Earth Overshoot Day at the earliest date ever recorded

Earth Overshoot Day, the point at which yearly consumption of carbon, food, water, fiber, land, and timber exceeds the capacity of nature to regenerate, has been moved to August 1–“the earliest date ever recorded.”  The Overshoot Day for the United States alone is March 15.

In comparison, when first measured in 1970, the Overshoot Day was December 29.

“While ever greater food production, mineral extraction, forest clearance, and fossil-fuel burning bring short-term lifestyle gains” for some, the long-term consequences for all “are increasingly apparent in terms of soil erosion, water shortages, and climate disruption.”

Research indicates that group political action is more effective than individual choices in reversing these trends.  For example, government-mandated or incentivized “efficiency improvements in building and industry” could set back the Overshoot Day by 3 weeks.

Many recent studies (such as here and here)  have cataloged widespread environmental degradation.  See the graph; read the article (Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, July 22, 2018).


Heatwaves and droughts lead to power plants shutting down

Nuclear and coal power plants use a tremendous amount of water.  These plants use cool water “drawn from rivers, lakes, or seas” to condense steam back into liquid water.  That water–heated to a high temperature–then is used in the plants to turn turbines “which convert heat energy into electricity.”

Climate change-driven heatwaves, however, raise the temperature of water (just as they raise the temperature of the air) which can then prevent the use of the usual cooling water sources by power plants.  The water temperature becomes too high.  The result is power plant shutdowns.  During this summer’s (2018) heatwaves, Europe has seen nuclear plant shutdowns in France and Sweden, while plants in Finland, Germany, and Switzerland have had to curtail power production.  “Heatwaves [also] forced nuclear shutdowns or curtailment across Europe in 2003, 2006, and 2015.”

And, it will get worse.  Research indicates that climate change driving both heatwaves and droughts (meaning enough water for cooling is not available) will make nuclear and coal plants increasingly susceptible to shutdowns or power reductions.  The research focused on the effects in Europe, but these impacts can happen anywhere including the United States.  Even as more nuclear and coal plants are retired due to natural gas and renewable energy sources and water use for cooling decreases, the impact of climate change will force shutdowns and curtailments on the remaining nuclear and coal plants.  “Climate change makes many fossil-fuel plants stranded assets.  Water stress only adds to the problems.”

Read the article (Akshat Rathi, Quartz, August 6, 2018).

Gluten-free; is it gluten or our industrially-produced foods?

While just a small percentage of people actually have celiac disease and require gluten-free food, a significantly larger percentage are choosing a gluten-free diet believing it to be healthier (though sometimes with unrealistic expectations).  At the same time, many are skeptical believing that gluten-free is unnecessary and that “it’s all in the mind.”

Yet, the folks choosing gluten-free are often reporting the same symptoms as celiacs–diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain, fatigue, etc.–and find relief “when they cut out gluten.”

What is actually going on?  While celiac disease has been around at least since the first century, “non-celiac gluten sensitivity appears to be a modern condition” and is found more often in women (“2 to 3 times as many women as men suffer from celiac disease”).  Unfortunately, part of the skepticism is gendered; if women are affected more often, then it must not be real.

“Gluten-free diets yield mixed results.”  However, a recent study that analyzed “the motivation for gluten avoidance” did find that “the reasons for gluten avoidance are in the most part reasoned and logical”  And, that “the vast majority of [study] participants believed that adhering to a gluten-free diet led to improvements.”

Still, humans have been eating wheat and other grains for thousands of years.  “What is it about the grain-based staples that most of us are eating, that could be causing population-wide digestive difficulties?”  What is the food manufacturing industry doing to us?

We are not eating what our ancestors ate.   Wheat today has been bred “to have higher levels of gluten”–at the request of “industrial bakeries and food manufacturers.”  “The more gluten, the fluffier and more voluminous your loaf.”  Grain today is also often “sprayed with pesticides”–especially with glyphosate (a probable human carcinogen).  27 potential allergens have been identified in modern wheat.  Bakery factory workers come down with “baker’s lung.”  Industrial bakeries today add extra gluten to their products; “consumers are eating more gluten now than ever before” in history.

Gluten may not be a “digestive disruptor” on its own in normal/natural amounts, but it could become so when in inadequately fermented forms and when “mixed with pesticide residues, food additives, and processing aids.”

And, unfortunately, industrially-produced non-gluten foods may not be any better.

It is very challenging to eat a real-food diet these days.  Read the article (Joanna Blythman, The Guardian, August 7, 2018).

How do people determine right from wrong?

“How do people determine right from wrong?”  How do you determine right from wrong?

Do you follow a moral code that came from your parents?  A religious leader?  Something you learned in school?  From a book that you read or speech that you heard?

Social science research “suggests that people, to a significant degree, derive their sense of right and wrong from social cues.”  “People form their own morality … according, in part, to what they think the people around them believe.”

One piece of relevant research focused on school bullying; “how middle school students determine whether bullying is or is not morally acceptable.”

The researchers found that individual students used “social referrents” as a shortcut to make their decision about bullying behavior–that is, “people to whom they paid special attention in determining right or wrong.”  Students focused “on a few individuals whom [they] perceive to be influential.”  And, those people, like it or not, then become influential.  Those people are often other students but could also be teachers, administrators, coaches, or anyone in the students’ environment.

The researchers then focused on “interventions”–something that individuals who were not the social referrents could do to alter the situation.  In the case of the school bullying, the social networks in the schools were “mapped out” and then shuffled around in order to change the people serving as the social referrents.

Did this work?  Yes, “disciplinary reports of student conflict at treatment schools were reduced by 30% over 1 year.”  “Rearranging an existing bunch of kids can change where those kids look to set their internal rules for behavior–which can, in turn, change the social norms in their school.”

There are many studies like this one–looking at setting norms for behavior in many situations, not just with kids in school.

So, what does this mean for social media and morality?  Social media replaces “our traditional person-to-person social networks with artificial, algorithm-driven networks” focused on profit.  Is social media better or worse as a way for people to test their social referrents as a barometer for determining internal morality?  Could Facebook, Twitter, etc. “disrupt the processes by which we determine right from wrong?”  “How would that change our morality?”

No firm answers yet; research is ongoing.  Meanwhile, all of us who use social media are, like it or not, part of a great unintended, uncontrolled social experiment.  Think about that …

Read the article (Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, New York Times, August 3, 2018).

Smoke from wildfires causes health problems.

As the number, size, and explosiveness of wildfires increases in the U.S. and other countries, it brings danger not only due to the destructiveness of fire but also due to the widespread exposure to wildfire smoke.

“A big wildfire event not only impacts local communities but also people hundreds of miles away.”  The smoke contains gases and microscopic particles.  These can cause symptoms like “coughing, burning eyes and shortness of breath.”  “More seriously, the smoke can trigger asthma attacks or, more chronically, lead to heart problems and has even been linked to the development of cancer.”

The number of large wildfires in the western U.S. has increased from around 140 each year in the 1980’s to at least 250 per year in the 2000’s.  The wildfire season has lengthened by over 2 months since the 1970’s (see the infographic).  The area being burned may increase in places over 600% as average temperatures increase.

Research indicates that “wildfire-prone states in the northwest are a glaring exception” to an overall improvement in air quality in the United States over the past 30 years.  There is a link between wildfire smoke and illness or death especially in that the smoke “exacerbates a range of conditions that cause the sickness.”  “Almost every place in the U.S. … could be impacted by upwind smoke” from wildfires.

“Wildfires are a growing problem and climate change is making them worse.”  “There have been a lot of predictions that if we don’t get ahead of climate change that crazy things will happen.  Well, crazy things are happening.  This is what climate change looks like.”

Read the article (Oliver Milman, The Guardian, August 2, 2018).