Blue Marble - January 2009

Cytotec: The Ulcer Drug Turned DIY Abortion Pill

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 3:59 PM EST

The New York Times has a piece today on misoprostol, the FDA-approved ulcer medication that is more often used as an underground abortion pill. Ann Friedman's piece in MoJo a couple years ago about Cytotec, Pfizer's misoprostol, explored the drug's rise as a go-to abortifacent, particularly among low-income, immigrant, and Latina women. Cytotec, readily available by mail, allows women to bypass increasing abortion hurdles in their states, like parental notification and waiting periods, barriers that women in religious conservative families simply can't face. And at $2 a pill they're cheap, cheaper even than drugs from a health clinic.

The Times piece points to two new studies that suggest misoprostol's use for a DIY abortion is on the rise. As Ann wrote back in 2006, this development shouldn't come as a surprise given ever-tightening abortion restrictions. "Despite the legal and health risks, Cytotec will likely remain an attractive choice for many women—so long as it stays out of the spotlight." Perhaps the Times' story, and the new research studies, will mean a place in the spotlight's not far behind.

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Forestry: Where Bush's Midnight Regs Could Backfire

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 2:34 PM EST

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The Bush Administration is pushing two last-minute decisions that could double logging on more than 2 million acres of federal forestland and make it much easier for timber companies to convert forests into subdivisions. The moves are opposed by environmentalists even as the political upside for Republicans is less clear than it would have been in the '90s, when the GOP gained traction in the West by siding with loggers against the spotted owl.

Bush's move to increase logging, which would affect 2.6 million acres in southwest Oregon, comes at a time when some large private timber farms in that area have collapsed due to over-harvesting. As a result, the battle lines of the old timber wars are being redrawn. For example, before Charles Hurwitz sold his Pacific Lumber company in June, he'd closed three of his four mills and fired 80 percent of his workers. Most locals now blame Hurwitz for the layoffs, and the new owners of the company have won support from both loggers and environmentalists by pursuing a sustainable yield and preserving old growth trees. Increasingly, loggers no longer demand pillaging harvests, while enviros support logging as a preferable alternative to development. Bush's move ignores that trend.

Which brings us to Bush's second midnight reg: allowing the Plum Creek Timber Company to pave roads through forest service land in Montana, which would open up much of the company's 1.2 million acres there to rural subdivisions. The move has incurred the ire of county governments, which worry that it could undo efforts to cluster housing in urban areas and create new burdens to provide services. During the presidential campaign, Obama shrewdly noted the the subdivisions could "cause prime hunting and fishing lands to be carved up and closed off." They'd also take the land out of timber production, reinforcing the common cause between enviros and loggers on urban sprawl.

If Bush really wanted to help out loggers, he would have curbed the housing bubble. The collapse in residential construction has slashed timber prices. But the Republicans, like Hurwitz, were more concerned with raking in the green than sustainably growing it.

Can Paving America be Eco-Friendly?

| Sat Jan. 3, 2009 1:12 PM EST

Given that Obama's economic stimulus package is likely to include billions of dollars in road projects, how will he counteract the environmental toll? One idea, supported by the steel industry, is to funnel more of that money into rail, such as the $45-billion high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco that was approved by the state's voters in November.

Another idea is to build those roads greener. Two new cement companies, one in Great Britain, another in Silicon Valley, claim to have discovered a new way to produce cement that not only emits no carbon dioxide, but also sucks much of it from the atmosphere.

This is no small feat. Cement production accounts for 5 percent of the world's CO2 emissions--more than the entire aviation industry. And a recent report by the French Bank Credit Agricole estimated that demand for cement will increase 50 percent by 2020.

The Silicon Valley company, Calera Corp, was founded by Stanford professor Brent Constanz, who in 1986 invented a medical cement that revolutionized the way hospitals repaired broken bones. Unlike conventional cement, which is made by heating up limestone or clay to around 1500 degrees C, his medical cement combined carbon dioxide and magnesium to mimic the way coral reefs are formed. His new eco-cement works much the same way, except the carbon dioxide comes from power plants that would otherwise spew it into the atmosphere. The British company, Novacem, uses a similar process.

Both companies claim their products are strong enough to work in roads, buildings, and bridges and are cost-competitive with conventional cement. The hard part will be to convince customers that the cements will endure the test of time when there's no real track record. Of course, using conventional cement will also be a gamble--in the form of some 450 million tons of yearly carbon emissions.

Study: Great Barrier Reef Sees Worst Growth Rate in 400 Years

| Fri Jan. 2, 2009 1:11 PM EST

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Scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science report that the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest reef system (visible from space), is facing historic peril. Not that this is news. Mother Jones has reported extensively on the subject. But new research published in the journal Science includes the largest study to date about environmental damage to Australia's reefs.

The reef is experiencing is slowest growth rate in nearly 400 years, and gone unchecked, could lead to zero growth by 2050, says Glenn De'ath, the study's co-author. "When you disturb an ecosystem in this way, you get a cascading effect. You then get a chain reaction -- the fish habitat is lost."

What's to blame? The usual suspect: global warming. Rising sea temperatures are causing coral bleaching, in which corals release the algae which nourish them. The effect is grimly obvious underwater, where previously vibrantly colored reefs come appear like piles of bones. Without algae, corals eventually die. Says De'ath, "We may have seriously underestimated the rate of climate change and this should compel us to drastic steps to decarbonise Australian and global economic systems."


Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Leonard Low.