Rachel's Democracy & Health News #844
"Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?"
Thursday, March 2, 2006....
Why Civilizations Decline
Some civilizations reach their peak of power and then suddenly
collapse and remain in decline or even disappear. Others thrive for
thousands of years. What accounts for the difference, and what does
it matter to the U.S.?
Money and Medicine: Richer or Poorer, Health and Wealth Are Linked
A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical
Association confirms that people with lower "socioeconomic status" are
twice as likely to die in any given period of time, even after taking
into account age, sex, race and current smoking habits.
Benzene in Children's Drinks: Not a Sweet Surprise
The government has known since 1990 that vitamin C can combine with
other common soft-drink ingredients to form benzene -- a powerful
industrial solvent and potent carcinogen (see Rachel's #647). Recent
studies found benzene levels in some popular 'kids' drinks that were 2
to 4 times what's "acceptable" in drinking water. And benzene is only
one among many health problems linked to our soda pop culture,
including obesity, tooth decay, caffeine dependence, and weakened
Dumped Electrical Goods: A Giant Problem
As the electronic age progresses, the environmental costs grow
exponentially. If full-lifecycle manufacturing were embraced, the vast
majority of e-waste could be recycled. An average desktop computer
holds 14 pounds of plastic, 4 pounds of lead, 8 pounds of aluminum and
smaller amounts of arsenic, mercury and beryllium.
Acid Seas Are Killing Off Corals and Shellfish
As global carbon dioxide levels rise, the oceans are growing more
acidic. Scientists now believe that a critical threshold for sea-life
is being crossed, which could further the decline of corals and
shellfish populations which are highly sensitive to acidity levels.
This in turn would reduce the uptake of C02 (oceans absorb about half
the C02 we produce) worsening the problem of global warming.
From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #844, Mar. 2, 2006
By Peter Montague
The year 2005 began with an interesting choice by the editors of the
New York Times -- the first op ed of the year was a long essay by
Jared Diamond called "The ends of the world as we know them."
Diamond won the Pulitzer prize for his non-fiction book, "Guns,
Germs, and Steel" and later in 2005 he published "Collapse; How
Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed."
Diamond's op-ed offers an analysis of why civilizations collapse. It
is an essay obviously intended to make us ask, "Does our civilization
have what it takes to survive?" In the opening paragraph he says, "In
this fresh year, with the United States seemingly at the height of its
power and at the start of a new presidential term, Americans are
increasingly concerned and divided about where we are going. How long
can America remain ascendant? Where will we stand 10 years from now,
or even next year?"
Diamond goes on: "Such questions seem especially appropriate this
year. History warns us that when once-powerful societies collapse,
they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. That shouldn't come as
much of a surprise: peak power usually means peak population, peak
needs, and hence peak vulnerability. What can be learned from history
that could help us avoid joining the ranks of those who declined
Diamond tells the stories of a few past civilizations that collapsed
and rapidly disappeared -- the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula in
Mexico; the Polynesian societies on Henderson and Pitcairn islands
in the tropical Pacific Ocean; the Anasazi in the American
southwest; the ancient societies of the Fertile Crescent; the
Khmer at Angkor Wat; and the Moche society of Peru, among others.
Diamond then offers a long list of other societies that followed a
different trajectory and survived for very long periods in Japan,
Tonga, Tikopia, the New Guinea Highlands, and Central and
Northwest Europe, among others. So collapse is not inevitable.
Collapse is the result of choices.
Diamond asserts that collapse results from 5 inter-woven factors:
1. The damage that people have inflicted on their environment;
2. Climate change;
4. Changes in friendly trading partners;
5. Society's political, economic, and social responses to those shifts.
After telling the stories of particular societies that collapsed or
prospered, Diamond asks pointedly, "What lessons can we draw from
Take environmental problems seriously
He answers bluntly: "The most straightforward [lesson from history]:
take environmental problems seriously. They destroyed societies in the
past, and they are even more likely to do so now. If 6,000 Polynesians
with stone tools were able to destroy Mangareva Island, consider
what six billion people with metal tools and bulldozers are doing
today. Moreover, while the Maya collapse affected just a few
neighboring societies in Central America, globalization now means that
any society's problems have the potential to affect anyone else. Just
think how crises in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped
the United States today."
The second reasons for collapse is "failure of group decision-making."
Diamond then offers three kinds of failure of decision-making:
Decision-making failure #1: "One reason involves conflicts of
interest, whereby one group within a society (for instance, the pig
farmers who caused the worst erosion in medieval Greenland and
Iceland) can profit by engaging in practices that damage the rest of
society," Diamond writes.
Examples of this in contemporary society might include
** The petrochemical industry that reaps mountainous profits by
selling products that are heating up the planet, contaminating our
bodies with biologically-active industrial poisons, and leaving tens
of thousands of chemically-contaminated waste sites for taxpayers to
try to deal with.
** Another example might be the tobacco industry that is now hawking
its cancer-causing wares to unsuspecting children world-wide.
This list could be readily extended because the U.S. pays only lip
service to the important principle that "the polluter shall pay."
More often than not, in the U.S. the polluter is subsidized by the
federal government to evade paying.
Decision-making failure #2: "... [T]he pursuit of short-term gains at
the expense of long-term survival, as when fishermen overfish the
stocks on which their livelihoods ultimately depend."
** We might include in this category, unsustainable logging practices;
industrialized agriculture, which depletes topsoil and contaminates
water with fertilizer and pesticides; and waste-treatment plants that
discharge wastes into waters that must then be cleaned for drinking
and other essential purposes.
Decision failure #3: "History also teaches us two deeper lessons about
what separates successful societies from those heading toward
Deep lesson #1: "A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure
if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions."
** With 10% of the U.S. population owning 71% of all private wealth,
we do not have to look far to see this principle at work in the U.S.
-- The Walmartization of the economy is one example -- getting rid
of good, family-sustaining jobs and substituting low-wage jobs with no
benefits and no job security. This does not hurt the 10%, but
ultimately it weakens the social fabric that sustains the other 90% of
-- The privatization of public services is another example --
depleting the ranks of the civil service that provides continuity and
expertise to government from one administration to the next. The firms
that run the private prisons, the privatized public schools, the
private water-supplies, the private highways, the privatized
environmental services -- those firms can make out like bandits but
the rest of us stand by helplessly as the capacity of our governmental
institutions withers and our common wealth disappears.
-- The refusal to provide pensions for workers would be a third
example -- when a Reagan-appointed judge allows United Airlines to
walk away from its pension obligations, it's good for the company's
bottom line, and other firms quickly follow suit. Renouncing pension
responsibilities is now epidemic. Meanwhile, government -- dominated
as it is by the 10% -- is working mightily to cut back Medicare and
Medicaid. The 10% do not have to ask who will care for them in their
old age, but the other 90% of us do and for many the answer is nothing
but an empty question mark.
Deep lesson #2: "The other deep lesson involves a willingness to re-
examine long-held core values, when conditions change and those values
no longer make sense."
Here, Jared Diamond provides his own examples of the U.S. clinging to
dangerously outmoded ideas:
"In this New Year, we Americans have our own painful reappraisals to
face. Historically, we viewed the United States as a land of unlimited
plenty, and so we practiced unrestrained consumerism, but that's no
longer viable in a world of finite resources. We can't continue to
deplete our own resources as well as those of much of the rest of the
"Historically, oceans protected us from external threats; we stepped
back from our isolationism only temporarily during the crises of two
world wars. Now, technology and global interconnectedness have robbed
us of our protection. In recent years, we have responded to foreign
threats largely by seeking short-term military solutions at the last
"But how long can we keep this up? Though we are the richest nation on
earth, there's simply no way we can afford (or muster the troops) to
intervene in the dozens of countries where emerging threats lurk --
particularly when each intervention these days can cost more than $100
billion and require more than 100,000 troops. [The Iraq war has cost
the U.S. $244 billion so far, with no end in sight.--PM]
"A genuine reappraisal would require us to recognize that it will be
far less expensive and far more effective to address the underlying
problems of public health, population and environment that ultimately
cause threats to us to emerge in poor countries. In the past, we have
regarded foreign aid as either charity or as buying support; now, it's
an act of self-interest to preserve our own economy and protect
To me the most important point in Jared Diamond's essay is this one:
"A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite
insulates itself from the consequences of its actions." This is surely
the case in the United States today.
The remedy for this problem is more democratic decision-making.
Decisions should be made with real participation by the people who
will be affected. (For information about how this is working now
in some places, see here and here).
If this simple principle were practised to a greater extent that it is
today, most of the problems that threaten our civilization could be
reversed or considerably diminished. On the other hand, if we continue
to allow a tiny elite to manage the economy and run the government for
their own narrow, selfish purposes, the outlook for long-term success
Jared Diamond is the author of The Third Chimpanzee; The Evolution and
the Future of the Human Animal (N.Y. Harper Perennial, 1992; ISBN
0060183071); Guns, Germs and Steel (N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 1999; ISBN
0393317552); and Collapse; How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
(N.Y. Penguin, 2005; ISBN 0670033375).
From: New York Times, Feb. 21, 2006
By Nicholas Bakalar
A new report issued last week adds support to the premise that poor
people are in worse physical condition and have an increased risk for
death compared with those who are better off.
The findings, published last week in The Journal of the American
Medical Association, examined more than 30,000 patients consecutively
referred to the Cleveland Clinic for stress testing. The researchers
assigned a socioeconomic status score to each patient by matching the
home address to economic data in the 2000 census.
Patients exercised on a treadmill while being measured for the maximum
amount of oxygen they consumed during exercise, usually called
functional capacity, and for heart rate recovery, or the amount the
heart rate decreases during the first minute after exercise.
Both slower heart rate recovery and lower functional capacity were
associated with lower socioeconomic status, even after controlling for
age, race, smoking and body mass index.
The subjects were then followed for an average of six and a half
years, through February 2004, to track their survival.
There were 2,174 deaths during the period, and patients in the lowest
quarter of socioeconomic status score were twice as likely to have
died as those in the highest quarter, even though the two groups did
not differ in age, sex, race or current smoking habits.
Dr. Michael S. Lauer, the study's senior author and a professor of
medicine and epidemiology at Case Western Reserve University, said
that poverty itself could be a cause of disease or death.
"Some people think that poverty causes stress to the autonomic nervous
system, the part that regulates blood pressure and heart rate," Dr.
Lauer said. "Stress to the autonomic nervous system can manifest as
hypertension and poor fitness."
From: Environmental Working Group, Feb. 28, 2006
FDA silent despite knowledge of the problem
Agency Trusted Industry to Change Formulas in 1990, Yet Still Finds
Sodas with Benzene
By Abid Aslam
WASHINGTON - February 28 - Today the Environmental Working Group (EWG)
sent a letter to the FDA requesting that the Agency notify the
public about the presence of two ingredients in many popular
children's drinks that can mix together to form the cancer-causing
chemical benzene. The FDA last addressed this problem more than 15
years ago when it entered into a voluntary agreement with the beverage
industry to reformulate its products to avoid the presence of this
hazardous mixture. It appears, based on news reports and a sampling by
EWG of popular children's drinks from retail outlets, that many
manufacturers have not complied.
In 1990, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) learned that certain
soft drinks marketed to children contain two ingredients that can mix
in the soda to form the toxic carcinogen benzene. The Agency didn't
tell the public, but instead merely asked companies to voluntarily
change their formulas to eliminate the problem.
So far in 2006, two news outlets have reported that the Agency is
again testing soft drinks, finding benzene sometimes at levels above
the safe limit for drinking water, and asking companies to change
their formulas. To date the FDA has concealed this information from
On February 24 and February 27, 2006, EWG staff found many juices and
sodas at major national retail outlets containing the ingredients that
can form benzene. The beverage industry appears to have flagrantly
ignored the 1990 agreement to eliminate chemical combinations that can
form benzene in their products and the FDA, by all accounts, has done
nothing about it.
"Benzene is a potent carcinogen that has no place in foods and drinks
targeted to children," said Richard Wiles, Sr. Vice President of
Environmental Working Group. "We urge the FDA to immediately issue a
statement telling consumers which ingredients in foods and drinks can
combine to form benzene," Wiles added.
In the meantime EWG is providing the following information to
To steer clear of chemicals in foods and drinks that can mix together
to form benzene, consumers should avoid products that contain both
ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and either sodium benzoate or potassium
benzoate. "Once again, the FDA has sided with industry and against the
public, in this case by concealing simple information that would allow
people to easily avoid benzene in the drinks they give their
children," said Wiles. "Once people have this information, we are
convinced that food and drink manufacturers will simply reformulate
their products, as many already have done, and as FDA originally
intended in 1990."
A list of drinks containing ascorbic acid and either sodium benzoate
or potassium benzoate
UK, Germany testing sodas, too
FDA quietly investigating?
WJLA-TV news report
From: Independent (UK), Feb. 27, 2006
By Martin Hickman
This year [in Britain] we will discard 100 million TVs, computers,
stereos and mobile phones as we're seduced by ever newer models. They
could all be recycled - so why aren't they?
What do you do with your old telly - the black set that now looks so
dull when compared to its silver digital and widescreen betters?
And what about your old computer, a hulking grey box superseded by the
sleek, exciting new Apple? Or your old drill, mobile phone or any
other electrical product broken or deemed surplus to requirements in
our increasingly throwaway society?
Some people dump these once-treasured items of progress in the bin,
the tip, from where they make their way to landfill sites. There,
their heavy metals like mercury poison the ground and raw materials
are lost to future generations. Some, who cannot bring themselves to
jettison items once so coveted and useful, put them in the loft. Then
throw them away when they move.
Nationally, Britain's electronic mountain is crashing into landfill at
an extraordinary rate. No one knows exactly how much is thrown away
because it is dumped along with the kitchen scraps and broken
furniture. But industry sources estimate that 100 million fridges,
TVs, computers, mobile phones and other items of electronic equipment
are discarded every year. They weigh 936,000 tons - the same as 2,400
The startling fact is that all of these products can be recycled using
new technology; the country's first Waste Electrical and Electronic
Equipment (WEEE) recycling plant has just opened in the North-east.
And none should even be entering the dumps at all. By August 2005,
Britain was supposed to have introduced new European rules stipulating
that all electronic waste be recycled. Under the directive, retailers
of electronic goods pay for the collection and producers pay for the
recycling. This has been introduced in all almost EU countries - but
not in Britain. The Government's response has been slow. We are now,
along with France and Malta, incurring the wrath of the EU and
probably heavy fines.
Britain first announced that the directive would be in place by last
March, then the date moved to August. Then December. Then, in mid-
December, the energy minister Malcolm Wicks announced a review of the
directive - with no end date. In its defence, the Department of Trade
and Industry says it wants to get implementation right. "It doesn't
seem right to rush it through just to meet a deadline," says a
The delay has infuriated environmentalists. Michael Warhurst, senior
waste and resources campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says: "WEEE is
very important. It's a complete waste of resources to be taking these
electronic items and dumping them in landfill sites. In Britain we
have a pretty pathetic situation where the Government should have
implemented WEEE and hasn't."
The Government says the delay is due to ongoing discussions about how
to enact the directive. A study suggests it will cost between Ã‚£229m
and £500m - £2 to £5 for each product.
Arguments have raged about how best to collect all those old TV sets.
Should there be neighbourhood collection sites for the smaller items
like kettles, similar to bottle banks? Should everyone take their
products to a point at the municipal dump? Should consumers return
stuff to the retailers?
The electronics industry, which would have to foot the bill, is
sanguine about the continuing discussion. "The cost implication is
large, and poor implementation could have massive repercussions on UK
businesses, consumers and the environment," says a spokesman for the
Recycling Electrical Producers' Industry Consortium (Repic), which
represents the makers of 80 per cent of electrical goods.
Friends of the Earth believes the mess surrounding the EU directive is
symptomatic of a wider reluctance by Labour to introduce environmental
measures that inconvenience business. "What we have seen here is that
they keep consulting and trying to reach a consensus position, and
that's not working. Governments that show a bit of leadership go to
consultation and then say: 'Right, this is what we are going to do'."
Frustration is also being felt at Wincanton, the British company that
has spent Ã‚£4.5m installing the UK's first WEEE recycling unit near
Middlesbrough. The machine takes whole computers, microwaves and so
on, cracks them open and sorts the materials for re-use in new
products. The breaking happens when the products fall into the machine
and crash into one another as they are spun in a vortex. MeWa, the
German maker of the machine, likens it to "cracking the nut".
Once broken, the components are sent into containers of ferrous metals
and non-ferrous metals. The metals are shredded for re-use. The
plastic is granulated for re-use. The gases inside the machines are
siphoned off for re-use. On a conveyor belt at the centre of the
machine workers pick off special items, like circuit boards, which
The machine, one of about 20 in Europe, can recycle 75,000 tons of
electronics a year - equivalent to 800,000 washing machines. Two
hundred people armed with screwdrivers would be required to carry out
the same job.
Yet local authorities are not sending truckloads of material to the
plant. Until the directive comes into force, Wincanton is relying on
retailers forwarding on faulty goods, and the appliances it remove
swhen it delivers new products to homes.
The main business of the FTSE 250 company is delivering goods for
major retailers. It hopes WEEE recycling will use up spare capacity on
its empty lorries and has six depots waiting to collect products.
Gordon Scott, managing director of its industrial division and a self-
confessed late convert to environmentalism, says: "The bottom line is
we cannot go on as we have been going on. We cannot landfill as we
have been landfilling. We have got to do something like this."
Having made a downpayment of some millions, he is hoping Britain
begins to recycle its TVs and computers very soon.
Fashion beats functionality in a throwaway society
We buy more stuff and throw it away faster than at any point in our
history. Electronic goods lose their lustre for consumers quicker now
because of advances in technology and lower prices.
Buying a basic television has never been so cheap, relatively
speaking. In the past, people would call a television repairman to fix
the telly when it went on the blink. Nowadays they often pop down to
the high street to buy a new set - which may not cost more than their
old set did five years before.
Fashion is also playing an increasing role - functional but
unfashionable products are now jettisoned for the latest model. Mobile
phones are considered out of date by Dixons after just six to nine
months. Mere function is not enough - flashiness is now essential.
"Our attitude to technology has changed from using something until it
breaks beyond repair, to constantly replacing it because something
cooler is in the market," says Tom Dunmore, editor-in-chief of the
gadget magazine Stuff.
"I know of people with five or six iPods who change their mobile phone
every few months. And they're not unusual."
Mark Strutt, senior campaigner at Greenpeace, says: "We consume vast
amounts of electronic goods and throw them away. Mobile phones are a
classic example, where they are more or less designed to be thrown
away after a few years. Another prime example is the MP3 player, which
does not have a battery that can be changed or recharged."
Copyright 2006 Independent News and Media Limited
From: Sunday Times (London, UK), Feb. 26, 2006
By Jonathan Leake
The world's coral reefs could disappear within a few decades along
with hundreds of species of plankton and shellfish, according to new
studies into man's impact on the oceans.
Researchers have found that carbon dioxide, the gas already blamed for
causing global warming, is also raising the acid levels in the sea.
The shells of coral and other marine life dissolve in acid. The
process is happening so fast that many such species, including coral,
crabs, oysters and mussels, may become unable to build and repair
their shells and will die out, say the researchers.
"Increased carbon dioxide emissions are making the world's oceans more
acidic and could cause a mass extinction of marine life similar to the
one that occurred on land when the dinosaurs disappeared," said
Professor Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution's global ecology
When CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels dissolves in the ocean, it
forms carbonic acid. A little of this can benefit marine life by
providing carbonate ions ' a vital constituent in the biochemical
process by which sea creatures such as corals and molluscs build their
Caldeira found, however, that the huge volumes of carbon dioxide being
released by humans are dissolving into the oceans so fast that sea
creatures can no longer absorb it. Consequently, the levels of
carbonic acid are rising and the oceans are "turning sour".
Speaking at the American Geophysical Union's ocean sciences conference
in Hawaii last week, Caldeira said: "The current rate of carbon
dioxide input is nearly 50 times higher than normal. In less than 100
years, the pH (measure of alkalinity) of the oceans could drop by as
much as half a unit from its natural 8.2 to about 7.7."
This would mark a huge change in ocean chemistry. The shells of marine
creatures are made of calcium carbonate, the same substance as chalk,
which is vulnerable to acidity. Even a slight increase in acidity
would mean many creatures would dissolve. Others might be able to
rebuild their shells but would be unable to reproduce.
Nature, the scientific journal, recently published a study by Jim Orr,
of the Laboratory for Science of the Climate and Environment, Paris.
It said that by 2050 the Southern Ocean and subarctic regions of the
Pacific might be so acidic that the shells of smaller marine creatures
would start eroding.
Such a loss would have disastrous consequences for larger marine
animals such as salmon, mackerel, herring, cod and baleen whales.
These all feed on pteropods, or sea butterflies, one of the species
most threatened by rising acidity.
Last week another warning was issued about the threat of acidity to
sea life at the annual meeting in St Louis of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science.
Katherine Richardson, professor of biological oceanography at Aarhus
University in Denmark, said: "These marine creatures do humanity a
great service by absorbing half the carbon dioxide we create. If we
wipe them out, that process will stop. We are altering the entire
chemistry of the oceans without any idea of the consequences."
Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.
[For more information about the issue of ocean acidification see the
March edition of Scientific American article 'The Dangers of Ocean
Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment &
Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are
often considered separately or not at all.
The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining
because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who
bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human
health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the
rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among
workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy,
intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and
therefore ruled by the few.
In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who
gets to decide?" And, "How do the few control the many, and what
might be done about it?"
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