Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

Diminished Sense of Moral Outrage Key to Maintaining View That World Is Fair and Just

| Fri Mar. 2, 2007 7:38 PM EST

Researchers from New York University's Department of Psychology report findings in the journal Psychological Science, that people who see the world as essentially fair maintain this perception through a diminished sense of moral outrage.

Psychologists have long studied system-justification theory, which posits that people adopt belief systems that justify existing political, economic, and social situations or inequities in order to make themselves feel better about the status quo. Moreover, in order to maintain their perceptions of the world as just, people resist changes that would increase the overall amount of fairness and equality in the system. Instead, they often engage in cognitive adjustments that preserve a distorted image of reality in which existing institutions are seen as more equitable and just than they are.

Who needs cocktails when you can create blindfolded bliss in your own brain? The researchers constructed a two-part experiment designed to unlock the secrets of pathological optimism.

In the first part of the study--an experiment involving a series of questions and scenarios--the researchers found that the more people endorsed anti-egalitarian beliefs, the less guilt and moral outrage they felt. The reduction in moral outrage (but not guilt) led them to show decreased support for helping the disadvantaged and redistributing resources.

The second part of the experiment was a kind of control. Half the subjects were presented with Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches stories, implicitly endorsing system-justification beliefs. The other half got stories describing the plight of innocent victims, underscoring the unfairness of the system.

The results showed that subjects exposed to the rags-to-riches stories reported less negative affect and less moral outrage than subjects exposed to the innocent-victim essays. As with the first study, moral outrage mediated the effect of system justification on support for redistribution, but general negative affect did not.

Okay, in real speak, it seems that people who can escape reality are good at pretending bad news is the victims' fault. So, can big pharma come up with a cure for Republicanism? Let's dose those tudes with reality.

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Washington Post Op-ed on Climate Change As Brought To You By Mad Max

| Fri Mar. 2, 2007 6:38 PM EST

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius' op-ed piece in today's paper discusses a report, "Impacts of Climate Change," composed by futurist Peter Schwartz's consulting group, Global Business Network, for a U.S. government intelligence agency he does not identify. From the GBN:

Climate change is a real and growing problem for the United States and for the world. As urgency around the issue continues to grow, so too does the scientific consensus that changes to Earth's climate will enormously affect the planet's future and the futures of all who inhabit it. Anthropogenic climate change is now widely considered to have the potential not just to cause perturbations in the weather, but also to create major discontinuities in many complex natural and human systems, including ecosystems, economies, human settlements, and even political institutions.

In other words, folks, global warming is not going to annoy just polar bears. Read on, from the WP:

What Schwartz discovers with his stress-testing makes climate change even scarier: The world already is precarious; the networks that maintain political and social order already are fragile, especially in urban areas; the dividing line between civilized life and anarchy is frighteningly easy to breach, as the daily news from Iraq reminds us. We look at the behaviors of butterflies and migratory birds as harbingers of climate change. But what about early effects on human beings? "The steady escalation of climate pressure will stretch the resiliency of natural and human systems," writes Schwartz. "In short, climate change pushes systems everywhere toward their tipping point."

Think you'll escape it? Think you'll coast through it? That's what the residents of New Orleans thought before their own private 9/11 on August 29th, 2005. Again from the GBN:

If a climate change-induced system disruption reduces of the ability of the government to deliver political goods (Katrina being an obvious example), it also reduces political legitimacy and halts economic activity, thus driving local populations to rely upon primary loyalties (families, neighborhoods, religious organizations, gangs, etc.) for daily survival. This dynamic in the political system is often (and will increasingly be) played out in urban settings—physical spaces that require intensive external flows of goods and services to survive, and that are also highly (and increasingly) interconnected and networked via transport and telecommunications infrastructure. Collapsing civil order within urban settings will offer extreme economic rewards in the form of smuggling and black markets; indeed, these may be the only functioning markets, making virtually everyone in these spaces a "bad actor." Those unwilling or unable to profit from the chaos will radiate outward through refugee flows, exporting social conflicts to adjacent locales. Finally, because of the sheer complexity of megacities, they will be very difficult to reorder once destabilized, and may continue in chaos until they depopulate themselves.

Enter the Road Warrior.

Global Warming and Your Kids' Health

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 2:31 PM EST

LiveScience reports on a study from Australia published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research showing that a warming climate is bad for kids' health. Lawrence Lam, a pediatrics lecturer at Sydney University, compared emergency room visits for kids under age six to climate data, finding that higher temps outside correlated to more children with fevers and gastroenteritis visiting the ER.

The possible reason: Children's bodies can't cope with extreme changes in temperature as well as adults.

"The results from this study suggest a detrimental effect from climatic changes, particularly in terms of maximum temperature, on children's health," Lam said. "As global warming is becoming more apparent, there is an urgent need for more in-depth and thorough investigation of climatic factors on human health, especially in early childhood."

Chimps Hunt with Spears and Birds Plan for the Future as Science Debunks Myths of Human Uniqueness

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 8:15 PM EST

Two cherished illusions fall by the wayside. These belong to the smug category of talents that "make us human." Guess what, turns out these human attributes belong to chimpanzees. And birds. And probably for longer than we've owned them.

First up, tools to hunt prey. This is pure Homo sapiens, et ancestors, isn't it? Wrong. And, whoa, sacrilege of the most holies. Females and immatures turn out to be better hunters than the big boys. Check this out from Current Biology.

Although tool use is known to occur in species ranging from naked mole rats to owls, chimpanzees are the most accomplished tool users. The modification and use of tools during hunting, however, is still considered to be a uniquely human trait among primates. Here, we report the first account of habitual tool use during vertebrate hunting by nonhumans. At the Fongoli site in Senegal, we observed ten different chimpanzees use tools to hunt prosimian prey in 22 bouts. This includes immature chimpanzees and females, members of age-sex classes not normally characterized by extensive hunting behavior. Chimpanzees made 26 different tools, and we were able to recover and analyze 12 of these. Tool construction entailed up to five steps, including trimming the tool tip to a point. Tools were used in the manner of a spear, rather than a probe or rousing tool. This new information on chimpanzee tool use has important implications for the evolution of tool use and construction for hunting in the earliest hominids, especially given our observations that females and immature chimpanzees exhibited this behavior more frequently than adult males.

Translated: chimps build tools we call spears and use them to hunt specific nocturnal prey (bushbabies) that would otherwise be impossible to catch with the chimps' diurnal lifestyle. Oh, and again, the girls and kids do most of it and may well have invented it.

If that isn't humbling enough, how about birds that plan for the future? That's a struggle for even the college-educated human. In fact, based on our inability to solve those niggling global sustainability problems, you might conclude we can't do it at all. This from the University of Cambridge, where forethought is rewarded with publications in the journal Nature.

Some birds recognise the idea of 'future' and plan accordingly, researchers at the University of Cambridge have discovered. According to their findings… western scrub-jays will store food items they believe will be in short supply in the future.

Planning for the future is a complex skill that was previously believed to be unique to humans. Other animals were perceived to be incapable of dissociating themselves from the present and any current motivation. Sometimes animals may appear to recognize future needs, but they are only exhibiting behaviors that are either instinctual (e.g. nest building) or prompted by immediate needs like hunger (e.g. food hoarding).

In order to determine whether some animals plan for future food needs or are simply acting on instinct, Professor Nicky Clayton and her team at the Department of Experimental Psychology tested the western scrub-jay.

Every morning, eight scrub-jays either were allowed into the compartment with 'no breakfast' or the compartment with 'breakfast'. They were then allowed to eat for the rest of the day. After several days, the birds were then provided with pine nuts suitable for caching (hoarding) in the evening. In anticipation of a morning without breakfast, the scrub-jays consistently hid food in the 'no breakfast' compartment rather than the 'breakfast' compartment, demonstrating an understanding of future needs (rather than just their immediate needs).

In a similar experiment, the scrub-jays were given either dog food in one compartment or peanuts in a second compartment for breakfast. When they were allowed to cache either food where they liked in the evenings, they once again demonstrated an understanding of future needs and a desire for a varied diet by hoarding peanuts in the dog food compartment and dog kibble in the peanut compartment. If they were caching for current hunger, they would not have discriminated between the types of food or the location of the cache.

Professor Nicky Clayton said, "The western scrub-jays demonstrate behavior that shows they are concerned both about guarding against food shortages and maximizing the variety of their diets in the future. It suggests they have advanced and complex thought processes as they have a sophisticated concept of past, present and future, and factor this into their planning."

Bird brains.

Kinky Climate

| Wed Feb. 21, 2007 8:05 PM EST

Hey, why can't we have tv ads like this? Even the politicos might pay attention. Apparently Tony Blair got the message, though not loudly enough to do anything while actually in office with genuine power at his fingertips. Could we convince the Dommes of the world to flog some climate guilt into their Washington slaves?

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