Blue Marble

Drunken Vegetarians Are Sometimes Secret Meat Eaters

| Thu Oct. 8, 2015 9:55 AM EDT

A lot of people do things they regret when they are drunk. Maybe it's getting tanked and then incoherently divulging secret feelings for a colleague. Perhaps it's the slurred, eyes-shut karaoke rendition of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You." Or it could be that after being sucked into an alcohol-fueled gluttonous rampage, the favorite option is diving face first into a meaty meal—even if you happen to be a socially conscious vegetarian. 

According to a new study conducted by, a discount code company based in the United Kingdom, more than one-third of vegetarians have become nonvegetarians after a night of drinking. When Drunk Hungry hits, they are quick to ditch their diets—and convictions.

And, these drunken, carnivorous vegetarians aren't even honest about falling off the wagon. Close to 70 percent have kept their boozy burger-eating a secret. The next morning they go right back to pretending to be full-time vegetarians—at least until the next happy hour.

While most respondents did say they stand by their vegetarian principles even when they are crocked, George Charles, the founder of VoucherCodesPro, told the Morning Advertiser he was surprised by the results. He emphasized that people should offer more support for their drunken vegetarian buddies in times of temptation: "I think it's important," he says, "for friends of these vegetarians to support them when drunk and urge them not to eat meat, as I'm sure they regret it the next day!"

Friends don't ever let friends go on drunken meat binges they will regret.

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New Dietary Guidelines Won't Include Sustainability

| Wed Oct. 7, 2015 4:36 PM EDT

When the USDA's Dietary Guidelines are released later this year, they're sure to make waves in the nation's food economy. Updated every five years, the rules—the government's official line on what Americans should eat to stay healthy—inform decisions on everything from agricultural subsidies to government food assistance programs to school lunch.

Tuesday's announcement was a "shameful abnegation of political responsibility," said Earth Institute's Jeffrey Sachs.

But there's one thing the new guidelines won't touch: the health of our environment.

In a statement posted Tuesday on the USDA website, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwel announced that the guidelines will not include recommendations about how to choose foods with the lightest impact on the planet. The dietary guidelines, they wrote, are not "the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation."

The decision came despite the fact that in its February report, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee—the team that reviews scientific and medical evidence and offers advise on what should be included—highlighted the ties between environmental impact and healthy eating. "Access to sufficient, nutritious, and safe food is an essential element of food security for the US," the report stated. "A sustainable diet ensures this access for both the current population and future generations."

As my colleague Maddie Oatman noted when the committee released its recommendations, those ideas didn't go over well with Big Ag backers. Industry groups sent letters to Secretary Vilsack arguing that environmental impact is outside the scope of the Dietary Guidelines and spent millions of dollars trying to dissuade the USDA from including sustainability in its update.

Director of the Earth Institute Jeffrey Sachs, who is a Special Advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, called Tuesday's announcement a "shameful abnegation of political responsibility," after heralding the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report as a key breakthrough.

"For US government officials to suggest that this chapter should be deleted would be to argue for deleting science itself; a shameful abnegation of political responsibility in the face of lobbying pressure," he said in a press release. "Secretaries Burwell and Vilsack will be remembered for whether they stand up for science or for corporate lobbies."

Watch the Government Shoot Thousands of Moths Out of a Drone

| Tue Oct. 6, 2015 4:48 PM EDT

Pink bollworms are a species of pest (they're baby moths) that love to feast on cotton. They've been largely eliminated from the United States, but flare-ups do occur now and then, causing an expensive headache for farmers. So the US Department of Agriculture is experimenting with an innovative but also kind of weird and gross solution, which you can see in the video above.

The process starts by raising bollworms in a lab that are fed a red, oil-based dye. When the bollworms mature into moths, the coloration stays with them, so they can be distinguished from wild moths. The lab moths are blasted with radiation, which makes them sterile. Then they're released into the wild over fields with bollworm infestations. When the sterile lab moths mate with the wild ones, they're tricked into thinking they're going to reproduce, but don't. So no new moths.

Scientists have experimented with releasing sterile moths for the last few years. But now, they've enlisted a new tool: drones equipped with moth cannons. Anytime a bollworm infestation pops up, just call in a drone to deliver a few thousand irradiated moths.

School Lunches May Come With a Side of Gnarly Plastic Chemicals

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 2:43 PM EDT

When kids dig into their cafeteria lunches, they may be getting an unwanted side dish. A new study from Stanford University's Prevention Research Center has found that meals served at schools may contain unsafe amounts of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical compound that has been linked to a laundry list of health problems, including hormone disruption, ADHD, and cancer.

"The only items not packaged in plastic were oranges, apples and bananas."

BPA is widely used in plastic food packaging and can liners, but this is the first study on the compound to focus on school lunches, which often come prepackaged.

Researcher Jennifer Hartle observed that almost all the food that her team saw in schools came in plastic or cans. "Meat came frozen, pre-packaged, pre-cooked and pre-seasoned. Salads were pre-cut and pre-bagged," she said in a statement. "Corn, peaches and green beans came in cans. The only items not packaged in plastic were oranges, apples and bananas."

Teaming up with researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Hartle interviewed food service workers and observed cafeterias in schools around California's San Francisco Bay Area. The group compared the school food to previous studies showing how much BPA ends up in various kinds of food. They found that in school lunches, BPA concentrations depended on the meal served, but that some lunches—especially the ones made with canned fruits and vegetables rather than fresh—contained more than half the amount considered toxic in animal studies.

The authors point out that there's already a large body of research that BPA is dangerous even at low levels, and that while the European Food Safety Authority only allows for 4 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of body weight per day, the United States allows 50 micrograms.

BPA-free plastic packaging, say the authors, won't solve the problem—scientists have linked BPA alternatives to a wide-range of health risks. "The bottom line is more fresh fruits and vegetables," Hartle said in a statement. "There is a movement for more fresh veggies to be included in school meals, and I think this paper supports that."

Here's What You Need to Know About the Big Storm Coming for the East Coast

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 12:40 PM EDT
Hurricane Joaquin is currently passing the Bahamas and heading for the East Coast. This image is from Wednesday at noon ET.

The Northeast is in for a good soaking over the next few days from Hurricane Joaquin, which continues to gather strength as it makes a beeline for Washington, DC.

Here's the current trajectory of the storm. The blue shaded area is where scientists at the National Hurricane Center think the storm will go over the next one to three days:


There's still plenty of uncertainty about where Joaquin could wind up, according to the latest forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There's a chance it could veer out to sea and not make landfall at all; either way, it seems certain to gain strength over the next several days. As of late this morning, the NHC director was hesitant to make specific predictions about what Northeasterners should expect to face:

Still, he advised that authorities remain on high alert:

No matter which direction the storm goes, one thing is for sure: You're going to need an umbrella. And a jacket. And rubber boots.

One Good Thing to Come Out of California's Drought Is This Luminous Book

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

What if, contrary to current El Niño predictions, California never again catches a break from drought? Such is the world imagined by Mojave Desert-bred Claire Vaye Watkins in her electrifying debut novel Gold Fame Citrus. 

Watkins was born in Bishop, California, a small city in the Sierra Nevada's eastern foothills, and grew up in parched territory nearby. She first made waves with her short story collection, Battleborn, which won the Dylan Thomas prize and the New York Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Vogue called Watkins "the most captivating voice to come out of the West since Annie Proulx."

Gold Fame Citrus opens with young couple Luz and Ray eking out an existence in a vacant mansion in what was once Los Angeles, during a "drought of droughts," under the "ever-beaming, ever-heating, ever-evaporating sun." Bronzed Luz, wafer-thin and grimy, traipses around the mansion in a starlet's old robes, dodging rats and scorpions and living as "basically another woman's ghost," while Ray, usually shirtless with long, unbound curls, attempts to turn the villa into a survival bunker. 

Watkins' prose sizzles, her pen morphing sentences into glimmering new arrangements.

In this vision of the not-so-distant future, the West has run dry. Its citizens, who had once crowded California in search of "gold, fame, citrus," are now referred to as Mojavs and are all mostly banned from the more lush parts of the country. Water is rationed in paltry jugs at precise points of the day.

While attending a demented raindance festival, Luz and Ray encounter a strange girl they call "Ig," who clings to the couple and soon thrusts herself into their lives. Afraid of the vagabonds who might come looking for Ig, the improvised family flees Southern California in a search for more fertile territory, passing nomads, forest graveyards, and anthropomorphized sand dunes along the way.

Watkins' prose sizzles, her pen morphing sentences into glimmering new arrangements. While surrealist fiction is often striking for the fantastical scenery it conjures, Gold Fame Citrus haunted me with its references to objects I now take for granted. In a passage describing the only fruit still available in Luz and Ray's world, Watkins writes:

Hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep.

Just as she turns a familiar landscape into a mysterious and foreboding geography, Watkins breathes new life into words we thought we knew well. Gold Fame Citrus will hypnotize you like a dream, and make you want to take a big swig of the water we have left.

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NASA Scientists Just Discovered Liquid Water on Mars

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 11:37 AM EDT

Scientists have known for several years that there is ice on the surface of Mars. But liquid surface water—which many believe would be a prerequisite for life—has remained elusive. Until now.

This morning, NASA scientists announced that satellite images have revealed traces of liquid water on Mars' surface. The water is salty, which keeps it from quickly freezing or evaporating.

From the New York Times:

The researchers were able to identify the telltale sign of a hydrated salt at four locations. In addition, the signs of the salt disappeared when the streaks faded. "It's very definitive there is some sort of liquid water," [lead scientist Lujendra] Ojha said…

Liquid water is considered one of the essential ingredients for life, and its presence raises the question of whether Mars, which appears so dry and barren, could possess niches of habitability for microbial Martians.

Here's a bit more detail from the Guardian:

Liquid water runs down canyons and crater walls over the summer months…The trickles leave long, dark stains on the Martian terrain that can reach hundreds of metres downhill in the warmer months, before they dry up in the autumn as surface temperatures drop. Images taken from the Mars orbit show cliffs, and the steep walls of valleys and craters, streaked with summertime flows that in the most active spots combine to form intricate fan-like patterns.

Scientists are unsure where the water comes from, but it may rise up from underground ice or salty aquifers, or condense out of the thin Martian atmosphere.

Look! In The Sky! It's a Bird! It's a Plane! AND THEY'RE ON FIRE! Oh Wait, It's a Blood Moon.

| Sun Sep. 27, 2015 7:45 PM EDT

The Blood Moon starts at 10:11pm ET! You can watch it live here. Or you can go outside and look at it IRL. But you won't do that because you're an internet shut-in. No judgment!


What is a Blood Moon?

It is not the end of the world.

It is, well, let this video explain:

China's Climate Plan Isn't Crazy and Might Actually Work

| Fri Sep. 25, 2015 3:30 PM EDT

Today Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama are planning to jointly announce long-awaited details of China's plan to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on carbon dioxide pollution. The plan, which will commence in 2017, will make China the world's biggest market for carbon cap-and-trade, a system that sets a cap on the amount of CO2 that major polluters like power plants and factories can emit, then allows those entities to sell off excess credits (if they pollute less than the limit) or buy extra ones (if they pollute more than the limit).

The idea of a system like this is that it uses the market—rather than simply a government mandate—to force cuts in the emissions that cause climate change. Want to pollute? Fine, but it's going to cost you. If you clean up, you can make cash selling credits to your dirtier neighbors. A similar type of policy, a carbon tax, imposes a different kind of financial incentive in the form of a fee paid to the government for every unit of CO2 emissions. Ultimately, the rationale behind both systems is the same: Because corporate polluters now have to pay a financial price price for their emissions, air pollution and fossil fuel consumption both go down, clean energy goes up, and the climate is saved.

Many environmental economists agree that some kind of carbon price—either cap-and-trade or a tax—is the most efficient and effective way to quickly curb fossil fuel consumption, and thus give us a chance at staving off global warming. Democrats in Congress attempted to enact a national cap-and-trade program in the US in 2009; it passed the House but was killed by the Senate Republicans. Since then, a national carbon pricing system has been a non-starter in Washington. But there are plenty of other examples of successful systems elsewhere that should make us optimistic about China's new plan.

The Northeast United States: The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a cap-and-trade market that includes nine states in the Northeast, set up in 2008. The program is widely considered a success and is expected to reduce the region's power-sector emissions by 45 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2020. This year, the price of credits has been riding high, a sign that the market is working to create a powerful incentive to reduce emissions. The most recent auction of credits, in September, generated in $152.7 million for the states—revenue that is re-invested in clean energy programs and electric bill assistance for low-income households.

California: When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed through legislation in 2006 to set aggressive climate targets for the state, the key mechanism was a cap-and-trade program, which finally opened in 2013. So far, it seems to be working. Emissions are down, while GDP is up. In fact, the California program was a primary model for the Chinese system.

British Columbia: This Canadian province's carbon tax, first enacted in 2008, is one of the most successful carbon pricing plans anywhere. Gasoline consumption is way down, and the government has raised billions that it has returned to citizens in the form of tax cuts for low-income households and small businesses. The program "made climate action real to people," one Canadian environmentalist told my former colleague Chris Mooney.

Australia: For a country that is notoriously reliant on coal, Australia had been on the progressive side of climate politics after it passed a national carbon tax in 2012. The tax was scrapped just two years later, after then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott blamed it for a sluggish economic recovery and high energy prices. But the repeal actually yielded an unexpected insight into the success of the program: In the first quarter without the tax, emissions jumped for the first time since prior to the global financial crisis. In other words, the tax had worked effectively to drive down emissions.

Europe: Of course, carbon pricing systems aren't without their flaws, and the European Trading Scheme has provided a good example of the risks. The system has often been plagued by a too-high cap, meaning the market becomes flooded with credits, the price drops, and polluters have little incentive to change. This month, regulators passed a package of reforms meant to restrict the number of credits and bolster the market. But even with the low price, the ETS has been effective enough to keep the EU on track to meet its stated climate goals.   

Even with these good examples to draw from, there are still challenges ahead for China. How will the government allocate credits among different polluters? Will the polluters actually trade with one another? How effectively will the government be able to monitor emissions, to ensure that the credits actually match real pollution?

But at the very least, Republicans in the US just lost one their favorite excuses for climate inaction: That China, the world's biggest emitter, is doing nothing.

The Feds Have a Secret Plan to Stop the Next Car Pollution Scandal

| Fri Sep. 25, 2015 11:46 AM EDT
A VW plant in Germany.

Days after Volkswagen admitted that half a million cars it sold in the United States contained software enabling them to evade clean air laws, top Environmental Protection Agency officials say they are planning to toughen emissions testing for all automakers. The EPA now plans to examine vehicles for so-called defeat devices.

In a letter released this morning, the EPA said federal regulations allow the agency to "test or require testing on any vehicle at a designated location, using driving cycles and conditions that may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal operation and use, for the purposes of investigating a potential defeat device." The EPA said it planned to begin conducting these additional procedures when vehicles undergo emissions and fuel economy testing, and it warned that the new procedures "may add time to the confirmatory test process and…additional mileage may be accumulated."

"We are stepping up our testing," Janet McCabe, the EPA's acting assistant administrator, told reporters. "We take seriously our responsibility to oversee the enforcement of clean air regulations. The VW violations have made it clear that we need to adapt our oversight."

"The VW violations have made it clear that we need to adapt our oversight."

Last Friday, the EPA issued a citation to Volkswagen for equipping nearly 500,000 diesel-powered cars sold since 2009 with software that can detect when the car is undergoing federal testing for smog-forming emissions. During the test, the cars meet the standard; under normal driving conditions, emissions are up to 40 times higher. Similar devices were installed on some 11 million VW cars worldwide, producing illegal air pollution that may contribute to thousands of deaths. The resulting scandal devastated VW's share value and forced the ouster of its CEO.

The EPA is currently investigating the full extent of the illegal software program and could ultimately deliver up to $18 billion in fines. Today's announcement doesn't affect that investigation. Officials said no recall has been announced and that if one is eventually called for, VW drivers will hear about it directly from the company.

EPA chief Gina McCarthy said the agency is concerned that other automakers could have similar devices that have gone undetected. Even if they don't, VW is responsible for a new raft of regulatory headaches for all companies that want to sell cars in the United States.

Chris Grundler, director of the EPA's Office of Transportation, wouldn't say exactly how his agency would sniff out defeat devices. But it would add additional time and rigor to the testing process, he said.

"We're not going to tell them what the test is," he said. "They don't need to know."