Oil and Honey: Fossil Fuel Industry vs. Sustainable Planet
I’ve read most of Bill McKibben’s books and this one is the best. This book gives you an inside scoop on the last few years of McKibben’s life, both professionally and personally.
The professional part of McKibben’s life is about fossil fuels and is wildly intriguing, covering the birth of his organization 350.org, all the way through the end of his Do The Math tour in early 2013 in which he launched the first fossil fuel divestment movement in history.
You’ll read about the biggest nonviolent climate change rally at the White House (and McKibben’s thoughts from jail soon thereafter) and Washington Mall, and the most aggressive anti-Keystone XL pipeline civil disobedience event.
The professional part of this book is chock full of quotes which I underlined and dog-eared. Glancing back at those underlines, my favorites all seemed to center around the idea that individual people and grassroots power is the key to moving forward in facing climate change and fighting the fossil fuel fanatics. McKibben has some softly pointed words for his friends in the mainstream environmental movement and some sharper words for his hoped-for friend in the White House, President Obama.
One of my favorite quotes skewers Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy and our addiction to fossil fuels:
“Drilling everywhere you can and then putting up a solar panel is like drinking six martinis and then topping them off with a vitamin water—you’re still drunk, you just have your day’s full allotment of C and D.”
McKibben is a bit nicer to the mainstream environmental movement as he eloquently points out that gang green politics pretty much lost the game and now grassroots power is the only step forward:
“I’d watched how the big green groups had fallen into the trap of fighting the last war—their big beltway operations were better suited for the 1970s, when they could lobby Congress with some hope of victory.”
The personal part of his book is about honey and is intriguing and eloquently written. While telling the professional story of his life, McKibben takes us back to Vermont on multiple occasions where he visits and assists a friend in the beekeeping industry. This beekeeper is a purist and a bit of a luddite, juxtaposing McKibben’s globetrotting, twittering, 24/7 public relations and million-person-organizing planet-saving eco-machine.
Although McKibben has made himself into the world’s foremost professional and political environmentalist, his visits back to Vermont shows his angst and inner turmoil about the two lives he leads.
We are lucky McKibben leads these two lives. He softly points it out in the book, but I’ll say it a little more plainly: McKibben’s a real person, not a slick politician or head of a multibillion dollar corporation, and it’s real people with real jobs and real values who are needed to lead the next phase of work to protect the planet.
At one point in the book, McKibben likens the drone honeybees, and their single-minded mission to gather pollen and bring it back to the queen and hive, to the corporate fossil fuel industry. McKibben writes:
“A corporation, far more wonderful in its abilities to execute a plan than any of us individuals, is nonetheless uncomplicated. It doesn’t care much about the past and can’t think very far into the future. If it does, its shareholders will rebel. It’s less like a person than like a bee, at least in this regard. Given the power of speech like a human, it won’t use it to reflect, to check itself, or to think about the larger good. It will simply put this new power to work on its single-minded goal of amassing wealth, just as the Koch brothers did, sublimely unconcerned that their tar sands investments were threatening the planet.
In other words, if your goal is to efficiently tap the tar sands, you need a corporation. But to decide if tapping the tar sands is a god idea, you need to keep corporations out of it. Their relentless simplicity will combine with their wealth to overwhelm reason, science, love. If you want honey you need a hive of bees. But if you were trying to decide if making honey was a good idea, bees would be last creatures to ask. You know what their answer is going to be. In fact, if you get in their way, they’ll be a little perplexed for a while trying to find the door. And if you persist in getting their way, they’re eventually going to get mad and sting. That’s just how it works.”
You get the point. Honeybees are droid-like honey-making machines. Fossil fuel corporations are droid-like short-term-profit-making machines. They are kind of the same.
I disagree with this metaphor.
It’s completely unfair to honeybees which are beautiful, natural, pollinate this world therein making it habitable for us and billions of other creatures, and make one of the sweetest and most luxurious foods known to humankind and bears alike. Honeybees are not like fossil fuel corporations at all, in my opinion.
I believe that corporations—not every individual corporation, but many and especially fossil fuel corporations—are much more like zombies. In fact, if people could create a zombie—and I think we have—it would do exactly what most fossil fuel corporations do:
- Have absolutely zero interest in the larger good or any care for human health or suffering, let alone the non-human world.
- Obsess on short-term consumption and profit, and nothing else, and will take into account a larger good, or care, if and only when it causes a decrease in short-term consumption and profit.
- Rule above the law of humans, speaking with impunity with any amount of money to pay for this "free speech," committing manslaughter and not going to jail (11 counts of felony manslaughter but no person ever went to jail), and not paying taxes.
- Committing crimes which many agrees are a type of domestic and international terrorism—polluting local water supplies with cancer-causing chemicals (fracking), polluting entire oceans (BP and Exxon oil spills) and polluting the atmosphere thus changing the planet’s climate to be questionably habitable for humans and non-humans alike. Then, through vast wealth and political power, changing and writing the laws of cities, states and countries so that these fossil fuel corporations are not treated as terrorists at all (Dick Cheney’s Halliburton Loopholes, etc.), but rather are subsidized and rewarded with even vaster wealth.
- Consuming everything, even each other, and being completely unsustainable, even to the point of having a business model that is self-annihilating (get every drop of fossil fuels out of the ground and then die).
Watch Brad Pitt’s World War Z if you don’t believe me.
And so, respectfully, I disagree with McKibben and cannot allow the good name of honeybees to be impugned by such a metaphor.
Finally, as a realist (not an optimist or a cynic) I need to point out something that McKibben wrote several times in his book. McKibben repeatedly notes that he is concerned that we may have “waited too long” and it “may be too late.”
McKibben is creating history, but 350.org is also history. We’ve already passed that point, bumped up to 400.org, and are heading higher by every conceivable political and mathematical calculation. And so I believe it’s time for the environmental movement (and the human race) to envision a new number and organization. Let’s call it 1,400.org. Where did I get that number? From McKibben’s friend (and a co-star in his book), former NASA scientist James Hansen, who postulates in a September 2013 scientific paper, Climate Sensitivity, Sea Level and Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (abstract here, full paper here), that if we burn all of the fossil fuels we end up at 1,400 parts per million of greenhouse gases, and if that happens, Dr. Hansen says:
“Burning all fossil fuels, we conclude, would make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans, thus calling into question strategies that emphasize adaptation to climate change.”
America is shutting down some coal plants, yes, but hurrying to ship every ounce of coal to ports in China and elsewhere. America is fracking itself to death in shale deposit regions, burning (and leaking) methane gas and trying desperately to ship it oversees. And then there’s most of the rest of the world, building coal plants as fast as possible, digging up and burning tar sands, hoping to get shale gas imported by liquified natural gas as fast as possible, and endlessly, endlessly, endlessly (did I say that enough times?) growing its energy-consuming human population.
What would an organization like 1,400.org do? I’d call it a Post Climate Change Apocalyptic Transition (PCCAT) organization that focused on:
- Scientifically predicting the environmental impact of burning all of the fossil fuels.
- Predicting where and how humans, and honeybees and other wildlife, could live on the planet.
- Focusing on resilience, transition and adaption.
- And holding accountable and prosecuting corporations, government officials, and organizations and institutions that created the chaos. (Justice and law, after all, must be served—our humanity requires it.)
If you’re a large climate change foundation, please fund McKibben to try and help keep the number around 500.org or 700.org, but also create and fund 1,400.org—it may be the most compassionate and realistic step forward to benefit honeybees and humans alike.
Gary Wockner, PhD, is an environmental activist and writer based in Fort Collins, Colorado—Gary@GaryWockner.com.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
By Jeff Masters, Ph.D.
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