Saturday, January 30, 2016

Current films - CONCUSSION

If you  haven't seen Concussion, make it a point to do so.
If you're a football fan, and haven't seen it, do.
The public and the players need to know the risks.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Renowned Doctor Gabor Mate on Psychedelics and Unlocking the Unconscious, From Cancer to Addiction
AlterNet / By Gabor Mate

Drug addiction expert speaks on the mind-body connection and the medical and emotional potentials of psychedelics.

Photo Credit: By Gabor Gastonyi (Clare Day) [CC-BY-SA-3.0

( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Gabor Mate, M.D., says the "unconscious mind" can cause medical afflictions like cancer, addiction and trauma. In his speech at the MAPS conference, Mate rejects the assumption that the human mind and body are separate entities, and points to an inherant connection between
psychological/environmental experiences and medical afflictions. He contends that the war on drugs is actually a war on drug addicts, and speaks to the addiction cessation potential of psychedelic substances. He also discusses the potential ability of psychedelic substances, particularly ayahuasca, to reverse medical issues like cancer and addiction when coupled with therapy.The following is the transcript of Dr. Gabor Mate's speech, "Psychedelics and Unlocking the Unconscious; From Cancer to Addiction," which he delivered at the MAPS conference in Oakland Calif., on April 20, 2013.
My subject is the use of ayahuasca in the healing of all manner of medical conditions, from cancer to addiction. And you might say what can possibly a plant do to heal such dire and life-threatening medical problems? Well, of course, that all depends on the perspective through which we understand these problems.

Now, the medical perspective, the allopathic Western medical perspective in which I was trained is that, fundamentally, diseases are abnormalities that occur either due to external causes such as a bacterium or a toxin, or they’re accidental or due to bad luck, or their due to genetics. So, the causes are outside of the usual internal experience—the emotional and psychological and spiritual life—of the individual. These are biological events, so the medical assumption goes, and the causes are to be understood and the treatments are to be administered purely in a biological fashion.

Underlying that set of assumptions are two other assumptions. One is that you can separate the human body from the human mind, so what happens to us emotionally and psychologically has no significant impact on our health. Number two: that the individual is to be separated from the environment. So, what happens to me if I get cancer? That is just my poor personal, pure personal, misfortune, or maybe because I did the wrong things like smoked cigarettes. But, that my cancer might have something to do with the lifelong interaction which I’ve engaged in with my environment—particularly the psychological social environment—that doesn’t enter into the picture.
But what if we had a different perspective?

What if we actually got that human beings are bio-psycho-social creatures by nature, and actually bio-psycho-spiritual creatures by nature—which is to say that our biology is inseparable from our psychological emotional and spiritual existence—and therefore what manifests in the body is not some isolated and unique event or misfortune, but a manifestation of what my life has been in interaction with my psychological and social and spiritual environment?

Well, if we had that kind of understanding then we would approach illness and health in a completely different fashion.

What if, furthermore, we understood something in the West which has been the underlying core insight of Eastern spiritual pathways and aboriginal shamanic pathways around the world, which is that human beings are not their personalities, we’re not our thoughts, we’re not our emotions, we are not our dysfunctional or functional dynamics, but that at the core there is a true self that is somehow connected to—in fact not connected to but part of—nature and creation.

An illness from that perspective represents a loss of that connection, a loss of that unity, a loss of that belonging to a much larger entity. And therefore, to treat the illness or the symptom as the problem is actually to ignore the real possibility that the symptom and the illness are themselves symptoms, rather than the fundamental problems.

It’s in that perspective then, that I’ve come to understand, quite before my acquaintance with ayahuasca, but that's how I’ve come to understand human illness and dysfunction. Which is to say that illness and dysfunction represent the products or the consequences of a lifelong interaction with our environment, particularly our psychological and social environment, and that they represent a deep disconnection from our true selves.

I mention particularly cancer and addiction, but those are only two examples. Allow me to read you something from an article that appeared in last February’s edition of Pediatrics, which is the major pediatric journal in North America, and this is an article from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, and it’s called “An Integrated Scientific Framework for Child Development." Here’s what they say:
Growing scientific evidence also demonstrates that social and physical environments that threaten human development because of scarcity, stress, or instability can lead to short term physiologic and psychological adjustments that may come at a significant cost to long-term outcomes in learning, behavior health and longevity.
In other words, that the emotional and behavioral patterns that as young children we adopt in order to survive stressors in our environment allow us to deal with the immediate problem, but in the long term they become prisons. They become sources of dysfunction, illness and even death, if we’re not able to let go of them.

So, in other words, what was a short-term state, or meant to be a short-term state, in a helpful way, when it becomes a long-term state, when it goes from state to a trait, now it becomes a problem.
Let me give you a few obvious examples of that. I myself have been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactive disorder, a characteristic of which is tuning out, absentmindedness. Now, ADD in North America is seen as a disease, and we see many kids that have been diagnosed with it. Now we have 3 million kids in this country who are on stimulant medications for it. The rates are going up and up and up.

According to the New York Times last week, 20 percent of American boys at one time or another have been diagnosed with it and 10 percent are, at any one time are on medication. Three million at least are on stimulants right now. It’s seen as a genetic disease. It isn’t at all. What the tuning out represents, as we all know, is actually a coping mechanism. Our brains tune out when the stress becomes overwhelming, too much to bear. And at that point the tuning out is a survival dynamic.
The real question is: why are so many kids tuning out? What’s happening in their lives? What of course is going on is that the stress in this society, and the stress in the pending environment are greatly increasing. So, the child’s brain is actually affected by the stresses in the environment.
And here’s further, from the same Harvard article, they talk about brain development and how the human brain actually develops, and here’s what they say about that:
The architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth, continues into adulthood, and establishes either a sturdy or fragile foundation for all the health, learning and behavior that follow.
So, in other words, the architecture of the brain is actually constructed by the interaction with the environment. And they continue:

The interaction of genes and experiences literally shapes the circuitry of the developing brain and is critically influenced by the mutual responsiveness of adult-child relationships, particularly in the early childhood years.
Well, I can’t make this into a lecture on brain development; the point is that which circuits in the brain develop, and which patterns are engrained, has everything to do with the environment, particularly the mutual responsiveness of adult-child relationships. And therefore whatever interferes with that mutual responsiveness will actually interfere with the brain development of the child, including the neurochemistry of the child’s brain as well as the psychological emotional patterns.

So then, if you look at cancer and addiction as two adaptations to stress, what do we find? Well, prior to my work with addictions, which is my most recent work —and I did that for 12 years— I worked for seven years as the medical coordinator of the palliative care unit at Vancouver hospital working with terminally ill people. And both in family practice and palliative care I had ample opportunity to see who gets sick and who doesn't get sick. I noticed the people that got ill with chronic conditions invariably followed certain emotional dynamics that were ingrained in them so much so that these were unconscious and compulsive and for that reason all the more difficult to let go of. And, so who got cancer and who didn’t was no accident, nor was it for the most part genetically determined.

And, I’ve collected a few clippings from the Global Mailnewsletterwhich is Canada’s newspaper of record, or at least it thinks it is—and these clippings illustrate the patterns that I found in people who get sick.

And I’m saying all this because in talking about my work with ayahuasca and the potential healing that ayahuasca can induce in people, we have to understand what is being healed here. What is the underlying basis of these conditions?

So, these newspaper clippings, then, illustrate something about what I have found in people who get sick chronically. And when I say chronic illness I mean cancer, I mean diabetes, rheumatic arthritis, multiple sclerosis, ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, chronic asthma, psoriasis, eczema, almost any chronic illness you care to name.

The first of these clippings is written by a woman who is herself diagnosed with breast cancer. She goes to her doctor, Harold, and you have to know that her husband’s name is [Hye], and [Hye]’s first wife died of breast cancer, and not Donna, the second wife, who’s diagnosed with the same condition. So she writes:

“Harold tells me that the lump is small, and most assuredly not in my lymph nodes, unlike that of [Hye]’s first wife whose cancer spread everywhere by the time they found it. You’re not going to die, he reassures me. ‘But I’m worried about [Hye],’ I say, ‘I won’t have the strength to support him.’”
What you notice is she’s the one diagnoses with the potentially fatal condition and her automatic compulsive thought is, “While I’m getting radiation and chemotherapy, how will I support my husband emotionally?” So, this automatic regard for the emotional needs of others, while ignoring your own, is a major risk factor for chronic illness.

These others are obituaries and obituaries are fascinating to me because they tell us not only about the people who died but also about what we as a society value in one another. And often what we value in one another is precisely what kills us. And the expression “the good die young” is not a mis-statement. Often the good do die young because “good” often represents compulsive self-suppression of their own needs.

So here’s a man, a physician, who dies at age 55 of cancer, and the obituary says:
Never for a day did he contemplate giving up the work he so loved at Toronto Sick Children’s Hospital. He carried on his duties throughout his year-long battle with cancer, stopping only a few days before he died.
So if you had a friend who was diagnosed with the same condition, would you say to him or her, “Hey buddy, here’s what you do: You got cancer, go back to work tomorrow, and not for a moment consider your life, and the meaning of your life, and the stresses that you’re generating. Just continue working while you’re undergoing chemo, radiation or surgery,”?

So this automatic identification with duty, role, and responsibility rather than the needs of the self is a major risk factor for chronic illness.

The next one— [applause] thank you, but if you’re going to applaud every time I say something smart, you’ll be applauding the whole afternoon. The next one, the next obituary, is about a woman who dies at age 55 of cancer.  Her name is Naomi. And this obituary is written by the appreciative husband:
In her entire life she never got into a fight with anyone. The worst she could say was "phooey" or something else along those lines. She had no ego, she just blended in with the environment in an unassuming manner
Now, I’m sure that many of you who are in relationships, sometimes you wish that your partner would blend into the environment in an unassuming manner, but the point is that the suppression of healthy anger that this woman engaged in all of her life actually suppresses the immune system. And I’m not going to go into the details of that, but the science of psychoneuroimmunology has amply shown that you can’t separate the mind from the body and when you’re repressing yourself emotionally you’re actually diminishing the activity of your immune system and therefore you're less capable of responding to malignancy or to invasion by bacteria.

And again this idea that external things cause illness—take a condition like, uh, the flesh-eating disease, Necrotizing fasciitis is the medical term. And we think we know the cause, the cause is a bacterium, the strep bacterium. It isn’t. Because if we did swabs on the people in this audience, we did swabs of the throat or the crevices of the body, we’d identify the strep bacteria in probably 25, 30 percent of the people here. But there’s nobody here with necrotizing fasciitis, nobody here with flesh-eating disease.

In other words, the presence of the bacterium does not explain the disease. What happens is that the self-suppressive patterns in somebody’s life at some point will suppress the immune system, and that bacterium that has been living on your body in perfect unity with your immune system all of a sudden becomes a deadly enemy. It’s not just a bacterium, but the self-suppression that suppresses the immune system that actually causes the illness.

And I’ll leave you with one more obituary, and this is almost too incredible to believe except it is directly from the same newspaper. This is a physician who died of cancer:
Sydney and his mother had an incredibly special relationship, a bond that was apparent in all aspects of their lives until her death. As a married man with young children, Sydney made a point to have dinner with his parents every day as his wife Roslyn and their four young kids waited for him at home. Sydney would walk in greeted by yet another dinner to eat and to enjoy. Never wanting to disappoint either woman in his life, Sydney kept eating two dinners for years, until gradual weight gain began to raise suspicions.
Now, what this man believed, what he actually believed—and notice that there are core beliefs underneath all of this. The first one believes that she’s responsible for her husband’s feelings more than she is for herself. The second guy believes that he is nothing other than his responsibilities and duties and role in the world. There’s no true self there he can actually be with and be touched with. Naomi, the woman, believes, "If I am angry, I am a bad person.” And this man believes that he’s responsible for how other people feel and that he must never disappoint anybody.

Now, these beliefs don’t come out of nowhere. They’re actually coping mechanisms in a certain parenting environment. If the parents can’t handle your anger, if they can’t handle your emotions, if they’re too needy to trouble themselves then the child starts taking responsibility for the parent as a way of maintaining the relationship. In other words, the psychological coping mechanisms of the child then become part of his or her personality, and these same patterns that helped to cope with the original stress now become the major contributors to his or her illness and possibly death. What we’re talking about here are core beliefs that reflect the child’s early experience, that become ingrained into the brain and body as automatic and compulsive responses to the world. That’s my take on chronic illness.

And you begin to see now how some experiences could enlighten you that you are not those patterns, and if it can give you a sense that these patterns are simply adaptations, and that there’s a true self underneath that, and if they can put you in touch with the experiences that led you to adopt these patterns, then perhaps you can be liberated; then, perhaps you can let go; then, perhaps you can find the true self that doesn’t have to behave in those ways anymore. That’s where the liberation is. So, that’s with chronic illness.

Now addiction. For 12 years I worked in what’s known as North America’s most concentrated area of drug use, the downtown eastside of Vancouver, where in a few square block radius thousands of people are ingesting, inhaling, or injecting all manner of substances.

And the question again is why do people do that? Why do people do such terrible thing to themselves to the point of risking their health? They lose everything, they lose their wealth, their relationships, their families, their homes, their teeth, their dignity—and they still continue with it.

The North American answer to that question is twofold. The legal answer, the socially sanctioned answer, is that these people are making a choice, they’re making a bad choice, destructive to themselves and harmful to others and the way to deter that choice is to deter them by means of draconian punishments.

The so-called war on drugs.  But there is no war on drugs because you can’t war on inanimate objects. A war on drug addicts is what there is. And as a result of such retrograde social beliefs and governmental practices, the United States which contains 5 percent of the world’s population contains 25 percent of the world’s jail population, which is to say that every fourth person in the world that is in jail is a citizen of the land of the free. And all because of the belief that we’re talking about a choice here.

The other dominant belief, which is not identical—and you’d think would at least obliterate the first belief but it doesn't—and it’s the one held by most medical doctors, is that addictions represent illness of the brain and particularly on a genetic basis.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine considers that up to 50 percent of the predisposition to addiction is actually caused by genetic inheritance. That is more forward looking in a way than our choice hypothesis, because at least you can’t blame people for the genes they either inherit or pass on to others, but it is no more right than the other hypothesis.

Actually, if you look at it closely and if you understand human brain development which I alluded a little bit earlier in my talk you realize that if five percent of addictions are genetic. That’s not radical to say—and I doubt that anything more than five percent is genetically determined. In fact nothing is genetically determined because we know that even people that inherit genes, and there are some, that are predisposed—not predetermined by predisposed to addiction—some people that inherit genes, in the right environment those genes are never activated. Genes are turned on and off by the environment. Therefore, what is in an environment that causes the addiction?

Of course the belief again then, among the many false beliefs about addiction, is that drugs are addictive. But we know that they're not. Nothing is addictive in itself. I mean, is alcohol addictive? If I asked a question, “How many people have had a glass of wine in your life,” most people would put their hand up. Many of you would put your hand up. But if I asked you, “How many of you have had an alcohol problem,” a much smaller minority would put their hands up.

Now if alcohol was addictive in and of itself then anybody who ever tries it could become an addict. So, the power of an addiction does not reside in a substance. Whether that substance is crystal meth, or heroin, cocaine, cannabis, alcohol, or whether it’s behaviors like sexaholism, internet addiction, gambling, shopping, work and so on, it’s not the actual activity or substance that induces that addiction, it’s that internal relationship to it, the susceptibility. What creates susceptibility? It’s very simple: trauma.

The drug addicts I worked with in the downtown eastside Vancouver, every single one of them had been abused as children. In the 12 years I worked there, out of hundreds of women I interviewed in the course of my professional work, there was not one who hadn’t been sexually abused as a child. And that’s not just only my personal opinion; it’s also what the large-scale population studies show. Not even controversial. Not controversial, but completely impenetrable to the medical profession and certainly to governments.

So, the people who are in jail—there’s an American psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, many of you may know his work on stress and trauma, and he says that 100 percent of the inmates of the criminal justice system in this country are actually traumatized children.

Now, trauma induces its own set of beliefs and coping styles. One coping style is to shut down emotionally so as not to feel. Now you become alien to yourself. So you don’t feel the pain, and as one patient of mine said very eloquently, pardon the language, “The reason I do drugs is because I don’t want to feel the fucking feelings I feel when I don’t do the drugs.”

And Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones’ guitarist, in talking about his heroin habit in his book on addiction, sorry, book on his life —same thing—uh, [life], he called it, talking about his heroin habit, “It’s about the search for oblivion,” he says. The contortions we go through just not to be ourselves for a few hours.

Now why would somebody would not wish themselves to be themselves for a few hours? Because they're suffering, and why are they suffering? Because the early trauma, early emotional loss, induces certain beliefs. One belief is that “I'm worthless.” Because children are pure narcissists, and I mean narcissists in the pure sense of the word. In other words, when something happens to a child, particularly a young child, it’s happening because to him, and happening because of him. So bad things happen, it's because I’m a bad person. Good things happen because I’m a good person. But if bad things happen, I’m a bad person. If I’m hurt, I deserve it. I caused it. I’m unworthy.

So there’s deep shame at the core of addictions; there’s also a sense that the world is indifferent and hostile, and of course the child who suffers them is abused—the world was indifferent and hostile as they experienced it. But, as the Buddha said it, "it is with our mind that we create the world." But, what the Buddha didn't say was that before "with our mind we create the world," the world creates our minds. And those minds are then shaped by those early experiences.

So, to the addict, the world is hostile—is indifferent—in which he or she has to manipulate and find some way to soothe themselves because there ain’t no soothing in this world, there’s no healing in this world.

Those are some of the core beliefs at the heart of addiction. And there’s a deep emptiness here, because as the spiritual teacher— and this leads me directly to speak about the ayahuasca experience—as a spiritual teacher here in California said, "The fundamental thing that happened, and the greatest calamity, is there was not any love or support," speaking of childhood.

The greater calamity, which was caused by that first calamity, is that you lost the connection to your essence. That is much more important than whether your mother or father loved you or not.
In other words, the greatest loss we endure is the loss of connection to ourselves, and that’s then when we experience a deep emptiness that we’re so afraid of.

And this culture is all about stuffing full of products, and stuffing full of relationships, and stuffing full of activities, and stuffing full of false meaning. But of course the more we do that, the more addicted we become, because these things can never be truly satiating. So, that emptiness can never be filled from the outside. The way through the emptiness is through the inside—is from the inside. And that’s where the spiritual experiences, and the healing experiences, empowered by ayahuasca come into it.

Now, my book on addiction came out four years ago now, and I never heard about ayahuasca until after it was published. While I was writing it I began to get emails and inquiries from people, "What do you know about ayahuasca and the healing of addiction?” and I would say, "Nothing, I don’t know anything about it."A week later, the same question. And this went on persistently for months.
I finally began to be both irritated, and curious. And then it turned out that there was an opportunity to experience ayahuasca up in Vancouver; a Peruvian shaman was coming up and leading some ceremonies, and I did do a ceremony. And I sat there in the dark with my heart open and a feeling of delicious nurturing warmth, the tears of joy rolling down my face, and I got love. And I also got how many ways in my life I had betrayed love and had turned by back on it, which is a coping pattern, because when you’re as vulnerable and hurt as a child as I was as a Jewish infant under German occupation in Hungary, then you close down to love because it’s too painful to be open to it.

The ayahuasca got rid of my coping mechanisms in a flash, and there I was experiencing something, and I knew then that this is something to work with. And within half a year I was working with people shamanically trained in Peruvian Shipibo tradition, and beginning to lead retreats. We’ve led a number now, and the results are increasingly but uniformly astonishing.

So I’m going to read you some communications sent to me by people that have participated in our ayahuasca retreats and then I'll talk about their experiences and why ayahuasca is so potentially helpful. Although, as the previous speaker said, nobody should ever say that it’s a panacea.
So this is Dr. Stuart Krichevsky, who writes about ayahuasca. ...
Decoctions like ayahuasca, similar to many forms of meditation, has salutogenic potential. Salutogenic meaning health-giving potential i.e. can enhance physical mental and spiritual health by calling into play what is referred to as participating consciousness.
So if you can become conscious of your patterns and your beliefs, these core beliefs, and how you attain these beliefs, then you can let go of them. Rigid feeling, thought, and behavioral patterns can unclench; the self can rearrange itself and develop its inner and outer resources more deeply. So there we get to the concept of a true self and one that can be reconfigured, or at least rediscovered with the help of the psychoactive plants, particularly ayahuasca.

So I’ll read you now what some people have said about their experience at our retreats, and I’ll talk to you more about the retreats and how they function.
“The last two nights have been challenging, but I'm getting good practice. Negative thoughts as they come up, under the effect, I can feel the physical sensation of fear in my gut as the thought arises and returns to a safer place."
In other words, when you have a certain thought, like you have a negative thought pattern—when I say negative, I mean a self defeating, self-deprecating, self invalidating thought pattern—that’s not just the thought up here, that’s immediately a physical impact on the body. You feel it in the gut, you feel it in the heart, if affects your whole nervous system, your cardiovascular system, your immune system, and this person is getting in touch with how their thoughts are influencing your body.
"In the past I’ve made many bad, irresponsible choices with hurtful consequences to myself in others. Despite knowing that right now, I’m presented with new choices I can make from a place of love towards myself and the people in my life. It’s hard to push despair aside. The despair that tells me I will continue to make the same poor choices over and over again.
That’s the core belief showing up again that "there’s something wrong with me." But this person at least is conscious of it.

This is a physician, by the way, who has nearly lost his license because of addictions, and his marriage is falling apart, and he came to the retreat. And he thought he had a perfect childhood, by the way, and I won't even go into the details.
“The other very powerful moment I had involved looking at the sense of being too much for my parents. I know no matter how much love they felt for me, they probably were all alone with their own fears and anxiety. Well yeah, the father had a near-fatal heart attack at age 28. I’ve experienced myself as a child when this child was a one-year old. I’ve experienced myself as too much for the world for a long time. I’ve made a grand effort over the years to prove that true, which is why it cracks my heart open so wide to feel welcomed in the hearts of you and the people here, knowing that my feelings, my hurt, fear, sadness, and need for connection are not too much. I feel that the world can hold me, in fact, always has. And maybe I can learn to hold myself. It’s painful to think that Miles, my son, may feel himself to be too much for me. I desperately don’t want that to happen. Much love and gratitude.”

I won’t read you the other experiences, but they’re all the same sort of people experiencing love, gratitude, connection to themselves, experiencing the childhood trauma.

My daughter did an ayahuasca retreat. She said that she revisited all the sad places in her childhood, and because I was a workaholic, and was very stressed, and a very undeveloped adult when I was a father to my young kids, she’s has plenty of sorrow in her life. And she said that she revisited those sad places but did so with the loving consciousness and empathy and the compassion of an adult, and if you look at the brain scans on ayahuasca ... what you see is activation of the temporal lobe, where childhood memories are stored; of the limbic system where our emotions are modulated and they live, and the front part of the brain where insight is made available to us.

We can connect the childhood experience, no matter how traumatic—and it sometimes comes up for people. Some really deeply disturbing, traumatic experiences come up for people during the ayahuasca experience. And those experiences may take the form of direct memory, direct recall of an image, or what happened to them, such as a body invasion, or other kinds of trauma, or it may take the form of really scary images and creatures, but it’s like a dream. In the dream, when somebody’s chasing us, we’re not afraid because somebody’s chasing up—somebody’s chasing us because we’re afraid. In other words, during sleep, the centers in the brain where childhood memories are stored get activated, and then the brain makes up a story to explain the emotion. And I believe that much of the same is true of the scary visions that people have during the ayahuasca experience.

The beautiful images, of course, represent more the core self. We get to see both the experiences in response to which we develop these coping mechanisms that give us addiction or cancer or other form of illness. We get to experience that core self and the beauty of the world, as it actually is, when we don’t see it through a screen of suffering and misinterpretation induced by our early experience. So, we get to see both what we’ve been running from and trying to cope with, and trying to manipulate, but we also get to see that true connection that true love, that true beauty, that true vision, that pure insight, that pure strength, that pure compassion. And when we do that, we realize we don't have to cope anymore. We don't have to run anymore. We can just be right where we are.
Now, that’s not to say that because you have that experience it’s going to stay like that.  That takes work that takes practice. If you don't put in some practice afterwards, if you don't get follow up, if you don't put it into the context of your life, this experience just becomes a beautiful memory. But the impact of it will fade. So it’s transformative, but it’s only transformative if you allow it to be transformative. And it you work with it so that it becomes transformative. But if you do, it can be very, very powerful, it can be life-changing for many, many people.

I have to say something here about context here. I don’t lead ayahuasca ceremonies, I’m not on ayahuasca, I don’t chant, I just participate in the ceremonies. Leading the ceremonies are people who wouldn't call themselves shamans, but I would call them that because their work is that effective. They chant, and they work with people energetically. And they pick up on peoples’ energies in the dark. I don’t do that.  I pick up people’s energies in the light. I hear it in the tone of their voice, facial expression, choice of words. They sit there in the silence while they chant and they are reading the energies of the people as they emanate from each individual in that circle, where they might be 30 of us in the Malacca. And then they chant to people specifically to unblock particular energies, or particular energy blockages.

Like a person with cancer recently—two weeks after she signed up she became diagnosed with breast cancer. I’ve told you my view of breast cancer, or cancer in general: it’s a repression of anger as one of the major dynamics in it. The shaman sits there in the dark and feels the blocked anger in that woman’s breast, and then works with it to unblock that energy. So, it’s not just the chemical effect of the plant, and I’m sure other people have emphasized the same point. ... It’s the context, it’s the responsiveness and supportive interaction of the environment.

Remember what I said when I was quoting from that Harvard article about how the brain develops in response to the mutual responsiveness of child and adult? In the same way the healing benefit of something like ayahuasca is not simply the chemical effect of the plant, although that of course is inseparable from its other effects. It's also the responsiveness of the environment in which people experience the ayahuasca. So, the experience has to be in a safe context, in a context where there’s guidance.

People sometimes have negative experiences, or they think they do because they had an experience they didn't like, and so they resist the experience. And also, the personality has a way of invalidating our essential self.

I’ll give you a quick example of that. There was a woman in a recent retreat who wanted to experience what was blocking her from engaging with life and herself in a full and passionate way. Next she reports with great disappointment and even resentment what she experienced during the ayahuasca ceremony.
“I just got psychedelic colors, for example, there was a psychedelic Indian elephant. I didn't come here to get a trip with Indian elephants.”
The Indian elephant is Ganesh, the god-figure who unblocks difficulties. That’s what she experienced. And in some part of her brain she knew that. But because she was resisting the experience rather than being open to it, she actually missed the point. Now, that’s okay. If you go through it that way you’ll still learn what you need to learn, so I’m not negating her experience. In fact, it turned out to be a beautiful experience for her. But people sometimes need the guidance to understand the experience. It’s not enough, the experience. We have to find the meaning of the experience, and that’s where my role comes in. That’s what I help people with. But that wouldn’t be possible without the astonishing work of the ayahuasceros, the ayahuasceras, that I work with.
So it’s an overall gestalt; the plant, the ceremony, the chanting, the energetic work, and the psychological-emotional preparation beforehand, integration afterwards, and the joint exploration and the identification of meaning.

Well, thank you.
Gabor Mate is a Canadian physician, speaker and author of four books. He teaches and leads seminars internationally. He has worked in family practice and palliative care and for 12 years worked on Vancouver's downtown eastside, notorious as North America’s most concentrated area of drug use. For more information visit

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

It’s the End of the World Unless We All Start Cooking.

From The Daily Beast - By Rachel Khong

Is the way we’re eating going to bring about end of the world?

The way we eat now is having a profound effect on climate change, which certainly threatens to bring about the end of the world as we’ve known it.
Michael Pollan at Toronto's Live Organic Food Bar in February 2008. (Keith Beaty)

For better and worse, the industrial food system has made food very cheap. The poor can eat a better diet than they once could. It used to be that only the rich could eat meat every day of the week. Now just about everyone can, three meals a day. Fast-food chains make it easy. It’s not very good meat, and most of it is brutally produced, but it is within reach.

But meat has a tremendous carbon footprint: beef in particular because it takes so much grain to get a pound of beef. It takes about 15 pounds of grain to get 1 one pound of beef, and that grain takes tremendous amounts of fossil fuel—in the form of fertilizer, pesticide, farm equipment, processing, and transportation. All told, it takes 55 calories of fossil-fuel energy to get one calorie of beef. The average for processed foods is 10 calories of fossil fuel per calorie of food.

Before World War II every calorie of fossil-fuel energy put into a farm—in the form of diesel energy for tractors, and in fertilizer—yielded 2.3 calories of food. That’s nature’s free lunch—the difference between that 1 calorie in and the 2.3 out, which is the result of solar energy. Now, it takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of food. It’s absurd that we’re now running an energy deficit with food, the production of which is theoretically based on photosynthesis. It should be the one area in our lives that is carbon neutral or even better, because plants are really the only way to take energy from the sun.

Our goal should be to eat from the solar food chain to the extent we can and not from the fossil-fuel chain, which is what we’re mainly doing now. The question becomes: how do you do that? We have some powerful models. Grass-fed beef is basically a system where the sun feeds the grass, the grass feeds the ruminants, and the ruminants feed us. You’re eating sunlight when you eat from that food chain. Re-solarizing the food chain should be our goal in every way—taking advantage of the everyday miracle that is photosynthesis.

We’re not doing that, because fossil fuel has been so cheap. Over time, farms have been substituting fossil fuel for human labor as well as the energy of the sun. Fertilizer made with natural gas or diesel was a huge step away from using the sun. It is only in the last few years that people are starting to realize the role food can play in fixing environmental problems, and the fact that we’re not going to tackle global warming without reforming the food system.
‘Cooked’ by Michael Pollan. 480 pages. The Penguin Press. $27.95.

Take, for example, Assembly Bill 32 in California. The law is designed to gradually bring down the amount of carbon emitted by our fuel companies, power companies, and our cars, by capping carbon emissions. But the law doesn’t deal with agriculture. They didn’t know how to deal with agriculture, so they simply left it out. But by not capping agriculture, the state will be playing Whac-a-Mole. As all these other industries’ outputs go down, agriculture’s will continue to go up. We have to learn to deal with the effects of agricultural practices—especially cattle feedlots—or we’re never going to get a handle on carbon. We shouldn’t have as much dairy in California as we do—it’s that simple. It’s a desert, and cows need grass. Re-localizing food economies can—not necessarily, but can—help reduce our reliance on fossil fuel.

At what point did we start making food worse instead of better?

Up until the 19th century, the history of cooking was all in the direction of making food more nutritious. But in the late 19th century, we learned how to refine grain and make white flour. In the 1880s, in England, we came up with roller mills, which can cleanly separate the endosperm—the pure starch—from the germ and bran, which is where most of the nutrients are.

With that “advance,” we began taking cooking too far. (Around the same time, we learned how to do something similar with sugar—turning cane and beets into pure sugar.) Cooking essentially went overboard. It began contributing to public-health problems. We started to have problems with tooth decay; with obesity; with nutrient deficiencies, because people began to eat lots of empty calories.

We basically got too smart for our own good; we moved from cooking to “food processing.” When people talk about processed food as being unhealthy, what they’re really talking about is cooking as it is performed by corporations. Companies cook in a different way. They’re trying to make food that our bodies can absorb as quickly as possible. You could argue that this process is continuous with the history that I’ve been describing, which is to make food progressively easier to digest. But at that point they’ve removed all the fiber, and they’re satisfying only the most basic desire for glucose, for sugar.

We love sugar. We’re hardwired to like sweetness. It’s one of the few food instincts we have. We don’t like bitter, because it’s usually a sign of a plant toxin. Most of the toxins in nature are bitter; they’re alkaloids. We’re attracted to sugar because in nature, sugar is a sign of calories, of concentrated energy. In nature, sweetness is a pretty reliable guide to healthy food. It indicates the presence of ripe fruit, which comes with fiber and lots of important nutrients and phytochemicals. But once you’ve crossed over and you’re making processed sugar, it no longer comes with all those good things.

The food industry has established a financial model where you take raw materials—corn, soy, wheat—and you “add value” by creating processed foods from those cheap building blocks.

One of the main problems is that there are really two of us to feed: there’s our brain, which loves glucose, and then there’s our gut—the microbiome—which has very different dietary needs than “we” do. We really like sugar, but the gut really likes fiber and other parts of plants. We got really good at finding sugar, because the brain lives on glucose, but we neglect the fact that you have to feed the whole body, that we’re not just eating for one—we’re eating for the 10 trillion microbes living inside us. So in our cooking, we have to learn to cook for all 10 trillion. But it’s hard for us to listen to the desires of those 10 trillion—the brain is much easier to hear.

At the turn of the century, white flour became a huge part—something like 20 percent—of the diet. In the early years of the 20th century, people recognized that white flour was making us sick because of its lack of vitamins. But the beauty of white flour is that it meshes so well with our capitalist economy. It’s a commodity that is imperishable. It is largely indistinguishable: all white flour is white flour. White flour can be transported over great distances; it’s easier to cook with; it lends itself to industrialized baking; it’s a perfect capitalist commodity.

Capitalism is most concerned with food not being perishable, being shelf-stable. Whole grains make volatile, perishable flour, so big companies don’t want to rely on it. Instead, they figured out a techno-fix: supplementation. They said, OK, these are the vitamins we lost when we took away the bran and the germ, so we’ll just put them back in in chemical form. Various B vitamins, niacin, thiamine, all those things. And that took care of the problem. Sort of. It took care of the problem for us, but not for the 10 trillion. Your microbes didn’t care much about the vitamins; they wanted the bran.

In the history of food processing, you never turn back, you just come up with a technological fix for whatever problems you’ve created. Food gets more and more complex, more processed. The food industry has established a financial model where you take raw materials—corn, soy, wheat—and you “add value” by creating processed foods from those cheap building blocks. So instead of selling nutritious brown rice, we genetically engineered white rice that has vitamin A in it: “golden” rice. The more complex you can make a food product, the more profitable it is. But at the end of the day, all that processing and engineering is achieving is returning what we took out in the first place. Baby formula is the great example. Breast milk is the perfect food, formed by natural selection to have everything the developing child—and its microbiota—needs. We’ve spent almost two hundred years trying to simulate it, because food companies can’t make money when people are nursing their babies.

But we still can’t make formula as good as breast milk. There’s still that mystery X-factor because babies raised on formula simply don’t do as well. When we simulate formula, we try to design what the baby needs and once again we forget about the ten trillion. Only in the last ten years or so, did we discover that the oligosaccharides (a kind of sugar) in mother’s milk—a “nutrient” that the baby can’t digest—are vital to a baby’s gut microbes. They encourage the proliferation of bifida, a very important kind of bacteria. It’s human arrogance to think we can outwit nature.

How do we go about fixing what we’ve messed up? Is it all bad news?

I sometimes find myself wondering whether we can posit or imagine a food science that is actually improving food in the way that cooking for most of its history succeeded in doing. Theoretically we should be able to do this. We came up with fermentation; we came up with cooking with fire. We’ve had food science and food technology now for a hundred and fifty years, and so far, not so good. So far we haven’t done anything that useful. But we understand a lot more, and we should be able to improve on things, not just make money and entertain people.

I can think of some examples of potentially useful food processing innovations. Here’s one that some people are actually working on. For reasons having to do with both our health and the health of our environment, we need really good meat substitutes. So far meat substitutes are really unsatisfying. No one but a vegan can get excited about fake bacon. They seem to think it’s really good. But most people who’ve actually eaten bacon? They don’t really see the point. It’s probably because vegans have forgotten how real bacon tastes, but they have this deep memory of the experience that is stirred by the fake bacon. Mock-meat hamburgers are not very satisfying, either. They’re also much more expensive than real hamburgers, which is odd considering they’re made from vegetable matter.

Today there are people using the most sophisticated food science to simulate meat, and it seems to me that if this is done well, it has enormous potential to contribute to our welfare and to the environment. Cheese that is not made with cows’ milk might be something to work on because we’re consuming huge amounts of the stuff, and dairy cows, like beef cows, have an enormous environmental footprint. The whole California central valley—especially Tulare County—is wall-to-wall dairy cows producing low-quality milk for low-quality cheese that’s put on Domino’s pizzas all over the world. Synthesizing this type of cheese is really not a very high bar to hit: all that’s needed is something white and cheeselike that melts. It seems to me that a good nondairy cheese would be a positive contribution to humankind, and something worth working on.

As a society this is a very important question we need to pose. How can we cook better—better for our health, and better for the health of the planet? Now we have molecular gastronomy, which is using lots of new techniques. But what has it really contributed? More in the way of novel experiences and entertainment, I would say, and very little toward solving any kind of public-health problem. I haven’t seen anything in that world that says to me, If we popularize this technique, it would have really positive effects. But this is what we need to work on. I have little doubt that if Nathan Myhrvold set that as his goal, he could help solve some of our real nutritional and environmental problems linked to food. But I don’t see that happening right now.

Yet there are reasons to feel encouraged. People are much more conscious of food politics and agricultural politics than they were a few years ago. The farm bill used to just be passed without anyone outside of the farm belt noticing. Now we see front-page articles about agricultural policy. We’re making some progress toward politicizing things that were once happening behind closed doors, and that’s a good thing.

But we have a long way to go. I want to see the FDA ban antibiotics. I want to see a farm bill that subsidizes healthy food and not just junk food. All that hasn’t come yet. The food movement is still a young movement. I’m optimistic, and I don’t think we should be discouraged. We’re talking about some really entrenched and powerful interests that need to be dislodged. You look at other comparable movements—the environmental movement or civil rights—and you see that change didn’t happen in a decade; it took generations. And this will take generations, too.

The food movement needs strong leadership. There are too many writers and chefs, and not enough smart politicians. We don’t yet have the skills we need to organize and force change in Washington. That said, I do think that chefs are playing a really constructive role. They have the cultural microphone right now, and they’re using it to promote good farming and careful thought about food. Part of what we need and what chefs are promoting is the cultural re-evaluation of food: recognizing that food is important both to your health and to your culture, and that it’s worth spending a little money on it if you can.

What I’m trying to do in this new book is make a case for cooking as a valuable way to spend your time. I want to lure people into the kitchen with the promise of pleasure, and not because it’s an obligation, or something you should do. I happen to believe cooking is as interesting as watching TV or being on the computer, which is what people seem to be doing with the time they “save” by not cooking. Cooking isn’t drudgery. It takes real mental engagement; it offers sensual pleasures; it’s very enriching to cook. My book has all these detours into microbiology and the science of flavor because truly amazing things are going on when you cook. As a cook, you are a chemist and you are a physicist and you are a cultural historian all at once. And what can seem boring to people is often just a failure to use their imaginations and intellect to understand what’s actually going on, what is at stake. It’s the same with gardening. Cooking and gardening to me are very similar activities on many levels; you could argue that pulling weeds is boring and you’d rather be looking at a screen. But I usually feel better after I’ve weeded my garden than after plowing through another hour’s worth of email. Ironically enough, I think there is actually more mental space for this kind of work now—our lives are so mediated by technology, so mediated by screens, that there’s a real hunger to recover the use of our hands, and our senses.

We’re sensorially deprived right now, in modern life. Our eyes are engaged—sometimes our ears—but our bodies? Not so much. These aren’t just bags of bones we’re carrying around. When we cook, when we garden, when we make things with our hands, we’re engaging all of our senses and that has—in ways we don’t really know how to quantify—deeply positive effects on our mental and physical health. We’re hungry for the all the complex sensory information that cooking can provide when approached in the right spirit.

An excerpt from the “Apocalypse” issue of Lucky Peach magazine, published by McSweeney’s. To learn more, click here.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Nanoparticles Are in Our Food, Clothing and Medicine -- And No One Knows for Sure How Dangerous They Might Be.


Inside nanotechnology’s little universe of big unknowns.     

This article first appeared at Orion Magazine under the title "Pandora's Boxes." You can enjoy future Orion articles by signing up to the magazine's free trial subscription program.
A pair of scientists, sporting white clean-suits complete with helmets and face masks, approach a prefab agricultural greenhouse in a clearing at Duke University’s Research Forest. Inside are two long rows of wooden boxes the size of large horse troughs, which hold samples of the natural world that surrounds them—the pine groves and rhododendron thickets of North Carolina’s piedmont, which at this moment are alive with bird song.
Looking a lot like the government bad guys in E.T., the two men cautiously hover over a row of boxes containing native sedges, water grasses, and Zebra fish to spray a fine mist of silver nanoparticles over them. Their goal: to investigate how the world inside the boxes is altered by these essentially invisible and notoriously unpredictable particles.

The researchers are part of a multidisciplinary coalition of scientists from Duke, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, Howard, Virginia Tech, and the University of Kentucky, headquartered at Duke’s Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT), that represents one of the most comprehensive efforts yet to measure how nanoparticles affect ecosystems and biological systems.
So far the questions about whether nanoparticles are an environmental risk outnumber the answers, which is why the Duke scientists take the precaution of wearing clean-suits while dosing the boxes—no one’s sure what exposure to a high concentration of nanoparticles might do. Among the few things we do know about them are that they sail past the blood-brain barrier and can harm the nervous systems of some animals.

The regulation of nanoparticles has been recommended for more than a decade, but there’s no agreement on exactly how to do it. Meanwhile, the lid has already been lifted on nanotechnology. The use of man-made nanoparticles has spread into almost every area of our lives: food, clothing, medicine, shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, and thousands of other products.

Regulatory structures, both here and abroad, are completely unprepared for this onslaught of nanoproducts, because nanoparticles don’t fit into traditional regulatory categories. Additionally, companies often shield details about them by labeling them “proprietary”; they’re difficult to detect; we don’t have protocols for judging their effects; and we haven’t even developed the right tools for tracking them. If nanotechnology and its uses represent a frontier of sorts, it’s not simply the Wild West—it’s the Chaotic, Undiscovered, Uncontrollable West.

And yet, when I visit the boxes on a warm spring day filled with the buzzing of dragonflies and the plaintive call of mourning doves, they look perfectly benign and could easily be mistaken for a container garden. But there are hints that more is going on: each “mesocosm” (a middle ground between microcosm and macrocosm) is studded with probes and sensors that continually transmit data to CEINT’s central computer.

As I instinctively squint my eyes to try and locate evidence of the silver nanoparticles inside each box, I realize I might as well be staring down at these research gardens from another arm of the galaxy. The scale of these two worlds is so disparate that my senses are destined to fail me.

As with many things that are invisible and difficult to understand—think subatomic particles such as the Higgs boson, muons, gluons, or quarks—any discussion of nanoparticles quickly shifts into the realm of metaphor and analogy. People working in nanoscience seem to try to outdo each other with folksy explanations: Looking for a nanoparticle is like looking for a needle in the Grand Canyon when the canyon is filled with straw. If a nanoparticle were the size of a football, an actual football would be the size of New Zealand. A million nanoparticles could squeeze onto the period at the end of this sentence.

But what is a nanoparticle? The very simplest explanation is that a nanoparticle is a very small object. It can consist of any bit of matter—carbon, silver, gold, titanium dioxide, pretty much anything you can imagine—that exists on the scale of nanometers. One nanometer equals one-billionth of a meter. A nanoparticle may range in size from one nanometer to one hundred nanometers, although the upper boundary remains a matter of debate among scientists.

Nanoparticles exist in nature, but they can also be manufactured. One way is top-down: grinding up things that are big until they are really, really small, an approach used in nanolithography for electronics. Or you can make them from the bottom up, following instructions that read like a chemistry textbook: mixing one chemical with another by pyrolysis (heating a material in a partial vacuum), or with electrolysis (running a current through a liquid), or by other means.

But what do they look like? Raju Badireddy, a postdoctoral researcher, is happy to satisfy my curiosity. He greets me with a smile at the door to one of CEINT’s basement labs and guides me around his little domain. For much of his work, Badireddy uses a “dark field” microscope that excludes certain wavelengths of light, reducing the “noise” in the image to provide unparalleled clarity. Sensing my anticipation, he doses a slide with silver nanoparticles similar to those in the mesocosm boxes in the forest, and slips it under the lens.

As I look into the scope, it fairly takes my breath away. There are so many dots of light that I’m reminded of staring up at the Milky Way on a trip across the Tibetan Plateau years ago. Yet the silver dots throb and undulate as if alive. Here and there, giant spheres of dust, as large as Goodyear blimps, porpoise through the nanoparticles. I pull back from the oculars, feeling as if I’ve intruded upon something private. This world is so close—it’s even inside me—yet it looks so other, so mysterious.
Scientists don’t really have a full theoretical foundation to explain reality at this scale. But all agree that one of the most important aspects of nanoparticles is that they are all surface. Consider a conventional chemical process: When one element is reacting with another, it’s really just the surface molecules that are involved in the lock-and-key dance of classical chemistry. The vast majority of the molecules remain interior, and stable. But there are many fewer molecules in a nanoparticle, so most of the molecules are on the outside, thus rendering nanoparticles more reactive.

Myriad surface imperfections cause randomness to dominate the nano world. If you hit a billiard ball with a clean shot at the macro level, you can have a good idea where it will go. But at the nano level, a billiard ball might shoot straight up, or even reverse direction. These bits of matter are hot to trot: ready to react, to bond, and to do so in unpredictable ways.

This makes life at the nano scale more chaotic. For instance, aluminum is used everywhere to make soda cans. But in nanopowder form, aluminum explodes violently when it comes in contact with air. At the macro level, gold is famously nonreactive. At the nano level, gold goes the opposite way, becoming extremely reactive. Bulk carbon is soft. But at the nano level, if you superheat it, the molecules bend into a tube that is very strong and semiconductive. In the nano world, gravity fades to the background, becoming less pronounced, the melting temperature of materials changes, and colors shift. At 25 nanometers, spherical gold nanoparticles are red; at 50 nanometers they are green; and at 100 nanometers they’re orange. Similarly, silver is blue at 40 nanometers and yellow at 100 nanometers.

So chemistry and physics work differently if you’re a nanoparticle. You’re not as small as an atom or a molecule, but you’re also not even as big as a cell, so you’re definitely not of the macro world either. You exist in an undiscovered country somewhere between the molecular and the macroscopic. Here, the laws of the very small (quantum mechanics) merge quirkily with the laws of the very large (classical physics). Some say nanomaterials bring a third dimension to chemistry’s periodic table, because at the nano scale, long-established rules and groupings don’t necessarily hold up.

These peculiarities are the reason that nanoparticles have seeped into so many commercial products. Researchers can take advantage of these different rules, adding nanoparticles to manufactured goods to give them desired qualities.

Scientists first realized that nanomaterials exhibit novel properties in 1985, when researchers at Rice University in Houston fabricated a Buckminsterfullerene, so named because the arrangement of sixty carbon atoms resembles the geodesic domes popularized by architect Richard Buckminster Fuller. These “Buckyballs” resist heat and act as superconductors. Then, in 1991, a researcher at the Japanese technology company NEC discovered the carbon nanotube, which confers great strength without adding weight. Novel nano materials have been reported at a feverish pace ever since.
With these engineered nanoparticles—not even getting into the more complex nanomachines on the horizon—we can deliver drugs to specific cells, “cloak” objects to make them less visible, make solar cells more efficient, and manufacture flexible electronics like e-paper.

In the household realm, nanosilica makes house paints and clothing stain resistant; nanozinc and nano–titanium dioxide make sunscreen, acne lotions, and cleansers transparent and more readily absorbed; and nanosilicon makes computer components and cell phones ever smaller and more powerful. Various proprietary nanoparticles have been mixed into volumizing shampoos, whitening toothpastes, scratch-resistant car paint, fabric softeners, and bricks that resist moss and fungus.

A recent report from an American Chemical Society journal claims that nano–titanium dioxide (a thickener and whitener in larger amounts) is now found in eighty-nine popular food products. These include: M&Ms and Mentos, Dentyne and Trident chewing gums, NestlĂ© coffee creamers, various flavors of Pop-Tarts, Kool-Aid, and Jell-O pudding, and Betty Crocker cake frostings. According to a market report, in 2010 the world produced 50,000 tons of nano–titanium dioxide; by 2015, it’s expected to grow to more than 200,000 tons.

At first some in the scientific community didn’t think that the unknown environmental effects of nanotechnology merited CEINT’s research. “The common view was that it was premature,” says CEINT’s director, Mark Wiesner. “My point was that that’s the whole point. But looking at risk is never as sexy as looking at the applications, so it took some time to convince my colleagues.”
Wiesner’s team at CEINT chose to study silver nanoparticles first because they are already commonly added to many consumer products for their germ-killing properties. You can find nanosilver in socks, wound dressings, doorknobs, sheets, cutting boards, baby mugs, plush toys—even condoms. How common is the application of nanoparticles? It varies, but when it comes to socks, for example, hospitals now have to be cautious that the nanosilver in a patient’s footwear doesn’t upset their MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines.

Wiesner and his colleagues spent several months designing the experiments that will help them outline some general ecological principles of the unique nanoverse. He knew they wanted to test the particles in a system, but a full-scale ecosystem would be too big, too unmanageable, so they had to find a way to container-ize nature. They considered all sorts of receptacles: kiddie pools (too flimsy), simple holes in the ground (too dirty, too difficult to harvest for analysis), concrete boxes (crack in winter). Finally, they settled upon wooden boxes lined with nonreactive, industrial rubber: cheap to build, easy to reuse, and convenient to harvest.

They built thirty boxes and a greenhouse to hold them. The large number would make it easier to replicate experiments, and to answer the spectrum of questions being posed by CEINT’s interdisciplinary team. The ecologists were interested in community diversity and how the biomass shifts over time. The biologists wanted to know whether the nanoparticles become concentrated as they move up the food chain. The toxicologists wanted to track where the particles went and how fast they got there. The chemists wanted to know about reactivity.

Whatever the goal of the experiment it houses, each mesocosm features a slanted board upon which a terrestrial ecosystem slowly gives way to an aquatic one. It’s a lot more complicated than a test tube in a lab, but it remains an approximation. The team had hoped to run streams through the mesocosms, but the computing power and monitoring vigilance necessary to track nanoparticles in the streams proved prohibitive.

In 2011, the team dosed the boxes with two kinds of nanosilver made on campus: one coated in PVP, a binder used in many medicines, and the other coated in gum arabic, a binder used in numerous products, including gummi candies and cosmetics. Both coatings help to stabilize the nanosilver. In some boxes, the researchers let the silver leach slowly into the box. In other boxes, they delivered the silver in one big pulse. In some, they introduced the silver into the terrestrial part of the box; in others, they put the silver into the water.

Then the researchers watched and waited.

Reading through descriptions of nanoparticle applications can make a person almost giddy. It all sounds mostly great. And the toxicology maxim “Dose makes the poison” leads many biologists to be skeptical of the dangers nanoparticles might pose. After all, nanoparticles are pretty darn small.
Yet size seems to be a double-edged sword in the nanoverse. Because nanoparticles are so small, they can slip past the body’s various barriers: skin, the blood-brain barrier, the lining of the gut and airways. Once inside, these tiny particles can bind to many things. They seem to build up over time, especially in the brain. Some cause inflammation and cell damage. Preliminary research shows this can harm the organs of lab animals, though the results of some of these studies are a matter of debate.
Some published research has shown that inhaled nanoparticles actually become more toxic as they get smaller. Nano–titanium dioxide, one of the most commonly used nanoparticles (Pop-Tarts, sunblock), has been shown to damage DNA in animals and prematurely corrode metals. Carbon nanotubes seem to penetrate lungs even more deeply than asbestos.

What little we know about the environmental effects of nanoparticles—and it isn’t very much—also raises some red flags. Nanoparticles from consumer products have been found in sewage wastewater, where they can inhibit bacteria that help break down the waste. They’ve been found to accumulate in plants and stunt their growth. Another study has shown that gold nanoparticles become more concentrated as they move up the food chain from plants to herbivores.

“My suspicion, based on the limited amount of work that’s been done, is that nanoparticles are way less toxic than DDT,” says Richard Di Giulio, an environmental toxicologist on the CEINT team. “But what’s scary about nanoparticles is that we’re producing products with new nanomaterials far ahead of our ability to assess them.”

As a society, we’ve been here before—releasing a “miracle technology” before its potential health and environmental ramifications are understood, let alone investigated. Remember how DDT was going to stamp out malaria and typhus and revolutionize agriculture? How asbestos was going to make buildings fireproof? How bisphenol A (BPA) would make plastics clear and nearly shatterproof? How methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) would make gasoline burn cleanly? How polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were going to make electrical networks safer? How genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were going to end hunger?

The CEINT scientists are trying to develop a library that catalogues all the different kinds of engineered nanoparticles. They’re designing methods for assessing potential hazards, devising ways to evaluate the impact nanoparticles have on both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and creating protocols that will help shape environmental policy decisions about nanoparticles.

Wiesner says the boxes in the forest provide “ground truth” for experiments in the lab. Sometimes, he says, environmental research leads to generalizations that become so abstracted that they have no relationship to reality. The example he likes to give is Freon: if you were to study the toxicology of Freon in the traditional way, you’d never get to the ozone hole. “Nature changes things,” Wiesner says. “So we need to be able to understand those transformation processes, and we need to understand them in complex systems.”

The first large set of CEINT experiments ended about a year ago, and the team spent most of last year figuring out where the nanoparticles went, what they did, and how they added up. They superimposed a grid on each box, then harvested the plants and animals section by section. They clipped the grasses, sorted them by type, and ground them up. They took bore samples of the soil, the water, and the rocks. They anesthetized and flash froze the vertebrates. Then they started measuring the nanoparticle concentrations in the plants, the animals, and core-sample slices.

But consider the magnitude of the scientific problems that face the scientists at CEINT, or anyone else trying to answer a multitude of questions as nanotech applications gallop into the market and man-made nanoparticles begin to litter our world. Just try tracking something a billion times smaller than a meter in even a modestly sized ecosystem, say, a small wetland or a lake. Do carbon nanotubes degrade? And if not, then what? And how do you tell the nanotubes from all the other carbon in your average ecosystem? Even if we did regulate nanoparticles, how would we detect them? There’s no “nanoprobe” that could find them today, and given the challenges of developing such a thing, the team at CEINT considers it unlikely that there will be one any time soon. Thus, gathering evidence of nanoparticles’ effects—whether positive or negative—turns out to be a titanic task. Simply finding them in the experiment samples seems about as complicated as finding that needle in a haystack the size of the Grand Canyon.

Lee Ferguson, a chemistry professor who directs the nanoparticle analysis, meets me in the basement of the CEINT building and leads me on a tour of all the hulking, pricey instruments the researchers use. Despite the cutting-edge aura of this machinery, none of it is fully up to the task of locating and analyzing the proverbial nanoneedle.

“With nanoparticles, we’re playing catch-up as a scientific community—not only to ask the right questions, but to have the right tools to investigate them,” Ferguson says as he pushes through a door into the first lab. “We were well prepared to answer questions about PCBs—we’d spent half a century refining the chemistry and the instruments that were used to analyze the molecules in those chemicals. But simply measuring nanoparticles is a challenge. It’s one thing if they’re concentrated, but if you’re looking for nanoparticles in soil, for instance, you just can’t find them.”

He spends the next hour showing me how the CEINT team has back-engineered methods to detect and characterize nanoparticles. The fluorometer aims three lasers at carbon nanotubes. Another instrument uses ultrasonic waves to flush out its tiny quarry. Across campus, huge electron microscopes train electron beams on the nanoparticle samples, projecting their images onto a charge-coupled device camera, like the ones used on the Hubble Telescope, and atomic force microscopes form images of them by running a probe over samples like a hypersensitive, high-tech record player.
As the team’s methods continue to advance, their experiments have resulted in some surprising data. “After we dosed the water, we took some of it to the lab and exposed fish to it,” says Wiesner’s research assistant, Benjamin Espinasse. “Some of the particles turned out to be more toxic in the lab. And the reverse also happened: some things didn’t appear to be toxic in the lab, but they were more toxic in the boxes. It seems that the organic matter in the mesocosms changed the coatings of the particles, making them more toxic or less toxic,” Espinasse continues. “We could never have imagined that.”

While CEINT has only published the results of the preliminary mesocosm experiments, the team has been able to make a few conclusions: When the nanoparticles come in a burst, they tend to stay in the soil. But if they bleed into the system slowly, they filter into the water column. Regardless, nanoparticles seem to have a tendency to stick around—that was also the case with DDT.
Meanwhile, CEINT has begun a new set of experiments in the boxes: testing nanoparticles that have been combined with various other substances.
“The materials we most see now are nanomaterials incorporated into other products: textiles, foams, mattresses, nanotubes in display screens,” Wiesner explains. “How it will get out into the environment will be very different than just the pristine particle.”

And then there are the nanobots to plan for. “As we get closer to even simple nanobots, we will need to understand how to do research on them, too,” Wiesner says. Although they remain a marvel of the future, scientists are working toward nanomachines that may someday be able to replicate red blood cells, clean up toxic spills, repair spinal cord injuries, and create weapon swarms to overwhelm an enemy. Researchers are already working on simple versions of nanobots using the chemical principles of attraction and repulsion to help nanostructures arrange and build themselves in a process akin to the way DNA works: a strand of DNA can only split and rebuild in one particular way, and the desired structure is preserved, no matter how many times the DNA replicates.

As if trying to figure out the effects of simple nanoparticles weren’t enough of a futuristic challenge, concerns surrounding nanobots that replicate like DNA are so theoretical they’re spoken about in narratives resembling science fiction. Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy famously warned that, if released into the environment, self-assembling and self-replicating nanomachines could spread like pollen or bacteria, and be too tough and too small to stop before invading every part of the biosphere, chewing it up and reducing all life on earth to “gray goo.” In nanotech circles, this is called the “gray goo problem,” but no one really knows if this vision is prophetic or simply hysterical.

Down the basement hallway, postdoc Badireddy motions to me to join him at a computer monitor next to the dark field microscope in his lab. He clicks on a movie he’s made from images he’s captured. It shows silver nanoparticles interacting with bacteria.

At first, the nanoparticles don’t seem to be doing much. Then, all of a sudden, they start to clump to the outside of a bacterium. The nanoparticles build up and build up until the bacterium’s cell membrane bursts. Then the nanoparticle clumps dissolve into small units before clumping back up again and attacking more bacteria. “The whole cycle happens in about thirty minutes,” Badireddy says. “It’s so fast. If you leave the nanoparticles overnight, when you come back in the morning, all the bacteria are ground mush.”

If you’re looking for stink-free athletic socks, maybe this is a good thing. But could that same process someday turn out to have some sort of nasty biological effect? We just don’t know yet.
“The fact that they re-cycle suggests they might persist for a long time,” Badireddy says as we watch the movie a second time. “They might enter the food chain. And then, who knows what will happen?”

For more on the topic, listen to theaudio recording of the forum Orion hosted with Millar, a researcher, ethicist, and consumer advocate on the topic, here, which expanded on several themes Heather didn't have room for in this article. 

Heather Millar has covered science, health, and technology for twenty years, contributing to magazines such as Sierra, Smithsonian, and The Atlantic. She lives with her family in San Francisco.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Would You Halve How Much Meat You Eat?


Would You Halve How Much Meat You Eat?


We need to halve the amount of meat we eat or risk causing even more damage to the natural world than we already have, says a new report from the United Nations Environment Program. Entitled Our Nutrient World: The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution, the report underscores the unpleasant truth about how modern farming practices are creating more food, and more meat in particular, at lower cost but at a terrible price to the long-time health of the planet.

Eating less meat is a challenge many may shrink from, but it is one that people in wealthy nations must take up, says Professor Mark Sutton, the lead author of the report. Just a generation or two ago, people ate quite a bit less meat. The U.N. report asks people not to stop eating meat entirely, but presents the case for a more measured approach, urging people to go “demitarian” and cut the amount of meat they consume by half.

Raising Livestock Consumes Precious Natural Resources
Previous studies have underscored how many more resources — water, arable land, grain — are used up in raising livestock rather than in cultivating crops. In addition, to provide plenty of meat at cheap prices, the farming industry has come to rely on an ever-larger arsenal of techniques and tools (pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, fertilizer, cages so small that animals cannot move) that are unethical and inhumane.

Our insatiable demand for meat has actually “caused a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health.” The numerous chemical substances we have devised to improve the quality of meat has only done so in the short run. Run-off from chemicals has played a role in “dead zones in the seas, causing toxic algal blooms and killing fish, while some are threatening bees, amphibians and sensitive ecosystems,” says the Guardian.

We need look no farther for evidence of what is wrong with the modern meat industry than the ongoing horse meat scandal in Europe. Just this week, Nestle announced that it was withdrawing some of its products over concerns about horse meat, which has turned up in other manufacturers’ frozen meals and “extra value” — cheaply priced — burgers. “The attention this meat scare has drawn [highlights] poor quality meat. It shows society must think about livestock and food choices much more, for the environment and health,” said Sutton in the Guardian.

Can You Be a “Demetarian”?
Nonetheless, billions of people in developing countries should still increase their meat consumption, says Sutton. In order for this to happen, people in wealthy nations need to reduce their consumption of meat, in a sort of global give-and-take with the goal of extending the nutrition benefits of animal protein to those whose diets are insufficient.

The UN report is a wake-up call to take a good, hard look at how our taste for meat, and lots of it, has created a product that is not exactly appetizing and is endangering the world’s food supply. The report’s call to many in richer countries to “do the demetarian thing” is a call to consider what we consume and to ask, do we really need to eat all that?