Blue Marble - January 2008

If China Can Ban Plastic Bags, Why Can't We?

| Thu Jan. 10, 2008 12:05 PM PST

china-bags.jpgCommunist governments may be oppressive to American eyes, but they do have the power to make sweeping environmental changes. Key example: China.

As Jacques Leslie reports in our current issue, China is the world's top CO2 emitter and uses more coal than any other nation. But in a bid to reduce pollution, effective June 1, the country's Communist government has banned those flimsy, white, petroleum-based plastic bags. And not just in a few cities, but across the entire nation of 1.3 billion people.

"While [the bags] providing convenience to consumers," the central government said in a statement, "they have also caused serious pollution, and waste of energy and resources, because of excessive use and inadequate recycling," China uses about 3 billion plastic bags a day.

Thicker plastic bags will still be allowed, for a fee, but the government is highly encouraging people to use traditional baskets or re-usable cloth bags. Citizens have been receptive, perhaps because pollution is so bad in China that most have experienced its effects (poor water quality, lung-searing smog) firsthand.

One consequence could be, since production of the bags in China will be banned, that perhaps we'll end up with fewer over here. Everything else we sell is made in China, if our plastic bags are too we might face a welcome shortage.

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Feds Miss Deadline to Help Polar Bears

| Wed Jan. 9, 2008 5:00 PM PST

polar-bear150x180.jpgFederal authorities missed the deadline this week to classify polar bears as "endangered." Seems rampant habitat loss due to global warming isn't compelling enough to get them listed.

Well, today three conservation groups announced that they're going to sue the Department of the Interior to get the endangered status for the bear.

This all started last January, when an Interior Secretary proposed putting polar bears on the federal endangered list. The Endangered Species Act requires a final decision no later than a year after such a proposal. While the government claims that the deadline was missed because of the complex science involved, and because there has never been a species listed due to global warming, conservationists say that the federal government consistently uses such administrative excuses to keep animals off the list or meddle in scientific findings.

Just to give some context for the "science" part of the argument, a National Geographic study found that polar bears may be extinct by 2050 due to global warming, and in summer 2007, there was 40% less Arctic ice than there was in 2000, according to a study by the National Snow and Ice Data Center. As we wrote about last year, global warming is leading to extinctions across the global board. Unfortunately, we may not have the time it takes to convince the federal government otherwise, or to compel the feds to get their paperwork in order.

Artist Drives Mass Consumption Home

| Tue Jan. 8, 2008 4:31 PM PST

handguns.jpg

A picture is worth 1,000 words. Chris Jordan's photo illustrations are worth 200,000 cigarette packs, 170,000 disposable batteries, eight million toothpicks, two million plastic beverage bottles, and 426,000 discarded cell phones. (Not that you can tell from the tiny reproduction, but the image accompanying this item contains 29,569 handguns.) In his humbling exhibit titled "Running the Numbers, An American Self-Portrait" the accomplished Seattle-based artist uses these subjects and others to depict our consumer culture's troubling stats. The smoke-packs illustrate the number of Americans that die every six months from smoking-related illnesses; the batteries represent fifteen minutes worth of Energizer's product output; the toothpicks show the number of trees harvested annually to create mail-order catalogs. You get the picture. So rather than blather on for another thousand words about these fascinating images, perhaps I'd better just send you to look at them.

Patagonia Deconstructs Your Clothes

| Tue Jan. 8, 2008 2:34 PM PST

gen2_footprint_site_2.jpg

Okay, I already covet their gear more than is morally good for me. Now Patagonia has launched a cool interactive website called The Footprint Chronicles. At the moment it's more evolving prototype than matured design. Still, it enables you to follow the environmental footprint of a handful of their products. "The impact of an unexamined life is far more serious than it once was—deadly so," says Patagonia, turning their own practices inside out and letting us pick at the seams. Their long-sleeved Wool 2 Crew shirt, for instance, is both environmentally good and bad: good comes from sustainably ranched sheep in New Zealand, dyed without heavy metals, sewn in the US; bad comes from a 16,200-mile-long footprint between New Zealand and Los Angeles via Malaysia and Japan. Not sustainable.

The site is designed to "ignite conversation every bit as much as corporate introspection," and encourages viewer feedback & discussion. "We've been in business long enough to know that when we can reduce or eliminate a harm, other businesses will be eager to follow suit," says Patagonia… Let's hope so.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Flu Deaths Run in the Family

| Tue Jan. 8, 2008 1:45 PM PST

1918Flu_photo.jpg Everyone gets the flu. Some are more likely to die from it, reports New Scientist. A study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases looked at death certificates and family records going back 100 years and found that blood relatives of flu victims were more likely to die than nonrelatives, even during different flu outbreaks. Risks increased with relatedness: siblings were 74% more likely to die than unrelateds; blood uncles 22%; first cousins 16%. Victims' spouses were also more likely to die, probably because they lived in the same house. The team is tracking relatives of people who died recently to see if they too are at increased risk, and if flu vaccinations help…. Good question.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Some Biofuels Worse Than Fossil Fuels

| Tue Jan. 8, 2008 12:51 PM PST

bio-fuel_6648.jpg Burning biofuels emits less greenhouse gasses than burning fossil fuels. But producing some biofuels is far more environmentally costly, according to a new study commissioned by the Swiss government and reviewed by researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Science. In particular, sugarcane, US corn, Brazilian soy, and Malaysian palm oil may be worse overall than fossil fuels in environmental destruction, pollution, and damage to human health. The new study calculates the relative merits of 26 biofuels based on relative reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions and an environmental-impact index. The best alternatives include biofuels from residual products, such as recycled cooking oil and ethanol from grass or wood… Hmm. What are the chances we can be smart about this?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Where the Candidates Stand on Science

| Mon Jan. 7, 2008 8:43 PM PST

homepage.jpg A 10-page special report, "Science and the Next U.S. President" published in the journal Science profiles the nine leading candidates' stances on important scientific issues.

"Science felt that it was important to find out what the presidential candidates think about issues that may not be part of their standard stump speeches but that are vital to the future of the country—from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to improving science and math education," said Jeffrey Mervis, deputy news editor, who oversees election coverage for the magazine's news department. "We hope that the coverage may also kick off a broader discussion of the role of science and technology in decisions being made in Washington and around the world."

Clinton gave the most detailed examination of science policy that any presidential candidate has offered to date, emphasizing innovation to drive economic growth, proposing a $50 billion research and deployment fund for green energy (paid for by increasing federal taxes and royalties on oil companies), and establishing a national energy council to oversee federal climate and greentech research and deployment programs.

Pharma Spends Twice as Much on Marketing as Research

| Mon Jan. 7, 2008 7:54 PM PST

Pharma%20Industry%20Can%20Help%20States.jpg The US pharmaceutical industry spends almost twice as much on promotion as it does on research and development—contrary to the industry's claim. Researchers from York University, collecting data directly from industry and from doctors, found that in 2004 pharma spent $235.4 billion: 24.4% on promotion; 13.4% for research and development. They also found the number of promotional meetings jumped dramatically from 120,000 in 1998 to 371,000 in 2004. Further evidence the U.S. pharmaceutical industry is increasingly market driven—not driven by life-saving research. The authors also note the money spent on marketing is likely an underestimate.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

How To Shrink a Fetus: Add Air Pollution

| Mon Jan. 7, 2008 7:23 PM PST

fetus2.jpgAs if we need more compelling reasons to clean up the air… A new study finds that exposure to air pollution significantly reduces the size of human fetuses. Ten years of research by scientists from the Queensland University of Technology in Australia and the Environmental Protection Agency in the US compared 15,000 ultrasound scans, and correlated fetus size with air pollution levels. The study was conducted within a 9-mile radius of the Australian city of Brisbane and found that mothers with a higher exposure to air pollution had fetuses that were, on average, smaller in terms of abdominal circumference, head circumference and femur length. "Birth weight is a major predictor of later health," says Dr Adrian Barnett of QUT, "bigger babies have been shown to have higher IQs in childhood and lower risk of cardiovascular disease in adulthood." Most of Brisbane's air pollution level comes from cars and trucks… As if we needed more reasons to rethink them.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Evolution Education a Must

| Thu Jan. 3, 2008 5:40 PM PST

433843536_b22dbb1592.jpg A coalition of 17 organizations calls on the scientific community to become more involved in the promotion of science education, including evolution. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Institute of Physics, and the National Science Teachers Association (among others), the introduction of nonscience, such as creationism and intelligent design, fundamentally undermines education—including learning how to use the scientific method, understanding how to reach scientific consensus, and distinguishing between scientific and nonscientific explanations of natural phenomena. The article appears in the January 2008 issue of the FASEB Journal (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology).

Based on a national survey of 1,000 likely U.S. voters, the study reveals that respondents favor teaching evolution over creationism or intelligent design, and are more interested in hearing about evolution from scientists, science teachers, and clergy than Supreme Court Justices, celebrities, or school board members. "In an age when people have benefited so greatly from science and reason, it is ironic that some still reject the tools that have afforded them the privilege to reject them," says Gerald Weissmann, MD, Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. "The bottom line is that the world is round, humans evolved from an extinct species, and Elvis is dead. This survey is a wake-up call for anyone who supports teaching information based on evidence rather than speculation or hope; people want to hear the truth, and they want to hear it from scientists."

Amen.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.