New plant-focused diet would ‘transform’ planet’s future

The Guardian reports:

The first science-based diet that tackles both the poor food eaten by billions of people and averts global environmental catastrophe has been devised. It requires huge cuts in red meat-eating in western countries and radical changes across the world.

The “planetary health diet” was created by an international commission seeking to draw up guidelines that provide nutritious food to the world’s fast-growing population. At the same time, the diet addresses the major role of farming – especially livestock – in driving climate change, the destruction of wildlife and the pollution of rivers and oceans.

Globally, the diet requires red meat and sugar consumption to be cut by half, while vegetables, fruit, pulses and nuts must double. But in specific places the changes are stark. North Americans need to eat 84% less red meat but six times more beans and lentils. For Europeans, eating 77% less red meat and 15 times more nuts and seeds meets the guidelines.

The diet is a “win-win”, according to the scientists, as it would save at least 11 million people a year from deaths caused by unhealthy food, while preventing the collapse of the natural world that humanity depends upon. With 10 billion people expected to live on Earth by 2050, a continuation of today’s unsustainable diets would inevitably mean even greater health problems and severe global warming. [Continue reading…]

1.32 million Jews were killed in just three months during the Holocaust

Live Science reports:

Operation Reinhard, known as the single largest murder campaign during the Holocaust, was worse than historians imagined. In a mere three months, at least 1.32 million Jewish people died — close to one-quarter of all the Jewish victims who perished during World War II, a new study finds.

The finding is based on an old data set that tallied the number of Jews who were forced from their homes onto trains, which then took them to the death camps in Poland known as Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. Once there, the majority of these victims were killed in gas chambers.

This data set allowed study researcher Lewi Stone, a professor of biomathematics at Tel Aviv University in Israel and a professor of mathematics at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, to estimate the rate at which the Nazis killed their victims during Operation Reinhard.

Stone’s analysis shows how the Nazis worked toward their “goal of obliterating the entire Jewish people of occupied Poland in as short a time [as] possible, mostly within three months,” Stone told Live Science in an email.

The mass killing happened quickly and in complete secrecy, which “ensured the Jewish people did not have a chance,” Stone said. “And [it] made the formation of organized resistance extremely difficult.”

The scale of the killing happened so quickly and was so extreme that it exceeds that of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which is often considered the most intense genocide of the 20th century, Stone said. [Continue reading…]

Yuval Noah Harari sees a big-data threat to humanity

Steve Paulson interviews historian Yuval Noah Harari:

What’s different about this moment in history?

What’s different is the pace of technological change, especially the twin revolutions of artificial intelligence and bioengineering. They make it possible to hack human beings and other organisms, and then re-engineer them and create new life forms.

How far can this technology go in changing who we are?

Very far. Beyond our imagination. It can change our imagination, too. If your imagination is too limited to think of new possibilities, we can just improve it. For billions of years, all of life was confined to the organic realm. It didn’t matter if you were an amoeba, a Tyrannosaurus rex, a coconut, a cucumber, or a Homo sapiens. You were made of organic compounds and subject to the laws of organic biochemistry. But now we’re about to break out of this limited organic realm and start combining the organic with inorganic bots to create cyborgs.

What worries you about the new cyborgs?

Experiments are already under way to augment the human immune system with an inorganic, bionic system. Millions of tiny nanorobots and sensors monitor what’s happening inside your body. They could discover the beginning of cancer, or some infectious disease, and fight against these dangers for your health. The system can monitor not just what goes wrong. It can monitor your moods, your emotions, your thoughts. That means an external system can get to know you much better than you know yourself. You go to therapy for years to get in touch with your emotions, but this system, whether it belongs to Google or Amazon or the government, can monitor your emotions in ways that neither you nor your therapist can approach in any way.

Are you saying computer algorithms can break down personal data we may not even be aware of?

Yes. Fear and anger and love, or any human emotion, are in the end just a biochemical process. In the same way you can diagnose flu, you can diagnose anger. You might ask somebody, “Why are you angry? What are you angry about?” And they will say, “I’m not angry about anything, what do you want?” But this external system doesn’t need to ask you. It can monitor your heart, your brain, your blood pressure. It can have a scale of anger and it can know you are now a 6.8 on a scale of 1-to-10. Combining this with enormous amounts of data collected on you 24 hours a day can provide the best healthcare in history. It can also be the foundation of the worst dictatorial regimes in history. [Continue reading…]

Portrait of the Earth at the threshold of climate catastrophe

The Guardian reports:

On Sunday morning hundreds of politicians, government officials and scientists will gather in the grandeur of the International Congress Centre in Katowice, Poland. It will be a familiar experience for many. For 24 years the annual UN climate conference has served up a reliable diet of rhetoric, backroom talks and dramatic last-minute deals aimed at halting global warming.

But this year’s will be a grimmer affair – by far. As recent reports have made clear, the world may no longer be hovering at the edge of destruction but has probably staggered beyond a crucial point of no return. Climate catastrophe is now looking inevitable. We have simply left it too late to hold rising global temperatures to under 1.5C and so prevent a future of drowned coasts, ruined coral reefs, spreading deserts and melted glaciers.

One example was provided last week by a UN report that revealed attempts to ensure fossil fuel emissions peak by 2020 will fail. Indeed the target will not even be reached by 2030. Another, by the World Meteorological Organization, said the past four years had been the warmest on record and warned that global temperatures could easily rise by 3-5C by 2100, well above that sought-after goal of 1.5C. The UK will not be exempt either. The Met Office said summer temperatures could now be 5.4C hotter by 2070.

At the same time, prospects of reaching global deals to halt emissions have been weakened by the spread of rightwing populism. Not much to smile about in Katowice.

Nor will the planet’s woes end in 2100. Although most discussions use the year as a convenient cut-off point for describing Earth’s likely fate, the changes we have already triggered will last well beyond that date, said Svetlana Jevrejeva, at the National Oceanography Centre, Liverpool. She has studied sea-level rises that will be triggered by melting ice sheets and expanding warm seawater in a world 3-5C hotter than it was in pre-industrial times, and concludes these could reach 0.74 to 1.8 metres by 2100. This would be enough to deluge Pacific and Indian Ocean island states and displace millions from Miami, Guangzhou, Mumbai and other low-lying cities. The total cost to the planet could top £11trillion.

Even then the seas will not stop rising, Jevrejeva added. “They will continue to climb for centuries even after greenhouse-gas levels have been stabilised. We could experience the highest-ever global sea-level rise in the history of human civilisation.”

Vast tracts of prime real estate will be destroyed – at a time when land will be needed with unprecedented desperation. Earth’s population stands at seven billion today and is predicted to rise to nine billion by 2050 and settle at over 11 billion by 2100 – when climate change will have wrecked major ecosystems and turned farmlands to dust bowls.

Unfortunately many experts believe Earth’s population will actually peak well beyond 11 billion. “It could reach 15 billion,” said Sarah Harper, of Oxford’s Institute of Population Ageing. “All sorts of factors suggest women, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, will still want to have relatively high numbers of children and this might keep the world’s population approaching 15 billion rather than 12 billion.”

The world will have double its present numbers – but with hugely reduced areas of fertile land to provide food. We will be living in a shrunken, scorched planet bursting with human beings. Somaliland gives a grim vision of this future.

In the past few years climate change has killed 70% of its livestock and forced tens of thousands of families to flee from its scorched interior to live in refugee camps. “You can touch it, the climate change, in Somaliland. It is real. It is here,” the country’s environment minister, Shukri Ismail Bandare, said in the Financial Times last week.

Sudan and Kenya are also victims of a drought that has dried the Horn of Africa faster than at any other time in the past 2,000 years. Similarly, in Vietnam, thousands a year are abandoning the once fertile Mekong Delta as rising seawater pollutes paddy fields. By 2050, the World Bank says more than 140 million will become climate refugees.

It will be bad for humans, but catastrophic for Earth’s other inhabitants. Arctic ice loss threatens polar bears, droughts imperil monarch butterflies, and koala habitats are being destroyed by bush fires. In all, about a sixth of all species now face extinction, say scientists, although in the end no creature or plant will be safe. “Even the most resilient species will inevitably fall victim as extreme stresses drive ecosystems to collapse,” said Giovanni Strona of Europe’s Joint Research Centre in a report last week on climate change. [Continue reading…]

The insect apocalypse is here. What does it mean for the rest of life on Earth?

Brooke Jarvis reports:

Sune Boye Riis was on a bike ride with his youngest son, enjoying the sun slanting over the fields and woodlands near their home north of Copenhagen, when it suddenly occurred to him that something about the experience was amiss. Specifically, something was missing.

It was summer. He was out in the country, moving fast. But strangely, he wasn’t eating any bugs.

For a moment, Riis was transported to his childhood on the Danish island of Lolland, in the Baltic Sea. Back then, summer bike rides meant closing his mouth to cruise through thick clouds of insects, but inevitably he swallowed some anyway. When his parents took him driving, he remembered, the car’s windshield was frequently so smeared with insect carcasses that you almost couldn’t see through it. But all that seemed distant now. He couldn’t recall the last time he needed to wash bugs from his windshield; he even wondered, vaguely, whether car manufacturers had invented some fancy new coating to keep off insects. But this absence, he now realized with some alarm, seemed to be all around him. Where had all those insects gone? And when? And why hadn’t he noticed?

Riis watched his son, flying through the beautiful day, not eating bugs, and was struck by the melancholy thought that his son’s childhood would lack this particular bug-eating experience of his own. It was, he granted, an odd thing to feel nostalgic about. But he couldn’t shake a feeling of loss. “I guess it’s pretty human to think that everything was better when you were a kid,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t like it when I was on my bike and I ate all the bugs, but looking back on it, I think it’s something everybody should experience.”

I met Riis, a lanky high school science and math teacher, on a hot day in June. He was anxious about not having yet written his address for the school’s graduation ceremony that evening, but first, he had a job to do. From his garage, he retrieved a large insect net, drove to a nearby intersection and stopped to strap the net to the car’s roof. Made of white mesh, the net ran the length of his car and was held up by a tent pole at the front, tapering to a small, removable bag in back. Drivers whizzing past twisted their heads to stare. Riis eyed his parking spot nervously as he adjusted the straps of the contraption. “This is not 100 percent legal,” he said, “but I guess, for the sake of science.”

Riis had not been able to stop thinking about the missing bugs. The more he learned, the more his nostalgia gave way to worry. Insects are the vital pollinators and recyclers of ecosystems and the base of food webs everywhere. Riis was not alone in noticing their decline. In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterflies fell by 90 percent in the last 20 years, a loss of 900 million individuals; the rusty-patched bumblebee, which once lived in 28 states, dropped by 87 percent over the same period. With other, less-studied insect species, one butterfly researcher told me, “all we can do is wave our arms and say, ‘It’s not here anymore!’ ” Still, the most disquieting thing wasn’t the disappearance of certain species of insects; it was the deeper worry, shared by Riis and many others, that a whole insect world might be quietly going missing, a loss of abundance that could alter the planet in unknowable ways. “We notice the losses,” says David Wagner, an entomologist at the University of Connecticut. “It’s the diminishment that we don’t see.”

Because insects are legion, inconspicuous and hard to meaningfully track, the fear that there might be far fewer than before was more felt than documented. People noticed it by canals or in backyards or under streetlights at night — familiar places that had become unfamiliarly empty. The feeling was so common that entomologists developed a shorthand for it, named for the way many people first began to notice that they weren’t seeing as many bugs. They called it the windshield phenomenon. [Continue reading…]

You can’t characterize human nature if studies overlook 85 percent of people on Earth

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By only working in their own backyards, what do psychology researchers miss about human behavior?
Arthimedes/Shutterstock.com

By Daniel Hruschka, Arizona State University

Over the last century, behavioral researchers have revealed the biases and prejudices that shape how people see the world and the carrots and sticks that influence our daily actions. Their discoveries have filled psychology textbooks and inspired generations of students. They’ve also informed how businesses manage their employees, how educators develop new curricula and how political campaigns persuade and motivate voters.

But a growing body of research has raised concerns that many of these discoveries suffer from severe biases of their own. Specifically, the vast majority of what we know about human psychology and behavior comes from studies conducted with a narrow slice of humanity – college students, middle-class respondents living near universities and highly educated residents of wealthy, industrialized and democratic nations.

Blue countries represent the locations of 93 percent of studies published in Psychological Science in 2017. Dark blue is U.S., blue is Anglophone colonies with a European descent majority, light blue is western Europe. Regions sized by population.

To illustrate the extent of this bias, consider that more than 90 percent of studies recently published in psychological science’s flagship journal come from countries representing less than 15 percent of the world’s population.

If people thought and behaved in basically the same ways worldwide, selective attention to these typical participants would not be a problem. Unfortunately, in those rare cases where researchers have reached out to a broader range of humanity, they frequently find that the “usual suspects” most often included as participants in psychology studies are actually outliers. They stand apart from the vast majority of humanity in things like how they divvy up windfalls with strangers, how they reason about moral dilemmas and how they perceive optical illusions.

Given that these typical participants are often outliers, many scholars now describe them and the findings associated with them using the acronym WEIRD, for Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.

[Read more…]

Air pollution is shaving years from people’s lives

McClatchy reports:

People could add years to their lives in California and other smog-plagued parts of the world if authorities could reduce particulate pollution — soot from cars and industry — to levels recommended by the World Health Organization, a new study reported Monday.

No other large U.S. city would benefit more than Fresno, which has soot concentrations at roughly twice the WHO guidelines. Fresno residents would live a year longer if the region could meet the health organization’s recommended levels of exposure, according to Monday’s study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

The average Los Angeles resident could add eights months of life. The average Sacramento resident would add nearly three. [Continue reading…]

Stop biodiversity loss or we could face our own extinction, warns UN

The Guardian reports:

The world must thrash out a new deal for nature in the next two years or humanity could be the first species to document our own extinction, warns the United Nation’s biodiversity chief.

Ahead of a key international conference to discuss the collapse of ecosystems, Cristiana Pașca Palmer said people in all countries need to put pressure on their governments to draw up ambitious global targets by 2020 to protect the insects, birds, plants and mammals that are vital for global food production, clean water and carbon sequestration.

“The loss of biodiversity is a silent killer,” she told the Guardian. “It’s different from climate change, where people feel the impact in everyday life. With biodiversity, it is not so clear but by the time you feel what is happening, it may be too late.”

Pașca Palmer is executive director of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity – the world body responsible for maintaining the natural life support systems on which humanity depends.

Its 196 member states will meet in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, this month to start discussions on a new framework for managing the world’s ecosystems and wildlife. This will kick off two years of frenetic negotiations, which Pașca Palmer hopes will culminate in an ambitious new global deal at the next conference in Beijing in 2020. [Continue reading…]

Humanity’s preoccupation with short-term gains threatens the future of life on Earth

Jane Goodall writes:

We are experiencing the sixth great extinction. The most recent report from WWF describes the situation as critical – in the last 40 years, we have lost some 60% of all animal and plant species on Earth.

We are poisoning the soil through large-scale industrial agriculture. Invasive species are choking out native animal and plant life in many places. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere by our reliance on fossil fuels, destruction of the rain forests and pollution of the ocean. Increase of demand for meat not only involves horrible cruelty to billions of animals in factory farms, but huge areas of wild habitats are destroyed to grow crops for animal feed.

So much fossil fuel is required to take grain to animals, animals to slaughter, meat to table – and during digestion these animals are producing methane – an even more virulent gas than carbon dioxide. And their waste along with other industrial agricultural runoff is polluting soil and rivers sometimes causing toxic algae blooms over large areas of ocean.

Climate change is a very real threat as spelled out in the latest UN report, as these greenhouse gases, trapping the heat of the sun, are causing the melting of polar ice, rising sea levels, more frequent and more intense storms, flooding and droughts. In some places agricultural yields are decreasing, fuelling human displacement and conflict. How come the most intellectual creature to ever walk Earth is destroying its only home?

Because many policymakers and corporations – and we as individuals – tend to make a decision based on “How will this affect me now, affect the next shareholders meeting, the next political campaign?” rather than “How will this affect future generations?” Mother nature is being destroyed at an ever-faster rate for the sake of short term gain. This, along with our horrifying population growth, poverty – causing people to destroy the environment simply to try to make a living, and the unsustainable lifestyles of the rest of us who have way more than we need, is the root cause of all the planet’s woes. [Continue reading…]

Call to protect dwindling wilderness ‘before it disappears forever’

Mongabay reports:

New, highly detailed maps now reveal the state of the world’s wilderness, both on land and at sea, and the picture looks bleak.

In a series of recent studies, a group of researchers led by ecologist James Watson of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Australia’s University of Queensland analyzed the surface of Earth for significant human activity, such as roads and railways, pastures and farmland, and population centers, at a resolution of 1 square kilometer (0.4 square miles). In the oceans, they looked at fishing efforts as well as fertilizer effluent and shipping lanes.

The results are staggering, as summarized Oct. 31 in the journal Nature: Just 13 percent of the world’s oceans lack signs of human activity. And the figures on land aren’t much higher: not counting Antarctica, just 23 percent of terrestrial wilderness remains. But hidden in what Watson called a “horror story” for untouched places is the potential to save what’s left and, with it, life on Earth.

“Science is clearly showing that large intact places are the best low-hanging fruit that we should go and conserve,” Watson told Mongabay.

Early on in the research, a 2016 study comparing those changes with the pace of population and economic growth indicated that we weren’t losing wilderness as quickly as might be expected. Those “encouraging” results suggested that, as a species, we humans were using resources more efficiently, the researchers said.

But as the scientists dug deeper into the data, producing maps that looked at how well parks and reserves safeguard biodiversity and wild spaces from human impacts and the extent of humanity’s reach in the world’s oceans, for example, Watson said the story that emerged was “how little is left.” [Continue reading…]