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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Should You Trade in That Clunker?

The federal government's Cash for Clunkers program officially began today, but the ridiculous car dealership ads encouraging you to "get rid of that old jalopy" have been airing for some time now:

 

Nevermind that the Model T shown above gets better gas mileage than many of Detroit's newest offerings. With so much Madison Avenue labor dedicated to trashing old cars, you could be forgiven for feeling a bit of an econundrum: Buy a new car with lower emissions? Or don't, and save the energy needed to manufacture it? Last year, we looked into the question and came up with this rule of thumb: If your car gets more than 25 mpg and you don't drive much, you're better off keeping it instead of buying something more efficient. Fortunately, Cash for Clunkers only allows trade-ins for cars that get less than 18 mpg. Does that make the program the best use of government money? Probably not, but compared to a lot of other subsidies to banks and automakers, it's not all that bad.

An Alternative History of the US Role in Afghanistan

The United States' involvement in Afghanistan is growing deeper and more costly--30 US soldiers have died there since the start of July, making it the deadliest month since the US invasion in 2001. Vice President Joe Biden was probably right when he said in a radio interview on Thursday that the war is "worth the effort." Still, now is a good time to better understand exactly why it has been so hard to turn Afghanistan into a more peaceful place. A new book by two US journalists explores some less well-known historical explanations.

In 1981, Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald were the first US journalists to enter Afghanistan after the Western press corps had been expelled from the country a month after the 1979 Soviet invasion.  The footage that they shot for CBS News painted a far different picture of the occupation than had been portrayed in the US media. Yet they say that the story that Dan Rather aired that spring buried the most important revelations--a problem that they've seen with US media coverage of Afghanistan ever since. In January 2009, they published "Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story," a book that Selig Harrison, the Washington Post's former South Asia bureau chief, calls "a much needed corrective to five decades of biased journalistic and academic writing about Afghanistan that has covered up the destructive and self-defeating US role there." Mother Jones spoke with Gould and Fitzgerald last month.

Mother Jones: In your view, what do most people not understand about the US government's early involvement in Afghanistan?

Paul Fitzgerald: In the major media, you get the story about a Soviet invasion. What you don't get are all the politics and motivations that were behind that.

Elizabeth Gould: When the Soviets crossed the Afghan border, President Carter exclaimed that this was the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War. The claim was that the Soviets were running out of oil and this was their first step to the Persian Gulf to get our oil. So that became the mantra.

MJ: So when did a different explanation catch on?

Report Finds Huge Potential for Conservation to End California's Water Crisis

 A report released today by California's Pacific Institute estimates that reasonable water conservation improvements on the state's farms could save a huge amount of water--far more than what farmers have been forced to relinquish to protect fish habitat during the state's ongoing drought. The amount that could be saved, 1.8 trillion gallons annually, is more than 15 times the size of the municipal supply of San Francisco. 

The report, Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future, provides considerable ammunition to environmentalists in their fight with farmers over the West's dwindling water resources. In the midst of the third year of drought in California, growers are blaming endangered species laws for crimping their water supply and contributing to $1 billion in lost revenue this season. Though they've used their plight to call for weakening environmental regulations and building more dams and reservoirs, the report suggests their efforts are misplaced. Smarter conservation has allowed some growers "to increase their income, crop yields, and production, even during drought," says Pacific Institute president Peter Gleick. "Such success stories offer the state a vision of what a healthy agricultural future might look like."

The water conservation methods that the Gleick studied are already in use in the state, though many farmers cling to older practices. For example, 60 percent of crops in California are still irrigated by flooding the field, even though drip irrigation methods can easily halve water use. The report also suggests that farmers apply less water to crops during drought-tolerant growth stages and use sensors that can detect when soil is dry. 

These ideas can seem far-removed from our lives until we realize that the products we consume account for more than 90 percent of our daily water use, far more than what comes out of our taps. I explore this idea in "What's Your Water Footprint," a piece in the current issue.  The Pacific Institute and other environmental groups eventually hope the concept of a water footprint will catch on much as carbon footprints have. The idea could be used to reward farmers who do the right thing, either with tax breaks, loans, or a premium for the products they sell. 

The case for looking at carbon footprints and water footprints together is stronger than ever. A new study from the University of Colorado found that climate change creates a 50 percent chance that the reservoirs supplied by the Colorado River, the West's main water source, could run dry by 2057. And a study released today by UC Davis found that California's $10 billion fruit and nut industry is under threat from higher temperatues, which could make it impossible to grow walnuts, pistacios, peaches, apricots, plums, and cherries almost everywhere in the Central Valley. If that happens, all the water conservation technology in the world probably won't save us.

Oh, the faded awesomeness of 1979, the year that Mother Jones ran a 12-page feature on America's "psychic renaissance," that string bikinis were in style, and that the California Parks and Recreation Department relaxed its policy on public nudity. It's the 30th anniversary of 1979 this year--a year that this writer turned three--and California has a message for you folks who are still livin' it: Hippie, put your clothes on.

Yesterday, a state appeals court ruled that California parks officials can prohibit nudity on any state beach. The state's laissez faire nudity policy had been challenged last year when Parks Director Ruth Coleman imposed a booty ban at Southern California's popular Onofre beach. Now of course, Onofre bathers will be using a little less suntan lotion.

Is the nudity fight a last gasp of California's hippie heyday? Public perceptions of naked bathers probably haven't changed much since the late '70s, but Gen Xers with kids might not be keen to share the beach with a bunch of proudly shriveled senior citizens. Still, the ruling doesn't apply to land owned by the National Park Service, which has preserved the freedom to bare it all. As the poet Emma Lazarous might say: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses of hairy naked dudes, yearning to breathe free. . .

Above: Vintage Mojo cover. How sexy are these folks now?

 

As this blog was among the first to note, the EPA has a Most Wanted list. Posted in December, it includes rap sheets and mug shots for 21 environmental criminals, among them  Robert Wainwright, an Indianan convicted of child molesting and weapons violations whose personal hygiene seems as if it should be an environmental crime of its own. Accused by the EPA of dumping steel mill slag into a wetland, he was featured on this site in March. Behold the power of the press: On Friday, the EPA announced that federal and Mexican agents nabbed him in Zamora, Mexico. It's hard to say whether a Mother Jones reader turned him in (the tipoff was anonymous), but publicity from the list seems to be paying off. Since it debuted, the EPA has also caught two other fugitives.

Anyone seen this fellow? He's accused of discharging unnamed pollutants into San Diego harbor. Body hair, perhaps?

 

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