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ESG Bites - Week of 10/13/23
On Dogs and Rolling Coal
I had two longer pieces I have been working on that have sucked up far too many hours of my time recently. Putting the final touches on them was a project for the past few weeks but… things happened. Both pieces involved, as a central component, metaphors of:
A giant bomb in your backyard, and
A firing squad
Given the recent sickening horrors of terrorism and urban violence that cropped up this week, those two are going on the back burner for a little bit.
On a personal note, been a strange couple of weeks here. We lost our dog two weeks ago, so bear with me here. I’m going to try something different.
An Ode To Dogs
On a purely scientific level, the most fascinating thing about dogs is their genome. We don’t need a validated Genetic Database to realize this. The Teacup Chihuahua and Irish Wolf Setter are the same species, after all. The wide range of physical and temperamental characteristics seen among domesticated dogs, from fur type, size, head shape, and behavioral quirks (looking at you, herding dogs) is bewildering, considering you can theoretically mate any two dogs and come up with an offspring that picks up characteristics from both parents.
This genetic variation can be best visualized in the number of small nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)1 seen throughout dog DNA. These are single nucleotide differences between a dog’s two matching chromosomes. Think of a single swap between AT/GC “code” at the same point in a gene. The Dog Genome Project was close to completion at the time I was getting my college degree in Molecular Biology in the mid-aughts. And while I may have forgotten most of the classwork and research assistant knowledge I picked up, these dog genome studies were all the rage at the time. I would likely embarrass myself if I tried to pontificate on the topic anymore, but the take-home lesson is that the incidence of variant SNPs between dog populations (breeds) is 27.5%, whereas disparate human populations across the globe have only a 5.4% variation in SNPs.
Even more striking is the genetic changes you see within just a few generations of selective breeding. Offspring of dogs just two or three generations out can present wildly different appearances and personalities between close relatives, to the point of non-recognition. The exact functional cause of this, the malleability of the species, isn’t still fully understood2, but the existence of unique, canine-specifc short interspersed elements (SINEs) probably has a lot to do with it3. These non-coding DNA sequences don’t hold the code for expressing genes like growth factors or liver enzymes, rather, they act as randomizers of sorts. During cell replication and gene expression, SINEs will self-replicate and do funky stuff to cellular activity, but they’ll also “hop” around the genome and relocate themselves to a new place. This can turn gene functions off and on or can just amplify or dampen expression. For example, a SINE that plants itself near the insulin-like growth factor-1 gene (IGF1) may make it so that the dog’s progeny don’t express as much IGF1 and are, as a result, much smaller dogs.
Perhaps this is a strange way to start out a post about my recently passed pet, but our relationship with dogs has as much to do with these genetic quirks as they do with any other ecological or socioeconomic reason. Dogs didn’t just become “man’s best friend” by accident. Dogs are adaptable. They’ve moved across the globe with us, from deserts to forests to frozen tundra. With the encouragement of selective breeding, they gained traits that optimized their survival and also provided us with work; digging up potatoes, hunting, protection, and herding.
In exchange for their labor and protection, we gave them safety in numbers, food, and perhaps most importantly, companionship.
We got Fiona at the age of eight weeks. Plus or minus a few weeks. She was one of two puppies dropped off in an overnight box at the Dumb Friends League. Likely the unwanted product of an amateur designer dog breeder, she was half miniature poodle and half miniature schnauzer. Probably. A tiny little jet-black thing with a bright white spot on her chest. Her tail was broken in two places, a zig-zag that was barely noticeable to the eye, but obvious to the touch. She was immediately both timid and assertive. Apprehensive to the unknown, but vocal when she didn’t like something, like a much larger dog getting too much in her business.
She quickly grew up into a perfect blend of the two breeds: the long legs and snooty stance of a poodle, sporting the beard and face of a schnauzer. She honestly didn’t change all that much during the twelve years we had her in our lives. She didn’t have a bad puppy phase. Fiona mostly loved laying around the house, but even a week or two before she passed, she was still sprinting through the yard when the mood struck her. She still barked at would-be intruders like she was cosplaying as a junkyard rottweiler.
Some dogs are your only companion for years, and you develop a best-friend relationship with them. Fiona didn’t have that luxury, as we had our first human child right around when she turned one. Fiona, like other dogs, always malleable, helped us become the best first-time parents we could be. Our eldest grew up alongside Fiona. Our daughter would pull Fiona’s hair, use her as a pillow, a napkin, and a table. When our daughter was first learning to walk, she’d pull herself up to her feet, using all 19 pounds of Fiona as support, and practice walking with Fiona as her guide.
Fiona taught our daughter respect for animals and the healing ability of snuggles, but perhaps most importantly: Fiona taught me and my wife patience. Kids are wildly unpredictable, challenging, and emotionally draining. Fiona was our rock in many ways; she showed us that the hair-pulling, the screaming, the terrible twos weren’t really all that much of a bother in the grand scheme of things. Companionship and being part of a pack was all that really mattered. And if our toddler was being that much of a pain: Fiona showed us that it’s always ok to say “nah, I don’t like that!” and walk away for a few minutes.
Fiona was, as most dogs are, a fixture of the household. She was included in family pictures, came with us on vacation, and was always there. With kids, dogs kind of move to the background; it’s almost inevitable. But that’s the great thing about them. If there is someone around (and at our house there always is) they’re as happy as can be. She liked walks, eating, sleeping on laundry right out of the dryer, and hanging out on the back patio on cool evenings. You know it’s impossible, but it feels like they’ll always be there.
Fiona died of renal failure. One of the genetic quirks of certain breeds, particularly Schnauzers, is kidney disease. The kidneys will slowly degrade over time. But as long as enough function remains, the dog will act and feel normally. Once an inflection point in kidney damage is crossed, function degrades rapidly, followed by a relatively quick but still painful death.
We didn’t have to deal with a long, drawn-out “should we let her go?’ ordeal with Fiona. She was fine until she wasn’t. Her hearing was going a little bit, and she slept more throughout the day in her later years, but absent that one genetic anomaly, a fatal side effect of the remarkable genetic malleability of Canis familiaris’ genome, she absolutely had a few more years left in the tank.
All we could do at the end is tell her “thank you.” That last day of her life, she didn’t have any pep or energy for anything more than a single tail wag. I could see in her eyes that she was done. Part of me still thinks she *really* knew what I meant when I thanked her. I just remember tightly clasping her tail, the broken lighting bolt-shaped thing, as I carried her to the vet for her final departure.
I think some people look at dogs and see them as humans. Or perhaps as a reflection of their own humanity. I don’t think that’s right. Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs. But it’s their non-humanness that makes them special. Living with dogs is a connection to the wild world. Dogs, adaptable creatures that they are, cohabit with us in our densely populated world well. But let any dog off their leash on an open beach, a dewy meadow, or a fresh blanket of new snow, and their inner wildness comes to life. If we watch them, they remind us that our humanity and the outdoors, especially the wildest places, locations that are most disconnected from human development and interference, are where we are most free.
I’ll miss her.
DOJ sues eBay for selling ‘rolling coal’ devices
Honestly, I hadn’t been keeping up with some of the more non-tradtional EPA enforcement actions, so this one took me by surprise.
Rolling coal is the practice of installing a tampering device to pump more diesel into a vehicle’s engine than it can handle, leading it to spew out sooty black clouds of exhaust that pollute the air.
The practice is sometimes used as a form of anti-environmental protest. Coal rollers, or the drivers who engage in the action, may intentionally target Teslas, Priuses or other electric or hybrid vehicles.
The Department of Justice, on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, filed a lawsuit claiming that the e-commerce giant enabled the sale of more than 343,000 rolling coal devices. Each sale could spur a fine of up to $5,580 under the Clean Air Act.
In a post-Dieselgate world, this shouldn’t be surprising. But it somehow is? The absolutely insane practice of blasting out uncombusted rich diesel emissions from pickup trucks is a cultural phenomenon I can’t understand. But, on an emissions basis, it’s undeniably bad. Just a few miles of “rolling coal” will emit more PM10 and 2.5 emissions than tens of thousands of miles of driving your cool pickup truck as God intended: in compliance with the factory turning for maximum performance and durability!
I have seen some hand-wringing that individuals should be responsible for their own bad acts. And I’m actually generally fine with that outlook. We sell people nasty chemicals all the time in hardware stores. Manufacturers can’t be responsible for end use if someone dumps a bunch of pollutants down a storm drain. But in this case, there are two factors that make DOJ’s case pretty uncontroversial:
These rolling coal devices have absolutely no other function than doing something that everyone knows is illegal. This isn’t alternate use of a legitimate product. This is “do an illegal thing with this device!!!!!” along with a link to purchase and receive said product.
The Clean Air Act and amendments decided long ago that factories would be responsible for their own emissions but mass consumer goods are largely regulated at the point of manufacture. This is hardly breaking new ground.
Meanwhile, eBay’s response is, uh… something:
Ebay denied the charges in a public statement, saying it has blocked “more than 99.9% the listings for the products cited by the DOJ, including millions of listings each year.”
“And eBay has partnered closely with law enforcement, including the DOJ, for over two decades on identifying emerging risks and assisting with prevention and enforcement,” the online retailer said.
Considering enforcement is based on number of vehicles affected, the 99.9% statistic is completely worthless, as EPA can only win on cases where a sale was made. Also, in the absence of a specific denominator, 0.1% of a very large number can still be a quite large number.
And given that this nightmare still shows up on Amazon from time to time:
I’d say it’s well past time we stop giving online retail giants the benefit of the doubt for selling unsafe and fraudulently labeled products.
I’ll be adding more content next week. Stay tuned for:
-A Starbase/SpaceX update
-A brand new greenwashing fraud
Thanks again for you support, Eric
Sigma Xi. Genetics and the Shape of Dogs: Studying the new sequence of the canine genome shows how tiny genetic changes can create enormous variation within a single species. American Scientist, Vol. 95, No. 5 (2007)
Bridgett M. vonHoldt et al. Genome-wide SNP and haplotype analyses reveal a rich history underlying dog domestication (2010) Nature, 464(7290), 898–902. doi:10.1038/nature08837
Leigh Anne Clark et al. Canine SINEs and Their Effects on Phenotypes of the Domestic Dog. Genomics of Disease (2012)