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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: Why is Elon Musk so blasé about the world running out of water, especially after decades-long droughts and rising temperatures? -- P. Dirksen, Omaha, NE

The billionaire entrepreneur and CEO of SpaceX, Tesla and Twitter recently commented on Bill Maher’s show Real Time that “desalination is absurdly cheap,” going on to say that since the surface of the planet is 70 percent water, he isn’t worried about running out anytime soon. But Musk’s optimism on this topic is countered by environmental leaders who believe that water scarcity is a pressing global issue.

Desalination is the process of removing salt and other minerals from seawater or brackish water to produce fresh water. The most common method is reverse osmosis, which involves forcing seawater through a membrane that filters out the salt and other impurities. While its cost has decreased in recent years, it is still more expensive than other sources of fresh water such as collecting rainwater and pumping water from underground aquifers. Desalination costs also vary depending on factors such as location, energy costs and the size of the plant. In some cases, desalination can be prohibitively expensive.

However, it is true that the world has plenty of water in its oceans and other water bodies. According to the United Nations, 97 percent of the world's water is in the oceans (and as such, salty), while just three percent is freshwater. And of that three percent, two-thirds is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps, leaving only a small fraction of the world's water available for human use.

Water scarcity is a pressing global issue, particularly in regions that experience drought or have limited access to fresh water sources. According to the World Health Organization, around 2.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and this number is expected to increase as a result of climate change and population growth. Desalination can be a viable solution to water scarcity in some regions, particularly those with access to seawater or brackish water sources. However, it is not a panacea, and there are several challenges and limitations associated with it.

One of the biggest challenges of desalination is its energy consumption. Desalination plants require a significant amount of energy to operate, typically electricity. This can be a significant barrier in regions with limited access to affordable energy sources or that rely on fossil fuels for energy production.

Another challenge of desalination is its environmental impact. Desalination can have negative impacts on marine ecosystems and generate greenhouse gases. The intake of seawater can harm marine life, and the discharge of brine back into the ocean can create high-salinity plumes that can harm marine ecosystems.

Musk’s optimism most likely stems from bullishness on transitioning to renewable energy. Once we can deploy large scale solar collection facilities at the site of desalination plants, the greenhouse gas and energy cost downsides of desalination mostly disappear. While such a scenario has only been a dream in recent decades, recent advances in technologies may bring about large scale desalination facilities all over the world in the next few decades.

CONTACTS: Musk/Maher, rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/elon-musk-bill-maher-interview-woke-mind-virus-1234725788/; New research looks to lower the high cost of desalination, engineering.stanford.edu/magazine/article/new-research-looks-lower-high-cost-desalination

Dear EarthTalk: Why are “forever chemicals” so bad, and how can I avoid them? -- M.N., via email

“Forever chemicals” are types of highly persistent and toxic synthetic chemicals widely used in many industries, including firefighting foam, non-stick cookware, food packaging and water-resistant clothing. These chemicals are called “forever” because they do not break down easily in the environment and can persist for decades or even centuries, accumulating in soil, water and air.

The most common types of forever chemicals are per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which include compounds such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). PFAS have been linked to a range of health problems, including cancer, immune system damage, hormone disruption and developmental delays. The problem with forever chemicals is that they can accumulate in our bodies over time, as well as in the bodies of animals and plants, leading to long-term health and environmental consequences. Because these chemicals do not break down easily in the environment, they can also contaminate soil, water and air, potentially impacting entire ecosystems.

To avoid exposure to forever chemicals, there are several steps you can take. First, avoid using non-stick cookware and other products that contain PFAS. Instead, opt for stainless steel, cast iron or ceramic cookware. Secondly, avoid using products that are labeled water-resistant, stain-resistant or grease-resistant, as they may contain PFAS. Thirdly, use natural, organic and biodegradable cleaning products instead of conventional cleaning products that may contain PFAS. When shopping for food, choose products that are packaged in glass, metal or paper containers instead of plastic containers, as plastic can contain PFAS. Finally, if you live in an area where PFAS contamination is a concern, consider installing a water filtration system that is designed to remove these chemicals.

According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization that tracks contaminants and chemicals in food, health and beauty products, nearly all Americans, including newborn babies, have forever chemicals in their bloodstreams, while 200 million of us may well be drinking tap water contaminated with these toxins. And we’re not the only ones at risk. Researchers have found traces of forever chemicals in wildlife all over the world, including some endangered species. Who would’ve thought that such a risk would threaten polar bears in the Arctic let alone tigers, monkeys and pandas in milder locales and even dolphins and fish across the world’s oceans?

Forever chemicals have been ubiquitous in our ecosystems and bloodstreams for decades, but it wasn’t until March 2023 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started to address the issue by setting Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) goals for PFAS and related persistent chemicals in drinking water supplies. While this might be too little too late for those of us exposed to these toxins year after year, at least it’s a step in the right direction. “Decades of unchecked use and releases of PFAS chemicals have devastated the planet by contaminating people, drinking water, and food, including fish and wildlife across the globe,” says Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at EWG. “The proposed nationwide standards to limit exposure to PFAS in drinking water are a welcome development to address the harms these toxic chemicals have already inflicted upon individuals and communities.”

CONTACT: Environmental Working Group,

Dear EarthTalk: Is the Maine lobster industry sustainable and why are the fishermen suing Monterey Bay Aquarium? -- Derek Wilson, Bangor, ME

When one thinks of Maine, they can’t help but think of Maine Lobsters. Lobster has been an integral part of Maine’s culture and economy for centuries. In fact, the beginnings of the Maine Lobster industry can be traced back to the colonial settlement of the region in the 17th century, and is one of the oldest continually operating industries in North America. Since then, it has grown to become one of the most iconic industries in the country, and currently contributes over $1 billion to the Maine economy annually via the harvesting of over 100 million pounds of lobster every year. However, whether or not the Maine lobster industry is environmentally sustainable has come into question in recent years.

The Maine lobster industry touts a fairly sustainable record. It has a number of sustainable fishing practices in place including tail notching (the marking of an egg-bearing female lobster to signify that it cannot be harvested), minimum and maximum lobster size limits and trap size limits.

Laws to protect Maine lobster populations began in 1872 with the outlawing of harvesting egg-bearing female lobsters. Since then, the industry has continued to project lobster populations as well as other local marine life. The industry claims to have reduced lobster gear entanglements by 90 percent, as well as removed 27,000 miles worth of fishing lines.

Despite these measures, the Maine lobster industry has come under attack lately by environmental groups who claim that the industry’s fishing practices are harmful to the endangered North Atlantic right whale. One of these groups, Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation, changed their sustainability rating of Maine lobster under claims of harm to the right whale, thus discouraging customers from buying Maine’s most iconic delicacy. As a result, the Maine lobster industry sued the foundation, arguing that there is no evidence that its fishing practices are to blame for any harm to the endangered whale species.

Environmental groups believe that lobster fishing practices are to blame for right whale deaths, while the lobster industry denies these claims, stating that there have been no right whale deaths traced back to the Maine lobster industry. Environmental groups counter that it is difficult to trace deaths back to specific industries or commercial fishermen, so there is no way to prove their innocence. While fishing regulations have been introduced by these groups, Maine politicians have backed the lobster industry and helped to delay the passing of new fishing regulations in order to protect their state’s $1.5 billion industry. As it stands, the Maine lobster industry is embroiled in a contentious debate between the survival of an iconic and economically critical industry, and the survival of the local ecosystem and an endangered species.

CONTACTS: “Maine lobster industry wins reprieve but environmentalists say whales will die,” npr.org/2023/01/04/1146637583/maine-lobster-industry-wins-reprieve-but-environmentalists-say-whales-will-die; The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative

lobsterfrommaine.com/; “As lawsuits pile up, lawmakers consider new bill to extend lobster legal defense fund,” mainepublic.org/politics/2023-03-23/as-lawsuits-pile-up-lawmakers-consider-new-bill-to-extend-lobster-legal-defense-fund. 

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the background on the “No Mow May” movement? – J.D., via email

Lawns cover some 40 million acres—or two percent—of land in the United States, making them the single largest irrigated crop we grow. We mow, rake, fertilize, weed, chemically treat and water them?—sucking up time, money and other resources. And in spite of all that they provide little if any benefit to wildlife. In fact, they likely do more harm than good. Indeed, grass-only lawns lack floral resources and nesting sites for bees and other pollinators, and serve up a cocktail of toxic pesticides.

Addressing these issues is where the No Mow May campaign comes in, encouraging people to refrain from mowing their lawns during the month of May. The idea is to let wildflowers and other plants grow, providing important habitat for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. The campaign was started in the United Kingdom by the environmental charity Plantlife in 2018. Since then, it has gained popularity in other countries, including the U.S. and Canada. The goal of No Mow May is to raise awareness about the importance of biodiversity and to encourage people to take action to support pollinators.

Many people mow their lawns frequently, often using gas-powered mowers that emit carbon dioxide and other pollutants. This can be harmful to the environment, as well as to human health. Mowing also destroys wildflowers and other plants that provide food and shelter for pollinators. By refraining from mowing their lawns during the month of May, people can help to create a habitat for pollinators. This can include bees, butterflies, moths and other insects, as well as birds and small mammals that feed on them. These creatures play an important role in pollinating crops, which is essential for the production of many types of food.

No Mow May is not only good for the environment, but it can also be good for your lawn. Allowing wildflowers and other plants to grow can help to improve the health of your soil, reduce erosion, and provide a natural fertilizer. This can lead to a healthier lawn that requires less maintenance over time.

If you decide to participate in No Mow May, there are a few things you can do to ensure that your lawn stays healthy and safe. First, make sure that your lawn is free of any hazards, such as large rocks or debris, that could pose a risk to people or pets. You should also check for any weeds or invasive species that could harm native plants.

During the month of May, you can still perform basic lawn maintenance, such as watering and weeding. You can also mow any areas that are high traffic or that pose a safety risk. However, it's best to avoid mowing any areas where wildflowers or other plants are growing.

No Mow May is just one example of how individuals can take action to support biodiversity and protect the environment. By making small changes in our daily lives, we can help to create a healthier, more sustainable world for ourselves and future generations.

CONTACTS: “More Lawns Than Irrigated Corn,” earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/Lawn/lawn2.php; Plantlife’s No Mow May, plantlife.org.uk/campaigns/nomowmay/; Bee City USA’s No Mow May, beecityusa.org/no-mow-may

Dear EarthTalk: Is it possible to retrofit an old car with an Electric Vehicle drivetrain?

– Jerry M., via email

It is definitely possible to retrofit an old internal combustion engine car with an electric vehicle (EV) drivetrain, but the process can be complicated and expensive. In fact, it may be cheaper when all is said and done—not to mention easier and quicker—to just buy an EV.

If you’re undeterred and want to proceed with a conversion anyway, keep in mind that certain types of cars lend themselves to the process better than others. For starters, older cars that rely on mechanics more than computers are often easier to convert. Another consideration to keep in mind is that it’s easier to convert a car with a manual transmission since they use less power and are a lot less complicated than automatic cars. Likewise, lighter vehicles make better candidates for conversions given that less weight translates into greater range.

The first step in retrofitting an old car with an EV drivetrain is to remove the existing engine and transmission. This requires specialized knowledge and tools, so it’s important to find a reputable mechanic or EV retrofitting company to do the job. Once the old engine and transmission are removed, the new EV drivetrain can be installed. This typically includes an electric motor, battery pack, charger, and other components needed to make the car run on electricity. The placement of these components will vary depending on the make and model of the car, and the specific EV drivetrain being used.

One of the biggest challenges in retrofitting an old car with an EV drivetrain is finding the right balance between performance and range. The battery pack needs to be large enough to provide adequate range, but it also needs to be small enough to fit in the car without compromising performance or handling. This can be a delicate balance, and it often requires custom fabrication and design work.

Another challenge is integrating the new EV drivetrain with the car’s existing systems. This includes things like the brakes, steering and suspension, as well as the dashboard and other controls. In some cases, it may be necessary to replace or modify these systems to ensure they work properly with the new EV drivetrain.

Despite the hassle and expense, converting an internal combustion engine car over to electric is a great way to breathe new life into your old ride and reduce its environmental impact. In addition to being more efficient and producing fewer emissions than gasoline-powered cars, EVs also require less maintenance and can save drivers money on fuel costs over the long term. It’s also a lot less wasteful to electrify an old clunker and give it years and years of additional use than buying a brand-new EV, which requires the extraction and use of precious resources and lots of new carbon emissions to build and ship out.

Several companies, including Electric GT, Legacy EV and EV West, now manufacture conversion kits. Even GM and Ford are getting in on the act with the recent release of so-called crate engines that car owners (or their mechanics) can easily swap into the engine bays of corresponding models.

CONTACTS: Electric GT, electricgt.com; EV West, evwest.com. Legacy EV, legacyev.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the "right to roam" and why is it controversial in the United States?

-- P.K., Bend, OR

The "right to roam" is a concept that allows people to access and enjoy natural areas, such as parks, forests and beaches, without being restricted by private property laws. In essence, it grants people the right to walk or hike freely in the countryside, and to camp, fish and pick berries, among other activities, without obtaining prior permission or paying fees. While this right is well-established in some countries like Scotland and Sweden, it is not a widespread concept in the United States, where the notion of private property is deeply ingrained.

Proponents of the right to roam argue that it promotes physical activity, environmental stewardship and mental health by encouraging people to spend more time outdoors. They also claim that it is a democratic right that allows everyone, regardless of their socio-economic status, to access and enjoy public lands. In addition, they argue that the right to roam can have positive economic effects by stimulating outdoor recreation and tourism.

However, opponents argue that it undermines private property rights, reduces landowners' incentives to maintain their properties, and can lead to trespassing, vandalism and littering. They also claim that it can pose a threat to public safety by exposing people to dangerous terrain or wild animals.

While the right to roam is not enshrined in U.S. law, some states have passed laws that provide for limited forms of public access to private lands. For example, in some western states, such as Montana and Colorado, people can access certain types of public lands, such as rivers and streams, by crossing private lands without trespassing. Other states, such as Maine and Vermont, have passed "right-to-roam" laws that allow people to access certain types of private lands, such as coastal areas and abandoned railroad beds, for recreational purposes.

Despite these efforts, the right to roam remains controversial in the U.S., with many landowners opposing it as an infringement on their property rights. In some cases, disputes have arisen between landowners and outdoor enthusiasts, with some landowners posting "no trespassing" signs or even blocking access to public lands. Advocates for the right to roam argue that such restrictions violate the public's right to access public lands and call for greater legal protections for outdoor recreation.

Indeed, the right to roam is a controversial concept in the U.S. that has generated debate between proponents of public access to natural areas and opponents who prioritize private property rights. While some states have taken steps to provide limited access to public lands, there is still a long way to go before the right to roam becomes a widely accepted and legally protected concept in the U.S.

CONTACTS: This Land Is Our Land: Places in Europe Where Access to Nature Is a Basic Human Right,
afar.com/magazine/this-land-is-our-land-places-in-europe-where-access-to-nature-is-a-basic-human; Visit Sweden: Freedom to Roam, visitsweden.com/what-to-do/nature-outdoors/nature/sustainable-and-rural-tourism/freedomtoroam/; UK Right to Roam Campaign, righttoroam.org.uk.

Dear EarthTalk: I don't get how cryptocurrency is so bad for the environment? – L.H., via email

Cryptocurrency’s impact on the environment is a big cause for concern. While cryptocurrencies (e.g., Bitcoin, Ethereum) offer various benefits, such as decentralized transactions and financial inclusivity, their underlying technology, known as blockchain, has significant environmental drawbacks.

One of the main environmental issues associated with cryptocurrency is its energy consumption. The process of “mining” cryptocurrency involves complex mathematical calculations that require substantial computational power, primarily from fossil fuel sources. The Bitcoin network relies on a consensus mechanism called Proof-of-Work (PoW), which demands vast computational resources that consume more electricity than entire countries like Argentina or Ukraine. As a result, the carbon footprint of Bitcoin alone is substantial, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbating climate change.

Furthermore, the energy requirements of cryptocurrency mining have led to the emergence of large-scale mining operations, often located in regions where electricity is cheap and abundant. These mining farms consist of rows upon rows of powerful computers running around the clock, consuming vast amounts of energy. In some cases, they rely on coal-fired power plants, a highly polluting energy source.

Another ecological concern is electronic waste. As mining becomes more competitive, miners require increasingly powerful and specialized hardware. This leads to a constant cycle of upgrading or discarding older equipment. The discarded waste, which contains hazardous materials, poses risks to both the environment and human health. Moreover, the popularity of cryptocurrencies has contributed to a surge in demand for graphic processing units (GPUs) and other hardware, which has led to supply shortages and inflated prices, as well as the creation of new manufacturing facilities. The production of these components requires significant amounts of energy and raw materials, further straining the environment.

It's worth noting that not all cryptocurrencies have the same environmental impact. Some newer cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum, are transitioning from PoW to a more energy-efficient consensus mechanism called Proof-of-Stake (PoS), which requires validators to hold and “stake” a certain amount of the cryptocurrency, eliminating the need for energy-intensive mining. This transition could potentially reduce the impact of some cryptocurrencies in the future. Another option is the use of renewable energy sources for operations, reducing the industry’s carbon footprint. Additionally, more widespread adoption of PoS and other energy-efficient consensus mechanisms could help minimize energy consumption.

Of course, cryptocurrency’s recent fall from grace in the wake of crypto giant FTX’s late 2022 flame-out might be a good thing for the planet. The moral of the story on the evolution of cryptocurrency is that as we continue to explore and develop new forms of digital currency, it is crucial that we prioritize sustainability and consider the long-term environmental effects of the tools and instruments we are unleashing on the world.

CONTACTS: Bitcoin, bitcoin.org; Etheruem, https://ethereum.org; “Bitcoin climate impact greater than gold mining,” theguardian.com/technology/2022/sep/29/bitcoin-climate-impact-gold-mining-environmental-damage-cryptocurrency; Failing Crypto Could Be a Win for the Environment, news.climate.columbia.edu/2022/12/20/failing-crypto-could-be-a-win-for-the-environment

Dear EarthTalk: Do nature, plants and animals have legal rights? – Tom C., Raleigh, NC

The question of whether nature, encompassing plants and animals, should possess rights is a complex and contentious one. Humans have long exerted dominance over the natural world, but a growing movement argues for recognizing the inherent value and rights of nature. Advocates of this view, known as the Rights of Nature movement, say that ecosystems and non-humans should have legal protection akin to human rights. However, this notion challenges and raises philosophical, ethical and legal questions.

Proponents of granting rights to nature argue that its essential to address the current ecological crisis and protect the planet's delicate balance. By recognizing nature's rights, they say, we would establish a legal framework to prevent environmental degradation and hold individuals, corporations and governments accountable for their actions. The approach aims to shift the perspective from viewing nature solely as a resource for human exploitation to recognizing its intrinsic worth and inherent rights to exist and thrive.

Opponents, however, assert that the concept of granting rights to nature is misguided, arguing that only beings capable of rational thought and moral agency can bear rights, which are typically regarded as a social contract based on reciprocal duties and responsibilities, concepts that seem irrelevant when considering non-human entities. Critics argue that conferring rights upon nature could lead to impractical and unenforceable legal obligations that would hinder human progress and economic development.

The recognition of nature's rights faces practical challenges, too. Defining the scope of these rights and identifying appropriate legal protections are daunting tasks. Humans have a shared understanding of human rights based on our capacity for reason and empathy, but determining the rights of ecosystems or individual species is far more complex. For example, would granting rights to nature imply equal consideration for all organisms, or would priority be given to keystone species or vulnerable ecosystems?

Moreover, implementing and enforcing the rights of nature would require a considerable restructuring of legal systems worldwide. It would necessitate changes to statutes, regulations and governance structures, which could prove challenging and time-consuming. Additionally, the issue of representation arises: Who would litigate on nature's behalf and adequately represent its interests poses yet another hurdle.

While the Rights of Nature movement faces hurdles, it has gained traction in recent years. Several countries, including Ecuador, Bolivia and New Zealand, have recognized legal rights for rivers, forests or specific species. These efforts reflect a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of ecosystems and the urgent need to protect them. However, it is essential to strike a balance between protecting nature and ensuring human well-being. Critics worry that a rights-based approach to nature may unintentionally undermine human rights and impede socioeconomic progress. Ultimately, the question of whether nature should possess rights is a deeply philosophical and ethical one. challenging us to reconsider our relationship with nature and recognize the inherent value of all living beings. While these challenges and philosophical debates persist, it is clear that the dialogue surrounding the rights of nature will continue to evolve as we grapple with the urgent need to protect our planet.

CONTACTS: Nonhuman Rights Project, nonhumanrights.org; Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, garn.org/rights-of-nature; Does Nature Have Rights? insideclimatenews.org/news/19092021/rights-of-nature-legal-movement/; Roderick Nash’s The Rights of Nature, amzn.to/3Ig0s9f.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.


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