An Ode to the Humble Lac Bug

This bug has transformed the world.

The vast majority of us couldn’t identify a lac bug if our life depended on it. And yet, not a day goes by in which you haven’t benefited from this bug’s mere existence. Even though odds are high that you’ve never crossed paths with even one of these critters, you probably swallow or touch lac bug secretions thousands of times each year.

Admit it. You had no idea, did you? I certainly didn’t, until an offhand comment sent me through a twisty maze of research, and at the end of this maze sat the humble lac bug. Specifically, the female lac bug, minding her own business, carrying on with her brief and buggy little life.

So we embark upon this winding avenue of inquiry by gazing at a bug no bigger than a watermelon seed. I know this is probably not your favorite thing to look at, but you’ll thank me someday when you emerge, triumphant, from your local bar, just having won something mildly satisfying on trivia night. You’re welcome. Please consider using the proceeds to purchase my book, Notes on Gratitude. ( Shameless self-promotion.)

The impetus for this adventure was my offhand comment that I intended to weatherproof a piece of wood by coating it in shellac. Actually, as most people do these days, I was really going to use polyurethane, but for some reason, my brain came up with the much more ancient, traditional, and natural product that I doubt I’ve ever had the opportunity to use myself. (Besides, shellac works much better as an indoor resin, so it wouldn’t have been appropriate for my purposes.)

From there, Dear Husband told me that shellac came from the shell of the lac bug. This was news to me. (And proved to be false. Sorry, hon.)

Lac bugs secrete a substance that we turn into shellac, the only known commercial resin of animal origin. It’s a renewable resource. It’s considered a natural form of plastic. We have been using it for at least 3,000 years.

Europe first learned of lac and its many uses thanks to the travels of Marco Polo in the late 13th century. They must have been gob smacked. All that, from a bug?

You’ve probably heard of shellac being used on fine furniture and stringed instruments as a wood finish/primer/stain/high-gloss varnish. In fact, in the 16th-century a craftsman who could apply shellac well was called a varnisher, and this was considered a trade all its own.

But shellac is even more versatile than that. For about 40 years, it was mainly used to make records. Unfortunately, these records were very fragile. Therefore, in the 1950’s they started making records from vinyl. (There’s a scene from 1946 in It’s A Wonderful Life in which Donna Reed smashes a record. That was shellac, not vinyl as the YouTube link erroneously claims. You can’t smash vinyl like that.)

Shellac has also been used as a dye, particularly on cotton and silks, and as an artist’s pigment as well as a protective coating on paintings. Its color ranges from yellow to orange to a rich reddish ochre.

Before modern advances in plastics, shellac was molded into picture frames, boxes, jewelry, and dentures. Shellac mixed with a specific type of synthetic resin produces Bakelite, and at the risk of dating myself, that substance made things seem very colorful and modern when I was a child, but now those same things look incredibly quaint.

For many years, shellac was used by archeologists as a coating to stabilize the bones of dinosaurs, but it’s an organic substance, so modern conservators no longer use it for fear it will have a negative effect on fossils in the long term.

But probably the most surprising thing about shellac, at least for me, is that it is edible. Now, don’t get too excited. Many shellac products are most definitely not edible.

You would be ill-advised to take a can of shellac off your hardware store shelf and chug it down, for example. To make shellac usable for the maximum amount of time, things are added that would be quite dangerous for you to consume. In a nutshell: Don’t do it. Even the edible kind of lac products are toxic to humans if eaten in large quantities.

Having said that, I feel obligated to mention that to this day, shellac is used as a coating on pills and candies. If you take any type of timed release pills, you’re most likely consuming shellac. Shellac is what makes jellybeans shiny. It’s also used on candy corn, Milk Duds, Goobers and Raisinets, Junior Mints and Sugar Babies. It was used in Skittles, but they went bug-free and vegetarian in 2009.  It’s also used on citrus and apples to make them shiny and prolong their shelf life. It’s nearly impossible for most of us to avoid consuming shellac, and knowing that means I’ll never look at the world in the same way again.

Shellac is also used to make biodegradable plastic bags, shoe polish, hair spray, nail polish, floor wax, grinding stones, adhesives for fishing flies, and it’s a binder in India ink. It makes felt hats stiffer and more water resistant. There’s even an ancient Vedic book that claims that an entire palace was once made from its resin. (Oh, for a Wayback Machine!)

Veterinarians used to mix lac with lard and use the paste to fill cavities in broken horse hooves. In addition, shellac is an ingredient in blue and green fireworks. Ironically, it’s also used for mounting insects.

So, how is shellac made? I encourage you to check out this fascinating YouTube video. It’s a bit slow to start, but then it gets really interesting. It even shows people stretching shellac into transparent sheets as big as a man. Once those sheets dry, they’re broken into shards for bulk sale. You’ll also see men pulling shellac like 20 foot stretches of taffy.

(The above mentioned video kind of reminded me of those “how do they make stuff” videos that you’d see while watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers fed my inner nerd. If his travel budget had been bigger, I can imagine him going to India and wandering through this shellac factory, gently asking all the questions you wish you could ask.)

Nature does most of the dirty work in the shellac production process. Basically, the life cycle of your average female lac bug is about 6 months. They feed on the sap of certain trees, mainly found in India and Thailand. They swarm to these trees by the thousands, eat the sap, lay eggs, and secrete lac, which dries as a hard substance that protects their larvae.

During this process, a single lac bug can lay 300-1,000 eggs. Unfortunately, this same lac secretion eventually encases the mature bug as well, and ultimately they die. At a certain point, the young will break through the crust and the cycle begins all over again. (And now I’m singing The Circle of Life.)

The trees are pruned twice a year, and the lac is broken off the pruned branches. It is then ground up, melted, and sifted to remove the dead bug bits and any other debris. While it does take about 100,000 lac bugs to make a pound of shellac resin, no live bugs are intentionally harmed by humans to make shellac, so PETA can calm down.

Lac bugs do have natural predators, which means approximately 40 percent of these bugs don’t get to fulfill their mission. These enemies include monkeys, squirrels, rats, lizards and birds, as well as a host of parasites.

One of the most endearing stories about lac bugs that I came across is that they are responsible for raising more than 900 households in Vietnam from poverty. Lac harvesting had been a traditional occupation for their ancestors, who used to sell the lac to the Soviet Union. But after the Soviet bloc broke up, the industry collapsed, the trees were chopped down for firewood, and the resulting fields were used to cultivate other crops that were much less financially rewarding. A Vietnamese initiative to restore the lac industry has been a huge success, and it has radically improved many human lives. Thanks, lac bugs!

Even though the use of shellac is on the wane now that we have synthetic resin compounds, it’s safe to say that the humble little lac bug has transformed the world, and continues to have a significant influence on it to this very day.

Lac bugs should really learn how to brag. We’d be lost without them. Who knew?

Additional Sources:

Mid-Month Marvels: PeaceTrees Vietnam

This organization was born out of grief, as many profound things often are.

A recurring theme in this blog is the celebration of people and/or organizations that have a positive impact on their communities. What they do is not easy, but it’s inspirational, and we don’t hear enough about them. So I’ve decided to commit to singing their praises at least once a month. I’m calling it Mid-Month Marvels. If you have any suggestions for the focus of this monthly spotlight, let me know in the comments below!

I first learned of PeaceTrees Vietnam because my Unitarian Universalist church donates the proceeds from its collection plate once a month to various charities, and this was the charity in question for January. It’s a Seattle based nonprofit, and it just so happens that an article about it had come out in The Seattle Times that very day as well.

This organization was born out of grief, as many profound things often are. Jerilyn Brusseau, the founder, lost her brother, Dan Cheney, when his helicopter was shot down during the Vietnam War. She knew that her grief was also the grief of countless other families, both in America and Vietnam. Healing was needed. She imagined both groups coming together to turn battlefields into places where new trees would be planted.

Fast forward to 1995, when the United States resumed full diplomatic relationships with Vietnam. That’s when this organization was finally able to take flight, both literally and figuratively. Much traveling ensued to make the necessary connections. The plan had expanded by then, because there is so much unexploded ordinance from the war that nothing could be peacefully planted on these former battlefields, let alone trees.

According to The Seattle Times article mentioned above, the US has dropped three times more bombs on Vietnam than they had on both fighting theaters in World War II. The heaviest bombing occurred in Quang Tri province, which is PeaceTrees Vietnam’s focal point. Only 11 of the 3,500 villages in this province escaped the bombing. The failure rate for these cluster bombs, shells, landmines and grenades was so significant that it’s estimated that 800,000 tons of unexploded bombs were left behind in the country, and to this day they still take out innocent children and farmers who are simply trying to survive to a shocking degree. There is much work to be done.

For the past 25 years, PeaceTrees Vietnam has been doing that work. They sponsored munitions experts to train landmine clearing teams. They educated children and families about avoiding bombs. They opened a landmine education center for children.

As the land began to become habitable again, PeaceTrees began building homes, kindergartens, libraries and community centers. They also have a scholarship program, and in addition they teach farmers how to grow black pepper in the now farmable fields.

I am very intrigued by the citizen diplomacy trips they hold each year. They allow you to travel to Vietnam and meet the people, visit the schools, watch the demining in action, and plant trees. There’s also time for tourism in the large cities. I’d love to take that trip someday. I think it would allow me to see the country in more depth than a simple tourist jaunt would.

The work must continue. Just recently, after some major flooding and the accompanying landslides, seven 500-pound bombs were exposed and had to be dealt with. Only 20% of the land has been cleared.

To learn how you can help support this organization in its noble efforts, please visit their website here. And since you’ve taken the time to read this far, perhaps take a moment to look about you and appreciate the fact that you can most likely walk anywhere in your area without worry about being blown to pieces. It must be terrifying not to have that sense of confidence. People in Vietnam are sometimes blown up while working in their backyard gardens. Next time I’m harvesting my garlic I vow to remember just how lucky I am.

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The Fantasy of White America

Que sera sera. For some.

If you want to know why so many white Americans want to Make America Great Again, all you have to do is look to Hollywood in the 1950’s and 60’s. Whether it’s Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera, or Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore singing Carolina in the Morning or pretty much every song from The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, or Thoroughly Modern Millie, we could easily believe that we lived in a world where everyone was slim and beautiful and joyful and ultimately safe.

We could be assured that all endings would be happy ones and that everyone was living the American Dream, even those outside of America. Based on this footage, it was a time when no one had to lock their doors, when everyone dressed well, children were relatively respectful, there was no crime, and no one ever had a single hair out of place.

Ah, nostalgia, with its rose-colored glasses.

Lest we forget, the 1950’s was the era of Jim Crow. It was a time when people were violently resisting desegregation. Rosa Parks had to remind us that she had as much right to sit in the front of the bus as anyone else. Polio was a thing. It was also the Cold War era, and a time when paranoia had us seeing communists in every nook and cranny. Children were taught to hide under their desks. People were building fallout shelters in their back yards.

The 1960’s brought us the war in Vietnam and the subsequent protests thereof. It brought assassinations galore. We had the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs and Stonewall. Civil Rights protests became even more radical and dangerous. Birth control was pretty much nonexistent. The vast majority of women did not have higher education or employment.

My point is that it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops for the most of the population. There was poverty. There was domestic violence and substance abuse. There was discrimination.

Rest assured that this great America that so many seem to long for was only great for a privileged few, and to hell with the rest of us. What they long for is a time where they could keep their heads in the clouds and their high heels and polished shoes on our necks. They want to wear their pillbox hats and their pearls and their searsucker while we do the grit labor, keep our mouths shut, and know our place.

MAGA is a fantasy that cannot now, and in fact never did, exist. It’s a desire not to have to care about anyone but themselves. It’s a way to remain angry and discontent with the present. It’s a perpetual It’s-Not-Fair tantrum.

Unfortunately for them, the rest of America has grown up, and we’re not willing to play along anymore. Que sera sera.

Doris Day 111

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It Is NOT a Small World

Isn’t that exciting?

For those of you who think it’s a small word after all, first of all, sorry for the earworm. But I also have two words for you: Atlas Obscura. It’s an online travel magazine that allows users to catalog unique and curious places all over the world. They also have published a best selling book about these places, and they lead fascinating, unique trips for small groups. I’d love to work for these people.

If I’m ever feeling bored and uninspired, I go to their website and click on their “random place” button. It never fails to entertain me. Here are a few random places I’ve read about on this amazing site:

  • One word: ShangriLlama. It’s a replica of an Irish castle that is actually home to a herd of llamas that you can interact with. It’s located in (where else?) Texas.

  • In Ajijic, Mexico, there is a primary school that is covered in about 1000 clay skulls, each one labeled with the name of someone who has died in town. It’s called The Wall of the Dead, and toward the end of October, each skull is lit from the inside with a candle.

  • The 100 Roofs Café in Dalat, Vietnam is a labyrinth of tunnels, stairs to nowhere, strange sculptures, gardens, and amazing views. To explore this magical place, simply buy one drink at the bar.

  • You can visit Marlene, a 40-foot-long whale that is one of very few taxidermy whales that sport its original skin, at a museum in Fribourg, Switzerland. For free.

  • In Chamarel, Mauritius, you can visit a group of rainbow colored sand dunes called the Seven Coloured Earths. They range from red to brown to violet to green to blue to purple and yellow. They sure look stunning in photographs.

  • You can bask in some hot springs atop an active volcano on Deception Island. That is, as long as you’re willing to travel via icebreaker from mainland Antartica.

No, this isn’t a small world. It’s a huge world full of complex variations. We all have different ways of living, different histories, different landscapes and different cultures. Isn’t that exciting? I wish I had more time to travel, but at least I can do so vicariously through Atlas Obscura.

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The Seven Coloured Earths

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Fire Drill Fridays

Convictions put into action. Admirable.

I think the first time it really dawned on me that otherwise perfectly reasonable (to my mind) people had extremely different worldviews than I did was when I was 22 and working at a video rental store.

A customer asked me if we had the movie Electric Horseman. I had to ask my boss. She said, with tight lips, that they didn’t carry any Jane Fonda movies. I thought, “Why not? I love her movies.”

I had no idea about her visit to Hanoi, or even what that meant, really, because I was 10 years old when Saigon fell. The Vietnam war was a very confusing, very distant blip on my radar as a child, so one woman’s visit there, and the controversy it stirred up, was something I only learned about later in life.

I’d like to think, though, that if I had been an adult at the time, I’d have been protesting the war, too. Would I have gone about it the way she did? No. Even she admits she has regrets about that now. But I genuinely believe that her intentions were good, and that the mostly debunked rumors surrounding her actions have gotten things so twisted that the truth will never be known.

Love her or hate her, you have to admit that Jane Fonda has lived her beliefs her whole life. She has been an anti-war, pro-feminist, environmental activist, and worked tirelessly for those causes for as long as I have drawn breath.

I really can’t understand people who are against these causes, but I’d at least respect their integrity if they were as devoted and outspoken as Fonda has been. Anyone who puts their convictions into action, and tries so hard to do what they feel is right, is pretty darned impressive. More power to them.

As you read this, Jane Fonda is most likely getting arrested for the 5th Friday in a row as part of her Fire Drill Friday protests for environmental change. She intends to do this every single Friday through January, and actually moved to Washington DC to do these protests on Capitol Hill, to raise awareness in our politicians about the climate emergency we are now in.

As polarizing as she may be, I stand with Jane Fonda in her efforts, and hope you will as well. The health of this planet and all its inhabitants are at stake. There should be no controversy in that.

First Fire Drill Friday in Washington DC

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Walking Between Cultures

One of the things I love most about the virtual world of Second Life is that you get to meet people from all over the world. One friend, C.N., is a young man who is an amazingly talented artist from Vietnam. I met him just as he was finishing his secondary education and applying to universities abroad. I remember how exciting that time is. You have a world of opportunities in front of you. You can go so many different directions. There so many possibilities.

I was even more intrigued because his experience must be all the more heightened as he was going from one cultural extreme to another. What does that feel like? How does it impact you?

He just successfully completed year one and is back home on holiday, so I asked him to talk a little bit about his experiences. What follows is what he was kind enough to share. Thanks C.N.!

My first year in UK has just passed – I feel like it was just one week – with a lot of enjoyable experiences.

Though the university had got seven Vietnamese students before me, many people told me that I was the first Vietnamese they had ever met, after constantly mistaking me for a Chinese. I can say that I have busted a lot of misconceptions – very funny ones – that British people hold about Vietnam. Many of those who are old enough to have lived the period of the two wars in my country thought that we spoke French as the primary language instead of a unique mother tongue. When they learnt that we have our own language, Vietnamese, they asked me if its pronunciation and alphabet are similar to Chinese or Mandarin, and were pretty surprised by the big difference.

Before I left for England, all that I have heard about British people had been their posh manner. My parents – not sure from whom they got the idea – kept warning me about being bullied and discriminated by native students. They were also very worried that I would become tight–fisted and ‘starving in a sense’ as a result of being discouraged by the extremely expensive cost of living, which is also a common misconception in Vietnam and which had almost made my parents reconsider letting me go to England.

All those misconceptions seem to originate from different people’s experience in big cities like London. I myself went to London once, and I must say I didn’t enjoy it. Not only prices are costly; a smile is also something people cannot give for free. The atmosphere of the small city where I stayed is just the opposite. The people there are very friendly and adorable, which immediately made me feel at home. I’ve got to know many local people – here everyone knows everyone! – who very often invited me over for meals. I experienced the same friendliness on campus; one of my loveliest memories is getting yelled at by a professor for addressing him too formally.

After all, there’s no big difference between the lives I had amongst the small communities in UK and in my country, since – you know what they say – the people make the places!

tomato

[Image credit: volunteercard.com]

Jeannette Rankin: A Woman Who Stood Alone

Recently I watched a program about the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and in it they mentioned in passing that after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt went to congress to ask them to declare war on Japan and there was only one vote against it. Think about that for a minute. That had to take guts. We all remember how much patriotic pressure there was after 9/11. Most of us alive today can only imagine how intense it was after Pearl Harbor.

The resolution passed the Senate 82-0, and in Congress it passed 388-1. Who would have the courage to stand up against 470 of his fellow politicians and overwhelming public sentiment, and say, rightly or wrongly, on public record for all eternity, “I disagree”? There was hissing in the gallery when that vote was cast, and an angry mob pursued the voter after the fact. I had to find out more about this person.

And what an interesting person she turned out to be. Yes, she. Jeannette Rankin, a Montana Republican, was the first woman ever elected to the United States Congress, and ironically this occurred in 1917, when not all women in this country had the right to vote. She was for women’s suffrage, of course, and against child labor, and a devout pacifist her entire life. She voted against the war in Germany in World War I, and she led 5,000 marchers to Washington to protest the war in Vietnam. When she cast that single dissenting vote during World War II, she said, “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”

She also never married, despite many proposals, and she was highly educated. Those were two things that were extremely rare for her generation. Her first degree was in biology, and science is a field that is still underrepresented by women to this day, so you you can imagine what a good ol’ boy network it must have been in 1902.

Jeannette Rankin was a woman who bucked the tide. I never thought I’d say this about a Republican, especially a Republican woman, but I have nothing but admiration for the life she led. If you’d like to learn more about her, start here.

Jeannette

Countries are Artificial Constructs

One of my friends applied for a high level federal job many years ago and put me down as a personal reference. Some guy in a suit showed up at my door to interview me about her, and one of his questions was, “Is she a good American?”

That made me blink. Uh, what does that mean, exactly? I suppose one could agree that the Unibomber was not a good American, but did that turn him into a good something else?

I’ve always found it rather absurd to judge people based on the nationalities that are placed on their shoulders simply by virtue of birth. Cultures know no borders, and I’ve yet to meet a single human being who agrees completely with the actions of his or her government.

That’s why I can’t get worked up about immigration or buying American. What makes me so special? I’m only a second generation American myself. Why do I have more of a right to be here than anyone else? And why is it better to support a hard working American who is producing a product so much better than supporting a hard working person from Bangladesh? Do they not have families to support as well? I suppose the fact that I have traveled has given me more of a global perspective.

In many places, national boundaries run right down the center of city streets. How different are you from the person who lives just across the way? Are you more different from them than from the person who lives right next door?

In Istanbul you can walk from Europe to Asia and still be in Istanbul. What does that mean to the people who do that every single day? Do the Istanbullu-Europeans distinguish themselves from the Istanbullu-Asians?

When the Berlin Wall was constructed, we considered this barbaric, and watched as people desperately tried to escape their confines. Prisoners, too, do not want to be where they are. What does that make them? Some countries have border disputes with their neighboring countries. What does that do to the mindset of the people who are living in those disputed areas?

In Saudi Arabia the crowds must applaud at public beheadings. Can we really believe that not a single person in that crowd is not inwardly horrified, inwardly too terrified not to applaud? Are those people less or more Saudi than the guy who did the beheading, or for that matter, from the person being beheaded?

In many areas of the world groups of people wish to break away from the country of which they are a part, but are not allowed to, usually because the real estate in question or the industries are too valuable. It’s not that those countries necessarily want to keep those people who don’t want to be there. But they want those property values and that gross national product.

When children in Iran are made to chant “Death to America”, they are quite often as disaffected as their counterparts in America who are required to say the pledge of allegiance every morning at school. They are just going through the motions to make it through the school day. At least that was the case with me. I didn’t feel a surge of patriotism during my chant. If anything, that forced chant about the death of total strangers probably has the opposite effect. It does not make them hate us. It makes them sick and tired of all the stupidity.

If someone in a democracy stages a protest, are they not being even more democratic and therefore more patriotic than the person who sits idly by and doesn’t question anything?

In many parts of Asia, cohesive tribes exist that straddle borders. The Hmong people live primarily in China, Vietnam and Laos. Do they relate more to the people of their own country, or to fellow Hmong from other countries?

We tend to think of the Aborigines in Australia as one cohesive group, but they actually consist of more than 400 groups, each with its own culture and language. Still, I’m sure they feel more like each other than they do those descendants of criminals which seem to have moved in, from their perspective, just yesterday.

If you know you are gay and your country decides that that is a crime, do you feel less of a citizen, or do you just have less respect for those who are in charge of your country?

When China stole Tibet from its people, the Tibetans did not wake up the next day feeling Chinese, and I’m sure they still don’t.

We all have more in common with each other than we do with our governments. We live, we laugh, we love, we struggle to survive, we take care of our families. Politicians, governments, walls, and checkpoints do not define who we are. The more we all realize that, the less we will feel the need to wage war.

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Environmental Meddling

Anyone who lives in the Southeastern United States is familiar with kudzu. This amazingly insidious vine was introduced to this country by the Japanese at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and since then, according to Wikipedia, it’s been spreading at the rate of 150,000 acres annually, which seems really intimidating until you realize that that’s roughly equivalent to the amount of rain forest that’s chopped down every day.

A great deal of time and money is spent attempting to keep the kudzu invasion in check, and nothing seems to work. It has been known to suffocate acres of trees, pull down power lines, and crush abandoned houses under the sheer weight of its proliferation.

Like it or not, we need to accept the fact that kudzu is here to stay. And since that’s the case, we should try to turn this negative into a positive. Most Americans would be surprised to know that kudzu is edible. It’s a great source of starch and is eaten regularly in Vietnam and Japan and other parts of Asia. It also makes great grazing fodder. Goats, in particular, love it. The vines can be used in basket weaving, and its fiber can be made into cloth and paper. Some people use it to treat migraines, tinnitus, vertigo, and hangovers.

In light of this, I say, why not let kudzu run rampant? Help feed and clothe those in need, and reduce the cost of feeding grazing animals. Even better, if we really let it take over, think of the time we’d regain by never having to maintain our lawns again. Each time we fertilize our lawns, more harmful nutrients are entering our water table, causing algae blooms in our rivers and doing untold amounts of damage to the environment. Kudzu is the perfect solution for that. All we’d have to do is cut new holes where our doors and windows should be every few weeks, and voila! No fertilizing, no other yard work.

We wouldn’t ever have to paint our houses, because no one would be able to see them. Also, as our ozone depletes, skin cancer is on the rise. Kudzu would greatly reduce this problem because it’s an excellent source of shade. In fact, if given half the chance, kudzu would ensure that we never see the sun again.

I also have a theory that if we introduced kudzu to the moon and mars, they’d both be lush and green and producing oxygen within a year. All thanks to a pretty little plant that never should have been here in the first place.

We humans are just sooooo good at fiddling with the planet. Why not go for it? What’s the worst that could happen?

kudzu

Yes, that’s a house.

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Kudzu gone wild. Every Southerner in the US has seen this somewhere at least once in their lives.

Solving the Rhino Horn Problem

Well, it’s official. Mozambique has no more Rhinos. The last one was poached this month. I wonder if the poachers in question knew that they were making this type of history before carrying out their evil deed. I wonder if their greed felt satisfied, if they were able to check this accomplishment off their bucket list. Will they brag about this to their children?

I think there is a special place in hell for the person (most likely in Vietnam, where the market is the greatest by far) who spent more money than one would spend by weight on gold or cocaine to consume the horn in question in order to cure his hangover. I’m sure the selfishness and arrogance spills over into other parts of these peoples’ lives and that can only presage their eventual downfall. The thinking must be, “I want to spend a fortune to drink something that’s the powdered equivalent of my very own toenails so that people will think I’m special. To hell with the fact that it spells the destruction of an entire species.” Can this type of ignorance really persist? Does the nation of Vietnam not feel the shame? It’s too late for Mozambique, but as long as there’s a rhinoceros left in the world, we must take action to protect it.

The first step has to be education. People must be taught that the keratin in rhino horns can also be found in hair and fingernails. Personally, I’d feel like a fool consuming this substance. It must also be taught that there is NO scientific evidence that rhino horn cures ANYTHING. But there is proof that it destroys the rhinos. If there’s increased education, the demand will decrease and the price will go down, and then the poachers will not find it profitable to slaughter an animal that has done absolutely nothing to deserve it.

I envision public service announcements on televisions throughout Vietnam, and going viral on the internet. A bunch of hip, upper class Vietnamese professionals at a party where the alcohol is flowing. Suddenly one takes off his shoe and starts chewing his toenails. “This is what you’re really doing when you consume rhino horn,” the announcer says. Then cut to a bloody dead rhino carcass. “This is also what you’re doing.” “Don’t you feel like a fool?” “The best cure for a hangover is to not get so f***ing drunk.” Once these videos go viral, and the lower classes, who can’t afford rhino horn to begin with, begin laughing at the stupid, selfish rich people rather than envying them, the market will collapse.

But I have another solution for the Rhino horn problem. People have been talking about domestically raising rhinos and harvesting their horns, but I have a mental image of rhinos trapped in cages their whole lives for no good reason, and then destroyed when they’ve outlived their horn producing usefulness. No. The solution to this problem is stem cells.

We have shown that with human T-cells we can produce various organs and body parts such as ears, and even heart cells that actually beat in the petri dish, so why not get rhino T-cells and produce horns? This would yield several positive results:

  • It would flood the market with rhino horn, thus reducing the price, and that would make the product much less “cool” because anyone could get it.
  • The reduced prices would make it less worth it for poachers to break the law and kill the rhinos.
  • Scientists would get more practice working with stem cells, and learn more about them in the process. stem cells have always been a morally charged avenue of experimentation, so maybe we can educate ourselves by using non-human ones first.
  • Rhinos could keep the horns that they were born to have. They are, after all, the only ones with a right to them in the first place.

The selfishness and stupidity of the human race knows no bounds. But that can change if we want it to.

The following image comes from a blog that I highly recommend: http://fightforrhinos.wordpress.com/

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