Silent Spring at 60

Chemical structure of DDT

So I am only about 60 years late. I finally read Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, and since I worked for decades in the agricultural chemicals industry, I have some thoughts about this book and all that it has inspired. What I find amazing about Carson’s work is how applicable it is to the world of today.

Rachel Carson wrote about the effects of the first generation of organic herbicides and pesticides. Those molecules were brute-force bludgeons against insects and weeds, with little discrimination against target species and collateral damage. Her description of the effects of indiscriminate spraying, coupled with the effects of resistance building in the insect populations, is just as valid today as it was when the book was written. And the praise she had for integrated pest management was also well ahead of its time (or maybe we are just now realizing how right it was).

I chose to get involved in the agricultural chemicals arena. I accepted a transfer within my company, and one of the reasons was that the new generation of herbicides was manufactured at my new plant in West Virginia. It took a few years, but I was finally employed by the ag side of the plant. At that time our main herbicide was a truly specific offering, one that dealt with weeds but did not spread beyond where it was applied. It was something that fulfilled Rachel Carson’s dream, a chemical solution which did not cause collateral damage. Unfortunately, this was the time when Monsanto began to offer their solution of RoundUp Ready® products. These products offered the farmer a one-stop service, where they could spray a field with herbicide, knowing it would not bother the seedlings planted there which had been genetically modified for herbicide resistance.

We very quickly lost market share, and our good offering which I was proud of supporting, soon became yesterday’s news. We ended up licensing the technology for this genetically modified solution ourselves, and this allowed us to recapture a bit of market share though reducing our profits due to the licensing costs. But guess what? Farmers were supposed to vary their herbicides every couple of years to help prevent weeds from gaining resistance to the herbicide. The problem was that Monsanto offered such an easy solution for the farmers, what with its opportunity for no-till agriculture, very few farmers rotated herbicides. They tended to use the same one year after year.

Guess what happened? Weeds began to gain resistance. So now you had fields with certain intransigent weeds peeking up through the intended crops, and the agricultural chemical companies sought a solution. Even though we still offered our environmentally friendly herbicides, the lure of no-till agriculture was now thoroughly embedded in the minds of farmers. So the answer developed was to add resistance to a second chemical in the seeds of crops. Monsanto / Bayer came up with an offering where their plants were resistant to RoundUp® and Dicamba, and their chemical offering was a blend of those two chemicals. Unfortunately, Dicamba would evaporate, especially in the warmth of the southern US, and its effects were felt far from the application site, causing uncontrolled damage.  And, again, if farmers use this product exclusively, weeds will once again grow resistant to both chemicals. This will probably result in yet another chemical being added to the mix to aid the farmers in their attempt to eliminate tilling while still resulting in high crop yields.

I would have hoped that my company would have been more responsible, and come up with a solution requiring little additional chemical application. But no, my company’s preferred solution was to genetically modify the seed to become resistant to RoundUp® and one of the first generation of chlorinated hydrocarbons, 2,4 – D (2,4 – Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid). So the chemical arms race continued to run amuck, with the original goal of reduced chemical application long forgotten. I retired before this new product could be marketed, but I definitely did not like the direction we were heading towards.

The chemical race continues on insecticides as well. The first generation of broad-spectrum, chlorinated hydrocarbons, or the organophosphorus insecticides, were replaced by biodegradable compounds aimed at disrupting the life cycles of the insect targets. But even in the newer age of chemical warfare against insects, unintended consequences keep on popping up. The class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids has achieved broad use. Unfortunately, the effects on pollinators, both domestic honeybees, and wild bees, was much greater than expected. In addition, insects in general have been reduced, with unknown impact still to come from those portions of the ecosystem which depend upon insects for their food. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring may yet come about again, due to birds starving and being unable to raise new generations of young.

The dream of integrated pest management Rachel Carson espoused has yet to come to pass. Speaking as one who was greatly invested in the business, as long as there is profit to be had from chemical application, companies will prefer to go after that profit instead of solving the real problems facing society. We still have a long way to go before we come up with ways to co-exist with the natural world instead of trying to compete and conquer those species we consider as our enemies.

A personal note here – Rachel Carson received her undergraduate degrees at the Pennsylvania College for Women. This institution changed its name over the years to Chatham College. It is there where my wife received her bachelor’s degree with a double-major in music and English. She is proud of her college’s famous graduate. What’s more, it is apparent that the city of Pittsburgh, home to this educational institution, is also proud since one of the bridges in downtown across the Alleghany River is named the Rachel Carson Bridge. In Pittsburgh there are three bridges connecting the North Side to downtown. Those bridges are the Rachel Carson Bridge, the Andy Warhol Bridge, and the Roberto Clemente Bridge. Truly an iconic mix of honorees reflecting on the eclectic mix of people associated with the city of Pittsburgh.


Cover of In The Court Of The Crimson King. Art by Barry Godber

Confusion will be my epitaph. These words, written by Peter Sinfield, and found on King Crimson’s first album, perfectly sums up 21st Century life. All we had believed in the past is now wiped away as society changes around us.

Women being able to govern their own bodies? Sorry, that is now obsolete. It is necessary for the State to coerce women to have children with no options for surgical solutions. See, it is all about saving the life of the unborn. Of course, coming up with solutions to enable         women to combine a working life with a family life is beyond the capacity of any politician, so undoubtedly the result of restrictive abortion laws will be more child abuse, more child poverty, and an increase in those who violate the law coming down the pike in about 16 years.

Confusion will be my epitaph. I believed it impossible for politicians to repudiate their own words caught on tape. That was before the current generation of politicians found it possible to disown their own statements of the recent past. Same holds for commentators on cable news shows who preen to the camera with unparalleled ability to regurgitate positions completely in opposition to what they said a few days or weeks ago. All in order to chase elusive voters or viewers, depending on which profession they practice. In all of these cases, their disdain for the public is palpable, since they believe only their current utterances represent their beliefs. Anything they said in the past is no longer germane, or even rational, and they definitely should not be held responsible for any past comments. And if anyone took their words seriously, and acted on them? Well, the politicians and commentators didn’t actually pull the trigger, so linking their words, and the actions of others is not fair.

I had a faith that the increased ties of commerce would assist in consigning international war to the trash heap of history. That faith was shattered with the invasion of Ukraine. So we are now to believe only in the force of arms which enables those with power to impose their will through the miracle of explosives. We may marvel in the ability of the people of a country to resist overwhelming odds, in order to retain their freedom. Maybe too many of us who marvel, no longer have beliefs we would die for. And no, wearing a surgical mask is not tyranny. An invading army consisting of soldiers who have no compunction against killing civilians is true tyranny.

 Confusion will be my epitaph. I did not hear the words spoken that deemed hatred of others as a Christian virtue. I was not prepared for a society where racism was considered a virtue, fully consistent with Christian principles. I was not prepared for a society where celebrity is worshiped as the only value worth celebrating, and those who have obtained celebrity are incapable of doing bad things, since, after all, they are celebrities. I was not prepared for a society where all values are deemed relative, and only the end matters, especially when it benefits me. I was not prepared for leaders who embodied the worst human attributes, and were proud of those pitiful attributes.

I believed advances in science would always be valued. I had forgotten how bitter the struggles were in the past for new scientific truths to be accepted if they challenged the status quo. I see echoes of Copernicus and Galileo in current issues around global warming, and humanity’s role in altering our planet. I realize now how difficult it is to convince others of facts they cannot verify through their own experience.

Confusion will be my epitaph. When the original Soviet Union fell, I believed mankind had dodged an enormous threat by removing the danger of nuclear conflict. I was not ready for the rise of an autocrat, who could threaten the use of what was considered unthinkable. I now realize that even if we escape this round of conflict without nuclear detonation, it is inconceivable we will emerge from the scourge of nationalism without some exchange of nuclear weaponry. Certainly the political discourse heard in many countries leads me to believe this exchange will happen sooner, not later.

I can go on, raising other issues where the promises of a brighter future now seem dimmed by the intransigence of the human race. But I want to leave the last words to Peter Sinfield, who penned them back in 1969:

Confusion will be my epitaph
As I crawl, a cracked and broken path
If we make it, we can all sit back and laugh
But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying
Yes, I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying

Let’s Focus on Important Things

We are alone. Alone among the vastness of space. You may believe we are divinely ordained to be the only sentient species in our galaxy, and the entire known universe came into being just a few thousand years ago. I myself do not believe that, yet I do profess a belief in the organizing entity responsible for the act of creation. But there is no doubt we have not seen positive proof of other species letting us know of their existence through electronic signals. That should be humbling to us on Earth, and lead us to a greater admiration of our uniqueness and an appreciation for our commonality, rather than our differences.

Yet once more, we seem to find commonality with the hordes of different colored ants you can find on occasion battling to the death on sidewalks and in our grass lawns. Long ago when I was walking home from school, I saw one such battle between red and black ants. The combatants were flowing across the sidewalk, each ant playing a part in a war they neither started nor had any opinion about. All they knew was of the necessity of their battle. Knowing what I do now about the mental processing capabilities of ants, I assume they were driven to battle by chemical signals, and there was no conscious thought about why they were engaging in this mortal combat.

Humans have once more shown they are no more than ants, seeking to dominate other territories. Only now we have tools to make the horrors of war omnipresent and impersonal. The days when the horrors of warfare were only visited upon the participants in the battle are long past. Now you can launch precision guided munitions, and lately we’ve seen those weapons used against train depots, apartment flats, and nuclear power plants. So we end up creating generations of ants who will want to battle against each other as time goes on.

We still fight for territory, although we are bound upon a globe which limits our absolute powers. Somehow we are convinced that our differences are greater than our similarities. Who knows if we will grow past our beliefs that no one other than true citizens are able to participate in our piece of the world. All I know is the possibility of a single day bringing our civilization to a close has re-emerged. It has been nice not having to worry directly about nuclear exchanges, although as the years have gone by, it is clear that we as a species will have to deal with this existential menace. For we as a species have not grown past our foolish desires to use these weapons as we feel our options grow more and more limited. And since these weapons have proliferated over time and across nations, it is only a matter of time until such weaponry is used by a non-state actor as a tool to accomplish a goal that is abhorrent to those who believe in the sanctity of life.

When I was young, it was the heyday of space exploration. We as a species were able to place our marker upon another celestial object. Looking back, it seems the accomplishment was more an opportunity to display the superiority of one nation state over another instead of an effort to expand the bounds of our species. For nearly 50 years, we have rested upon our laurels on celestial exploration. Only recently have we developed a sub-species of humanity with the means and desire to resume human exploration of the cosmos. Vast egos of individuals have combined with the vast fortunes brought about through globalization to create a new era of exploration in space. Yet even if we are successful in placing our marker on Mars, we still are barely extending our little toes beyond the Earth. Only when we can envision exploration beyond our solar system will we begin to place our imprint on the galaxy.

All of this will come to naught if we are unable to rise above the ants and eliminate our species innate drive to conquer other ants and take their things. The Drake equation describes the number of intelligent species in our galaxy which are detectable by our species. During my lifetime we have made great strides in establishing bounds on some of the variables in that equation, like the number of stars with planets, and soon we will have estimates on the number of planets that show marks of life (an atmosphere with oxygen). Yet the one variable in the Drake equation we can only slowly work on is the last one, the length of time a civilization is able to send signals into space where it can be detected by other civilizations. We have only our own example to extrapolate from, and the nearly 100 years we’ve transmitted electronic signals from our surface is dwarfed by the age of the universe. Small wonder we’ve not discovered other civilizations, and also it is no surprise we’ve hungered as a species for confirmation we are not alone in the universe.

Many of our species do not care about such questions. They are content to be bound by their belief system into worrying only about their own nation’s or religion’s status. I myself hope we can actually detect another signal coming to us during my lifetime, and such a discovery can serve as a unifying occasion for our species. Before we end our time as one of those who are sending signals out into the vast cosmos we inhabit.       

Stuck in the Midst of a Pandemic

So at this moment, I should be in post-surgical pain. I had elective surgery scheduled for this past Tuesday. But, on Monday afternoon as I was preparing my convalescent room with supplies, I received a call from my surgeon’s office saying they needed to delay my surgery for two weeks. I asked whether it was due to COVID, but all the surgeon’s representative would say is that he would not be performing surgery on the day I was scheduled. I can assume the delay was indeed COVID-related. Here in West Virginia, we are late to everything, including the Omicron variant. Watching the daily numbers, I see the exponential rise in case numbers as it was at the beginning of the pandemic. It is irrelevant whether my postponement is due to a lack of beds due to COVID, or a lack of staff due to contracting the illness. It truly does not matter. What matters is that I am still in a state where those who are vaccinated are almost in the minority. We still have nearly half of the population who have not availed themselves of the readily-available vaccines.

There is no doubt those who refuse vaccination are prolonging the duration of the pandemic. And many of those who refuse to be immunized have the audacity to insist upon their right to treatment via monoclonal antibodies. Imagine. For someone who has done their research and chosen not to inject themselves with a preventive serum, they seem to insist a course of transfusion via IV is preferable? Of course, they can now claim to be discriminated against, since one of the criteria used for determining suitability of treatment is supposedly race. The Republicans, led by Governor DeathSantis now can combine two of their favorite complaints, anti-vax sentiment conflated by racial animus. Thus the realization that the monoclonal antibodies Florida relied upon, no longer work against Omicron landed upon the Governor’s deaf ears. It’s all a plot, politically motivated, part of the globalists work aimed at getting rid of the true Americans and replacing us all with – wait for it – other humans.

It is more and more apparent that the true motivation for much of the Republicans in this nation is racism. That is why they are so dead set against any sort of program designed at fostering equity. It doesn’t matter whether it is equity in medical treatment access, or equity in economic programs, by gum we elected a black man as President and all semblance of racism in this nation vanished immediately. So why do we insist upon talking so much about it now? All the resentment stored up in the Archie Bunker minions is being released now, and what’s more, that group has the fire power to overwhelm those of us who don’t seem to acknowledge the existential threat felt by white conservatives.

If only those who claim to be conservative actually fit that mode. But hypocrisy trumps political belief, and thus you have those who can claim to be offended by one comment calling a Fox reporter a dumb son of a bitch, exclaiming that statement is the worst example ever of dealing with the press, and ignoring the thousands of examples of the former President calling all of the press “The enemies of the People.” Meanwhile somehow all of the evangelical Christian community cling to the vision of seeing their savior on earth easily passing through the eye of a needle. Who needs camels anyway? So my surgery is to be postponed for two weeks. Maybe by that time, the surge in caseload will finally ease, and I can slip into and out of the hospital without acquiring a viral coating. Maybe it is a blessing I do not have to go into an environment saturated with virus. But I really feel for those who don’t have an option, those who have emergency conditions. At a minimum they will find themselves waiting longer than they should until they can have their condition treated. The worst case, and you see those cases daily, is they end up dying from a condition that could have been treated if the hospitals were not crawling with those who have insisted upon their right to bodily integrity, regardless of the effects on others. Let me just say. The effect on others is additional death and suffering. Seems acceptable to you? Of course, if you’ve gotten this far, you have an attention span greater than that of a fruit fly, so you probably are not the person who this screed is complaining about.

Human Evolution in Real Time

One of my projects has been to make it through Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Even though I am not finished with it, I can appreciate what I am seeing in society at present. I am seeing evolution in action within the human race. In the response to COVID, it is apparent that humanity is divided between those who believe in science, and those who steadfastly deny science. The ones who believe in science are those who have accepted the medical miracle of mRNA vaccines, and are current with their inoculations. Those who deny science are the portion of humanity who refuse to accept a vaccine, even when a close family member is in the ICU on a ventilator due to COVID infection.

As such, we should expect differences to show up in the death rates between the two sides of the debate. Those who are vaccinated should have a lower rate of death than those who have failed to avail themselves of the opportunity. And so, humanity will have a slight tendency towards favoring the reproductive success of those who believe in science. Evolution has been captured in real time.

Of course, many of those who do die of the virus are past their reproductive period in life. The disease still overwhelmingly kills those who are older. But when you hear about someone being taken in the prime of life, someone with young children, then it is possible that the genes of those who deny science won’t proliferate as much as they would have.

Within the US, the sentiment towards vaccine refusal is highly correlated with other traits. Apparently those who object to mask mandates in schools also believe in the infallibility of the American story. We as a nation can do no wrong, we have never done wrong, and those who would indoctrinate our precious children with uncomfortable facts that contradict this set of beliefs are evil, and must be opposed vociferously. Thus it is we see school board meetings becoming contentious, and efforts are made to elect those who have the right political perspective. After all, children should be shielded from anything that might make them think. They must swallow the snake oil nostrum of American superiority, and manifest destiny. But I digress.

One thing apparent is the lack of people to understand and accept uncertainty. Their expectation is that experts should be required to have absolute answers at all times as this pandemic unfolded. Their resistance received a boost when the experts at the CDC changed their recommendations over time. You still hear that the experts were against mask usage at the start of this pandemic, and therefore we should still not wear masks. Never mind that the CDC experts were trying to ensure masks were available to health care providers, and due to neglect of the public health over the decades, inventories of protective equipment at the beginning of the pandemic were tragically low. Our worship of low inventories and just-in-time delivery left us woefully unprepared to deal with the surge in demand for basic PPE (as a chemical plant employee, I was aware of Personal Protective Equipment. Most in society had never even considered such matters). So when the CDC took stock of inventories after the initial surge, it was apparent that masks would be available to most of the population. They changed their recommendation to wear masks in public places. However, the die had already been cast for many folks. They insisted that professionals were against masks initially, and therefore masks were of no use.

Similarly, as we learned of the nature of COVID, we learned transmission is mainly through airborne exposure. The fanatical trends towards decontaminating anything from outside the home slowly went away. There are still remnants of this in the public space. Condiments are still unavailable at many restaurants due to the fear of cross-contamination from an infected individual. And it is also obvious that in public facilities, the long-term trend towards energy efficiency made it more difficult for buildings to meet the air exchange recommendations in schools and other public buildings. Most schools built in the past 50 years don’t even have windows that can be opened, so making HVAC systems more robust will mean energy costs for these public facilities will increase.

Many of those who have resisted vaccines care not at all for any of these issues. In fact, many resisters still insist the entire concern about this novel coronavirus is not merited. After all, most colds are coronaviruses, and we don’t shut down the economy for colds, do we? For those who are so withdrawn from reality, it is not possible to realistically convert them away from their beliefs towards new ones that contradict their entrenched positions.

So instead what we are seeing is a slight tendency towards higher survival for those who are more accepting of advances in science. If you continue this trend for several generations, maybe in the 24th century mankind will be more accepting of advances in science instead of insisting God provides all of the natural immunity anyone needs. One can hope that something good can come from the tragedy we’ve all been living through.

I’m Agin It!

High tide pushed about a foot of water inland where Lockwood Drive and Broad Street converge on Monday, Sep. 21, 2020. Matthew Fortner/Staff Journal & Courier

With due respect to Time Magazine’s person of the year, they should have made the person of the year a composite image of an ‘aginer’. Someone who is against anything and everything that hints of progressivism. Vaccines that use science to prevent or moderate infections from COVID? Agin it. An extension of the child tax credit? One person may use that to buy drugs, so I’m agin it. Coming up with a way to provide incentives to use renewable energy? When God gave us all of these fossil fuels to mess up our nest? I’m agin it. Fossil fuels were good enough for my parents, they will always be there to fuel our needs.

In a way, the reason so much was packaged into a single bill was due to the intransigence of the “Aginner” party. After 10 years of total opposition to any legislation proposed by Democrats from Republicans, the Democrats recognized they had a brief window of opportunity to enact their priorities. Thus, all of the desires bottled up were packaged into a single bill, and this unwieldy device tottered through the legislative process.

But for some unexplained reason, legislators still seem beholden to Grover Norquist. Instead of admitting the faults with the trickle down philosophy governing our tax system, we seem to forget the days of balanced federal budgets coinciding with tax increases in the late ‘90’s. I still remember the wringing of hands on CNBC when they were worried about the impending dearth of treasury bills for those who needed an ever-increasing stream of debt instruments.  Of course, those tax increases were swiftly reversed during the reign of W. And thus we’ve had a string of deficits extending from the early years of this millennium to as far ahead as the eye can see. It is amazing the resistance to raising taxes which exists in our ruling class.

So we in this country value capital over labor. That is why the preference for capital is so entrenched in our tax code. I might actually be in favor of a flat tax, if it treated income from capital the same as income from labor. And if the rate were set so that it did balance our expenditures, and we were forced to change the rate annually to account for differences in spending rates. Like that will ever happen!

Meanwhile, we just keep on keeping on, leaving future catastrophes to overwhelm us in their time. Social Security being imbalanced? Well, as long as we have those fictitious bonds in the federal lockbox to balance the spending, we can continue to inflate the money supply to send money to seniors. (Full disclosure – I receive a Social Security benefit at the upper end of the benefit distribution). Climate change costing us more and more? Just let insurance cover the effects, don’t worry about the cause. All of those people living in poor countries on the margins of the seas? They never have mattered, so why worry about them now.

Ah, but those poor rich people in Miami Beach. Time to worry about blue sky flooding, where inexorable sea level rise is reflected in salt water intrusion under the expensive beach front properties. Even Governor DeathSantis is worried about flooding in Florida, enough to propose hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen the state’s infrastructure. But none of this liberal ideology sticking its camel’s nose under the state’s tent. No, this will be good ole concrete and drainage systems that will stop the sea’s rise in its tracks.

Miami. Charleston, South Carolina. Virginia Beach / Norfolk Virginia. The locations where clear sky flooding are the harbingers of sea rise to come in this country. Still, it is apparent that Republicans will continue to thumb their nose at the true causes of sea level rise, and instead choose to spend billions and billions of dollars to fight a vain and ultimately losing battle against the inexorable enemy of the sea. Meanwhile, an attempt is being made to make the national flood insurance program reflect the costs it incurs in dealing with not only tropical storm flooding, but increased floods upstream from unprecedented storms like my state of West Virginia suffer. The areas that flooded in West Virginia 2016 and Tennessee in 2021 were not highly flood prone areas, but when you are dealing with available moisture, a few degrees of dew point rise can unleash feet of rain in single storm events. So what will happen when the flood insurance premiums rise? The howls unleashed will cause legislators to force the federal agencies to rescind the increases, and one more cost will be amortized across the entire population of the nation.

It is very likely that control of the US Congress will revert back to the Republicans after the 2022 elections. What we’ve seen to try to counter that reversion is a flurry of legislation to attempt to alter the trajectory of this country, since the Reagan administration set the people against the Federal Government. As long as one side of the political spectrum only sees evil and laziness in the lower income brackets, we will continue to have policies that favor the fortunate few instead of policies aimed at improving the lot of the many who find themselves at the lower end of the income distribution. We seem destined to continue our trip into plutocracy, where those who are the true beneficiaries of government policies, convince the masses that cultural issues are all that matters, and it is the Godless liberals who are the true enemies. One wonders how long this misrepresentation of Biblical principles will continue. But in the famous words of H. L. Mencken, “No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people”.

Even one hundred years ago, the foresight of this sage stands out as describing our current situation perfectly. One may ask, who is the Mencken of today? And would anyone listen to that person and heed their words?

American Taliban? You Decide

It’s an ill wind that blows from outside. The wind that brings disease and death to those it encounters who are not armed against it. The wind that causes schisms within towns and families, as it dismantles inhibitions for those who adamantly believe in the other side’s evil. The wind emanating from the new phenomena of the internet, with its ability to connect huge crowds only to give them faulty information to share among the most rabid.

In the end, the wind comes from ourselves. We are the ones who keep the falsehoods and lies alive through our incessant need to be proven right. We are the ones who end up yelling at each other as we encounter those who won’t follow our correct protocol. Look, I received much scientific and mathematical training during my years of schooling. I know which side of the faith / science divide I land on. It is certainly not the side of those who expound their faith that natural immunity given by God will protect them from this virus they don’t even believe exists.  It is on the side of those who believe God gave man the intelligence to assert dominion over even the lowliest near-life forms we share the planet with.

But it is a reality that the other belief system does exist, and those who adhere to this belief system cannot see the virtues of the opposing arguments. In fact, many of those people believe that the vaccine is a tool for mass depopulation by the evil ones who are inspired by Satan. It is evil these people believe they are facing down as they encounter those who favor public health measures.

In a way, it is like the belief systems exhibited by the Taliban, as they re-impose their will upon a people resistant to their beliefs. They know they are right, and if the entire rest of the world disagrees with them, they know their heavenly reward is guaranteed through their actions. At some point, folks who have a rational bone in their body would realize the rest of the world might just be right, not those few who yell the loudest and grab the most attention.

So the difficulty with defeating the viewpoints of those who deny both the virus and the vaccine is similar to changing the minds of those who adhere to the beliefs of the Taliban. Both are utterly convinced they are the only ones who are right, and they will ignore all contrary evidence in front of their faces. Thus we have the local politician who attends an anti-vaccination rally mere days after the death of his wife from COVID. Thus we have the fanatics in Afghanistan enforcing their version of Sharia law while the society they conquered falls apart around them.

Maybe we need to call the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers the American Taliban, since they seem to exhibit the intolerance of the Afganistanian group. Both groups wish to take society back in time, to where there is no need to acknowledge anything other than the magnificence of God. It is God who governs all actions, and vaccines subvert God’s will in that they prevent God from culling those who should be culled.

In my previous writings, I discussed various existential threats facing human civilization. One of those is the rise of Willful Ignorance. As I look back at this piece of writing now three years old, it is amazing how many of those threats we are facing right now. Certainly we have seen how vulnerable we are to the risk of infectious diseases. A plague that kills only 1% of those it infects is capable of grinding economic activity to a halt. Add to that the growth of Tribalism and Denialism, and you can understand the reaction of many governments to the pandemic. After all, in their opinion, the plague is caused by outsiders, not by true citizens. And then add willful ignorance to the brace of problems we face. What I did not anticipate was the pride that those who are willfully ignorant take in their ignorance. There was no way I could expect a group of people to self-identify who wear their maskless faces as badges of honor, and view anyone who exercises caution by wearing a mask as threats and cowards.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a developed country do not realize the gifts we have been given. We live lives unimaginable to the vast majority of humanity through the millennia who never could enjoy adequate (or excessive) food, comfortable living quarters, personal transportation at our beck and call, treatment for most acute diseases, and instant world-wide communication available in our hands. Many in our world today would trade places in an instant themselves, and to see our civilization ripped asunder by those who refuse to take advantage of yet another of mankind’s advances, a new vaccine therapy, leaves many throughout the world wondering about the sanity of the inhabitants of the US. Count me in their number. I too question the sanity of those who insist upon taking horse de-wormer as a way of treating this disease that in their opinion is supposedly no worse than the flu.

In the end, we will either wear down this virus through mass exposure of the population, or through sufficient vaccination to cause it to seek new vulnerable hosts in vain. Letting the virus course through the population invites still more death and disability. It also enables new variants to develop and sooner or later, one will come about that laughs at our previous vaccines while ripping through the population at a pace that even the most fervent deniers will be unable to reject the evidence of their eyes. When human powered carts roll through our streets, with someone calling out to “Bring Out Your Dead”, then maybe those who have pooh-poohed this virus will finally admit we have something to be worried about. But by then, it may be too late for this civilization to fix the problem, and our descendants will find themselves living lives much like peasants in medieval times. Only with cell phones.

Corn? Corn Is Always Good!

Corn Ethanol Plant Craig MO

It is 2021, not 1973 with its Arab oil embargo and lines of cars dancing the slow samba towards the still-working pumps. Nowadays, no one can claim with a straight face of the necessity to grow corn to produce ethanol, thereby increasing domestic energy supply, and loosening the noose of foreign oil producers on the neck of the United States. Yet the mandate to use ethanol in gasoline has become a sacred shibboleth, and its importance gets reinforced each presidential election cycle, where Iowa is the first state to hold a presidential preference event Thus no serious candidate can propose elimination of the ethanol requirement in gasoline. Why? Because the corn industry, and its lobbyists, will whip up the furor of its Iowa farmers to decry any change in policy as being anti-American.

So we are shackled to a policy which doesn’t save energy, causes demand for corn to be well above the market for nutritional usage, increases soil erosion and loss of nutrients to our waterways, and tricks Americans into believing the mantra of energy self-sufficiency. What’s the upside? We no longer have to worry about gas line freeze-up in winter.

There were two chemicals proposed to increase the oxygen concentration in gasoline. One was ethanol, and one was methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). Increasing the oxygen concentration in gasoline reduces tailpipe emissions, while reducing engine knock. Thus MTBE was favored initially by gasoline refiners since it was simple to produce in scale, and was inexpensive. It does have one very bad characteristic, though. If it is released into groundwater, it migrates into the water, rather than stay with the organic phase. MTBE soon found its way into ground water, and into drinking water. It is a compound that can cause significant harm to humans over prolonged exposure, so MTBE was phased out of gasoline in the early 2000’s. Ethanol soon took over as the preferred oxygen additive to gasoline, and it had the unexpected benefit of raising the cost of corn for farmers in the Midwest who needed a price boost in order to stay solvent.

Once legislative mandates were in place requiring use of corn ethanol, the investment soon followed. When I graduated college in chemical engineering in Nebraska in the 1970’s, there was essentially zero chemical industry in the region. I had to move to where they made chemicals in order to get a job. Now, there are ethanol refineries dotting the farm landscape throughout the corn belt. You can see the steam plumes from miles away. Corn ethanol is favored legislatively. During the formative years of the corn ethanol industry, there was a $0.50 / gallon tax benefit given to gasoline refiners in order to use the mandated amounts of corn-derived ethanol. Thus US tax policy drove gasoline refiners to select corn-derived ethanol, imposing in essence a tax of 5 cents per gallon on the consumer to enable ethanol to thrive. In fact, the true price to the consumer is even higher, since the demand for corn for ethanol has put a floor on the overall corn price. If you look at food prices, much of that comes from corn, through its value in feeds for meats, or use as sweeteners. So by making the price of corn higher than it would be, the price of all derivatives of corn is higher as well.

One of the most pernicious effects of the legislative mandates for increased use of ethanol in gasoline is increasing corn acreage. Using USDA statistics, the 3-year average of corn acres in 2019-2021 was 91 million, while the 3-year average from 1997-1999 was 79 million. The key difference between the two periods was the increased demand for ethanol from corn. The 15% increase in acreage means that corn has increased its fertilizer demands, and it is no surprise that an ancillary effect of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico due to excess nutrients, that dead zone has also increased in size during the two-decade period in question. Not only that, when all inputs are factored in, ethanol from corn may barely create more energy than it takes to produce. If methanol were allowed as an oxygenate, it could be generated from natural gas and reduce the impact on the land.

So why do we have this policy which seems in opposition to many goals we aspire to as a country?  We say we want to reduce the impact of humanity on the environment, yet we persist with a counter-productive policy mandating the use of corn ethanol in our gasoline supply. Square that requirement for an absolute volume to be blended with the now stated policy of converting half of new vehicles to electric by 2030. Sooner or later, the demand for gasoline will fall to the point that you cannot blend the mandated quantity of ethanol and still stay at a 10% ethanol concentration. When we get to that point, it will be interesting to see how the politicians deal with the physical limitations of the gasoline market. Of course, we could always export more gasoline and fulfill the legislative requirement that way, but I don’t think that will be looked upon favorably.

It is time now to look at the mandated use of corn ethanol and begin to wean the farm sector away from the incremental corn demand brought about by this legislation. Phasing out the requirement over a 10-year period would reduce the effect on any individual farmer, and then only the companies who have invested in corn ethanol production facilities will end up on the short end of the stick.

Do I expect our politicians to have this degree of foresight and begin to reduce the mandated volume? Amazingly, there is a bill stirring in the Senate that would repeal the mandate to use corn ethanol to produce gasoline. Tellingly, none of the Senators mentioned in conjunction with the bill are from major corn-producing states. Given the entrenched opposition towards ending any government quota program, my expectation is that the bill will suffer an ignominious death. But maybe, just maybe, it may be revived in the future, and face a better fate. I’ll believe it has a chance when I see some courageous presidential candidate have the guts to tell Iowa voters that corn ethanol is bad for the climate, and economy, and must go.

Don’t Believe Your Lyin’ Eyes

We have seen the future, and it is not pleasant. We have devolved into warring classes where we ascribe horrible motives to anyone who dares think and speak differently than we do. The Republicans seem to take immense pleasure in diminishing the stature of anyone who uses expertise to advocate for a position. Thus we see the marginalization of public health experts and scientists who developed a new class of vaccines and advocated for their use. In Tennessee this led to the dismissal of a public health officer who dared to state the legal fact that some adolescents under the age of majority could take ownership of their own decisions concerning their body. Even when state law is settled and several decades old, this mere acknowledgement of facts brought a backlash Dr. Michelle Fiscus could not withstand, leading to her firing. Not only was she fired, but it resulted in the abandonment of campaigns for any vaccination of minors.

This rejection of science and expertise has ramifications far beyond a mere cancellation of a vaccination campaign in a single state. It is symptomatic for what has become the abandonment of the scientific principle by those populists across the globe who have gained ascendency over the past decade. A scorched earth policy has taken over the political mind. This is especially clear in Brasil, where the scorched earth is literally scorched earth, where virgin rain forest lies in a smoking ruin as the inevitable advance of soybean cultivation marches on.

We have built a civilization where scientific advances have made it possible to support an unimaginable increase in human population, and has allowed significant increases in lifespan. But the technological advances have left a significant proportion of the population behind, mired in an ever more futile attempt to stay economically solvent. No longer is it possible to depend upon the mill down the road, or the local assembly plant, to take up the slack of those who lack technological skills in the job market. Multi-national corporations have done two things. First, they arbitrage labor and regulatory requirements globally, moving their operations towards the lowest common denominators. Second, they use technology and their advantage in capital to blast away at local retail establishments. These mega retailers are more efficient, but by displacing an entire class of entrepreneurs they have removed the ability of local communities to sustain a middle class.

So you have huge swaths of the country with no economic raison d’etre, where generations have now grown up with the reality of needing to leave their place of birth in order to have any economic prospects. It is even worse in my state of West Virginia, since the local work force depended upon low-education coal mining as its economic engine. In the time since I’ve moved here in the mid-1980s, I’ve seen the decline in shipments of coal. Few coal barges ply the Kanawha River now, and the coal trains that were once ubiquitous, now are an exception along our rail lines. Still, the local politicians view coal’s demise as a temporary aberration, and see no need in investment in education as the way to bring the local economy into parity with the rest of the country.

  We’ve built a global economy where low price is the mantra driving decisions. We now depend upon systems that would have been viewed as impossibilities 50 years ago. But the maintenance of these systems is dependent upon accepting the science underlying their foundations. If we wish to bring back lower skill industrial work, then we must accept the reality that items manufactured here will cost more. We are seeing the stirrings of this reality as we climb out of the trough of the pandemic, since people are not willing to accept the starvation wages of the service industry. In order to hire people back, wages must increase, but no one wants to accept the higher prices this will cause.

So now the political lines are drawn. One side insists the evidence of your eyes not be believed, and you must transform the events of January 6 into a Spongebob dream world, where prancing unicorns spread candy rainbows across the sky. That side is aligned with those who reject the benefits of science, which has resulted in novel vaccine development in record time. According to this side, not only must you reject the evidence before your eyes, you must reject anything developed by scientists, who after all are only interested in making money, and are wishing to push experimental poisons into the muscles of the unwilling.

The other side is somewhat smugly relying upon their knowledge that they are in the right, and it will only take time before the veracity of their position is apparent to those who are opposing them. Unfortunately, when one side is able to direct the discussion, the triumph of reason and logic is not assured. Humanity reacts to visceral images, and those who proclaim the anecdotal exception as a reason for their rejection of science, are likely to prevail over reasoned appeals about statistics and peer review.

For the side of logic and reason to prevail, it is necessary to bring up the anecdotal evidence of those who failed to take the vaccines and now are regretting that decision as they realize it has cost them their life. Fighting emotional fire with fire is the only way to win in the arena of public opinion, and those who do not wish to get down in the mud to wrestle with the pigs, will see the opponents grabbing the rhetorical high ground.

We are on ecologically shaky ground. As a species, we’ve grown our numbers far beyond the carrying capacity of this planet. The tools of science and logic have enabled this to happen, but the results are complex systems with non-uniform sharing of the economic benefits. It seems the response from many is to tear down the entire edifice, but if we do, we’ll find out how fragile our world really is and how mean and nasty life will become when everything is transformed into a struggle against starvation and warfare. At least, we no longer will be concerned about the fate of the Kardashians.

CRISPR Revisited

One of the privileges of writing a blog is that you can look back at older posts and see how they hold up over time. One of the first posts I made was back in March 2017 (Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread? Sliced DNA!) discussing a technology called CRISPR. Since that time, the founders of the technology have won a Nobel prize, and just within the past week came word that a test returned its first results with stellar responses. An intractable and fatal genetic disease appears to be successfully treated via internal application of CRISPR-modified material. It is very early in the process, and the market for this particular disease is very small, but the response in the stock market was explosive. Fortunately for me, I had put money on two of the stocks in this field, and I am experiencing the volatility of the biotech field in my investments.

Here is the text of the original post. I haven’t changed a word since the potential benefits and potential adverse effects still hold true. You may have heard that a rogue scientist in China crossed an ethical line and treated twin fetuses with CRISPR. In that case, it was to remove the potential to be infected with HIV as opposed to treating a genetic defect. That is still not allowed, and the scientist was punished.

Over the past decade, a new technology has emerged, begun commercialization, and provides amazing potential to revolutionize biological science. My guess is that you’ve never heard of this incredible advance in biology. So let me introduce you to: CRISPR. As is often the case, CRISPR is an acronym. It stands for: Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Having given its full name once, let me just say that it refers to how it deals with DNA inside of a cell.

CRISPR (pronounced Crisper) is a modification of a naturally occurring process in bacteria. Just as we are attacked by pathogenic bacteria, bacteria themselves are attacked by viruses called bacteriophages. These phages are able to hijack a bacterial cell’s DNA and inject portions of their own DNA that then enables replication of the phage, allowing the copied phages to burst through the cell wall and kill the bacteria. Naturally, it is to the bacteria’s advantage to detect and remove the rogue DNA. And evolution has developed a tool, in the form of a set of genes that enables detection of an alien DNA sequence, and essentially cuts it out and puts in its own jumper that bypasses the infected area. So nature has developed its own DNA repair process that enables a bacterial cell to detect infection, remove the infection, and repair the DNA to allow it to continue to function. Only the non-functioning repeated DNA segments is left in the DNA to show that the repair has taken place.

Researchers have discovered this process, and developed an improved process based upon it. Companies have formed around the technology, and other companies have licensed the technology and are actively working on applications. This process is just beginning, and it is one of the most exciting new developments in biology in decades.

CRISPR technology is far different than the genetic modifications that have been used in agriculture that stir deep revulsion in many. The process that Monsanto and DuPont and other agribusinesses use to produce seed that is resistant to herbicides requires the insertion of genes that are from another organism. This crossing of species creates what is called “Frankenfood”, and many nations have forbidden the use of foods created with this technology. CRISPR technology does not involve alien genes. Instead, it allows for the CRISPR process to inactivate genes by excising and bypassing the undesired section. This has huge potential application in human health, because many genetic-based diseases are caused through a fault in one of the genes. This faulty gene may create a faulty protein that causes the genetic disease. If you can simply snip off the bad part, and replace the gene with either a nonsense segment of DNA that does nothing, or a fully-functioning gene that works as nature intended, then you now have the potential to reverse a genetic disease.

CRISPR is being used to develop food seeds like the ones from Monsanto and DuPont. But in this case, species lines are not being crossed. Instead, normal plant breeding practices can be used to develop desirable traits, and the genetic technology can be used to greatly increase its effectiveness in the seeds. This eliminates the fear factor that previous genetically modified organisms generated.

The mechanics of how to introduce the desired genetic fix into an organism is one of the greatest uncertainties of how this technology will be used. Obviously, the smaller the organism, the easier it is to fix. That’s why some of the first applications of the technology are for things like industrial yeasts that ferment vegetable matter to convert it to ethanol for fuel. One of the limiting factors in bioethanol production, is that the alcohol becomes lethal to the yeast in too high a concentration. By working with strains of yeast that show greater resistance to high concentrations of alcohol, and by inserting the genes from these strains into other strains of yeast, the potential is there for greatly increased efficiency in bioethanol production. The technology is well developed for insertion of genes into seeds as well. So the earliest commercial applications are for agribusiness and biofuel production.

It is a far different task to introduce the fix to a genetic problem to a complex organism like a person. One area of early research involves the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa. This disease is genetically inherited, and eventually causes the retina to degrade, resulting in blindness for one and a half million people worldwide. The proposed treatment involves taking cells from the person with the genetic trait, converting them into stem cells, fixing the genetic defect with CRISPR technology, and transplanting the cells back into the retina of the person with the disease. There is a possibility that a human trial using this technology may happen in 2017. The gene repair process can work where the affected area is small in scope like the retina. How this can work in a disease that is expressed throughout the body has yet to be determined.

One obvious way the technology could be used is when the human with the genetic defect is still in the womb. Genetic tests that can detect inherited diseases are available during pregnancy. Eventually the potential will exist to provide a fix for an inherited genetic disease before birth, eliminating the disease before it happens.

That last bit is one of the ethical areas that must be fully discussed and agreed to by all before the technology is adopted for use in the womb. Any change that is made in the genome at this stage is able to be transmitted across generations. So far, there has been an agreement that genetic modifications should not be allowed if the modification can be inherited by subsequent offspring. The potential to eventually eliminate diseases like cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s chorea, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimers through this technology may be irresistible, and may eventually force the moral issues emerging from this technology to be addressed.

This field is emerging and growth in the field is exponential. I am a reader of Science magazine, and only became aware of this technology since CRISPR was declared the science development of the year in 2015. Since that time, multiple commercial companies have been created, some of which had their IPO last year. It is my prediction that within the next two years, this technology will become widely known and discussed, and remember, you heard it here first.