Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

A senior editor at Mother Jones, Kiera covers health, food, and the environment. She is the author of the new book Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever (University of California Press).

 

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Times Square's Carbon Ticker

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 5:20 PM EDT

New Yorkers (actually, more like throngs of tourists) will be able to see exactly how many metric tons of greenhouse gases are in our atmosphere in real time, thanks to the new 70-foot-tall carbon ticker that Deutsche Bank unveiled in Times Square today. Deutsche Bank says the ticker itself is carbon neutral: It's made of LEDs, and is offset with carbon credits. (Wonder what kind...)

MoJo contributor Joel Makower, who runs the site GreenBiz. com, points out that the ticker could be overwhelming:

“It’s good to get this information constantly in front of them [people]," says Joel Makower executive editor of GreenBiz.com. At the same time, however, he says that such a huge number could be intimating to some people, who might question whether they could actually make a reduction in those numbers. "Big numbers are impressive, but they make us feel impotent," adds Makower.

The other problem: Metric tons can be hard to wrap your mind around. I guess the point of the ticker is to show how quickly we're dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but a more concrete measure (cars on the road? Power plants? How close we're getting to some kind of tipping point?) might make it all more fathomable, and hence more effective.

HT @makower.

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Film Review: New Muslim Cool

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 2:31 PM EDT

Growing up in a Puerto Rican-American family in a tough section of the Bronx, Jason “Hamza” Perez dreamed he would end up in jail and die young. Now he thinks he was right—sort of. When he meets some local Muslim sheikhs at 21, he converts to Islam and his gangbanger self “dies.” A few years later, he finds himself volunteering at a faith-based initiative program in a local prison. A sensitive and perceptive film, New Muslim Cool chronicles Hamza’s halting evolution from thug to Muslim leader and family man.

We meet Hamza in medias res: A single dad raising two kids, he’s about to get married to a woman he met on a Muslim dating website and move to a community of mostly Latino Muslim converts in Pittsburgh. Director Jennifer Maytorena Taylor deftly constructs a portrait of Hamza learning to build cultural bridges: He cooks “boricua halal” food (traditional Puerto Rican fare made according Muslim dietary code), ministers to teenagers with his hip hop group, the Mujahideen Team, and explains to his skeptical but curious mom why her granddaughter has started wearing a hijab to school.

But the film’s real strength is mixing the political with the domestic: Just as Hamza has learned to move among his own worlds, the outside world gets in the way. And that’s where things really start to get interesting: The police raid the new Pittsburgh mosque—the stated reason is a convicted child molester who worships there, but the community suspects the FBI had been watching them for a while. And later, the prison where Hamza volunteers suddenly revokes his security clearance without explanation (he eventually gets it back). New Muslim Cool shows how Bush-era Islamophobia affected one family’s daily life, but the most remarkable part is watching Hamza and his family take the turmoil in stride. “You know you’re not doing anything wrong,” says Hamza’s wife Rafia. “So you just live your life.”


New Muslim Cool debuts on PBS Tuesday, June 23 at 10 PM, and opens in select theaters nationwide this month.

 

Revive Chestnuts, Fight Climate Change?

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 3:05 PM EDT

American chestnut trees had always thrived in forests, towns, and farmland in the eastern US—until the early part of the last century, when a chestnut blight, thought to have come from the far east, all but obliterated the species.

But the tree still looms large in the American imagination, and for good reason: It's beautiful, towering and leafy. It also grows quickly, and its durable wood makes good floors, tables, and fences. For years, groups like American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation have been working to revive the American chestnut. Now, it looks like a research team at Purdue University might have done it by creating a hybrid:

New efforts to hybridize remaining American chestnuts with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts have resulted in a species that is about 94 percent American chestnut with the protection found in the Chinese species. Jacobs said those new trees could be ready to plant in the next decade, either in existing forests or former agricultural fields that are being returned to forested land.

Beyond the obvious ecological and aesthetic benefits of the new chestnut, researchers point out that the tree could also help mitigate the effects of global warming by removing carbon from the atmosphere. All trees do that of course, but the American chestnut would be particularly good at it, since it grows big quickly, explained a researcher:

"Each tree has about the same percentage of its biomass made up of carbon, but the fact that the American chestnut grows faster and larger means it stores more carbon in a shorter amount of time," Jacobs said.

No word yet on how the hybrid's chestnuts taste roasted, you know, over an open fire...

 

The Childhood Obesity Puzzle

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 10:15 AM EDT

What's making American kids fat? Some blame food deserts, while others implicate fast-food restaurants, lack of exercise, or poor parental eating habits. But a few recent studies seem to suggest that the childhood obesity epidemic may be more complicated than we thought.

In the New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope reports that among kids under 13, burgers and fries are out, while yogurt, soup, and grilled chicken are in. This, she says, is good news:

To be sure, pizza, burgers, fries and kids’ meals are still the most popular items ordered by children; the percentage gains for items like soup and yogurt are from a smaller base. But the trends bolster an argument that children’s health researchers have made for years: if you offer more healthful food, kids will eat it.

But will they? Another recent study suggests that parental eating habits actually have little to do with kids' food choices. And according to a study released today by the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, household proximity to fast-food restaurants doesn't have much bearing on whether a child is obese, either. (And get this: The Purdue researchers found that living near a gym or rec center was actually associated with weight gain.)

So, what to make of these counterintuitive findings? While any one of these factors might not explain childhood obesity on its own, it's also not realistic to think of them as existing in a vacuum. Instead, they act in concert, along with other variables, like genetics. It's not totally out of the question that a kid who is genetically predisposed to obesity might also live near McDonald's and watch his dad eat Quarter Pounders three times a week. A wholistic study that figures out which factors matter most, and how they interact—that's a tall order. It'd take a long time, and a whole lot of research power to boot.

Till that happens, is it really useful to isolate these variables? Post your thoughts in the comments.

Who's Thinner: Owners or Renters?

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 3:31 PM EDT

A new study from University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School finds that women homeowners are an average of 12 pounds heavier than renters. They're also more aggravated and spend less time socializing.

Thing is, it's hard to tell why. Figuring it out, the article notes, presents a chicken-and-egg type problem, since two lines of homeowner reasoning are possible:

a) Now that I've gone and bought a house, I may as well make owning my house worthwhile by maxing and relaxing in it as much as humanly possible.

b) I really like maxing and relaxing. Much more than, say, going for a walk with my friends. Gosh, it'd be great to have my very own M&R temple.

Previous studies have shown that homeowners are happier than renters, but they didn't control for external factors, like whether or not the subjects have kids. This study did.

Have you recently switched from renting to owning or vice versa? What's it like?

HT @aarieff.

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