Blue Marble - February 2008

Missing Link Never Lost

| Thu Feb. 28, 2008 11:11 PM PST

493px-Horseevolution.png At least not since 1861, when the first Archaeopteryx fossil bridging birds and dinosaurs was discovered. Creationists have got it wrong (again), according to a new piece in New Scientist. Archaeopteryx rose from German limestones only 2 years after Darwin published The Origin of Species, wherein he predicted that so-called missing-links would be found. And they were. And they are, writes Donald Prothero:

In the 1870s the iconic sequence of fossil horses was documented. By the time of Darwin's death in 1882 there were numerous fossils and fossil sequences showing evolutionary change, especially among invertebrates. Evidence of evolution in the fossil record has vastly increased since then. Yet the idea still persists that the fossil record is too patchy to provide good evidence of evolution. One reason for this is the influence of creationism. Foremost among their tactics is to distort or ignore the evidence for evolution; a favourite lie is "there are no transitional fossils".

In fact transitions are everywhere: the emergence of vertebrates from echinoderms (sea urchins, starfish & kin); the "fishibian" sequence (pdf) whereby fish crawled ashore; the transition from synapsids to mammals; plus sequences showing how giraffes got their long necks, seals returned to the sea; and the hippolike transition that returned manatees and their kin back to the ocean… The list is growing, deepening, and, well, evolving.

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NYs Black Cabs Go Green

| Wed Feb. 27, 2008 11:52 PM PST

237M3847b.jpg Good news for New Yorkers. And Earthers. New York City set new fuel emissions standards for the city's 10,000 black taxis Wednesday. Town car owners must switch to hybrid tech within 5 years. The move, reports Reuters, is part of Mayor Bloomberg's grand plan to decrease the city's carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Yellow cabs in New York are already under a 2012 deadline for going green. Black town cars serve mostly corporate clients and make 2 percent of the city's transport-related emissions. Hybrids will cut that in half.

Not to mention sweeten the urban air.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Biodiesel Burps... Wrong Mix

| Wed Feb. 27, 2008 8:20 PM PST

Soybus.jpg What if the biodiesel you're buying doesn't have as much biodiesel as advertised? Or a whole lot more? Well, according to a new analysis of more than 20 distributors and small U.S. retailers, blends sold as 20% biodiesel contained as little as 10% or as much as 74% biodiesel. The study by Christopher Reddy at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and colleagues is published in Environmental Science & Technology.

The problems are manifold (pun, sadly, intended): from a shaken public confidence to tax credits given in excess of what sellers deserve. Plus, blends containing more than 20% biodiesel can damage hoses and gaskets in cars manufactured before 1993, and can also freeze in cold temperatures. This could plug fuel filters or freeze fuel solid in the tank. The blending problem is most apparent with smaller mom-and-pop retailers mixing it themselves. From ES&T:

The biodiesel industry is trying to rein in the problem, says Amber Pearson, a spokesperson for the National Biodiesel Board, by working with ASTM on standards that will include biodiesel blends. States will then have to adjust their own regulations to include blend verification.

Growing pains, let's hope.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

China Sacks Plastic Bags

| Tue Feb. 26, 2008 10:25 PM PST

Chinese_dragons.gif The dragon is changing its color. China launched a surprise crackdown on plastic bags in January. Now production of ultra-thin bags is outlawed and supermarkets and shops are forbidden from handing out free carrier bags starting June 1. Reuters reports via the Xinhua news agency that the country's largest plastic bag maker—Suiping Huaqiang Plastic Co, which employed 20,000 workers—has closed following a state-led environmental campaign discouraging plastics. Before the ban, China used 3 billion plastic bags a day and refined 37 million barrels of crude oil yearly for packaging.

Compare with America's 380 billion plastic bags a year. That's right: 1 billion-plus "disposable" bags a day. Of which only 1 percent get recycled. The rest go into landfill. Or to kill wildlife.

Go green dragon.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

The West Gets 500% Dustier

| Mon Feb. 25, 2008 7:41 PM PST

dustbowl.jpg The west wasn't always so dusty. It got a whole more so in the past 200 years, 500 percent more so—thanks to American expansion, complete with trains, ranches, and livestock. Sediment records from dust blown into alpine lakes in southwest Colorado's San Juan Mountains over millennia indicate the sharp rise in dust deposits beginning in the middle of the last century. "From about 1860 to 1900, the dust deposition rates shot up so high that we initially thought there was a mistake in our data," said geologist Jason Neff of the University of Colorado Boulder. "But the evidence clearly shows the western U.S. had its own Dust Bowl beginning in the 1800s when the railroads went in and cattle and sheep were introduced into the rangelands. There were an estimated 40 million head of livestock on the western rangeland during the turn of the century, causing a massive and systematic degradation of the ecosystems." The 1934 Taylor Grazing Act imposed restrictions on western grazing lands, and the deposits show a coinciding decrease in dust that continues to this day.

Another reason to bring back the bison.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Business 101: Get Green

| Fri Feb. 22, 2008 6:20 PM PST

1337749333_03b6978c70_m.jpg Great piece in the Christian Science Monitor on a worldwide greening business climate. Notably, clean technology investments are on the rise because going green is turning out to be good for the bottom line. Businesses are surveying CO2 footprints, purchasing greenhouse-gas credits, and hinging executive bonuses on environmental targets. Meanwhile, Florida now requires investment managers of state money to report on the potential effects of climate risk as part of their semiannual reviews. Influential California state employee and teacher pension funds, collectively managing $420 billion, are devising strategies tied to climate change and potentially pulling capital from ungreen businesses. From the CSM:

A new study by international consulting firm McKinsey finds that half the necessary cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions can be achieved at a net profit. The study shows that investment in energy efficiency of about $170 billion annually worldwide would yield a profit of about 17 percent, or $29 billion. The Financial Times reports: "Diana Farrell, director of the McKinsey Global Institute, said: 'It shows just how much deadweight loss there is in the economy in energy use.' She said the most inefficient sector was heavy industry in China, with the second residential housing in the US, where homes are large, poorly insulated.

Meanwhile Michael Specter in the New Yorker writes that "Possessing an excessive carbon footprint is rapidly becoming the modern equivalent of wearing a scarlet letter." He reports on Sir Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco supermarkets, Britain's largest retailer:

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McCain: Environmental Truant?

| Fri Feb. 22, 2008 5:11 PM PST

McCainCrop.jpgThe League of Conservation Voters recently released its 2007 environmental scorecard—Sen. John McCain's score: 0. This has to be a disappointment for the Republican front-runner who received the LCV's green endorsement in 2004, and who posts a (slightly) better lifetime score of 24. (This is out of 100; in comparison Senators Clinton and Obama post lifetime scores of 87 and 86, respectively.) But it appears that his embarrassing low score is a result of his absence at every key environmental vote of the year, including the votes to repeal tax breaks for big oil. Likely you remember the media buzz over McCain's other missed votes.

So his voting record begs the question: how green is McCain? Well, as the environmental online magazine Grist notes, he has been outspoken on global warming and the need to decrease carbon emissions. He also seems to oppose drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, although he has missed important votes on this as well. On the other hand, he passionately promotes coal and nuclear power, and endorses heavy subsidies for both. Meanwhile, Opensecrets.org places McCain third on the list of top Senate recipients of Oil and Gas industry contributions, ranking just under Sen. Clinton. Oh, and he joins only six other Senators from 2007 with a score of 0 from the LCV. The Sierra Club gives a concise rundown:

McCain was the only member of Congress to skip every single crucial environmental vote scored by the organization, posting a score lower than Members of Congress who were out for much of the year due to serious illnesses—and even lower than some who died during the term.

Yikes.

Killing Others Makes Us Sicker

| Thu Feb. 21, 2008 5:52 PM PST

wildlife_zoonoses_hotspots_500.jpg

Credit: Nature

Oops. More of those unforeseen consequences. Including the first scientific evidence that deadly emerging diseases have risen steeply across the world. Why? Because of human expansion into shrinking pockets of biodiversity and resulting contacts with wildlife (think poor countries). Plus, the bonus factor (think rich countries), new diseases arising from overuse of antibiotics, centralized food processing, and other technologies, nursing other outbreaks, like multidrug-resistant pathogen strains. The study appears in the Feb. 21 issue of the scientific journal Nature.

In the new study, researchers from four institutions analyzed 335 emerging diseases from 1940 to 2004, then converted the results into maps correlated with human population density, population changes, latitude, rainfall and wildlife biodiversity. Disease emergences have quadrupled in 50 years. Sixty percent travelled from animals to humans, most from wild creatures. Hot spots on the map span sub-Saharan Africa, India, and China, with smaller spots in Europe, North America, and South America. Translated: everywhere.

Still waiting for human intelligence to overrule human appetite.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Less Golf, More Water?

| Thu Feb. 21, 2008 10:05 AM PST

golf100.jpgNumber one on the New York Times' most-e-mailed list today is a story about the mass exodus from American golf courses. No one knows exactly why corporate America is abandoning its erstwhile favorite sport. Not enough time? Too lazy?

Whatever the reason for the shift, there's at least one good thing about it. Golf courses are notoriously thirsty, and developers have a nasty habit of putting them in the darnedest (driest) places. If our newfound apathy about golf translates into fewer courses built over the long haul, [insert corny golf metaphor—a la "that's a hole in one for the environment"— here].

Then again:

To help keep the Great Rock Golf Club afloat, owners erected their large climate-controlled tent near the 18th green last summer. It sat next to the restaurant, Blackwell's, already operating there.

The next question: How far into the depths of unsustainability will golf-course owners sink to win back customers?

Nature Does Anti-Terrorism Better

| Tue Feb. 19, 2008 7:50 PM PST

dhs-threat.jpg Living things can show us how to keep society safe. So says biologist Raphael Sagarin of Duke University in a fascinating interview with New Scientist. "You can look at virtually any question about security through a biological lens," says Sagarin, "from how to develop weapons systems to how to organise government departments. One clear lesson is that the species or systems that have been around the longest, adapted to many different environments and captured the most resources have a structure of fairly limited central control, with a lot of autonomy. You can see this… in the immune system, for example, or in colonial organisms such as ants and corals."

"In stark contrast, says Sagarin, is the US response to 9/11, "which was to create this enormous Department of Homeland Security. You can see the results: individual organisations do not get enough autonomy and cannot make decisions in a timely manner. They cannot respond and adapt without having to go up through many layers of command. It's more to do with keeping power and maintaining committee memberships, jobs and budgets than security."

Furthermore, he says, "organisms inherently understand that there is risk in life. The idea that we can eliminate these risks would be selected against quickly in the natural world since any organism that tried to do so would not have enough resources left for reproduction, or feeding itself."

Sounds vaguely familiar.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.