2009 - %3, September

Eco-News Roundup: Thursday September 3

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 6:03 AM EDT

Sunny Side Up: Kevin Drum is still optimistic about healthcare reform.

Cove-rt Action: The Japanese village featured in The Cove has yet to start its dolphin hunting season. [MongaBay]

Dumping the PO: Will Obama dump the public option?

Chemicals 101: A former educator has a revolutionary idea: build classrooms free of chemicals and see what happens. [Chapel Hill News]

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 3, 2009

Thu Sep. 3, 2009 5:24 AM EDT

U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmy Carabello, of Ft. Drum, N.Y., shows Afghan children how to exchange the informal 'fist bump' greeting while on a patrol through the streets of Asadabad city in Kunar province, Afghanistan, Aug. 19. Carabello is deployed with 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, which is currently serving as part of Task Force Mountain Warrior. Photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith

Townhalls and the Media

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 12:38 AM EDT

Did the country really explode in anger at townhalls across the country this summer?  Or was it just a tiny fraction of the population that got outsize attention by bored cable nets during the dog days of August?  E.J. Dionne talked to some returning Democratic House members this week and concludes it was more the latter than the former:

"I think the media coverage has done a disservice by falling for a trick that you'd think experienced media hands wouldn't fall for: of allowing loud voices to distort the debate," said Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy, whose district includes Columbus, Ohio.

....The most disturbing account came from Rep. David Price of North Carolina, who spoke with a stringer for one of the television networks at a large town-hall meeting he held in Durham. The stringer said he was one of 10 people around the country assigned to watch such encounters. Price said he was told flatly: "Your meeting doesn't get covered unless it blows up." As it happens, the Durham audience was broadly sympathetic to reform efforts. No "news" there.

....When I reached Rep. Tom Perriello last week, he divided the crowds at the 17 town halls he had held to that point in his largely rural Virginia district into three groups: conservatives, for whom the health-care battle is "about big government, socialism and all that"; the left, for whom "it's about corporate accountability"; and a "middle" for whom "it's about health care costs" and the problems with their coverage.

But the only citizens who commanded widespread media coverage last month were the right-wingers. And I bet you thought the media were "liberal."

There's unquestionably been a decline in support for healthcare reform in the polls, but is that cause or effect?  If Dionne is right, it's less a reflection of genuine discomfort than it is a reflection of distorted media coverage.  Thanks, cable news!

How Diesel Exhaust Grows Cancer

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 7:19 PM EDT

A link has been found between diesel fumes and cancer and it lies in the ability of diesel exhaust to grow new blood vessels supplying solid tumors.

The new research, forthcoming in Toxicology Letters, found that more new blood vessels sprouted in mice exposed to diesel exhaust than in mice exposed to clean filtered air. The growth occurred in both healthy and diseased animals—meaning that even healthy bodies are susceptible to the damaging effects of diesel.

The problem lies in the size of inhaled diesel particles. Most are less than 0.1 micron in diameter—that's less than one-tenth of a millionth of a meter. Such tiny particles penetrate the blood stream, organs, and tissues to damage practically any part of the body.

Exposure levels in the study mimicked the exposures of people living in urban areas and of people commuting in heavy traffic. The levels were lower than, or similar to, those typically experienced by workers using diesel-powered equipment and those working along railroads, in mines, tunnels, vehicle maintenance garages, on bridges, farms, and at loading docks.

According to co-author Qinghua Sun, via The Ohio State University: "The message from our study is that exposure to diesel exhaust for just a short time period of two months could give even normal tissue the potential to develop a tumor."

The researchers found three types of blood vessel development after exposure to the diesel exhaust: angiogenesis, the development of new capillaries; arteriogenesis, the maturation or regrowth of existing vessels; and vasculogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels. All are associated with tumor growth but angiogenesis in particular can wreak havoc in the human body.

The researchers observed four ways that exposure to diesel exhaust facilitated tumor growth:

  • By activating a chemical signal, vascular endothelial growth factor, associated with new blood vessel development
  • By increasing levels of a protein, hypoxia-inducible factor 1, essential to blood vessel development when oxygen levels are low
  • By lowering the activity of an enzyme with a role in producing substances that suppress tumor growth
  • By inducing low-grade inflammation, often associated with tumor development, in tissues exposed to exhaust

"We need to raise public awareness so people give more thought to how they drive and how they live so they can pursue ways to protect themselves and improve their health," says Sun. "And we still have a lot of work to do to improve diesel engines so they generate fewer particles and exhaust that can be released into the ambient air."

Don't even get me started on nanoparticles, the next great health disaster we're enthusiastically blundering into.
 

Mother Jones is a Bimonthly Publication

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 7:12 PM EDT

Dave Schuler, in a post on a different subject entirely, happens to mention this:

An auto-antonym is a word that has two meanings: it means one thing and also its opposite. The perfect example of an auto-antonym is inflammable which means incapable of burning and also capable of burning....Other auto-antonyms include fast, cleave, sanction, and let. The last means either allow or prohibit (mostly in the legal phrase “without let or hindrance”). There’s a sizeable list here.

Most of these auto-antonyms are actually kind of questionable, more examples of words with different senses than they are literal antonyms.  And in that spirit, one of the best examples of this kind of thing is biweekly (or monthly or yearly), which can mean either twice a week or every other week.  This came up yesterday in response to this post, and what makes it so special is that unlike most of these word pairs, this one is pretty much impossible to tease out via context.  If I say that David Brooks is a biweekly columnist, you have no idea which sense of the word I mean.

How does this happen?  Different senses of a word that are near opposites but pretty easy to distinguish via context are easy to understand.  That kind of thing happens all the time.  But how does a word evolve into total confusion like this?  A brief bit of googling doesn't turn up anything very helpful, but it seems like there ought to be an interesting story behind this.

(And Mother Jones?  We're the kind of bimonthly publication that comes out six times a year.)

Low Res: Designing Veterans Mental Health

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 6:49 PM EDT

The 2010 United States defense budget is officially $533.7 billion, but it's been estimated that it's closer to $780 billion. The Department of Veterans Affairs budget is about $56 billion. That means that we spend 10 times as much to fight wars as we do to take care of the people who fought them.

Granted, weaponry is pretty damn expensive. So is getting soldiers to the two fronts we are currently fighting on (and the many other places where we are present) and making sure that all 1.5 million active duty personnel and over 800,000 reservists have the resources they need—though the extent to which we do that appropriately is questionable. But, according to the VA we also have 25 million living veterans, and a full 1/4 of the US population is eligible for benefits.

As they say, money talks, and sometimes it speaks directly to you through advertising. Recently, San Francisco Bay Area public transit has been besieged by ads for a mental health hot line for veterans. While this type of outreach is long overdue, the effort being undertaken to address veterans' mental health is overshadowed by the campaign's awful design.

If you look closely at the ad above that appeared in BART trains, you'll notice that the proud American flag in the background looks like it was pasted from the Internet and then blown up, the outline of the soldier has some serious anatomical problems, and the god-awful yellow text is incredibly hard to read.

As it turns out, that grainy flag isn't just a dpi problem. The VA must have thought the grainy Stars and Stripes was "arty," because the graininess is the same on this much larger ad that appeared on AC Transit buses:

But, does design really matter? Yes, it does. While it is great that a concerted effort is being made to address the needs of veterans' mental health, these slipshod ads are nothing compared to recruiting ads.

The active military has moved past the print campaigns of yore into snazzy television commercials (now with a softer, kinder feel), video games, mall-based "experience centers," flash-laden websites and of course going directly to the source in our nation's classrooms.

Every branch of the military has a separate recruiting website. The VA, however, only has one. It would be a fine website, if it were say, 1999. But, compare it to the Army one, where you can watch videos, play games, and even have a virtual sergeant show you around, and you begin to see where our priorities lie.

Thankfully, the Veterans Administration is not alone. It seems that both the VA and the Department of Defense have realized that they cannot meet the needs of this growing group. There are many private citizens working with government agencies in an attempt to fill the gap and address veterans', and active duty soldiers', needs. If you, or anyone you know, needs support, visit The National Resource Directory's (better designed) site for a list of the organizations that are there to help.

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Debating the Future of Journalism

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 5:15 PM EDT

The folks over at Free Press invited Dave Westphal from USC’s Annenberg Center (until a few months ago he ran McClatchy’s Washington DC bureau—one of the best commercial news sources around) and me to join their readers in a conversation about foundation-funded journalism this week.

This is a hot issue right now in the media punditry trade. MoJo editors Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein’s ed note in the latest issue of the magazine takes it on directly (interesting comments there, too), and Clara’s dissection of Sheri Fink’s (foundation-funded) Katrina piece for the New York Times is an illuminating look at what it takes to do investigative reporting these days.

I think Free Press asked me to weigh in because (a) this is something nonprofit Mother Jones has been living with from day 1 back in 1975; (b) I run MoJo’s fundraising program; and (c) I’ve written earlier about the topic here, here, and here.

Dave and I will be doing a live chat on Thursday, September 3rd at 8PM Eastern Time, if you want to drop by.

Read my Free Press post here.

Steve Katz is Vice President for Strategy and Development at Mother Jones and its nonprofit parent, the Foundation for National Progress. He blogs at www.maimonidesladder.com about fundraising, journalism and technology. These are his own words; they don’t represent the opinions, points of view, or attitudes of Mother Jones or the Foundation for National Progress.

Can Solar Power in the Desert be "Green?"

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 4:03 PM EDT

As the popularity of solar and other clean renewable energy sources grows, environmental groups are playing a major role in shaping how the nation makes the transition to the new energy economy. One of the most visible examples of this renewed role for environmentalists is found in the roll-out of Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) on public lands primarily in the Southwest.

That's not to say that all environmental groups agree on all points. Todd Woody, who blogs for the NYT's Green Inc., recently covered one contentious issue in the Mojave Desert. Over at High Country News, Judith Lewis wrote a fascinating article in May about a schism between environmentalists over "Big Solar" in the Mojave.

In The Phoenix Sun I've reported on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans for a Solar Energy Study Area (SESA) covering 670,000 acres in six Western states, here and here.

I had heard about, but not seen until recently, the formal recommendations made to the BLM by a coalition of environmental groups that includes some of the best known green players (e.g., The Wilderness Society, The Sierra Club) and some that you may not have heard of before (Great Old Broads for Wilderness).

The recommendations came in a 50-page letter sent to the government and provided by the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club.

You can download a full copy of the letter, but here's a brief outline of the green groups' major concerns.

Major Issues

Siting

Avoid siting in wilderness areas, national monuments, national conservation areas, national historic and scenic trails, areas of critical environmental concern (and several other specified areas).

Give priority for siting to already impaired lands such as abandoned mines, developed oil and gas fields and other brownfields.

Consider availability to water, shovel-ready projects and proximity to workers to minimize the need for additional infrastructure such as roads.

Right-of-Way Terms

ROW should not exceed the design life of the project.

ROW should require that companies exercise reasonable stewardship of the land.

ROW terms should change when applicable laws and regulations change.

Plans with the smallest footprints should be started first, to see if monitoring systems can handle them before scaling up.

ROW terms should require plans to and seeks to "avoid adverse impacts to land, air and water, and to cultural, biological, visual, and other resources, as well as to other land uses and users."

ROW should allow for termination if holder fails to comply with terms.

Planning Criteria

Comply with applicable laws and policies.

Follow already announced plan to identify lands as "available for development," "available with restrictions" and "not available."

Coordinate plans with other tribal, federal, state and local governments.

Consult with tribal authorities to insure that cultural resources are protected.

Encourage public participation.

The letter also includes sections on wildlife habitat, socioeconomic impacts and the importance of looking at a range of alternative plans.

When I talked with Sierra Club AZ chapter head, Sandy Bahr, she had an upbeat view of the SESA plan, confident that the current administration has a genuine interest in developing solar power facilities while protecting the local environment.

The Sierra Club, and the other signatories to the letter, say they'll be watching to make sure the BLM follows through.

A list of the organizations that signed the letter, along with links to their Websites, can be found, here.

 

Osha Gray Davidson is a contributing blogger at Mother Jones. He publishes The Phoenix Sun and writes the "Brief Back" page at True/Slant. You can follow him on Twitter at BriefBack.

 

Is Obama Dumping the Public Option?

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 3:31 PM EDT

"It had better be wrong."

That was the response of Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) to Wednesday's Politico story  that the Obama White House, as it retools its strategy for health care reform, has no intention of fighting for the inclusion of a public option that would offer government-run health insurance to companies and people who can't obtain affordable coverage elsewhere. And Jacob Hacker, a health policy expert who can be called the godfather of the public option, says, "The White House...has to be told in no uncertain terms that dropping the public plan is stupid and premature."

The Politico piece did not quote by name President Barack Obama or his senior advisers saying they were dumping the public option from their must-include list. So it's possible this was a trial balloon that could burst. But even though Obama had already declined to vow he would go to the mat for a public option, the story did rile up progressives on and off Capitol Hill. 

"Without a public option, this bill will do a lot of nice things but only by throwing a couple hundred billion dollars at insurance companies," says Nadler, adding that a public option is necessary to hold down the cost of health insurance. "What is the point of passing a bill that mandates people to buy insurance that is going to be unaffordable?" he says.

Nadler insists that a bill lacking a public option cannot pass the Democratic-controlled House, noting that in July, he and fifty-six other House Dems sent a letter [PDF] he had drafted to House Speaker Pelosi declaring they would not vote for health reform legislation without a public option. (At the moment, it looks as if there's practically no Republican support for any health care reform measure that might be crafted by House Democrats.)

Though a public option can likely make it through the House without much assistance from Obama, Nadler notes points out that no such bill could succeed in the Senate absent pressure from Obama. If Obama doesn't make an effort, Nadler says, "I believe it will cause a very big split" in the Democratic Party.

Off Capitol Hill, progressives pressing for health care reform with a public option immediately began calling contacts in the White House to register objections. "We'll make our feelings known privately first," one says. "Then we'll come up with a public strategy." In an email to me, Hacker maintained that retreating on the public option will buy the White House nothing:

Haven't Democrats learned to stop preemptively negotiating with themselves? Let Democrats work the issue out in the House and Senate caucuses (that's where any deal will be made, because there will be virtually no Republican support for any element of the President's proposals). Meanwhile the President should push for the public plan.

Hacker noted that Obama had already

offered the Right an olive branch when he suggested he might prefer coops to the public plan, and the Right basically immolated the olive branch....I don't know what he gets by backing off. The public is supportive. The non-Maine Republicans will vote nay no matter what. And the wavering Democrats will probably go along, or at least not filibuster legislation over it -- if the President sticks to his guns.

"From a progressive point of view," Nadler says, "we've already compromised five or six times." He cites liberal Democrats' willingness to give up on a single-payer approach and to agree to several restrictions on a public insurance plan. But he acknowledges that voting against a bill without a public option will be a "test" for progressive Democrats: "A lot of them have said they will vote against such a bill, but will they?"

What of the argument that the House Dems should not permit the perfect to be the enemy of the good? Isn't half a loaf better than none? "I am convinced," Nadler remarks, "that you can't take a loaf without the public option because that's not sustainable, with the costs going up. If we did this, what will we accomplish in the end?"

On Wednesday afternoon, the news broke that Obama will deliver a major address on health care to a joint session of Congress on September 9. Now that it's crunch time, that speech could signal what Obama will actually be fighting for in the weeks ahead. If the president bails on the public option, Nadler warns, Democrats should prepare for a family feud that sure won't be pretty.

 

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

 

Can You Hear Me Now? Verizon Faces Calls for Boycott Over Anti-Climate Rally

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 3:22 PM EDT

Cell phone carrier Verizon Wireless has prompted an online uproar and calls for a boycott over its sponsorship of the "Friends of America Rally," a Labor Day gathering in Logan, West Virginia organized by mountaintop-removal coal mining company Massey Energy that appears intended to rile up the troops against climate change legislation.

Under similar political pressure, Verizon has already dumped its ads on Glenn Beck's Fox News show as of last week, citing Beck's "controversial track record." Another Fox blowhard, Sean Hannity, is set to appear at the Logan rally along with global warming skeptic Lord Christopher Monckton and the inimitable Ted Nugent. The sponsorships seem out of character for Verizon, which, on its website, touts efforts to address "the entire global emissions problem" through measures like fuels cells, solar panels, and energy efficient technology.

Verizon spokesperson Laura Merritt told me the sponsorship of the rally was "a local decision that was intended to support the immediate community." She added that more than 100 companies had signed on to the event (though most are small businesses or part of the mining industry). "I insure you that this is not a statement of our policy on any public issue."

Merritt declined to say what kind of events Verizon would not sponsor. When I asked if there are people in West Virginia who oppose mountaintop removal mining and support a climate bill, she demurred. "All I can tell you is that this decision was based on support of that immediate, small community there," she said. "Beyond that, I really don't know."

It's perhaps unfair to be too hard on Verizon when 3 million businesses belong to the US Chamber of Commerce, a brutal foe of cap and trade. Still, the company comes off as duplicitous and amoral when it panders to local audiences in opposition to its stated values. Fortunately, many consumers know that there are phone companies that actually put the planet ahead of profits. That's what I'd call a true Friend of America.

UPDATE: Courtesty of Think Progress, here's Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship inviting people to attend the rally, where they'll learn about how "environmental extremists and corporate America are both trying to destroy your jobs."