Blue Marble - May 2007

Orwellian Language Obscures the Health Care Debate

| Thu May. 3, 2007 3:37 PM PDT

Healthcare is complicated enough without doublespeak like this in the Wall Street Journal: "Too much government support risks crowding out private-sector insurance alternatives Mr. Bush wants to promote." That's the Bush Administration's spin on scrimping on a federal grant program that boosts medical care for poor children by insuring their parents. Obviously, private insurance is not an "alternative" for families who can not afford it. Or maybe the reporter means "alternatives" for the government, like subsidizing private insurance?

The Bush Administration may believe that market forces make health care more efficient. But the market doesn't always its magic everywhere. (The invisible hand has students at the top of their medical school classes going into dermatology. They can make easier money injecting Botox and Restylane than saving lives).

The truth is, the private insurance maze makes health care more expensive. It's the reason why Americans spend 50 percent more per capita than any other country does on medical care. How so? Private medical insurance actually takes up a dollar out of every three spent on health care in this country. If only this money went straight to the hospitals that serve the poor, it would pay for a lot more care and medicine.

But no. So we still have tragedies like the 12-year-old in February who died of a tooth infection that spread to his brain before his mother could find a Medicaid dentist to extract the tooth.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Weird Weather Watch: Last Month Was Britain's Warmest April on Record

| Thu May. 3, 2007 3:29 PM PDT

Last month was the warmest April since records began in 1659 in the UK. Temperatures peaked at more than 79F. That heat means 2007 is likely to surpass 2006 as the warmest year on record, according to forecaster Paul Knightley.

Pepsi's Good For You, Miracle-Gro Grows Greedy

| Wed May. 2, 2007 6:00 PM PDT

PepsiCo, makers of soda and beef jerky and Funyuns, may not be the healthiest company you could buy from, but it is one of the greenest. Earlier this week, the EPA issued its top 25 Green Power Partners list, and PepsiCo was top dog. The EPA attributes the company's position to its "commitment to purchase 100 percent green power," which would be enough to power nearly 100,000 homes.

Green power is great, but wouldn't it be better if they didn't use so much power to begin with? Or if they didn't use so much packaging for their products? At least PepsiCo's 20 oz. plastic bottles are lighter than before (by 13%) and contain 10% post-consumer material, so they cost less in transportation costs and use less plastic. The company says that 48 million of its drink containers are recycled every day.

Some of those old Pepsi bottles head to a small New Jersey organic plant food company, TerraCycle, which reuses many of the bottles to package their totally organic fertilizer. Now TerraCycle, with 33 employees and a measly $1 million in revenues, is being sued by Scotts (makers of Miracle-Gro), a mega-company that owns 59% of the plant food market. Scotts is outraged TerraCycle is using yellow and green packaging with pictures of flowers, similar to Miracle-Gro. Thus, their lawyers say, TerraCycle MUST be trying to trick gullible people into thinking the products are the same. Both products even use the same label: "all purpose plant food." Egads!

The pictures of the products should give any person with common sense the answer as to whether or not the lawsuit is warranted. And besides, pictures of plants on plant food? Who'd a thunk? My question: Miracle-Gro launched its "Organic Choice" line of products a year before TerraCycle was created, and is very publicly trying to make more environmentally-friendly packaging. Is it coincidence that they're suing an organic, sustainably-packaged product, not one of the 81 other plant and lawn products with green-and-yellow labels, or is it just a paranoid attempt to secure their monopoly?

You decide.

—Jen Phillips

Deep Mud Seafloors Face Quiet Destruction

| Wed May. 2, 2007 5:56 PM PDT

The first study ever done of the effects of bottom trawling on mud seafloors off the West Coast of North America suggests alarming environmental changes. The study by Mark Hixon of Oregon State University and Brian Tissot of Washington State University found that trawling not only reduces fish numbers, but also severely alters communities of organisms inhabiting these deep-sea habitats. Their research compared trawled to untrawled areas 600 to 1,200 feet deep off the southern Oregon coast, comprising thousands of square miles. They found nearly 20 percent fewer fish in the trawled areas, and 30 percent fewer fish species. Certain seafloor dwellers, including sea pens and crabs, were six times more abundant in areas that had not been trawled. Furthermore numerous scavenging species in trawled areas largely replaced the marine life common on undisturbed seafloors. This report is the first to examine the effects of a common fishing practice on a vast ocean floor ecosystem off Washington, Oregon, and California -- the mud flats that dominate more than 75 percent of the outer continental shelf.

Imagine bulldozing entire landscapes to collect a few rabbits and gophers. That's what bottom trawlers do in pursuit of sole, lingcod, rockfish and other common seafood staples, by dragging large nets along the seafloor and scooping up everything in their path. It's estimated that trawlers drag nets across every square inch of the bottom of the continental shelves every two years, trawling some regions many times a season.

Regulations, including gear modifications and closed areas, have actually steered trawl fisheries toward the mud seafloors, keeping them out of rock or coral areas, because trawls cause less environmental damage on mud. But the long-term implications of fishing with this technology over such a broad area are a concern, say Hixon and Tissot.

Wonder what's down there? Read about some Alvin dives in the current MoJo article Gone. And you may remember Mark Hixon's fascinating work on BOFFFs (big-old-fat-female-fish) reported in The Fate of The Ocean (Mar/Apr 2006).

Feel confident about what to eat from the sea? If not, check out this click. --JULIA WHITTY

Hopeful George: Tortoise Might Not Be Lonesome Anymore

| Wed May. 2, 2007 5:19 PM PDT

Please, John Tierney, say it isn't so. In your New York Times blog Lonesome George Isn't Looking So Lonesome you bring us the truly welcome news that Lonesome George, the Pinta Island tortoise from the Galapagos, may not be the last of his kind after all.

After analyzing the genes of 27 tortoises on another Galapagos island, Isabela, biologists discovered that one tortoise's father was a Pinta tortoise -- perhaps one who was removed from Pinta by some of the sailors who contributed to the decline of the species. Since there are between 2,000 and 7,000 tortoises on Isabela whose genes haven't yet been analyzed, it seems likely that one or more will turn out to be purebred Pinta tortoises, according to Michael Russello of the University of British Columbia.

But then you tell us you're worried about George's celebrity, his ability to raise money for efforts to slow down the sixth great extinction underway. Crikey, mate. I can't think of a better fundraiser. Let's rename him Hopeful George and watch the pesos roll in. --JULIA WHITTY

Scientists Protest Twisted Interpretation Of Endangered Species Act

| Wed May. 2, 2007 4:39 PM PDT

More than three dozen scientists have signed a letter to protest a new Bush administration interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. The Associated Press reports their concerns that the twisted read jeopardizes animals such as wolves and grizzly bears. If Interior Department Solicitor David Bernhardt has his way, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to protect animals and plants only where they're actually battling for survival, not where they're in good shape. That means, for instance, that Bald Eagles would never have been protected decades ago since they were doing fine in Alaska, although practically extinct in the lower 48.

The proposed changes would "have real and profoundly detrimental impacts on the conservation of many species and the habitat upon which they depend," said the letter, signed by 38 prominent wildlife biologists and environmental ethics specialists. It was being sent this week to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and leaders of congressional committees that oversee the department. The scientists also fear the new policy would prevent new additions to the list, increasing the likelihood of extinctions.

Maybe someone should tell David Bernhardt how his miserly existence depends on a wealth of species on this Earth--and what'll happen to him and his kin when they're GONE. . . --JULIA WHITTY

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Efficiency Boost Should Make Solar Cheaper

| Wed May. 2, 2007 4:20 PM PDT

Solar energy could become more affordable following a technological breakthrough. Scientists at Australia's University of New South Wales have boosted the efficiency of solar cell technology, potentially dropping the price of an installed solar system for an average house from around $16,500 to $12,000. (Tax breaks and other incentives would reduce it further.) Currently, up to 45 percent of the cost of solar cell technology is due to the high cost of the silicon used to convert sunlight to electricity.

Now, researchers at UNSW's ARC Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence, led by PhD student Supriya Pillai report a 16-fold enhancement in light absorption in 1.25-micron thin-film cells for light with a wavelength of 1050 nm. They also report a seven-fold enhancement in light absorption in the more expensive wafer type cells light wavelengths of 1200 nm. The breakthrough is reported in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Physics.

May it come to market faster than catastrophe.--JULIA WHITTY