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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine

'Planetary Life' Archive


by Denise Caruso ~ March 2, 2007

I can’t believe it took me so long to get this posted. Goes to show what happens when people start reading your stuff and liking it, I guess … I have been busy, busy, busy. Off to Washington DC tomorrow at the crack of dawn, in fact. More on that anon.

To cut to the chase: Worldchanging reviewed Intervention last month. And all I can say, still, 2+ weeks later, is wow.

We normally don’t cover problems here on Worldchanging. Indeed, our manifesto says “We don’t generally offer links to resources which are about problems and not solutions, unless the resource is so insightful that its very existence is a step towards a solution.” This book does offer some solutions (about which, more later), but mostly it offers a fervent, well-reasoned call to action. When such an “alarm bell” book offers such clear thinking (I learned more about biotechnology from this book than any other I’ve read), it becomes a step towards solutions. And when the person ringing the alarm bell is no luddite, but one of our brightest technology writers, the alarm demands our attention.

What terrific acknowledgment, from such a terrific source. Quick anecdote about how Alex Steffan heard about the book: In early February I was checking out how Intervention looked on Amazon, as I am occasionally wont to do, and noticed that the Worldchanging book was then (as it is now) offered as a “Better Together” deal with Intervention.

I wrote Steffan a note and he said, “It looks interesting — send it to me.” And the rest, as they say …


by Denise Caruso ~ February 12, 2007

This just in from Environment News Service:

Doomsday Arctic Seed Vault Designed to Withstand All Perils

OSLO, Norway, February 9, 2007 (ENS) - A fail-safe vault designed to protect the agricultural heritage of humankind - the seeds essential to agriculture of every nation - will be constructed this year on the Arctic island of Svalbard not far from the North Pole. (You can see the impressively spooky, actual design if you go to the story.)

Today the Norwegian government revealed the architectural design for the Svalbard International Seed Vault, to be carved deep into frozen rock.

“By investing in a global permafrost safety facility for seeds, the Norwegian government hopes to contribute to combating the loss of biological diversity, to reduce our vulnerability to climatic changes, and to enhance our ability to secure future food production,” said Norwegian Minister of Agriculture and Food Terje Riis-Johansen.

The vault is being dug into a mountainside near the village of Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Construction is scheduled to begin in March 2007 and to be completed in September 2007. The vault will officially open in late winter 2008.

The number of seeds stored will depend on the number of countries participating in the project. The project aims to prevent needed plants from going extinct or becoming rare if a nuclear war were to break out, because of gene pollution from genetically engineered plants, or due to disease or global warming.

Continue reading »


by Denise Caruso ~ February 3, 2007

Whoops, I forgot to post this … the San Jose Mercury News asked me to write a Perspectives piece for the Sunday paper a couple of weeks ago (specifically, January 21st) about the F.D.A.’s decision about cloned meat. The issue isn’t going away, so I figured better late than never …

Here’s the first few paragraphs, to inspire you to click …

Cloned meat: What are the risks?
By Denise Caruso
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared unequivocally last month that meat and milk from cloned animals is safe to eat. But the assessment process used to make that declaration could in no way reliably conclude that cloned food is safe — and they knew it. The FDA’s own science and risk advisers had long ago told the agency so, but it ignored the warnings.

As recently as 2004, the U.S. National Academies, official science advisers to the government, published a report concluding that the FDA’s and other regulators’ decision-making processes for assessing food safety were flawed and outdated. The report said the methods and techniques used to make these assessments are not sophisticated enough to predict and identify unintended effects from genetically engineered food. The report included cloned food in that assessment.

What’s more, the report strongly recommended that the agencies “enhance [their] capacity for post-market surveillance'’ of genetically engineered and cloned food. In other words, they ought to start monitoring the release of those foods, labeling products derived from them in the marketplace, and deploying far better animal-identification and tracking systems, so that any unexpected health problems could be traced to the source.

Yet regulators, including the FDA, have followed few if any of the study’s sensible recommendations. The FDA’s public statement on the safety of cloned animals certainly didn’t mention these noteworthy and significant shortcomings in its assessment methods.

UPDATE: I also forgot to note that Baruch Fischhoff at Carnegie Mellon sent me a related link, with this note attached:

A few hundred BBC readers comment on eating cloned food. Not so stupid — or at least smarter than those who call them stupid.


by Denise Caruso ~ January 28, 2007

My first monthly column ran today in the Sunday Business section of the New York Times. It’s in a new section called ‘Bright Ideas,’ which explores creativity and innovation. I’m one of several columnists who will rotate through the space on a weekly basis.

The column is about the idea of ‘acceptable intellectual property’, in the same spirit as acceptable risk; i.e., how much intellectual property protection are we willing to tolerate as a culture? How relevant is the historical justification — that economic incentives via patenting are the only way to drive technical solutions to problems into the market?

I called my column ‘Re:Framing’ because I think it’s critical, at this juncture in history, to cast a fresh eye on this idea. As my work for the past years has proven to me, market-driven innovation can be an equally powerful driver of really dumb ideas — like patenting genetic resources — that threaten the fabric of global society.

There is just as much wonderful innovation taking place that is not driven by the market, but instead is driven by the desire to solve problems in a way that benefits the most people. I’m really looking forward to bringing those creative innovations to the attention of the readers of the Times.


by Denise Caruso ~ December 27, 2006

I had a blast last Sunday during my interview with Ken Goffman, a.k.a. RU Sirius.

RU was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of the legendary, visionary and often delightfully mad cyber/counterculture magazine Mondo 2000, and when he heard that I’d published Intervention, he invited me onto the eclectic podcast show that he hosts, called Neofiles, to talk about it. The resulting Show #65: Fear of a Transgenic Planet is the first of a two-part interview.

Even though I’ve known RU for a looong time (I’ve decided to declare a moratorium on explicit shout-outs of how long I’ve known someone or done something), I was a little nervous about going on Neofiles, which bills itself as exploring “the experimental edge of human endeavors.” This tends to include lots of nanotech, life-enhancement, we-made-it-to-be-good-thus-it-is-good, nouvelle Ray Kurzweil kind of stuff. As he warned me before I showed up, “most of our guests would tend to be very pro-biotech.”

But as it turned out, I was nervous for no reason. He totally got the message of the book. Intervention is not anti-biotech. It’s very pro-science — science in the context of reality, that is, of how technologies work and operate in the real world, not just in the controlled conditions of the lab or as viewed through the rose-colored lens of traditional risk assessments.

Update: Here’s Part 2 of the RU interview … enjoy!


by Denise Caruso ~ December 18, 2006

While I was finishing up Intervention this year, I also participated in a fascinating survey about globalization, sponsored by the U.K.-based consultancy SustainAbility, on whose extraordinary (and extraordinarily diverse) faculty I humbly serve.

In April 2006, I gave a talk on emerging risks at Global Business Network’s annual Forum; this year’s theme was “Managing the New Realities of Risk.” (If you’d like a copy of the meeting report, leave a comment and I’ll get a copy to you.

And I became an affiliated researcher at Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Risk Perception and Communication.


by Denise Caruso ~ December 18, 2006

… a.k.a. “what else I was doing while I wrote Intervention.”

Based on some ideas that I started exploring with Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon shortly after I wrote my first paper on risk and genomics, in early 2004 we got funding from the National Science Foundation to see if we could get started on designing a new methodology for assessing emerging bio-risks.

The project was called “Understanding Genomics Risks: An Integrated Scenario and Analytic Approach,” and it was funded through NSF’s Decision, Risk, and Management Sciences program.

Our primary focus was on the risks that might result from growing and harvesting transgenic pig organs for transplants, a.k.a. xenotransplantation. (The pigs in question have been genetically altered so their biochemistry doesn’t trigger a rejection reaction in humans. This isn’t theoretical.)

The centerpiece of the xeno project was a day-long meeting at UC Berkeley, hosted by Steve Weber, director of the Institute of International Studies. We brought together a panel of experts that included an agricultural ecologist, an economist, an MBA/MD, a medical anthropologist, a political scientist, and a zoologist and vet who’d been a senior executive at USDA, and got them talking about the problem.

What they came up with is at the core of Chapter 11 in Intervention, “Putting Pigs to the Test.” Most people who’ve read it — as well as the panelists who attended the meeting — have said that it makes a pretty compelling case for why we need to change how we conduct risk assessments for new biotechnologies.

The entire story of how we got to that meeting in Berkeley didn’t make it into the book, but I wish it had. It’s a terrific object lesson in collaborative problem-solving and decision making. I’ll either post it here at some point when it makes sense, or maybe I’ll see if I can publish it in a magazine or a journal somewhere.

In any case, the project was quite successful. As a result, we got:
a) a tremendously promising start on this new methodology for emerging risks;
b) a paper in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty; and
c) a chance to use the work in a different and even more critical setting: evaluating the risks of avian flu.

In regards to (c), and to make a long story short, in the fall of 2005, one of the xeno panelists recommended me to a group of people (specifically, Global Business Network and Larry Brilliant) who were designing a meeting on avian flu called Pandefense 1.0.

Pandefense 1.0 was an interdisciplinary “think tank” and exercise in emergency preparedness for a possible avian flu pandemic. It brought the world’s top flu and vaccine experts, epidemiologists, bird specialists, animal pathologists, and public health professionals together with leading thinkers from philanthropy, academia, business, scenario planning, decision theory, risk communication, and the investment community.

Its goal was to explore the wide range of consequences — public health, economic, political and cultural — of an avian flu pandemic, and most importantly, to identify and alert decision makers and the public to the interventions that could be taken immediately to avoid or mitigate a disaster.

Hybrid Vigor’s participation in Pandefense led to an invitation to co-edit a special Forethought section, called ‘Preparing for a Pandemic,’ in the May 1, 2006, edition of Harvard Business Review. Here’s the editor’s letter introducing the section.

Of course, I dragged Baruch Fischhoff into participating as well, and this led to the publication of yet another paper, in a new journal called Global Public Health.

The upshot of all of this activity for me, personally, was a growing belief that the risk assessment methods I’d been studying and working on with Baruch had the potential to have a tremendous positive impact on getting out in front of emerging infectious diseases, in addition to the benefit it could bring to the assessment of commercial biotech products.

I’m now working on raising the money to fund a couple of new projects in this area with several of the people I met at, and through, my involvement with Pandefense.

Wish us luck: this kind of work is of critical importance, and it is ludicrous how difficult it is to get funding for prevention and preparedness, unless it directly provides cash to a specific industry.