January 27, 2016

Hi there - My blog has moved to my website

My copywriting business, The Art of Writing Science, is now the home of my blog and much else. Please come by and say hello!

September 10, 2013

Traumatized War Vets

You know those plastic ribbons you see on the backs of some cars? Usually they're yellow or camouflage-patterned and say, "We support our troops." 

I sometimes fantasize about pulling them off and replacing them with ones that say, "Support our troops - bring them home." I long to do this because, though most of them do come home, 20-30% of them come back traumatized, suffering, and suicidal by what they've seen and done, according to a heart-piercing piece in this week's New Yorker, The Return: The traumatized veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

I will never pull one of those ribbons off a car because it would be disrespectful. The ribbons are placed there by people who have a brother or sister, son or daughter, or parent fighting. They are all suffering as it is. My urge to do so comes from frustration with our inability to learn that war seldom seems to solve conflict.

William Kowalski has written a marvellous fictional account of the suffering of a soldier that makes a good companion piece to the New Yorker article, treating in fiction the fact that we are quick to send young people to war and very slow at helping them when they return. The Hundred Hearts tells the story of Jeremy Merkin, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who suffers from PTSD and how he just might heal. It tells the story of his father, Al, a Vietnam veteran who also did not return whole from war.

Learning what I have from these accounts makes it harder to see how our politicians and military leaders can justify how Canada has turned its back on its peacekeeping traditions for their current war-making stance. Noah Richler, in What We Talk About When We Talk About War, takes this on. 

June 13, 2013

Enough is enough - Another toxic spill from the oil industry in Alberta

In case we needed any more evidence that the oil and gas industry is unsafe and poorly regulated, there is news of the largest recent spill of toxic waste in North America. Almost 10 million litres of what is believed to be hydrocarbons, salt water, sulphurous compounds, heavy metals, radioactive material, and chemical solvents and additives used by oil extractors has destroyed a swath of Northern Alberta. In a Globe and Mail report, a Houston company called Apache Corp. has admitted to the spill, says it's stopped the leak and "taken steps to contain the release as the company continues to map, sample and monitor the impacted areas."

No word on how they intend to prevent this from happening in future. Certainly, Canadian regulators have done little to prevent this kind of thing, according to the local Dene people.

It's long past time to regulate the oil and gas industry properly, as well as reject the Keystone XL pipeline, any pipeline from the tar sands, and the tar sands themselves.

May 27, 2013

Refusing the Keystone pipeline is only a start

The pressure being applied on the US administration to approve the Keystone pipeline by the Conservative government in Canada is expensive: to Canadians, to our reputation around the world, and to the planet.

It's costing Canadian taxpayers millions of dollars in advertising that the Department of Natural Resources is spending to convince the US government that tar sands oil should be exploited and shipped from Alberta to Texas.

It's furthering the embarrassment that Canada has become on the world stage as a country that doesn't take environmental concerns seriously.

Elizabeth Kolbert, in a New Yorker editorial this week, pointed out that, if the tar sands are fully mined, the cost to the atmosphere would be 22 billion metric tonnes of carbon. We simply can't afford that. As Kolbert concluded, "The pipeline isn't inevitable, and it shouldn't be treated as such. It's just another step on the march to disaster."

Yes, we have to oppose the Keystone pipeline. But that is only a symbol. The tar sands will be mined regardless. What is more important is that we stop strip mining Alberta for dirty oil.

March 12, 2013

Government acting as industry cheerleaders

We pride ourselves on being a rational species. Yet many of the most important choices we make ignore data that scientists have collected. Instead, we make public policy or decisions that are based on convenience and/or profit. Global warming, genetically engineered food, the tar sands. The list is endless and should convince us that it is business and the need for economic growth that is our bottom line. I wrote about the tar sands on January 9, but another great example of this is aquaculture and, in particular, salmon farming.

Alex Morton is a marine wildlife biologist who has studied orcas on Vancouver Island for over 30 years. For the past two decades Morton's studies of salmon farms have led to her vehement opposition to the practice, as it endangers wildlife in the area and leads to environmental destruction. Her movie, Salmon Confidential, is worth watching.

On the opposite coast, the Friends of Port Mouton Bay have been studying the impact of open-net salmon farms in their bay on the south shore of Nova Scotia, previously a wonderful lobster ground. Scientists, fishers, and other concerned citizens have spent countless hours collecting scientific data that has clearly indicated that farming practices have led to a degradation of the lobster fishery and a devastation of the local economy. Although the FPMB have two professional oceanographers on their team and reams of high-quality scientific data to back up their claims, they are virtually ignored by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and shut out of any consultation.

Clean Up Salmon Farming provides science-based information for those wanting to know about the threat of open net pen salmon farming to Atlantic salmon and East Coast communities.

Here we have another prime example of the federal and provincial governments (in Nova Scotia and BC) acting as industry cheerleaders as opposed to the disinterested third party arbitrators they should be.

February 1, 2013

Animal-friendly Meat . . . yum?

You have to love Twitter. Friends tweeted two items, almost simultaneously, that have a lot in common and yet are very different.

First, I saw this ad, narrated by Elvis Costello, for Linda McCartney's line of vegan food. Obviously animal friendly. The song is called Heart of The Country by Sir Paul hisself.

Then my talented friend, Andrew Hazelden, who shares an interest in 3D printing, sent me this story of a US company, Modern Meadow, that has technology to make meat with a bio-printer. Also, I assume from first look, animal friendly.

Modern Meadow aims to print raw meat using bioprinter

So, if you like meat but not the way animals are raised and slaughtered, then there might one day soon be an option. But is it one that we want? Is it ethical?

January 9, 2013

The Catastrophe of Alberta Oil Sands Development

We are obsessed with scientific proof, best practices, and hard data. We rarely make our decisions based on that, but we do like to dot our 'i's and cross our 't's. Sometimes that information is used to justify a political decision. At other times it's ignored as insufficient to change the status quo (see climate change).

We saw a good example of this phenomenon this week when a report out of Queen's University gave us scientific evidence of what we already intuit: the Alberta tar sands are an environmental catastrophe.

Tar sands processing on the Athabasca River. Photo: S. Jocz.
from The Tyee http://thetyee.ca/Views/2008/01/25/TarSands/

We learned this week from a study published in PNAS, co-authored by Dr. John Smol, Canadian Research Chair in Environmental Change, that development of the Athabaskan tar sands since the 1960s has adversely affected environmental health. Levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have increased dramatically in lake depositions since bitumen extraction began five decades ago. PAHs are a serious health concern, causing cancer, birth defects, and increased chances of childhood asthma. What is most troubling is that Canadian guidelines for lake sediment (set by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment in 1999) have been exceeded for seven PAHs in the Athabasca region, including ones that are known carcinogens, mutagens, and teratogens. In the case of benz(a)anthracene, chrysene, benzo(a)pyrene, and dibenz(a,h)anthracene - four compounds known to cause cancer - the guidelines have been exceeded for about twenty years.

From Eradicating Ecocide in Canada
It will be interesting to see how the federal government reacts to this evidence.