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The New Grassroots Heroes: They Fight Pollution—and Police Brutality—And They're Changing How Social Movements Happen
It’s remembered as the global march for climate justice, but how did that word “justice” get into the title of the huge rallies that took place in New York and other cities this September?
“Between fresh and rotten,” says Sandor Ellix Katz, “there is a creative space in which some of the most compelling of flavours arise.”
Fracking has long been the oil and natural gas industry’s best kept secret – in particular, the chemicals found in fracking fluids, which have been linked to a host of weird mystery ailments, like respiratory or gastrointestinal distress.
In this article, I critically examine the notion of business growth in our time, reflecting on the purpose, nature and workings of individual firms in the age of the Anthropocene.
A weekly review including Oil and the Global Economy, The Middle East & North Africa, China, Russia/Ukraine, Quote of the Week, The Briefs.
Reading a Naomi Klein book is always a deeply absorbing experience. In a sense, the sheer size of them means you have no choice other than to be absorbed (This Changes Everything runs to almost 600 pages). Her two previous masterworks, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine were mind-altering and life-changing for me. This Changes Everything is Klein’s climate change book. It is a powerful, deeply felt, painstakingly-researched book which takes the reader on an incredible journey and makes a radical yet common-sense case. So why is it that by the end I felt underwhelmed?
There is much about the book that is fantastic. She brilliantly unpicks the complexities of our headlong plunge into climate chaos. She destroys the “austerity or extraction” myth, reframing it as “poverty or poisoning”. She sets out the passionate case that:
“climate change is, in fact, a massive job creator, as well as a community rebuilder, and a source of hope in moments when hope is a scarce commodity indeed”.
She identifies capitalism, in particular our current what she calls “extractivist” version, as the central driver of the crisis, but argues that climate change should be the rallying call around which the alternative is built. We’ve tried it the neo-liberals’ way for the last 20 years, she says, and “the soaring emissions speak for themselves”.
We meet the climate denying Heartland Institute, we meet scientists proposing geoengineering (mirrors in space, sulphur pumped into the upper atmosphere, iron filings in the sea etc) and the billionaires claiming to be doing something about it while doing very little (this is not a book Richard Branson will be giving to many people this Christmas). She looks into the right wing mindset behind much of this, writing:
“You would think that turning down the sun for every person on earth is a more intrusive form of big government than asking citizens to change their light bulbs. But that is to miss the point: for the fossil fuel companies and their paid champions, anything is preferable to regulating ExxonMobil, including attempts to regulate the sun”.
She takes the reader deep into the heart of the movements around the world who are doing something about it. We hear about the divestment movement that is spreading with such urgency through universities and other organisations. Her response to the criticism that it will just lead to the sold shares being picked up by other people?
“This misses the power of the strategy: every time students, professors, and faith leaders make the case for divestment, they are chipping away at the social licence with which these companies operate”.
We meet communities mobilising to fight fracking, oil extraction, pipelines and mountaintop removal around the world. We meet ordinary people of all ages standing up and putting their bodies on the line to keep the carbon in the ground and to protect their air, water and future. To me, it felt like this is where Klein feels most comfortable as a writer, reporting on demonstrations on mountainsides, blockades and the politics of resistance.
So why my reluctance to give what is, in so many ways a brilliant book, 10 out of 10? Firstly, I’m not sure how many people actually read books this big any more. It’s a sad reality that less and less people read anything of any length, given the kicking the internet has given most of our attention spans. I was reading this book on the train, and the guy sat next to me told me, almost apologetically, “I haven’t read a book for 3 years!”
Klein has stated that she wrote this book for people who don’t read books about climate change. I would be hugely surprised if any such people read this book. Surely to encourage them to read a book on climate change, making it 564 pages long with no pictures isn’t the smartest place to start? I struggled, and I read this stuff all the time.
Secondly, I had to wait until page 397 for her to write:
“...there is no more potent weapon in the battle against fossil fuels than the creation of real alternatives. Just the glimpse of another kind of economy can be enough to energise the fight against the old one”.
Those words came like water in the desert at that point. I was three quarters of the way through the book, and struggling. We get a paragraph or two on Transition (which feels about 4 years out of date and behind what is actually happening, an occupational hazard of a book that takes 5 years to write), and then we’re back into how to fight fossil fuel companies again.
The stories of native peoples in the US and Canada standing up to fossil fuel companies are inspiring stuff. But this leads to my third problem with it. The subtitle of the book is ‘Capitalism vs the Climate’, yet what I didn’t find here was a reasoned and robust alternative to capitalism. We get a strong dose of what it won’t be like, the many ways in which the current system is deeply flawed. But what might the alternative look like? We are told that a 100% renewable economy is entirely possible, as is a low carbon food system, a transport system fit for a low carbon world and so on.
None of that will come as news to anyone involved in Transition. But what is the alternative economic model to underpin it? Is it an adaptation of capitalism, or something else? We don’t get that, and that feels like a big thing that is missing. This isn’t a problem unique to Klein, a spectrum of different models exists, from Steady State models, to green growth models to complete localisation approaches. Although Transition’s REconomy work is a tool for local economic regeneration, it isn’t a new economic model, although it would form part of one. But the question of what an economic Plan B would look like goes largely unanswered.
By the time I reached page 417, I felt drained, exhausted. I had reached saturation point: “not another story about why fossil fuel companies are the bad guys, please!” We were convinced of that within the first 10 pages. She falls into the classic rational deficit strategy, i.e. if you give people enough depressing information they will respond. But it is clear now that that usually doesn’t work. Appealing to values is also really important. Writing in Transition Free Press, Tom Crompton of Common Cause (whose work is mentioned in this book) wrote:
"An understanding of values ... points to the importance of not getting hung up on the issues (energy insecurity or climate change, for example). Rather, any group working for social change would do well to free itself from a narrow issues-focus and ask in more free-ranging terms: “What are the issues that matter most to the people whom we most need to engage?” and then, crucially, “How do we campaign and communicate on these more resonant issues in a way that connects with intrinsic values?”
Although there are occasional sparks, it feels to me that this approach of speaking directly to those values that will resonate across the political spectrum is somewhat lacking (at least, until the end of the book, as we shall see). She fails, it seems to me, to consider the impact on the reader of chapter after chapter of grim events, people, news and statistics. This is a surprise, given that in her brilliant Guardian Live interview she recently said, of Transition:
"The other thing that I think the Transition movement does really well is to create spaces for people to talk about the emotional side to this crisis ... That it isn't just an outer transition, but also we have to go through our own personal transformation, and that also involves expressing that grief. It's something that the feminist movement has done well, and a lot of people in the Transition Town movement who are part of this Inner Transition piece of it, come out of the feminist movement, because there's an understanding that if you're going to collapse peoples' world views, you have to stick around to pick up the pieces".
Yet it isn’t until the penultimate chapter of the book, ‘The Right to Regenerate’, that Klein creates some space for herself to “talk about the emotional side to this crisis”. Before then it has been a relentless wave of dreadful people, ghastly things happening, and the climate science which is deeply, deeply troubling. In a very moving chapter she takes us through her numerous attempts to conceive a child, numerous miscarriages, and her own lifestyle and work patterns that were injurious to her, and potentially, to her fertility. We hear of her visits to communities so damaged by the pollution from oil and gas companies, and plastics manufacture, that fertility is being decimated.
She identifies as one of the worst side effects of the ‘extractivist’ approach, alongside climate change, as the impacts it has on fertility, and the ability of life to regenerate itself. She quotes Native American writer and educator Leanne Simpson, talking about her peoples’ teachings and governance structures: “our systems are designed to promote more life”. At this point in the book (page 442), I sat bolt upright for the first time. Here is the distinction. This is what we strive to do in Transition, and in so many other movements trying to sort this out by applying holistic thinking to problems caused by siloed institutions and linear thinking. We are all striving to create communities that create more life, rather than destroy it.
What I wish is that this was where Klein had started This Changes Everything. I would have so loved her to apply her passion, her visionary writing, her unrivalled power as a writer, to what is breaking through rather than what is breaking down (to borrow an expression from Positive News). If it’s a book written for people who don’t read books about climate change it needs a different approach, one I could only find in the last couple of chapters. In the Guardian Live interview she says:
“A lot of what we call apathy is just people not knowing how to deal with the overwhelming emotions. So you just push it away”.
My sense is that the relentless presenting of grim information, morally-bankrupt politicians and oil company executives, deranged geoengineering scientists, corrupt governance systems are something most people, on some level, already know about, as she suggests above. But as she says, people don’t know how to deal with it. This Changes Everything is heavy on numbing information, and sparse on suggestions about how to deal with it. George Marshall of COIN, in a blog sharing his thoughts on Klein’s book, wrote:
“Crucially – and where Klein’s book is surprisingly disengaged with the evidence base – we also need to have a plan for building the widespread public support necessary for getting there in the first place”.
I wondered if a better approach, and one that might have taken less of a toll on Klein personally, would have been to write a smaller, more easily-digestable book, built around the last two chapters. It would have been powerful, seminal, rousing, inspirational. As it is, I don’t know how many people would have made it that far into its abundance of pages. Klein is too valuable to this movement, and as a reader I got a clear sense in places of how much this book took out of her. It needn’t have. Less can be more.
Her comparisons at the end of the book between the battle to save the climate and the campaign to end slavery are very powerful. Abolition is the closest thing she can find historically to change on a huge scale that happened in a short time frame. It’s inspirational stuff. Her argument that climate change is the moment to push for everything that progressive movements have worked towards for hundreds of years is a persuasive one, and it was refreshing to see Owen Jones, one of few emergent voices on the Left but who has spoken little about climate change, chairing her Guardian Live event. Her argument that climate justice, social justice and ecological justice are the same thing, is timely and urgently needed. My only fear is how many people will make it that far.
My favourite bit came near the end of the book, and has powerful implications for Transition. It’s an important point, so I will quote it in full:
“Though these movements (that led to the end of slavery) all contained economic arguments as part of building their case for justice, they did not win by putting a monetary value on granting equal rights and freedoms. They won by asserting that those rights and freedoms were too valuable to be measured and were inherent to each of us. Similarly, there are plenty of solid economic arguments for moving beyond fossil fuels, as more and more patient investors are realising. And that’s worth pointing out. But we will not win the battle for a stable climate by trying to beat the bean counters at their own game – arguing, for instance, that it is more cost-effective to invest in emission reduction now than disaster response later. We will win by asserting that such calculations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on parched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with the wonders and beauties of creation”.
It is an important reminder as we promote and discuss Transition, that the economic case, the REconomy side, is vital, but by also arguing that a low carbon future will meet our needs better, and that living in “a world teeming with the wonders and beauties of creation” resonates with everyone. It needs to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, in a good way. Although brilliant, insightful, powerful, timely and undoubtedly vitally-needed, This Changes Everything could have articulated that world far better, as an invitation, as a painting of what must inevitably define our future. George Marshall’s latest book, as captured in the talk he gave to launch it, offers a number of other, sometimes counter-intuitive, approaches to engage more widely around this issue.
I’ll leave the last word to the Beautiful Solutions section of the This Changes Everything website, which puts what feels missing from the book better than I have been able to above:
“Resistance is essential, but it’s not enough. As we fight the injustice around us, we also have to imagine — and create — the world we want. We have to build real alternatives in the here and now — alternatives that are not only living proof that things can be done differently, but that actively challenge, and eventually supplant, the power of the status quo”.
Four new faces take council seats
Alberni Valley Times
Although his 832 votes didn't put him office, Thomas was pleased with the progress he made over the election campaign, and plans to continue his work with the environmentally conscious Alberni Valley Transition Town Society. "I knocked on 3,800 [doors ...
Since Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, America’s poor urban populations have known that climate change is more than a cause for the liberal, college-educated elite.
Bubble In The Oil Patch
When the price of a barrel of Brent crude oil peaked at a record $145.40 on July 3, 2008, there was lots of talk about “peak oil.” Industry experts were speculating about whether the price might continue to rise to $200 or even higher. Global oil ...
and more »
Shawn Bartholomae, Senior Partner of Silver Tusk Oil Company, LLC breaks ... - Your Oil and Gas News (press release)
Shawn Bartholomae, Senior Partner of Silver Tusk Oil Company, LLC breaks ...
Your Oil and Gas News (press release)
Is the world running out of oil? According to Mr. M. King Hubert, an American geophysicist who wrote the theory on Peak Oil, it is. Much of the nation's energy policies and strategies regarding the supply of energy for the remainder of this century ...
Russia and China have signed two large natural gas deals in the last six months as Russia turns its attention eastward in reaction to sanctions and souring relations with Europe, currently Russia's largest energy export market. But the move has implications beyond Europe.
College costs continue to rise, but one segment might not be very worried: 24 percent of millennials said they expect their loans will ultimately be forgiven, according to study released Wednesday by Junior Achievement and PwC US.
You do realize that taking on debt without the expectation of paying it back has a common name, right?
That word is fraud.
It's a crime, in fact, to take on debt without intent to pay at the time you take the debt on.
So now we have a full quarter of "millennials" that have no intent to pay as they expect that the taxpayer will eat their debt. That is, they intend to steal from you, I, and everyone else.
The bad news is that these same millennials don't understand math, because the only way this can happen (given our budget situation) is through yet more debt emission by the government -- and that has the effect of devaluing everyone's money, including theirs!
So these millennials are not only intending to steal they're delusional on top of it, as they'll be stealing from themselves.
Good luck millennials -- you're going to need it.
Moratorium vital on gas extraction
... Transition Stirling; Women's Environmental Network Scotland; Scottish Hazards Campaign; Prof Andrew Watterson and Professor Rory O'Neill, Stirling University; Markinch Environmental Action Group; Transition Town Linlithgow; Transition Black Isle ...
and more »
WASHINGTON – A Justice Department official on Friday defended the legality of a program to scoop up data from thousands of mobile phones as the secret operation came under scrutiny from lawmakers and caught the federal agency that regulates the nation’s airwaves by surprise.
The Justice Department, without formally acknowledging the existence of the program, defended the legality of the operation by the U.S. Marshals Service, saying the agency doesn’t maintain a database of everyday Americans’ cellphones.
Whether they maintain such a database is immaterial to the underlying issue, which is simply this: It is unlawful for the Marshal's service to operate a radio transmitter on any other than a licensed frequency.
There are no lawful users of those frequencies other than the licensees.
By operating an unlicensed transmitter without the explicit permission of the cell carriers the Marshal's service is breaking the law -- a law that carries severe criminal penalties.
It doesn't matter if the interception itself is lawful -- the means of interception they are using is not.
Period, end of discussion, full-stop.
Why should you, or anyone else, obey the law -- any law -- when the government itself refuses on a literal hourly basis across virtually every agency to do so?
This post will be somewhat technical, so if you're not really into that, well skip to the next one.
Some ISPs are removing their customers' email encryption in a practice that threatens their privacy of communications, claims digital civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Incidents in the US and Thailand over recent months have seen service providers intercepting their customers' data to strip a security flag (called STARTTLS) from email traffic, the group says.
The STARTTLS flag is used by email servers to request encryption during the process of talking to another server or client.
Without this flag, email is sent in the clear, as a blog post by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) explains.
Before you freak out you need to understand how this works in the real world.
I'll use two examples -- you, as a consumer, and a business (small or otherwise.)
As a consumer you use a tablet, laptop, desktop or phone with an email client. That client talks to a server to send and receive email. Normally, for consumer broadband accounts, that server is on the ISP's infrastructure.
If your email is "Joe.Schmoe@cox.net" you're one of these people.
When your email client connects to a server it can do so through one of three modes:
- Clear text. This sends the entire transaction in the clear, and is typically conducted over TCP port 25.
- Encrypted. This is on a different port, often 465 or 587, and comes up in SSL. There is no possibility to send a clear-text email via this path since if you cannot negotiate a connection over SSL no connection and thus no transmission happens at all.
- STARTTLS. This usually happens over port 25 also. The client connects to the server and as part of its initial connection startup it transmits the string "STARTTLS", as the name implies. This asks the server to shift over to encrypted mode; if it is capable of doing so (not all are) it acknowledges this with a "200" response and then initiates an encryption handshake. If it cannot do so (e.g. it has no security certificate, TLS is turned off, it doesn't know how to handle a TLS connection at all, etc) it comes back with a "500" response code, refusing the request.
What's being alleged here is that there are ISPs that are "listening" to the client part of the connection sequence and when they see the "STARTTLS" request they are eating it and sending back a 500 response. The client will then proceed (unless you have told it otherwise, and not all can be told otherwise!) to send in clear text.
Now here's the rub -- there are virtually no consumer devices, especially those running Windows, MacOS or common handheld operating systems (e.g. Android, IOS, BlackBerry, etc) that directly look up and transmit email. They instead go through "their" server. The reason this is done is that if you have an open receiver for email it will be abused mercilessly to send spam.
So what happens is that the server you connect to validates you in some fashion. It may look at your IP address (did you connect from a network known to be "inside" that ISP?) or it may accept an authentication first (e.g. login ID and password.) It may also look at your incoming email transactions and attempt to match them against your IP address; if you just asked to receive email, for example, and signed on, you're probably a customer.
Now there is no reason for an ISP to block STARTTLS from their own customers to their own mail servers. Why? Because in the process of accepting the email and forwarding it by necessity it must decrypt it, and it has the key to do so since you connected to it.
Many "consumer" ISPs prohibit you from connecting over port 25 (the usual unencrypted email port) unless you're talking to their email server. They do this because that's what spammers do -- they look for "open" Port 25 servers and send through them, and spam is a serious (and very real) problem. This, incidentally, is why you can't run your own mail server on your own infrastructure using a consumer account from most ISPs.
Where it becomes a potentially bigger problem is with small business connections which may have the ability to run their own mail server. Here that sort of interdiction is potentially serious and at least somewhat-difficult to detect.
Some of us (moi, for one) run our own infrastructure. And I have my email server (that also does spam filtering) configured so that it explicitly identifies TLS/SSL emails with the following tag:
Received: from mx2.freebsd.org (TLS/SSL) [220.127.116.11] by Spamblock-sys;
Wed Nov 12 13:52:02 2014
That nice little tag, if present, tells me that the message transport was encrypted in the process of being sent to me -- but few servers tell you.
All of them should. And I can configure my end to refuse to talk except to a SSL-encrypted other end, but if I do that then anyone who doesn't have SSL capability can't get email from me at all.
I don't know how you get around this, because without encryption of the payload (e.g. via PGP or S/MIME) the option here is that if you disable the ability to send without TLS then you get no email from places where server-to-server encryption can't be used either due to lack of capability, configuration or law.
As a result I think the EFF is blowing a fair bit of smoke here, and the referenced article is less than informative -- and veers dangerously close to scaremongering.
But -- it is something to keep an eye on.
Disclosure: long boiled rope futures.
Hear Paul discuss corporate social responsibility, the evolution of the open-source and sharing economy movements, and how communication technology has transformed global human interaction.
This post 10 Personal Debt Blogs That Can Help Eliminate Your Debt Burden appeared first on Daily Reckoning.
Almost everyone has “some” personal debt. It’s become the norm. An accepted — even encouraged — part of your personal balance sheet. It’s become the mechanism through which you buy your house or your car or your new TV. It’s the measure by which you as a consumer contribute to the economy.
And for many Americans, it’s gotten seriously out of hand…
As this chart shows, U.S. household debt is currently over $11 trillion. Sure that’s down a little from 2008. But that’s still a massive amount of personal debt. And it’s not decreasing fast enough…
But the real problem is how Americans now view their personal debt… Most people tend to place it into two categories: “good debt” and “bad debt” — where “good debt” is likened to a sort of “necessary evil” (i.e. mortgage debt or student loan debt), and “bad debt” is an element of their own frivolous spending (i.e. credit card debt).
Debt is neither good nor bad. It’s merely a means of doing business. But if you don’t know how to manage your personal debt, it can certainly feel “evil” — regardless of whether or not you deem it “necessary.”
But it doesn’t have to be this way…
Below you’ll find a list of ten blogs that provide you with a unique, insightful and sometimes humorous look at how to better manage your personal debt.
These blogs are written by real people with debt of their own. It can often be helpful to hear their stories, and in some cases you can follow along with what they did to improve your own personal debt situation.
So if you’re starting to feel the “cold hand of debt” creep up on you, take a moment to review this list and see if any of them help…
1. Man vs. Debt: The subhead for this blog is “Sell your crap. Pay off your debt. Do what you love.” And the creator of the blog, Adam Baker, practices what he preaches.
On his blog, he details his own struggle to get out from under his personal debt obligations, including the goals he and his wife set for themselves, and how they accomplished them. His story is really interesting. Watch his TED Talk, right here:
2. Blogging Away Debt: Like many blogs on this list, Blogging Away Debt is an inside look at one woman’s journey to become debt free. The most helpful thing on this blog is the list of Categories she has on the right hand side — which link to several helpful and interesting posts on a variety of different debt-related topics.
3. Punch Debt in the Face: This blog is a great, humorous look at one man’s struggle with his personal debt. He’s fairly young, also, which can be a useful for those of you who have lingering student loan obligations.
4. Modest Money: Modest Money is both a debt blog and an investment blog by a self-proclaimed “average guy facing an average financial situation.” It provides useful posts on investing, saving and how to better manage your money.
5. Dear Debt: Similar to Blogging Away Debt, Dear Debt follows the path of one woman’s journey to eliminate her massive $81k in student loan debt. You can read how she’s going about doing it and gather your own personal debt solutions based on her experience.
6. Debt Discipline: Back in 2010, Brian and his family “hit rock bottom with over $109,000 worth of debt.” Now, four years later, they’re completely debt free. He’s not a financial expert or personal debt counselor. But if someone can get rid of that much debt in just 50 months, we think his blog is worth a quick perusal.
7. The YNAB Blog: YNAB stands for You Need A Budget, and this blog offers unique and actionable tips on how to better manage your money. The blog also includes personal debt posts that offer insight on how to get out from under debt more quickly and efficiently.
8. Debt Roundup: Debt Roundup offers you practical advice on how to save money on purchases and decrease your debt burden. Also, like a couple of other blogs on this list, it includes a list of pros and cons for various credit cards (if you absolutely must have one).
9. Digging Out of Debt: This is another great personal debt blog that allows you to follow along as two sisters work their way out of mountains of debt. You can follow along with their own experiences and watch their debt decrease over time.
10. Wisebread: Probably the most well-known website on this list, Wisebread offers you actionable ways to save money and useful tips on how to spend your money more wisely.
Each of these blogs have their own strengths and weaknesses. But we think each one is worth a few minutes of your time. After all… You are not the only person with debt. And in many cases, your debt obligations may be less than some of the people who’ve already found a way out of it. Hopefully some of the blogs on this list will be able help you.
P.S. While these blogs are a good start, your best bet is still to sign up for The Daily Reckoning — which you can do for FREE, right here. Each day, you’ll receive an email, direct from Daily Reckoning co-founder Addison Wiggin that provides you with unique insight on the world of finance…
And in addition, every issue contains at least three chances for you to discover real, actionable profit opportunities you won’t find anywhere else. Don’t miss a single issue. Click here now to sign up for The Daily Reckoning, completely free of charge.
[Note: Any advice you receive on the blogs listed above is not in any way affiliated with The Daily Reckoning or Agora Financial. And while these blogs are an interesting look at personal finance, we don’t officially endorse any of their advice or solutions.]
The post 10 Personal Debt Blogs That Can Help Eliminate Your Debt Burden appeared first on Daily Reckoning.
[Ed. Note: Our resident tech guru, Stephen Petranek, follows both the medical tech sector and space exploration very closely, and his written several reports on each. But today, he's found a unique way these two markets intersect... and how they could make you very wealthy. Read on...]
Here’s a one-question quiz: Other than good preventive behaviors like eating well and getting plenty of exercise, what’s the best way to live a long, healthy life?
The answer isn’t terribly obvious — early diagnosis of disease. Your chance of withstanding a killer malady approaches 100% if you know about it soon enough.
The rub is we’re absolutely terrible at finding disease early.
Despite everything from CT scans to mammograms to blood tests, we’re still in a primitive world that rarely discovers disease until something hurts or a system starts to shut down.
Think about it…
Medical checkups once a year are a smart thing to do, but they rely almost completely on blood work and basic observation by the physician.
Take the EKG, for example. My doctor doesn’t even bother with it anymore.
“It tells me something only after it goes wrong,” she says. Instead, she now sends me for a treadmill stress test every few years. It can reveal problems like clogging of arteries before I get even a small heart attack that goes unnoticed.
We could do so much better.
And the irony is that the solution to detection of most deadly diseases is technology we already possess. We just haven’t used it.
That is about to come to an end because one kind of technology that got its start in the space business — like so many others — is trickling into the marketplace…
Groundbreaking innovations often occur when two completely different disciplines come face to face. In this case, it’s space exploration and medicine.
The result will likely be the most amazing diagnostic achievement in all of medical history. (I’m passionate about new discoveries in the marketplace, and I express my enthusiasm, but I tend to avoid overstating possibilities. Nonetheless, I’m comfortable repeating that this could be the greatest medical achievement in history.)
Let me show you what I mean…
I’m going to jump ahead for a moment into a scenario likely to take place about five years from now:
It’s checkup time, and you go to the doctor’s office.
She gives you one test, and one test only.
She asks you to breathe into a puffy plastic bottle connected to a machine about the size of a shoe box.
That’s right, just breathe — the same thing you do 18,000 times a day.
Breathe out. Breathe into the device.
All but about 1% of what you breathe out will be the same gases you breathed in, minus most of the oxygen, of course.
But what a difference that other 1% can make when it comes to knowing exactly how your body is performing!
Suppose, for example, that your heart is failing, but it’s not obvious yet.
“The result will likely be the most amazing diagnostic achievement in all of medical history.”
Perhaps you’ve had a tiny heart attack that caused some chest pain, but you toughed it out — it wasn’t scary enough to get you into an emergency room.
That will show up in your breath.
It will show up as pentane and acetone, two hydrocarbons produced by the body when your heart develops weakness.
It will also show up if you’ve just walked into an emergency room with chest pains. Or suppose you are developing liver disease, but you’re months, if not years, away from feeling lousy enough to find a doctor and complain.
That will show up in your breath too, as trimethylamine.
Your body uses an enzyme to remove naturally occurring trimethylamine, but the enzyme diminishes when your liver starts going south. Both of these phenomena are well known to Dr. Raed Dweik at the Cleveland Clinic.
He’s a pulmonologist with an interest in breath analysis and a founding member of the Journal of Breath Research.
About a year ago, Dweik published a paper in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in which he noted:
“Acute decompensated heart failure (ADHF) is the most common indication for hospital admission, particularly in the elderly, yet the identification of those with impending decompensation using conventional clinical methods is unreliable and frequently leaves insufficient lag time for therapeutic interventions.”
Allow me to translate:
People walk into the emergency room with chest pains, but it takes hours for clinicians to get all the tests done to see if they have the most common type of heart failure, and before they figure it out, someone often dies. Or they don’t figure it out at all.
Dweik theorized that those patients had breath “signatures” that could identify their malady quickly and easily.
So he and his team recruited 25 patients who had just been admitted to the hospital with ADHF as their diagnosis. Sixteen similar patients (body mass index, sex, etc.) served as a control group who were not admitted with an ADHF diagnosis but were admitted with suspicion of other heart malfunctions.
He had all of them breathe into a breath analyzer.
After computing the results, he found that he could identify the heart failure patients with 100% accuracy.
Since then, he has proved that the test is completely reliable by testing more patients.
His work shows that elevated levels of pentane and acetone in their breath positively diagnose these patients every time.
Now, imagine all the heart failure patients in emergency rooms across the globe waiting for all kinds of blood tests and further decision making before they can receive proper treatment, which, in their cases, would work a lot better the sooner they got it.
If every hospital could simply have every emergency room patient breathe into a tube and know within seconds what was wrong with them, far more people would exit the hospital on their own two feet.
Dweik hasn’t stopped with heart disease.
He recently wrote in another journal that breath tests he has conducted on patients identified precursors to liver failure 90% of the time.
Meanwhile, other researchers are diving into the field.
New experimental breath tests for lung cancer appear to be 80% accurate.
Breath tests among patients with cancer of the larynx show that they have elevated levels of the hydrocarbons ethanol and 2-butanone.
Tests on 250 patients with tuberculosis last year looking for compounds that are emitted by TB bacteria showed that the disease could be predicted with 80% accuracy.
Other researchers are convinced there’s a signature breath test for breast cancer tumors that are too small to show up on mammograms.
But that’s just scratching the surface.
The kind of machine that can detect just one molecule of 2-butanone among a billion other molecules is called a mass spectrometer.
A mass spectrometer is a very complicated piece of equipment that produces a very simple result. It works by measuring the mass-to-charge ratios of samples that are ionized (that gain a charge) by being sprayed with a stream of electrons. The ionized particles are accelerated through a magnetic field that deflects them, depending on their mass and charge, into a detector that sorts them by quantity and thus determines what’s in the sample.
It is one of the great achievements of the 20th century, and three scientists have won Nobel Prizes for developing it and perfecting it. A mass spectrometer can identify all the elements or molecules in any sample you put into it.
But a mass spectrometer is expensive, cumbersome and tricky.
When I was in college, a mass spec, as we called it, took up an entire room, and it was delicate. Almost anything — from current fluctuations to too much humidity in the air — could ruin results. Preparing samples was difficult — even the contamination of a few parts per billion of anything could give false readings. It sucked up huge quantities of electricity and required lots of prep and a really clean environment. I had a friend at Johns Hopkins majoring in physics when I was in graduate school. For his Ph.D. thesis, he built a mass spectrometer. It took a year after he built it to get it to work.
Mass specs have become less fussy and more reliable since my days in college, but most have been the size of a refrigerator, require focus and attention and demand a lot of electricity. They’re also incredibly expensive. A basic device starts at $100,000 and can easily exceed $1 million.
But no longer.
Our team is currently researching a company that’s making mass spectrometers easy to use, portable and capable of running on a battery.
Up to this point, the mass spectrometer has mostly been used as a research and laboratory tool.
But the possible uses of a more mobile mass spectrometer boggle the mind.
For example, an ethnobotanist working with shamans in tribes in the Amazon to identify medicinal plants could make his work far more productive by being able to analyze barks, roots and leaves in a portable mass spectrometer at the site, instead of trying to preserve samples until he gets to a lab in the First World. Plants can change their chemical composition as they wither.
Or imagine a truck overturns in your neighborhood and spills some green slimy chemical that no one can identify. Instead of waiting days for a sample to be analyzed, a hazmat crew armed with a portable mass spectrometer could clean up the spill long before things went terribly wrong.
To be able to know what’s in every rock, every leaf, every cubic centimeter of air and every ounce of water is as powerful as the concept of GPS — being able to know where you are anywhere on Earth at any moment. In fact, portable mass spectrometers designed to identify elements anywhere will probably geolocate with a built-in GPS.
I think the potential for what good mass spectrometry that’s portable and cheap can do is almost beyond the limits of our imagination. Stay tuned for more…
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