Is “Natural” Always Better?

Most people think that “natural” is better. “Natural” doesn’t have chemicals. “Artificial” has all kinds of extra poisonous stuff bad for people, undoubtedly titrated by evil Aryan corporate chemists high in the Swiss Alps.

Bunk! (At least much of the time)

The blog Pie Cubed clarifies this fallacy:

“You know what else is natural? Cancer. Bacteria. The polio virus. Tsunamis. Mass extinctions. Malaria. Poisons. Natural disasters.

“How come we give so much faith to nature, when in fact nature does not like us at all? Nature is not nice. Out there in the wilderness only the fittest survive. Are we watching the same documentaries? The ones where the weak gazelle gets eaten by the lion, the ones where animals die of thirst, illness, starvation. The ones where the scavengers are just waiting for you to die so they can eat your rotting carcass.”

“(Natural), that which is untouched by humans. Are the things that are “natural” under this definition really better?

“You might have heard of botulinum toxin, which is a substance produced by some bacteria. Botulinum toxin is, per our definition, 100% natural. Yet it is one of the most poisonous substances known to man. It’s ridiculously poisonous. Nanograms of the stuff are deadly.

“There are plenty of things found in nature that are good for you. There are plenty of synthetic substances that are good for you. There are also plenty of natural things that are terrible for you and plenty of artificial stuff which is also pretty bad.

“This means that whether something is natural or not is completely useless information for evaluating its harms or benefits. We should judge all things on a case by case basis, independently of where they come from.”

The author goes on to point out that salicylic acid, the stuff that aspirin comes from, is natural, but human fiddling makes salicylic acid useful (and less harmful) to humans.

The author talks about “Chemophobia,” the fear that if it’s a chemical it’s bad for you: “Everything is a chemical. Water is a chemical. The air that we breathe is a mix of Nitrogen, Oxygen, Argon and other gases which are all chemicals. Every single substance in the whole universe is a chemical, by definition.”

And just about everything we eat is unnatural. If you looked at corn, tasted flour or picked veggies from a 17th century garden they would seem very different. Through traditional genetic modification–breeding of plants and development of cultivars–plants have been fussed with as long as humanity has hoed the earth.

So we should follow Pie Cubed’s advice: “We should judge all things on a case by case basis, independently of where they come from.” And don’t assume natural good, artificial bad.

http://piecubed.co.uk/appeal-to-nature-natural/

Urban Slums: Places of Hope and Opportunity?

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, billions of people have moved from bucolic country to teeming metropolis? Why would someone uproot his family from a natural farm setting to a cardboard shack in the squalor of a Rio favela or Calcutta slum?

The numbers reveal much about the compelling lure of the city. Refugee crises involve millions, but this greatest of demographic trends involves billions. Many are driven to cities for refuge. A Rwandan friend fled his country for the South B slum in Nairobi. From there he eventually made his way to the U.S., where he now lives a life of wealth and opportunity unimaginable to the people he grew up with.

But most of these billions move to the slums by choice. When I visited the South B slum in Nairobi last year I was surprised how orderly things were. I expected the smell of raw sewage, but I only encountered strong whiffs of it when I walked along the slick mud slopes of the Nairobi “River” (something we’d deem a stream). In South B you could get pretty much anything you need, including cell phones, the latest electronics, TVs, Internet connections, business services, fresh produce, clothing both traditional and hip, music, hair stylings and beauty treatments.

As I walked the narrow pedestrian alleys that penetrate every corner of South B I heard children singing and reciting lessons in their classrooms. Though super-densely peopled, South B is quite domesticated. Many the dwellings had concrete foundations and sturdy walls and roofs made of corrugated steel. Heavily laden clotheslines snaked through the alleys and, just above that, power lines. No need for phone lines in this age of ubiquitous cell service.

So if you live in a developing country and want access to water, education, health services, and other mod-cons, the city’s the place to be, even if it means living in a slum. To our rich sensibilities, the slums seem squalid and claustrophobic, but to new arrivals, the slums–and the nearby modern city centers–teem with possibility and opportunity: work, education, health care, goods, entertainment, and participation in the wide world.

The Burning Cuyahoga and the Environmental Kuznets Curve

Ah, the aroma of burning river, a whiff of our idyllic past.

Between 1868 and 1969, the Cuyahoga River burned at least 13 times (Wikipedia), the worst of which occurred in 1952, although the 1969 fire (much smaller than 1952) inspired a Time article that catalyzed the environmental movement. The cause of these fires were heavy oil slicks and other flammable materials, including trash, floating on the river’s surface. For those who think that terrible pollution is a 20th and 21st Century problem, it is interesting to note that the first recorded fire on the river was witnessed three years after the end of the American Civil War.

Today the Cuyahoga River is doing much, much better. “River reaches that were once devoid of fish now support 44 species. The…survey in 2008 revealed the two most common species in the river were hogsuckers and spotfin shiners, both moderately sensitive to water quality. Habitat issues within the 5.6 miles (9.0 km) navigation channel still preclude a robust fishery in that reach. Recreation water quality standards (using bacteria as indicators) are generally met during dry weather conditions, but are often exceeded during significant rains due to nonpoint sources and combined sewer overflows.” (Wikipedia)

While not perfect, this improvement reflects general improvements in most environmental indicators of pollution in developed countries like the United States, Japan, Australia and Western Europe. In the early days of industrialization, these countries poured the excrement of their factories in the most convenient river, lake or ocean. But as citizens got richer and wealth spread–basic needs met by a growing economy–rampant pollution became unacceptable. Citizens wouldn’t stand for it.

So rivers burn and people become outraged…and a Republican president creates the Environmental Protection Agency. Today there is much less pollution in the developed world then there was 50 years ago (C02 and other greenhouse gasses being important exceptions). Today pollution problems are much worse in rising countries like China and India. And it should be no surprise that China, especially, is making environmental cleanup a major priority. Forty years ago China was still gripped in its self-destructive Cultural Revolution. Who cares about air pollution when hundreds of thousands of people are dying? Now the notorious Beijing air is a top priority as most Chinese no longer just eke out a living.

This pattern–develop, pollute, enrich, reform–is described by the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC). While controversial, it has been studied quite a bit and makes intuitive sense. At the start of development, countries focus on production at any costs. Tire factory in a poor country? Just blast the noxious smoke into the air to float away. But as the tire workers became richer and their children went to school, survival was not longer the number-one priority. The persistent hacking of family members led to complaints to a local bureaucrat, and thus, usually in fits and failures and eventual successes, an environmental movement emerges.

Yes, this is too neat, and Bhopals and Chernobyls loom large in the story of pollution in developing countries. Nonetheless, the clean-up of the Cuyahoga and thousands of rivers like it in developed countries speak to some important truths. People complaining to officials works. And one source of the complaints is relative affluence.

How the EKC works–When per capita Gross Domestic Product reaches somewhere in the neighborhood of $4000, pollution decreases as the pressures from the “rising” locals force better environmental protections, especially for improved air quality (dioxides and particulate matter). However, the EKC is a moderately crude model. Rising wages is not the only, or even primary, driver of environmental change; access to property rights, rule of law, fair elections–civil society–are crucial. Chernobyl happened in a totalitarian state. Nuclear energy has caused very few deaths in rich countries yet strong environmental groups and constituencies keep nuclear energy relatively small. That’s power.

As Yandle et al. point out in an paper about the EKC: When ordinary people have political power, civil rights as well as economic rights, air and water quality improves in richer and poorer countries.

So the affluence brought by development is a powerful driver of eventual environmental improvement, but political power and civil rights are virtually necessary for these improvements, too.

How Not to Be Ignorant

Hans Rosling is probably my favorite optimist, both because he bases his views on huge data sets AND he’s a hoot. Here’s his latest TED Talk. Take his quiz. I bet you’re dumber than a chimp.

http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world

Why 2014 Is Better

“Feeling nostalgic for the good old days? Then think back to the late 1970s. Gas lines stretched for blocks at service stations thanks to a revolution in Iran and an energy crisis. Gas-guzzling cars were common: The midsized 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass we (Consumer Reports) tested got 11.8 mpg in city driving. Inflation sat at an uncomfortable 7.6 percent, compared with about 2 percent today.

“The last 35 years have seen a revolution in consumer rights, protection, and choice. There has been an explosion in the variety of products available, the complexity of those products, and the speed with which they hit the shelves.”

These paragraphs open an article in the July issue of Consumer Reports magazine, and they offer a reminder of how far we’ve come since 1978. Back then telephone service was monopolized by Ma Bell. Airlines were highly regulated, which meant little price competition. While generic drugs had been around for a long time by 1978, in the ensuing years their availability skyrocketed, which has saved consumers billions of dollars. In 2012 77% of drugs prescribed by American pharmacists were generic brands, a record high. Home appliances are now safer, as are the foods on our table.

And, to move from the kitchen to geopolitics, let’s remember that Germany was split in two in ’78. Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and other (now thriving and democratic) “East Bloc” states were governed by politburos. Relations with Russia are very bad right now, but in ’78 the USSR ruled ALL of Ukraine and missiles bristled from silos in Russia and the United States. Would anyone in 1978 imagine that the East-West divide would melt away eleven years later, bringing down the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain?

“The good ole days” is an inviting fallacy. Sure, “back in the day” things were simpler, but they weren’t better. Nostalgia for the past is a poor guide for public policy given the abundant (but oft overlooked) progress we’ve made, especially since the end of the Cold War.

 

Teen Drinking & Smoking at or Near “Historic Lows”; Drug Use Declining

The kids today! When I was a lad…

Every generation of old people gripes about the youngin’s, how they are lazier today and don’t know how good they got it.

Of course that’s rubbish, and it’s been rubbish for most of the history of elder complaints of the younger generation. Does Socrates sound familiar when he says this?–

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” 

Well, when I was a wee whippersnapper, children were not as smart, had worse health, lived shorter lives, were less literate and numerate, lived in a country that had just legalized racial equality but was still hostile to gays. Oh, how I pine for the golden days of yore!

In yet another demonstration of progress, researchers find that kids today smoke and drink less. The also don’t do drugs as much (though marijuana use is increasing; more on that below).

“Every year, the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey measures drug, alcohol, and tobacco use and related attitudes among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders.” The MTF is done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Many of the results of the 2013 MTF were quite heartening.

Drug trends

However, the 2013 MTF did note that marijuana use is increasing. This isn’t surprising as marijuana is now legal in some states and will likely be more and more accepted, both by the law and society. Therefore I am not optimistic about future trends in teen marijuana use. Also, the abuse of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines is quite troubling. Ironically, it’s the adults that fuel these trends, not our miscreant children. As prescription drug use increases by parents, abuse increases with children stealing these medications for “recreational use.” And the grown-ups in state houses relaxing marijuana laws are a primary cause of teens thinking marijuana is neither harmful–the governor signed the bill into law, right?–or illegal.

Nonetheless, historically low levels of tobacco and alcohol use among teens is quite heartening.

Alzheimer’s Rate Falling in US

Three different studies have shown that the rate of Alzheimer’s in the US and other developed countries has dropped significantly…and in the space of just a few years:

“In one U.S. study, researchers found that compared with the late 1970s, the rate of dementia diagnosis was 44 percent lower in recent years. The sharpest decline was seen among people in their 60s.

A second study, which reviewed research from England, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States, found a similar pattern. The third study, meanwhile, found signs of progress in the space of only a few years: In 2004, older German adults were about one-quarter more likely to be diagnosed with dementia than in 2007.”

From HealthDay, Amy Norton

http://consumer.healthday.com/cognitive-health-information-26/alzheimer-s-news-20/alzheimer-s-rates-dipping-in-developed-countries-689601.html