Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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Obama Keeps Bush's White House Chef

| Wed Jan. 14, 2009 12:40 PM EST

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Remember the hubub over whether Obama would plant a White House garden and pick a chef who serves sustainably-grown foods? Well, nevermind. It turns out that Bush's chef, Cris Comerford, sources much of her food from local farmers and some of it from a White House roof garden. And, according to previous Bush chef Walter Scheid, Laura Bush "was adamant that in ALL CASES (his emphasis) if an organic product was available it was to be used in place of a non-organic product." Who knew? Obama, I guess, who's decided to keep Comerford on. Let's just hope he applies her philosophy to the nation's food system, because that, at least, would be a first.

Image: Cris Comerford

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Mississippi, Vanguard of Abstinence Sex Ed, Now Boasts the Highest Teen Pregnancy Rate in the Nation

| Thu Jan. 8, 2009 12:42 PM EST

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Mississippi now has the nation's highest teen pregnancy rate, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control released yesterday. Between 2005 and 2006 the state's rate of teen pregnancy increased 13 percent, and is now more than 60 percent above the national average.

The report did not attempt to explain the spike, but a major factor is probably Mississippi's rejection of sex ed. The state's schools must stress abstinence and are prohibited from demonstrating how to use contraceptives. Numerous studies have found that kind of approach to be ineffective.

A common myth surrounding abstinence-only sex ed is that it works for teens who are evangelical Christians--the kids of the parents who are pushing schools to adopt the programs--so if schools would stick with the approach, the Godless masses would eventually get on the straight-and-narrow. But Bristol Palin isn't the only evidence that shreds that argument. In November the New Yorker's Margaret Talbot described the findings of Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, who published a book called "Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers":

His findings are drawn from a national survey that Regnerus and his colleagues conducted of some thirty-four hundred thirteen-to-seventeen-year-olds, and from a comprehensive government study of adolescent health known as Add Health. Regnerus argues that religion is a good indicator of attitudes toward sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior, and that this gap is especially wide among teen-agers who identify themselves as evangelical. The vast majority of white evangelical adolescents--seventy-four per cent--say that they believe in abstaining from sex before marriage. (Only half of mainline Protestants, and a quarter of Jews, say that they believe in abstinence.) Moreover, among the major religious groups, evangelical virgins are the least likely to anticipate that sex will be pleasurable, and the most likely to believe that having sex will cause their partners to lose respect for them. (Jews most often cite pleasure as a reason to have sex, and say that an unplanned pregnancy would be an embarrassment.) But, according to Add Health data, evangelical teen-agers are more sexually active than Mormons, mainline Protestants, and Jews. On average, white evangelical Protestants make their sexual début--to use the festive term of social-science researchers--shortly after turning sixteen. Among major religious groups, only black Protestants begin having sex earlier.

IMAGE AT RIGHT: Logo for Mississippi's abstinence campaign

Forestry: Where Bush's Midnight Regs Could Backfire

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 1:34 PM EST

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The Bush Administration is pushing two last-minute decisions that could double logging on more than 2 million acres of federal forestland and make it much easier for timber companies to convert forests into subdivisions. The moves are opposed by environmentalists even as the political upside for Republicans is less clear than it would have been in the '90s, when the GOP gained traction in the West by siding with loggers against the spotted owl.

Bush's move to increase logging, which would affect 2.6 million acres in southwest Oregon, comes at a time when some large private timber farms in that area have collapsed due to over-harvesting. As a result, the battle lines of the old timber wars are being redrawn. For example, before Charles Hurwitz sold his Pacific Lumber company in June, he'd closed three of his four mills and fired 80 percent of his workers. Most locals now blame Hurwitz for the layoffs, and the new owners of the company have won support from both loggers and environmentalists by pursuing a sustainable yield and preserving old growth trees. Increasingly, loggers no longer demand pillaging harvests, while enviros support logging as a preferable alternative to development. Bush's move ignores that trend.

Which brings us to Bush's second midnight reg: allowing the Plum Creek Timber Company to pave roads through forest service land in Montana, which would open up much of the company's 1.2 million acres there to rural subdivisions. The move has incurred the ire of county governments, which worry that it could undo efforts to cluster housing in urban areas and create new burdens to provide services. During the presidential campaign, Obama shrewdly noted the the subdivisions could "cause prime hunting and fishing lands to be carved up and closed off." They'd also take the land out of timber production, reinforcing the common cause between enviros and loggers on urban sprawl.

If Bush really wanted to help out loggers, he would have curbed the housing bubble. The collapse in residential construction has slashed timber prices. But the Republicans, like Hurwitz, were more concerned with raking in the green than sustainably growing it.

Can Paving America be Eco-Friendly?

| Sat Jan. 3, 2009 12:12 PM EST

Given that Obama's economic stimulus package is likely to include billions of dollars in road projects, how will he counteract the environmental toll? One idea, supported by the steel industry, is to funnel more of that money into rail, such as the $45-billion high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco that was approved by the state's voters in November.

Another idea is to build those roads greener. Two new cement companies, one in Great Britain, another in Silicon Valley, claim to have discovered a new way to produce cement that not only emits no carbon dioxide, but also sucks much of it from the atmosphere.

This is no small feat. Cement production accounts for 5 percent of the world's CO2 emissions--more than the entire aviation industry. And a recent report by the French Bank Credit Agricole estimated that demand for cement will increase 50 percent by 2020.

The Silicon Valley company, Calera Corp, was founded by Stanford professor Brent Constanz, who in 1986 invented a medical cement that revolutionized the way hospitals repaired broken bones. Unlike conventional cement, which is made by heating up limestone or clay to around 1500 degrees C, his medical cement combined carbon dioxide and magnesium to mimic the way coral reefs are formed. His new eco-cement works much the same way, except the carbon dioxide comes from power plants that would otherwise spew it into the atmosphere. The British company, Novacem, uses a similar process.

Both companies claim their products are strong enough to work in roads, buildings, and bridges and are cost-competitive with conventional cement. The hard part will be to convince customers that the cements will endure the test of time when there's no real track record. Of course, using conventional cement will also be a gamble--in the form of some 450 million tons of yearly carbon emissions.

Pickens Plan Quietly Falters

| Tue Dec. 30, 2008 11:23 AM EST

So much for the vaunted Pickens Plan. Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens' massively publicized scheme to build a $10 billion wind farm in West Texas has discreetly been put on hold. Pickens cites the difficulty securing financing during the credit crisis, but has also told reporters that energy prices would have to rise again before the project becomes economically viable. This underscores the myth about Pickens' supposedly altruistic motives. The media has often portrayed him as an aging robber baron (and former Swift Boater) reborn as an idealistic green crusader--what use does an octogenarian have for greed, the thinking goes (He's even a finalist now for Dallas Morning News' "Person of the Year"). But I've argued that Pickens' real motive--getting even richer--is exposed by his plays for water rights in West Texas and public subsidies for natural gas in California--two moves adamantly opposed by environmentalists. Perhaps most telling, Pickens recently slashed $10 million from the media campaign he started to promote wind and natural gas. If Pickens himself isn't going to peddle wind right away, it seems there's less incentive for him to get everybody else on the wagon.

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