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.

Rubber Dodo Awarded to Worst Human on the Planet

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 5:30 PM EDT

Well, that is, if you measure humans by their ability to help or hurt biodiversity. Today the third annual Rubber Dodo Award was bestowed by the Center for Biological Diversity upon Michael Winer, portfolio manager for the giant real-estate investment firm Third Avenue Management, or TAREX.

The CBD's Rubber Dodo memorializes the person who's done most to drive endangered species extinct. The 2007 winner was Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. In 2008, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin got the dishonor.

So what has heretofore unknown Michael Winer done to deserve the ignominy? Under Winer's leadership, says the CBD, TAREX has become the largest stockholder of companies driving the development of the largest private landholdings remaining in Southern California and Florida. These splendid lands also happen to be home to some of the highest numbers of endangered species in North America:

  • In California, TAREX is pushing the Tejon Ranch Company to pave thousands of acres of federally designated California condor habitat.
  • In Florida, TAREX is pushing the St. Joe Company to flood tens of thousands of acres of the Florida Panhandle with upscale developments.

According to Adam Keats, director of the CBD's Urban Wildlands Program:

"Under Winer’s money-obsessed leadership, TAREX has become the poster child for unsustainable, endangered-species-killing sprawl. He specializes in finding massive, remote estates far from urban centers and turning them into a sea of condos, malls, golf courses, and resorts. There is good reason that even Wall Street commonly calls TAREX a 'real-estate vulture'."

Ouch. A vulture-killing vulture.

In California, Winer is a driving force behind the Tejon Ranch Company’s bid to build two new cities 50 miles north of Los Angeles—likened to dropping a city the size of Boulder Colorado into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

What's at stake in Tejon? Oh, only 270,000 acres at the convergence of five geomorphic provinces and four floristic regions. Plus federally designated California condor critical habitat, home to 23 known types of plant communities, home to 20 state and federally listed species, a unique "oak laboratory" for more than a third of all California oak species.

The Center for Biological Diversity would rather see Tejon Ranch be preserved as a new national or state park and preserve, to protect a bounty of native plant and animal communities, cultural and historic features, and scenic vistas.

How about we offer a carrot? Name it the Michael Winer Corrective Karma National Park?

BTW, this leads me to one of my pet, oddball, make-the-world-better schemes. In thinking about the most environmentally-friendly way to dispose of ourselves after death, why not do like the Tibetans, who practise sky burials? In other words, make ourselves food for vultures, specifically, California condors. Michael Winer, when your time comes, could you lead the way, in a park named for you?
 

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Obesity Kills More Than Hunger

| Wed Oct. 28, 2009 3:31 PM EDT

Something to think about as we navigate a health care plan. A new report by the World Health Organization documents how one-quarter of the total 60 million annual deaths annually are premature and preventable deaths.

Furthermore, global life expectancy would increase by 5 years if we tackled 5 preventable factors affecting health. These are: underweight children, unprotected sex, alcohol abuse, unsafe water and related sanitation and hygiene issues, plus high blood pressure.

The report, Global health risks, describes 24 factors that shape human health and longevity. They are a mixture of environmental, behavioral, and physiological factors, including preventable societal ills, like air pollution.

Eight factors alone account for over 75 percent of coronary heart disease deaths—the leading cause of death worldwide. These eight factors include booze abuse, smoking, and low fruit and vegetable intake. Obesity creates or contributes to the other causes: high blood glucose, high blood pressure, high body mass index, high cholesterol, and physical inactivity.

Worldwide, overweight and obesity now cause more deaths than underweight.

Combining any or all of these factors gets deadly in a hurry, the report notes. Reducing even one risk increases longevity.

A few other sad and preventable highlights:

  • Nine environmental and behavioral risks, together with 7 infectious causes, are responsible for 45 percent of cancer deaths worldwide
  • Unhealthy and unsafe environments cause one in four child deaths worldwide
  • 71% of lung cancer deaths are caused by tobacco smoking
  • Easily remedied nutritional deficiencies prevent one in 38 newborns from reaching the age of five in low-income countries
  • 10 leading preventable risks decrease life expectancy by nearly 7 years globally and by more than 10 years for Africa

It's the challenge of our individual and collective future: to eat right (be it more or less), exercise more, quit smoking, drink booze in moderation, wear condoms, clean the waters, clean the air. That should keep us busy for 80 years or more, a decent lifespan.

 

Charge Your Cell Phone with Light, Any Light

| Tue Oct. 27, 2009 4:32 PM EDT

I was just wishing for something like this the other day and now see that SunCore of Irvine California has a patent pending on technology making it possible to charge a cell phone using room light, sunlight, or any light.

The OC Register reports that SunCore's upcoming Novacell external solar charger system gets power from the entire spectrum (up to ultraviolet, down to infrared) and is efficient enough to charge a cell phone in a normal room. You plug and charge via a USB connection. It'll also charge most mobile internet devices (MIDs), iPods and the likes, GPS units, digital still cameras, video cameras, and other gadgets.

The first chargers are headed to China. SunCore's preparing an $800,000 test order for China Mobile, followed by a $21 million order if successful.

The company's also developing embedded light-powered batteries enabling virtually any phone to be retrofitted before or after manufacturing. In theory, you'll be able to buy a light-powered phone that's ready to go. Or you can rip the back off your current phone and hack a SunCore light-powered battery into place yourself. Plug and play.

Cell phone maker HTM has ordered 100,000 of the company's embedded batteries for a market test. RIM, makers of the Blackberry, are also apparently testing the SunCore batteries. According to the OC Register:

"The only behavior change that we have to ask of consumers is that when they put their phone down they put it back side up. It's actually a small change in behavior to more or less continuously charge your phone," says SunCore CEO Steve Brimmer.

Price? Timeline? I am so ready for this. Can they get a few to Copenhagen, maybe as conference goodies to lure our reluctant and lackluster leaders?
 

Blast Climate Change: India's Ready to Go Nuclear

| Mon Oct. 26, 2009 6:06 PM EDT

The effects of coal-fired power are obvious everywhere in India. Filthy air. Grimy buildings. Persistent tubercular coughing from people, babies, dogs, cats, cows.

It's reminiscent of Europe in the first half of the 20th century, complete with pea-soup—make that dhal-soup—smogs.

So who can blame India for wanting to get more energy and cleaner energy and turning to the fastest solution? Just like France did. And Japan. And Russia. And South Korea.

Ever since a deal with the US last October removed sanctions denying access to the international atomic energy market, India's been on a nuclear spending bender, reports the Asia Times. They've signed big nuclear and tech agreements with Russia, the US, and France. They've signed lesser agreements with Namibia, Mongolia, Tajikistan, South Korea, Kazakhstan, and Argentina—and are about to sign with Canada.

Last week India assigned sites for Russian, French, and American firms to build new reactors: the French in Maharashtra; the Russians in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal; the US in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.

Which leads to the dirty little secret that supposedly-clean nuclear power is making a stealthy comeback as the miraculous climate fix of the 21st century. Britain's made an about-face and is pledging a whopping 30 percent nuclear by 2030.

Conservative blogger Paul Mirengoff at Power Line tries to convince why we should not be afraid. He paraphrases Former Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham writing in the Weekly Standard, in a piece called New Nukes!:

The objection to using nuclear power, to the extent it has any rational basis at all, stems from concerns about safety. But these concerns are founded on events from the late 1970s (Three Mile Island) and mid 1980s (Chernobyl). Since then... nuclear reactors and the whole nuclear industry have been transformed. Ironically, the old facilities continue to operate, while new, safer ones cannot be built. To borrow and expand on Abraham's analogy, the position of the critics makes about as much sense as refusing to have heart bypass surgery because the mortality rate associated with this procedure was high during the 1970s, but then having the surgery anyway using the procedures of the 1970s.

Abraham writes about the need for increased nuclear power to combat climate change. He writes without a smidgeon of irony regarding his own intransigent resistance to any notion of climate change as secretary of energy during George W. Bush's first term. He never mentions nuclear waste disposal. He never mentions security issues... like the alleged terrorist found to be working at a British nuclear lab.

But back to India. Should we be worried that a nation struggling to provide clean drinking water or universal education for its people, one that is in a state of near-war with all its neighbors, is racing to construct 15 nuclear power plants at eight different sites? Should we be concerned that firms including GE Hitachi, Toshiba Westinghouse, Areva, and Rosatom are vying for contracts worth an estimated US $100 billion?

Isn't there a better way to spend $100 billion than on a clean energy fix with filthy risks?

The only way to beat nuclear is to bring solar, geothermal, and intelligent wind up to speed and on-line faster. At the moment, only the US is holding out against nuclear—the technology we invented. It's up to us to enter the future with foresight. To pioneer the better solution. Fast.

Check the latest MoJo for the unholy scramble among lobbyists in DC for the future of the energy world.

You know, there's a lot of sun in India. In fact India has one of the world’s highest solar intensities, with an annual energy yield of 1,700 to 1,900 kilowatt hours per kilowatt peak of  installed capacity. It's cleaner, safer, and freer.


 

Obama: Get Ye to Copenhagen and Earn Your Nobel

| Fri Oct. 23, 2009 5:03 PM EDT

The Times of London today reports it's unlikely Obama will attend Copenhagen climate talks and may use his Nobel acceptance speech to set US environmental goals instead.

I was off the grid in remote rural India when Obama won the Nobel. Didn't hear about it for a few days. When I did, my Indian hosts were scratching their heads wondering what this likeable man had done to deserve it.

Since then their own prime minister has followed the pessimistic US lead when he said that India will not sacrifice its economic development for a new climate change deal.

But imagine for a moment that Obama really did attend Copenhagen and brought all his theoretical mediator skills to bear on the proceedings.

Rather than using a Nobel he doesn't yet deserve to set US environmental goals, Obama could actually set those environmental goals in the midst of the most monumental environmental meeting ever held (read Bill McKibben on this in the latest MoJo).

It might actually change the world. And that would justify his Nobel.

Can't you try, Barack Obama?
 

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