- Website: http://www.allisonguy.com
- Next Nature Researcher
We have entered the Anthropocene epoch, in which humanity and its instrumentalities are the most potent and influential geological force.
By ALLISON GUY and KOERT VAN MENSVOORT
Biologically, there is nothing remarkable in the fact that humans are agents of ecological change and environmental upset. All species transform their surroundings. The dizzying complexity of landscapes on Earth is not just a happy accident of geology and climate, but the result of billions of years of organisms grazing, excavating, defecating, and decomposing. Nor is it unusual that certain lucky species are able to outcompete and eventually entirely displace other species. The Great American Interchange, when North American fauna crossed the newly formed isthmus of Panama to conquer South America three million years ago1 is just one among countless examples of swift, large-scale extinctions resulting from competition and predation.
What is remarkable, however, is the stunning speed of human adaptation relative to other species, and that our adaptation is self-directed. From sonar and flight to disease immunity, humans can “evolve” exquisite new traits in a single generation. The Anthropocene represents a catastrophic mismatch between the pace of human technological evolution and the genetic evolution of nearly every other species on Earth. As with many other geological epochs, the Anthropocene has been heralded with a mass extinction, one which is generally accepted to be the sixth great one to occur on Earth.2
The first “modern” streetlight was lit in London’s Pall Mall in 1807. That night may also have marked the first time a moth found itself trapped in an irresistible spiral around public lighting. Ever since then, streetlights have become a fixture of life in cities and suburbs, and a deathtrap for flying insects. Researchers at the University of Exeter have recently discovered that the abundance of insect life around these lights is not just a passing assemblage, but a permanent fixture. The diversity of invertebrate ground predators and scavengers, like beetles and harvestmen, remained elevated around streetlights even during the day. These insects had figured out the benefits of living in an island of artificially high prey concentrations.
These findings indicate that streetlights affect local ecologies for a longer duration, and at a higher level in the food web, than previously thought. Given the decline of pollinators and other invertebrates in the UK and around the world, it may be important to re-examine the impact of seemingly harmless nighttime lighting.
As fears about global warming become ever more culturally ingrained, “climate fiction” has gone from a once-fringe genre to a standard literary device.
Cli-Fi, as it’s abbreviated, is set in a near or long-term future where the fallout from global warming, be it flooding or mass extinctions, is not only apparent, but an aspect of everyday life. Spanning genres from literary fiction to thrillers, Cli-Fi acts as a barometer of our own ecological anxieties.
We wrote about Celebrity Cubes for the In Vitro Meat Cookbook assuming that culturing celebrity stem cells for cannibal cuisine was still a long ways off. Well, turns out that one startup is already trying to make artisanal Kayne Salami a reality.
Now that we’re on our way to in vitro meat and artificial eggs, how about some lab-synthesized toast? Okay, scientists can’t grow a loaf of bread in a test tube, but they have been able to create edible starch from otherwise indigestible cellulose – that is, from wood. Though the process is currently difficult and expensive, it may one day allow us to turn wood, agricultural waste and even algae into delicious, nutritious starch. Time for pancakes, potatoes, and pasta to come fresh from the forest!
For most of history, poliomyelitis was a relatively unremarkable disease – it caused paralysis and occasionally death, but only in a tiny fraction of those infected. It was essentially unknown in infants and adults, and usually only caused mild symptoms in children. This all changed in the early 1900s, when the disease mysteriously transformed into an epidemic, killing many and maiming many more, even among the supposedly ‘protected’ populations of adults and babies.
Deadly recurrences of polio became a fact of life in developed countries, particularly in cities during the summer. Movie theaters, beaches and swimming pools were closed; families fled to the countryside when the weather got warm. Clearly something had changed, but what could cause a mild disease to turn into a killer all but overnight? The secret lies, paradoxically, in our better understanding of sanitation.
It’s an old axe that you are what you eat, but a growing body of evidence suggests that, in terms of our gut bacteria, it’s really true. Recent research shows that the standard ‘Western’ diet high in animal fat, sugars, and refined carbohydrates fundamentally alters the bacterial ecosystem in our intestines. The bacteria that thrive in the house that McDonald’s built are not only associated with obesity, but may actually excrete waste compounds that cause obesity.
Just as Sergey Brin bet on the success of in vitro meat, other tech entrepreneurs are betting that they can make vegetarian eggs that are more humane, healthy, sustainable, and affordable than the real thing. Hampton Creek Foods, based in San Francisco, has been hard at work inventing a better version of nature’s perfect pre-packaged food. Their pseudo-mayonnaise, for instance, went through 1,432 formulations – though it’s now indistinguishable from the real thing. Hampton Creek has bigger things on its mind than mere mayo:
“Over the next five years, Hampton Creek Foods… will first hawk its product to manufacturers of prepared foods like pasta, cookies, and dressings—the processed products that use about a third of all the eggs in the United States. Then it will aim directly for your omelet with an Egg Beaters-like packaged product. The goal, Tetrick explains, is to replace all factory-farmed eggs in the US market—more than 80 billion eggs, valued at $213.7 billion.”
If you stroll through a park in an American city, you might assume that all the squirrels you see got there on their own. After all, where there’s trees, there’s usually nuts, and where’s there’s nuts, there’s squirrels. But it turns out that those nut-bearing trees were specifically planted to support squirrels, and that all those squirrels were brought there on purpose. It turns out the existence of urban squirrels is linked to a history of changing attitudes towards nature, the wilderness, and animals:
The squirrel fad really took off in the 1870s, thanks to Frederick Law Olmstead’s expansive parks… the movement to fill the parks with squirrels “was related to the idea that you want to have things of beauty in the city, but it was also part of a much broader ideology that says that nature in the city is essential to maintaining people’s health and sanity, and to providing leisure opportunities for workers who cannot travel outside the city.” These squirrels were possibly the only wildlife the workers would ever see.
Easter Island has long been used as a parable for environmental destruction: a once-mighty civilization brought low by its wanton overuse of natural resources. The islanders cut down all their trees for farming and silly stone heads, so the story goes, and reduced the paradise of Rapa Nui to a windswept grassland. However, a new theory about the collapse of Easter Island challenges this traditional assumption. It takes the blame away from humans and puts it on rats.
Every bottle tested by a geiger counter! No doubt one of the stranger beverages from yesteryear, Frisky Whiskey promises that it’s “the world’s first whiskey to be aged by atomic materials. Its thirty day process is equivalent to 40 years of standardized 19th century aging.” First, and hopefully last. This dubious drink is demonstrates how marketers jump on new scientific trends as a way to give their products an edge – even if that ‘edge’ is imaginary.
EDIT: Alas, too bad to be true. It’s a fake. Guess we’ll have to go back to drinking radium-infused water from the office Revigator.
The NANO Supermarket’s (speculative) Nano Slim-Fast Diet uses a tasty cocktail of leptin, peptide YY, and other hormones to naturally control your appetite. Researchers have now concocted a similar diet aid in the form of an implantable “circuit” made from synthetic genes. The circuit, consisting of several genes that govern satiety, monitors the fat levels in blood. When the circuit detects excess fat, it releases a chemical telling the brain that it’s no longer hungry.
With the help of these slimming implants, obese rats lost a significant amount of body weight, despite having unrestricted access to a high-fat diet. Least you worry about the circuit going into overdrive and the now-slender rats wasting away, the genes are assembled to allow hunger to return once blood fat levels are back to normal. With the holiday season coming up, maybe the best present you can get your family is a pill full of Slim-Fast genes.
Before the advent of broadcast sports or animal rights legislation, a night at the pub used to mean one thing: watching small terriers snap the spines of dozens, if not hundreds, of rats. Sporting men placed bets on how many rats a dog could kill in a set period of time. Nowadays, dog breeds bred to hunt rats, rabbits, badgers don’t get much of a chance to exercise their killer instincts. The Ryders Alley Trencher-fed Society (RATS) in New York, however, have figured out how to harness their dog’s inborn talents in order to make a (small) dent in the city’s rodent problem.
Before the 1940s, the most simple, everyday maladies – a bug bite, a broken bone, a sore throat – could result in swift and sudden death, cutting down people even in the prime of their lives. This was the era before antibiotics became a cornerstone of modern medicine. Now, thanks to overprescription of antibiotics, the massive overuse of antibiotics in factory-style farming, and stalled antibiotic research, we’re rapidly returning to the pre-penicillin era. Bacteria have evolved resistance to our best and, right now, our only, weapons.
Have you always wanted to experience poverty, but never felt like going through the hassle of interacting with an actual poor person? Emoya Luxury Hotel in South Africa offers vacationers an empathy-free way to experience an “authentic” life of hardship – if your definition of hardship includes free WiFi. According to the site:
A Shanty usually consists of old corrugated iron sheets or any other waterproof material which is constructed in such a way to form a small “house” or shelter where they make a normal living. A paraffin lamp, candles, a battery operated radio, an outside toilet (also referred to as a long drop) and a drum where they make fire for cooking is normally part of this lifestyle.
Just like stamp collecting or golf, grinding, abject poverty with limited access to electricity and sanitation is a ‘lifestyle’ to which anyone can aspire. Hold your next corporate retreat in this ersatz slum and wonder with your colleagues why poor people are always so miserable if they’ve got under-floor heating and optional breakfast.
Gather mushroom spores, grow them in a mold with agricultural waste, and you’ve just created the newest alternative to toxic styrofoam packing. The mushroom enthusiasts over at Ecovative have figured out a way to harness the abilities of mushroom root systems, called mycelium, to bind together organic substrates. By drying these mushroomy matrixes, Ecovative can create a material that’s strong, lightweight, and most importantly, cost-competitive with petroleum-based packaging. The company hopes to branch out into shoes, surfboards, furniture and building materials. A house that sprouts shiitakes and chanterelles is just a nice side benefit.
Read the full story over at Architect’s Newspaper.
The world is polluted, overcrowded, and in economic trouble. Why bring a baby into this mess? If your mothering instinct is still too strong to resist the lure of pregnancy, artist Ai Hase-Gawa has a solution: give birth to an endangered species. Rather than creating another human in a world that already has 7 billion of them, Hase-Gawa suggests that aspiring mothers get pregnant with a shark, salmon, bluefin tuna or a conveniently baby-sized Maui’s dolphin. Would you be less likely to crave a plate of sushi if it were made with your own offspring?
In a story that’s best taken with a grain of artisanal Himalayan sea salt, one Redditor claims that herds of sous-chefs in Portland, Oregon have been tearing up his property in their quest for wild edibles:
“It was fine when they were just harvesting pineapple weed and mallow from the alley and the parking strip, although it was admittedly a little off-putting. I’m also totally cool with them picking the crab apples because some of the branches are in the public right of way. But yesterday my neighbor called to let me know she had to help a sous chef who got stuck on top of my fence holding a baggie full of chicory leaves.”
Replace the word ‘chef’ with ‘raccoon’ or ‘deer’ and, funnily enough, the story loses no coherence. Are locavores newest urban pest? Perhaps blasting mainstream music and sprinkling the property with processed foods will keep the chefs at bay.