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Planet Human

NYU 2016

Let’s Sleep Our Way To Mars

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Many believe that in the face of climate change, inhabiting Mars is the only option left. Thus, researchers have been assessing the plausibility of humans hibernating their way to Mars which could reduce need for supplies and improve the efficiency of the journey by burning less fuel.

Biologists have been dissecting the neurological and biochemical pathways of Black Bears and the Arctic Ground Squirrels that cool their bodies, allowing them to hibernate in the winter. Kelly Drew, a biochemist at the University of Alaska has found that the receptor responsible for the cooling of the squirrel is the A1 Adenosine receptor but what triggers it remains unknown. Once they fully understand the mechanisms involved, they assume they can replicate it in humans.

Another method proposed is Therapeutic hypothermia. It involves a lowering of the body temperature by a few degrees for several days at a stretch. This helps treat patients with diseases such as epilepsy by reducing the body’s blood flow and thus the damage done on the tissues. This is being applied to pigs since they do not hibernate, to see if this method could work for longer periods.

However, these methods have not been tried directly on humans because there are high risks involved. If the body is kept cooled for longer than its capacity, the chances of blood clots and pneumonia shoot up. There is also the problem of bone and muscle degeneration due to lack of exercise. Most importantly, the heart malfunctions at 28 degrees Celsius and completely stops working at 20 degrees Celsius.

Till now, the longest humans have been kept in a state of stasis is 10 days. For this method to work in a journey to Mars, humans would have to be under this state for 30 times as long. There are also moral issues involved in trying this method on humans. If a human is unconscious, how does one take his consent if something goes wrong? Thus, hibernation in space is an ingenious but a far-fetched endeavor.

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Plastic Death

Plastic trash pollution on beach

(https://fortunedotcom.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/gettyimages-187997939.jpg?w=1024)

            In his article “These Birds are Choking on a Plastic Ocean,” journalist Nick Paton Walsh investigates how pollution is affecting the albatross species. Walsh, with the help of a guide, ventured around the remote Midway Island, some 1,500 miles away from any other land. His discoveries were shocking. When he witnessed one of the bird’s being dissected, the bird’s insides were filled with plastic, ranging from bottle caps to a cigarette lighter. The albatross was literally eating our trash. However, the problem went further when Walsh’s guide said, “Every single albatross in this landscape has been fed plastic.”

Walsh states in the article that researchers have concluded that by 2050 the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight, which is a crazy thought. For birds like the albatross, the plastic that floats in the ocean looks like food. They see the bright colors and think it’s a meal. However, consuming a cigarette lighter is never nutritious.

Pollution is not a new problem that our world faces; we have been dumping in the ocean for years. But when animals are dying everyday, like the albatross are at Midway Island, the problem becomes much more catastrophic. There is no reason that our waste needs to thrown into the sea; there are much more efficient and sustainable ways to dispose of our trash. And these ways are not up for debate, they already exist and need to be enforced more thoroughly so that these animals do not go extinct.

 

 

How Cigarettes Impact Environmental and Human Health

cigss.jpgAs I walk along the streets of New York, I kick aside a few tossed cigarette butts as I bring my sleeve up to my nose to filter out the smoke from a lit cigarette. From this personal anecdote, which I relive every day, I can point out multiple issues.

Those cigarette butts on which I step point to a huge problem that cigarettes cause. It is estimated that, on the global scale, 4.3 trillion cigarettes are smoked and tossed, contributing 1.7 billion pounds to the litter problem that we humans are trying to combat. What’s more, these cigarettes are not biodegradable, and leak arsenic, nicotine, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and other toxic components into the environment.

The smoke from the burning itself is also an issue. The smoke from a single cigarette may seem like a miniscule contribution to climate change and global warming, but remember the aforementioned amount: 4.3 trillion cigarettes per year. In total, cigarette smoke contributes 2.6 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide and 5.2 billion kilograms of methane into the atmosphere every year .

But we can also look to the manufacturing processes of cigarettes and find even more destructive practices. Monocropping tobacco plants is common, which leads to desertification and a greatly disturbed nutrient balance of the soil. In addition, the space required for tobacco farming is opened up through means of deforestation. It was estimated in 2010 alone that 200,000 hectares of forests are destroyed, ultimately accounting for 2-4% of global deforestation.

These detrimental effects on the environment, as a result of mere cigarettes, are great. But the act of smoking is also greatly detrimental to human health as well. All of the aforementioned toxic components that seep into the environment are also inhaled both by smokers and innocent passersby (in the form of second-hand smoke). So, for the sake of both environmental and human health, I urge smokers to try their best to quit, and nonsmokers to not try or restart the bad habit.

Turbulence for the American Wind Power Industry?

wind-turbine

I have come to terms with the Anthropocene. This is the age I live in. There is no more wilderness and nature, because man has even altered that. Numbers such as 7.5 billion people and 400 ppm are our reality. But the single thing I remain unsure of is whether or not this Anthropocene can possibly be good. Our future is not spoken for. We still remain in the driver’s seat; we can change our trajectory.

It is a question of whether or not humans will thrive under pressure. What will we do to change our course that is set to crash? Wind energy can be our answer for a “good Anthropocene.” In the next few days, the United States will see its first off shore wind turbines at Block Island go live. Rhode Island will be the first state to have commercially generated electricity utilizing off shore wind turbines.This 30 megawatt, 5 turbine structure is set to supply the majority of power for Block Island, but also to decrease the air pollution throughout the New England Region. The single wind farm is expected to lower carbon emissions by 40,000 tons annually. The Block Island Wind Project marks the beginning of what hopes to be the first in long series of clean energy sites along the eastern seaboard of the United States.

However, this fledging clean energy industry is expected to experience turbulence under the Trump, an open critic of wind power; his primary opposition to off shore energy at his Scotland golf course is due the fact that the wind farm would obscure the scenic view. Investors and developers currently wait for more information concerning the president-elect’s plans for policy. With Thomas Pyle at the helm of Trump’s energy transition team, we can expect that his administration team will remain skeptical of renewable energy sources.

As we find the world changing at an unprecedented rate, we must look to put the needs of the planet before our own. Sustainability for future generations will have to take precedent over our desires for picturesque postcards. We can only hope for federal government support to continue as it did during the Obama administration to possibly have “good” Anthropocene.

Diseases in the Anthropocene

As is being reported by the Washington Post, a new study has found that damage to the environment can lead to increased spread of diseases to humans since the degradation can actually benefit “lower-level members of the food chain, who serve as the [disease-carrying] bacteria’s primary hosts,” adding to the already-long list of negative effects associated with the decline of environmental health. However, the Washington Post article does mention that in order for the positive correlation between environmental damage and disease spread to arise, the amount of damage must be at a certain level: if degradation became too extensive, then this relationship wouldn’t hold as all the organisms of the environment would become negatively affected, including the disease carriers. This new study focused solely on a specific type of skin disease called the Buruli ulcer, finding that certain amounts of environmental harm reduced the populations of higher-level food chain members, which then allowed the carriers of these specific bacteria, called Mycobacterium ulcerans, to prosper.

However, there are also other investigations that find the same kind of relationship between environmental damage and human diseases. For instance, a different study suggests that deforestation in Malaysia causes human and forest-dwelling macaque communities to come closer together, which in turn results in an increased likelihood of malaria being transmitted to humans from these monkeys via mosquitoes. There is also another study that states that dam construction in sub-Saharan Africa increases the risk of malaria transmissions to humans. Even the Zika virus has become such a major health hazard in part due to human-caused environmental changes such as deforestation, climate change, and dam construction.

While these may all seem like very negative conclusions, I see some positives we can take away from them. For example, the media could use these findings to alarm the public and call for more urgent action. Also, these results give scientists a more detailed look at how the environment really works, which can surely be beneficial. But, as always, rather than becoming paralyzed by what these issues could mean for our future, it’s imperative for humanity to look for new and creative solutions, as we always have.

Bees: Now Endangered in the United States

Image result for dying bees

On September 30, 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially marked seven bee species in the genus Hylaeus as endangered. In the twentieth century, bees were the most common insect in Hawaii. Today, bees are the scarcest pollinator in that state, mainly due to habitat loss. In fact, between 2007 and 2010, the Hawaiian bee population dropped about 50%.

North America has destroyed much of its natural habitats by the excessive building of highways, houses, strip malls, office complexes, and industrial parks. In heavily populated areas, bee habitats have been demolished. Individual members of the hives become isolated, which inhibits potential mates from reproducing with one another. Additionally, habitat loss compromises the species’ nutritional sources. Limiting their pollen and nectar sources decreases the survival rate of adult bees, which kills off entire species.

On a nationwide level, from April 2015 to April 2016, the United States has lost 44% of its honeybee colonies. For some, this alarming fact is welcome news. Anecdotal reports, for instance, claim that if honeybees continue to pollinate, new diseases could spread. Such claims overlook that bees are vital pollinators of edible fruits and vegetables. Bees pollinate 71 out of the 100 crop species responsible for 90% of the world’s food supply. It is also estimated that bee pollination is priced at a whopping $16 billion, indicating the value of this community. Consequently, not only would the cost of food products increase, but the availability of alfalfa hay for dairy cows would diminish, impacting the meat industry as well.

The addition of the seven bee species to the endangered list should concern us, and it is vital that we take proactive measures to ensure the preservation of these populations. For example, because bees flourish in rural, warm-weather environments in which there are abundant flowers, scholars have proposed planting more diverse kinds of plants and increasing bee-nesting sites. These sorts of conservation methods are integral not only for the survival of bees, but perhaps for the survival of their ecosystem as well.

Time To Stop Coughing!

Smog in Delhi

The Supreme Court of India has been considering a case of thirty percent green tax on production of diesel vehicles in the country’s capital, New Delhi. This is an attempt to reduce the pollution by checking the number of diesel run cars since they emit more toxic emissions than petrol run cars. (1 kg of diesel burnt under ideal conditions will produce 2.65 kg of CO2 and 1 kg of petrol will produce 2.3 kg of CO2.). Earlier this year, WHO reclassified diesel exhaust as a Class I carcinogen (cancer causing). In effect, it slotted diesel exhaust in the same category as deadly substances such as arsenic, asbestos and tobacco. The air quality in Delhi has been deteriorating. A few weeks back, the level of PM 2.5 pollutants (PM stands for particulate matter and it is a mixture of solids and liquids floating in the air), which are most harmful to the lungs, reached 999, which is 16 times the safe limit of 60. Children. A study found that half of Delhi’s schoolchildren, who are most vulnerable to this pollution, had stunted lung development and would never completely recover.

The effectiveness though of levying green taxes is debatable. The proponents argue that it is the most cost effective method to discourage the buying of diesel cars. It generates additional revenue for the government which can be invested in subsidizing petrol cars. Green taxes levied in Ireland showed a 15 percent drop in emissions since 2008. The opponents argue that green taxes hamper employment in the car manufacturing industries because of a fall in demand. Others argue that due to the high dependency on transport, the amount of reduction in emissions is trivial compared to the costs involved in implementation, especially in a city like Delhi which has an estimated population of 18.6 million. Also, a large proportion of green taxes are passed down on consumers, thus harming low income groups who depend mainly on cheaper diesel run cars. It is now the decision of the Supreme Court to weigh out the costs and benefits and give the appropriate verdict.

Cruise Ships and the Environment

Cruise ships may be places for relaxation, but they certainly don’t give environmentalists any peace of mind. As is reported by the Guardian, one of the subsidiaries of Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruise Lines, has been given a record fine of $40 million for using illegal practices to dump thousands of polluted waste into the oceans. The ship where these practices were found to occur has been doing so since 2005. To get a scale of this pollution, the Guardian article states that one “single illegal discharge dumped 4,227 gallons of oil-contaminated waste” near the coast of England in 2013. Further investigation of the Princess cruise ships found that illegal practices were also found on four of their other ships; these were using rigged sensors to hide the contamination they were causing.

The problem is not limited to just these cruises. Even those that follow regulations influence the health of the planet. This website  states that an average-sized cruise ship carrying 3,000 passengers on a one-week trip would generate 1,000,000 gallons of gray water (from sinks, showers, etc.), 210,000 gallons of sewage, 100 gallons of toxic waste, and “diesel exhaust emissions equivalent to thousands of automobiles.” And that is for just one average voyage. From 2016 to 2017, 15 new cruise ships will debut, which will add to the growing cruise ship industry.

This might all seem like bad news, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing left to do. Harsher regulations could definitely reduce the negative impacts of cruise ships on the environment. Even the $40 million fine Princess Cruise Lines will pay could help: it will raise awareness to the problem and incentivize other cruise lines to follow regulations more closely. And if a Miami federal judge approves the penalty, $14 million will be designated for environmental projects in Florida, Britain, and international open waters. Thus, in this case as in many others, it is always necessary to focus on solutions going forward rather than dwelling on the problems.

Plastic or Paper?

plastic-vs-paper-bag

Environmentalists and government officials across the globe have been wondering how to reduce the pollution caused by the use of plastic bags. In May 2016, the New York City Council passed a 5-cent-per-bag fee on single-use bags handed out by most retailers. This was done to discourage its use and shift to recyclable paper bags, its closest substitute.

Plastic bags that tend to end up in landfills pollute the soil and the ones that are burnt, release toxic gases such as oxides of carbon, sulfur and nitrogen that harm the respiratory systems of humans and animals and contribute to global warming. Furthermore, a large proportion of disposed bags find their way in the ocean. An estimated 300 million plastic bags have ended up in the Atlantic Ocean alone. Sea creatures, especially Porpoises, mistake plastic bags as jelly fish or sea nettles and consume them which leads to death either through the blockage of the nasal passage or the intestine.

On the other hand, paper bags are recyclable, reusable as well as biodegradable. It is estimated that plastic takes about 10 to 20 years to decompose under sunlight whereas items made of paper take about 2 to 6 weeks. These arguments have been used to advocate the use of paper bags.

Surprisingly, the production of plastic bags is reported to be less damaging to the environment than the production of paper bags. A study found that 1000 paper bags generate twice as much greenhouse gas emission than plastic bags. Another study by the South African government reveals that manufacture of plastic grocery bags consumes 23% less energy and generates 76% less solid waste than does production of paper bags.

Keeping in mind the shortcomings of using plastic and paper bags, the use of biodegradable plastics has been proposed as a solution. These take on average two months to decompose and do not cause soil pollution. Also, its production process releases less emissions than that of paper bags. However, it hasn’t gained much popularity since it is speculated that its use will encourage indiscriminate littering and leave the problem of plastic consumption by sea creatures, unsolved.

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