Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

Big Oil's Chernobyl?

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 7:00 PM EDT

PBS Need to Know's Jon Meacham recently interviewed Carl Safina, president and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, on the dirty dispersants BP is using on the spill, the long-term forecast for the Gulf, and why the spill is shaping up to be the oil industry's Chernobyl. The segment (below) is really worth watching in its entirety, but here are a few highlights:

Jon Meacham: You testified last week that the dispersant was an out-of-sight, out-of-mind strategy.

Carl Safina: A good way of thinking about it is you have a greasy pan, you put the detergent on it and it starts dissolving the oil. So it’s no longer sticking in a concentrated way, it’s creating a bowl of dirty dishwater. That’s what a dispersant does. It doesn’t neutralize the oil. It doesn’t make the oil go away. In fact, the dispersant makes the oil more toxic to living things...The toxic parts don’t evaporate, because they’re not at the surface. They can get into the gills, into the mouths of fish, and they bathe all the larval eggs, all the baby fish, and all the little baby crustaceans...And the dispersant itself is also toxic.

...

JM: What are your views on the long-term effects on ocean life?

CS: No one knows exactly what the long-term effects will be, but we have quite a bit to draw on. We know the oil is toxic, we know the dispersant is toxic, and it makes the oil more toxic, and we know there is more of it in this semi-enclosed body of water than has ever happened in history. So there is almost certainly a very large die-off of fish eggs, fish larvae, and plankton communities. We also know that turtles eat oil. They just tend to ingest these blobs, because they eat jellyfish usually. And it kills them. We also know it kills dolphins and whales. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground it killed about 40 percent of the killer whales there. That population has not recovered in 20 years. The herring population has also not recovered in 20 years. So we knows it kills wildlife at the moment of the event, and that the long-term effects can linger for decades.

JM: Characterize this. Is this a Katrina-like event? What are the analogies in history that you’re thinking of?

CS: In talking to people in the Gulf, they are saying this is going to make Katrina look like a bad day...I think that rather than this being something like Katrina, this is Big Oil’s Chernobyl. I think it’s a catastrophe that shows the enormous risk this industry poses to public health, and to the health of communities.

JM: Who do you blame for the spill? Is it BP? Is it lax regulation? And what can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

CS: I think we have a culture of irresponsibility and a culture that makes us think about ourselves first, instead of our safety first, or our community first, or our country first. BP has been irresponsible. They had indications of trouble, they went ahead. They didn’t want to spend more money on a better backup system. They didn’t have backup plans. On the other hand, we have a government whose job is supposed to be to insulate our interest—the public interest and the interest of the future and the country—from the narrow interest of a few people, and that failed, too.
...

JM: Is there any good that can come from this?

CS: I’m not sure any good can come out of this, but there is a very important lesson t be learned. People have said that the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of rocks. We’re trying to wring the last drops out of oil that we’re depleting. Ever since I was in high school we have known that what we need is a diverse array of fuel sources that focuses mainly on clean, renewable sources of energey…We need to move that way by building a grid that can carry that energy around the country from wherever it’s abundant to wherever it’s needed.

...

JM: What can ordinary Americans who are concerned about this actually do to help reverse course?

CS: One of the things that we hear is that we are all responsible because we all use petroleum. That’s not really why we’re all responsible. We’re all responsible because we haven’t insisted on an energy policy that gets us beyond fossil fuels. Ever since we’ve lived in caves, every time we want energy we light something on fire. We’re still doing that. I think it’s time for us to get out of our caves and use the clean, eternal, renewable energy.
 

This PBS Need to Know interview with Carl Safina comes courtesy of the Climate Desk collaboration.

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Immigration Raids on Oil-Spill Workers, and Other News From the Gulf

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 1:41 PM EDT

MoJo reporter Mac McClelland is reporting from the Gulf Coast, tweeting, blogging, and snapping pictures of the BP disaster. Over at her blog, The Rights Stuff, Mac reports on ICE's crackdown on undocumented oil spill workers. Last week, a BP mole spilled the beans to Mac about what's really going on behind BP's beach blockades. Finally, watch Mac on PBS' Need to Know:

 

Is Greek Yogurt Better Than Regular?

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

A few years back, when I lived in the predominantly Greek NYC neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, I got hooked on two foods: 1) flaky, cheesy spinach pie, and 2) yogurt from the local Mediterranean specialty market. Thick, creamy, and tangy, it bore little resemblance to the gelatinous American stuff I was used to. I bought big containers of it and ate it every day for breakfast with fruit. Sadly, since moving to California, I have yet to find a spinach pie as delicious as those in Astoria. (Bay Area readers, your tips are welcome.) But happily, at around the time that I moved, American yogurt manufacturers started making Greek-style yogurt, and since then it's exploded in popularity: All my local supermarkets carry it now. I still think it tastes better than American style. But it's also pricier. Which got me wondering: Which kind of yogurt is more nutritious? And which is better for the environment?

Ohio State University nutritionist Julie Kennel Shertzer explained to me that both Greek- and American-style yogurt are made by fermenting milk with live bacteria cultures—the only difference is that Greek yogurt is strained to remove the liquid whey, hence its thicker consistency. (The Greek yogurt company Fage has a good explanation of the process here.) Both are nutritional superstars: They're excellent sources of calcium and good sources of protein, their bacteria cultures aid digestion, and the unsweetened low- and nonfat varieties are low in calories. But according to Shertzer, Greek yogurt does have a few nutritional advantages over regular yogurt: "Since it's a more concentrated product, it packs a few more grams of protein per serving," she says. It's also a bit lower in sugar and carbohydrates, since lactose, a form of sugar present in all dairy products, is removed with the whey.

But Greek yogurt is not better for the environment than American-style yogurt, for one simple reason: It requires much more milk to make. For American-style yogurt, the ratio of milk to final yogurt product is about 1:1 (sometimes more like 1.3:1, since many manufacturers add in a little bit of condensed skim milk to improve the texture and protein content), while for Greek yogurt it's often as high as 4:1. Considering that dairy farms take quite a toll on the environment and produce a large amount of greenhouse gases (a recent United Nations study found that 3 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from milk production, including shipping) the environmental difference between Greek and American yogurt is fairly significant.

There's another problem, too: What to do with the whey that's left over from the Greek yogurt straining process? Rolf Carlson, vice president of sourcing and development at the yogurt manufacturer Stonyfield Farm explained that there are two kinds of whey: Sweet whey can be used as a food additive, but acid whey isn't as useful. Many major yogurt manufacturers give their acid whey to farmers to be used as animal feed or fertilizer, but according to Carlson, farmers must be careful when applying it to cropland, since whey runoff can pollute waterways (PDF). "It can affect the microbiology of the water," says Carlson. Some good news: Both Stonyfield Farm and the Greek yogurt company Chobani told me they are in the process building pricey anaerobic digesters to convert their waste whey into energy to power the factories.

If you're worried about Greek yogurt's environmental problems, you might consider making your own at home, and using the leftover whey: Simply pour American-style yogurt into cheesecloth and strain it for several hours over a container. The yogurt in the cheesecloth will be thicker and creamier when it's done. Use the whey left in the container instead of water to make rice—or in biscuits or just about any baking recipe in place of water. Supposedly you can also drink it. (I've never tried it, but Mother Jones co-editor-in-chief Monika Bauerlein swears it's delicious.)

Corrections appended: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that lactose is created during the fermentation process. It's actually present in all dairy products. An earlier version also stated that acid whey was inedible; it's actually just less desirable as a food additive.

BP Oil Coming to Your Beach, and More News from the Gulf

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Is oil from the BP disaster in the Gulf headed your way? According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) the spill "might soon extend along thousands of miles of the Atlantic coast and open ocean as early as this summer." Watch this video to see how your local beach might be affected. Closer to the spill epicenter, MoJo reporters Mac McClelland and Julia Whitty continue to blog, snap lots of pictures, and tweet live from the Gulf, while Kate Sheppard keeps tabs on the politics of the spill. Recent updates:

For more up-to-the-minute updates on the spill, check out our BP coverage and the Blue Marble blog. You can also follow Mac McClelland, Julia Whitty, Kate Sheppard, The Climate Desk, and the Blue Marble on Twitter.

Pro-Life Movement Goes "Green"

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 4:28 PM EDT

The pro-life coalition American Life League has a new tactic for convincing women not to use birth control: The Pill Kills the Environment campaign, set to launch this Saturday, June 5. From the "Talking Points" section of the campaign website:

Q: What can we do to help save our environment?
A: Educate! Educate the women in your life about the dangerous consequences the birth control pill can have, not only on them but on their preborn baby and all of the people in their community as well. The very fact that scientists are finding "intersex" fish, that is male fish with eggs in their testes, should be enough to alarm the environmentalists in your area and others that are concerned about protecting our environment. Scientists are finding that the presence of female hormones in our water is making male fish, frogs and river otters less masculine.

Oy. It's true that the hormones from birth control are a problem in waterways, but ALL's take on the subject lacks some serious perspective, to say the least. As we reported in an Econundrum on the subject:

Long-lasting devices like diaphragms create less waste than single-use rubbers, which can end up in sewers, clog waste treatment plants, and potentially pose a threat to wildlife. The Pill, while waste free, sends small amounts of estrogen into waterways, possibly harming fish. But whatever works for you—the toll of a few prophylactics is nothing compared to the environmental consequences of population growth.

For more on the environmental consequences of overpopulation, read MoJo environment reporter Julia Whitty's excellent piece on the issue here.

In the meantime, if you're worried about the pill's effect on the environment, you might be just the kind of person who would enjoy this. Endangered species condom!

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