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Archive for February, 2008

Natalie Angier writes in the NY Times today about the creation of synthetic microbes. But as interesting is what she reports about new research into the breadth of microbial life on our planet.

She quotes Dr. Craig Venter, of the J. Craig Venter Institute.

“From our random sequencing in the ocean, we uncovered six million new genes,” he said, genes, that is, unlike any yet seen in any of the mammals, reptiles, worms, fish, insects, fungi, microbes or narcissists that have been genetically analyzed so far. With just that first-pass act of nautical sequencing, Dr. Venter said, “we doubled the number of all genes characterized to date.”

We still don’t know what life really amounts to on our planet.  We keep finding lifeforms surviving in places and circumstances that we previously thought utterly unlivable.

Hearteningly, perhaps, that suggests that, even if we kill off ourselves and all the mammals, reptiles, worms, fish, insects, fungi, microbes or narcissists on the planet with us, life will survive.

But that’s not to justify our doing it, of course.  Indeed, it reminds us that we can’t know the full impact that our planet-altering lifestyles (including the creation of synthetic life forms) are having — since we still know so little about so many of the lifeforms with which we co-exist.

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One issue EarthQuaker cares a lot about is our collective consumption of material objects — especially the kind that get lumped together in the category ‘products.’ How we think of, purchase, use and discard the objects that are sold to us commercially is — after all — a fundamental determinant of our impact on the world.

And asking hard questions about the patterns of thought, habit, and economics that determine our relationships with products is very much part of our plan here.

But we don’t plan to be reductively contra the very idea of products. We like our computers well enough, for example, as well as our bicycles and our attractive new cedar tool-shed-cum-earthquake-kit-storage device.

We don’t long, in other words, for a world without products. We do, however, long for a world that is smart about products (and yes, it could include smart products). And we long to attain those smarts ourselves.

All of that’s also a long justification for why you’ll find some links categorized to your right as ‘stuff’ — they take you to places where you can find — yes — products. But these are places that sell, for the most part, cool eco-friendly things (like our wonderful plastic bag drying rack from Lehman’s, for example). And no, we make no money from the links.

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The New York Times reports today on the extraordinary impact that charging a 33c tax on plastic bags has had in Ireland. The bags are now all but gone from the country and no-one, it seems, is complaining.

Significantly, buying a plastic bag hasn’t been made illegal in Ireland. But soon after the tax came into effect some five years ago, says the article, “carrying them became socially unacceptable.”

It’s a useful illustration of the power of state fiscal policy to encourage environmentally beneficial behavior without having to go so far as banning anything. What Ireland did is arguably preferable, for example, to San Francisco’s decision to ban plastic bags outright.

The experience also points to the potential power of taxation to change environmentally-destructive behavior on a wider scale. A popular candidate tax is a universal carbon tax, as proposed by the likes of Noble prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. As the comments in reply to Stiglitz’s Guardian article suggest, though, he’s not convinced everyone and there remain enormous barriers to getting all nations and all non-state actors on board.

The plastic bag story gains poignancy, however, when read with Dominique Browning’s affecting op ed in today’s Times about a trip to see retreating glaciers in Patagonia. Here’s how she starts the piece:

“THE most striking thing about the drive out of El Calafate on the way to the Patagonian glaciers is the trash. Sheer, flimsy, white plastic bags, tens of thousands of them, are strewn across acres of land. ”

Let’s hope at the very least that people in Ireland will soon start talking to people in Argentina . . .

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