Blue Marble - September 2007

My Park(ing) Day

| Fri Sep. 21, 2007 7:57 PM EDT

Lunch in a parking spot is never much fun, unless it's Park(ing) Day in San Francisco. Seizing the moment this afternoon, I packed a bowl of curry and headed two blocks down Sutter Street to a metered spot in front of the Charles Schwab building. I entered the space from the curb, ambled along an extremely short yet artfully snaking pathway lined with potted salt rush, blue squirrel tail and California lilac, and took a seat on a wooden park bench. Three park attendants watched eagerly. "Welcome to our park!" one of them said. They snapped photos as I stirred my rice. A bus blew by frighteningly close.

In 2005, Rebar, a San Francisco art collective, laid a parking space with sod, a bench and a large potted tree, creating the first of what would become many guerrilla parks. The event has grown into an international phenomenon, with participants this year in more than ten cities worldwide. The mission is "To rethink the way streets are used, call attention to the need for urban parks and improve the quality of urban human habitat. . .at least until the meter runs out!"

While I ate my chicken korma on the park bench, a park(ing) attendant handed a complimentary packet of poppy seeds to a businessman who'd stopped by. The businessman said, "Do they grow indoors? Or. . ."

"No, but you can try if you want, as long as you soak them first. . ."

My cell phone rang. It was a friend calling from Boston. "I'm at a guerrilla park," I told him.

"That sounds awesome," he said. "A very San Francisco day."

A bit too San Francisco, perhaps. It was 3:00, and the inevitable, frigid Pacific gale was nearly toppling the shrubbery. Then the meter ran out: I still hadn't finished my lunch when a woman arrived in a Volvo to haul the bench away. "I'm sorry, but we have got to take this," she said. A park(ing) attendant quickly added: "Thank you!" I probably would have fared better in the Presidio, but the fact that other people had actually been excited to see me take up a parking spot--instead of scowling or writing me a ticket--made the trip well worth it.

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Wal-Mart, More of a Dirty Brown Color

| Fri Sep. 21, 2007 6:08 PM EDT

Wal-Mart has begun selling its own brand of inexpensive compact fluorescent lightbulbs, according to a Reuters article, as part of its effort to be more environmentally responsible. Called "Great Value" bulbs, they are "a more accessible option for our shoppers as we strive to sell 100 million CFLs by the end of 2007," said Wal-Mart General Merchandise Manager Andy Barron.

But, while Wal-Mart pushes its customers to be more green, the company itself has a long way to go, according to the folks over at Wal-MartWatch. A comprehensive report released this month called "It's Not Easy Being Green: The Truth About Wal-Mart's Environmental Makeover" discusses the tremendous amount of electricity used by the company, as well as its impacts on green space and wildlife, and contributions to sprawl and water pollution due to parking lot runoff. It also notes that, contrary to the company's public relations efforts, Wal-Mart still throws most of its financial support to politicians with terrible environmental voting records.

The Price of Saving Homes from Forest Fires

| Thu Sep. 20, 2007 3:04 PM EDT

It takes money to fight fires, and the bigger the fire, the more expensive it is. With all the news of wildfires in the west, it's interesting to learn that it costs the Forest Service a billion dollars a year to protect homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). High Country News has an interesting post today about a report on the cost of fighting fires in the WUI.

Some interesting tidbits from the report:

* Only 14% of forested western private land adjacent to public land is currently developed for residential use. Based on current growth trends, there is tremendous potential for future development on the remaining 86%.

* Given the skyrocketing cost of fighting wildfires in recent years (on average $1.3 billion each year between 2000-2005), this potential development would create an unmanageable financial burden for taxpayers.

* If homes were built in 50% of the forested areas where private land borders public land, annual firefighting costs could range from $2.3 billion to $4.3 billion per year. By way of comparison, the U.S. Forest Service's annual budget is approximately $4.5 billion.

* One in five homes in the wildland urban interface is a second home or cabin, compared to one in twenty-five homes on other western private lands.

* Residential lots built near wildlands take up more than six times the space of homes built in other places. On average, 3.2 acres per person are consumed for housing in the wildland urban interface, compared to 0.5 acres on other western private lands.

Protecting the WUI from future development, it seems, would be a step in the right direction. But till that happens, there are some pretty interesting ethical questions to wrestle with. Here's one: Do second-home owners have as much of a right as first-home owners to build in the WUI, if firefighters must risk their lives—and spend taxpayer money—to save vacation cabins?

Global Warming Bolsters Bone Trade

| Wed Sep. 19, 2007 3:07 PM EDT

We keep hearing about the strange side effects of global warming. Certain species—from poison ivy to cats—seem to be thriving in the warmer weather.

The latest species to enjoy the short-term benefits of climate change? Bone collectors.

As the Arctic thaws, all kinds of prehistoric bones are becoming more accessible, and museums and private collectors are paying hefty sums to the people who know where to find them.

Luckily, at least one of the bone hunters has a sense of perspective:

Davydov acknowledges that rising temperatures in Siberia have been a boon for bone collectors. "As the permafrost thaws, we obtain yet more objects for study," he says.

But then he reflects: "From the point of view of humanity, it would have been better if this had never happened."

How Many Grams of Fat? And What's the Carbon Footprint?

| Wed Sep. 19, 2007 2:36 PM EDT

The British snack food company Walkers Crisps has started printing the carbon footprint of each of its products on the packaging. Walkers hired an outside emissions calculating service called Carbon Trust to evaluate the environmental impact—meaning farming, manufacture, packaging, distribution, and disposal—of its products.

Word has it that nine more companies will follow suit soon, among them the mighty Coca-Cola.

Yet another good reason to shun the junk food: It's not just bad for you—it's bad for the earth, too!

Population Declines in Rural America

| Tue Sep. 18, 2007 4:08 PM EDT

Rural blog The Daily Yonder says the American countryside is in trouble. Because of both natural population decrease and outmigration, rural counties are shrinking fast.

A cool map, created by USDA demographer Calvin Beale, shows the trend.

The reasons for the population decline are complicated, but one thing is clear: The new farm bill isn't helping.

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Bearish About Global Warming

| Tue Sep. 18, 2007 3:12 PM EDT

Reuters reports that a group of investors, state officials, and environmental advocates have filed a petition urging the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to force publicly-traded companies to disclose the "risks and benefits" they face as a result of global warming (of course, all prefer the more expansive and friendly-sounding phrase "climate change").

"Companies' financial condition increasingly depends upon their ability to avoid climate risk," reads the petition, signed by 22 officials and groups, representing $1.5 trillion in assets. The upshot is that in covering their assets, investors may force the corporate world generally to be more forthright about the coming "endless summer."

Brooklyn Oil Spill Now Dwarfs the Exxon Valdez

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 6:10 PM EDT

basil65x70.jpg The EPA just released a report saying that the Brooklyn oil spill Frank Koughan writes about in our current issue may be as extensive as 30 million gallons, not the 17 million gallons previously estimated. If so, that would make the spill nearly three times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. Yes, three times as much oil, stewing under Brooklyn.

188 More Species Deemed Near Extinction

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 5:51 PM EDT

Today the World Conservation Union (also known, for reason too arcane to go into, as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources or IUCN) came out with its "Red List" of species threatened with extinction. There are 188 additions to the list, bringing the total up to 16,306. There's particularly bad news about great apes and coral reefs, but across taxonomic board, the news is "quite bleak," said Jane Smart, who heads the group's species program.

As Mother Jones' Julia Whitty wrote in Gone: Mass Extinction and the Hazards of Earth's Vanishing Biodiversity:

1 in 4 mammals, 1 in 8 birds, 1 in 3 amphibians, 1 in 3 conifers and other gymnosperms are at risk of extinction. The peril faced by other classes of organisms is less thoroughly analyzed, but fully 40 percent of the examined species of planet Earth are in danger, including up to 51 percent of reptiles, 52 percent of insects, and 73 percent of flowering plants.
By the most conservative measure—based on the last century's recorded extinctions—the current rate of extinction is 100 times the background rate. But eminent Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson and other scientists estimate that the true rate is more like 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate. The actual annual sum is only an educated guess, because no scientist believes the tally of life ends at the 1.5 million species already discovered; estimates range as high as 100 million species on Earth, with 10 million as the median guess. Bracketed between best- and worst-case scenarios, then, somewhere between 2.7 and 270 species are erased from existence every day. Including today.
We now understand that the majority of life on Earth has never been—and will never be—known to us. In a staggering forecast, Wilson predicts that our present course will lead to the extinction of half of all plant and animal species by the year 2100.
You probably had no idea. Few do. A poll by the American Museum of Natural History finds that 7 in 10 biologists believe that mass extinction poses a colossal threat to human existence, a more serious environmental problem than even its contributor, global warming, and that the dangers of mass extinction are woefully underestimated by most everyone outside of science. In the 200 years since French naturalist Georges Cuvier first floated the concept of extinction, after examining fossil bones and concluding "the existence of a world previous to ours, destroyed by some sort of catastrophe," we have only slowly recognized and attempted to correct our own catastrophic behavior.

The rate of extinction is due to a variety of factors, but nearly all are human induced, including climate change, habitat loss, invasive species (transported by us), the plight of the oceans, and so on. As Julia notes:

All these disappearing species are part of a fragile membrane of organisms wrapped around Earth so thin, writes E.O. Wilson, that it "cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered." We owe everything to this membrane of life. Literally everything. The air we breathe. The food we eat. The materials of our homes, clothes, books, computers, medicines. Goods and services that we can't even imagine we'll someday need will come from species we have yet to identify. The proverbial cure for cancer. The genetic fountain of youth. Immortality. Mortality.
The living membrane we so recklessly destroy is existence itself.

Read Julia's article. It will haunt you. As will the accompanying photo essay by Richard Ross.


Presto Chango, It's H2O

| Thu Sep. 13, 2007 4:56 PM EDT

According to an article in the UK's Telegraph, a British inventor has developed a plastic bottle that converts even the rankest sludge into tasty drinking water almost instantly.

The bottle, which looks a lot like the refillable types carried on bikes everywhere, can scrub virtually any water, even samples containing viruses or fecal matter. It promises to be useful to soldiers, as well as refugees and disaster victims.

Said Michael Pritchard, the brainiac behind the invention, "Something had to be done. It took me a little while and some very frustrating prototypes but eventually I did it."