04 February 2009

Just because it's natural doesn't mean it's safe

Green tea is widely reputed to be good for you - many people drink it for its antioxidant properties in an effort to prevent heart disease and cancer. Given the fact that it has been sipped by millions of people in Asia for many generations, green tea certainly seems to be safe. At least by itself.

A study published online today in the journal Blood does nothing to diminish green tea's reputation as an overall tonic, but it does raise an important flag about natural remedies in general. From the press release by the American Society of Hemotology, we find out first why scientists are focusing upon green tea:

Because of its increasing popularity and availability to the public in many formulations, green tea has been increasingly studied to understand its effect on cancer, heart disease, and other conditions. In animal studies, an antioxidant compound in green tea called the EGCG polyphenol (epigallocatechin gallate) has been shown to be a potent anticancer agent, with effects demonstrated against leukemia, as well as lung, prostate, colon, and breast cancer."
So far, so good. But it turns out that some components of green tea may counteract the anticancer effects of one cancer therapy, bortezomib (Velcade®)
"In this study, researchers evaluated whether the combination of green tea and bortezomib would improve outcomes against multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, and glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor...the team was surprised to find that the EGCG compound seemed to prevent bortezomib from fighting the disease...the two compounds effectively contradicted one another in the cell, leaving nearly 100 percent of the tumor cells intact.
This is not some extreme version of the relevant compound - the authors found that "EGCG blocked bortezomib’s antitumor effects at levels that are commonly achieved with the use of available concentrated green tea supplements (as low as 2.5 μM – which can be attained with two to three 250 mg capsules of green tea extract)."

Of course, this hardly means that everyone should stop drinking green tea. In fact, that would be silly (unless you are taking Velcade, and then you should probably check with your doctor pronto). But it does provide convincing evidence regarding something that has been worrying the mainstream medical community for some years: natural products may be safe, especially in isolation, but they are still chemicals [before reading this post, did you know that green tea contained EGCG polyphenol?] and are likely to interact with other chemicals in unknown ways.

Just because it's natural doesn't mean it's safe.

Cross posted at Open Salon

28 January 2009

Make more. Consume less.

Douglas Coupland has an op-ed in today's New York Times in which he asks the question,
"What if we actually do spend 10 percent less this year — and then decide to stay at that level? Is that healthy?"
The answer is actually quite simple: Yes.

The root source of the problems afflicting our world is too much consumption. The historian Andrew Bacevich has a rather clear-eyed perspective on the issue. From his interview with Bill Moyers:
"Sometime around the 1960s there was a tipping point, when the "empire of production" began to become the "empire of consumption." When the cars started to be produced elsewhere, and the television sets, and the socks, and everything else. And what we ended up with was the American people becoming consumers rather than producers."
Bacevich links the consumer issue to a host of troubles afflicting the United States, and he is arguably correct in his analysis. But, like the financial crisis, the malaise has spread to much of the developed world, and in the modern day, is infecting the developing world as well. On a planet with 6.7 billion humans (and counting), consumption at this level is unsustainable.

The dilemma that we face is how to unwind society to a lower consumption state. It seems that no one has a satisfactory answer. James Howard Kunstler tells us (again and again) that "the party is over". Andrew Bacevich thinks we should save money by drastically retrenching our military, turning it into a more modest defense force rather than an expensive and ungainly worldwide police force. And while our newly installed President Obama (how good it feels to say that!!) mentions that there will be communal sacrifice in the weeks and months ahead, the 'stimulus package' is designed to, well, stimulate us to spend. As a short term remedy, this might be a way to ease some of the pain, but as a long term solution, it solves nothing.

The challenge is that we are hooked on this drug called consumption. It is not so much that we want stuff, but rather that we want what others have. It is an old saw of behavioral economics that we measure our wealth not by what we have in absolute terms, but what we have relative to others. The theory is based mostly on making more money not less, but there are a raft of studies on the neurobiology of reward that suggest it should work in the other direction just as well. Once we adjust to the new reality, we should be as content tomorrow as we were yesterday. It is only the transition that is problematic.

Cross Posted at Open Salon

24 January 2009

A cup of tea

From Fiona Robyn's A Small Stone:

"Made-for-you tea always tastes much nicer."

Who could disagree?

27 December 2008

Steady State Economics & GDP

Adbusters have named Herbert Daly as their Person of the Year. Daly has long been champion of the notion of the steady state economy. A former Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank, Daly is currently Professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Daly is no slouch: he has been awarded the Right Livelihood Award and the Heineken Prize for Environmental Science, the Sophie Prize, and the Leontief Prize.

Daly's ideas are nicely summarized in the Adbusters article, Towards a Steady-State Economy: (originally posted at the Oil Drum)
The closer the economy approaches the scale of the whole Earth, the more it will have to conform to the physical behavior mode of the Earth. That behavior mode is a steady state – a system that permits qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth. Growth is more of the same stuff; development is the same amount of better stuff.

Clearly the economy must conform to the rules of a steady state – seek qualitative development, but stop aggregate quantitative growth. GDP increase conflates these two very different things.
Quality not quantity. What a novel idea. Or perhaps not so novel after all. Forty years ago, in his first campaign speech, Robert F. Kennedy put forward prescient comments on the Gross National Product. The video below is but two minutes and eleven seconds long. A good investment of time.

The video was produced by the Glaser Progress Foundation. If you want to dig deeper into ways in which we might better measure progress, their website has quite a good resource library. You might also want to peek here and here and here.

Cross Posted at Open Salon