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Greed is good…but only for cancer

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Don’t be bad with 1%, don’t accuse them for having it all and doing nothing to earn it. 99% firmly believes that a greed is good… Spoiling mood, but being good for your food, as it should?

Amidst the many maladies of today’s global society, a tide of optimism brought by the latest cancer research news reflects a defiant response to one of the biggest challenges facing humanity. But although massive investments that involve venture capital companies and funds may be necessary for the pursuit of current and future large-scale scientific projects and ambitions, it is still sensible to ask the following questions: To what extent should capitalism be credited for rapid progress in cancer research and treatment? Moreover, can the profit motive, being an essential feature of capitalism, justify future investments in bioscience and related fields?

American-born British politician Boris Johnson draws attention to the importance of these questions, as much as he draws attention to himself, as he visits the US for second time in three months. The charismatic London mayor and Conservative Party politician who will be returning to the Commons as an MP in May this year is a staunch defender of capitalism who is also very much keen to promote his image as a global statesman in the run-up to this year’s British general election. During his visit to Boston a few days ago he states that ‘capitalism is essential if are to meet the biggest challenges facing the human race’, including fight against cancer. Boasting patriotically about the British scientists’ recent achievements he complains that they are not making any profit from their work, that this is not justifiable and that we need venture capital to cure cancer. Speaking from what has been described as a life-science Mecca given its world’s top research institutions, big pharmaceutical companies and clinical collaborations, Mr Johnson does a very good job at promoting Britain as ‘the place to come and invest’. However his enthusiasm not only smacks of morbid excitement, it also entails an absurd logic as well as dangerous contentions.

Mr Johnson’s claim has, of course, an important connection with the relevant facts. Cancer is on the rise. In the UK for example, in 1992, the proportion of people who got cancer was 32%. This increased to 44% in 2010, and according to Macmillan this figure will continue to rise, reaching around 47 between 2020 and 2030. Similarly, Cancer Research UK most recent analysis shows that one in two people who were born after 1960 will be diagnosed with cancer. This prognosis is chilling enough. On the positive side of things, cancer survival in the UK has improved a great deal; it has doubled since the 1970s through earlier detection and improved treatment, and the records show that half of those diagnosed with cancer will survive for at least 10 years. The increase in efficient cancer treatments is thus quite encouraging; in 1992, only 21% of those who had cancer did not die from the disease, while in 2010 this percentage rose to 35% and by 2020 this will rise to 38% surviving cancer and dying from another cause.  

The implication of these figures and forecasts is that our society needs more resources and investments to cope with the challenges ahead. Since more people are likely to survive cancer, more people will need public health services. A major worry for the UK is that the National Health Service (NHS) – introduced by the post-war Labour Government in 1946 – will soon be brought to a standstill and unable to cope with the big increase in demand for services. Therefore whoever wins the next general election in the UK will have to do some very careful health care planning. Here is where Boris Johnson leaps in. The conservative London major who in 2013 said that economic inequality was useful because it encouraged people to work harder, argues that the Labour leader Ed Miliband suffers from ‘intellectual failure’ because he allegedly fails to grasp the fact that the profit motive can be both good and necessary for progress. Clearly, for Johnson, income inequality and the fact that the UK is the only G7 country where wealth inequality increased between 2000 and 2014, this being caused by the richest part of the population, is not a big problem.

One of Johnson’s points of inconsistency is that he also says in the same breath that capitalism is ‘compatible with satisfying the wants of the poorest and neediest in our country’. This means, to follow Johnson’s logic, that people like him – an upper-class Oxford graduate – are those who know best what the poorest people in a society really want and need. And this is absurd. High business acumen is good for business, however it does not follow that this disposition determines or that it is even compatible with one’s capacity to empathise let alone understand the poor. And anyway, what are the wants and needs of the poorest members of a society? Are they fundamentally different from the needs of those who are not poor? In thinking that the human needs are solely determined by their wealth and social status, Johnson exemplifies what Karl Marx once described the condition of ‘alienation’ in which people are divided from others, their world, their own activity and even themselves. And this goes for all people, whether workers or capitalists, poor or rich. Then, we may ask if it is Johnson who suffers from intellectual failure – capitalism-induced detachment.

Now even those who do not subscribe to the Marxist analysis of human nature and social conditioning could still appreciate the plausibility of the view that at least as far as health care is concerned, a major motivational drive is or should be altruism. Unless we are very sceptical, we might think that some form of practical philanthropy would exist in the absence of capitalism, motivated by motives other than profit making. Or at least, we have a good reason to believe that the profit motive will always be difficult to reconcile with our concept of morality. We need go no further than Michael Moore’s film Sicko which sends a powerful message that ‘we should have no talk of profit when it comes to helping people who are sick’.  Johnson, on the other hand, whilst thinking that Britain could have ‘great and glorious future’ outside the EU, recommends that in terms of future heath care projects, we need to be ‘more ambitious, more tycoon-like, more ready to build vast commercial empires: in short, to be more American in our outlook.’

To add the twist, if not ambiguity, Johnson also believes that venture capitalists who invest in cancer research are not motivated by the profit motive only; they are also ‘fired by a desire to better the world’. Who is such a better world aimed for? This question lends itself to Johnson’s most dangerous contention. The makers of the glorious future Johnson envisages are people like scientists and successful businessman, in other words those with high IQ who, according to him, stand a better chance of being wealthy. We should therefore be ploughing more resources into helping those with higher IQ’s. We cannot deny the fact, he goes on, that people with IQ’s below 85 are destined to be less wealthy. Now, we can spell out Johnson’s contention more clearly: the needs of the poorest members of a society are modest because they can never achieve much anyway. However capitalism, he thinks, even with its good old-fashioned profit motive, is best placed to respond to the needs of the poor. And once again, what are the needs of the poor? Do they need to be cured from cancer as much as the rich people do? Do they need to eat healthy food, stop smoking, moderate their alcohol intake, play tennis and relax in art galleries? Are they even capable of appreciating art? And if the answers to these questions are ‘no’, in what sense is Johnson’s better world better for such people also?

This line of questioning could force Boris Johnson to make himself clear as a proper Nietzschean fancying  himself a hero from Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged who represents ‘the men on strike against an altruist-collectivist society’. In the meantime, his competence with the monoclonal T-cells coupled with his fuzzy logic and dangerous views leaves the British voters and the world at any rate puzzled about his blazing advertising of capitalism as a cure for cancer. Some will also wonder whether Johnson’s clumsiness amount to no more than a desperate cover-up for the fact that capitalism itself is in the stage of cancer. And why not think this way; the very characteristic of cancer – its invasive growth – is what is has in common with modern capitalism. Like cancer, capitalism threatens to break down our society’s immune system, reversing also all the progress that has been made toward social equality and stability.  

The facts that scientists world-wide, those who are devoted to revealing the secrets of human life and how we can be protected from the most vicious diseases, need sufficient funds to support their research does not imply capitalists’ rightful ownership of their noble cause. Neither does it imply that capitalism helps cure cancer. Boris Jonson and his, and he calls them, transatlantic friends must be discouraged by a political environment they fear most: the environment that is sneery enough and depreciating about the very idea, if this means their idea, of suffering elevation and wealth creation. And not just in order to prevent absurdity, but more crucially to prevent a deceptively benevolent stroll down the Nietzschean road. We have been there once before.

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Thwarting Trump on Climate Change Denial

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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We now have the remarkable convenience of the internal combustion engine, and also its noise and chaos and emissions to energize climate change.  Burning fossil fuels has put us on planet Titanic …

The doomsday clock remains at a critical two minutes to midnight, the ‘new abnormal,’ spelling future disaster, and we will continue to be like the “Titanic, ignoring the iceberg ahead, enjoying the fine food and music,” to quote former California governor Jerry Brown.  He is now the executive chairman of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the organization behind the clock.  This year climate change is cited as a major cause; it was the principal reason in 2012 and 2014.

The U.S. ‘National Climate Assessment’ last November did not mince words when it noted, “The evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming … the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country.”  The report mandated by Congress and affirmed by science agencies of the government was repudiated by President Trump:  “I do not believe it,” was his blunt response.  Mr. Trump religiously opposes climate change, believing it to be a natural phenomenon that will reverse itself also naturally.  About the current administration, one prominent scientist, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, was quoted in Science as saying, “They’re in la-la-land.” Science has labeled the inaction, the policy breakdown of the year.

Sadly this la-la-land is not harmless as tell-tale signs of the exacerbation of weather events are already here:  Hurricanes intensify quickly, then move slowly shedding unprecedented amounts of rain.  It happened with Harvey over Houston in 2017, and with Florence over North Carolina in 2018.  That overall temperature in the oceans is breaking new records is one good reason.

The 1.5C report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has given us, on the safe side, a 12-year window in which to start reducing emissions, to try to achieve neutral balance by mid-century, or eventually a self-reinforcing feedback loop will lead to uncontrollable warming and a “Hothouse Earth.”  If   we cannot expect any policy initiatives from this administration, can changes in individual behaviors help?  Apparently yes, and it is within our power to address two major CO2 sources:

Carbon capture from the atmosphere is difficult and expensive.  A better alternative might be to remove it at the source.  That means at power stations and factories, and there are new processes offering hope.  However, most carbon emission comes from transportation, and it points to a future of electric cars using electricity from CO2 scrubbed power stations.  The choice of car is clearly up to us.

Another avenue of individual involvement is dietary change for a sustainable future — in itself clearly at odds with the zealous consumption of meat in rich countries.  Ruminants release methane through belching as food passes through their several stomachs.  Over their agricultural cycle, cattle alone emit 270,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas per tonne of protein, many times more than poultry.  As Bill Gates has observed if cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions.

There is another way to look at it.  One can translate a kilo of different food sources into the number of car miles driven.  Lamb is definitely the worst at 91 miles followed by beef at 63.  Bad news for vegetarians, cheese comes in at 31 miles.  It is followed by pork (28), turkey (25), chicken (16), nuts (5) and lentils (2).  Imagine if dietary habits changed from beef to lentils, even once a week would make an enormous difference.  Also chicken, turkey and pork are reasonable substitutes as cutting out beef and lamb is clearly critical.  By the way, Indian food has delicious lentil recipes.

Scientists may soon have other intriguing possibilities, including lab-grown meat, that is if the current Beyond Burger type bean substitutes do not quite make the taste test.  Then there are crickets!  They happen to be an excellent source of protein offering more per pound than beef, and their production leaves a tiny ecological footprint in comparison.  Ground up into powder, this protein can be added to flour or other foods, and it is available.  Kernza is a perennial grain and a substitute for wheat and corn but without their annual tilling which robs the soil of nutrients and also causes erosion.  There is also a new oil made from algae.  Sourced originally from the sap of a German chestnut tree, it has been developed further to yield more oil, and is being sold under the name Thrive.  With a neutral taste and high smoke point, it makes an excellent substitute for the environmentally destructive palm oil, where plantations have ravaged forests in Indonesia and imperiled orangutans.

Personal choices can make a huge difference, including walking whenever possible for short distances instead of driving — mostly it’s just habit.  Bicycles, tricycles and push scooters are all out there, including some with electrical power assist.

Yes, there are options available to cut back our contributions to climate change; they require changes in habits and tastes, perhaps difficult, but we will have to eventually if we are not to leave behind a raging planet for future generations.  Meanwhile, the young in Europe have been marching in their tens of thousands to draw attention to the issue, and it cannot hurt to do likewise.

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Eye in the sky: Using satellites to better manage natural resources

MD Staff

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Looking up towards the stars at night, the sky can give the impression of being empty and infinite. In reality, space is getting more and more crowded every day.

According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, there are currently 4,857 satellites orbiting the planet. Among them are two Sentinel-2 satellites, part of a space-borne mission provided by the Copernicus European Earth Observation programme. The two satellites visit the same spot on Earth every two to five days, depending on the location.

Their sensors acquire multispectral images with spatial resolution varying between 10, 20, or 60 metres, depending on the spectral band. The data produced by Sentinel satellites is freely available to the public and the volumes of data are staggering. Between Sentinel 1, 2 and 3, over 10 petabyte of new data are made available for download every year. With a single petabyte equalling 500 billion pages of standard typed text, this is Big Data worthy of its name.

The satellites are providing ever more detailed information about the state of our planet, and businesses have long ago figured out how to use this data. The European Commission estimates that the cumulative benefits of the Copernicus programme by 2020 range between US$11.4 to US$15 billion (10 to 13 billion euros). So how can we translate this wealth of information into tangible benefits for the environment at the local level?

“In Colombia, small-scale, mechanized illegal gold mining is creating environmental challenges on an unprecedented scale,” says Inga Petersen, Senior Extractives Adviser within UN Environment’s Crisis Management Branch. “Excavators and dredgers used to dig up river beds for alluvial gold mining are contributing to wide-ranging deforestation and the loss of natural wetlands. Highly toxic mercury used in processing contaminates air and water and has accumulated in the food chain, posing significant threats to human health and ecosystems,” she adds.

However, mining areas are often hard to reach and keeping track of new or abandoned operations can be a challenge to local government agencies.

To support the mapping of new and abandoned sites and identify opportunities for restoration, UN Environment is collaborating with the University of Liège, in Belgium, to leverage Sentinel-2 data for local-level decision-making and early warning.

Funded by the European Commission (DG Grow) and EIT RawMaterials, the RawMatCop CopX project (Geospatial mining transparency through Copernicus and MapX) is analysing changes on land and water bodies, focusing specifically on mining ponds created on riverbeds. These ponds offer clues regarding the status of the mining activities.

Detecting and analysing these clues with the use of Earth Observation requires machine learning and image processing techniques in challenging, highly clouded areas. These techniques are key to understanding the dynamics in the mining area and to potentially automate the search to cover larger areas and track changes over time.

Testing this innovative underlying methodology started in 2018 in the Bajo Cauca region in the Antioquia department. The project is being implemented in close cooperation with the Government of Colombia, including the Ministry of Mines and Energy, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development as well as other UN agencies and strategic partners. Once established, CopX aims for the analysis to be applied at a larger scale and even offer the potential to establish an early warning system which can be adopted by the government to tackle illegal gold mining and monitor the implementation of restoration strategies.

However, translating big data into actionable insights is only a part of the solution. Making this data available to the relevant policymakers at the local and national level in a format which is accessible to non-experts is a critical step to enable evidence-based decision-making.

With this in mind, the project will use MapX, an online, open-source geospatial platform backed by the neutrality of the United Nations, to make the results available in easy-to-understand maps. The platform uses summary story maps, such as this one, to outline the interlinkages between the environment, conflict and natural resources.

“Whilst MapX can host sensitive datasets in private projects, MapX’s mission is to increase global environmental transparency by making the best available data widely accessible. Access to information is especially important in places like Colombia, where the environment features prominently in the 2016 peace agreement,” says Petersen.

In addition to featuring the outcomes of the project, MapX provides a comprehensive data catalogue, including data on the environment, the socio-economic context and conflict interlinkages. Combined with a suite of analytical and visualization tools, platform users can easily analyse, contextualize and visualize interactions between different data layers to increase awareness and inform decisions. Data, maps, narrative and multimedia files can then be summarized in interactive story maps to help tell the story hidden in the data.

UN Environment

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Air pollution is choking Bangkok, but a solution is in reach

MD Staff

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photo: UN Environment

A recent spell of especially soupy air has Bangkok scrambling to disperse dangerous pollutants and protect residents against dire health impacts.

The government has reacted quickly, clamping down on heavily polluting vehicles, deploying police and military to inspect factories and incinerators, shutting schools to protect children, and even deploying cloud-seeding planes to force rain and clear the air.

According to Kakuko Nagatani-Yoshida, UN Environment’s Regional Coordinator for Chemicals, Waste, and Air Quality, it’s a good start.

“The government has to take decisive action to enforce pollution regulations, and they are on the right track so far, deploying efforts such as strict enforcement of emission controls. We know they are also looking at more urgent measures and UN Environment is working closely with the government on longer-term solutions,” she said.

“While solutions like cloud seeding may provide temporary relief for larger particulates, it does not, however, help reduce PM2.5,” she warns. “After these interim measures, the next logical step is to shut down the most polluting factory. That may mean accepting some economic damage in the short term, but protecting public health must be the utmost priority. Beyond factories, the government can move urgently to replace soot-spewing public buses and boats running on diesel fuel with versions that are less polluting.”

Air pollution in Bangkok arises from a mix of factors. Traffic, construction and factory emissions are the main reasons, but at this time of the year, burning of waste and crop residues is also a major source. There isn’t just one culprit for the recent bout of air pollution, but it has been exacerbated by weather conditions that have not allowed the pollutants to disperse.

Bangkok and other areas in Thailand already experience regular air pollution. The prolonged period of unhealthy air in Bangkok is not unique to the city nor the country: 92 per cent of Asia and the Pacific’s population—some 4 billion people—are exposed to levels of air pollution that pose a significant risk to their health.

The current countermeasures are a short-term solution to this problem because, as Nagatani-Yoshida points out, “Factories can’t be closed forever. People need to get around. Ultimately, if people want to breathe clean air, numerous measures must be taken to tackle pollution.”

UN Environment recently published guidance on reducing air pollution. Some 25 measures could reduce premature mortality in the region by one third and see one billion people living in Asia breathing clean air.

“We hope country, provincial and city governments across the region, including Bangkok, look at these recommendations and implement them urgently,” said Nagatani-Yoshida.

UN Environment and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition are already working with the Thailand Pollution Control Department, the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency, and other agencies to implement some of these clean air measures and substantially reduce PM2.5 levels.

In particular, UN Environment is collaborating with the Pollution Control Department to leapfrog from Euro IV vehicle emission standards to Euro VI, which are currently the strictest standards in place.

Collaboration will also focus on helping shift 2–3 wheelers in Bangkok from gasoline to electric and retrofitting the numerous boats and ferries used for public transportation in the canal-connected city.

There is no time to waste. The faster the government moves to clamp down on emitters and back clean alternatives, the sooner Bangkok and the rest of the country can start to breathe again.

UN Environment

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