Editing Genes, Ethically

Scientists at England’s John Innes Centre learned how to grow plants that produce polio vaccine. That sounds like a very good idea, particularly since the process should work for other vaccines, too.

The other ‘genetic engineering’ news raises issues that can spark strong feelings: and should encourage serious thought.

Being Healthy: Within Reason

Prayer is good idea. So is getting and staying healthy. Within reason. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 15061510, 22882289, 2292)

Some Saints were sickly, but that’s not what makes them Saints. Being healthy or being sick is okay. It’s how we act that matters. (Catechism, 828, 1509, 2211, 22882291, 22922296, 2448)

Science and technology, studying this universe and using what we learn, is part of being human. It’s what we’re supposed to do. (Catechism, 22922296)

I’ll be talking about organ transplants, among other things.

Transplants are a good idea — if the benefits outweigh the risks, and someone isn’t maimed or killed in the process. (Catechism, 2296)

Thinking about Consequences

Say “genetic engineering,” and some folks may think of movies like “Splice” and “Sharktopus.” Or maybe “Gattaca” and “Morgan.”

Others might remember stern warnings about GMOs and the looming specter of unbridled science: as reported in their favorite news service.

I’ve read that “Gattaca” and “Morgan” were serious films. “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” was anything but.

I like science fiction movies, and think they can be valuable: as entertainment.

I see genetic engineering as something that’s no more dangerous — or idiot-proof safe — than anything else we do.

It’s also “new” only in the sense that we’re developing new ways to tweak genetic code.

Tech like gel electrophoresis is new — genetic manipulation isn’t. Today’s cattle are the result of more than ten millennia of genetic tweaking. (October 21, 2016; July 22, 2016)

I think we need to be careful when using new technology: or tech we’ve had for millennia. What’s been changing is what can go wrong when we don’t use our brains.

The lesson from recent incidents in Fukushima and London is not that we should ban nuclear energy and stop using fire. (July 28, 2017; June 25, 2017)

It’s that using our brains makes sense: even if it means thinking about consequences beyond what we’re doing at the moment. (August 11, 2017; July 14, 2017)

“Rational Reflection”

Maybe life would be easier for Catholics if the Church said that genetic modification was evil, or that curiosity covers all wrongs.

With a little rhetorical work, and using James 5:20 out of context, ‘curiosity covers all wrongs’ might even sound ‘Biblical.’

Happily, roll-your-own theology is not part of being Catholic. (July 30, 2017)

We have a few hard and fast rules, but not many.

They’re based on even fewer very simple principles. I’m expected to love God, love my neighbor: and see everybody as my neighbor. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

It’s simple, and not easy.

We’re told that God made us “in the divine image.” We are rational creatures, able to think and decide how we act. God gives us brains. Using them is a good idea. (Genesis 1:26, 2:7; Catechism, 355, 1730, 1778, 21122114, 22922295)

What St. John Paul II called “rational reflection” may not be easy.1 But I think it makes sense. Particularly when we’re dealing with new circumstances. (October 7, 2016)

1. Vaccines Grown to Order

(From John Innes Centre, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“A close relative of tobacco has been turned into a polio vaccine ‘factory'”)

Plants ‘hijacked’ to make polio vaccine
James Gallagher, BBC News (August 15, 2017)

Plants have been ‘hijacked’ to make polio vaccine in a breakthrough with the potential to transform vaccine manufacture, say scientists.

“The team at the John Innes Centre, in Norfolk, says the process is cheap, easy and quick.

“As well as helping eliminate polio, the scientists believe their approach could help the world react to unexpected threats such as Zika virus or Ebola….”

“Quick” is a relative term. This technique won’t provide ‘next-day’ service for newly-discovered viruses.

But it’s faster than what we’ve got. Vaccines for new flu strains take months to be ready. They’re grown in chicken eggs.2

These folks tested their technique with a Canadian company. They found that they could identify a new virus and have an vaccine ready in three to four weeks.

The vaccine these plants produce doesn’t use live viruses or dead viruses. They’re more like empty viruses.

Influenza: A Digression

“Flu” isn’t always influenza. “24-hour flu” is often gastroenteritis, ‘food poisoning,’ caused by a whole mess of viruses, bacteria and — sometimes — toxins.

Scientists thought they might have spotted a bacterium, Haemophilus influenzae, that causes influenza in 1892.

What folks get from H. influenzae is still called “bacterial influenza” sometimes, but it’s not the same disease. Diseases, actually.

We spotted a virus that causes influenza in 1933. We knew for sure that it was a virus in 1935, after studying tobacco mosaic virus. Tobacco mosaic virus gets listed as the first virus discovered, since it’s the first that scientists realized was what we call a virus.

I’m not sure whether viruses are critters, living things, or not. The last I heard, scientists are still working toward a consensus on that question. I’ve seen viruses called “biological entities.” That’s accurate, and will do for now.

A virus is a bit of nucleic acid in a protein shell. Some add a lipid envelope, using material from the host cell’s membrane.

By themselves, viruses don’t do much apart from attach to cells. Once attached, the protein coat injects its nucleic acid into the host cell, where the nucleic acid’s code ‘hacks’ the cell’s molecular processes to make more viruses.

In 1951, scientists studying diphtheria found viruses carrying a gene from one bacterium to another. In 1984, Harvard’s Michael Syvanen showed that viruses carrying genes between species might be affecting evolution.

It’s called horizontal gene transfer these days, one of many things we have a great deal left to learn about.

Orthomyxoviridae, the “influenza virus,” isn’t just one sort of virus. It’s a lot of different viruses that cause influenza in critters, including humans. Viruses evolve fast, which is one reason I get an updated flu shot every fall.

‘Empty Viruses’

(From St. Louis Post Dispatch, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Etzel and Page Avenues, St. Louis, Missouri, in 1918: another case of the flu.)

Many or most of today’s polio vaccines use “inactivated” viruses. They use viruses that are still “alive,” but weakened to the point where they don’t do much besides show the body’s immune system what polio ‘looks’ like.

Like doing anything else, there’s a slight risk involved with vaccines.

But getting immunized makes more sense than risking polio. My opinion.

The disease doesn’t always kill.

Some folks recover completely, others are merely crippled, some spent the rest of their lives in iron lungs. Living with a withered leg is manageable, and so is life in an iron lung. The latter is pricey, though, and — sedentary. (August 21, 2016)

My guess is that someone has a better chance of winning the Power Ball lottery than having a bad reaction to polio vaccines. Like I said, it’s a reasonable risk.

The favorable benefit-risk ratio didn’t keep anti-communist enthusiasts from playing up fears of fluoridation, vaccines, and mental health in the 1950s. Also, apparently, zombies. They weren’t the first, or the last, folks getting conniptions over vaccines. (July 21, 2017)

Or pretty much anything new. (March 26, 2017; October 16, 2016; August 21, 2016)

Inexpensive, Fast, Safe: Not a Bad Idea

(From St. Louis Post Dispatch, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(“A = VLPs in vitreous ice. B = Reconstruction of poliovirus. C = VLP showing empty internal surface. D and E = Resolutions of poliovirus”
(John Innes Centre))

The John Innes Centre’s team started with genetic code that polio viruses use to build their protein shell. Think of it as the box viruses come in.

They combined that code with instructions from viruses that normally infect plants.

The combined code went into soil bacteria, which ‘infected’ the test plants. After the plants were ‘infected,’ scientists found polio-virus-shaped protein shells in the leaves: with no genetic code inside.

The vaccine they made from the empty shells wasn’t even a ‘dead virus’ vaccine.

All the shells did in vaccinated animals was alert their immune systems to what a polio virus ‘looks’ like. And sure enough: the critters were immune to polio after that.

The World Health Organization supported this research. Since WHO is a UN agency, I’m pretty sure some folks will assume the research is some sort of plot. (July 21, 2017)

Me? I think it looks very promising. Particularly since the technology can apparently be used to produce vaccines for most if not all viral diseases. Inexpensively, swiftly, safely, and effectively.3

This is not a bad thing.

2. Mutant Pigs

(From eGenesis, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

GM pigs take step to being organ donors
James Gallagher, BBC News (August 11, 2017)

The most genetically modified animals in existence have been created to help end a shortage of organs for transplant, say US researchers.

“The scientists successfully rid 37 pigs of viruses hiding in their DNA, overcoming one of the big barriers to transplanting pig organs to people.

“The team at eGenesis admits preventing pig organs from being rejected by the human body remains a huge challenge …”

The five-dollar word for what these scientists have in mind is xenotransplantation: transplanting organs from a donor of one species into a recipient of another.

Since quite a few folks are squeamish about killing people for their parts, and think that pigs are not people, this seems like a reasonable solution to the organ shortage.

One problem, so far, has been that xenotransplantation isn’t even close to being safe and practical. Not yet.4

Editing viruses out of porcine DNA is a big step in that direction. But it’s just one step.

One of the many issues still needing work is the excellent job our immune systems do.

Our immune system is generally very effective at locating and killing microbes. Some microbes, and that’s another topic.

The problem is that we don’t know how to tell our immune system that a particular piece of foreign tissue is supposed to be there.

We can, however, shut down the entire immune system: which creates its own problems.

Assuming that technical issues get sorted out, I think developing organ-donation-safe pigs as a good idea. Assuming, of course, that the pigs are not mistreated. (November 18, 2016)

In the long run, I think the ‘spare parts’ issue may be solved by coaxing our bodies into growing replacement organs. There’s been some promising research along those lines. It’s still in the ‘lab mice’ state, so far. (February 24, 2017)

Organ Transplants, Law, and Flexible Ethics

Organ and tissue transplants go back at least to Sushruta’s skin graft.

It’s mentioned in the “Sushruta Samhita,” “Compendium of Suśruta,” a medical text written by Sushruta; and almost certainly expanded by others.

There’s debate about whether that was about 26 centuries back, or maybe a bit over two millennia. Either way, it’s a long time ago.

More recently, transplants and related medical technology has gone from skin grafts and entertaining nonsense like “The Brain that Wouldn’t Die” to current legal and technical hurdles.

Emil Theodor Kocher did a human thyroid transplant in 1883. Work by Peter Medawar and others in the 1940s and 50s identified the immune responses that usually killed transplant patients.

Christiaan Barnard’s successful human-to-human heart transplant was in 1967. I hope he waited until the donor was actually dead. (November 11, 2016)

In 1972, researchers at Sandoz developed ciclosporin, the first immunosuppressive strong enough to keep transplant patients alive. Sandoz became part of Novartis after a corporate merger, and that’s yet another topic.

The good news is that we can transplant organs from one human to another, and keep at least one of them alive. The not-so-good news is that we don’t have enough spare hearts, kidneys, lungs, and other organs, to go around.

Complicating matters, there’s a plethora of legal and social standards for organ transplants. Some folks have religious objections, too — and it’s not just ‘back to the old days’ Christians.5

Some objections may reflect a distaste for anything new. Others seem more reasonable. Moldova, for example, restricted international adoption after learning what happened to some of the kids. The country’s rulers apparently didn’t want them broken down for parts.

Other nations exhibit more flexible ethics.

China outlawed the sale of organs in 2006. But not organ donation. Many criminals voluntarily donate their organs before they’re executed. Apparently. China executes quite a few criminals, so there’s a fairly steady supply.

I think flexibility can be a good idea. Sometimes. But not always. The trick is recognizing the difference between positive and natural law. (February 5, 2017; November 21, 2016)

3. Genetic Engineering and Questions

(From OHSU, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Pictures of the genetically modified embryos”
(BBC News))

Human embryos edited to stop disease
James Gallagher, BBC News (August 2, 2017)

Scientists have, for the first time, successfully freed embryos of a piece of faulty DNA that causes deadly heart disease to run in families.

“It potentially opens the door to preventing 10,000 disorders that are passed down the generations.

“The US and South Korean team allowed the embryos to develop for five days before stopping the experiment.

“The study hints at the future of medicine, but also provokes deep questions about what is morally right….”

I had hoped that I would read about an experimental medical procedure intended to heal the patient. That’s not what happened.

Apparently the “deep questions about what is morally right” focus on correcting a genetic disorders was okay: if succeeding generations also benefited.

My own view is that worrying about whether healing a person is okay, if the person’s children may be healthy as a result, seems silly. At best.

It’s not that simple, though.

Again, healing an individual is a good idea.

We’re told that gene therapy is okay: in principle. Gene therapy that will affect later generations may be okay. But not if healing today’s individual would harm the patient’s descendants. (“Instruction Dignitas Personae,” 24-27 (September 8, 2008))

That doesn’t mean that gene therapy is bad.

If we learn that we can cure diseases in today’s children, and that their descendants will be fine: that’s good.

If it’s a case of curing today’s kid and crippling the next generation: not so much.

Health and Old Ideas

Some of today’s ambivalence about healing the sick may be fallout from the days when some brands of Christianity sold the notion that God enjoys smiting sinners.

Judging by the Great Awakening’s success, it was effective marketing. Long-term effects on my culture: that, I’m not thrilled over. (March 5, 2017; August 21, 2016)

As I said earlier, being healthy is okay. Getting healthy is okay. Helping someone get healthy is okay.

Making good health the sole focus of my life, more important than anything or anyone else: that would not be okay. (Catechism, 21122114)

I should also avoid doing something that’s a bad idea, even if my motive is to help myself or someone I care about. (Catechism, 1789, 2296)

The Francis Crick Institute’s Professor Robin Lovell-Badge expressed another concern:

“…’The possibility of producing designer babies, which is unjustified in any case, is now even further away.'”
(James Gallagher, BBC News)

“Unjustified in any case” is a rather firm statement. I suspect we haven’t entirely forgotten what happened when eugenic standards were enforced. (August 14, 2016)

Frankenfish Fears and Using my Brain

(From BBC, used w/o permission.)

My guess is that some folks will slap the “Satanic” label on this research. I won’t.

I think Satan is real, and that killing human test subjects is a bad idea.

But I also think far too many folks have said “Satanic” when they meant “I don’t like it” or “it’s different.” (May 5, 2017; February 5, 2017; November 13, 2016)

Folks with a less traditionally-religious bent will most likely disapprove because the scientists are altering genetic code — which, apparently, is just simply fraught with peril.

The last I heard, we’re still supposed to be scared of GMOs: Genetically Modified Organisms. They’re new. They’re modified. They’re alive!!! (Muahahaha!)

I don’t share those fears, partly because I know that few if any of today’s crops or livestock aren’t genetically modified.

But we’ve survived macaroni wheat and chickens. I figure we’ll get over fears of “Frankenfish” as soon as another boogeyman shows up. (June 9, 2017; March 31, 2017; July 22, 2016)

There are reasons for caution while using new genetic engineering tech.

Any technology is dangerous if we don’t use our brains: even fire, something we’ve used for well upwards of a million years. (July 28, 2017)

‘It’s for science’ doesn’t make hurting or killing innocent folks okay. (Catechism, 2294)

Ethics matter, no matter what we’re doing.

A Basically Good Motive

I think these scientists had basically good motives. The inherited disorders they’re studying can be lethal.

They focused on MYBPC genes. In healthy folks, some of those genes help our bodies suppress tumors, others keep our hearts beating. When the genes don’t work, the result can be breast cancer or HCM.

HCM is short for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. It’s one of the main reasons we occasionally read about healthy high school athletes who drop dead.

Defective MYBPC genes only account for about 5% to 10% of all breast cancer cases, and most of us don’t die in our teens. Humanity’s survival doesn’t hinge on this research. But MYBPC genes seem like a good place to start learning about some aspects of gene therapy.

The good news is that the scientists learned a great deal. They also learned that although they could fix MYBPC genes, the technique isn’t practical. One of the donors/parents would have to be healthy, for one thing.6

The bad news, from my viewpoint, is that the 131 human test subjects did not survive the experiment. After waiting five days to make sure their repaired genes were working properly, the subjects were allowed to die. Or maybe killed. I’m not sure which.

Learning: Slowly

This isn’t a Tuskegee scenario.

Researchers filled out all the necessary paperwork. Their study was quite legal.

My guess, and hope, is that they didn’t think the folks they used were people.

I don’t doubt that we have learned a great deal from their work, and that folks will benefit from that knowledge.

But I also think that killing 131 innocent people is not a good idea. Even if they are not, legally, persons. In this case, the test subjects were young enough to be called “embryos.”

Technically, they may not have been “killed.” The easiest way to ensure their death would have been to take them from the environment they needed to remain alive.

I think the ‘viability’ argument might excuse their termination, by current American standards. I don’t see it that way. That’s partly because I don’t see providing nutrition and shelter to a helpless person as “extraordinary” care. (Catechism, 22782279)

I willingly accepted that part of Catholic belief, perhaps because I’ve lived in the upper Midwest for most of my life.

Around here, no human is “viable” during winter. Not without clothing, fire, or the more sophisticated tech we’ve developed. We’ll last longer if we’re strong and healthy to start with, keep moving, and that’s yet again another topic.

Seeing all human beings as people, no matter what we look like, where we were born, or how healthy we are, can be inconvenient: even awkward. But I think it is a good idea. (Catechism, 2258, 22662267, 22682279, 22922295)

I also think we may be learning: slowly. One researcher involved with the Tuskegee syphilis experiment quite after learning that treatment for some of the subjects was not planned, and that the subjects would not be informed.

Several decades later, some Americans who weren’t working for the national government learned what had been happening. That was in 1972.

America had been going through a very rapid series of social and cultural changes. Many of us realized that lying to non-whites was a bad idea. So was subjecting them to lethal infections.

Many of those changes were, I think, reforms that had been in progress for many generations. And are far from finished.7

Still Learning

(From New York Public Library, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

The Willowbrook experiments didn’t last as long as the Tuskegee research. They started in the 1960s. In that case, disabled kids at a state housing facility were getting hepatitis. Folks running the place didn’t know why.

So they deliberately infected 60 of the healthy ones. About 6,000 disabled folks were packed into quarters designed for 4,000 by then. Only about 1% of the available test subjects were actually harmed.

A remarkable number of Americans thought it was a bad idea, anyway. I agree.

Research that knowingly endangers someone’s life, health, or sanity, isn’t right. Even if the subject says it’s okay. (Catechism, 2295)

Public criticism of Willowbrook started in the 1970s, too. Like I said: I think we are learning. And we have much more to learn:

1 Thinking about life and Catholic social teachings:

2 Viruses, mostly:

3 Polio:

4 Organ transplants:

5 More about organ transplants:

6 Genetic engineering:

7 Curing social ills takes time and persistence:

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Death in Charlottesville

A vehicular homicide case near the intersection of Fourth and Water streets in Charlottesville, Virginia, is international news.

I regret the loss of life, particularly since the driver apparently intended to harm or kill the victims. I’ll get back to that.

Heather Heyer had been with several other folks there, protesting something — or maybe someone — which or who she felt should be inspiring more outrage.

During the protest, someone drove a car into another vehicle, and into the protestors. 19 were injured, five critically. Heather Heyer died.

“…Heather D. Heyer, 32, a Charlottesville resident who police say was crossing the road at the time, died of her injuries after being rushed to the hospital….”
(CBS News (August 13, 2017))

A young man who apparently was driving the car has been arrested. He’s been charged with second degree murder. That seems reasonable.

Two Virginia State Troopers, Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen and trooper Berke M.M. Bates, had been on their way to Carlottesville. They died when their helicopter crashed.

Oddly enough, almost none of the news has been about Heather Heyer, and not much about the young man who apparently killed her.

Much of it seems to be about why we should blame some politico or another. Where we’re supposed to focus our anger depends on which news outlet I look at.

Trusting Emotions: Within Reason

It would be nice if news services would focus more on facts and less on emotion.

But that’s not going to happen. Not any time soon, judging from what I’ve seen over the last half-century.

There’s nothing wrong with emotions. Experiencing them is part of being human. But so is using logic. I should think before I act or speak. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1951, 1730, 17631767)

I’ve learned that my emotions don’t give good advice. (January 11, 2017; October 5, 2016)

However, emotions may show that something requires attention. After that, my job is thinking about how I should respond. Or not respond. (Catechism, 1763, 1765, 1767)

This isn’t 1967

Quite a few events happened 50 years ago this summer. Some remember it as the Summer of Love, others as the long hot summer of 1967.

I remember it as a year when some of us were working or hoping for long-overdue reforms. Others were increasingly frustrated in their efforts to preserve crumbling social conventions.

I wasn’t the craziest of ‘those crazy kids.’ But I thought we could do better.1

I still do. (May 21, 2017; August 11, 2017)

Heather Heyers and others had been protesting a protest held by another outfit.

She lived in Charlottesville. The fellow who apparently killed her is from Ohio. But nobody, as far as I know, has said that the focus of Heyer’s protest were “outside agitators” whose goal was to “rile up” folks in Charlottesville.

Maybe we’ve learned a little wisdom since 1967.2

The folks at the protest which Heather Hayers and others were counter-protesting apparently don’t like what’s been happening in America.

I’m not overly thrilled, myself, with the status quo. Many of our new social conventions are, I think, very unsatisfactory.

But I am convinced that the answer is not reviving injustices that we were correcting in the 1960s. My memory is too good to want the ‘good old days’ to return. Ever.

Love: It’s Simple, Not Easy

The basics are simple. I should love God, love my neighbors, and see everybody as my neighbor. Everybody. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

Valuing human life is also a good idea. All human life, including folks who aren’t considered fit to live, or insufficiently human, by my culture’s standards. (Catechism, 2258, 2267, 2270, 2277)

Like I said, experiencing emotions is part of being human.

They’re not good or bad by themselves. I’d be concerned if I didn’t feel anger or at least aversion in response to the weekend murder in Charlottesville. (Catechism, 1765, 1767)

Murder, deliberately killing another person, is a bad idea. I shouldn’t even cherish anger, hatred, or a desire for vengeance. (Catechism, 2261, 2262, 23022303)

Deciding whether an action is good or bad can be important. I’m expected to think about what I do, and the actions of others. But judging persons as “good” or “evil?” I must leave that to God. (Catechism, 1778, 1861, 24012449)

Deciding what I should do about emotions, instead of letting them direct me, isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s very hard. But it’s a good idea.

Reasons for Hope

I think we are nearly 22 years closer to building “the civilization of love” St. John Paul II talked about. (August 11, 2017; May 28, 2017; May 7, 2017)

Since I also think it will take centuries, maybe millennia, to cobble together a close approximation of his dream — we are not much closer.

But we are closer.

I see reasons for hope in how many folks respond to irresponsible acts of violence. This sort of thing isn’t, apparently, international news:

‘Come see who we are’: Community members urge hope after Islamic center blast
Doualy Xaykaothao, MPR News (August 7, 2017)

“…’In Minnesota, we accept one another, we support one another, we respect one another,’ said [Minnesota Governor] Dayton. ‘We live together, we work together, we succeed together. And we’re not going to let one bad person get in the way of all that.’…

“‘They come Sundays, they come to play soccer in our fields,’ said Omar. ‘Every time you come, day, or night, there is activity going on.’…”

Community support builds for Bloomington Islamic center
KARE (August 6, 2017)

“On Sunday evening, members of Pax Christi Catholic Church in Eden Prairie delivered in a basket more than 200 handwritten notes of support to the Dar Al-Farooq Center….”

I’ve talked about love, hope, and why I think cautious optimism makes sense, before:

1 Remembering 1967:

2 More about what happened in Charlottesville, and in 1967:

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I’ll be talking about miracles today. Also religious art and kitsch, the Mayan apocalypse, and why folks occasionally see faces that aren’t there. Even by my standards, this post rambles a bit.

Quite a few folks act as if they think faith and reason, religion and science, have about as much to do with each other as cheese and Wednesday.

Some go a step further, and blame the world’s woes on religion.

The antics of loudly-religious folks don’t help make faith look like a reasonable, or safe, part of today’s world.

I think faith isn’t reason, but that it’s reasonable. I also think that an honest search for truth doesn’t threaten faith. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 3135, 159; “Fides et Ratio;” “Gaudium et Spes,” 36)

Folks have been talking about faith and reason for centuries:

“…Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity. That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith, through which the intellect attains to the natural and supernatural truth of charity…”
(“Cartias in Vertitate,” Pope Benedict XVI, (June 29, 2009))

“…Another threat to be reckoned with is scientism. This is the philosophical notion which refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences; and it relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy….
“…Regrettably, it must be noted, scientism consigns all that has to do with the question of the meaning of life to the realm of the irrational or imaginary. No less disappointing is the way in which it approaches the other great problems of philosophy which, if they are not ignored, are subjected to analyses based on superficial analogies, lacking all rational foundation….”
(“Fides et Ratio,” Pope Saint John Paul II (September 14, 1998))

“…man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such person, gullibility which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck.”
(Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Smith (1822))

“If Reason seems to have any Power against Religion, it is only where Religion is become a dead Form, has lost its true State, and is dwindled into Opinion … If therefore you are afraid of Reason hurting your Religion, it is a Sign, that your Religion is not yet as it should be, is not a self-evident Growth of Nature and Life within you, but has much of mere Opinion in it.”
(“The Way to Divine Knowledge,” William Law (1762))

“…Now one who has faith can be enlightened in his mind concerning what he has heard; thus it is written (Lk. 24:27,32) that Our Lord opened the scriptures to His disciples, that they might understand them. Therefore understanding is compatible with faith….”
(“Summa Theologica,” Thomas Aquinas, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 8, Article 2 (ca. 1265-1274))

Some things are “miraculous” without being miracles.

And some “miracles” aren’t miraculous: they’re just “wonderful or surpassing” examples of some quality.

The Miraculous Medal, for example, isn’t miraculous. It’s an oval bit of metal with a particular design stamped on each side.

For folks who know what it is and what it’s for, it’s a sacramental.

Sacramentals like the Miraculous Medal can help me cooperate with God. (Catechism, 16671673)

Or I can watch a movie, read a book, whatever. I’ve got free will. (March 5, 2017)

Art for the Rest of Us

Religious art ranges from masterpieces like Strasbourg Cathedral’s rose window to breathtakingly cheesy Jesus junk.

Most of us don’t have the purchasing power of folks like Lorenzo de’ Medici, which may help explain the high kitsch/masterpiece ratio. I like kitsch, some of it. (July 4, 2017)

Ever since folks like Currier and Ives started mass-producing “colored engravings for the people,” most of us can have art in our homes.

Currier and Ives sold over a million affordable pictures before the company closed in 1907.

These days, places like the Philadelphia Print Shop offer original Currier and Ives prints for anywhere from a few hundred dollars to over $8,000. And that’s another topic.

Not-Really-Miraculous Products

Those rosary beads “GLOW in the Dark,” according to their product description. But they’re not “miraculous,” even in the “wonderful example” sense. Not today.

I don’t know who made the first luminous plastics. The earliest glow-in-the-dark collectibles I found are from the 1950s.

That hasn’t kept some outfits from advertising religious items that “miraculously glow in the dark!” I don’t mind folks making and selling ‘religious’ stuff. I’m not particularly pleased with how it’s occasionally marketed.

An ad I saw on television, many years back, was particularly egregious.

The product seemed nice enough. It was like a small kaleidoscope, but without mirrors. A lens at one end enlarged a picture at the other. Think a monocular View-Master, with only one image.

I don’t remember what the picture was: something like a Bible verse, or maybe a Biblical figure. The toy might have made a good stocking stuffer.

That’s not what etched the commercial into my memory. It was the product’s description.

A woman’s voice, with an excitement usually reserved for hawking psychic readings and painkillers, extolled the virtues of this “miraculous” product and its “miraculous” picture.

I have no idea how many viewers thought it really was “miraculous.” What still bothers me, a little, is that an advertising agency thought the ‘it’s a miracle’ approach would work. Sadly, some folks with sincere religious beliefs also seem to be profoundly gullible.

Harold Camping, End Times, and the Mayan Apocalypse

It’s been about six years since Harold Camping made headlines, and several million dollars, predicting End Times.


I might enjoy watching America’s recurring End Times Bible Prophecy nonsense and the secular counterparts more, but some folks take them very seriously.

Lethal results, like the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, are rare. But I don’t think doomsayers do much good, whether they’re selling faith-based prognostications or the teachings of Ehrlich.

‘True believers’ aren’t always yokels like Non Sequitur’s Eddie. A television producer was among Camping’s followers.1

My favorite End Times prognostication, in terms of showing imagination, is still Swedenborg’s. In 1758 he announced that the Last Judgment had happened: from January through December, 1757.

He said it was “in the spiritual world,” so nobody’s likely to disprove the claim. (“Heaven and Hell,” 45; Swedenborg (1758))

Lots of folks announce End Time Bible Prophecies: with the main event somewhere in the future. Swedenborg’s is the only one I know of who claimed it had already happened.

I think he gets points for originality.

Christians aren’t the only ones with apocalyptic predictions. Heaven’s Gate was a UFO religion. It apparently got started after its founders read parts of the King James Bible and science fiction stories.

Doomsday predictions invoking climate change aren’t usually listed as “apocalyptic” — maybe because quite a few prominent folks still take Ehrlich and Malthus seriously.

I think there might be more support for environmental issues if the rhetoric was turned down several notches. (August 11, 2017; July 14, 2017; August 12, 2016)

In the years leading up to 2012, an assortment of New Age, ancient astronaut, and other folks got excited about a rollover in a Mayan Calendar.

By the time the hoopla ended, we’d gotten a movie, “2012;” an X-Files episode; and 2012-themed tours in Guatemala.

Like many dire predictions, the 2012 Mayan calendar excitement made unwarranted assumptions about something that actually exists. The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar is real, and so is the a 5,126-year-long cycle that got folks excited.2

We use a base-10, or decimal, numbering system; so some folks in my culture got excited around years that were even multiples of 1,000. The Y2K bug — is yet another topic.

Using our Brains

The “miracle of the peanut butter” gag started August 6, 1992, when Dogbert saw a news item about someone seeing a face of Saint Theresa in a can of varnish.

A few folks seem convinced they saw the face of Jesus or a Saint “miraculously” appear. Others see similar faces, think it’s interesting, and take a ‘wait and see’ attitude.

Oddly enough, the face isn’t always in a jar of mayonnaise: or peanut butter, as Dogbert claimed. The two ‘face of Jesus’ news items I found, from 2014 and 1987, involved a piece of chicken and the side of a freezer.

I suspect more than a few of the ‘face of someone’ perceptions happen because the human brain is remarkably good at recognizing faces. Sometimes even when the face isn’t there.

Pareidolia is the five-dollar name for it. Parts of our brains are wired to recognize faces before we’re aware of them.

I don’t doubt that some folks sincerely believe they saw a miraculous face. But our brains aren’t entirely hardwired. What we decide to accept is up to us.

As I keep saying, we’re expected to think. (Catechism, 17621775, 1776)

God gave us brains. Using them makes sense. (February 26, 2017; July 29, 2016)

Sometimes God Loads the Dice

One time our Lord told a crippled man to get up and walk. That’s not a miracle. I could do the same thing.

What flabbergasted folks in Capernaum was that the cripple got up and walked.

He couldn’t do that before. (Mark 2:112; Luke 5:1726)

That was a miracle.

I think miracles happen. When they do, it’s for a reason. Sometimes it’s God’s way of saying ‘yes, it’s really me: now pay attention.’ (Acts 2:22; Catechism, 156, 515, 547549, 2003)

Accepting miracles does not mean I expect God to perform tricks on cue, so I can impress my friends and neighbors.

That sort of thing strikes me as more than a trifle impertinent.

When I say something is a “miracle” in the Catholic sense, I mean the event is something entirely outside the normal operation of nature and natural forces.

MIRACLE: A sign or wonder, such as a healing or the control of nature, which can only be attributed to divine power. The miracles of Jesus were messianic signs of the presence of God’s kingdom (547).”
(Glossary, Catechism)

Outright miracles aren’t the only sort of sign folks expected from God. A footnote to Exodus 3 discusses ‘signs’ seen as a display of the power of God. Almost any phenomenon could be a ‘sign,’ if the context showed that it was from God.

One way I think of it is to imagine rolling dice. If I roll snake eyes once, I’m lucky — or not. If I roll it twelve times in a row, there’s something unusual about the dice or the situation.

I don’t expect to be on hand during a “Biblical” miracle, one of those very high-profile interventions familiar in Hollywood’s Bible Epics. Those films are another reason I don’t miss the 1950s, and that’s yet again another topic.

The Bible covers highlights from something like 3,000 years of recorded history, plus a few oral traditions that are much older.

We had a cluster of miracles during the 40 year trek out of Egypt. Some of those may have been ‘loaded dice’ situations. But if so, Moses was rolling snake eyes. Consistently.

There was another cluster while our Lord was here, about two millennia back. Let’s say that one lasted 33 years.

Taken together, it’s about 73 years when miracles were happening a lot. During most of the other 2,927-odd years of our history, leading up to our Lord’s arrival, not so much.

Faith and Reason, Science and Religion

I don’t see a problem with accepting miracles and that thinking that science is okay. Science and religion, faith and reason, get along: or should. (May 7, 2017; May 21, 2017)

And that’s still another topic: one I keep discussing.

Bob Kurland’s view of miracles, from his Reflections of a Catholic Scientist:

Some of my take on miracles and using our brains:

1 About Harold Camping’s End Times campaign:

“Okay, I have a serious bone to pick with the news media.

“It is being widely reported that the evangelical Christian broadcaster whose Judgment Day prophecy went embarrassingly unfulfilled on Saturday has explained that he miscalculated, and the actual Apocalypse will happen later.

“So my question is, why are we even still quoting this man? Why are we spreading his hogwash?

“In my book, he’s moved to the very, very bottom of the list, under every other person on earth, when it comes to credibility about Apocalypses, yet here we are running stories about his newest prediction.

“Really? How many chances does he GET?

“And while I’m on the subject, a ‘miscalculation’ is like when you leave too small a tip for your waiter, and so he beats you up in the parking lot.

“It’s NOT the word you use to explain why you got sad, gullible people to rearrange their lives around going to heaven….”
(Oddly Enough, Robert Basler)

“…Follower Jeff Hopkins also spent a good deal of his own retirement savings on gas money to power his car so people would see its ominous lighted sign showcasing Camping’s May 21 warning. As the appointed day drew nearer, Hopkins started making the 100-mile round trip from Long Island to New York City twice a day, spending at least $15 on gas each trip.

“‘I’ve been mocked and scoffed and cursed at and I’ve been through a lot with this lighted sign on top of my car,’ said Hopkins, 52, a former television producer who lives in Great River, NY. ‘I was doing what I’ve been instructed to do through the Bible, but now I’ve been stymied. It’s like getting slapped in the face.’…”
(Associated Press, via FoxNews.com)

2 More about Mayan calendars, as seen by historians and astronomers:

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Sane Environmentalism

I think being concerned about air quality, recycling, and other environmental issues, makes sense.

But I don’t think only being concerned about the environment is a good idea. People matter, too.

I don’t think it’s an either/or thing.

Kerosene Lamps to Smartphones in Four Generations

My father remembers living on a farm where a horse pulled the plow, wagon, or anything else too heavy for humans.

His father may have been as interested in new technology as I am. They got a kerosene lamp when such things became available in their area.

I probably also got my understanding that no technology is “safe” in the sense of being absolutely idiot-proof, from them. By way of my father, of course.

He told me that they tested the new lamp by clearing a firebreak around a stump. Then, setting the lamp on the now-isolated stump, they carefully lit the lamp.

Satisfied that it would produce light and some heat, and was not a serious safety hazard, they started using it. They later moved to an area which had been more obviously affected by the Industrial Revolution.

I remember my parent’s first television set, the hoopla over color television, and hand-wringing op-eds over the dreadful effect telephones had on the young. ‘Kids these days! They don’t communicate any more. They just sit for hours, talking on the telephone.’

My wife and I didn’t have Internet connections in the first years of our marriage, but our youngest kids don’t remember a world that wasn’t ‘connected.’ On the whole, I like living in the Information Age.

Today’s computers, smartphones, and data networks, won’t solve all our problems, but I don’t see information tech as a threat. They’re tools we can use to help or hurt each other. How we use them is our choice.

The Industrial Revolution: Good News, Partly

England was at the leading edge of the Industrial Revolution, starting somewhere between 1760 and 1840. That was good news, and not-so-good news.

On the ‘up’ side, we don’t have nearly as many famines these days.

I suspect we’ll be cleaning up effects of the ‘down’ side for centuries.

But I certainly don’t miss the days of frequent famines. That would make about as much sense as assuming that growing crops, instead of hunting and gathering, is a bad idea. (October 21, 2016; July 22, 2016; August 26, 2016)

I think disciple of Malthus owe their credibility partly to historical amnesia. (May 12, 2017; April 7, 2017; August 12, 2016)

I still run into other folks who talk as if they think Earth’s resources are literally infinite.

I don’t agree.

But I don’t think we’ll all starve, or drown when the icecaps melt, or perish of some calamity wrought by “tampering with things man was not supposed to know,” as the mercurial Mr. Squibbs said. I’ll get back to that.

While the Industrial Revolution was starting in England, settlers from former English colonies in North America were moving into land west of the Appalachians.

“…Many mills are already built on this stream, some of which are represented in the map, and will have a plentiful supply of water in the dryest seasons. … Here is great plenty of fine cane, on which the cattle feed, and grow fat….”
(“The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke,” John Filson (1784) via Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

His expressed attitude is understandable. He’d acquired large land claims there, and was encouraging folks to buy parcels of his investment.

We see the same sort of thing in today’s real estate ads.

I think quite a few folks shared the optimism shown in Filson’s publication. But not all.

Doom, Gloom, and Lovecraft

Not quite two decades later, back in England, Thomas Robert Malthus assured himself a place of honor in the hallowed halls of doomsayers.

His 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Population” set the standard for many later prognostications of grim futures.

He was a clergyman, and concerned about the poor. I think that’s reasonable. What he considered beneficial for the poor is — debatably charitable.

He thought, for example, that English Poor Laws encouraged the lower classes to have too many kids.

His work inspired terms like Malthusian catastrophe.

And, likely enough, Ebeneezer Scrooge’s attitude regarding the “surplus population.” Indirectly. (April 30, 2017)

Malthus wasn’t the only one who wasn’t thrilled about the Industrial Revolution.

“…And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?…”
(“And did those feet in ancient time,” William Blake (1804))

William Blake’s poem may or may not involve his personal mythology. He’s been seen as colorful, eccentric, and — during his life — crazy. Also very talented. The “Jerusalem” he talks about in the poem has, I think, more to do with English folklore than history.

I take Blake’s work seriously: as poetry and literature. The same goes for works by Yeats and Lovecraft:

“…And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
(“The Second Coming,” W. B. Yeats (1919))

“…hillfolk will tell you that it is indeed a spot transplanted from his Satanic Majesty’s front yard….”
(“The Tree on the Hill,” H. P. Lovecraft and Duane W. Rimel (1934))

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t use religious jargon that way, partly because I take my faith seriously. Also because I appreciate the capacity some folks have for mistaking poetry and metaphor for literal fact.

Still Learning

Like I said, I don’t think Earth’s resources are infinite. Not literally. Our planet’s a big place, but not even the biggest planet.

Scary environmental news items go back at least to an 1898 article warning that we were running out of oxygen.

I do not think we are burning the last of Earth’s oxygen and will asphyxiate in a few centuries. Lord Kelvin’s math was accurate, but his assumptions weren’t.

We’ve learned quite a bit about Earth’s oxygen cycle since then, although I’m pretty sure we still don’t have the full picture. (April 14, 2017)

I’m also confident that we’ll sort out today’s environmental issues: and that the solution is improving technology, not fearing it. (February 10, 2017)

The lesson of the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894 is not that irresponsibility is okay because future generations will develop tech that fixes our blunders. We can, and should, deal with today’s issues: within reason. (May 26, 2017; February 10, 2017)

I don’t know why some Christians, including some Catholics, seem so angry about — just about everything, and that’s another topic.

My guess is that some Catholics dislike “Laudato si” because Pope Francis wrote it. Maybe I’m being unfair. I’m still studying his ‘environmental encyclical,’ but what I’ve found so far is consistent with what the Church has been saying.

Bear in mind that my first impulse, on hearing that a Pope has said something that seems odd, is not assuming that I’m right and the Pope is wrong.

I start by finding out what the Pope actually said, not what some guy thought he heard someone say the Pope said. (July 30, 2017)

Doing Our Job

(From Johnhart Studios, used w/o permission.)

I was pleased, but not surprised, when I learned that the Catholic versions of environmental awareness and social justice make sense. That was years ago now. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 307, 339, 952, 19281942, 2415)

Using natural resources, within reason, is okay. So is private ownership. Again, within reason. But humanity’s “dominion” is not ownership. I must remember that future generations will live here, too. (Catechism, 24012405, 2415, 2456)

Part of our job is keeping this world in good working order. Science and technology aren’t problems. They’re part of being human. Like I said, using our tools wisely is up to us. (Genesis 1:2629, 2:15; Catechism, 339, 22922295)

1. Trustworthy Information

(From Jungfraujoch, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The air monitoring station at Jungfraujoch, in Switzerland, has detected the Italian emissions for nine years”
(BBC News))

‘Dodgy’ greenhouse gas data threatens Paris accord
Matt McGrath, BBC News (August 8, 2017)

Potent, climate-warming gases are being emitted into the atmosphere but are not being recorded in official inventories, a BBC investigation has found.

“Air monitors in Switzerland have detected large quantities of one gas coming from a location in Italy.

“However, the Italian submission to the UN records just a tiny amount of the substance being emitted….”

The “greenhouse gas” scientists detected is HFC-23, or CHF3, a form of Fluoroform used in plasma etching and as a refrigerant. It’s also a byproduct of making Teflon.

It’s not ‘green’ in a ‘save the whatever’ sense, but it is natural in the sense that some cells produce small amounts.

I figure BBC is right. The HFC-23 detected in Switzerland was almost certainly unreported industrial effluvia.

The photo’s caption isn’t strictly accurate, however. The structure is the Sphinx Observatory. There is an air monitoring station there, but it’s not “at” Jungfaujoch. It’s close, though.

Jungfraujoch is the name of a saddle in the Bernese Alps. The Jungraujoch saddle is between Jungfrau and Mönch, two peaks. They’re between Interlaken and Fiesch in Switzerland. Scientists have been using the Jungfraujoch area for almost a century.

In the 1920s, Swiss scientists started building a “meteorological pavilion” on a Jungfraujoch glacier. Daniel Chalonge measured ozone levels there in 1928.

Walter Rudolf Hess and others started the International Foundation High Alpine Research Station Jungfraujoch in 1930.

Scientists were working at the station a year later. They were studying weather, glaciers, and physiology.

Astronomers came, too, including some who were studying cosmic rays.

The Sphinx Observatory building was finished in 1937, except for parts that got added later. Lots of parts.

By now it’s got two laboratories, two terraces for science experiments, a weather observing station, a workshop, and living quarters for the two couples who keep the place running.

Researchers sleep and eat on site, too, but not tourists. Folks who aren’t working there can visit, though, arriving at a railway station that’s the highest one in Europe. The research facility is a big place, but maybe not as famous as the Piz Gloria.1

I’m not surprised that folks at the Sphinx research station detected gas that doesn’t officially exist.

Folks don’t always share what they know. Lapses in judgment during the summer of 1953, and spring of 1986, aren’t unique; but I think they’re good — or bad — examples.

Stormy Weather, 1953

Beecher, Michigan. June 9, 1953, following the June 8 tornado. From NOAA, used w/o permissionA high-pressure air mass tangled with its low-pressure counterpart over Nebraska on June 7, 1953. The June 7th storms weren’t particularly memorable.

But one tornado on June 8th killed 116 folks. The body count was 247 by day’s end.

That photo shows part of Flint-Beecher, Michigan, after the storm passed.

What’s sad is that many of those deaths were most likely avoidable.

Officials at the National Weather Service knew that tornadoes were likely when the storm started ripping through New York state.

Folks in the New England area aren’t accustomed to twisters, though, so the powers that be didn’t issue a warning.

The official decision was, apparently, well-intentioned. Decision-makers at the Weather Service didn’t want common folks to panic. They did, however, issue the first severe thunderstorm watch in Massachusetts history.

Buildings and people are a lot closer together, on average, in Massachusetts: compared to much of Tornado Alley, anyway.

Several dozen abrupt deaths later, quite a few folks started wondering why nobody had given them a ‘heads up.’

Starting June 17, 1953, The Storm Prediction Center got reorganized. Since then, we’ve set up a nationwide radar/storm spotter system, and developed tech that helps us collect, analyze, and broadcast, information.2

On the whole, I greatly prefer knowing that potentially-lethal weather is headed my way to being sheltered from scary facts ‘for my own good.’

I strongly suspect that many folks have a great deal more sense than our ‘betters’ assume.

Radiation, 1986

I remember reading and hearing about unusually high radiation levels in northern Europe in 1986.

The Soviet Union, England, and America, had been building nuclear power plants since the 1950s.

The 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown encouraged concerns, reasonable and otherwise, about radiation.

That made alarms going off at Sweden’s Forsmark power plant international news.

Sweden’s government wasn’t particularly vocal in denying their guilt, partly because radiation levels were rising all over northern Europe. Radioactive particles were spreading; and nobody seemed to know where the stuff was coming from.

Some scientists said weather conditions and radiation readings strongly suggested that the source was somewhere between the Baltic and Black Seas.3

Folks running the Soviet Union finally acknowledged that things were not entirely fine somewhere, and that everyone should stop asking so many questions. The statements were in diplomatese, of course.

Apparently Soviet leadership had a bit of difficulty with public trust after that. Americans went through the same sort of thing after the 1953 storms and 1979 radiation leak.

For someone at the ‘public’ end of society, I think the trick is learning how to be reasonably cautious, not hysterical. (July 28, 2017)

Babylon and Home Decor

Babylonians predicted weather by analyzing cloud patterns and astrological data.

We still study cloud patterns. Around the 1700s, more precise data and improved analysis methods led to today’s astronomical science and relegated astrology to newspaper columns. (June 23, 2017)

Galileo didn’t invent the Galileo thermometer, an early sort of thermometer that’s now more of a home decor item than scientific instrument. The Accademia del Cimento released details of their invention in 1666.

Evangelista Torricelli was a member of that group, and had been a pupil of Galileo. Maybe “Galileo thermometer” sounds cooler than “Accademia del Cimento thermometer.”

Galileo probably did invent a thermoscope, which isn’t quite the same thing. Some folks say he was the first to make that sort of thermometer. A whole lot of folks in Europe were making the “first” thermoscope around that time: independently, I suspect.

Galileo did, however, rewrite the book on weather forecasting by measuring temperatures in 1607. Up to that time, European scholars assumed that heat and cold were qualities of Aristotle’s four elements.

As far as I know, folks generally didn’t get conniptions over Galileo’s temperature research, and that’s yet another topic. (March 24, 2017)

I was going somewhere with this. Let me think. Swiss laboratories, tourism, astrology, interior design. Right.

Scientific Weather Forecasting

The next big jump happened in 1835, when the electric telegraph cut transmission speed of weather data from a maximum of about 100 miles per day to nearly-instantaneous.

That made meteorology less a study of past weather, and more a predictive science.

The first weather satellite went into orbit in 1960. Today we’ve got a network of geostationary and other satellites monitoring atmospheric data, including cloud patterns like the ones Babylon’s experts watched.4

I’ve noticed that weather forecasts are more accurate than a half-century back, at least for the next 24 hours. And America’s weather service is, if anything, a bit over-eager about issuing severe weather warnings.

Maybe it’s because nobody wants to get reassigned to the Barrow Climate Monitoring Lab.

I don’t know why Italy’s official numbers for HFC-23 emissions don’t match what scientists detected in Switzerland.

Maybe everyone’s telling the truth, as far as they know, and numbers got accidentally scrambled somewhere between Italy’s monitors and bureaucrats handing the Paris Agreement’s paperwork.

But I won’t be surprised if we eventually learn that someone in Italy adjusted their reports of HFC-23 inventories to reflect what folks higher up wanted to read.

Assuming that nobody would notice the discrepancy might be easy for someone who didn’t keep up with science news.

It’s even possible that all six scientists who put their names on the 2011 report decided that they’d try fooling the BBC and UN.5

That seems a bit extreme for a practical joke, though.

Whatever the reason for the discrepancy between official numbers and what I assume are real observations, I think having someone other than officials and industries collecting data is a good idea.

My preference would be making raw data from satellites available to anyone who is interested. That would give us data on all of Earth’s atmosphere, not just a few spots near monitoring stations.

Having someone coordinating efforts like the Paris Agreement makes sense. But so does keeping an eye on data being collected, and seeing if it matches official summaries. Even if everybody’s being completely honest, mistakes do happen.

2. Green Energy: Seeking a Balance

(From SPL, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The UK’s improved record of recycling in recent years means there is less waste for burning”
(BBC News))

Burning policy puts pressure on recycling targets
Roger Harrabin, BBC environment analyst; BBC News (August 7, 2017)

A boom in incinerator-building could make it impossible for the UK to meet future targets for recycling, a report says.

“The consultancy Eunomia says waste companies constructing new incinerators will need waste to feed them.

“And that could reduce Britain’s stated ambition to recycle more waste.

“A government spokesman said ‘great progress’ had been made in boosting recycling rates….”

That shiny structure is the Newhaven Energy Recovery Facility (ERF). Depending on who’s talking, it’s a generating plant turning household waste into electricity — or an incinerator that will bring doom upon East Sussex.6

ERF started operations five years back. East Sussex is still there. Some locals have probably gotten used to increased traffic around the plant, and others may still be protesting.

I also think that recycling is a good idea. But I’m pretty sure it isn’t the only good idea being tried these days. Also that it’s not a perfect solution to environmental issues.

The problem — if that’s what it is — seems to be that folks in England who like recycling have less municipal waste to recycle. That’s because power plants like the ERF are using it to generate electricity.

I don’t think either system is perfect, but both are better than dumping the stuff in a landfill. We’re also learning how to mine landfills for recyclable waste. I’m quite sure that it won’t a perfect solution, either.

Happily, I don’t live in the UK, and don’t have a recycling quota to meet.

There’s almost certainly a political angle to this, since folks from one party did more than their counterparts in another to start burning waste instead of coal to generate electricity.

Phasing out coal-burning generators was almost certainly a good idea. I’m not sure that protesting in fancy dress is the best way to keep folks reminded of London’s killer fog, and that’s yet again another topic. (July 28, 2017; July 14, 2017)

I think biofuels are a good idea, too: which is what the next article is about.


(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The report recommends a cap on crop based biofuels”
(BBC News))

Waste products, not crops, key to boosting UK biofuels
Matt McGrath, BBC News (July 14, 2017)

The UK should focus on using waste products like chip fat if it wants to double production of biofuels according a new study.

“The report from the Royal Academy of Engineering says that making fuel from crops like wheat should be restricted.

“Incentives should be given to farmers to increase production of fuel crops like Miscanthus on marginal land.

“Even with electric vehicles, biofuels will still be needed for aviation and heavy goods say the authors….”

I’ve been driving vehicles using a biofuel for years: a mix of gasoline and ethanol. Nothing unusual about that. Americans started using gasoline with 10% ethanol in the 1970s.

In 2005 the United States was producing more ‘ethanol fuel’ than any other country.

Biofuel for internal combustion engines goes back at least to the early 1800s. Samuel Morey developed and patented an engine that used turpentine vapor as fuel.

Steam power was the hot new tech of the day, though, so his little two-cylinder engine wasn’t well known. The 1836 patent office fire, one of several over our history, destroyed the official patent records; but not his family’s copies.

I think the lesson from Mr. Morey’s experience is that making and keeping backups is a good idea: not that someone’s burning government records. and that’s still another topic.7 (July 21, 2017; December 23, 2016)

I also think finding replacements for petroleum products is a good idea, but wasn’t surprised when folks learned that ethanol isn’t a panacea.8

The issue raised by the Royal Academy of Engineering should have been obvious.

Ethanol is made with ethyl alcohol. Some of the easier ways to make ethyl alcohol involve fermenting grain.

We can decide that part of a corn crop, for example, can be used to feed us directly. It’s also good for hog chow, and can be distilled into drinks like whiskey. But using a larger fraction of the crop for one use means smaller portions for other purposes.

That seemed obvious to me, back in the ’70s. Maybe it helped that I grew up in an area where agribusiness was an important part of the regional economy.

The good news here is that we can make ethanol from a wide range of organic stuff, not just crops we eat or use for livestock feed.

3. Dead Activists

(From Goldman Environmental Prize, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Berta Caceres successfully fought against the building of a massive hydroelectric power dam”
(BBC News))

Record number of environmental activists killed around the world
Matt McGrath, BBC News (July 13, 2017)

Growing competition for land and natural resources saw a record number of environmental activists killed in 2016, says Global Witness.

“The green group’s report details at least 200 murders across 24 countries, up significantly from 2015.

“Disputes over mining were the cause of the greatest number of killings, followed by logging and agribusiness.

“Brazil saw the most deaths overall, but there were big increases in Colombia and India.

“Global Witness has been publishing annual reports on the threats to activists since 2012, although it has data going back to 2002….”

I think it’s well to remember that not all “environmental activists” are like the folks who get their pictures taken at high-profile events like the G20 summit and Paris climate talks. (July 14, 2017 )

Some, like Berta Cáceres, are interested in more than purely environmental issues.

She founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras in 1993. The organization started with another name.

These days her group focuses on issues affecting the Lenca, folks whose ancestors lived in what’s now Honduras when European explorers arrived. They’ve maintained their culture, but not their language.

Many apparently don’t think folks running Honduras care what they say.

Considering how many Lenca, including Berta Cáceres, have been killed after expressing their displeasure, I think they may have a point.

It’s not the sort of response I expect from folks who are willing to listen.

Consulting: But Not With Everyone

One of the environmental issues in Honduras isn’t, I think, entirely environmental.

Starting in 2006, Sinohydro, a Chinese hydropower engineering and construction company, made plans to build four hydroelectric plants on the Río Gualcarque.

Sinohydro and Desarrollos Energéticos, a Honduran company, planned four hydroelectric plants on the Río Gualcarque.

They apparently consulted with all the right officials, including the International Finance Corporation and Honduran government.

On-site work began in 2012.

That, apparently, is when folks who lived in the construction zone learned about the project.

They complained. I think that’s understandable. The land isn’t just their home. They depend on the river for their livelihood.

Nobody had asked them about taking their land and building power plants on their river.

Engineers who designed the dams may have taken local and regional needs into account. I don’t think they’re responsible for the mess. The power plants would have been run-of-the-river weirs, generating electricity without creating large reservoirs.

I suspect that at least some Lenca would have wanted their river left entirely alone. Their attitude toward it reminds me how folks in one of my wife’s ancestral homelands saw Donar’s Oak.

Some troublesome Lenca were tortured, others were killed. When folks outside Honduras started hearing about the issue, some of the project’s financial backers pulled out.

It’s possible that the Río Gualcarque power project will continue anyway.

But after the shameful way they have been treated, I think Lenca cooperation will be grudging, at best.

The good news is that apparently only one bothersome person was killed in Honduras so far this year. That’s an enormous improvement. But it’s still not good.

Power to (Some of) the People

Many Honduran households might have benefited from the Sinohydro and Desarrollos Energéticos roject.

Roughly two thirds have access to electric power: mostly in urban areas. Most folks in rural areas get by without power.

Uneven electrical power coverage isn’t the only problem.

Honduras is among the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. Exactly how the nation ranks depends on which statistics are counted.

One of the issues they’re dealing with is not having a well-developed market for export goods. My guess is that a habit of killing Hondurans who complain isn’t helping.

But I like to think that at least some folks responsible for planning those power plants meant well.


Honduras isn’t the only country where apparently well-meaning efforts had unpleasant effects.

Twa, folks in central Africa who inspired tales of the Abatwa, had unwritten agreements with their neighbors.

Twa were hunters, not farmers. They traded game for agricultural products.

Trouble started in 1992. Twa land was also home to mountain gorillas.

Mountain gorillas are endangered, humans aren’t, so the Twa were evicted from most of their land. What was left got taken by other folks.

With no documents proving their land rights, there was no legal reason to pay them. The good news is that they’re occasionally allowed to make and sell pottery. (May 19, 2017)

Authorities recognized them as human, which is an improvement over some earlier eras. (August 26, 2016)

What happened to the Twa wasn’t a total loss, though. There are now nearly a thousand gorillas living in what was Twa land.

I think it’s nice that folks want to maintain a wild population of mountain gorillas.

I think it would also have been nice to treat the Twa with more respect: even if their rights had been defined by oral, not written, agreements.


I don’t think the Lenca, Twa, English, or anyone else, live in perfect societies. Nobody does, and we never did.

There’s no one ‘correct’ culture. But the basics would be the same, no matter what era I lived in, or where I was born. (Catechism, 1202, 1204, 1957)

I should love God, love my neighbor, and see everybody as my neighbor. Treating others the way I’d like them to treat me seems like a logical extension of those principles, but our Lord added it to the list. (Matthew 5:4344, 7:12, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

Acting as if love matters makes sense, I think.

There isn’t much I can do to correct past injustices, or sort out today’s tangled mess.

But I can talk about what’s gone wrong, and — at least as important, I think — what’s going right. That includes the American weather service’s habit of issuing storm watches and warnings, and efforts improve how we deal with waste.

Actually, compared to America in my youth, just being aware that reducing waste makes sense is a huge improvement.

But as I said, we don’t have a perfect society today. I don’t think we will. But I am quite certain that we can do better.

I can’t fix the world, but I must do what I can to make tomorrow better. (Catechism, 19131916, 2239)

The process starts inside me, with an ongoing “inner conversion.” (Catechism, 18861889)

Where it ends is up to each and all of us.

I think that if we work with all people of good will, keep what is good in each of our cultures, and correct what is not, we can make this world better for everyone.

“…The answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the twentieth century is the common effort to build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty….”
(“To the United Nations Organization,”9 Pope St. John Paul II (October 5, 1995))

It will be a long, hard, job. But I think we can succeed, and am sure we must try:

1 More than you need, or maybe want, to know about:

2 Not making the same mistake twice:

3 New tech and two incidents:

4 Astronomy isn’t astrology, and weather forecasting is something else:

5 More:

6 Recycling, green energy, and impending doom:

7 Some conspiracies have been real, which gave one physicist data to work with:

8 Biofuels:

9 A civilization of love:

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