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

Joe the Plumber: The Real Untouchable

Curt Eysink is an unpopular man.

Less than three months after assuming his post as executive director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, he told a panel charged with overhauling the state’s higher education system: “We’re producing a workforce that we cannot employ in Louisiana.”

The problem? Too many four-year college grads and not enough low-skill and vocational trade workers.

Where is the job growth?

The service industry.

“[O]ccupational forecasts that show the state will produce 10,312 more four-year graduates than there are jobs to fill between 2008 and 2016, while at the same time there are 3,892 more jobs available requiring associates’ or technical degrees than there are people to fill them, ” reports Jan Moller of the Times Picayune.

Fairly or not, such news equates in Americans’ minds with sub par wages. And low-wage prospects make Americans see red.

“If I saw the strongest growth area was ushers, lobby attendants and ticket-takers, I’d leave Louisiana too,” said Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Outside of Louisiana this story has not gained much traction. But it is far from a Louisiana fluke.

“According to the Forgotten MiddleSkill Jobs reports by The Workforce Alliance, middle-skill occupations, which require more than a high school education but less than a four-year degree, make up roughly half of all employment in the nation, compared with only 1/3 of high-skill occupations that require at least a four-year education,” writes Ann Pace in “The Forgotten Middle Worker“, published in September.

Louisiana was not among the states studied but it very well could have been: The Workforce Alliance analysis of middle-skill job demands include Washington, Oregon, California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Rhode Island — all of which have proven consistent with the national outlook, survey reports show.

Welcome to the future, America.

The mainstream media is either entirely oblivious to real job trends, or chooses to keep Americans in the dark because a future filled with ticket-takers, cashiers, healthcare aides, auto mechanics and electricians isn’t the kind of news we want to hear. To the contrary, syndicated New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in October, argued that “our schools are failing” to promote American competitiveness, in part, because we allegedly have a shortage of science, engineering, mathematics and other such high-tech grads. The “new untouchables“, by Friedman’s definition, are those who maintain an innovative and stable career in an increasingly cutthroat economy.

Message: Make schools more competitive. This will cure America’s globalized bellyache.

Improving student literacy, of course, is never a waste of time. What Friedman and others fail to take under consideration, however, is that few Americans work in the field they studied in college. That includes so-called STEM grads (science, technology, engineering and math majors).

But wait, it gets better!

Susan Hockfield, MIT’s president, takes the argument to a whole new level of absurdity in an October opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal in which she pleas for immigration reform to allow more foreign-born STEM grads to stay in the U.S. for permanent work as “jobs creators” and “Nobel winners”.

Who hires those foreign grads on H-1B visas? Microsoft, Google and other heavy hitters. This is the last thing most Americans call job creation. Hockfield’s suggestion reeks, instead, of domestic job displacement. Why? Because fewer U.S. citizens are likely to pursue challenging Ph.D.-level curriculum when their post-graduation economic stability is undercut by inexpensive foreign talent (insourcing/outsourcing). American-born students aren’t stupid, they’re pragmatic: What incentive is there to incur massive student loan debts if at best “employment insecurity” is the reward for the effort? And finally, to add insult to injury, independent studies from The Urban Institute, RAND Corp.Duke and Rutgers University, among others, say the so-called demand for high-tech and high-skill foreign workers doesn’t even exist — and that was true before the Great Recession cut loose thousands of qualified workers, dumping them back into the open market:

Is Anybody Safe?

Here’s how Eysink gets it right and the corporate and academic sources often quoted on this subject slant it wrong: Highly skilled foreign students aren’t coming to American universities to pursue jobs as lobby attendants or cashiers on the one hand, or the better paying “skilled trades”, such as auto mechanics, electricians and machinists, on the other. They are pursuing cream-of-the-crop professional skills whereas non-manufacturing jobs that require hands-on skills are relatively unscathed. After all, if your pipes burst you aren’t calling a plumber in China; your hairdresser will not be replaced anytime soon with a computerized robot; and your auto body repairperson is unlikely to be supplanted by a foreign grad student.

Nobody is arguing that these are ideal aspirations for Americans — only that middle-skill jobs are relatively safe from the insource/outsource phenomena. But when lettuce pickers and high-tech whiz kids are both here on work visas — if legally at all — watch out.

That should scare us.

When Eysink says that vocational and low-skill jobs are where much of the growth projections are, he’s only saying what everyone working on behalf of community and state employment agencies already knows.

What is telling is that Eysink’s neck has been slashed for sticking it out too far.

Eysink’s blunt outlook flies in the face of the education-as-a-panacea argument that has been the politically correct solution to all that ails the U.S. economy for at least 30 years now. Might tax incentives drive U.S. corporations to seek greener pastures offshore? Naw. Might looser environmental and human rights standards make foreign labor attractive? Naw. Might this be a predictable outgrowth of border-free trade? Naw. Let’s just dismiss all those larger-than-life realities and jump on the little guy at a state agency for saying what we already knew but are too afraid to admit.

The School of Hard Knocks

Following the conventional go-back-to-school advice, unemployed Americans are enrolling in schools of all stripe. Those educational pursuits often involve taking out student loans. If obtaining anything short of high-demand professional or trade skills isn’t going to cut it in this Brave New Economy — and the national jobless rates hover above 10 percent as many economists project — it suggests that many freshly minted grads and their return-to-school adult counterparts will not secure stable employment by which to repay educational debts.

The next consumer debt “bubble” to burst the American economy before the effects of the Great Recession are entirely behind us may well be a student lending bubble. Louisiana state Governor Bobby Jindal isn’t the only one reading the writing on the wall. Other states are following suit, attempting to prevent a tsunami of student loan defaults at a time when more prospective students are clamoring for a university education and the academic loans to fund them.

What makes misguided career advisement particularly unforgivable, in the end, is that we Americans are only doing what we’ve been told to do by media, educators and the President himself: Earn new or improved academic credentials in hopes of securing a better future even if it means a prohibitive amount of debt.

Higher education is never a waste in the aim of creating an informed, well-rounded citizen. Economic betterment is also a useful reason to invest in education — assuming one’s skills aren’t so easily ravaged by globalization. As for the rest of the American public?

A rude awakening. And another swipe at an already ailing economy to boot.

Ah, but thankfully there is a silver lining: All hope is not lost for children who fail to become the academic superstars this Brave New Economy demands. Friedman and his pontificating friends may not appreciate it now, but America’s new untouchable may be Joe the Plumber.

Judging from the state of America’s aged and crumbling infrastructure, we’re going to need more Joes than we know.

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Resources

State Labor Department Says LA Has Too Many 4-Year College Grads/AP

The Workforce Alliance

Skills2Compete

America’s High-Tech Sweatshops | BusinessWeek

The H-1B Visa Lull Is Only Temporary | BusinessWeek

Is This Why I Went to College? | BusinessWeek

Congress’ H-1B Program Displaces Daughter of Programmers Guild President Out of Job Market

There is No High-Tech Shortage | The Social Contract

The Science Education Myth | BusinessWeek

The Myth of the Math and Science Shortage | Mises Institute

Another Scientist Shortage? | Science Careers

Nine Myths About Public Schools | Gerald Bracey of the Huffington Post

A Look Back: The Near-Myth of Our Failing Schools | The Atlantic