Peru and Chile Protects Over 13 Million Acres of Wilderness Between Them

As one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries — places with a vast abundance of plant and animal life found nowhere else beyond their borders — Peru is the unique heir to an incredible and precious environmental heritage. Fortunately, the government seems to have recognized this as well, announcing this past January the creation of a massive new national park for its most endangered land. As The Manual reported:

 

The Yaguas National Park is located near Peru’s border with Colombia in the northern region of Loreto. Its boundaries encompass a land mass roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park but with more than 10 times the diversity of flora and fauna. This is due in large part to the Putumayo  River,  an Amazon River tributary that runs through the heart of the park.

From a wildlife perspective, it’s a rich, varied, and critical ecosystem that’s home to more than 3,000 plant species, 160 species of mammals (like manatees and the Amazonian river dolphin), and 500 species of birds. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a vital piece of the country’s marine ecosystem with approximately 550 fish species that represent a full two-thirds of Peru’s freshwater fish diversity, which is among the richest assemblages of freshwater fish on the planet.

The advent of the automobile and subsequent boom in demand for rubber are arguably more responsible for the destruction of Amazon Rainforest land than any human act in history. The park’s creation is a long time coming, and has consequently been applauded by some of the world’s most active and well-respected environmental group. The South American-based Andes Amazon Fund has already pledged $1 million toward the park’s implementation.

Beyond the environmental damage, however, there’s been a very real human toll related to the rainforest’s decline. Some 29 communities — including 1,100 people from the Tikuna, Kichwa, Ocaina, Mürui, Bora, and Yagua tribes — call the area home. These are direct descendants of the area’s native people who rely on the land in general, and the endemic fish population in particular, to survive. For millennia, the area has been sacred land to their ancestors.

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As deforestation encroaches on intact rainforest, Peru is taking the initiative to protect the most pristine areas of its rainforest. Photo courtesy of Mongabay.

Fortunately, Peru is not the only Latin American nation taking a bold and necessary approach to conservation. Though less well known for its gorgeous scenery and wilderness, neighboring Chile also has a unique environmental heritage in desperate need of protection — and to that end, the country has committed itself to forming what may be the most ambitious conservation project yet. Also from The Manual (bolding mine):

For the last 25 years, self-described “wildland philanthropists” Doug Tompkins (co-founder of the Patagonia outdoor brand) and Kristine McDivitt worked to collect and cultivate more than a million acres of Patagonia known as Parque Pumalín. The duo’s wish was to forever preserve the land by gifting it to the Chilean people. Sadly, Tompkins died in a kayaking accident in December 2015 and would never live to see his dream fulfilled.

However, last month, the land was officially handed over to the country’s people, and Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, issued an executive order to turn the previously private park into a national park. She noted, “Today, we are bequeathing to the country the greatest creation of protected areas in our history.”

With the stroke of a pen, Parque Pumalín became the single largest donation of private land to a government ever in Latin America. But, the story doesn’t end there. Bachelet — a long-time supporter of Tompkins’ vision — bolstered the donation by combining Parque Pumalín with 10 million acres of federal land. To put that into perspective, the combined space will be a staggering 5,000 times larger than Central Park in Manhattan. Combining both Yellowstone and Yosemite would occupy less than one-third of the preserved land. The new order will simultaneously create and interconnect five new national parks and be dubbed “The Route of Parks.” What’s more, the land has long been in use by adventurous travelers, so cabins, trails, and an overall tourism “infrastructure” already exists.

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Just a small taste of Chile’s 11 million acres of pristine wilderness

While it remains to be seen how well these countries will enforce these protection — Peru in particular is less developed and well-governed than Chile — these ambitious efforts are certainly a welcome move in the right direction.

Brazil’s Difficult Gamble With the Amazon

With most of the world’s largest rainforest located within its borders, Brazil is center stage in global debates and efforts regarding environmental preservation. As an in-depth and visually stimulating NPR photo essay shows Continue reading

Carnivores of the World

It turns out that one country has famously carnivorous America beat: the small European nation of Luxembourg (which hosts a lot of transients and expatriate workers from around the world, thus possibly driving consumption higher).

The following graph,courtesy of The Economist, lists the countries where meat is most popular.

Carnivores of the World

It is interesting to see how some types of meat prevail in certain countries: Argentina, perhaps unsurprisingly, leads the way in beef consumption; people in Kuwait, Israel, and the Caribbean nation of St. Lucia love poultry; and Austrians, Danes, and Spaniards favor pork. While developing countries like China, India, and Brazil are driving the overall demand for meat, people in the developed world eat far more per person.

Here is how meat consumption has changed over the years, according to The Economist:

Cow (beef and veal) was top of the menu in the early 1960s, accounting for 40% of meat consumption, but by 2007 its share had fallen to 23%. Pig is now the animal of choice, with around 99m tonnes consumed. Meanwhile advances in battery farming and health-related changes in Western diets have helped propel poultry from 12% to 31% of the global total.

One wonders how much longer we can sustain such increasingly meat-dominated diets. Raising livestock is a drain on finite resources like land, water, and grain (which could all be put to better, human-centered use). It also produces a lot of pollution, including the kind that contributes to climate change. While China and other rising countries are routinely blamed for driving up demand — which is indeed the case — it is still the richer world that consumes far more resources per person.

The Greatest Threat to the World?

There seems to be no shortage of candidates for greatest threat to the world (by which we usually mean humanity specifically) — climate change, world war, nuclear weapons, a pandemic, an asteroid, or maybe even a combination of these factors. As it turns out, however, where you live determines what you consider to be most dangerous to the rest of the world.

That is the conclusion of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, which asked 48,643 respondents in 44 countries what is the greatest danger to the global community (note, this took place before the breakout of Ebola but after events like the Syrian Civil War and the showdown between the West and Russia over Ukraine).

As Mic.com reports:

In the United States and Europe, income inequality came out on top. In the Middle East, religious and ethnic was considered the biggest threat. While Asia listed pollution and the environment, Latin America cited nuclear weapons, and Africa chose AIDS and other diseases.

Unsurprisingly, the concerns fell largely within geographic and regional boundaries. The United States and Europe are home to some of the largest and most advanced economies in the world, so it’s somewhat expected — if ironic — that they’re worried about income inequality. Asia is home to 17 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, and, as of 2012, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 70% of the world’s AIDS cases.

In other words, all of us appear to have an exceptionally narrow view of the world: We see the biggest threats to our region as the biggest threats to everyone else, too.

Here is a visual representation of that data, also courtesy of Mic.com:

Moreover, the perception that religious and ethnic hatred poses the greatest threat to the world has seen the most growth over the past seven years, no doubt due to numerous high-profile sectarian conflicts across the planet.

Courtesy of The Atlantic is a color-coded map of the world that better shows how these great threats are geographically and culturally spread out:

A few other observations of the data from The Atlantic piece:

  • Other than Japan, the countries that saw nuclear weapons as their biggest danger included Russia (29 percent), Ukraine (36 percent), Brazil (28 percent), and Turkey (34 percent).
  •  The U.K.’s greatest concern was religious and ethnic hatred (39 percent), putting it in the same group as India (25 percent), Israel (30 percent), the Palestinian territories (40 percent), Lebanon (58 percent), and Malaysia (32 percent).
  • People in France were equally divided on what they consider the biggest threat, with 32 percent saying inequality and the same percentage saying religious and ethnic hatred.
  • Likewise in Mexico, nuclear weapons and pollution were tied as most menacing, at 26 percent.

It is also important to point out that in many cases, no single fear was dominant: in the U.S. for example, inequality edged over religious and ethnic hatred and nuclear weapons by only a few points. And in almost every region, anywhere from a fifth to a quarter of respondents expressed fear towards nuclear weapons (which I feel can be taken to mean war among states where the use of nukes is most likely). The survey observed that in many places, “there is no clear consensus” as to what constitutes the greatest danger to humanity, as this graph of all countries shows:

These results are very telling: as the earlier excerpt noted, you can learn a lot about a country’s circumstances based on what its people fear the most. Reading backwards from the results, it makes sense that what nations find the most threatening is what they have been most imperiled by presently or historically.

It is also interesting to note how societies, like individuals, view the world through their own experiential prism: because we are obviously most impacted and familiar with what immediately effects us, it makes sense that we would project those experiences beyond our vicinity. Just as our own individual beliefs — be they religious, political, social, etc. — are colored by personal life experiences, so too do entire nations often apply their most familiar concerns and struggles to the world at large.

Of course, this varies by country as well as by the respondents who represent said country; in many cases, participants are more likely come from higher educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, and thus reflect their class views rather than that of their wider society. (Admittedly, I am not sure if that applies to this particular Pew survey, as the respondents were interviewed by phone or face-to-face, with no indication as to their background.)

For my part, I personally put the most weight behind climate change, especially as it can exacerbate a lot of existing issues over the long-term (clashes among ethnic/religious groups over strained resources, refugees fleeing crop failures and placing strain upon host countries, etc.). What are your thoughts and opinions regarding the world’s greatest threat?

The IPCC Finds More Evidence of Climate Change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a new report that further verifies what climate scientists have long been warning about: the climate change is real, humans are responsible, and the problem is only getting worse — and to some extent, irreversible. You can click the hyperlink above to read an assessment of the report, while the following image pretty much sums up the main points.

Infographic: How the 2013 global warming report compares to 2007's.

Source: LiveScience

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Global Water Supplies Threatened

This is yet another example of the tragedy of the commons: 18 nations that altogether make up half the world’s population — including the US, China, and India — are reaching “peak water,” in which their fresh water supplies are set to decline if no action is taken to preserve them.

According to a study that is cited and hyperlinked in the article, grain harvests are already declining in these nations, some of which are major global sources of food. If legal and regulatory action isn’t taken soon, or if agricultural industries don’t reign in on their use, we’re going to face a major global food crisis. 

Note that food production is already being threatened by the impact of climate change. Solutions like desalination, communalization of water resources, or creating higher crop yields with less inputs will all help — but they’ll also require tremendous amounts of money, regulation, and public support…and the political will is lacking. 

Regulating the Supplements Industry

A  Mother Jones article some months ago explored an increasingly pertinent topic: the regulation of supplements and complementary drugs that have largely been devoid of oversight. This is an important issue given the rapid growth of the industry, which is estimated to be worth around $20 billion as of last year (the data seem to vary by source, but that’s the most common figure I’ve found).

It all begins with St. John’s Wort, an herbal remedy that’s been shown to treat mild and moderate depression to some extent, but is otherwise not a viable cure for such things, as is often believed or advertized. By the far most popular supplement on the market, Americans spend around $55 million on it annually, purchasing it mostly from large retailers likes GNC, Whole Foods, and the Vitamin Shoppe.

But SJW has been found to produce adverse affects with other medications, including antidepressants. While these kinds of drugs are legally required to undergo clinical trials, regulatory approval, and labeling, supplements are exempted:

The real problem here lies in transparency to consumers—a problem that goes directly back to the supplement’s manufacturers. In a 2008 study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine that tested 74 different SJW brands, less than a quarter of the product labels identified possible interactions with antidepressants. Even more disturbing was that only 8 percent identified possible interactions with birth control.

Many groups, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have tried to push the FDA to standardize SJW labels to properly reflect possible dangers. But since supplement makers are not required by law to warn consumers about health risks associated with their products, it hasn’t been easy. “These companies fight warning labels like the dickens, and whether they intend it or not, that affirms the belief that natural products are unequivocally good for you,” says Stephen Gardner, litigation director at CSPI.

It’s a common fallacy among many people that what is natural is therefore better and, conversely, what is synthetic is undesirable. This ignores the fact that nature is full of toxic things, while some artificial medicines – which are often derivative of organic substances – are demonstrably safe and effective (compare the prevalence of disease nowadays to what it was decades ago – both the variety of illnesses and their severity have gone done markedly).

Proposed cures and treatments, regardless of their origin, should be judged in a case-by-case basis. Their merit derives from their ethics, safety, and efficacy, not whether or not they’re traditional, natural, or made in a laboratory. Such origins are irrelevant as to their effectiveness, which is why we have experiments, clinical trials, and peer review.

So why don’t federal regulators force the supplement industry to include warning labels on their products? One big reason is that the industry has powerful allies in Washington. The current murky regulatory force in the supplement world is the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which lets supplements fly to the shelves without first having to demonstrate either safety or effectiveness to the FDA. Unlike prescription meds, the burden of proof for supplements resides with the federal government: The FDA has to prove that products are unsafeafter the fact, rather than manufacturers having to prove that they are safe for use in the first place. (Think back to weight-loss supplementephedra, which took the FDA more than seven years to ban—despite being conclusively tied to heart attack, stroke, and death.)

Many have taken issue with the DSHEA, and in February 2010 Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill that would increase regulation of dietary supplements that might pose health risks. Enter Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who has received upwards of $888,000 in campaign contributions from the health product industry since 2002. Hatch, one of the lead authors of the 1994 DSHEA, has even stronger ties than that—both his son and five former aides are lobbyists in Washington representing the very industry funneling him all that campaign cash. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise then that shortly after McCain’s bill proposal, Hatch met with the Arizona senator for some “real talk” on supplement regulation. In a letter released after their private meeting, Hatch thanked McCain for withdrawing his support for parts of the bill that “would do great harm to the dietary supplement industry.” A castrated version of the bill eventually made it through, and the supplement industry came out unscathed.

There’s no doubt that the pharmaceutical and medical lobbies can be just as conniving as any other special-interest group. Drug makers and doctors are just as liable to be mistaken or immoral as anyone else. The profit motive erodes efforts to find certain cures or manufacture certain drugs. The system clearly has its problems.

However, we’re only kidding ourselves if we think alternative medicine proponents are any more incorruptible and honest. There’s no doubt that many of them are sincere and well-meaning, and that they have some understandable qualms about the modern healthcare industry (as do a lot of doctors).

But humans are keen to exploit any money-making trend that they can, and the supplement industry is no exception: it has the same selfish and dishonest reasons to peddle it’s own cures as big pharma does, given how many people are uncritically shelling out billions for its wares.

Last year, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) introduced a new bill requiring that supplements that could cause health problems or interact with other drugs—like St. John’s wort—display mandatory warning labels on their products. The bill has not yet been up for a vote, but the industry has already riled up huge opposition—headed, you guessed it, by Hatch himself. The main argument, it seems, is going to hinge on the necessity of labeling products derived from natural sources.

“Supplements are largely based on food and widely considered to be safe, so they don’t need to be labeled,” says Mike Greene, vice president of government affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the industry’s largest trade group. “For example, you don’t see anyone labeling grapefruit, even though it interacts with Lipitor.”

Whether or not the Durbin bill will make it through the Senate remains to be seen. In the meantime, though, Gardner takes issue with Greene’s argument. “You don’t see people selling grapefruits as cancer cures,” he says. “Look, we’re not interested in stopping people from buying SJW if they know what they’re getting. But we are interested in stopping them if they’re in the dark about it. These companies have prevented people from knowing when they should question them. That’s not logic and that’s not fair.”

So what do you guys think – should government regulate this industry, and does it even have an obligation to in the first place? Or is this best left up to consumers to figure out for themselves?

The Biggest News Story You Haven’t Heard Yet

Arctic sea ice is at a new record low, evidence not only of a hotter planet, but of a radically changing one – less ice also means the planet absorbs more heat (since white surfaces reflect sun rays), which means our weather will get worse, leading to a cycle of climate changes that will affect ecosystems and crops.

Read more about it here.

Thoughts of the Day

  • In most companies, executives get bonuses in return for high profits, but average workers don’t (and often times executives get bonuses regardless of their company’s performance). But why not workers? The argument for bonuses is that they attract and retain talent and encourage efficiency – so shouldn’t everyone be rewarded for their role in a company’s success? Furthermore, why do executives need to get millions of extra dollars – in addition to their six figure salaries and generous pensions – in order to do their jobs well? The average American works very hard for far less incentive, and they’re expected (by their well-paid bosses) to do their jobs without such perks. What sort of perverse ethics are we promoting here? That CEOs should only do a good job if they get millions?
  • Multiple surveys have borne out the fact that religious conservatives are far more likely to reject climate change than any other demographic. So they would sooner believe a 2,000 year-old book rife with inconsistencies and ethical flaws, but not the decades of data and expertise of 98% of climatologists. You can trust the priests and theologians, who have wildly different opinions about God, but not the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community?
  • The Drug War has failed. After over forty years, billions of taxpayer dollars, and hundreds of thousands of incarcerations, what has been accomplished? Drug-related crime has grown because the market is driven underground. Our prison system is bloated, which puts a considerable drain on public funds (Florida being one of the worst cases). And we arrest far more addicts than we do traffickers and dealers. Worst of all, drug usage has at best remained the same, and by most accounts has actually grown. I’m straight-edged myself, but I agree with a growing number of policy analysts that we need to end this clearly broken approach. After decades of poor results despite intensifying our efforts, I think it’s worth a shot to try a different approach.
  • Suffering. There is too much suffering in this world. It’s enough to make someone sick to his stomach. It’s all so senseless and cruel. So many people endure horrific agony for no good reason. They’re just born into it or subject to circumstances they had no control over. They’re victims of cruel chance and nothing more. In light of this stark reality, I must ask why these people often do: why me? Why was I born in a stable and more prosperous place? Why do I have yet to endure a personal tragedy on the terrible scale that tens of millions of people do every year? Of course, that could change at any moment, even as I write this. At any rate, I’m supremely grateful for being one of the few humans

Geography and Prosperity

Apparently, Mitt Romney has mischaracterized the views of Jared Diamond, a scientist who is best known for his argument that geography is a major determinant of a society’s development. Whereas Romney emphasized culture and the physical characteristics of the land, Diamond’s thesis is more complex and nuanced. As he clarifies in the New York Times:

Just as a happy marriage depends on many different factors, so do national wealth and power. That is not to deny culture’s significance. Some countries have political institutions and cultural practices — honest government, rule of law, opportunities to accumulate money — that reward hard work. Others don’t. Familiar examples are the contrasts between neighboring countries sharing similar environments but with very different institutions. (Think of South Korea versus North Korea, or Haiti versus the Dominican Republic.) Rich, powerful countries tend to have good institutions that reward hard work. But institutions and culture aren’t the whole answer, because some countries notorious for bad institutions (like Italy and Argentina) are rich, while some virtuous countries (like Tanzania and Bhutan) are poor.

A different set of factors involves geography, which embraces many more aspects than the physical characteristics Mr. Romney dismissed. One such geographic factor is latitude, which has big effects on wealth and power today: tropical countries tend to be poorer than temperate-zone countries. Reasons include the debilitating effects of tropical diseases on life span and work, and the average lower productivity of agriculture and soils in the tropics than in the temperate zones.

A second factor is access to the sea. Countries without a seacoast or big navigable rivers tend to be poor, because transport costs overland or by air are much higher than transport costs by sea.

A third geographic factor is the history of agriculture. If an extraterrestrial had toured earth in the year 2000 B.C., the visitor would have noticed that centralized government, writing and metal tools were already widespread in Eurasia but hadn’t yet appeared in the New World, sub-Saharan Africa or Australia. That long head start would have let the visitor predict correctly that today, most of the world’s richest and most powerful countries would be Eurasian countries (and their overseas settlements in North America, Australia and New Zealand).

The reason is the historical effect of geography: 13,000 years ago, all peoples everywhere were hunter-gatherers living in sparse populations without centralized government, armies, writing or metal tools. These four roots of power arose as consequences of the development of agriculture, which generated human population explosions and accumulations of food surpluses capable of feeding full-time leaders, soldiers, scribes and inventors. But agriculture could originate only in those few regions endowed with many wild plant and animal species suitable for domestication, like wild wheat, rice, pigs and cattle.

In short, geographic explanations and cultural-institutional explanations aren’t independent of each other. Of course, not all agricultural regions developed honest centralized government, but no nonagricultural region ever developed any centralized government, whether honest or dishonest. That’s why institutions promoting wealth today arose first in Eurasia, the area with the oldest and most productive agriculture.

So wealth and development have more to do with deterministic circumstances than with any intellectual, moral, or cultural superiority on the part of a given society. Obviously, sociocultural values matter to some extent, and their influence varies from nation to nation. But the point is that we can’t ignore the role that sheer luck  has played in allowing some civilizations to prosper while others of similar potential languish.

What does this mean for Americans? Can we assume that the United States, blessed with temperate location and seacoasts and navigable rivers, will remain rich forever, while tropical or landlocked countries are doomed to eternal poverty?

Of course not. Some tropical and subtropical countries have become richer despite geographic limitations. They’ve invested in public health to overcome their disease burdens (Botswana and the Philippines). They’ve invested in crops adapted to the tropics (Brazil and Malaysia). They’ve focused their economies on sectors other than agriculture (Singapore and Taiwan).

Conversely, geographic advantages don’t guarantee permanent success, as the growing difficulties in Europe and America show. We Americans fail to provide superior education and economic incentives to much of our population. India, China and other countries that have not been world leaders are investing heavily in education, technology and infrastructure. They’re offering economic opportunities to more and more of their citizens. That’s part of the reason jobs are moving overseas. Our geography won’t keep us rich and powerful if we can’t get a good education, can’t afford health care and can’t count on our hard work’s being rewarded by good jobs and rising incomes.

This would also explain the disparity in wealth that exists within societies as well. Those citizens born in neighborhoods or regions that lack resources, strong institutions, infrastructure, and opportunity are going to be worse of than those born in more prosperous parts of the country. Hard work and good values will only get them so far unless there is necessary public investment – hence why the most developed states in the world also display the highest commitment to building up public institutions.