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You are here: Home Resources Nature and Society, Journal of the Frank Fenner Foundation 2002 Nature & Society - August 2002

Nature & Society - August 2002

The Forum's Journal

The Director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, Peter Raven, has been described by Time magazine as a hero of our planet. His is one of the major faces in the public campaign to try to stop human actions from ruining the planet by causing loss of biodiversity, climate change and the various other ills we are inflicting on the Earth.

Despite the mischief our species is causing to the planet, and the threat we pose to the survival of our own and other species, Peter Raven is optimistic that we will come to our senses. He trusts that people will act in their own best interests and those of their descendants.

If this is to happen there will have to be a major change in our culture. We will have to stop acting for immediate gratification and take a longer term view. This is a lot to ask. Too many people see the best thing they can do for themselves and their family is to make a lot of money now. At least this is the impression given by much of the news. We are told that companies do this or that; sack workers, indulge in shady deals, falsify accounts or move offshore, because shareholders (not to mention directors) are demanding bigger dividends. Government too, seem to regard this year’s accounts as paramount. It has been sad to see governments sell off assets to make the current year’s accounts look good. It is amazing to see them sell buildings then lease them back, so that in tens year’s time all the profit will have gone and the rent will be a continuing cost to public resources. It is downright weird, given that private individuals are encouraged to see rent as money down the drain, whereas paying off a mortgage will give them their own capital asset.

In fact foresight seems a very rare commodity. Governments have supported land clearing and irrigation, both seen as forward thinking in earlier times but now known to cause salinisation which has cost and will cost us dearly. Governments encouraged tobacco growers; now individuals and the medical system are paying for it. Poor quality food and bad eating habits have been promoted by advertising campaigns but again the cost is to individuals and the health care system.

So much of what we have done in developing our economies has seemed far-sighted, but has in the not–so-long term turned out instead to be short-sighted. By the time the danger has become obvious it has been very hard to turn it around, there are too many vested interests, too much at stake, for the course to be changed. Water usage is a case in point at present. For a long time the answer to living in a dry land has been to build dams, but instead of saving that water for a drought, it has been used to its maximum capacity.
Governments have given away in entitlements to irrigators more water than actually exists. Now there is a major drought, the harm caused by salinisation is being recognised, and there is a push to restore environmental flows to rivers, but governments have a fight on their hands when they try to reduce entitlements to water.

The same problem is occurring in our use of fossil fuels. There unfortunately, sheer inertia, plus the claims of doom to our economy from the fossil fuel industries, combined with people’s love affair with their cars, seems to make it impossible for government to make the only rational choice and move into renewable energies in a big way.

So it is too, with the proponents of a larger population. Every few weeks, it seems, some prominent person says we must move to increase Australia’s birthrate. Any sane appraisal of the state of the world must see that growth in human numbers cannot continue forever. No growth can go on forever, and when it stops major dislocation, or worse, could be the result. However if it is recognised that growth must stop, then with careful planning the slow down and stopping can be made much smoother. There is no reason society cannot adjust to and benefit from a birthrate below replacement level. A low birthrate is inevitable if most of the population is to live to eighty years or so. A high birthrate is only compatible with a shorter life expectancy for everyone if our world is to stay habitable. Who will volunteer to drop dead at forty?

David Pimentel, another US scientist has been in Australia recently talking about the way we are stretching the Earth beyond its limits. He, too, declares that he is optimistic about humanity’s ability to solve the current crisis. Humans have, over and over again, shown themselves capable of rising to challenge and mobilising themselves to deal effectively with it. The trouble is that this time the challenge is ourselves, our own selfishness and acquisitiveness.

Yes, there are many things humans could do that would be in our own and our children’s and grandchildren’s best interests. We could cut our fossil fuel use to almost nothing, we could use our land and water in kinder, more sustainable ways. We could learn to live with a smaller population. To do these things we first have to recognise the problems and accept that these are necessary solutions that need to be adopted now. It is unkind, unjust and extremely short-sighted to let the problems go on growing and leave them to future generations to solve.

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Forthcoming NSF meetings

21 August

The Double-Edged Sword - Interactions of nature and society in response to serrated tussock in Monaro
— Alice Thompson

This presentation is based on a study examining nature and society interactions in Monaro, South-east NSW, in response to the introduction and spread of the pasture weed Serrated Tussock (Nasella trichotoma). Serrated tussock is considered to be amongst the most important weed species in Monaro, providing a significant threat to the social, economic and ecological sustainability of many landholders throughout the region, and grazing properties of South-east NSW.

On a local scale, this presentation will explore broader patterns of change over time, in the context of the biophysical, social and institutional settings of the Anembo/Jerangle region, using serrated tussock as an indicator. The relative nature, timing and scale of these changes will be discussed, in order to gain an understanding of the complex interplay of human and environmental factors leading to the spread of serrated tussock, and subsequent difficulties faced by many landholders in managing the weed. Through taking an historical and integrated perspective, this study, and presentation, provides insights into the conditions where the control of serrated tussock is possible.

18 September


This is to be held at 7.45 pm, at the NSF office.

16 October

Report on World Summit on Sustainable Development

20 November

The Printing Industry - Moving to Sustainability? - Barry Neane of the Printing Industries Association of Australia

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Developmental Health

One of the faces of medical scientists on a stamp issue early this year was that of Perth epidemiologist Fiona Stanley. In an interview on the National Interest (RN 27-1-02) she talked about a new association, the National Partnership for Developmental Health and Wellbeing, bringing together experts from a number of fields of interest. The partnership has arisen from a shared concern that a range of indicators have been negative over the last 30 years; child and youth health, educational outcomes, crime rates, unemployment, youth competencies, all have been getting worse.

Irrespective of how poverty and inequality are measured, there is an increase in all the poor outcomes in young people, and greater inequality in those outcomes. It is important to find a new way to make a difference, as it is expensive and ineffective to try to address these issues at the end of the pathway. Early intervention could solve the problems at source. It is now known that giving support during pregnancy, and improving birthweights can reduce the risk of depression and suicide later on. Good parenting in the first four years of life is crucial and so, too, is success at school. It is no good waiting until later to pick up the pieces.

The problem is worldwide. The Partnership will be a clearinghouse for successful interventions from all over the world, with the information available on their website.

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What is community science?

Jenny Wanless reports on the NSF June discussion meeting featuring a talk by Anna Carr.

Anna Carr invited us to have a very interactive discussion on what community science is, and why we need it. She pointed out that community science is developing rapidly, but is loosely defined. It is the intersection and interaction of globalised institutional science and community based scientific knowledge systems which often monitor, model or measure local species or the state of the environment in a particular locality.

It can be a two-way process. Locals can monitor a perceived problem then invite agency scientists in to help, or agency scientists can enlist local groups. Locals can work to establish baseline information, measure the impact of human alteration to a system, or carry out long-term monitoring.

The direction of flow can make a difference to what is found out. When professional astronomers invite amateurs to help with data collection, the problem has been defined by the professionals and it is unlikely that anything unexpected will be found. When locals think something is happening in their backyard and set out to monitor it, they may find something quite unexpected. It is worth remembering that all science has its roots in community science in that naturalists started collecting for its own sake, or experimented, observed, wondered and theorised, which led to the scientific discoveries of the last four hundred years and the birth of what we know as science today.
So why do we still need it, when science has become professional and institutionalised? Anna and the meeting considered each of the words in the question “Why do we need community science?” (in reverse order). Scientific assessments are needed to provide the information on which to plan protective or remedial action. The process of investigation empowers the community scientists, many of whom are already ‘qualified by experience’, so they can act confidently and effectively. Also past data collections have been of great value in allowing modern comparisons, and current records need to be kept for future ones.

If we do not know what we have, we do not have a good idea of what we may be losing. It is important to have data, not just guess. Agency scientists rarely have the long-term resources to enable the careful monitoring locals can provide. With the recognition that more people covering a greater area allow for economies of scale, community science projects are increasing in both number and scope.
In general community science projects are viewed favourably - and so they should be. Valuable work is being done at very little cost to governments, and valuable solutions can be implemented. Nevertheless there are tensions and some professional scientists look down on community science as not being valid or valuable.

At this point in the discussion the Machiavellian analysis was made that the best way authorities could gain control of science was to starve institutional science of funds for anything other than priority projects (which are likely to generate big profits). Leave all the monitoring and the ‘unwanted’ parts of science to the amateurs, then denigrate their efforts as unscientific. Unfortunately, of course, there are community science efforts that are of dubious quality. But much community science is valuable and indeed, vital, as governments seem less and less willing to fund curiousity-driven research, or even the absolutely essential work of entomologists, field botanists, taxonomists and other apparently humble and humdrum specialities.

Anna suggested that we should think of the practice of science as a golem, a two-faced powerful, mythical figure which is both biddable and clumsily dangerous. This she said is true of both official science and community science. It can be harnessed for specific purposes, but can be dangerous if not employed within certain political and social contexts. Scientists are not a breed apart, their knowledge is not immaculate and the expertise of the community in dealing with everyday life needs to be experienced in their relationship with the practice of science.
In conclusion, Anna suggested that NSF could have a role in explaining and educating both the public and agency scientists about golem-science. We should critically examine the conduct of science, what it is about and how it is practised. We should not parrot the content of science as it is promoted by powerful elites and professionals. As it so happens, I think that we already do query, rather than parrot - and we certainly try to see more than one side of science and always treat it with a good dose of commonsense.

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The People's Health Charter

Jenny Wanless

Our guest speaker at the July meeting was Prue Borrman, coordinator of the ACT Health Care Consumers Association. She spoke of her attendance at the first People's Health Assembly, held in Bangladesh in 2000, an experience which she found very inspiring. Representatives from a thousand organisations from grassroots to national and international had come together 'to give a voice to the people and make their voices heard'. They drafted the People's Health Charter.

At the assembly they discussed the problems that are preventing a fair level of health care being available to everyone. The growing gaps between the wealthy and the poor, both within nations and between nations, result in extreme inequality in the provision of medical services. Many millions of people lack access to those basic essentials for health, clean water and adequate nutritious food.

The assembly followed from the declaration at the 1978 International Conference on Primary Health Care, held in Alma Ata, USSR in 1978, which had, optimistically, aimed for adequate health care for all within a few decades. Twenty years later many groups came together to organise the assembly, to try to move matters forward, to achieve the Alma-Ata goal.

The vision declared in the Charter is as follows: Equity, ecologically-sustainable development and peace are at the heart of our vision of a better world- a world in which a healthy life for all it a reality; a world that respects, appreciates and celebrates all life and diversity; a world that enables the flowering of people's talents and abilities to enrich each other; a world in which people's voices guide the decisions that shape our lives.

For further information, visit the website at

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Letters from Africa and beyond

Change is not achieved without pain
Surely, one of the greatest democratic advances in recent years is the change to majority rule in South Africa. For me, to come back to South Africa after 42 years was an experience of cultural change. Gone are the signs in public areas reserving them for whites only, gone are the hurtful remarks “these people could not run the country”, “if majority rule come in, there will be a blood bath” etc. Instead one hears “there have been a lot of changes” with different undertones depending on who says it. Yes, changes there have been; in the democracy newborn seven years ago. People have been able to choose their own leaders, nobody is excluded because of skin colour; black and white work side by side in shops, restaurants and on the sports fields.

Democracy has come fast and it is clear that on the short time scale the economy has suffered: inflation is high, effects of poverty and unemployment are disempowering for blacks as well as whites. Undoubtedly a lot of people have a lower quality of life now than before the end of apartheid. And yet, full democracy just had to come. It was the earlier situation that was abnormal, the one where the principle of apartheid allowed a minority to run the country with efficient but unfair methods. The longer that system lasted, the more difficult became the change. Fortunately, international pressure as well as internal resistance movements brought a democratic system and now the South Africans and the world must patiently help in building a brighter future.

For me, a short term visitor, South Africa had changed a lot. Fences and guards protect the wealthy and we were warned about the pick-pockets and the risk for robbery after dark. One is inevitably making the comparison with Australia where crime also exists albeit on a smaller scale. In South Africa the need for bread rather than the price of drugs is the driving force.

A road at the back of Butare
Rwanda - green and fertile, friendly people but a frightening history which people try to come to terms with. Some things have to be forgotten, some things remembered. Visiting our daughter, who is teaching at Rwanda’s National University in the small town of Butare, I borrow a bicycle to see what the country looks like. The road is dusty and eroded, lots of people shout and stare when the muzungu comes past on a bicycle. They seldom see whites and those they do see are frequently swishing by in a car.

The volcanic soil supports a green and fertile country. Banana plantations and eucalypt avenues edge the road. In the villages children run excitedly after the bicycle, smoke is mixed with smells from refuse heaps and latrines. A young man on a bicycle catches up with me and keeps me company with many signs and smiles but no common language; in the towns many people understand French and a few of the young kids have some English phrases but in the rural areas you need to know Kinyarwanda or Swahili.

Gorillas in the Mist
The new Rwanda, coming to terms with its history, is also trying to build a future. One industry that had been sadly harmed by the genocide is tourism. And yet there are marvellous national parks, the beautiful big Lake Kivu, a delightful climate and a reliable dry season. We visited the Volcanoes National Park in the Northwest were a few groups of Mountain Gorillas live. They have been studied by Dian Fossey and are also documented in the film “Gorillas in the Mist”. It is a lovely but not entirely easy bushwalk involved to reach them. With guides previously having found their whereabouts the gorillas can be found and seem to be quite unperturbed by people watching and snapping pictures, in fact showing a curiosity matching that of the human group. The baby gorillas climb playfully in the trees, the big gorillas display strength by beating their chests and all seem to be living a normal family life.

- Gösta Lyngå

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Book Review - Human Frontiers by Tony McMichael

reviewed by Keith Thomas

(An overview of this book is on the ABC’s Health Report website. My own review on the Sustainable Population Australia site focuses on the human population aspects. This review covers those other parts of the book most relevant to NSF readers.)

Tony McMichael, Director of the ANU’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, has produced a book that is a model of organisation and its theme is stated at the beginning: humankind’s long evolutionary and historical experience shows how the natural and social environments affect patterns of disease and survival. Appreciating this ecological perspective on human population health – at a time when critical stresses are appearing – is a prerequisite to achieving a sustainable future.

McMichael draws on all the life sciences and his compact style leaves readers without a life sciences background somewhat breathless and wishing there was a glossary to guide them through the underlying science. Nevertheless, the book remains comprehensible to the interested lay person and should be read by every environmental policy-maker.

The book introduces the three elements of natural selection: variation, competition and differential reproductive success, pointing out that a species does not have capabilities surplus to their current circumstances.

On that foundation McMichael traces human evolution beginning with the climatic cooling 5–2.5 mya which brought plant food species under pressure. These external influences coincided with a point where our ancestors had the opportunity to evolve rapidly. The change favoured a more complex human brain that could plan and dig, not merely gather visible and obvious foods. Survival was more likely for those with a good memory and with the greatest capacity for sharing. Charting human evolution from vegetarian, forest-dwelling Ardipithecine, through the Australopithecine to the omnivorous Homo genus, McMichael describes how humankind’s “wild Pleistocene genome” adapted to these changes: a restless species evolving at a breakneck pace. As the climate cooled, forests withdrew and there were more grazing animals which happened to be propitious food sources for our ancestors. As the Australopithecines lacked tools for catching meat live, they were originally scavengers. Later, as meat, especially bone marrow, enabled a bigger brain, they became more intelligent and more adaptable to climatic fluctuations and also able to make hunting tools and cooperate in hunting.

This larger brain came at a higher metabolic cost. But the increased intelligence made it feasible to adopt the previously too-risky strategy of sacrificing the energy-expensive colon (used to digest vegetation) for a larger brain (to hunt energy-rich meat).
Physical and mental attributes enabled non-specialized predation; each preyed-upon species was expendable. Humans were opportunistic and versatile and readily switched to other food species.

The mismatch between our Pleistocene-attuned biology and our current way of life has been amplified over the last century as urban sedentariness, dietary excesses and various socialized addictive behaviours (alcohol and tobacco) have become prominent features of modern human ecology.

McMichael shows how behavioural adaptations had social as well as physiological impacts on our species. Thus the controlled use of fire not only affected diet, it provided warmth and nocturnal security and so prolonged group interaction which, in turn, would have facilitated the emergence of language.

The detail intensifies as McMichael charts Homo sapiens through the Neolithic, from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist, over the most recent 0.2% of our evolution as a distinct species. The more specialised and settled farming communities were dependent upon a few staples, reducing their range of nutrients and increasing their exposure to famines. Settled living, in close proximity to livestock, also enabled microbes to cross easily to humans.

The industrial revolution brought new environmental risks and occupational hazards and about a century ago the modern affluent lifestyle exchanged infectious diseases for chronic non-communicable diseases, especially those of late adulthood: dietary imbalances, physical inactivity, addictions, diabetes, heart disease – diseases which do not exert natural selection pressure.

One of the book’s clear messages, stated more clearly and comprehensively than I have seen before: healthy people need healthy food. But the food should be of Pleistocene quality, produced in a Pleistocene biosphere. We know this can no longer be. The questions are: how distant are we from our ecological inheritance? Does it matter? If it matters, what can be done about it?

McMichael uses the book to argue for a refocusing of the discipline of epidemiology to take it beyond a base in traditional germ theory (an individual-oriented cause-and-effect approach, asking why this person has pathology X?) to an ecological approach (asking why a given population has a particular rate of pathology X).

In reading through this part of the book, I found no attempt to define good health, other than negatively (as the absence of poor health). McMichael is not as direct as he could be about the prior conditions for good health: societies with a sustainable ecological footprint; stable, rational, reliable social institutions; good topsoil, water, biodiversity; materially provident governance; societal equity and ecological sustainability. Within those societies, the individuals should be fit, with good nutrition, musculature and bones; active and well-coordinated; well-educated, enquiring and critical; well-adjusted; cooperative - contributing to the creativity and well-being of the society of which they are a part. McMichael’s “health” indices are about outcomes of morbidity and mortality and inputs – nutrition, female literacy that may, at population level, lead to improved health. But what leads to the best health?

If we do not address this, are not our Health Departments going to remain Injury and Illness Departments? Will not physical health be linked - too narrowly – to sport, specialist service providers and expensive technologies? Will not diet be emphasized at the expense of ecological health and physical activity patterns, two more important factors?

McMichael draws on “post-normal science” for his critique of epidemiology and also for his wider criticism of our traditional ways of looking at the planet’s ecology. Post-normal science enables us (a) to go beyond actual, current conditions to describe plausible future conditions; (b) to accommodate complexity, multiple layers of system-based uncertainties, a high level of decision stakes and a diversity of interested party perspectives. Further, (c) post-normal science is unsettling for traditional scientists as well as for non-scientists who are accustomed to rely on reductionist explanations and simple causality.

He develops this approach to show how post-normal science enables “ecological thinking”. Ecological thinking is subversive in two ways: (a) it criticizes the consumption-driven, high throughput, environmentally damaging economy; and (b) it transcends traditional, reductionist disciplines. To an ecologist the world is one of contingent probabilities within mutually adapted, self-ordering systems; ecological ideas lack the crispness of definition, simplicity of process and precision of measurement that characterize much physical and chemical science (and popular discourse). Understanding the world requires comprehension of non-linearities and uncertainties, complexity, self-organizing properties of systems and emergent properties.

McMichael’s reach extends to globalisation and politics. He shows how free trade can reduce labours and environmental controls and lead to the spread of disease. Although he refers to land pressures, he ignores power relations that underlie systems of land tenure: willing workers are excluded from productive land, not to preserve it for ecological reasons, but to enable rack-renting of tenants and to create and maintain a class for subsistence-wage exploitation in industries supplying the affluent West.

He shows how the rich/poor gap both within and between countries is directly correlated with poor population health. However, he does not consider whether poverty necessarily leads to poor health. Tribal, fourth world people have the least money but, where traditional lifestyles survive, do not experience such poor health as third world people.

Although McMichael describes the huge ecological footprint of the food industry in Western economies – compared with, for example, China - he does not consider the immense institutional clout of that industry which militates against a wide change toward eating fresh, Pleistocene foods. If we made that change, 90% of our supermarket aisles would be empty!

McMichael does, however, provide a stimulating and informative discussion of genetic modification of food which lays out where GM is equivalent to and different from natural processes; also the benefits and hazards of GM. Using the precautionary principle, he comes down against GM - for the present.

As a member of the International Panel on Climate Change, McMichael is strong on whether climate change is a reality and how climate change increases disease risk. His conclusion is that “It will be reasonable from here on to regard each extreme weather event as containing at least some human-induced component”. He illustrates the inertia in Earth’s climate saying that if we halt the build-up of greenhouse gases by 2070, the seas will continue to warm and expand for another thousand years, rising 1.5m. He adds that “As a culture medium, the world today is more conducive to the spread and circulation [of disease] than in the past”.

At this point I became impatient with the author’s call for more research and modelling – is more needed? We know we have to act; we know we have to change. Will yet more research convince more people? We can fine-tune our responses but McMichael is really telling us we need simple, significant measures now, not fine tuning over the decades to come. Surely there is a danger that further research excuses procrastination while more bizarre and desperate “patches” are proposed and evaluated (e.g., the proposal earlier this year to dump iron into the Indian Ocean to absorb CO2).

The later parts of the book are interwoven with insights from evolutionary psychology: “The task of achieving sustainability does not easily fit into our usual frame of social and political decision-making.” The changes required to achieve sustainability are immense. However, we have a brain that can contemplate the future and plan to influence it. Are these human intellectual powers a match for our “short-termist” heritage, manifest in selfish competitiveness? One of McMichael’s big questions concerns the way the tension between two evolutionarily-determined human mental attributes is played out: given our long standing expertise at dealing with urgent crises, flight-or-fight, which has brought us to our present environmental predicament, can we use our more recently acquired abilities for long-term planning, sophisticated scientific reasoning and information technology to rescue us from the short-termism of flight-or-fight?

McMichael illustrates this problem most clearly with his model which shows how (a) unsophisticated low-income economies produce environmental pressures (smoke, garbage, sewage) which are amenable to solutions of the flight-or-fight kind; (b) later industrialization produces pressures that are less apparent but more sinister (air pollution, heavy metals, poor water quality); (c) late industrial and population pressures (biodiversity loss, global warming, fresh water depletion, CO2) impact on the entire biosphere and our flight-or-fight short-sightedness, which leads to treatments which manifest the “tragedy of the commons”, and militate against effective global solutions. More recent pressures are difficult both to understand and to comprehend, more expensive to treat and the time required for remediation extends beyond the timeframes humans have needed to consider in the past.

Perhaps falling victim to his own evolutionary psychology, McMichael is somewhat anthropocentric. His account of biodiversity, for example, explains how biodiversity is required for human health - excellent so far as it goes. But, given the book’s ecological and evolutionary underpinnings, this begins to jar as the book progresses. His best possible future appears to be one of a planet in which the domination by humankind can continue with sustainable good health and well-being for the species Homo sapiens. His past is one of human kind living and evolving with an “eternal frontier”; his future is one where forests, wildernesses, the oceans, Antarctica, the atmosphere – all will need precision management so human populations can be sustained healthily. For McMichael biodiversity is desired to sustain Homo sapiens’ domination of the planet.

Throughout, McMichael uses the useful concept of the ecological footprint. But is this too benign a term? Perhaps “monopolized destruction zone” or “planetary damage area” would be better.

What are the author’s conclusions? He does his best to end with optimistic words. But his optimism requires that we resolve the many problems he has outlined. This implies the coordination of people and governments, altruism, priority to decision making with very long-term time horizons, subjugation of short-termism and irrationality (which lead to conflict and huge opportunity costs of human and natural resources).

And his practical solutions? Education is an answer: from increased female literacy in third world societies through to an understanding of science, especially the natural causes of natural events including evolution and ecology. This would mean confronting creationism among Christians, Muslims and indigenous peoples alike. Perhaps a Biocentre, not “more research”, to convince more people in our open democracy.
McMichael seems to shy away from confronting his predicted massive environmental catastrophe which is so complex and so far outside our historical experience that we are unlikely to act soon enough to avert it. He struggles with the political reality that the criteria of efficiency, fairness and environmental sustainability each have to be met for any solution to be politically achievable before a disaster can be avoided. He treads gingerly so as not to offend rather than address patterns of future planetary governance for sustainability.
While the science points to ecological crisis, politicians look to the next election and economists assume there is no future worth considering beyond a generation. This leaves only the ecologists and spinners of speculative fiction with a time horizon stretching thousands of years into the future.

Having thus criticized the book, I should add that the author himself gave me the tools to make these criticisms in ways I would not have been able to manage before reading it. Although the book lapses into anthropocentrism, other books are totally anthropocentric and it is rarely remarked upon.

So, I’ll end with five positives about the book.

Although the book was put together quickly, its logical sequencing, easy flow and cumulative explanations are remarkable.
McMichael makes his points with well-chosen illustrations. One this reader found most striking was the difference in timescale between nature and the political decision-makers: we learn that Finland is slowly rising above sea level: it is actually bouncing back after being compressed by the polar icecap during the last ice age. Another example: humans consume 40% of terrestrial photosynthetic product by way of plant foods, clearing land and forest, degrading land and building over land. For a quick taste of his compact and entertaining style, read his account of Lyme disease on page 117.

His graphs, also, are brilliantly selected and very telling – powerful examples of a picture being worth a thousand words. Each repays careful study.

Each chapter ends with a 2-3 page summary and conclusion. How did the author find time to be so well organized with such a short gestation time for the book? Many of the references in the annotated bibliography of 36 pages are from 2000, even 2001. (Stephen Boyden’s concept of evodeviationary behaviour is among the references).

With its effective presentation of the pros and cons of topical, controversial issues, this is a resource book for activists. I indulged myself by giving copies to my close relatives last Christmas!

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Osteoporosis and Diet
Back in the 1920s doctors found that patients whose kidneys were failing had bloated stomachs caused by build-up of acid. They also had unusually fragile skeletons. When patients were given bicarbonate to counter the acid, their bones unaccountably grew stronger.
In 1968 two Harvard researchers published a letter in the Lancet suggesting that an acid-forming diet would weaken bones. The body maintains a pH of 7.4, just on the alkaline side of neutral. If the pH falls to 7.38 the body breaks down bone and muscle to release carbonates, phosphates and ammonia to neutralise the extra acid.

Now two University of California researchers, Anthony Sebastian and Deborah Sellmeyer, are planning a large controlled study into the effects of giving elderly people a daily dose of bicarbonate for five years, to see what it does for their bones. They already know that feeding a high-acid producing diet to rats causes osteoporosis, and this can be reversed by a change in diet. A pilot study on women found that potassium bicarbonate significantly improved bone density.

As for the researchers themselves, rather than taking biocarbonate, they are advocating a diet high in vegetables and fruit. Although many fruits are acid, they actually produce bases in the body, because organic salts such as citrates metabolise into bicarbonate. On the other hand grain foods such as pasta, bread and rice produce lots of acids because they are high in phosphorus which metabolises to phosphoric acid. Meat produces sulphuric acid when digested.

Milk contains about equal proportions of acid and base-producing substances, but the base-producing ones are in the liquid, which is removed during processing into cheese. So although hard cheese is a good source of calcium, and is recommended in anti-osteoporosis diets, it is a major suspect in the corrosion of bones and muscle.

In a study of Osteoporosis Fracture which has followed nearly 10,000 elderly women since 1986, many risk factors have been studied. But too little calcium or protein in the diet, menopause and a couch potato lifestyle between them account for less than half of all hip fractures. It looks as though dietary acid load may be at the top of the list of risk factors.

New Scientist, 15 December 2002

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Top Watching

The Department of Education in the Northern Territory has distributed a storybook about Gutsy Gorenji to its schools. Gutsy is a giant African snail, living in Timor, who stows away in a container and lands in Arnhem land. After many adventures Gutsy is recognised by some Aboriginal children and reported to the Quarantine Service. The children are made Top Watchers.

The story was written by Kay Carvan, a Public Awareness officer for the Northern Australian Quarantine Strategy. Local aboriginal children drew many of the illustrations for the book. It is one of the educational strategies being used to give local people a feeling of ownership in the Quarantine effort to prevent pests entering northern Australia by sea or air.

The northern quarantine zone runs from Broome (WA) to Cairns, QLD. In the Northern Territory and Western Australia three quarters of it is owned by aborigines. The only way to police it is be recruiting the locals to help. That strategy has really worked in the Torres Strait, where each island has its own local officer.

The Canberra Times, 27 April 2002

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Good Grub

The problem of acid formation in the body provides an added reason to revise the current food pyramid in the Australian dietary guidelines, as suggested by Michael Djordjevic in the Food for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet internet conference.

Djordjevic proposed reducing the emphasis on grains in the current pyramid, and giving fruit and especially vegetables-greens, roots and tubers pride of place. This was based on the high glycaemic load produced by grains, and the low glycaemic load of vegetables. You can read about the proposed dietary guidelines in the book of the conference, Good Grub, out this month!

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