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Living Longer, Standing Taller, and Eating Healthier

29th April, 2011

This May Nobel Prize winner Robert W. Fogel will publish “The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700”. The publication is the culmination of three decades of research with co-authors, Roderick Floud, Bernard Harris, and Sok Chul Hong on the influence of nutrition and technology on recent physiological changes to humans in the Western World. Armed with an extensive amount of data on “childhood growth, mortality, adult living standards, labor productivity, food and manufacturing output”, Fogel has theorized that our technological improvements have caused an unprecedented change in our size and longevity; a physiological change that far surpasses typical Darwinian evolution.

The New York Times published a more thorough article summarizing Mr. Fogel’s publication. The article quotes the authors as stating, “in most if not quite all parts of the world, the size, shape and longevity of the human body have changed more substantially, and much more rapidly, during the past three centuries than over many previous millennia.” These astounding changes that have taken place are a testament to not only our current state of nutrition and medicine, but from a broader perspective, the trajectory of human progress that we often take for granted. Despite pervasive inequality of wealth throughout the past three hundred years, these changes would not have taken place if advancements in technology, medicine, nutrition, and social structure did not effect the average individual on the most basic day to day level, demonstrating that change is positively effecting people as a whole.

 

Perspective

As an example of the physiological changes that have taken place, during the mid 19th century the average adult male weighed roughly 146 pounds, stood at 5’7 and was expected to live until 45. By the 1980’s the same demographic was expected to reach 75 years old, weigh 174 pounds and stand at 5’10. According to Samuel H. Preston, a demographer and a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, “without the 20th century’s improvements in nutrition, sanitation and medicine, only half of the current American population would be alive today.”

 

Innovating Green Space

20th April, 2011

Recently, urban planners have begun to think beyond conventional means for implementing green space in dense urban environments. In the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan New York, High Line Park is a stellar example of this trend. For thirty years an unused rail line lingered over Chelsea residents in a rusted and decrepit form. Its unattractiveness sparked Mayor Giuliani’s administration into action, aiming to tear down the structure through much of the 1990’s. However thanks to grass roots efforts and inspiration from a successful Parisian linear park named, Promenade Plantée, the 25 foot high archaic rail line was saved and is currently being transformed into a beautiful, winding green space.

National Geographic, who has published a more extensive article on High Line Park states, “The black steel columns that once supported abandoned train tracks now hold up an elevated park—part promenade, part town square, part botanical garden.” Taking High Line’s natural attributes of elevated city vistas and uninterrupted walking space, landscape architect James Corner and the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro have transformed a city blemish into one of its most beautiful, visited attractions. The partial completion of High Line Park illustrates a developing trend of urban planning that could transform traditional areas of metropolises into new green spaces that offer unique vistas, walking space that is devoid of traffic, and simply the positive attributes associated with parks; all without disrupting pre-established street and traffic flow.

 

Perspective-

Central Park, the United States first urban landscaped park was built in 1857 and reflects the standard design for metropolis parks. The archetype is typically a large swath of land that is designed to offer residents a refuge from the city. However, innovative designs such as High Line Park and Promenade Plantee give an indication that we may be on the verge of redefining green space in our metropolises by integrating nature more intimately into city landscaping.

 

Forests in the Northern Hemisphere are on the Rebound

13th April, 2011

This past March the UN released a report stating that forests in the Northern Hemisphere have been continually expanding over the past two decades. Due to conservation efforts forests in North America, Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia have all expanded. According to the organization these areas have grown by 25 million hectares (roughly 60 million acres). This growth accounts for an 8 percent increase of total Northern Hemisphere forests, which in terms of land mass equals roughly the size of the United Kingdom. Within this study the UN Economic Commission for Europe said that, “In addition to forest area, the volume of wood in pan-European forests is growing by over 430 million cubic metres every year due to the expansion of the forest area and increases in stock levels,”.

These primarily broreal and temperate forests in the Northern Hemisphere are estimated to comprise 40 percent of the worlds total forestry, playing an important role in the reacquisition of global carbon dioxide. Although this positive trend is worth taking note of, deforestation in the tropics is still a very concerning environmental issue whose trend has not begun to reverse. To read more about the UN report visit it directly at the UN News Centre.

 

Perspective

Part of the significance of this report is the optimistic perspective that it lends to the global crisis of tropical deforestation in the Southern Hemisphere. As a parallel example in deforestation, Western Europe has been on a continual trend of deforestation since the advent of agricultural society. According to the Quaternary Science Reviews’ publication on The prehistoric and preindustrial deforestation of Europe “The overall trend in LCLUC (Land Cover and Land Use Change) over our time domain is a constant decline in forest cover, interrupted by two local maxima: at AD 600, during the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, and at AD 1400 shortly after the Black Death.” Aside from these two brief lapses in history, Europe’s forests had been on the continual decline, that is, until today’s modern era.

This report on the renewal of forests in, not only Europe, but the Northern Hemisphere as a whole, highlights the fact that for first time in human history we have counteracted a policy of forest degradation. As countries in the Southern Hemisphere continue to develop we can hope, and maybe even assume based on forest rehabilitation in the Northern Hemispheres, that those countries will follow the same historical trend.

 

Voyager 1′s Recent Maneuvers Put Perspective on Our Space Exploration

20th March, 2011

This past week the NASA spacecraft Voyager 1 continued to relay information regarding the solar wind activity at the outer edge of our heliosheath, roughly 10.8 billion miles from the sun. Launched in 1977 and traveling approximately 320 million miles per year, the spacecraft has now reached the boundary of the heliosheath, which is the sphere of solar wind that emanates throughout our solar system. By tracking the charged particles of solar wind scientists are hoping to learn more about its behavior in deep space.

Voyager 1 has not been attracting headlines because of the experiments that it is currently conducting, but rather the historic nature of the old school spacecraft. Every day it continues to travel deeper into the abyss of space and is currently the furthest man made object from Earth. Despite the vast distance NASA continues to stay in communication with Voyager 1, sending it commands that travel the speed of light and reach the craft 14 hours later.

With the foresight that Voyager 1 would be our most distant interstellar Santa Maria for some time, the scientists responsible for its creation equipped the craft with the famous ‘Golden Record’. In the remote chance that extraterrestrial life were to stumble across the spacecraft, scientists prepared Voyager 1 with audio recordings and photographs that symbolize life and human culture on Earth. It is a fascinating attempt at portraying our existence, both from the practical perspective of where we live within the cosmos to how we would like to portray human culture to other, unknown, intelligent beings. To view the 116 photographs and audio recording that were put together to be studied by alien beings, visit the Voyager Golden Record.

Voyager I still has enough power to remain operational through 2025-2030. It is not aimed at any particular star, but to put its galactic presence in perspective, it would take roughly 33,000 years to reach our nearest solar neighbor.

 

Perspective-

The Golden Record is introduced by UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. His brief yet thought provoking introduction offer a positive perspective on the philosophical backdrop of the Golden Record. “As the Secretary-General of the United Nations, an organization of 147 member states, who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet Earth, I send greeting on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our Solar System into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of this immense universe that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.”

In contrast to the egocentric attitude of the Age of Exploration, the development of civilization as a whole has provided us with a greater sense of humility. This in itself gives us a positive perspective on how our self-identity as humans evolves as we become more advanced in our understanding of our place in the universe.

 

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Fund 164.5 Million Dollar Grant

7th March, 2011

The Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation has funded a 164.5 million-dollar grant to AGRA in order to increase crop yields in Sub-Saharan Africa and counteract desertification.

Desertification is the rapid degradation of soil in semi-arid ecosystems, particularly in developing regions of the world such as Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America. Sub-Saharan Africa has been affected most severely. The semi-arid eco-system, without human influence, is only able to sustain a limited amount of life and vegetation due to sparse rainfall, however the population explosion over the last 200 years has placed unprecedented pressure on these landscapes. Currently new deserts are being created at a rate of 20,000 square miles per year, transforming agriculturally useful swaths of land into barren desert, exacerbating starvation in the region, creating mass migration of people within the effected areas, and contributing to massive dust storms. The Hunger site estimates that 24,000 people die every day from starvation. Infant mortality rates in semi-arid developing regions are 10 times as high as those in industrialized nations and its estimated that 50 million people could be displaced over the next decade due to desertification.

Desertification is caused simply by mismanagement of soil. The key to healthy, nutrient rich soil is humus. Humus is created through the decomposition of vegetation and animals, placing key nutrients such as nitrogen back into the earth. Deforestation for fuel, large herds of stagnant cattle, and over farming are the culprits for desertification. These practices all stop the reintroduction of nutrients into the soil.

The good news is that desertification can be reversed. Between 2007 and 2013 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation will contribute 164.5 million dollars to The Alliance for a Green Africa or (AGRA) in order to fight desertification and increase crop yields. Through the use of mineral fertilizers and education on soil management, AGRA hopes to transform the lost land. The grant aspires to positively affect 4.1 million households in the region. According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,

“This grant supports AGRA’s work with farmers throughout sub-Saharan Africa on advanced soil management methods and with policymakers to create incentives for better soil management. This builds on a major grant to AGRA in 2007 that is already helping develop and distribute quality seeds for African small farmers on a large scale.

The grant will also help AGRA build the fertilizer supply chain to increase farmers’ access to fertilizer and other inputs. The goal is to help 4.1 million farm households increase their yields by 50 to 100 percent.”

If you’re interested in more information, visit the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website. AGRA has also produced an excellent short video that dives further into their program, visit at AGRA Soil Health Program.

 

Perspective-

Between 1930-1936 the United States and parts of Canada experienced severe desertification in what is now known as the Dust Bowl. Draught and extensive farming without regard to soil management transformed the semi-arid Great Plains into a dry wasteland. This spurred a mass migration of farmers from East to West, particularly to California. The Roosevelt administration acted by planting more than 200 million trees and began educating farmers on improved agricultural practices. The revitalization of these areas is a testament to the fact that desertification can be reversed.