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Genes, Estrogen, and a Roomy Earth

Looking back at 2002's science and environmental policy stories

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As we begin a new year and patiently await the results of Baby Eve's non-paternity test, let us look back on some of the most significant science, technology, and environmental policy stories of the year 2002.

Genomania—By the end of 2002, the genomes, that is, the genetic recipes for lab staples such as the mouse, fruit fly, nematode worm, rat, puffer fish, zebra fish, yeast, rice, mosquito, malaria parasite, and scores of bacteria had been completed. It turns out that mice and men are not all that different, since 99 percent of human genes have counterparts in mice. That's nice, because mice are often used as models for researching the causes and cures of human diseases. Next up are cows, chickens, chimpanzees, dogs, kangaroo, honeybees, and silk worms. In less than a decade, in what is being called the "storefront genome," your doctor should be able to sequence your genome in his office for a few hundred dollars.

Population Bomb Fizzles—Alarmist claims that the 21st century will usher in a standing-room-only world prove grossly mistaken. Demographic projections by the United Nations and Nature show that world population is very unlikely ever to double again. In fact, it may well top out at about 8 to 9 billion around 2050 and begin falling back to 6 billion by 2100.

Planet Wilderness—Conservation International released a global analysis that found that 46 percent of our planet's land is still wilderness. "A lot of people will be surprised by the percent of the land surface that is in very good shape. We were surprised," said Russ Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International, in an interview with Cybercast News Service. Mittermeier further noted that the tropical forests in the Congo and the Amazon are still largely intact. The study found that 70 percent of humanity lives on less than 40 percent of the earth's land area. It turns out people generally prefer not to live in rain forests, tundra, high mountains, and deserts.

World Summit on Sustainable Development—Probably the last United Nations global summit meeting on environmental issues was held in August and September in Johannesburg, South Africa. In retrospect, from the point of view of ideological environmentalists, the summit was probably doomed to failure because it was trying to force two totally incompatible goals together—eradicating poverty and limiting economic growth. Environmental improvement is simply impossible without economic growth, yet economic growth is anathema to green summiteers. Still, free marketers and greens can agree on some issues, like eliminating the $300 billion in agriculture subsidies spent annually by rich countries that undermine poor farmers in developing countries and hurt farmland in developed countries. New Scientist is correct that it's a crime that "every cow in Europe gets a subsidy of $2.20 a day, more than the income of almost two billion of the world's citizens."

Bureaucrats Bless Organic Agriculture Standards—In October, at the insistence of organic farmers' organizations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued 554 pages of national organic standards. Of course, farmers who want to practice labor-intensive low-productivity organic farming should go ahead and knock themselves out. But they should not be allowed to imply that their products are somehow nutritionally superior, since they are not. Organic farming has certain environmental advantages over conventional practices, but environmentally concerned consumers should keep in mind that organic farming's lower productivity means that more land must be used to produce the same amount of food. In any case, a combination of biotech crops and some organic techniques would probably be the most environmentally friendly farming system ever devised.

Global Warming Goes Way Back—Climatologists declared that 2002 is the second warmest year since 1860. However, a look further back in time shows that the current warming is nothing new. It turns out that 1,000 years ago the earth was probably as warm as it is today. And we can't blame greenhouse gases produced by heedless greedy capitalists burning fossil fuels for that warm period.

Estrogen Overdose—The 6 million post-menopausal American women who take a combination of estrogen and progestin as therapy to protect their hearts got a shock this past July when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) halted its clinical trial on the value of that therapy. Turns out it causes an increased risk of breast cancer in participants. Hormone replacement therapy was devised because physicians noted that pre-menopausal women had very low incidence of heart disease, whereas in post-menopausal women heart disease risk rapidly rose to levels near that of men. Thus the researchers reasonably theorized that restoring estrogen to youthful levels might offer protection against that ailment. Evidence from earlier, smaller hormone replacement trials seemed to back up this theory—and hormone replacement therapy also controls hot flashes. While hormone treatments do not prevent heart disease, they do apparently thwart osteoporosis—an ailment that can cause life-threatening fractures in older women. The NIH study highlights the critical role that double-blind clinical trials play in determining the effectiveness of medical treatments.

Human Cloning—Three groups—Italian fertility specialist Serverino Antinori, Kentucky-based andrologist Panos Zavos, and Clonaid, a company founded by the Raelian religious cult—are racing to produce the world's first cloned human baby. As the entire world knows, Clonaid's CEO Brigitte Boisselier declared that her group has won the race and that baby "Eve," who is genetically identical to her mother, was born on December 26, 2002. The alleged achievement has already been denounced by President Bush and the Pope and is being used to confuse the public and policy makers by those who want to stop research on human embryonic stem cells.

My prediction for 2003? Despite a growing global neo-Luddite anti-science movement and the fits and starts occasioned by traditional resistance to change, humanity will continue to enlarge the knowledge commons that ultimately improves our lives and benefits future generations.