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E-M:/ Human ignorance (about the environment) is growing. (Rachel's)

------------------------------------------------------------------------- Enviro-Mich message from RC ------------------------------------------------------------------------- Sorry to post so many times today in such a short time. Too much caffeine... I'm wondering what the discussion will be about this topic from Rachel's.

I've already learned a lot from those on this list... This article is alarming to say the least...


By Peter Montague

Some scientists may not like to admit it, but we humans are pretty
much flying blind when we intrude into natural systems. Our
understanding of the natural world is rudimentary at best. As a
result, many of our technologies end up scrambling the natural world,
replacing the natural order with disorder.

In this issue of Rachel's News we learn about three new problems --

** The mysterious disappearance of millions upon millions of bees,
whose pollination services support $14 billion in farm production each
year. At this po9int, the cause is a complete mystery, but almost
certainly humans have a hand in it.

** A new virus has appeared in the Great Lakes during the past few
years, and it is spreading westward through the lakes, killing large
numbers of fish and thus endangering a $4 billion fishing industry.
The main suspect is ships arriving from foreign ports and discharging
their ballast water into the Lakes.

** The development of herbicide-resistant weeds that are creating
major headaches (and costs) for cotton farmers. Monsanto's
genetically-engineered cotton was created to withstand heavy
application of Monsanto's most profitable weed-killer, glyphosate
(sold widely under the trade name Roundup). When Monsanto announced
"Roundup-Ready" cotton, everyone knew it was only a matter of
before Roundup-resistant weeds would develop, because that's how
nature works. When a weed-killer is applied, a few hardy weeds
survive; they multiply while the others die. Soon the hardy weeds
dominate -- and farmers find themselves without an easy or affordable
way to manage the new weed problem. Presumably Monsanto's business
plan was to stay one step ahead of nature, always having a new
chemical ready to sell to farmers, to help them overcome the problems
created by yesterday's chemical. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out
that way and the farmers are hurting.

Our Ignorance is Expanding

As time passes, we should expect a continuing (perhaps even
accelerating) stream of bad news about human intrusions into natural
systems. In a very real sense the systems we are trying to study are
growing more complicated as we scramble them, so understanding them is
becoming more difficult.

Take the problem of disappearing amphibians (frogs, toads and
salamanders). In 1989,

scientists began
noticing frogs were
disappearing around the globe. They identified many causes:

** loss of wetland habitat (rice paddies turning into golf courses,
for example, and swamps turning into condominiums);

** increased ultraviolet radiation arriving at the surface of the
earth because DuPont's chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have depleted the
Earth's ozone shield;

** stocking streams with edible sport fish (e.g., large-mouth bass)
that eat tadpoles;

** acid rain and acid snow caused by combustion of fossil fuels;

** increasing droughts and floods, brought on by global warming, are
taking their toll on amphibians;

** pollutants that

mimic the female sex
hormone, estrogen, may be
interfering with the reproductive cycle of amphibians, as is known to
be happening with fish;

** amphibians may have started falling prey to bacteria and viruses
with which they have co-existed for 200 million years -- indicating,
perhaps, that some combination of environmental insults has weakened
amphibian immune systems.

The truth is, no one know what combination of these (and other,
perhaps yet-unrecognized) changes in natural systems have contributed
to the disappearance of frogs, toads, and salamanders all across the

One thing is sure: every time we introduce a new chemical into
commerce, it enters natural systems and makes the job of scientists
more difficult because the system they are studying is now more
complex than it was yesterday. In the U.S., we introduce roughly 1800
new chemicals into commerce each year.

As our technology expands, our ability to understand what is going on
in nature declines, and we are flying blinder and blinder.

Until we take a

approach, give the benefit of the doubt
to natural systems, and do our level best to understand our actions
before we act, we are in for an endless parade of unpleasant and
expensive surprises. Yes, a precautionary approach would mean that
the pace of technological innovation would slow down (compared to
today's frenetic pace) -- but it would help avoid expensive problems
like the loss of bees, the invasion of new viruses into the Great
Lakes, and creation of Super Weeds. It might also give humans a
better chance of surviving as a species.

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