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.

What To Do With Old Lightbulbs?

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 2:47 PM EDT

Recently switched all the lights in your house over to CFLs? Inhabitat has an idea for giving your old incandescents new life: Make them into vases. Only challenge is to support the bulbs so they stand up. Pictured left is a stand called a Potus Pot, but I imagine it wouldn't be too hard to make your own bulb support. If you filled an old tray with a bed of pebbles a few inches deep, I'm guessing you could nestle a few bulbs in there. Readymade has another idea.

Readers, have any of you found other ways to reuse old lightbulbs?

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Did 9/11 Cause More Male Miscarriages?

| Thu May 27, 2010 2:55 PM EDT

More male fetuses than female were miscarried in the year after 9/11, a new UC Irvine study finds. According to a lead researcher, here's why:

In this case, women across the country were undergoing a process of "communal bereavement" -- empathizing with others, even if they hadn't experienced a direct loss during 9/11.

"It's a situation where witnessing harm, even if you don't actually suffer yourself, can actually induce harm," Bruckner said.

Female fetuses are hardier than males, because women have adapted to produce what Bruckner describes as "the alpha male." In times of prosperity and security, male fetuses are more likely to be brought to term, because there's a greater chance that they'll be healthy and robust. During periods of scarcity, however, male miscarriages are much more common.

"A woman's body faces a decision -- evolutionary, not cognitive -- of whether to carry her male baby to term, or abort the fetus," Bruckner said. "If you're pregnant in a time of low resources, there's less impetus for your body to bear that child."

So: Women were emotionally drained by 9/11, so somehow their bodies knew it'd be harder to raise an "alpha male" in such a stressful environment. Therefore, their wombs rejected the male fetuses.

I'm skeptical. For starters, how could you ever prove such a theory? For a while now another MoJo editor and I have been collecting examples of folks taking the general principle of natural selection and really just running with it, using it to explain all sorts of things. For example: Why do men prefer blondes? "Typically, young girls with light blond hair become women with brown hair. Thus, men who prefer to mate with blond women are unconsciously attempting to mate with younger women."  Why do women like the color pink? "Being drawn to men with rosy, rather than pale, complexions may also have helped them bear healthy children."

These are fun to think about, since the have a sort of a creation-myth feel about them. That's probably because we've evolved to wonder about human nature, don't you think? But seriously, this isn't science, it's speculation. And in the wrong hands, it could actually be used to undermine real evolutionary science. That could be dangerous.


"Green" Hand Sanitizer?

| Tue May 25, 2010 2:23 PM EDT

Triple Pundit reports that Purell is now offering an eco-certified hand sanitizer:

...the watery gel everyone from Dick Cheney to Barack Obama uses to keep their hands “99.9%” germ-free now is now available in a biodegradable formula made from 100 percent renewable plant-based ethanol in a completely recyclable PET plastic container. Whew!

The whole package has been certified by Ecologo, which confirms that the product meets its recently released “Instant Hand Antiseptic Products standard.” Accord to Joe Kanfer, CEO of GOJO, maker of Purell, it is the world’s first hand sanitizer to received certification from an independent eco-labeling program.

The new product’s light-weight packaging uses 30 percent less material, saving 250 tons of plastic a year.

Purell certainly deserves props for producing a biodegradable product and greening its packaging. But as Mother Jones reported in "Germ Warfare," our national obsession with cleanliness has reached a fever pitch, and some scientists think being too clean has actually made us sicker. Proponents of the "hygiene hypothesis" blame allergies and other autoimmune diseases on a lack of certain germs: In the developing world, where gut parasites are much more common, autoimmune disorders are much less common.

As the Boston Globe reports, some doctors are even experimenting with infecting allergic people with hook worms in hopes of giving their immune systems something to do besides give them allergy attacks. Infecting yourself with a parasite might seem creepier than popping a Benadryl, but the process actually sounds fairly painless. If it works? Imagine the possibilities: Less sneezing=fewer allergy drugs=fewer antihistamines in our waterways, etc. 

As Triple Pundit's BC Upham points out, Purell isn't to blame for antibiotic-resistant superbugs—it's not made with antimicrobial agents, just alcohol. But it's still an awfully effective germ killer. So what do you think, Blue Marble readers? Should Purell be allowed to call a hand sanitizer green?

Michael Pollan's Nonfiction Picks

| Mon May 24, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan's answers:

Mother Jones: Are there any under-the-radar books about nutrition and food politics you'd recommend to fans of your work?

Michael Pollan: There have been a handful of books on food politics that I consider landmarks: Food Politics by Marion Nestle; Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (though hardly under the radar); Joan Gussow's This Organic Life, the first and best book on eating locally; Raj Patel's Stuffed and Starved takes the conversation to the global level; as does The End of Food by Paul Roberts. There's a strong shelf that will get anybody up to speed. On nutrition, besides Nestle's What to Eat, be sure to read Gary Taube's Good Calories, Bad Calories, which effectively demolishes the lipid hypothesis that has ruled the whole food conversation for 40 years.

MJ: Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and relatives? Why?

MP: Lately I'm pushing them to read Cornered by Barry C. Lynn, a really original book on how monopolization is eroding our political culture.  

MJ: Which nonfiction book have you reread the most times? What's so good about it?

MP: I find I return to Wendell Berry's essays over and over, which can be read on so many levels. Thoreau's Walden continues to nourish and aggravate; The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, and the essays of George Orwell all get an annual workout.

MJ: Is there a nonfiction book that someone recommended to you when were a kid that has left a lasting impression? Who recommended it, and why was it so special?

MP: My parents gave me George Plimpton's Paper Lion when I was 13 or 14, and I think in retrospect it's shaped my journalism in many ways—but especially the humor he squeezes out of participation. 

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