Readers Respond to "The End" and Other Articles

Letters to the editor from the September 2010 issue of Scientific American

End of Life
I agree with Robert D. Truog—quoted in Robin Marantz Henig’s “When Does Life Belong to the Living?”—that the dead-donor rule, which says that organs can be taken only from donors who have already been declared dead, is eyewash and should be scrapped. The rule is horrible and medically counterproductive and is merely a sop to the most skittish, and probably least informed, members of society. And Arthur L. Caplan’s caution in “What Comes Next” about having to consider these people notwithstanding—constantly looking over one’s shoulder, asking what Jim Public would say about any given rule or action—is excessive, potentially to the point of paralysis.

If I thought it would carry any weight, I would be more than willing to sign a waiver of the rule right now, when I am presumably of sound mind, and reaffirm it whenever necessary. Further, I would be willing to sign whatever was necessary to exclude family members from any end-of-life and dead-donor decisions. I have seen such family decisions made that ended up merely being destructive, potentially denying someone perfectly good organs. I do not want to be in that situation, as donor or receiver getting a rotting organ. Understandably the receiver has no control over the situation, but denying the donor the right to make the decision is an outrage.
K. A. Boriskin
Bellingham, Mass.

End of Death
Of course, it would be wonderful if—as Thomas Kirkwood writes in “Why Can’t We Live Forever?”—we could “identify novel drugs able to combat age-related diseases in completely new ways and thereby shorten the period of chronic illness experienced at the end of life.”

But we should not lose sight of the fact that many sick old people want to prolong their lives even if they cannot be cured. Health is better than illness, but illness is not necessarily worse than death. Ask Stephen Hawking.
Felicia Nimue Ackerman
Department of Philosophy
Brown University

End of Trash
Christopher Mims’s “Landfills” [“Good Rid­dance”] really missed the mark when it wished the end of landfills. Modern, state-of the-art landfills are carefully regulated facilities, managed to reduce air pollution, control leachate and minimize odors. They are also an important source of clean, renewable energy. Landfill operators are increasingly turning to technology that captures methane emissions and converts them into clean fuel.

More than 500 of these landfill-gas-to-energy projects are operating across 46 states, generating enough energy to supply more than 1.6 million homes and businesses, including major companies such as Honeywell and Dell. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the use of landfill-gas-to-energy projects reduces greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of taking 16 million passenger cars off the road.

Solid-waste companies fully support zero-waste initiatives and are working closely with local governments, manufacturers, consumers and other partners to achieve this goal. But the volume of trash that Am­­er­icans continue to generate means we must rely on traditional means of disposal for some time.

Fortunately, today’s solid-waste industry is ready to meet this challenge with science-based solutions, including waste-based energy, more efficient and sophisticated recycling facilities, and modern land­fill technology.
Bruce J. Parker
President and CEO
National Solid Wastes
Management Association

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