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Jul 17, 2007

Preserving other species with whom we share the planet

Posted by in category: sustainability

Dear Lifeboat Readers,

I am a member of the Neuroscience Scientific Advisory Board at the Lifeboat Foundation and have recently posted to the BioPreserver Program page (please read the page replicated below).

I would like to initiate a conversation about expending more effort on preserving other species and their habitats. We are all understandably concerned about humanity’s survival and the Lifeboat Foundation is a testament to the numerous technologically advanced ways we can ensure our species’ survival in the future. However, I would like to hear from others who may be concerned that in our focus on our own survival we may not be doing enough for the myriad of other species with whom we share the planet. I would argue that there is less attention paid to the survival of our species’ moral integrity than there ought to be. Would it speak well of our species if we survived while everyone else (other species) disappeared? To put it bluntly, in the future, after having escaped numerous threats to survival, will we be able to look in the mirror as a species and like what we see?

For instance, with the current rate of losses, our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, will be extinct in the wild in 50 years. The causes are indisputably anthropogenic. If we let this happen, what will it do to the morale and the psychological fiber of our species? The question of survival is not only a question of physical and psychological survival, but also survival of our integrity.

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Jun 19, 2007

The Missile Shield and the Race for Space Awareness

Posted by in categories: defense, existential risks, geopolitics, military, nuclear weapons, open source, space

The US-led effort to expand the military BMEWS (ballistic missile early warning radar system) to Poland and the Czech Republic provoke Russian military strategists. Putin has proposed using their already operative radar base in Azerbajian (See “Azeri radar eyed for US shield”, BBC) in exchange for information from the US system. The US/NATO proposed TMD (theater missile defense) will also integrate early warning systems for short-range missiles in southern Europe. Is the race for space awareness and the weaponization of space inevitable?

The justification for the missile shield is the potential threat of long range missiles from Iran and North Korea (See “N-Korea test fires missile”, BBC). Military experts predict that with the current progress of nuclear research and missile technology available to Iran they will pose a threat to the US in 2015. NATO and Russia co-operate in certain military matters through the Russia-Nato Council but has increasingly been in conflict over the Iranian nuclear program and the European missile shield. (See “Russia-NATO: A marriage of convenience”, RIA Novosti). Russia has also demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the missile shield by launching their RS-24 multiple missile system carrying 10 warheads (See “RS-24 Missiles to replace old systems within next few years”, Interfax).

Terrestrial radars need to be complemented by satellites to keep track of missile launches across the planet (so called “boost phase interceptors”, see “Missile defense, satellites and politics”, The Space Review) to ensure complete space awareness. The Chinese Space Agency tested an anti-satellite missile earlier this year (See “Pentagon says China’s anti-satellite test posed a threat to nations”, AP). The move towards a hot space war could be imminent. The official press release was the only information given from Chinese authorities. The secrecy surrounding space capabilities was recently challenged by French authorities when they discovered 20–30 unregistered US surveillance satellites. (See “French says ‘non’ to U.S. Disclosure of Secret Satellites”, Space.com).

Continue reading “The Missile Shield and the Race for Space Awareness” »

Jun 4, 2007

Putin Threatens Europe with Nukes

Posted by in categories: existential risks, nuclear weapons

Vladimir Putin is acting pretty crazy these days. The latest is that he is threatening to point nuclear missiles at Europe because the US is planning to install a missile defense system in Poland. How will this make Europe less inclined to have a missile defense system..? From CNN:

Speaking to foreign reporters days before he travels to Germany for the annual summit with President Bush and the other Group of Eight leaders, Putin assailed the White House plan to place a radar system in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in neighboring Poland. Washington says the system is needed to counter a potential threat from Iran.

In an interview released Monday, Putin suggested that Russia may respond to the threat by aiming its nuclear weapons at Europe.

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Jun 3, 2007

“Synbiosafe” Launched

Posted by in category: biotech/medical

The European Commission is funding a 2-year, $312,000 study on the safety and ethical aspects of synthetic biology. From the introduction part of the site:

We will pursue our objectives by means of a fact-finding mission, contribution to the European “inaugural” Conference on Synthetic Biology in Zurich (SB 3.0), an open e-forum and an international workshop. The foreseen impact of our project will be no less than to stimulate a European debate on these issues at an early stage. Past experiences, especially in the field of GM-crops, have shown the importance of an early bio-safety and ethics debate. The community recognized this need, but up to now discussions are fragmentary. Our project aims to stimulate a European debate in a proactive way. That way we will contribute to the European synthetic biology community, supplementing genuine biosafety and bioethics aspects.

Looks like a great start on addressing a very important area of concern. For a blog post of mine that goes into a bit more detail on the issue of synthetic biology and its risks, see here.

May 21, 2007

Researchers Endorse Global Early Warning System to Prevent Pandemics

Posted by in categories: biological, biotech/medical, defense, existential risks

Five evolutionary stages of pathogen progression from animals to human transmission have been identified A proposed monitoring system of viral chatter has been proposed to provide warning of new diseases before they spread to humans.

In 1999, Wolfe began field work in the jungles of Cameroon to track “viral chatter,” or the regular transmission of diseases from animals to people, usually without further spread among humans. By monitoring the habits and the blood pathologies of bushmeat hunters and their kills, Wolfe and his team have identified at least three previously unknown retroviruses from the same family as HIV, as well as promoted safe practices for handling animals and animal carcasses.

“The Cameroon project demonstrated that it’s possible to collect information on viral transmission under very difficult circumstances from these highly exposed people,” Wolfe said.

With Cameroon as a prototype and a $2.5 million National Institutes of Health Pioneer Award as seed money, Wolfe has gone on to create a network of virus-discovery projects that monitor hunters, butchers, and wildlife trade and zoo workers in some of the world’s most remote viral hotspots. The network of a dozen sites in China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malaysia, Laos, Madagascar and Paraguay include source locations for such emerging diseases as SARS, avian flu, Nipah, Ebola and monkeypox.

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May 15, 2007

Could Anti-Radiation Drug Protect Us On Earth…And Mars?

Posted by in categories: biological, space

If humanity ever meets lifeforms beyond Earth (or discovers our solitude in our galaxy) one thing will be sure–galactic historians will remark how interesting it must have been living in the nuclear age that “we now enjoy” (assuming we survive of course).

Speaking of nuclear, it seems that some scientists are utilizing a new drug that is showing major promises of fighting against radiation exposure, ensuring that victims not only survive, but remain “semi-healthy” as well.

(Space War) But now researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis report they have developed an agent that protects cells from the lethal effects of radiation, regardless of whether it is given before or after exposure.

Using this agent in mice, the investigators found that the treatment helped shield rapidly dividing cells that are most vulnerable to radiation-induced death, providing proof in principle that it is possible to fend off radiation damage, according to a study published in the April issue of Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications.

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May 4, 2007

US flu control strategy flaws and suggested improvements

Posted by in categories: biological, defense, existential risks

In a report to be published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS Computational Biology and currently available online, Sally Blower, a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, and Romulus Breban and Raffaele Vardavas, postdoctoral fellows in Blower’s research group, used novel mathematical modeling techniques to predict that current health policy — based on voluntary vaccinations — is not adequate to control severe flu epidemics and pandemics unless vaccination programs offer incentives to individuals.

According to the researchers, the severity of such a health crisis could be reduced if programs were to provide several years of free vaccinations to individuals who pay for only one year. Interestingly, however, some incentive programs could have the opposite effect. Providing free vaccinations for entire families, for example, could actually increase the frequency of severe epidemics. This is because when the head of the household makes a choice — flu shots or no flu shots — on behalf of all the other household members, there is no individual decision-making, and adaptability is decreased.

While other models have determined what proportion of the population would need to be vaccinated in order to prevent a pandemic, none of these models have shown whether this critical coverage can actually be reached. What has been missing, according to Blower, a mathematical and evolutionary biologist, is the human factor.

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Apr 11, 2007

Beyond Terror: The Truth About the Real Threats to Our World

Posted by in categories: geopolitics, sustainability

The Oxford Research Group has published “Beyond Terror: The Truth About the Real Threats to Our World”. The report focus on the disproportionate attention given to terrorism compared to the imminent threat from environmental degradation. The report looks at climate change, competition over resources, “marginalisation of the majority world” and global militarisation.

Read the entire report here.

Apr 10, 2007

More advice on best actions to survive a nearby nuclear blast

Posted by in categories: existential risks, military, nuclear weapons

Carnegie Mellon researchers Keith Florig and Baruch Fischhoff offer simple, practical advice: on whether it is worth citizens’ time to stock supplies needed for a home shelter, how urgently should one seek shelter following a nearby nuclear detonation, and how long should survivors remain in a shelter after the radioactive dust settles.


“A number of emergency-management organizations recommend that people stock their homes with a couple dozen categories of emergency supplies,” said Florig of Carnegie Mellon’s engineering and public policy department. “We calculated that it would cost about $240 per year for a typical family to maintain such a stock, including the value of storage space and the time needed to tend to it.”

Their research also suggests that many families who could afford to follow the stocking guidelines might think twice about whether the investment was really worth it, given the low probability that stocked supplies would actually be used in a nuclear emergency.

They advocate simple rules for minimizing risk based on how far people are from the blast. If you are within several miles of the blast, there will be no time to flee and you will have only minutes to seek shelter. If you are 10 miles [downwind] from the blast, you will have 15 to 60 minutes to find shelter, but not enough time to reliably flee the area before the fallout arrives,” said Florig.

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Apr 2, 2007

Decisive, immediate action can reduce Pandemic Deaths

Posted by in categories: biological, defense, existential risks, lifeboat

Cities that quickly closed schools and discouraged public gatherings had fewer deaths from the great flu pandemic in 1918 than cities that did not, researchers reported on Monday. Experts agree that a pandemic of some virus, most likely influenza, is almost 100 percent certain. What is not certain is when it will strike and which virus it will be.

In Kansas City, no more than 20 people could attend weddings or funerals. New York mandated staggered shifts at factories. In Seattle, the mayor told people to wear face masks.

No single action worked on its own, the researchers found, it was the combination of measures that saved lives. Peak death rates can be 50% to eight times lower. St. Louis authorities introduced “a broad series of measures designed to promote social distancing” as soon as flu showed up. Philadelphia downplayed the 1918 flu.

Philadelphia ended up with a peak death rate of 257 people per 100,000 population per week. St. Louis had just 31 per 100,000 at the peak.

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