Extinct Seabird Returns to Life

Well, it was never really dead. The Tasman Booby, Sula dactylatra tasmani, described from fossils on islands off the east coast of Australia, went extinct in the late 18th century—victim of hungry European sailors, reports New Scientist.

But now a team of geneticists, paleontologists, and naturalists has found the bird alive and well and living among its own fossils and on a few islands off New Zealand. DNA analysis of six Tasman Booby fossils perfectly match the living birds known as Sula dactylatra fullagari. Paper in Biology Letters.

Henceforth, the resurrected and misidentified will be known as as Sula dactylatra tasmani.

Whatever we call it, this gannetlike seabird is another, and very welcome, Lazarus taxon (read John Platt at 60-Second Science) risen from the dead—along with the Nelson's small-eared shrew rediscovered in Mexico last month and the greater dwarf cloud rat found in a Philippine forest in 2008. Plus a few I wrote about in Gone: the Wollemi pine and mahogany glider in Australia, Jerdon’s Courser in India, takahe in New Zealand, and (maybe) the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the US.
 

John Edwards To Admit Paternity?

Well, you could have seen this coming. CBS News and its affliate WRAL News of Raleigh, NC, are reporting that former Senator John Edwards will admit to being the father of a daughter born to his mistress Rielle Hunter. When there's a grand jury involved, no secret will stay secret for long. Details here.

During his New Hampshire town hall meeting on health care reform in mid-August, Obama explained that under his plan, people who lack health insurance would be able to purchase it in a new exchange that offered a similar “menu of options that I used to have as a member of Congress.” Obama said that by creating a big pool of potential customers, the exchange would allow the uninsured and even small businesses to shop around, easily compare various private health care plans and get a better deal than they could on their own.

Most of the health care reform bills circulating in Congress contain some form of this concept. The exchange, in fact, is now the centerpiece of proposed plans drafted mainly by Democrats. It’s a curious development, because the concept was largely popularized by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank best known in recent years for advocating Social Security privatization during the Bush administration. Its track record ought to make Americans more wary of Obama's proposals than any talk of "socialized medicine."
 

Millions of Burgers Wasted

The British supermarket giant Tesco is no longer sending any trash to the landfill. Impressive, considering the company's annual waste weighs as much as 75,000 double-decker buses. A company press release lists a few examples of how Tesco is making all that garbage disappear, including turning recycled carrier bags into trash bags and recycling used cardboard boxes to make new ones for the store. Then there's this:

• Re-using waste meat to generate fuel through a third-party plant which goes back into the national grid as electricity – at present, 5,000 tonnes of waste meat generate c. 2,500 mega watt hours of renewable electricity.

Huh. Over at Triple Pundit, Mary Catherine O'Connor points out that this isn't quite as sustainable as Tesco is making it sound:

OK, great, but why does Tesco generate 5,000 tons of waste meat? Assuming that’s an annual figure, each of the 2,282* Tesco stores in the UK would be trashing about 2 tons of meat each year (the largest stores would generate much more than small corner outlets). Sure, generating power is a better use of the waste meat than tossing it into landfills (where it will continue to produce methane, which may or may not be captured), but the animals that created those 5000 tons of meat took a tremendous amount of energy and water to raise and what about all the greenhouse gasses, including methane, that went into their production?

This all got me wondering exactly what kind of meat was wasted the most. Here in the US, we toss four percent of all our chicken and beef and an astonishing 12 percent of lamb/goat and 25 percent of veal. As a rule of thumb, more unusual meat means more waste, according to this report (PDF):

Retailers indicated to the Perishables Group that they feel they must offer lamb to consumers, just as they offer veal. Consumers are often unclear on how to prepare lamb and therefore decide not to buy it. Lamb is more likely than some other meats not to be sold before its expiration date.

So one way supermarkets could reduce meat waste would be to stop stocking meat people don't actually buy. Customers who want, say, an ostrich steak or goat ribs, would have to order it in advance.

Other ideas for reducing meat waste? Leave 'em in the comments.

 

Health care reformers pretend they want to make you healthy. Really, they want to sell your organs to China. And slay your grandma. And murder cute puppies.

Watch satirist Mark Fiore take on these and other horrors of health care reform below:

Mother Jones Responds to Fiji Water

Fiji Water spokesman Rob Six has posted a response to our story at the company’s blog. Writer Anna Lenzer replies:

Six’s key points are the same he and other Fiji executives have repeatedly made, and which are reflected in detail in my story: Donating money for water access projects or kindergartens is laudable, and I discuss Fiji’s charitable projects in Fiji (despite numerous requests, Fiji wouldn’t disclose how much it spends on most of these projects). The piece also makes it clear that Fiji Water accounts for significant economic activity in Fiji, and company executives are quoted to that effect.

Six doesn't address the key questions raised in my Mother Jones story, from the polluting background of Fiji Water’s owners past and present, to the company’s decision to funnel assets through tax havens, to its silence on the human rights abuses of the Fijian government. My piece doesn’t argue that Fiji Water actively props up the regime, but that its silence amounts to acquiescence.

"We cannot and will not speak for the government," Six writes. I didn't ask them to speak for the government, I asked them to comment on it. Though Fiji Water casts itself as a progressive, outspoken company in the US, it has a policy of not discussing Fiji’s regime “unless something really affects us,” as Six was quoted in the story.

The regime clearly benefits from the company's global branding campaign characterizing Fiji as a "paradise" where there is "no word for stress." Fiji's tourism agencies use Fiji Water as props in their promotional campaigns, and the company itself has publicized pictures of President Obama drinking Fiji Water. This is a point repeatedly made by international observers, including a UN official who in a recent commentary (titled "Why Obama should stop drinking Fiji water”) called for sanctions on Fiji, and singled out Fiji Water as the one company with enough leverage to force the junta to budge. Yet the most pointed criticism the company has made of the regime was when it opposed a tax as "draconian;" it has never used language like that to refer to the junta's human rights abuses.

It’s worth remembering that there aren’t very many countries ruled by military juntas today, and Americans prefer not to do business with those that are. We don't import Burma Water or Libya Water.

As to Six’ point that the company didn’t know I was in Fiji: I did contact Fiji Water before my trip, and Six mentioned that the company was "thinking about taking a group of journalists to Fiji"; I didn't follow up about joining such a trip. Despite news reports showing that Fiji wouldn’t cooperate with journalists who went there independently, I chose to do so and visited the factory on a public tour. I had planned to speak to Fiji Water’s local representatives, and to visit the surrounding villages, afterward. But it was at that point that I was arrested by Fijian police, interrogated about my plans to write about Fiji Water, and threatened with imprisonment and rape. After that incident, personnel at the US embassy strongly encouraged me not to visit the villages. I did discuss my trip to the islands with Six after I returned, and had extensive correspondence with him on numerous questions, many of which he has not addressed to this day. Here are some issues Fiji Water could address in public:

- Why won't the company disclose the total amount of money that Fiji Water spends on its charity work? Do its charitable contributions come close to matching the 30 percent corporate tax rate it would be paying had it not been granted a tax holiday in Fiji since 1995? 

- Will Fiji Water owners Lynda and Stewart Resnick, who in the company’s PR materials contrast our tap water supply with the “living water” found in their bottles, disclose the full volume of pesticides that their farming and flower companies use every year? Could limiting those inputs create better water here at home?

- Fiji touts its commitments to lighten its plastic bottle (which is twice as heavy as many competitors’) by 20 percent next year, to offset its carbon emissions by 120 percent, and to restore environmentally sensitive areas in Fiji, but its public statements never acknowledge that these projects are, in many cases, still on the drawing board or in the negotiating stages. Why?

Read Six' post after the jump.

Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery are the Co-Editors of Mother Jones. You can follow them on Twitter here and here.
 

What To Read, What To Read

Maybe I'm late to the online book-recommending party, but I just came across Book Seer, a site that allows you to enter in a book you've enjoyed, and based on that book, pulls up a few suggestions (compiled from other sites like Amazon, Library Thing, and Book Army). This is the kind of thing that really can suck me into an Internet vortex, but I have a frighteningly long to-do list this morning, so I decided to give myself some rules for experimenting with Book Seer: three books only, one fiction, one nonfiction, one poetry. For fiction, I chose David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, since I was curious to see whether Book Seer had any other books up its sleeve about addiction, tennis, and Quebec separatists. My nonfiction choice was Angler, Barton Gellman's Dick Cheney biography, which I haven't read but always intend to, and my poetry pick was Jane Kenyon's collection Let Evening Come, since I recently finished it and was pretty moved by it.

1. Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace).

The results: Amazon uncreatively recommends a bunch of other DFW titles, Library Thing does the same, plus some DeLillo and Pynchon (fair enough), but Book Army has this list:

I guess the idea is coming of age stories? Which I guess Infinite Jest is. Sort of.

Most intriguing recommendation: Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis-Lessons from a Master (A Fireside book) by Brad Gilbert

2. Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (Barton Gellman).

The results: Kind of a weird mix of books about business and books that are in some way related to the presidency, including:

Most intriguing recommendation: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner

3. Let Evening Come (Jane Kenyon).

The results: Lots of Mary Oliver, who, like Kenyon writes about the natural world (and New England specifically) plus some greatest-hits-of-poetry type suggestions (The Waste Land, Leaves of Grass, Shakespeare's sonnets: all good, though not particularly Kenyon-ish).

Most intriguing recommendation: Without: Poems by Donald Hall

Okay. Back to work.

How America Can Win in Afghanistan's Elections

It's too easy to tune out news about Afghanistan's impending elections. They might be corrupt, they're in the midst of disarray, mm-hm, that sounds about right for that faraway fucked-up place. For a more gorgeous and engaging primer, check out the piece by the talented Mr. Tamim Ansary on The Rumpus. The author of Destiny Disrupted, who recently spoke with Mother Jones about his country and his newest book, makes the case for what's at stake not just for Afghanistan but for America's image there--perhaps a more accessible cause for concern.

Sludge & the White House: My Response to the NYT

Yesterday the New York Times' Home & Garden section finally addressed the story that the White House press corps has dared not bespeak: The possibility that sewage sludge fertilizer has contributed lead and other toxins to the soil in the President's vegetable garden.

A few months ago, it was the quaint Garden section that casually broke the news that the White House garden, which had been created by Michelle Obama to the delight of local and organic food advocates, contained 93 parts per million of lead--a level that is higher than natural background levels but not dangerous. The piece led me to wonder if sewage sludge fertilizer, which had been applied to the South Lawn in the past, could be one cause of the lead contamination. That post created a frenzy in the blogosphere as some people made ridiculous claims that the Obamas were poisoning themselves.

Lost in the obsession over lead levels (which the White House now says have been reduced to an extremely low 14 ppm) was much of any discussion about why people should be concerned about eating produce from land applied with sludge. So the Times deserves credit for acknowledging the issue, even if its reporting was surprisingly cursory and a bit misleading.

Taking issue with my claim that sludge was used on the White House lawn for at least a decade, the Times quoted retired White House gardener Irv Williams, who said it was applied only once, in 1985. When I originally reported on sludge, I had left multiple messages with the White House press office trying to reach Williams or anyone else with the gardening staff, but none of them were returned.  So instead, I relied on several stories about sludge and the White House from the '80s and '90s. In 1988, the Washington Post reported that ComPRO was used on the South Lawn "last August." If that's true, then Williams' memory is a bit unreliable. A decade later, the Post reported that ComPRO was being discontinued and that Williams was none too pleased about this. "Meanwhile, along Pennsylvania Avenue, the grounds crew at the White House is preparing for life after ComPRO," the Post reported. "Irv Williams, who has taken care of the White House grounds for 38 years, said they will make due, even though ComPRO has helped the South Lawn." Around the same time, an EPA official told the New Scientist: "The Clintons are walking around on poo, but it's very clean poo." In short, if sludge had long ago been discontinued at the White House, it certainly wasn't the impression being conveyed by government officials.

Why could that be? One reason could be that the EPA was very keen on using the White House example as a PR tool for the selling of sludge to home gardeners and agricultural America. So it's ironic that the spin now seems to have changed directions. In an apparent attempt to counter my message that sludge use by the government was common, the Times added, "And in 1994 President Bill Clinton sent a directive to government agencies telling them to start using environmentally friendly practices for landscaping government grounds, like reducing the use of toxic chemicals."

Really? Then how do you explain what Williams told the Post in 1999, when asked how he would replace ComPRO: "We'll do the same thing we did before we got it--use grass clippings that decompose and regular commercial fertilizer (my emphasis). More to the point, in September, 2007, the EPA adjusted its government procurement standards for the "landscaping products" category to specifically include "compost made from recovered organic materials," including "compost made from biosolids" (the EPA's term for sludge). The standards recommend that government agencies use only compost that meets this definition. 

So contrary to the impression conveyed by the Times, it's pretty safe to assume that sludge--with all of its flaws--is still in wide use by the government. At least the paper's gardening section isn't parroting the of Post's "Ornamental Gardener" column of the late '80s, which described ComPRO as "attractive, hummuslike and easy to handle" and conducive to "ideal conditions for healthy root growth." Instead, the Times reports that good sources of organic matter for gardening include "composted leaves, non-acid peat, and well-rotted manure." But sludge? Don't hold your breath.

 

Recession Depression

According to a new Zogby poll one in three Americans say they have been seriously impacted by the recession, and 14% say their households have been "devastated." Also, fewer than half of all adults (41%) expect their household financial situations to return to pre-recession conditions.  Predictably, adults with lower household incomes reported being harder hit by the recession, though 1 in 5 adults with family incomes above $250,000 reported a "four" or "five" on the scale of "no impact" to "devastating."

Perhaps playing up their cynicism Republicans indicated the most hardship (40% say they are at or near devastation, compared with 28% of Dems), and only a third of Republicans think they'll ever make it back to their pre-recession comfort level.