The Buzz About Bees

Remember that story a few years back about the mysterious honeybee affliction known as Colony Collapse Disorder? It didn’t remain in the headlines for long but it should have: Honeybees pollinate up to 1/3 of the world’s crops. Lose them and we lose a great deal of human civilization to malnutrition.

I was reminded of this sad phenomena over the holidays when, from city to city, county to county, I kept stepping over dead and dying honeybees. Not just one, but several. Not merely one week, but several weeks in a row. Three years earlier — and what first brought CCD to my attention when I came online in search of an explanation — I took a walk in a local park and saw hundreds of bees dying on the ground. It was all I could do to keep my dog from stepping on them, a number of them still trying, fruitlessly so, to fly. A few weeks later at another park, I saw the same phenomena. The carnage became so commonplace that year that I eventually lost count.

Now here comes a late-breaking 2009 headline nearly lost amidst end-of-year festivities:

Bayer ‘Disappointed’ in Ruling on Chemical That May Harm Bees | Bloomberg.com

Bayer’s newest chemical wonder, Spirotetramat, was not on the market when CCD surfaced, but what is alarming about this story is that the EPA apparently approved it, critics allege, knowing that it could heighten or accelerate the harm to a critical link in the food chain.

Our food chain.

This story begs the question: How many scientists, executives and EPA administrators over the years have let “just one” pass, downplaying the cumulative harm to animal and human immune systems alike? It also is a reminder that our collective attention span is painfully short. In 2006 the EPA urged DuPont, maker of the ubiquitous nonstick coating Teflon®, among others, to enter a voluntary agreement to phase out the controversial chemical ingredients known as PFOA/PFOS. Here we are in 2010 — the date when 95 percent of this “likely carcinogen” was supposed to be eliminated from factory emissions, and eventually our food packaging, bathroom cleaners, stain repellents, cookware, electronics and personal care products — and no dice. Conveniently, the “real” phase-out date is 2015.

Do we really need to ask why there is a cancer epidemic? An autism epidemic? More people suffering from degenerative diseases despite better nutrition in the modern era? Increased autoimmune illnesses, among them an epidemic of childhood asthma? Or do we need only look in the mirror?

This isn’t a pitch toward “radical environmentalism” and it isn’t a slam on Big Corporate Enterprise. This is about self interest. No one will watch our backs if we ourselves won’t. As consumers, what we buy dominates the market. What we refuse to purchase will fall by the wayside for lack of consumer demand. True, it sounds far-fetched to think that we wield that kind of power. But big trends start with little people — ordinary folks who have the foresight to lead the way.

Our vote is our pocketbook.

Above and beyond any political or ideological position, those who hope and pray for a happy, healthy life for their children and grandchildren have cause to care. The emerging science of epigenetics suggests that undesirable genetic traits, when awakened by environmental triggers such as stress, obesity, malnutrition and toxins in our environment, may alter the expression of DNA inherited by our children and their children. No longer is the biblical metaphor that holds that the “‘sins’ of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons” merely figurative. If an disaster of apocalyptic proportions is afoot — as some have asserted — it is manmade, not God-made.

Speculation as to the cause of CCD abounds, but this much science makes increasingly clear as we plow deeper into the 21st Century: There is no such thing as a zero impact. Even seemingly inconsequential actions undergo a magnifier effect in the real world, not unlike an expanding ripple on a pond. This sets in motion repercussions for bees and people alike. But that realization, as dire as it sounds, is also key to our success: Assuming we created the problem, we can fix it.

Our greatest challenge is to simply acknowledge that there is a problem.

Fortunately for us, we’re not living in 1965 or even 1985. It has never been easier to jot down a product name and research its profile with minimal time, effort and expense on the Internet. Just a few minutes a week or month may literally mean the difference between those companies who profit at our expense vs. those who are forced to evolve their products to meet the expectations and needs of smarter consumers.

It’s a new year and a new decade. The future is in our hands.

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Resources

Secret Life of Bees | Whittier Daily News

Use of Potentially Harmful Chemicals Kept Secret Under Law | Washington Post

DuPont’s PFOA May Face New Rules | DelawareOnline

National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals | CDC

Unusual Suspects: Pollution May be Making You Fat | Popular Science

National Toxicology Program | Department of Health and Human Services

Pesticide Action Network North America | PAN Pesticide Database

Everyday Pollution Solutions | The Environmental Working Group

To Own or be Owned: A Virtual Reality Check

Amazon’s electronic reading device known as Kindle is not exactly as “Green” as it is cracked up to be, but now we have another reason to reconsider the merits of paper-based reading: Censorship.

Kindle users may not have anticipated it, but Amazon can recall an e-book purchase at the push of a virtual button. Need those annotations for a book report? If your digital reading material is recalled, Amazon removes those too.

Tough luck.

Amazon claims they are working to amend a hasty retraction process that resulted when an allegedly unauthorized source made available a number of e-books to which the lawful copyright holder objected, reports the New York Times in “Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle Devices“. Refunds for the illicitly encoded material are on the way, but the questions have only begun. And well they should.

In an ongoing series on the transformative impact of high tech, the Social Critic aims to explore the lesser known consequences of the virtual world. In this instance, we find a stark reminder that in the digital universe the price of “virtual” amounts to easy come, easy go. You can’t share an e-book. You can’t recycle an e-book reader — at least not in the Green manner one might have hoped [see “GreenSmart vs. GreenDumb”]. And you can’t take for granted that you “own” anything in the virtual realm in the same physical manner it is possible to own DVDs, books, magazines, newspapers and the like.

What this article doesn’t touch upon is disturbing in its own right: The questionable health effects, particularly on the eyes and brain, of exchanging the tangible for an imperceptibly flickering digital view screen. Over time, exposure may blunt brain development in children, promote sleep and attention disorders, lead to career-limiting repetitive strain injuries to the spine, elbowswrists or fingers — or more commonly still, eyestrain and headaches — all while aiming electromagnetic radiation at our craniums (of which cell phones and CRT monitors are among the worst EMF offenders). None of this, however, takes into account the fastest growing concern of all: the controversial notion of Internet addiction. Until recently, in fact, China took a very heavy-handed approach to digital addicts: electroshock therapy.

Library systems, in a sign of the times, are taxed, meanwhile, not by people who wish to check out books but by the number of people who wish to access the Internet. As discussed in the aforementioned post, the billions of computer users plugged into electric grids around the world, connected, in turn, by scores of Internet data centers, come at a profound environmental cost that most of us fail to appreciate. In the US, these electrical requirements translate into burning more coal, a process that for all the talk of “clean“, is anything but.

In the irony of all ironies, this Digital New Age appears to have brought us full circle: From transnational trains at the turn of the last Century belching out billowing clouds of coal-black ash to power plant smokestacks “sequestering“, at best, billions of short tons of the same in the opening decades of the 21st Century. Much of this progress arrives under the trendy guise of going Green — paying our bills online, killing time on Facebook and surfing for free media content on the web even as news and content providers go broke for their efforts. Talk about unsustainable — in more ways than one!

In exchange for the privilege of conducting increasing amounts of our business and personal lives virtually, we pursue nifty new interfaces — costly electronic devices, cell phones and seemingly essential hardware and software packages, which we have been conditioned to frequently upgrade as a result of wear, tear and obsolescence. All of this lends itself quietly but effectively to privacy-intruding remote processes most of us fail to comprehend. Ours is an inverse relationship with technology: As the devices of our supposed need or pleasure become exponentially complex, our appreciation for how little we control, own and regard as personal and private diminishes.

Are our ownership claims even worth the virtual paper they are printed on?

Probably not.

Have you read any virtual fine print, for that matter, lately?

Who does?

Arguably, it causes more eyestrain — a greater headache literally and figuratively — to read a large body of typewritten material on a bright, brazen, backlit surface largely devoid of eye-resting “white space”, much of it jam-packed instead with ad-based imagery begging for attention. So what’s a person without an entire day to spend sifting through this chaotic “information soup” to do? Answer: Go in search of the news, information, social contact and entertainment we want — not necessarily that which we need.

In spite of our collective fascination, electronic interfaces are simply too fatiguing for many users to devote a great deal of voluntary attention to any single task. Real-world books, newspapers, magazines, DVDs and music albums are carefully crafted, edited, designed and packaged, whereas in the virtual world we are often gatekeepers and content generators — empowering, to be sure, but demanding nonetheless. For instance, few of us went to the time and expense to crop, retouch and “develop” our own photos years ago, but nowadays the time, expense and effort of digital photography — the self-service we euphemistically refer to as “creative control” — is a common undertaking by many a digital camera owner. But what happens when time, attention spans and the digital format itself are limiting factors?

It stands to reason that as the novelty of this digital medium wears off, we will increasingly reserve our limited energies for learning a whole lot more about a whole lot less, particularly in comparison to our analog-based predecessors. The information at our fingertips may be limitless but our patience is not. More disturbing, the digital landscape may not be as boundless as we would like to believe. Not only does the virtual printing press make it a lot easier to remove unflattering stories from the electronic record, it’s also a lot easier to let the news we can use fade into a backdrop of dizzying digital distractions, the search result that never appears, the umpteenth page we never click.

For all his technological high hopes, would the late, great newsman, Walter Cronkite, be impressed?

When a resource is rare, even something so amorphous as “the news”, it is perceived as valuable and desirable. When it’s easy, cheap and pervasive, we take for granted that it will always be there, and that nothing will escape us even if we opt out entirely. If an asteroid were headed our way, many of us would learn of it from a coworker or a friend on MySpace — the proverbial grapevine now stronger than ever, the “herd immunity” theory, if you will, applied to social awareness.

Witness the phenomena of college-educated individuals passing along hoaxes, chain letters and urban legends via email without so much as a 30-second effort to verify the claim. Technology may make it easier to avoid making fools of ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we’re making the best use of it. The Digital Age, in this respect, presents a curious duality: People who are inclined to believe almost anything they see and read in an email or on YouTube, and those who become so wary of sloppy citizen journalism and anonymous email assertions that eventually mainstream media sources are lumped in the same suspect category. Such is life in the disposable e-universe: The democratization of information on the one hand, the responsibilities of liberty diminished on the other.

As much as technology connects us, a prevailing counterforce threatens our capacity for common experience, shared culture and community values. In the virtual world we lose, most notably, what art, literature and history buffs refer to as a “sense of place“. As our digital future progresses, we are certain to experience less and less of the hallowed, snapshot-in-time sensation of looking back on an old photo, magazine, newspaper, yearbook or, for that matter, the tactile experience of turning the pages of a letter or book sans mouse and keyboard.

There’s something we’re sacrificing in this brave new world, and it’s more than the paper it is written on.

Welcome to the here and now. It’s great for contract attorneys and high-tech moneymakers — a deceptive deal for the environment, news providers, and consumers alike. Still, we’re eating it up, one “IT” gadget off the production line at a time. Pay off that home or car loan early? Save money for the kids’ college tuition or your retirement fund? Embark on a once-in-a-lifetime road trip from coast to coast? Naw. We have more pressing pastimes to spend our digital dinero on. And they’re lovin’ it.

Psst! I hear Sony makes a pretty cool e-book reader, too. Circuit City, anyone? Their virtual doors are open for business!

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Resources:

Printed Copies of Orwell Books Pulled from Kindle | Yahoo News

Some E-Books Are More Equal Than Others | David Pogue/NYT

Internet Use Burns Coal, Report Says

Better Technology Needed if Carbon Sequestration is to be Viable | TSAugust

The Internet Begins with Coal

The Internet is Big and has a Carbon Footprint to Match

Data Center Overload | NYT Magazine

User Demand for the Internet Could Outpace Network Capacity by 2010

The Sustainability Challenge: Can the Internet Help?

The Illusion of Being Well Informed | The New Ledger

When Computers Attack: Protect Yourself from Computer-Related Health Problems

Ergonomists: Kids too are at Risk from Repetitive Strain Injuries | Science Daily

Nighttime Computer Users May Lose Sleep

Look What They’ve Done to My Brain, Ma

Brain & Behavior: Blame it on the Box

Mind Control by Cell Phone | Scientific American

Is Google Making Us Stupid? | The Atlantic

Is Google Making Us Smarter? | Seed Magazine

Men as Internet Victims

Do Social Networks Bring the End of Privacy?

Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Issues Warning on Cell Phone Risks

Teens Risk Health with Night Texting, Talking

Social Networks: Primates on Facebook | The Economist

Who Really Owns Your Phone?

Did You Hear About Censorship?

Internet Censorship in the US? Or Just Law Enforcement?

Top 25 Censored Stories for 2009 | Project Censored

Is Professional Blogging a Sustainable Business Model?

The Economy of Free is Stupid | Social Media Explorer

Free is Not a Business Model

Are the Days of Free Internet News Coming to an End?

Internet Companies: The End of the Free Lunch — Again

Advertising Is Not a Sustainable Business Model for the Web

Thoughts on the Costs of Digital vs. Paper

The Future of Reading — Digital vs. Print | Seattle Times