Individual action can stop climate change. How? Environmental herd immunity.
If more people decide to apply pressure through their choices, slowly but surely we would reach climate change herd immunity.
Marcelo Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics, and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a recipient of the Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from the White House and NSF, and was awarded the 2019 Templeton Prize. Gleiser has authored five books and is the co-founder of 13.8, where he writes about science and culture with physicist Adam Frank.
- The relentless degradation of our natural resources is also your fault.
- The same way that vaccines work to create herd immunity in a population, a changing worldview that repositions us in relation to nature can do the same for the environment.
- Environmental herd immunity requires each one of us to make small sacrifices (vaccines hurt a bit but save lives, right?) that have the transformative power to change the world.
Here is a basic point that we often take for granted: To live you must breathe, drink water, and eat. If you don't breathe or don't eat or drink water, you die. That's obvious. Now dial it down a bit. If the air you breathe and the water you drink and the food you eat are of bad quality, you will suffer. You will get sick, your energy will always be low, you will be miserable. I don't think anyone could disagree with this point.
Now comes the point where many people turn off.
Okay, so we need good quality air, water, and food. "So what," you'd say? "It's not my job to fix this. That's why we have a government. It's all the big corporations' fault—their greed, their stockholders. How could a single person make a difference?" Well, you could. And yes, governments and big business can and should as well. When it comes to the environment, you, the government, the corporations, all have a role to play. But in looking at the sources of the problem, the degradation of natural resources due to relentless abuse, it's way too convenient to just sit back and blame others, be it the government or big business. The fact is, when it comes to our destructive relationship with nature, we are all to blame.
It starts with a worldview. How do you relate to nature? Do you miss it? Do you think about it? Do you sometimes wonder whether the choices of what you eat, of how you use transportation, of how you use water and energy play a role that is much bigger than you?
During the current pandemic, we often talk about herd immunity; the idea that if the majority of a population is immune to a disease, a collective change happens and there is ongoing stability: People stop dying in large numbers, and society as whole benefits. Sure, some will still get sick, and some will still die, as happens every year with the flu or the common cold. But the pandemic will be gone. The worldview needed for herd immunity—that vaccination and social distancing and protection measures are individual actions with global impact—catches on and soon the whole world population benefits.
How can we adapt the notion of herd immunity to the environment? Just like when you decide to be vaccinated because it will benefit you and those around you, you decide to reconsider how you deal with the natural world in your everyday choices. You become careful when buying a product, by first checking how the company aligns with your vision for the future. How do their production practices protect the environment? Do they abuse or kill animals? Are they striving to protect air and water quality? Are they producing food with the quality that you deserve and pay for? Or are they stuffing it with all sorts of chemicals, fake flavors, and preservatives? Do their corporate values align with yours? If not, why buy from them? Consumers have much more power than they believe. The marketplace is so vast that you are sure to find alternatives that would better match your vision for the future. If more and more people decide to do this, slowly but surely we would reach environmental herd immunity.
Consumers have much more power than they believe. The marketplace is so vast that you are sure to find alternatives that would better match your vision for the future.
Participants at the 'Rise for Climate 5th Belgian and European march', in Brussels, to raise awareness for climate change, Sunday 31 March 2019.
The United Nations Environmental Program has recently launched a comprehensive plan of action to address three environmental threats: climate change, pollution (air and water), and loss of biodiversity. The plan is very aptly named Making Peace with Nature. The report is based on the latest scientific environmental assessments and looks at the enormous social and economic disparities in the world as the crux of the problem. It calls for global unity and active participation of all nations and economies to guarantee success. The opening paragraph from the UN Secretary-General António Guterres sets the tone: "Humanity is waging war on nature. This is senseless and suicidal. The consequences of our recklessness are already apparent in human suffering, towering economic losses and the accelerating erosion of life on Earth."
So, we go back to the notion of worldview and herd immunity. The current worldview, the "war on nature," is suicidal. As is shunning from vaccination when the science and overwhelming results support it. We need a new worldview, which can only succeed if it is all-encompassing. Not everyone needs to sign on, but the majority does, so as to guarantee herd immunity. We need a worldview that realigns our thinking about the world and our place in it, that respects nature and the environment as the fundamental resource for our continual existence on this planet. Good quality air, water, and food, are the absolute basics for human existence.
With climate change, it's like watching bombs falling in very slow motion, so slow that everyone thinks they can escape before they hit the ground.
Environmental herd immunity. Not everyone needs to sign on, just the majority.
Credit: Steven via Adobe Stock / Big Think
The pandemic of environmental degradation and destruction is our greatest existential threat now. To survive by achieving environmental herd immunity calls for a revision of how each one of us relates to the planet and to natural resources. A vaccine is something you take to protect you from illness. But its benefits spread, and snowball to protect the population as a whole. Herd immunity. The environmental alarm has been sounded over and over again. But because people don't see the bombs falling and exploding on the ground, they don't correlate what is already happening with the climate to our war on nature. With climate change, it's like watching bombs falling in very slow motion, so slow that everyone thinks they can escape before they hit the ground. That's the old worldview, the one that must change. The new worldview can only become effective if we reach environmental herd immunity. And for that to be possible, you, and I, and most of us, have to take our collective fate into our own hands and change the way we live. Even if change involves some level of personal sacrifice, much like a vaccine. A vaccine hurts, can even make you sore and sick for a couple of days. But that's a very small price to pay for staying alive, for being healthy and able to get out there into the woods, and for knowing that your actions, small that they may be, help change the world for the better.
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Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."
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