 billion rats on the planet. We are getting close to the point that not everyone on the planet can have their own rat.There is no fixing this because most humans are emotional responders and not critical thinkers. So the first wall you hit is that they go through “the 5 stages of problems” when you tell them something unpleasant.
    1. denial
    2. Anger
    3. Bargaining
    4. Depression
    5. Acceptance.
    They do not go through for just grief, loss, and dying. They go through it for all unpleasant problems.
    So most will just tell you “there is no overpopulation”. You can point out the dead spots in the sea from over-driving crop production on land or how we have eaten almost all the big fish in the sea and they will keep telling you “there is no overpopulation”. Facts cannot beat feelings for the emotional responder.
    The other problem is that most of the species are emotional responder and they will never vote in anyone who is interested in population control. Heck if you suggest it, they may attack or even kill you for it.
    By the time they get past denial it is far far too late.So what do we give up for “Babies babies BABIES!!!”
    The huge one is we can’t do serious research into life extension and immortality. So everyone has to die because the next batch of crying human lotto tickets is surely better than the current humans. Have a baby now and help kill billions in the future.

So that is all folks. We are putting tiny Bandaids on huge sucking chest wounds and decapitations.
Time to sit back and grab a beer and watch our species die. You tried but you were just too outnumbered.

19977 posts | registered 6/20/2001

  • Stories like this are just sad and pointless.
    We are living in a burning house and no one will talk about the fire or do anything to keep it from burning out of control. In fact people are encouraged to spray gasoline around the house by their family, friends, and TV.”But.. but.. BABIES! Everyone needs to make more cute cuddly babies! Make them NOW! Babies babies BABIES! More more more! Aren’t they cute?! Babies are a basic human right, you need to make some or you aren’t human!!!!!”If all child births stopped on the planet for 1 decade we, would have 7 billion people sucking up resources and generating waste at the end of the 10 years. Extend that to 2 decades and we would be down to ~6.5 billion hungry mouths. A sustainable level is what half that?
    When does the oil run out? Last projection I saw was ~2038. Now new technologies are out there that might help a bit with growing and moving food but can’t help with the by products of the ~10 billion people we will have in 2038.
    There are an estimated 8 billion rats on the planet. We are getting close to the point that not everyone on the planet can have their own rat.There is no fixing this because most humans are emotional responders and not critical thinkers. So the first wall you hit is that they go through “the 5 stages of problems” when you tell them something unpleasant.
    1. denial
    2. Anger
    3. Bargaining
    4. Depression
    5. Acceptance.
    They do not go through for just grief, loss, and dying. They go through it for all unpleasant problems.
    So most will just tell you “there is no overpopulation”. You can point out the dead spots in the sea from over-driving crop production on land or how we have eaten almost all the big fish in the sea and they will keep telling you “there is no overpopulation”. Facts cannot beat feelings for the emotional responder.
    The other problem is that most of the species are emotional responder and they will never vote in anyone who is interested in population control. Heck if you suggest it, they may attack or even kill you for it.
    By the time they get past denial it is far far too late.So what do we give up for “Babies babies BABIES!!!”
    The huge one is we can’t do serious research into life extension and immortality. So everyone has to die because the next batch of crying human lotto tickets is surely better than the current humans. Have a baby now and help kill billions in the future.

So that is all folks. We are putting tiny Bandaids on huge sucking chest wounds and decapitations.
Time to sit back and grab a beer and watch our species die. You tried but you were just too outnumbered.

Or to put it differently:
One child was good enough for God. Why do you think you need more?

4189 posts | registered 11/18/2003

  • SiberX wrote:
    show nested quotes

    To be fair, 1lb of almonds contains 2600 calories vs 136 calories for 1lb of watermelon (20x more) so the almonds are actually only consuming 3.5x the water on a per calorie basis.

    Almonds also store/preserve substantially better than a watermelon that would rot fairly quickly, so you’d be willing to pay a water efficiency penalty for a longer-lasting (and thus logistically simpler and less prone to wastage) food source.

    While the flesh needs to be eaten quickly – watermelon seeds store well when dried, are edible, are more calorie dense than the flesh and have lots of protein. Watermelon rind can be preserved by pickling.

    18712 posts | registered 7/2/1999

  • harmless wrote:

    “Unfortunately, reforestation would also make water use less sustainable”

    How so? That’s not at all clear to me. Forests use up water through evaporation?

    But don’t forests also capture more rainfall that might otherwise run off or evaporate rapidly?

    Either way, if it’s reforestation, that intuitively suggests that it can’t be worse than it was before people cut down the trees, no?

    I suspect the issue (as land use seems to be the main theme here) is that reforestation means converting farmland back into forests, not empty desert expanses.

    The same environment conductive to forest growth (water and fertile soil) is also going to make the same land the most viable farmland – at least in Australia. Taking away that farmland decreases food independence (the famine stalking Yemen is a graphic example of situations where reliance of imports of staples can be undesirable).

    Furthermore, certain species are helped/adapt more easily to the land being repurposed for agriculture use and will be correspondingly negatively affected if the use is changed again (migrating waterfowl fattening up on the various grain fields they overfly in North America for instance).

    Then there is the question of what type of agriculture will be affected. High-margin industries like vineyards are going to have a much higher economic opportunity cost in terms of government tax revenue and jobs. Cutting back on farms that cultivate fresh produce can have health repercussions if people start eating less fruits and vegetables because of the cost.

    Then there’s the carbon emissions associated with the increase in shipping (whether air or surface). Depending on the forest and the volume of shipping needed, reforestation may end up trading biodiversity directly against climate change reduction.

    Last edited by chanman819 on Sat Apr 15, 2017 2:49 pm

    373 posts | registered 10/8/2009

  • show nested quotes

    During the last big drought the plan was to add more dams and link up most of those eastern seaboard dams via pumps, so we’d be both more drought and also flood resistant. People got all NIMBY and the drought broke so problem solved.

    As for diverting roof water, rain water tanks are pretty common here depending on where you live. They’ve been banned for being unsightly in some areas though.

    Where I live, they were banned until last year because of concern (or concern trolling, probably) about impact on streamflows. (Here in Colorado, we’re at the head of rivers that impact millions of people.)

    But it was always legal to direct whatever water fell on your roof directly into your garden, so :confused:

    We’re now limited to total storage of 110 gallons per home. Cisterns are right out. But ranchers have always built stock ponds that capture rainwater. My impression is that this is often (and perhaps most often) a violation of somebody else’s water rights.

    14842 posts | registered 10/6/2012

  • RandomBits wrote:

    I believe evolution is the ultimate manifestation of the sustainability of the grand scheme of things. Landscapes come and go, ecosystems come and go, species come and go, something old perish, something new emerge, the game goes on.

    Our notion of sustainability is preservation of the current state (for human existence and dominance) indefinitely, Nature may have other ideas.

    We humans are the only species in the known universe with the capacity of forethought, creativity, complex problem solving…. we evolve. But we no longer require thousands of generations, we evolve ourselves and the universe around us.

    We’ve modified the temperature of the planet through nearly two centuries of putting carbon dioxide (and thousands of other chemicals into the atmosphere), only we can change it.

    Last edited by arcite on Sat Apr 15, 2017 1:56 pm

    13528 posts | registered 3/13/2004

The whole of the official US & UK Foreign Policy narrative is a complete fabrication and lie. The politicians and the media have to tell major lies to keep the False Narrative going

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You shouldn’t take anything any politician says at face value. You should research what the actual evidence is.

ALL Western Establishment politicians have an unbridled track record of brazenly and outrageously lying, particularly over the last 25 years. See Iraq 2003 for an excellent example.

The West has a very long history of staging False Flag attacks and going to war based on nothing but lies and the Establishment media have wholeheartedly supported it for over one hundred years.

The whole official US/UK Foreign Policy narrative of “benevolent intervention”, being the “World’s Policeman” and the “International Community” is a complete fabrication. US & UK Foreign Policy is conducted to benefit the major corporations and Oligarchs that have bought and own the government – major banks, arms companies, oil companies, Rothschilds, Rockefellers etc.

The Western politicians (and their Establishment media sycophants and puppets) have to tell major lies to keep their false narrative believed by the majority of their populations.

A flow chart of the ACTUAL amoral US & UK Foreign Policy

Example of US False Flags and lies to go to war since 1898:-

USS Maine Spanish-American War 1898, WW1 (Baghdad-Berlin railway, Lusitania), WW2 (Pearl Harbor), Korea, Vietnam (Gulf of Tonkin), Kuwait 1991 (Incubator babies, Saddam’s refusal to do an oil for weapons deal), Afghanistan 2001 (real reasons – opium production & Caspian oil pipeline), Saddam 2003 (WMDs), Libya 2011 (Gaddafi was not attacking civilians), Syria 2011 (US & UK organized invasion of foreign Jihadis who the US, Saudi & Qatar armed).

For more info on the real reasons the US & UK Neocons are fighting a war in Syria – read this:-
http://ian56.blogspot.co.uk/2016/09/why-are-us-and-uk-governments-waging.html

The US & UK started a war against Russia in a futile attempt to protect the Petrodollar and to try and make Russia a puppet of the Neocon Globalist Establishment instead of a Sovereign country.
But the stupid Neocons have only hastened the end of American hegemony with even more debt, pushed Russia and China into being joined at the hip partners, and accelerated Chinese and Russian plans to replace the dollar as the Global Reserve currency.
The “Wolfowitz Doctrine” from 1992 of controlling the entire Eurasian land mass (which the Western Globalists destroyed by actively helping China’s exponential economic growth) and the Neocon plan for “Full Spectrum Dominance” across the entire world, were always absurd.

The details of the Geopolitics are in here:-
http://ian56.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/geopolitics-us-china-and-russia-main.html

N.B. Gaddafi dropped the dollar in 2006.
Assad has never been part of the Rothschild controlled Federal Reserve and BIS Central Bank system.
Syria has had an independent Central Bank for decades.
Bush started taking active measures to Regime Change Assad in 2005.

The lies currently being told about the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria
We know that the US, UK, Saudi & Turkey backed al-Qaeda supporting Jihadis have used Sarin gas before (and chlorine). Their biggest attack was in Ghouta, Damascus in 2013, which Obama and Kerry outrageously lied about to falsely blame Assad. We also know that al-Nusra have made Sarin gas in Turkey before and delivered it to the terrorists in Northern Syria.

ALL of the evidence on the recent events supports the Russian narrative of Jihadi owned chemical weapons being released and NONE of it supports Trump or the Neocon narrative of Assad suddenly going insane and using chemical weapons to turn imminent victory into possible defeat.

I compiled a number of articles with the best of the evidence in here:-

US Intel 100% knows that Assad did NOT use chemical weapons, so what’s Trump’s game?
http://ian56.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/the-false-flag-chemical-weapon-attack.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resources/Related:

The whole of the official US & UK Foreign Policy narrative is a ..

Top Journalist Says Hillary Approved Sending Sarin to Rebels Used to .

Syria’s Assad

 

The Siren Call Of The Shia

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Enabling the Shia Axis to do our dirty work in the Middle East offers Western policymakers honey laced with poison.

The Islamic State’s Mesopotamian blitz has evoked a consensus for action among Americans not seen since the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll indicates a startling two-thirds of Americans support confrontation with the group. It is likely that only a threat so disturbing as the Islamic State (ISIS) could have compelled the Obama administration to backtrack on six years of established policy and initiate its own military operations in Iraq this past summer.

The more ISIS gains in strength, commits atrocities like the brutal and public murder of American journalists, and openly threatens the American homeland, the range of the policy debate over how to confront the terrorist group will narrow.

In his address to the country last evening, the president repeated his promise to “degrade and destroy” the organization. The means by which we go about doing this, however, are arguably just as critical for American national security.

 The president said the effort to defeat ISIS will consist of airstrikes, a “broad coalition,” and a number of other counter-terrorism efforts. He also notably stated we cannot rely on Bashar al Assad’s regime, and vowed to continue to support the Syrian opposition as a part of the effort. He said nothing, however, about, the regional actor that arguably has the most to say about the ultimate outcome of the fight if it so chooses: Iran.

“It would be foolish not to align with Assad against ISIS”

Ever since ISIS seized Mosul in June, voices from across the political spectrum have increasingly suggested that we turn to a common enemy—Assad, Tehran, and the forces of Shia Islamism in the Middle East—to defeat ISIS. In June, Sen. Lindsay Graham publicly floated the idea of cooperating with Iran against the Islamic State, comparing it to Roosevelt and Churchill’s alliance with Stalin against Hitler.

Writing recently in the New York Times, Northeastern University professor Max Abrams argued it would be foolish not to align with Assad against ISIS, granted that the Syrian president unlike our common Sunni enemy, presents no direct threat to American civilians.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, political science professor Mohsen Milani has argued that a joint struggle between the United States and Iran against ISIS would be a “positive step” that could conceivably enable the Obama administration to “turn a new leaf” with the Iranian regime, and “overcome 35 years of estrangement.”

Some, like Graham, see cooperating with Iran against ISIS as a simple question of realpolitik. Others, such as Milani, see it as an opportunity for a long overdue, full-fledged, strategic rapprochement between Washington and Tehran reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s overture to Communist China in 1972.

The arguments for enabling the Shia Axis to do what must be done in the Middle East through a deft maneuver of Machiavellian-like statecraft are ostensibly compelling; unfortunately, however, they only offer Western policymakers honey laced with poison.

This Is Not the 1970s

The appeals to America’s historical precedents in cooperating with bad guys to beat other really bad guys, whether it be in the 1940s, or the 1970s, fail to account for the strategic endgame that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Nixon and Henry Kissinger pursued in the alliance with Stalin and rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), respectively.

After the Big Three crushed Nazi Germany, the Atlantic Alliance formed almost immediately, and went about containing the advancing influence of the Soviet Union using all instruments of statecraft available, including the threat to use force, and the presence of hundreds of thousands of troops in Europe. Are U.S. policymakers prepared to treat Iran the same way following a hypothetical defeat of ISIS? Comparisons to the Nixon administration’s recognition of the PRC in the 1970s makes a similar miscalculation:

Nixon and Kissinger’s decision to exploit fissures in the relationship between the two Communist giants assumed Beijing and Moscow would remain relatively powerful, and at each other’s throats. After a hypothetical rapprochement with Iran aimed at defeating ISIS, what other regional force would remain to contain Iranian power?

The president’s pledges to “degrade” and “destroy” ISIS are refreshing. His qualifications as to how this will be accomplished, however, reveal their limits. Indeed,  he has retained his promise that no American ground troops will see action. The last time a U.S. president set out to destroy a Sunni Islamist network that threatened the homeland, he dispatched military forces to Afghanistan, and declared without instigating much controversy that the nation would defend itself “at any price.”
The contrast is noteworthy, and demonstrates that despite the surprising public support for military action, the current administration has few politically desirable options. After years of frustration fighting two wars in the Middle East, the prospect of yet another ground commitment to Iraq is still overwhelmingly unpopular with the American public.

If the history of America’s small wars has taught us anything, however, it is that there is no substitute for dominating contested territory in defeating groups like ISIS. Such is evident in the contrast between the surge in Iraq in 2006 and Operation Rolling Thunder against North Vietnam, or al Qaeda’s resurgence in the face of the CIA’s success in assassinating thousands of the network’s top lieutenants.

No amount of power delivered from the air is alone sufficient to change the political realities on the ground. Without the willingness to fight ISIS for its political control of the territory it occupies, the White House will need to turn to others to finish the job it wants done. Hence the sudden attractiveness to some of the Iranian Mullocracy and its proxies in the Levant.

Who Will Contain Iran?

ISIS’ defeat without the presence of substantial ground forces that would check Iranian political influence would pave the way for Tehran to become the region’s most powerful actor. Prior to 2003, the job of containing Iran belonged to Saddam Hussein. After 2003, it belonged to the U.S. military. Since the American withdrawal from Iraq, it has increasingly fallen to the divided and volatile forces of Sunni Islamism. If ISIS is defeated on Iranian terms, then no other power will stand in the way of Iran dominating the Middle East. Indeed, there would be nothing to stop the so-called “Shia Crescent” from Tehran to Beruit that Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned about in 2004.

Some proponents of a rapprochement between Washington and Iran acknowledge this reality, and suggest it is a worthy tradeoff. Writing in the The Telegraph, Sir Malcom Rifkind noted that, unlike Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s alliance with Soviet Union in the 1940s, “Iran will never be a superpower or a global threat.” Some have taken the argument even further, and claimed Iran and the United States have the capacity to become strategic partners rather than mere temporary allies.

In December of last year, David Patrikarikos argued in the New York Times that Iran’s support for terrorists, virulent anti American rhetoric, and enmity with Israel are more the product of historical animosity rather than ideological fervor. Thus, Iran’s leaders are rational, and would therefore respond to American overtures of friendship. Such cooperation could allegedly foster solutions between Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas;

Iran could become a regional ally in countering Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East; and, most importantly, Iran would become an invaluable partner in fighting Sunni extremism. Both lines of reasoning rest on a hopeful yet unsound assessment of the Islamic Republic. Rifkind is most likely correct that the Islamic Republic couldn’t possibly threaten Western interests in the manner of the Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, an Iranian hegemony in the Middle East would mark the transfer of power over one of the world’s most strategically important regions to an avowed enemy of Western interests. It would prove a critical asset to Russia, and perhaps China, in their attempt to challenge American influence globally. Most of all, an Iran capable of projecting power from the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean would present its chief rivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia, with few options of sorting through their differences other than war.

Indeed, preventing Iranian hegemony in the Middle East is one of the key reasons both of those countries are allies of the United States in the first place. War between Israel, Iran, and the Gulf States would be a conflict in size and scope not seen in decades.

It would be the sort of war that would call for involving outside powers, and therefore, not unlike the Balkans prior to World War I, catalyze conflicts between great powers elsewhere. Such a conflict would most certainly mark the end of “Pax Americana” that has fostered unprecedented peace and prosperity during, and after the Cold War.

Resetting Iran Is Fantasy

Proponents of rapprochement, such as Patrikarikos, however, argue that Iran would never seek to dominate the Middle East in the first place, and moreover, that it would likely become an American ally. The call for American policymakers to appeal to Iran’s better nature, however, has a striking resemblance to the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia. True enough, Iran’s leaders could surprise us all, and choose to become the strategic partners we would wish. It is delusional, however, to imagine that a foreign government will act in accordance with our wishes if nothing compels them to do so.

After the Obama administration signed the START Treaty, withdrew support for a ballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe, and conceded on other matters to Russia, Vladimir Putin was free to take Obama’s offer of a new strategic partnership, or leave it. Rather than do what the White House thought was in Russia’s best interest, however, Putin unsurprisingly decided to do what he thought was in Russia’s best interest.

Those who claim Iran will drop the “Death to America” chants at Friday prayers, cease supporting Hezbollah and Hamas, and join the United States in stabilizing the Middle East in a manner friendly to Western interests, if only the United States were to make the first move in a rapprochement, base their analysis on nothing other than mere hope. It is nice to believe that Iran’s leaders would do what we want them to do; it is naïve to believe they will just because we think that they should.

The White House should remain resolute in its promises to destroy ISIS. It would be foolish, however, to do so at the cost of handing Tehran a strategic vacuum in the Middle East. This reality undoubtedly leaves the administration few options. If the United States is going to annihilate ISIS without Shia militias determining the final outcome, then it must find some other force that can do this. Whether this group consists of Iraqi Kurds, other Sunni forces, or some combination thereof remains to be seen. If the military determines such an outcome cannot be accomplished without U.S. ground forces, then so be it. The president’s pledge to cut Assad out of the equation is a positive development; he should remain committed to it as events unfold.

ISIS brings war to America, and America should respond in kind. Before taking action, however, American policymakers should grasp how they want the ultimate resolution to look. If the United States seeks to prevent the state of affairs in the Middle East from becoming even worse than they already are, and, seeks to preserve its tenuous hold on Pax Americana, then paving the way to Iranian regional dominance is no answer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resources/Related:

Iran tested missile, breaching U.N. council resolutions: officials | Reuters

The Federalist

Islamic State group defaces ancient Nimrud site in Iraq

White House: Trump knows what START treaty is

1972 Nixon visit to China

Pax Americana

Will Trump be the end of the Pax Americana? – LA Times

Pax Americana Is Over – The New York Times

The Global Intelligence Files – USA/UNITED STATES/AMERICAS

CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos

Henry Kissinger On China | Nevanka Jayatilleke – Academia.edu

 

 

The Shia Crescent: Self-fulfilling Prophecy?

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ME-Map-1024x935Iran does not have influence over the region’s various Shia actors by default, but is helped by the way the Arab world regimes have historically treated Shia actors in the region.

The “Shi’ite Crescent” has been a self-serving and self-fulfilling prophecy. Since its inception in 1979, never has the Islamic Republic of Iran had such influence and control over a range of state and non-state actors. In Iraq, Iran has unparalleled control over the Shia-dominated state and the country’s range of Shia militias currently fighting so-called Islamic State (IS). Elsewhere, Iranian influence over Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria’s al-Assad regime has been reinforced since the outbreak of conflict in Syria and its transformation into a regionalised sectarian proxy war.

While for Iran it is mostly geostrategic interests that are at stake, for the others it is their survival. IS and its backers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have made clear their intent to reverse the Shia ascent in the region and eliminate the Shia community altogether. In other words, Iranian influence in the region has as much to do with the policies and reactions of the Arab world as it does Iran’s own maneuverings. Iran does not have influence over the region’s various Shia actors by default, but is helped by the way the Arab world regimes have historically treated Shia actors in the region.

Shia1Traditionally, they have afforded little political and human rights to their Shia constituents. They have also treated their Shia communities as part of broader regional problems, particularly because of the religious and political ties that exist between the region’s different Shia communities. These ties do not necessarily mean that they are conducive to some form of pan-regional Shia alliance but, rather, that the Arab world has identified the region’s Shia communities as threats to their authority.

Iran’s influence in the region today is nothing new. Under the Shah, Iran was also proactive, often embroiled in conflict or disputes with the Arab world and often supporting rebel or revolutionary forces, like the Kurds in Iraq. When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ousted the Shah regime and came to power, he called upon the Islamic world to rise up against their autocratic leaders. Whilst some Arab governments, like Syria, Libya and the Palestine Liberation Organization sent their congratulations to him, there was unease among the autocratic governments and monarchies of the broader region.  Khomeini’s Iran permitted the notion that change and revolution was possible. The emergence of the Islamic Republic and the ousting of the Shah showed that the rule and power of despots in the region was not impregnable.

Similarly, the over-arching and generally simplistic narrative emphasizing the link between Shia actors in the region and Iran that we see today pre-dates not only the Syria conflict and the 2003 Iraq war but also the Islamic Republic of Iran itself. Arab world states have historically played on divisions and sensitivities toward Iranian influence; divisions between Arabs and Persians and divisions in Islam between Sunnis and Shias. Anti-government opposition figures, and Shia political movements more generally, have often, if not always, been charged with accusations of being Iranian agents. Under Saddam Hussein and his predecessors, the Iraqi state regularly accused its Shia community of being an Iranian fifth column.

Like the 1979 Iranian revolution, the 2003 invasion of Iraq had an instant impact on the sectarian polarization of the region. In perception, the empowerment of Iraq’s Shia community after 2003 was seen as the empowerment of the Arab world’s other marginalized Shia communities. In much the same way as the Iranian revolution had done in 1979 (although for both Shia and Sunni Arabs), the removal of the Baath regime and the fall of Saddam Hussein seemed to promise the deliverance of the Shia as a whole.

The moment of the falling of Saddam’s statue, with the help of the US Army.

The Shias’ dominance in the new Iraq also concerned the rest of the region because of the considerable extent to which they were organized and mobilized on the basis of their Shia identity. Arab world regimes have historically sought to project, through both coercive and non-coercive means, a vision and image of unity in their effort to legitimize their rule and contain internal dissent. Iraq after 2003, like the Iranian revolution in 1979, has undermined this projection. Further, Iraq’s Shia actors entered the new Iraq with extensive links to Iran, which gave Iraq’s Shia opposition groups, as well as Kurdish groups, extensive support in their effort to overthrow the Baath regime.

The toppling of the Baath regime could have triggered the same sentiments, moreover, as the 1979 Iranian revolution, for the region as a whole, and indeed echo those sentiments triggered by the Arab Spring protests, among a population yearning for democratic and human rights. However, the toxic circumstances that followed the toppling of the Baath regime; the backdrop against which the war took place and the Arab world’s immediate mobilization against the new Iraq, before it was given a chance to repair and rebuild, as well as the narrative that came from Sunni Arab actors in Iraq and beyond, ensured that the fall of Saddam Hussein was seen as the fall of the Sunnis and the rise of the Shia and Iran.

When King Abdullah of Jordon referred to the dangers of a “Shia crescent” in December 2004, one stretching from Damascus to Tehran, passing through Baghdad, the definition of the Iraqi state was still unclear at the time and it was equally unclear whether Iraq would come to be ruled by a Shia alliance. Yet, Iraq’s neighbors in the Arab world had already decided to characterize the new Iraq as an Iranian client-state; its Shia parties, Iranian proxies.

In other words, the post-2003 Iraq did not have to exacerbate sectarianism and polarize the region further along sectarian lines. But in response to this characterization, a flood of jihadists used the Arab world states as a transit point to enter Iraq and wreak carnage, with the acquiescence of the governments of those states. Militants received active support from either Arab world governments or wealthy individuals from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

As the trajectory of the post-2003 Iraq shows, it was in response to the Sunni mobilization against the new Iraq that the Shias contested elections as a unified bloc, despite their ideological, political and social divisions. This came in 2005, when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani brought Iraq’s Shia parties and movements together in order to ensure that a resilient Sunni insurgency, backed by the Arab world, did not take them back under Baathist or Sunnis Arab dictatorial rule, which cross-sections of Iraq’s Shia community feared at the time. As one Iraqi Shia noted in 2007: “I would much rather live in a jungle than a Baathist prison,” referring to the chaos and the civil war that had engulfed the country at the time.

Shunned by the Arab world, Iraq’s Shia-dominated state was effectively pushed into Iran’s orbit of influence after 2003. More recently, Iran was the only outside power that deployed advisers and special-forces in the country in June 2014, when ISIS took control of Mosul. While the west dithered as Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, was being targeted by IS, Iran responded almost immediately to a threat that threatened the Iraqi state and the Shia community itself. Iranian support has manifested itself in the form of arms and funds; organizational and technical assistance. That, inevitably, translates into some form of influence and control.

bahraini-shia-protest-against-the-saudi-death-verdict-of-shia-cleric-sh-nemir-al-nemir– Photo: Sunni monarchs back YouTube hate preachers: Anti-Shia.

The post-2003 Sunni Arab rejection of the new Iraq; followed by the sectarian proxy war in Syria and the anti-Shia basis on which IS functions and on which the Arab world states legitimize and strengthen their rule, has created a unifying thread that mobilizes and unites the Shia, despite their own internal divisions. In other words, any Shia dependence on Iran, whether this occurs in Iraq, or Syria – where the Shia Alawites sect is traditionally seen as heretic by most Shias – or in Yemen – where the Houthis belong to a sect of Shia Islam (Zaydism) that is in fact closer to Sunni Islam – is not necessarily a matter of choice or of default, but one of necessity.

This has proved pivotal in bridging the divide that has existed between different sections of the Shia community both within Iraq and in the region. It has also transformed the Shia identity into a powerful galvanizing force, particularly since the rise of IS and the outbreak of conflict in Syria.

King Abdullah IIShias throughout the region retain a strong sense of their national identity and seldom will you meet a Shia that rejects his or her national identity. But with recent conflict in Syria, the rise of IS and the anti Shia sectarian narrative from the Arab world has done is to coalesce the region’s Shia community around the Shia identity, despite their political, social and ideological differences. In other words, the notion of a ‘Shia crescent’ might be a greater reality today than it was before when first asserted by King Abdullah in 2004. But it has been both a self-serving and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is correct that the Shia have been marginalized throughout the ME. They have also been murdered quite regularly in Sunni-dominated Pakistan over several decades without any one even bothering to report it in the Western media. What Israel and the Sunni Wahhabi Arab sheikhdoms in the Persian Gulf fear most, is not a nuclear Iran (as they would falsely have us believe) but a politically and economically powerful Iran, an emerging regional superpower.

Unlike the Arab monarchies, Iran has chosen to lead an independent, non-aligned path since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. By supporting the Shia in various parts of the region, it has not only bolstered it’s support among Arab populations, it has also checked Israeli aggression in Lebanon and Syria. It is in fact the first time in Iran’s entire post-Islamic history that it has been successful in creating and maintaining such influence among Arab populations. This is in fact what the Saudis and the Zionists in Israel and the US find most objectionable: Iran’s desire and ability to be become a regional superpower by creating a network of supporters throughout the region.

Many in the West do not realize that the Arab-Persian divide is far greater than the Sunni-Shia Divide. This is a historical fact that is often over-looked in the West. This Arab-Persian rivalry has been a recurring theme in ME history. I believe that it is to Iran’s credit that it has been able to increase its influence in the region by fostering better relations with various Arab groups whose natural inclination would normally be to distrust Persians.

Israel is always very keen to point out that the various Muslim communities in the region hate each other and would like to kill each other at every opportunity. However, the rise of al Quiada, the Taliban and now ISIS have proven that when required, powerful regional groups, whether Arab, Persian or Kurdish, are able to fight off aggression by extremists, even when the most powerful country on earth (the USA) manages to fail over and over again.

The simple fact is, that with Saudi backed Wahhabism – ISIL, Al Qaeda, Boko Haren, Al Shabaab – running wild in the Middle East and Africa, Iran is now seen as a moderate country.

Iran’s leaders need the West, and the young people of Iran embrace Western culture, so let us hope that this latest deal leads to a thaw in relations between Iran and the West.

Let us also not forget that the Shia are in a majority in Iraq and Bahrain, where historically they have been treated very badly.

 

 

 

 

Resources/Related:

Iranian Revolution

Shi’ite Crescent | Lisa’s leaks – ‘Madness in the Magnolias’

Shi’a Islam Origins, Shi’a Islam History, Shi’a Islam Beliefs – Patheos

Shia–Sunni relations

openDemocracy

Islam in Syria

This Just Became The Most Important Map In Geopolitics

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List of proxy wars

Lebanon and the Start of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Proxy War …

Education in Afghanistan: Developments, Influences and …

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Iran and Saudi Arabia’s cold war is making the Middle East …

Reforms in Islamic Education: International Perspectives

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Abdullah II of Jordan

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The Siren Call Of The Shia

Abdullah’s ‘Shia crescent’ warning backfires

Jordan – Office of the Historian

Bush ‘sorry’ for abuse of Iraqi prisoners

Islam in Pakistan

ISIS and Washington’s Ignorance About the Sunni-Shia Divide

Religion in Pakistan

The Sunni-Shia Divide

Syria, Iran and the Shi’ite Crescent

Shiite vs. Sunni? – Foreign Policy In Focus

Sunni-Shiite Violence In Pakistan Soars

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani Urges Global War Against ISIS

Sunnis and Shia: Islam’s ancient schism

Islam in Pakistan – Muslim Population in the World

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World’s first Anti Shia Alliance convention results in calls for …

Wahhabism

Islam in Saudi Arabia

Is the rise of terrorism tied to the rise of powerful Anti-Shia

Understanding the Gulf States – The Washington Institute for …

comments on Arabic Ahwaz is occupied by Persian in 1925

The Qawasim and British Control of the Arabian Gulf …

Persian Gulf Residency

Britain’s Informal Empire in the Gulf, 1820-–1971 – College …

Britain and the Gulf Shaikhdoms, 1820–1971: The Politics of …

Creating the Arabian Gulf: The British Raj and the …

Persian Gulf States – THE AGE OF COLONIALISM

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openDemocracy

What Is the Shi’ite Crescent

POISON PROPAGANDA : PSYOP SYRIA | Lisa’s leaks …

Syria | Lisa’s leaks – ‘Madness in the Magnolias’

Syrian opposition | Lisa’s leaks – ‘Madness in the Magnolias’

Russian military buildup in Syria | Lisa’s leaks – ‘Madness in …

Syria is about China | Lisa’s leaks – ‘Madness in the Magnolias’

Imperialist Proxy Wars: Why Syria? | Lisa’s leaks – ‘Madness …

The Mythical Shia Crescent – Strategic Studies Institute

 Martin Kramer on the Middle East

Obama’s Speech at Woodrow Wilson Center – Council on Foreign ..

20 | July | 2006 | Prof Cutler | Musings on the News

Unexceptional: America’s Empire in the Persian Gulf, 1941-2007

]Iran and the Shiite Crescent: Myths and Realities – Belfer …

In Break With Bush, Iraqi Leader Assails Israel

The Sunni-Shia Divide

Sunni-Shiite Conflict Reflects Modern Power Struggle, Not …

Seeking to explain the rise of sectarianism in the Middle East

Political Handbook of the World 2015

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate …

Saudi Arabia: National Security in a Troubled Region

U.S.-Iran Misperceptions: A Dialogue

Iran, a View from Within: Political Analyses

The Enigma of Damascus

Damascus Steel’s Lost Secret Found – Rense

Why Did Oil-Rich Arab Countries Abandon Muslim Refugees?

Arab Governments Not Doing Enough For Syrian Refugees

The Bear and Dragon Warn “Catastrophic Consequences” | lisaleaks

Shia-phobia of Saudi Arabia and the institutional genocide of Shia Muslims in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan

The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future – by Vali Nasr

War Games: Here’s how much it costs to replace the 59 Tomahawk missiles Trump fired on Syria

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On the orders of President Donald Trump, nearly 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched by the U.S. Navy against a Syrian air base at dawn local time last Friday. It’s the first large-scale military operation launched by Trump since he took office in early January.

The Trump Admin. alleged heavy damage on the Shayrat Air Base and caused multiple casualties, according to Al Masar News, which backs the Syrian government.

Who’s really benefiting?

It could cost about $60 million to replace the cruise missiles that the U.S. military rained on Syrian targets Thursday night.

Each Tomahawk missile, made by Raytheon Co. (RTN+1.47%) likely cost $1 million, according to experts.

The U.S. used 59 of them on a Syrian air base in response to the alleged Syrian government’s chemical-weapons attack that killed scores of civilians earlier this week.

Raytheon referred questions around costs to the U.S. Navy’s U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons program weapons program, which did not immediately return a request for comment.

The missiles used on Thursday likely cost the U.S. military around $1 million, but the latest versions of the missile that would replace those could be more costly, depending on size of the order and other factors, said Dr. Loren B. Thompson, a consultant and chief operating officer of nonprofit Lexington Institute.

– Photo: A missile is fired early April 7 from a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Mediterranean Sea

Foreign leaders and top politicians are responding to the U.S. airstrike against Syria on Friday morning, with Iran and Russia quickly condemning the attack, but other regional players giving their full support.

– Early on Friday, the U.S. military launched nearly 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian air base on the orders of President Donald Trump.

Trump said the military operation was a response to a alleged “barbaric” chemical weapons attack in Syria that left scores of civilians dead earlier this week, and that the missile strike was of “vital national security” interest to the U.S.

Syria lashed back at the U.S., with the office of President Bashar al-Assad calling the attack, “reckless” and “irresponsible,” according to media reports.

* Comment: Seems odd to spend millions and risk war to destroy an abandoned air base. Not one vehicle or aircraft in sight. –  emilgotfried

 

Here are some of the other reactions from around the world.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan: Ryan echoed Trump’s message, saying the actions were “appropriate and just.”

“Earlier this week the Assad regime murdered dozens of innocent men, women, and children in a barbaric chemical weapons attack. Tonight the United States responded,” he said.

“These tactical strikes made clear that the Assad regime can no longer count on American inaction as it carries out atrocities against the Syrian people.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin: Putin, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, condemned the U.S. airstrike, accusing Washington of using it as a distraction from the “numerous” civilian casualties in Iraq.

Putin “regards the U.S. airstrikes on Syria as an act of aggression against a sovereign state delivered in violation of international law under a far-fetched pretext,” a statement from his office said.

“This move by Washington [the U.S. airstrike on an air base in Syria] has dealt a serious blow to Russian-U.S. relations, which are already in a poor state. Most importantly, this move will not bring us closer to the ultimate goal of combating international terrorism,” the statement said.

Iran: Iran, another Syria ally, also denounced the attack, with a foreign ministry spokesman calling them “destructive and dangerous,” according to media reports.

“Iran strongly condemns any such unilateral strikes … Such measures will strengthen terrorists in Syria … and will complicate the situation in Syria and the region,” spokesperson Bahram Qasemi said.

Turkey: Turkey sided with the U.S., with its foreign ministry condemning what it called “crimes against humanity and war crimes” committed by the Assad regime.

“Turkey will fully support the steps that will be taken to ensure accountability and to prevent impunity in case of such crimes,” the ministry said in a written statement.

“As a country hosting three million Syrians, Turkey will continue its cooperation with the international community to prevent the regime’s continued practices of terror and mass punishment directed at its own people and to pave the way for the advancement of a political solution in Syria.”

Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia also commended what it called the “courageous decision” taken by Trump to launch the missile attack.

State news agency SPA said the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed “strong support for the military operations carried out against military targets in Syria, which came in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against innocent civilians that caused the deaths of scores of people.”

Meanwhile –

Syrian jets take off from air base US missiles struck

– This satellite image released by the U.S. Department of Defense shows a damage assessment image of Shayrat air base in Syria, following U.S. Tomahawk Land Attack Missile strikes on Friday, April 7, 2017 from the USS Ross (DDG 71) and USS Porter (DDG 78), Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers.

The British-based Observatory, a group monitoring the Syrian war using sources on the ground, said eight people had been killed in the U.S. attack.

The extent of the damage to the Shayrat air base was not entirely clear, but the Syrian warplanes had “done the impossible” in order to continue using it for sorties, the Observatory told Reuters.

 

 

 

 

 

Resources/Related:

U.S. strikes Syrian air base with cruise missiles after chemical attack

How markets reacted to U.S. strike in Syria, in 4 charts

Kremlin sees ‘significant damage’ to Russia-U.S. relations after U.S. strikes Syria

MarketWatch

PEO Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons – Department of the Navy

War With Syria Is A Lie

Satellite images of the damage

USS Ross (DDG 71)

ANNA News

Why did Donald Trump strike al-Shayrat air base?

Syrian jets take off from air base US missiles struck, according to …

US Cruise Missile Strike Inflicted ‘Severe Damage’ on Syrian Airfield

Tour of the “nonexistent” damage at Shayrat airbase – Daily Kos

Unexceptional: America’s Empire in the Persian Gulf, 1941-2007

]Iran and the Shiite Crescent: Myths and Realities – Belfer …

In Break With Bush, Iraqi Leader Assails Israel

The Sunni-Shia Divide

Sunni-Shiite Conflict Reflects Modern Power Struggle, Not …

Seeking to explain the rise of sectarianism in the Middle East

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate …

Saudi Arabia: National Security in a Troubled Region

U.S.-Iran Misperceptions: A Dialogue

Iran, a View from Within: Political Analyses

Why 20 Million People Are on Brink of Famine in a ‘World of Plenty’

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–  Nigerians displaced by Boko Haram insurgents last February at Dikwa camp in northeastern Nigeria. The United Nations raised the alarm on Wednesday about the risk of famine in northern Nigeria.

In a world filled with excess food, 20 million people are on the brink of famine, including 1.4 million children at imminent risk of death. In the face of such grim numbers, a stark question confronts the world’s most powerful: Why in 2017 can’t they avert such a seemingly archaic and preventable catastrophe?

Secretary General António Guterres of the United Nations raised the alarm Wednesday afternoon about the risk of famine in northern Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. And this week, the United Nations declared famine in a patch of South Sudan.

“In our world of plenty there is no excuse for inaction or indifference,” Mr. Guterres said at a news conference, flanked by the heads of his aid agencies.

– A camp of displaced Yemenis in the Amran Province, Yemen. More than seven million people need urgent food aid in the country. Credit Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Each country facing famine is in war, or in the case of Somalia, recovering from decades of conflict.

What is famine?

Famine is a rare and specific state. It is declared after three specific criteria are met: when one in five households in a certain area face extreme food shortages; more than 30 percent of the population is acutely malnourished; and at least two people for every 10,000 die each day.

The chief economist for the World Food Program in Rome, Arif Husain, described it earlier this week this way: “When you declare a famine, bad things have already happened. People have already died.”

Famine was last declared in Somalia in July 2011, after an estimated 260,000 people had died, mostly in a two-month period.

– A mother breast-feeding her child, who is suffering from acute malnutrition at a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan in October. This week, the United Nations declared famine in a patch of South Sudan. Credit Albert Gonzales Farran/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Why are people starving?

Mr. Guterres cited two reasons for the current crisis. First, he said, there is not enough money; the United Nations needs $5.6 billion to address the needs, most of it by the end of March. Barely 2 percent of that money is in hand, he said. Whether the United States, by far the biggest humanitarian donor in the world, will follow through on its commitments under President Trump remains unclear.

Second, all four countries facing the threat of famine are reeling from conflict, and in many instances, the leaders of warring parties are blocking aid workers from delivering relief where it is most needed.

“I want to make a personal appeal to the parties to conflict to abide by international humanitarian law and allow aid workers access to reach people in desperate need,” Mr. Guterres said. “Without access, hundreds of thousands of people could die, even if we have the resources to help them.”

Where are people starving and how many?

The situation in Somalia today is different from what it was in 2011. The government is functioning, though there are vast pockets where Shabab militants thrive. But Somalia has already had two consecutive years of drought, and meteorologists expect crops to fail again this year.

– A car bombing in June in Mogadishu, Somalia. Recovering from decades of conflict, Somalia is facing famine once again. Credit Feisal Omar/Reuters

In South Sudan, 100,000 people are affected by famine in a part of the country that is most troubled by the fighting between two warring armies, the United Nations announced Monday, with one million more on the brink of famine.

In northern Nigeria, where the military is battling Boko Haram insurgents, there was probably a famine in two towns, called Bama and Banki, according to an early warning system funded by the United States Agency for International Development. But traveling through the area is so dangerous that aid workers have been unable to verify the levels of hunger there, let alone deliver relief. At least five million people face the risk of famine.

The biggest crisis is in Yemen, where a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States is battling ethnic Houthi rebels. More than seven million people need urgent food aid, according to the United Nations. Among them, 462,000 children face “severe acute malnutrition,” which means that even if they survive, they will probably have developmental disabilities.

Is climate change to blame?

Climate change can make droughts more severe and more frequent. In Somalia, after two years of drought, crops have withered, livestock have died and grain prices have shot up sharply. Nearly three million people there “cannot meet their daily food requirements,” the United Nations says. And more than 900,000 children will most likely be acutely malnourished this year.

 

 

 

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The Future Of US-Taiwan Relations Under China’s Shadow

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– Photo: Donald Trump’s win has raised much speculation about how the US-China relationship could change.

As soon as Donald Trump was elected as the president of the US, speculations from scholars came in quickly, especially on how global geopolitics would be reshaped. His phone conversation with Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, soon after his election, did create some ripples in East Asia. This phone call brought about two important divergences in the US’ policy towards Taiwan; first, after a forty year hiatus, there had been a direct interaction between the heads of the two countries and Trump addressed Tsai as the President of Taiwan. Trump’s second statement has been that anything and everything – including the ‘One China Policy’ – is negotiable. This made strategists sit up and predictions of realignment in US-Taiwan and US-China relations were made.

Taiwan and mainland China have been guarded in their reactions to this phone call, still uncertain about Trump’s foreign policy. China’s official reaction to date has been mixed. In the initial statement, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi blamed Taiwanese leaders for the phone call, calling it a “petty gambit.” On 3 December 2016, the China Daily took a condescending swipe with an editorial, titled “No need to over-interpret Tsai-Trump phone call,” opining that “For Trump, it exposed nothing but his and his transition team’s inexperience in dealing with foreign affairs.”

Meanwhile, Global Times took a hard stance and called Trump an inexperienced, complacent and brash billionaire. The article further stated that China is prepared to engage in a long-term struggle on the Taiwan question with the US, and added that the one-China policy is the political foundation of bilateral ties and that it is “non-negotiable.”

Taiwanese officials and media also demonstrated mixed reactions. Some were euphoric and said US-Taiwan relations will be consolidated and witness more high-level exchanges during Trump’s presidency. Some analysts were skeptical and felt that the US would use Taiwan as a bargaining chip for economic gains.

Trump’s coming to power in the US has created additional problems in the already volatile China-Taiwan relations. After Tsai’s election in Taiwan, her silence on the 1992 consensus infuriated China, which then broke off communications with Taiwan. China blamed the US for interfering in cross-strait relations and warned Washington that “China is preparing for a final solution by non-peaceful means.” Global Times also took a strong position on the former US President Barack Obama’s signing of the ‘Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act’, which for the first time authorized higher level exchanges between US civilian officials above the level of US Assistant Secretary of Defense and active duty US military officers and their Taiwanese counterparts. Global Times called for military pressure on Taiwan after all these actions by the US. Not only the media but the Chinese government too has increased its military activities and aggressive rhetoric against Taiwan. In January 2017, China’s lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, accompanied by other ships went into the Taiwan Strait during a drill in the South China Sea. China has already alienated Taiwan in the international arena but after Tsai’s election and Trump’s phone call, it has begun building additional pressure on countries that recognize Taiwan as the Republic of China. In December 2016, São Tomé and Príncipe switched their diplomatic allegiance to Beijing, to which China’s foreign ministry responded, stating that “China expresses appreciation of this, and welcomes São Tomé back onto the correct path of the ‘one China’ principle.”

Even after this tense situation, the US invited a Taiwanese delegation to attend Donald Trump’s oath taking ceremony despite Chinese pressure. Former Taiwanese Premier Yu Shyi-kun led the delegation and said that the Trump administration posed more of an opportunity than a challenge for Taiwan, adding that the nation should take the opportunity to improve relations with the US. The delegation visited think tanks including the Washington-based American Institute In Taiwan, and met with members of the US Senate and House of Representatives to convey Taiwan’s ideas and sincerity regarding the development of bilateral relations.

However, on 10 February 2017, Trump stumped everyone again by taking a U-turn on the ‘One China Policy’. People’s Daily (RenminRibao) elaborated on this and said that Trump called China’s President Xi Jinping and reaffirmed the US’ policy of accepting the One-China policy and that Xi thanked Trump for accepting the core principle that was the basis of Washington-Beijing relations. During the conversation, both promised to work towards the enhancement of communication and cooperation to further strengthen the relationship. Chinese official media, especially Global Times, did not shy away from taking a jibe at Trump and stated that “Trump has stopped openly challenging China’s core interests, and instead showed respect to Beijing. The change creates an impression that Trump is learning about his role in the realm of Sino-US ties. He’s now sending a new message that he does not want to be a disruptor of the Sino-US relations.”

This change in Trump’s rhetoric on China indicates that the US will never sacrifice its relations with China for Taiwan and US diplomats too understand that a secure and confident Taiwan is better able to constructively engage Beijing. Thus, Trump’s team must have convinced him not to challenge Beijing on this issue that might lead to direct friction between US, China and Taiwan.

Uncertainties still loom in the US-China relationship but they will be about specific interests and not on the ‘One China policy.’ The U.S.-Taiwan Relations under Trump remains uncertain in terms of upgradation but certain in terms of continuation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Biologists say half of all species could be extinct by end of century

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5760 Scientists at Vatican conference are searching for a solution to the man-made ‘major extinction event.’

One in five species on Earth now faces extinction, and that will rise to 50% by the end of the century unless urgent action is taken. That is the stark view of the world’s leading biologists, ecologists and economists who will gather on Monday to determine the social and economic changes needed to save the planet’s biosphere.

“The living fabric of the world is slipping through our fingers without our showing much sign of caring,” say the organizers of the Biological Extinction conference held at the Vatican this week.

Threatened creatures such as the tiger or rhino may make occasional headlines, but little attention is paid to the eradication of most other life forms, they argue. But as the conference will hear, these animals and plants provide us with our food and medicine. They purify our water and air while also absorbing carbon emissions from our cars and factories, regenerating soil, and providing us with aesthetic inspiration.

“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” said biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, of Stanford University in California. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?”

un-sdgsMonday’s meeting is one of a series set up by the Vatican on ecological issues – which Pope Francis has deemed an urgent issue for the Catholic church. “We need to unravel the processes that led to the ills we are now facing,” said one of the conference’s organizers, the economist Sir Partha Dasgupta, of Cambridge University. “That is why the Vatican Symposium involve natural and social scientists, as well as scholars from the humanities. That the symposia are being held at the Pontifical Academy is also symbolic. It shows that the ancient hostility between science and the church, at least on the issue of preserving Earth’s services, has been quelled.”

But not everyone is happy about the meeting. The involvement of Ehrlich – who believes that wider use of birth control is needed to halt the world’s spiraling population – has been denounced by many conservative Catholics. They have set up a petition calling for the pope to withdraw the invitation for him to speak on Monday. “I believe they have about 11,000 signatures,” Ehrlich told the Observer. “The pope has not changed his mind, however.”

pope-pontifical-academy-of-sciencesPope Francis with members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

He remained uncompromising on population control: “If you value people, you want to have the maximum number you can support sustainability. You do not want almost 12 billion living sustainability on Earth by the end of the century – with the result that civilization will collapse and there are only a few hundred survivors.”

A world population of around a billion would have an overall pro-life effect, Ehrlich argued. This could be supported for many millennia and sustain many more human lives in the long-term compared with our current uncontrolled growth and prospect of sudden collapse.

This point was backed by another conference organizer, biologist Professor Peter H. Raven, of the Missouri Botanical Garden. “By the beginning of the next century we face the prospect of losing half our wildlife. Yet we rely on the living world to sustain ourselves. It is very frightening. The extinctions we face pose an even greater threat to civilization than climate change – for the simple reason they are irreversible.”

UN statistics suggest that the global population will increase from the current 7.4 billion to 11.2 billion by 2100. And as Dasgupta noted, most of these extra billions will appear in Africa, where the fertility rate is still twice that of the rest of the world.

“Africa’s]population is likely to go from roughly one billion now to around 4 billion,” said Dasgupta. “Can you imagine what tensions there are going to be there, especially with climate change coming and hitting the continent more than anywhere else? What do you think is going to happen when the arid regions spread, and a hundred million Africans try to swim across the Mediterranean? It is terrifying.”

The crucial point is to put the problem of biological extinctions in a social context, he said. “That gives us a far better opportunity of working out what we need to in the near future. We have to act quickly, however.”

Ehrlich agreed: “If you look at the figures, it is clear that to support today’s world population sustainability – and I emphasize the word sustainability – you would require another half a planet to provide us with those resources. However, if everyone consumed resources at the US level – which is what the world aspires to – you will need another four or five Earths.

“We are wrecking our planet’s life support systems. We have the capacity to stop that. The trouble is that the danger does not seem obvious to most people, and that is something we must put right.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Craig Venter Mapped The Genome. Now He’s Trying To Decode Death

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us-president-bill-clinton-applauds-dr-craig-venter– US President Bill Clinton applauds Dr. Craig Venter, President of the Celera Genomics Corporation (L) as they announce the completion of the initial sequencing of the human genome June 26 in the East Room of the White House.

THE WORLD’S MOST EXTREME physical exam starts in the world’s plushest exam room, complete with a couch, a private bathroom and a teeming fruit plate. It will be my home for an entire day. First come the blood tests, vial after vial. Then two 35-minute sessions in an MRI tube, where REM and U2 try to drown out the clanks as the machine takes pictures of my entire body. There’s an ultrasound of my heart. Salade Niçoise for lunch. A stool sample. A cognitive test in which letters flash on a computer screen at a dizzying pace. And a CT scan of my heart as well, which originally seemed so over-the-top for someone my age that I tried to get out of it.

“In Vietnam, I used to do autopsies on 18-to-22-year-olds, and a lot of them had cardiovascular disease,” J. Craig Venter, the architect of the process, says with a shrug, before adding, ominously, “We find things. The question is what you do with it.”

Yes, it’s that Craig Venter, the man in the late 1990s who, frustrated by the slow progress of the government-funded Human Genome Project, launched an effort that sequenced human DNA two years earlier than planned (he was subsequently the first human to have his complete DNA sequenced). He hasn’t slowed down since. He sailed around the world in a voyage inspired by Darwin’s journey on the Beagle, discovering thousands of new species along the way. He has created synthetic life and started three companies, and was almost a billionaire before being fired from one of the most promising, Celera Genomics.

Now he’s back with his most ambitious project since his historic breakthrough 17 years ago. He’s raised $300 million from investors including Celgene and GE Ventures for a new firm, Human Longevity, that’s trying to take the DNA information he helped unlock and figure out how to leverage it to cheat death for years, or even decades.

Core to the effort is the $25,000 executive physical, branded the Health Nucleus, that I’m taking (disclosure: I got tested for free). It’s certainly very thorough–and, to many doctors, precisely the wrong approach, owing to all the false positives. “Study after study of various kinds of screening measures has shown they do more harm than good,” says Steven Nissen, the chairman of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic. “You do a total body MRI and you’re lucky if you don’t find something. I don’t think it’s good medicine.”

Venter scoffs. “We’re screening healthy people, and a lot of physicians don’t like that,” he acknowledges. “My response is: How do you know they’re healthy? We use a definition of health out of the Middle Ages: If you look okay and you feel okay, you’re deemed healthy. We have a different way of looking at people.”

Now 70, Venter cites himself. Last year, he underwent his own physical and says he found prostate cancer, which was removed last November. The man he has called his “scientific muse,” Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith, 85, found he had a deadly lymphoma in his lung. It has also been treated, and Smith says his prognosis is good.

The famously gruff Venter is entirely comfortable ticking off the establishment, no matter what that establishment is, and the feeling is mutual. His DNA breakthrough was one of the great scientific accomplishments of the 20th century, yet he never won a Nobel Prize. Academics view him as someone interested in profits over science. “He’s a very insecure person who compensates by coming across as very arrogant and aggressive,” says one former collaborator. Similarly, Venter’s discoveries have upended industries, yet his business track record, including a brief flirtation with billionairehood, is checkered, as connections to past backers and bosses have gone up in flames. “He has irritated a lot of people,” says Harvard genetics professor George Church, a Venter fan. “It’s a pity.”

Thus, Human Longevity offers Venter a last chance to square his legacy, awe the scientists and make billions in the process, all the while shaking the foundation of a topic that precisely 100% of homo sapiens have a keen interest in: how and when each of us will die.

VENTER HAS DISPLAYED POTENTIAL, BOTH achieved and unrealized, almost since birth. Growing up in Millbrae, California, near what was emerging as Silicon Valley, he had such bad grades that by high school his worried mother sometimes checked his arms for track marks. The first glimmer of his future success was in swimming. He was initially mediocre, but when a coach sent him home for the summer with tips, his competitive streak kicked in. He spent three months training furiously and never again lost a race. “Had things been different I would have been competing for the Olympics,” Venter says. “But Lyndon Johnson changed that for me with the draft.”

Swimming unlocked his potential, but Vietnam made him who he is. At age 20 he served as a Navy hospital corpsman, triaging troops who came back from battle, including the Tet Offensive. Deciding who would live and who would die was so traumatic that he says he considered suicide and swam far out to sea intending to drown. He says he had a change of heart a mile out after a shark prodded him. But he’d go through Vietnam again. “Knowing the outcome and what it did for my personal growth, I would force myself to do it again if I had the choice,” Venter says.

After he returned to the States, he went to community college, then the University of California, San Diego, where he initially wanted to be a doctor but discovered science. He eventually completed his Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology, became a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1976 and, in 1984, joined the National Institutes of Health.

At the NIH the themes that would define his career locked into place: productivity, perceived greed, the conflicts between pure science and industry money. Using a new technology, he discovered thousands of human genes. The NIH made the unprecedented decision to patent them in his name, and colleagues blamed Venter, calling him greedy. Nobel laureate James Watson said he was “horrified.” Venter insists he was always against the patents but that the NIH did it anyway.

Frustrated, he started a nonprofit institute in 1992, with a unique model. He raised money from venture capitalists, on the condition that he share his data with a for-profit company, Human Genome Sciences, before he published it. The relationship ended unhappily in 1997 because of arguments over data disclosure, with Venter walking away from $40 million in research funding. “I paid a lot of money to get rid of [Human Genome Sciences],” Venter says.

But in 1995, Venter’s institute made a real breakthrough: the first genome, or map of the genetic code of an organism, in this case a type of bacterium. It was a suggestion from Ham Smith. They had met at a scientific conference in Spain in 1993 and gone out drinking, starting a two-decade-plus collaboration. Foreshadowing his later race with the Human Genome Project, Venter and Smith’s bacterial genome map beat similar projects in academia by many months.

That led a California unit of lab equipment maker Perkin-Elmer, which made DNA sequencers, to approach Venter. If he could sequence a bacterial genome, why not use the company’s newest machines to sequence a human genome?

Charles Darwin’s 1831 voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle helped lay the groundwork for his theory of evolution. In 2004, J. Craig Venter set off on his own circumnavigation of the globe aboard his 100-foot sailboat, Sorcerer II, to identify millions of previously undiscovered genes . Map: Jack Molloy for Forbes.Charles Darwin’s 1831 voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle helped lay the groundwork for his theory of evolution. In 2004, J. Craig Venter set off on his own circumnavigation of the globe aboard his 100-foot sailboat, Sorcerer II, to identify millions of previously undiscovered genes . Map: Jack Molloy for Forbes.Venter couldn’t say no, which led to Celera Genomics‘ founding in 1998. It not only succeeded in overtaking the $3 billion Human Genome Project, an international consortium funded largely by the U.S. government, but it also mapped the genomes of the fruit fly and the mouse, both important laboratory animals. In the process, Venter angered scientists globally, aghast that such research would be driven by profit rather than knowledge. At the time, James Watson reportedly became so enraged he compared Venter to Hitler, asking colleagues who they were going to be–Chamberlain or Churchill? But the pressure of private enterprise ultimately spurred results, both at Celera and the public group, which improved their methods and accelerated their research. As a result, the two groups jointly announced they had mapped the entire human genome–an achievement that our grand-kids will be reading about in their textbooks–at the White House on June 26, 2000.

In the age of the dot-com boom, Celera became a highflier, raising $855 million in a stock offering in February 2000 and peaking at a market capitalization of $14 billion just before the entire market started to collapse in March. Venter’s stake briefly surpassed $700 million. He says he gave half his shares to his nonprofit foundation, which then sold half of them, netting more than $150 million, which has funded his science ever since.

It was a necessary scientific nest egg. Celera struggled to invent drugs and diagnostic tests based on its pioneering research, and Venter bickered constantly with the board. They wanted Celera to become a pharma giant and invent medicines in-house. Venter simply wanted to be a scientist and sell other companies his data. He was fired in January 2002, days before a quarter of his stock options would vest. “Being fired in the way it was done was about as slimy as anybody could do it,” Venter says. Celera limped along until 2011, when it was sold to Quest Diagnostics for $344 million. ( Forbes estimates that Venter’s current net worth, based on his stakes in his two startups, is $300 million.) Venter’s baby had essentially been sold for parts.

WITH HUMAN LONGEVITY, VENTER HOPES TO solve the problem that ultimately limited the efficacy of Celera and the Human Genome Project. Those two groups produced an “average” DNA sequence. That’s incredibly important for a science textbook, but for individuals, it’s the differences–how one person’s genes are different from another’s, leading to different noses, eye colors and, yes, diseases–that matter.

Venter says that, thanks to new technology, he can generate the data that can determine those differences. At Celera, Venter loved to show off his 25,000-square-foot rooms of DNA sequencing machines. But just one modern desktop DNA sequencer is as powerful as a thousand of those rooms and can map a person’s genome in days for about $1,000. The original Human Genome Project took more than a decade and at least $500 million to do the same thing. (Illumina, the San Diego firm that makes the desktop sequencers, is a big investor in Human Longevity.)

san-diego-illumina-4-638Human Longevity initially sequenced DNA from 40,000 people who had participated in clinical trials for the pharmaceutical companies Roche and AstraZeneca. Venter says this work has led to the discovery of genetic variations that can be found in young people but not older ones–meaning the young folks had genes incompatible with surviving into old age. Figuring out what these genes do could be the kind of breakthrough that would turn the promise of genome sequencing into a lifesaver.

Venter decided that he also needed a study of people that could collect even more data than you can get from a clinical trial. Hence, the $25,000 physical. And because people pay, it’s not only a source of data but also a revenue generator. At the moment, close to 500 people have gone through the physical. Venter hopes to be able to serve 2,000 annually as early as this year, which would generate $50 million in revenue. This isn’t exactly covered by Medicare. The market, for the moment, will be the wealthy and the occasional company looking out for key executives–the promise of health as the ultimate luxury item.

screen-shot-2017-02-20-at-3-38-31-pmDoctors hate it. “I’m massively skeptical,” says Benjamin Davies, a urologist at the University of Pittsburgh. “We’ve been down this road of investigating healthy patients, and it’s been a sordid road.” He points to a recent study that used CT scans to screen for lung cancer: 60% of patients needed follow-up tests, but only 1.5% had cancer. Otis Brawley, the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, said Venter’s work sounded like “fascinating science,” so long as the people taking the physical understand that this is research, not medicine.

Venter believes the problem with earlier screening tests is that they give too little data, not too much. He is his own evidence. He was the first person to get his DNA sequenced, and the results made him think his risk for most types of cancer was low. When he got prostate cancer, he asked his researchers why. They found what he calls “the likely perpetrator.”

It’s a change in the way his body responds to the hormone testosterone. Testosterone works by tripping a cellular receptor (think of it as a switch). The gene for that receptor is more effective if it has fewer “repeats” (bits of repeated, garbled genetic code). v

“Basically, I have a supersensitive testosterone receptor,” Venter says. “Everybody thought I had balls of steel. In fact, I have only six repeats in my androgen receptor.”

But Venter’s constant search for more data about his own biology also made the problem worse, illustrating one of the true dangers of the $25,000 physical. Years before, Venter learned that his testosterone levels were low and decided to take testosterone supplements. (Most doctors don’t recommend doing this.) It almost certainly made his tumor grow faster.

cancer_cells_1200x675About 40% of Health Nucleus‘ patients have found out they have something serious. Some, like Ham Smith’s lung cancer, absolutely needed to be treated. Venter insists Smith’s tumor might have killed him had it been discovered a few weeks later. But for most of Human Longevity’s patients, the results are not so clear-cut. I’m lucky: My MRI results showed nothing save that my hippocampus, a part of the brain that forms memories, is of only average size. (My DNA sequence isn’t in yet.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would do if I’d learned about a tumor or an aneurysm, and whether this whole endeavor is a bad idea. But I also haven’t been able to get myself to regret going through it. Knowledge about yourself is a very seductive offer. It’s one that Venter hopes will give him the data to finally deliver on the genome’s promise.

SIDEBAR: ARTIFICIAL LIFE

The dream of understanding life well enough to create it from scratch sounds like something out of Frankenstein. But Craig Venter is getting there, partly using investor money to fund the work. “There’s no government funding to make a synthetic species,” he says.

In 2010, a team led by Venter that included his closest lieutenant, Hamilton Smith, and synthetic-biology wunderkind Daniel Gibson synthesized a genome for the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides but with slight changes: their names and a James Joyce quote, all translated into a DNA code. Then they inserted the synthetic DNA into a bacterium and its original genome was destroyed. The cell functioned with the new, man-made DNA.

They’ve since made another bacterium whose genome has been edited to lack any extraneous genes. Researchers thought bacteria needed only 250 genes to stay alive, but Venter’s team found its germ needed 473–and nobody knows what 149 of them do. The resulting minimal genome could be useful for understanding which genes are really important.

But there have already been commercial applications for this work. Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) was founded around them in 2005. In 2009 Exxon Mobil pledged up to $300 million to create algae that can produce a biofuel that is cheaper than gasoline.

Other projects involve drug manufacturing (including a project to rapidly prototype experimental vaccines), a partnership with Johnson & Johnson in drug research and an effort, with the biotechnology firm United Therapeutics, to create pigs whose organs can be safely transplanted into humans. SGI has also made a relatively inexpensive DNA printer that allows bench scientists to easily modify genetic material. It costs between $50,000 and $75,000. Fifty have been sold so far, but SGI chief executive Oliver Fetzer says the near-term addressable market could be worth $500 million. –M.H.

 

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Winston Churchill’s essay on alien life found

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winston-churchill– Photo: Winston Churchill at his desk in 1939: a prolific writer, he covered scientific topics as diverse as evolution and fusion power.

A newly unearthed article by the great politician reveals that he reasoned like a scientist about the likelihood of extraterrestrials.

Winston Churchill is best known as a wartime leader, one of the most influential politicians of the twentieth century, a clear-eyed historian and an eloquent orator. He was also passionate about science and technology.

Aged 22, while stationed with the British Army in India in 1896, he read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and a primer on physics. In the 1920s and 1930s, he wrote popular-science essays on topics such as evolution and cells in newspapers and magazines. In a 1931 article in The Strand Magazine entitled ‘Fifty Years Hence1, he described fusion power: “If the hydrogen atoms in a pound of water could be prevailed upon to combine together and form helium, they would suffice to drive a thousand-horsepower engine for a whole year.” His writing was likely to have been informed by conversations with his friend and later adviser, the physicist Frederick Lindemann.

winston-churchill1During the Second World War, Churchill supported the development of radar and Britain’s nuclear program. He met regularly with scientists such as Bernard Lovell, the father of radio astronomy. An exchange about the use of statistics to fight German U-boats captures his attitude. Air Chief Marshal Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris complained, “Are we fighting this war with weapons or slide rules?” Churchill replied, “Let’s try the slide rule.”2

He was the first prime minister to employ a science adviser, hiring Lindemann in the early 1940s. The science-friendly environment that Churchill created in the United Kingdom through government funding of laboratories, telescopes and technology development spawned post-war discoveries and inventions in fields from molecular genetics to X-ray crystallography.

Despite all this, it was a great surprise last year, while I was on a visit to the US National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, when the director Timothy Riley thrust a typewritten essay by Churchill into my hands. In the 11-page article,Are We Alone in the Universe?,’ he muses presciently about the search for extraterrestrial life.

winston-churchill2He penned the first draft, perhaps for London’s News of the World Sunday newspaper, in 1939 — when Europe was on the brink of war. He revised it lightly in the late 1950s while staying in the south of France at the villa of his publisher, Emery Reves. For example, he changed the title from Are We Alone in Space? toAre We Alone in the Universe?‘ to reflect changes in scientific understanding and terminology. Wendy Reves, the publisher’s wife, passed the manuscript to the US National Churchill Museum archives in the 1980s.

Riley, who became director of the museum in May 2016, has just rediscovered it. To the best of Riley’s knowledge, the essay remained in the Reves’s private collection and has never been published or subjected to scientific or academic scrutiny. Imagine my thrill that I may be the first scientist to examine this essay.

Here I outline Churchill’s thinking. At a time when a number of today’s politicians shun science, I find it moving to recall a leader who engaged with it so profoundly.

Modern thinking

copernican-principleChurchill’s reasoning mirrors many modern arguments in astrobiology. In essence, he builds on the framework of the Copernican Principle — the idea that, given the vastness of the Universe, it is hard to believe that humans on Earth represent something unique. He starts by defining the most important characteristic of life — in his view, the ability to “breed and multiply.” After noting that some viruses can be crystallized, making them hard to categorize, he decides to concentrate on “comparatively highly-organised life,” presumably multicellular life.

His first point is that “all living things of the type we know require water”. Bodies and cells are largely composed of it, he notes. Other liquids cannot be ruled out but “nothing in our present knowledge entitles us to make such an assumption”. The presence of water in liquid form still guides our searches for extraterrestrial life: on Mars, on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter or on Extrasolar Planets (beyond our Solar System). As well as being essential for the emergence of life on Earth, water is abundant in the cosmos. This wonderfully universal solvent — almost every substance can dissolve in it — can transport such chemicals as phosphates into and out of cells.

– NASA/JPL/Univ. Arizona

An image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the Martian surface, where the search for water is ongoing.

Churchill then defines what is known today as the habitable zone — that narrow ‘Goldilocks’ region around a star that is neither too cold nor too hot, so that liquid water may exist on the surface of a rocky planet. He writes that life can survive only in regions “between a few degrees of frost and the boiling point of water.” He explains how Earth’s temperature is fixed by its distance from the Sun. Churchill also considers the ability of a planet to retain its atmosphere, explaining that the hotter a gas is, the faster its molecules are moving and the more easily they can escape. Consequently, stronger gravity is necessary to trap gas on a planet in the long term.

Taking all these elements together, he concludes that Mars and Venus are the only places in the Solar System other than Earth that could harbour life. He eliminates the outer planets (too cold); Mercury (too hot on the sunny side and too cold on the other); and the Moon and asteroids (their gravities are too weak to trap atmospheres).

the-martian-chroniclesChurchill began his essay not long after the 1938 US broadcast of the radio drama The “War of the Worlds” (an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s 1898 story) had generated ‘Mars fever’ in the media. Speculation over the existence of life on the red planet had been going on since the late nineteenth century. In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli described seeing linear marks on Mars (canali; mistranslated as canals) that were thought to be constructed by some civilization. These turned out to be optical illusions but the idea of Martians stuck. Science-fiction stories abounded, culminating with Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Martian Chronicles‘ (Doubleday, 1950), published in the United Kingdom as The Silver Locusts (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1951).

Cosmic outlook

Churchill’s essay next assesses the probability that other stars host planets. He reasons that “the sun is merely one star in our galaxy, which contains several thousand millions of others”. Churchill assumes that planets are formed from the gas that is torn off a star when another star passes close to it — a model suggested by astrophysicist James Jeans in 1917, which has since been ruled out. He infers that, because such close encounters are rare, “our sun may be indeed exceptional, and possibly unique.”

Now Churchill shines. With the healthy skepticism of a scientist, he writes: “But this speculation depends upon the hypothesis that planets were formed in this way. Perhaps they were not. We know there are millions of double stars, and if they could be formed, why not planetary systems?”

Indeed, the present-day theory of planet formation — the build up of a rocky planet’s core by the accretion of many small bodies — is very different from Jeans’s. Churchill writes: “I am not sufficiently conceited to think that my sun is the only one with a family of planets.”

“Churchill sees great opportunity for exploration in the Solar System.”

Thus, he concludes, a large fraction of Extrasolar Planets “will be the right size to keep on their surface water and possibly an atmosphere of some sort” and some will be “at the proper distance from their parent sun to maintain a suitable temperature”.

This was decades before the discoveries of thousands of extrasolar planets began in the 1990s, and years before astronomer Frank Drake presented his probabilistic argument for the rarity of communicating civilizations in the cosmos in 1961. Extrapolating data from the Kepler Space Observatory suggests that the Milky Way probably contains more than a billion Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of stars that are the size of the Sun or smaller3.

Reflecting on the enormous distances involved, Churchill concludes that we may never know whether such planets “house living creatures, or even plants.”

Bigger picture

Churchill sees great opportunity for exploration in the Solar System. “One day, possibly even in the not very distant future, it may be possible to travel to the moon, or even to Venus or Mars,” he writes. By contrast, he notes, interstellar travel and communication are intrinsically difficult. He points out that it would take light some five years to travel even to the nearest star and back, adding that the nearest large spiral galaxy to the Milky Way (Andromeda — one of the “spiral nebulae”, as he calls them) is more than several hundred thousand times as far away as the nearest stars.

The essay finishes eagerly: “with hundreds of thousands of nebulae, each containing thousands of millions of suns, the odds are enormous that there must be immense numbers which possess planets whose circumstances would not render life impossible.” Here Churchill shows that he was familiar with the findings of astronomer Edwin Hubble in the late 1920s and early 1930s, who discovered that there are many galaxies beyond the Milky Way (about 2 trillion, according to a recent estimate4).

winston-churchill1Taking a bleaker turn that reflects his times, Churchill adds: “I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures, or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”

Almost 80 years later, the question that obsessed Churchill is one of the hottest topics of scientific research. Searches for signs of subsurface life on Mars are ongoing. Simulations of Venus’s climate hint that it may once have been habitable5. Astronomers believe that, in a few decades, we will discover some biological signatures of present or past life in the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, or at least be able to constrain its rarity6.

Timely find

Churchill’s essay is testament to how he saw the fruits of science and technology as essential for society’s development. When he helped to establish Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, UK, in 1958, he wrote7: “It is only by leading mankind in the discovery of new worlds of science and engineering that we shall hold our position and continue to earn our livelihood.”

Yet he was also concerned that without understanding the humanities, scientists might operate in a moral vacuum. “We need scientists in the world but not a world of scientists,” he said.8 In order for science to be “the servant and not the master of man”, he felt that appropriate policies that drew on humanistic values must be in place. As he put it in a 1949 address to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) convocation: “If, with all the resources of modern science, we find ourselves unable to avert world famine, we shall all be to blame.”

Churchill was a science enthusiast and advocate, but he also contemplated important scientific questions in the context of human values. Particularly given today’s political landscape, elected leaders should heed Churchill’s example: appoint permanent science advisers and make good use of them.

 

 

 

 

References

  1. Churchill, W.Fifty Years HenceThe Strand Magazine (December 1931).Show context
  2. Jones, R. V. in Churchill (eds Blake, R. & Louis, W. R.) 437 (Clarendon Press, 1996).Show context
  3. Dressing, C. D. & Charbonneau, D. Astrophys. J. 767, 95 (2013).

    Show context

  4. Conselice, C. J., Wilkinson, A., Duncan, K. & Mortlock, A. Astrophys. J. 830, 83 (2016).

    Show context

  5. Way, M. J. et al. Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 83768383 (2016).

    Show context

  6. Livio, M. & Silk, J. ‘Where Are They?’ Physics Today (in the press).Show context
  7. Churchill, W. ‘Churchill College’ The New Scientist 12 (15 May 1958).Show context
  8. Humes, J. C. Churchill: The Prophetic Statesman 82 (Regnery History, 2012).Show context

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Mario Livio is an astrophysicist and author. His upcoming book is WHY? What Makes Us Curious.

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